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Sunday, May 31, 2009

SD Synod Vote on Sexuality Statement: More than Fairness

My wife Erin returned home from the South Dakota ELCA Synod Assembly and gave me a little first-hand perspective on yesterday's vote to reject the proposed statement on human sexuality and stick with existing position papers. She said the debate was civil and not terribly tense. She thought the pastor from Sioux Falls didn't really need to include the discussion of rectal and vaginal tissues to make his point (eeww!). But she was able to vote to reject the proposed human sexuality statement. Another Madison delegate voted for it, and the two of them were able to sit down for lunch and have a perfectly neighborly discussion about their disagreement over barbecues (you don't get much more Lutheran than that).

Now homosexuality is only a small part of the proposed statement, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust." (And remember, the statement isn't dead: the South Dakota Synod has simply stated its position, which it will take to full debate at the churchwide ELCA assembly in Minneapolis in August.) The overall focus is on much broader issues of trust and respect in all human relations. But the main conflict point getting media attention is that yesterday's vote affirmed the ELCA's current position that practicing homosexuals should not serve as clergy (see that Sioux Falls paper and KELO).

Madville Times readers from both sides of the aisle will likely find it interesting that Erin, whose progressive Lutheranism has played a significant role in my conversion from Republican to Democrat, essentially voted against equality for homosexuals. What the heck is she doing voting like Bob Ellis would (if he were Lutheran)?

I won't do Erin's argument nearly as much justice as she can. After all, she's the Lutheran in the family. But I want to capture one slice of it.

Erin heard delegates at the assembly argue for the sexuality statement by saying it was about fairness for homosexuals. One young delegate said it was unfair to limit homosexuals' ability to answer the call to serve as ministers. Erin and I both have a hard time looking a call like that for social justice in the eye and saying no. Socially and politically, we see no evidence that homosexuals are any less qualified than heterosexuals to carry out the functions of any job—pastor, soldier, journalist, teacher, garbage man, whatever. Neither does the ELCA: currently homosexuals can serve as ELCA pastors but are "expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships." (Feel free to debate the questionable distinction between being and doing.) One could argue that's not much different from the ELCA's expectation that unmarried heterosexual ministers remain celibate.

However fair it might be politically to extend the call to ministry to practicing homosexuals, Erin finds the proposed sexuality statement uses bad theology to justify that position. It's not written explicitly in the proposed statement; to recognize the bad theology, you have to read and think carefully. By Erin's careful reading and thinking, the proposed statement essentially declares that God has issued a new calling, a new Word in addition to the Old and New Testament.

I suggested making campaign buttons reading, "ELCA: We're not Mormons!" Erin felt that was unnecessary. But that line captures, I think, Erin's fundamental opposition to the proposed sexuality statement: no matter how good the goals, you don't go adding to Scripture. She's not a literalist: she's all for studying and interpreting the Bible in its fullest linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural context. But you still have to ground your theological positions (including sexuality statements) on what you get from Scripture as is.

As I said, it's not easy to explain—"Such is the burden of confessional Lutherans," says Erin. Yesterday's vote is complicated. I don't like the practical outcome of the decision, but I can tolerate it. Erin's vote comes not from irrational fear, intolerance, or malice. It comes from well-reasoned theology. It seeks no political revolution or support from the state. It only protects the philosophical integrity of a religious organization. I can live with that reasoning... not to mention with the person who made it.

Now if only the rest of society could coexist as well as the folks in my household.

Hydrogen Power in Your Tank Today?

An eager reader (probably another one of those darn liberals trying to use less gasoline) told me about a Texas outfit, EVO Technology, that is working on a new kind of hybrid car: gasoline plus hydrogen. If it works, it could reduce gasoline usage and be a step toward that fabled water-powered car.

The basic science: you add a water tank to your car. Use a little juice from your battery for electrolysis to split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Inject that hydrogen into the internal combustion engine. Boom! Your fuel burns more completely and cleanly. EVO claims to have achieved fuel efficiency gains of over 30% in the vehicles it has tested.

So is the idea legit? EVO offers an installation manual with component images and an electrical diagram, but their Products page remains "Under construction." The "installation expert" cited in the manual is "eborowsky@hplus-hybrid.com". That appears to be Erez Borowsky, marketing executive and partner at EVO Technologies. Borowsky is the registrant of the hplus-hybrid.com domain name. Borowsky also appears to have a hand/money in wrapped carbon competition kite tubes. And if I'm reading the Internet right, Borowsky played minor-league baseball for the Twins for five years. Some casual Sunday Googling doesn't turn up anyone else associated with this company.

EVO's website does produce a 2008 report from the Southwest Research Institute summarizing past successful research on hydrogen-enhanced internal combustion engines. However, Mike Allen, senior automotive editor at Popular Mechanics, has written quite a bit debunking this technology:

This malarkey boiled down to perpetual motion: something for nothing. Essentially, it takes more energy—in the form of the chemical energy in the gasoline you're burning in the engine, to spin the alternator to make the electricity and generate the HHO—than you get back. In fact, it's not even close: Multiply all the inefficiencies in that system and you only get a few percent back, certainly not in excess of 100 percent [Mike Allen, "Why Water Won't Improve Your MPG," Popular Mechanics, 2009.03.27].

But what about all that research?

Before you start e-mailing me copies of those same scientific papers (I've seen them a dozen times) that supposedly prove that this works, let me tell you, these documents don't apply to your car. Without getting very detailed, these papers all deal with ultralean experimental engines with fuel-delivery systems enhanced with a stream of pure hydrogen, achieving a small improvement. They have nothing to do with retrofitting a conventional engine (with computer-controlled engine management that keeps the mixture near a perfect 14.2:1) with a device that adds a hydrogen-oxygen mix [Allen 2009].

I welcome commentary from my science-minded readers. I'd like to think innovations like hydrogen injection could help us save gasoline. Even small decreases in consumption can produce significant price declines. But from this weekend's reading, I'm inclined to believe hydrogen injectors won't be beating high gas costs or the laws of thermodynamics in my Jeep any time soon.
Read more:
  • Dateline NBC report to which Mike Allen contributed, debunking a similar hydrogen technology peddled by Dennis Lee. Note that Lee tells Dateline that NBC is simply in he pocket of Big Oil.
  • Allen and Dateline didn't buy Lee's claims about his hydrogen assist fuel technology, but a New Jersey judge found the Federal Trade Commission failed to prove Lee had broken any laws.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

ELCA South Dakota Synod Rejects Human Sexuality Statement

News flash from Nina Joy, Luther Seminary student, live-blogging the ELCA South Dakota Synod Assembly: our Lutheran friends have rejected the ELCA's proposed social statement on "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust." The statement is a wide-ranging declaration of the ELCA's position on issues pertaining to sexuality, marriage, divorce, trust, etc. It also happens to include, as I understand it, permission for non-celibate homosexuals in committed monogamous relationships to serve as clergy. The synod assembly passed Resolution 6, a rejection of said statement and affirmation of current ELCA teachings on sexuality, by a vote of 362 to 238.

Now understand, this vote was not simply rednecks nervous about letting those durned homina-homina-sexuals near our kids. There were genuine concerns that the proposed new statement derived too much support from some shaky theology. Resolution 6, in the original form distributed prior to the assembly, takes this tack, focusing on theological language and only declaring the new statement "less helpful" than existing documents (see page 8 of the resolutions packet)

I'll learn more about that theology and the vote this evening, upon the return of my lovely wife, a voting delegate to the synod assembly from St. John Lutheran Church of Madison.

Can You Get Your Hands Dirty in the Global Economy?

Here are a couple of articles to read side by side. First, last Sunday's New York Times Magazine runs a remarkable essay by Matthew B. Crawford. I should say Dr. Crawford: the author has a Ph. D. in political philosophy from the august University of Chicago. Dr. Crawford's current occupation: he fixes motorcycles. Between Hondas and Harleys, Crawford has managed to write a book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. The NYT essay distills the main ideas of the book:
  • Modern "knowledge work" can be more nervating than liberating.
  • Working with one's hands is wrongfully viewed as a sacrifice, a last resort, and a waste of talent.
  • A successful motorcycle mechanic is every bit a scientist and scholar, engaging in at least as much complex thinking, problem-solving, ethical reasoning, and social intelligence as any academic in a university lab or library.
  • Shop work has more genuine utility, integrity, and fun than a lot of cubicle jobs.
Among my favorite lines from Crawford is this observation: "There probably aren't many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well." Think Big Macs: no McDonald's employee makes a great Big Mac. Big Mac production is a matter of pushing buttons and responding to timers as dictated by rigorously established standardized procedures. Or think the classroom: those situations where teachers and students are citing and following step-by-step lesson plans or policy manuals are likely the moments when the least genuine learning and personal engagement are happening. The best learning happens when we engage in vigorous conversation and exploration that defies that guidance of written rules.

Crawford also offers this observation about what constitutes a good job:
A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.

Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences [Matthew B. Crawford, "The Case for Working with Your Hands," New York Times Magazine, 2009.05.24].

Crawford pegs where I experience the disconnect with my Madison neighbors who think landing a call center would be a step up for our town. We want more jobs, steady wages, and good benefits, but we don't have a lot of conversations about the work itself. Forget the paycheck and perks: does your work itself make your soul healthy? Does it help your neighbors? Does it serve your god(s)? How often do we ask those questions... and how often do we instead just shut those questions out of our minds for 8 hours a day?

Crawford sees the economy driving more people to spend their money on repairing what they have rather than just buying more new junk. He is hopeful that the sternly shaken economy will free more people to pursue jobs more oriented to their true callings, whether for management or mechanics.

Perhaps motorcycle repair shops will fare well, but Robert Reich's most recent online essay argues that a lot of other physical jobs are gone for good. The former Labor Secretary argues that trying to save manufacturing jobs at GM and elsewhere is a fool's errand. Productivity gains have caused declines in manufacturing jobs everywhere. Percentage-wise, Japan, Brazil, and our main nemesis China have lost more such jobs than the U.S. has. Machines and computers mean we just don't need as many people to build things any more.

You should be nervous anytime you hear "don't need" and "people" that close together. But Reich says it's inevitable, and we should accept it, just as we did in farming (30% of Americans worked to produce food a hundred years ago; now less than 5% do). Reich lists a number of jobs that technology has replaced and is replacing: elevator operators, telephone operators, bank tellers, gas station attendants, store check-out clerks, travel agents, real estate brokers, stock brokers, and accountants.

Reich says routine jobs—all those jobs Crawford mentioned that can be reduced to rule-following—are disappearing. So what's left for human workers?

A growing percent of every consumer dollar goes to people who analyze, manipulate, innovate and create. These people are responsible for research and development, design and engineering. Or for high-level sales, marketing and advertising. They're composers, writers and producers. They're lawyers, journalists, doctors and management consultants. I call this "symbolic analytic" work because most of it has to do with analyzing, manipulating and communicating through numbers, shapes, words, ideas [Robert Reich, "The Future of Manufacturing, GM, and American Workers (Part I)," Robert Reich's Blog, 2009.05.29].

That's great news for idea-guys like me. If I were my dad, I'd be nervous. My dad was a mechanic in the Army. He has worked for Morrell's, built and painted houses, and now mans an assembly line making plastic widgets at PPD. He hates computers, I think because they have no moving parts, nothing a guy can just look at and understand. But where I spend half an hour using a spreadsheet and trigonometry to figure out the lengths for studs on a shed with an angled roof, he drops a line and cuts.

My intelligence is symbolic-analytic. Dad's is physical-mechanical. His intelligence is every bit as good as mine, and a heck of a lot more useful when we want to dig a basement or fix the mower. But the economy Reich describes favors my intelligence over Dad's intelligence.

Or does it? Are workers spinning the same bolts in the same holes a thousand times a day really using their physical-mechanical intelligence the same way Crawford does in his motorcycle shop? The routine jobs to which Reich says good riddance are mostly mindless; clear them away, and we free those workers—or challenge those workers—to do work that uses their bodies and minds more fully for jobs that mass-production robots can't do, like fixing motorcycles, building houses, or operating a skid-steer.

My dad doesn't have to worry: he's close to retiring. But what about workers like him, for whom a cubicle job would be a spirit-damaging waste of talent? If manufacturing disappears, do we have enough work—not just jobs, not just excuses for paychecks, but real dignified and dignifying work for every one of our neighbors?

Work that gets our hands dirty is important. It allows us to connect mind and body with the physical reality around us, not to mention with the neighbor who needs a motor fixed or a leaky toilet replaced. We need to remember that working with things requires as much knowledge as the vaunted "knowledge work" the academy and economy celebrate. Even if we embrace the economic realities Reich discusses, we must also keep in mind Crawford's message about the value of work as something that builds not just GDP but souls and communities.

KELO Runs Corporate Propaganda from Billion as News

I sure wish I could call KELO and get free advertising. (Well, they do run the Madville Times for free, which is mighty nice of them.) KELO gives Dave Billion of Billion Automotive the opportunity to assure customers that everything going on with General Motors—dealership closings, bankruptcy filing expected Monday—is good for customers. Billion also makes sure he gets to mention that his inventory is bigger than the Sioux Empire Fairgrounds and that "We're having a record sale out here" (Perry doesn't put the exclamation point, but feel free to read your own there).

Now Dave Billion does run the fifth-largest GM dealership in the country (hey! I didn't know that!), so it is perfectly sensible that Perry Groten should turn to Billion for some perspective on the industry. It's also perfectly sensible that Billion should give us the corporate spin line. For instance:
  • "The good news is with the government owning 70 percent of General Motors, it's nice to have a partner that owns a printing press that can print money, I don't think you have to worry about going broke." Forgive me if I read that as a backhanded compliment from a good McCain donor whose business was just saved by the American people.
  • On closing small-town dealerships: "I see it as an opportunity to sell more vehicles, cover broader territories and perhaps acquire additional dealerships." Small towns are such a nuisance for big businesspeople. Never mind that the dealership closings "will cost thousands of jobs, create holes in local tax bases, eliminate community pillars and create economic ripple effects across the country" [Tom Krisher and Dan Strumpf, "GM Dealers Expect Word on Plans to Cut 1,100 Shops," AP via Google News, 2009.05.15].
  • Groten reports that "Billion says GM's filing for bankruptcy shouldn't have any impact on the price of vehicles." Of course not: it's the closing of competing dealerships that will do that. The whole point of closing dealerships is to reduce customer buying power and allow GM to make more per sale independent of any changes in the actual quality of the product. This business plan makes sense in a world where there's nothing but GM... but has GM (or Chrysler) considered that by yanking their dealers from small towns, they might be increasing the chances that buyers will turn to the remaining dealers of other brands that are willing to (a) stick with the small towns, (b) beat GM's price, and (c) provide better quality?
  • Billion also takes the interesting position that GM should have declared bankruptcy sooner, to end the uncertainty for dealers and customers. That may be a valid point, but I wonder: could we argue that it is more admirable for a company to stand and fight, to do everything it can to avoid bankruptcy?
One thing Dave and I can agree on: Billion Automotive will be fine. They're big and they're diversified. But that won't help the little guys Billion is clearly eager to crush or buy out.

Update 14:55: KELO does give the little guy some air time as well. Glen Rapp of Rapp Chevrolet in Marion doesn't see closing dealers as good for GM: "Every time they eliminate a dealer, they eliminate a customer and I certainly wouldn't want to lose any of my customers." KELO says Rapp is lobbying our lawmakers to help small dealers like his open to serve rural customers who need big trucks. Hmm... Rapp must be one of those big-government Democrats....

Friday, May 29, 2009

New Interconnection Rules Boost Small Alternative Energy Producers (That Could Be You!)

Kudos to the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission for making it easier for regular folks to get into the alternative energy business. The PUC yesterday approved the South Dakota Small Generation Interconnection Rules.

Short explanation: When you hook solar panels or a wind turbine to your house, there will be times when your home energy system cranks out more energy than you need. There will also be windless nights when you need more power than your system and its storage units can provide. Either way, you'll probably want to stay connected to the grid, so you can have a stable backup and sell your excess power. The new interconnect rules make connecting your panels or turbine or cold fusion bucket easier by unifying and simplifying the rules for pouring your juice into the sluice.

These rules will boost distributed power generation, and that's all good. More suppliers means more competition for central power plants (hooray for the free market!), not to mention more redundancy in the system. It'll be a lot harder for a computer glitch or al-Qaeda to knock out our power if it comes from thousands of small generators rather than a centralized system.

Learn more on interconnection standards from the New Rules Project!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Obama Shuts Down Republican Chrysler Dealers? Let's Check the South Dakota List...

Now this is interesting: the national blogosphere has been churning up the contention that the Obama Administration targeted Republican donors and protected Democrat pals on the Chrysler dealership closing list. Folks are having trouble finding Dem donors among the roster of Chrysler dealers facing the axe... but think about the car dealers you know: how many are Democrats in the first place? Darn few, I'll bet.* (Wait a minute: how does an industry dominated by God-fearing, market-loving Republicans go so financially bad even before Obama gets in the door?)

Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight does a fine job of running the donor numbers and discovers that 88% of political contributions from car dealers go to Republicans. The Atlantic's Megan McCardle observes that the dealers Chrysler targeted tend to be in rural areas with low sales... and rural areas tend to vote Republican.

So is there any there there? Well, let's see if there's any there here, in South Dakota. I took the names of the owners from the seven dealerships Chrysler announced would lose their franchise and ran them through OpenSecrets.org (which covers just contributions to party orgs and federal candidates, not state and local offices). I searched for all contributions from 1990 to the present. The results:
  • Steve Biegler: $0
  • Terry Schulte: $6000 to Republicans in the 1990s (including $1000 to Char Haar in 1992), none since.
  • Jim Sieg: $0
  • Larry Patnoe: $0, but Donald Patnoe gave $250 in 2007 and $250 in 2008 to the Nat'l Auto Dealers Assoc.
  • Barbee Kranz: $0, but John Kranz gave $4000 to Republicans from 1990 to 2003 (including $2000 to Janklow in 2002), and Scott Kranz gave $200 to Thune and $250 to Diedrich in 2004. Both made further donations to the NADA.
  • Don Schoenhard: $0
  • Todd Jensen: $1000 to NADA, 2003-2007
Hmmm... no Friends of Barack (or Stephanie, Tim, or Tom), but not exactly any big players in the Republican tent, either. If the Obama Administration were really playing payback, they'd have taken a whack at the Prostrollo All-American Auto Mall here in Madison: since 1990, the Prostrollos alone have given over $60,000 to Republican candidates, including $15,500 to potential 2012 Obama rival John Thune. Of course, auto-patriarch Jerry did slip a thousand to Daschle in 1998 and another thousand to DASHPAC in 2000, so maybe that saved the dealership.

But consider: when I do a search of OpenSecrets.org for South Dakota donors who include "auto" or "car" in their occupation, I find nine times as many donations to the GOP as to the Dems. Statewide, Republicans claim 70% of South Dakotan's party and federal-level political donations. By my calculations, here in Madison's 57042 ZIP, Republicans get 80% of those donations.

In other words, you swing a dead cat in South Dakota, and you'll get fur on some Republicans. Shut down some rural car dealers, and you're more likely to ding Republicans than Democrats. My analysis of campaign donations suggests there's no political monkey business going on here.

*Bonus joke, with custom punchlines for both sides of the aisle!
  • Why aren't more Democrats car salesmen?
    • punchline for my Dem friends: Because exploiting one's fellow man through the free market is a job for Republicans.
    • punchline for my GOP friends: Because Democrats prefer to exploit their fellow man through government.
Update 2009.05.29 06:50 CDT: This good summary of the right-wing blogger conspiracy theorizing points to Michelle Malkin's flip-flop on the issue, motivated apparently by the opportunity for airtime. We are all media whores. The post also draws comments that point to Timberline Dodge of Portland, Oregon, which is being closed. The only campaign donation I find connected to them on OpenSecrets.org: $500 to Dem Senator Ron Wyden in 2003.

Update 07:05: Deirdre Gregg of the Puget Sound Business Journal does a similar analysis for her home state and finds an Obama donor on the closing list. Gregg also links to this Fox News report that finds no substance to the conservative bloggers' accusations:

A preliminary study by FOXNews.com found that the data do not support the charges. Among the dealerships set to close, 12 percent of a random 50 selected for review donated to Republicans and 8 percent to Democrats. Of the dealerships remaining open, 14 percent of a random 50 selected donated to Republicans and 10 percent to Democrats. In both samples, the average size of donations was similar for both parties.

According to the sample, one major factor in determining whether a dealership was closed or not was the size of the dealership, measured by the number of product lines carried (the four lines are Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Dodge Truck). The average store that will be closed in the FOXNews.com sample carries 2.5 of those product lines whereas the average store that will stay open carries 3.64 ["Conservative Bloggers Charge..." Fox News, 2009.05.28].

Conservatives Sneer at Conservation -- What Would Grandpa Say?

Using less energy is a great way for governments (and the rest of us!) to save money. Every dollar saved with fluorescent light bulbs or fuel-efficient fleet vehicles is a dollar we don't have to pay in taxes. Those new LED police car lights that lie flat against the roof or even sit inside the car use less energy and leave more money in the budget for handcuffs, bullets, and other tough-guy law-and-order stuff. A small investment in software that shuts off idle monitors saves the King County government in Washington $140K a year.

So why do conservatives sneer at conservation? Candidate Obama recommends saving gasoline by inflating your tires, a small but perfectly sensible personal energy policy requiring no taxes or regulation, and John McCain portrays the suggestion as unmanly and unAmerican. Our Nobel-Prize winning Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu suggests using lighter-colored roofing and paving materials to reduce energy usage (less heat absorbed by your building, less urban heat island effect, less air conditioning!), and all Pat Powers can say is, "He's kidding, right?" (Credit where credit's due: two years ago, conservative Glenn Reynolds thought white roofs were worth a try.) And the cattily conservative Fastidious takes pride in declaring her distaste for "'green' life-styles" and "anything 'save the planet.'"

Hmmm... our grandparents scrimp and save to get through the Depression and World War II, and they're called the Greatest Generation. Folks propose practical ways to use less electricity or gasoline nowadays, and they're laughed at and branded hippies or pansies or socialists or who-knows-what. Go figure.

Update 13:15 CDT: Let the conservatives sneer while you laugh all the way to the bank with your energy bill savings: here are some more tips from KELO and from those wacky liberals at the United States Department of Energy.

Powerball Winner in Winner: Wiken to Save Schools?

I usually don't pay attention to the lottery, but holy cow! Someone in Winner bought the lone winning ticket for last night's Powerball. Jackpot: $232.1 million!

I'm betting it's Doug Wiken—he hasn't posted all morning! He's probably deciding whether he wants to give his first lottery payment to the Winner School District to make up for this year's failed opt-outs.

Lakes Madison and Brant Vote on New Project District July 18

Residents of Lake Madison and Lake Brant get to play democracy this summer: the State Board of Water and Natural Resources yesterday approved an election date of Saturday, July 18, for lake residents to vote on whether they want to create a new water project district.

The meeting, conducted online via our state's remarkable Dakota Digital Network, gave Round Lake resident Robert Todd and attorney Rolly Samp an opportunity to tell the board about what the water project district might accomplish. Wentworth Park resident Steven Kant spoke in opposition to the project (see the arguments he offered last September).

As I understand from Robert Todd, the folks on the Interlakes Water Quality Committee who've been moving this idea forward were hoping to have a regular election, with a polling place open all day long and an opportunity for folks to vote absentee. However, the administrative rule governing special district formation (SDAR 5:02:04:22) requires an actual meeting at a specific time. In other words, must be present to vote. Voters must also be registered within the district, so Sioux Falls folks who weekend at the lakes will not be eligible to vote unless they change their registration to their Lake County address. Update 2009.06.15 09:00 CDT: Correction! The Secretary of State's office clarified for us that absentee voting is allowed; if you need it, get your absentee ballot from the Lake County Courthouse.

Now remember, Lake Herman is left out of this proposed district—we're just too cranky to play nicely with others. But if this district does pass, the next logical step will be for organizers to look into expanding the jurisdiction to include the humble headwaters of the Lake County portion of the Lower Big Sioux Watershed. I will thus be watching from the sidelines, but with keen interest. Will Lake Madison and Brant voters create a new tax for themselves in the midst of a recession? How interested are McMansion owners and jet-ski jockeys in protecting their environment? The discussion should be interesting.

Charitable Giving: More from the Poor?

Remember the hubbub over the President's proposal to reduce the deduction folks in the top tax bracket get for charitable giving? Our Senator John Thune proposed an amendment to protect that tax break for the wealthy: first it failed (and Senator Tim Johnson caught heck for voting against it), then it passed (and Senator Johnson got no credit for backing it), and then it got axed by conference committee (and the Senate vote was 94–3, so whom can you blame there?).

One estimate says the proposed deduction reduction would result in only a 2.1% decrease in giving—an encouraging figure that indicates there aren't that many false givers out there.

Not that any of this matters much to folks at the other end of the tax-bracket spectrum. If you're making under $30K, deductions don't do much for your bottom line. And even without big deduction incentives, the lowest fifth of wage earners in America hand out a larger percentage of their income than do the members of any other income bracket:

Yes, yes, these are relative figures, no absolute. 2.1% of $159K is a lot more than 4.3% of $11K. But the rich guy giving 2% also has a lot more cash left in his pocket after his charitable deed than the poor guy giving 4%. And remember, the poor guy probably isn't bothering to itemize (or to have his accountant itemize) every nickel-dimey Sunday tithe to get 36% back from the IRS.

American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks says the poor probably give more because more of them go to church. (Brooks does have a book to sell.) Others suggest that poor folks just hang around with more folks who need help.

Or maybe...

Pastor Coletta Jones, who ministers to a largely low-income tithing congregation in southeast Washington, The Rock Christian Church, thinks that poor people give more because they ask for less for themselves.

"When you have just a little, you're thankful for what you have," Jones said, "but with every step you take up the ladder of success, the money clouds your mind and gets you into a state of never being satisfied" [Frank Greve, "America's Poor Are Its Most Generous Givers," McClatchy Newspapers, 2009.05.19].

Just something to think about as you head to the office today.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

File Under Government Gobbledygook: Pool Not Open

I keep noticing an interesting phrase in the reports about last night's Madison City Commission meeting, something about authorizing the mayor to sign a "partial certificate of substantial completion" for the city's new outdoor pool (which is looking great, especially now that they've landscaped and added trees... right, John? :-) ).

What does "partial certificate of substantial completion" mean? It's not done. May 30 was the predicted completion date, but that's out. We're now in wait-and-see mode... which is too bad, since it looks like we might get some nice sunny swimming weather for the rest of the week.

By the way, while I'm thinking of it, has anyone planned a grand opening ceremony? Whenever this pool opens, I was thinking maybe we should have some festivities. Let's get Bob Ellsworth and his barbership quartet to open the park... and then hold their last note while swooshing down the big waterslide, with Mayor Hexom in the lead, in vintage 1920's swimsuit! Then maybe have a Chamber of Commerce cannonball contest, see who can make the biggest splash. In the pool f you're cool!

Clarence Thomas: Empathetic and Funny!

Conservatives like Sibby have made great hay out of President Obama's statement that empathy is "an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo DC reminds us that President George H. W. Bush (a conservative I still like) said of his Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, "I have followed this man's career for some time, and he has excelled in everything that he has attempted. He is a delightful and warm, intelligent person who has great empathy and a wonderful sense of humor."

More squishy cover for fascist dictatorship, right, Sibby?

Oil Sands Pollution Draws Calls for Moratorium

Just a reminder of what South Dakota's buying into as we allow TransCanada to plow pipelines across out fair state: the tar sands oil the Keystone pipelines will carry is dirtier than conventional oil, so much so that communities hundreds of kilometers upstream from tar sands projects are worried their water is already being polluted. The Northwest Territories Association of Communities just passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on tar sands development until the Canadian federal and provincial governments can work out better protections for water quality.

Among the reasons for concern:
  1. An Alberta Health Services study released last February found more instances of cancer than expected in Fort Chipewyan, a community on Athabasca Lake, 260 kilometers downstream from tar sands development. As the CMAJ points out, the study doesn't establish a causal link to any environmental factors, but if I found 30% more cancer in my neighborhood, I'd be looking around for some sort of pollution.
  2. The Globe and Mail reports that some Fort Chipewyan residents have stopped eating fish and drinking water from the Athabasca River after catching fish with unusual lesions. Eewww.
  3. Folks downstream are also worried about pollution from leaking tailings ponds. Those ponds are already killing ducks, as reported here last May, and they could kill as many as 160 million migratory birds over the next three decades of development. According to Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, the tar sands tailings ponds currently rise 300 feet above ground and cover 80 square miles of what used ot be forest and wetland. Currently that's about 190 billion gallons of sludge chock full of poisonous chemicals. That's enough to cover 912 square miles a foot deep in muck (Lake County is 575 square miles). If I had nothing but leaky dikes between my water supply and that much toxic waste, I'd be nervous, too.
Notice that the NWT communities aren't asking for the tar sands to shut down. Folks in Yellowknife rely on fossil fuels to survive as much as anyone else in Canada. They're just asking that Canada's government and oil companies do more to ensure the safety of their drinking water, which, last I checked, is more essential to survival than oil.

Health Care Reform: Single-Payer or Not, Let's Ban Insurance Companies

The New York Times points out a problem with the medical-industrial complex's proposal to cut its increases in revenues by $2 trillion if Washington will just please, please, please not create a public health plan that would put them out of business: antitrust laws:

Antitrust lawyers say doctors, hospitals, insurance companies and drug makers will be running huge legal risks if they get together and agree on a strategy to hold down prices and reduce the growth of health spending.

Robert F. Leibenluft, a former official at the Federal Trade Commission, said, “Any agreement among competitors with regard to prices or price increases — even if they set a maximum — would raise legal concerns” [Robert Pear, "Antitrust Laws a Hurdle to Health Care Overhaul," New York Times, 2009.05.26].

Oops. Sounds like all the more reason Congress needs to reject the medical-industrial complex's false promises and either include a public plan in this year's health care reform to give the profiteers some real competition or just go whole hog and create the kind of single-payer system that keeps costs down worldwide. Private insurers are already stifling competition and making it harder for doctors to get paid than the government does. Instead of risking even worse profiteering collusion from the big insurers, let's turn to a more rational, public not-for-profit system, just like we do with other vital services like schools, police, and fire departments.

Knudson Proposes Taxing Sick People

South Dakota gubernatorial candidate David Knudson wants to raise your taxes. To be fair, State Senator Knudson appears to be aiming for a trade-off that would reduce your property taxes but squeeze you more at the grocery store... and the hospital.

But even a trade-off isn't enough for conservative Dakota War College to swallow the proposal. Pat Powers's fiscal conservative sensibilities are sufficiently offended for him to refer to Knudson's medial services tax as part of "the clincher" that motivated him to throw in with the Scott Munsterman campaign.

Knudson's medical tax proposal is offensive on multiple levels. Property tax may be an outdated method of taxing individual wealth, but taxing injury and illness is even worse. Knudson reasons that much of the tax will be paid by the federal government via Medicaid and Medicare, but that idea reeks of the South Dakota "We love pork!" attitude. Our neighbors in other states pay their taxes, Congress designates that money for health care, and we reappropriate a slice fo that money to fill potholes. Is that even legal?

Knudson's thinking is reflective of the whole legislative session this year, where we nibbled about the edges but saw no real fiscal leadership in coming up with broad, serious reforms in the state budget. Evidently the best Knudson can come up with is another sop to regressive taxation and reliance on Washington.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hunter Editorial Picks Hope over Data

Tonight's MDL features Jon Hunter reading Yankton's improved employment figures as a hopeful sign for Madison. Noting that Gehl Manufacturing called a hundred laid-off workers back to the line in April, Hunter sees hope that Gehl won't retrench further and that the manufacturing sector as a whole will improve for Madison, too.

Interestingly, our man Hunter ignores Lake County's full percentage point jump in unemployment. His editorial says nothing about local jobless figures, just promises good times ahead. Funny—I thought Republicans hated all that empty "Hope" talk.

The front page headliner on the jobless situation (just handed to me moments ago!) does give the number of unemployed (440) in Lake County, but avoids mentioning the percentage... even though the paragraph following that number is filled with percentages for the other major communities in the state.

But that's o.k. I suspect the good publisher figures everybody already got the Lake County numbers (and the alarming comparison with the apparently successful Brookings) from Lake County's best online media. Ah, the joys of cooperative community journalism.

Obama Supreme Court Pick Coming for Your Nunchuks

Everybody will be kung-fu fighting over this one: Judge Sonia Sotomayor wants to take away your nunchuks. As a justice on the Second Circuit federal court of appeals, President Obama's choice to fill Justice Souter's seat ruled with the majority this year in Maloney v. Cuomo that the Second Amendment doesn't stop states from banning nunchuks. Expect the NRA to go postal over this one... and to make themselves sound as silly as the rest of the sputtering conservative movement.

Of course, Judge Sotomayor is o.k. with baseball bats. In 1995, the robed South Bronx native saved baseball by ending the last Major League Baseball strike.

Seriously, for those of you interested in learning more about Judge Sotomayor's track record, SCOTUSBlog offers a great summary of the judge's appellate opinions in civil cases.

Lake County Unemployment Jumps Full Percentage Point; Brookings Improves

I thought maybe Lake County had a lucky labor market trend on the way. Then the state Department of Labor issued its city and county stats for April. The good news is that Lake County added 130 new jobs between March and April. The bad news is that we gained 215 people in our available workforce. The result: 85 more unemployed people, a full percentage point jump to 6.3%. The only major South Dakota cities with higher unemployment are Watertown (8.8%) and Yankton (6.6%), both of which have taken similar hits to Madison in their manufacturing sectors.

Continuing our comparison with the nearest college town, we find Brookings County experienced a 0.7% decrease in unemployment in April, to 2.8%. Hmm... I thought everyone was caught up in this economic slowdown....

Monday, May 25, 2009

Star Trek: Abrams Delivers -- Now Bring Back the Show!

Among the reasons I love my wife (if love needs reasons): she thinks driving to Brookings to see Star Trek is a cool way to celebrate our anniversary. (Long Harpersesque post ahead: love does that to a guy!)

* * *
I was as excited to see the new Star Trek movie this week as I was to see the first Kirk-Spock-McCoy-Enterprise film 30 years ago.
The future is always beginning: visions 30 years apart.
The trailers (lines, visuals, and music) for the new film gave me goosebumps and rang in my brain all winter. I read with interest yet restraint the local reviews—interest because this is my mythos, restraint because I didn't want to get too many spoiler details. But, just like Bob Ellis, I loved Star Trek before it was movies. Space! Starships! Aliens! Phaser battles! What more could a five-year-old want? KSFY reruns at 4 p.m. were a childhood joy. (Nothing better has ever been on in that time slot.) In every incarnation—TV and movies, Kirk, Picard, Sisko (not so much), Janeway, Archer—I revel in the characters, the quotes, the cool details we get to add to this hopeful imaginary world (a world yet to be!).

So I felt all five-year-old happy-jumpy as we headed for the Cinema 5 on Tuesday. (I actually feel and act like a five-year-old quite often—just ask my wife.) And I suffered only one disappointment: that there was not more. Director J. J. Abrams has made a good movie, and good Star Trek, good enough that I want him to bring the TV show back.

* * *
Why did I like this movie? (This is your one and only spoiler warning: if you still haven't seen the movie, stop reading now.)

The opening. Rule Number 1 of directing: grab your audience, get them invested in the show right away. Abrams does that with a great cinematic short story, a teaser that could stand on its own as a work of art. We see the USS Kelvin, a Federation starship that looks like a real ship: busy, bustling, packed with crew members, rich computer data displays (we're running a starship here: Abrams recognizes that we need a heck of a lot more data than a nice view out the window), and a massive, steamy, pipey bowels that shout, "This is not a soundstage; this is a big dang ship."

We then see that big dang ship dwarfed by a menacing, tentacled ship that shouts, "We are the bad guys and you are toast." Usually Star Trek shows us our starships up close, big and beautiful. Seeing the Kelvin as a fly-speck facing this fearsome marauder reminds us of how tiny we are and the courage it takes for us to face the universe and all its dangers.

If Fastidious thinks Captain Picard is hot, Captain Robau must turn her warp core to protoplasm. Expect a flood of fanfic featuring Captain Robau, Star Trek's own Chuck Norris!
In maybe 60 seconds of screen time, Captain Richard Robau faces down this evil and takes his place as a new icon of Trek studliness. First Officer George Kirk then takes the big chair for his fabled 12 minutes and sacrifices his ship and his life to save his crew, his wife, and his newborn son. In a moment that seems to reference the calls from Flight 93, Kirk stays in touch with his wife from the doomed Kelvin via communicator. In the face of death, he hears his son's first cries. He tells his wife to name him after her father. He tells his wife he loves her.

A movie usually doesn't get me to tear up until the end. The spectacle and storytelling of these first few minutes watered me up before the opening title. The opening scene gives us profound bravery and loss. It gives us memorable characters. And it assures us that, yes, the director gets the Star Trek ethos.

The characters. Star Trek is about teamwork. The Enterprise saves the universe time and time again not just because Captain James T. Kirk is the bravest space cowboy in the Alpha Quadrant, but because he commands the best darn crew in Starfleet. Of course, representing this teamwork cinematically is a challenge: how do you tell a good focused story and still capture the characters and the meaningful contributions of even seven principals?

Yet Abrams succeeds, more so than Dr. Schaff gives him credit:
  • Where Schaff sees a discordantly flippant young Kirk, I see a logical change in a young man deprived in this new timeline (more on that below) of his father and only recently redirected to his destiny by a new father figure, Captain Christopher Pike. We also get to see Kirk get knocked around more and look more terrified (running from ice monsters) than the Shatner incarnation ever did.

  • Spock throttles Kirk... and can you blame him?
    Dr. Schaff is also bothered by Spock's much more obvious human side. But the more human Spock makes sense as a younger Vulcan still dealing with his mixed heritage (see also Spock's human behavior serving under Pike in "The Menagerie"). His romantic involvement with Uhura mirrors his respected father's affair with human Amanda. His antagonism with Kirk makes logical and emotional sense. Kirk cheated and beat the Kobayashi Maru, a test Spock designed to be unbeatable. With his Vulcan mental powers, he may have sensed that Kirk lusted after Uhura. Kirk represents a vigorous challenge to Spock's Vulcan ideals and human ambitions. It's no wonder Spock would take a moment mid-crisis to order still-suspended cadet Kirk "Out of the chair." And yet they develop a friendship in which Spock can accept Kirk's rightful place in that captain's chair. Their relationship and our understanding of it is richer for what Abrams gives us in this film.
  • Uhura is a passionate and talented woman liberated of the restrictions of male-dominated 1960's television production. That she's an expert in xenolinguistics makes a lot more sense than her waiting until Star Trek VI to learn Klingon. We see her overcome her clear distaste for Kirk to provide key information that supports him over Spock and helps save the ship as it races into battle. Character and conflict! (And dear Fastidious, while I shared your misgivings from the trailer about her bra, Uhura was arguably less sexualized in this film than the Orion slave girl, Zarabeth and her leather lingerie, and other bombshells from the original series... and let's not even mention Uhura's own embarrassing strip tease in Star Trek V. If there is a feminist critique to be made, it lies not in anything new but in Abrams's adherence to those darn miniskirts.)
  • Chekov is the eager young ensign whose Russian accent is still so thick the computer can't understand him (funny, but wait—what happened to the universal translator?). He's Mr. Can-Do: in a thunderbolt of inspiration, he races to the transporter room to solve the gravimetric fluctuation problem and saves Kirk and Sulu.
  • Scotty is funny, brilliant, and great under pressure. After six months living on rations on Hoth—oops! I mean, the Delta Vega ice station—it's no wonder he loves the Enterprise ("I like this ship! It's exciting!"). But that love won't stop him from blasting the warp cores into space to save his crew.
  • Sulu, the best swordsman in Starfleet, trades in the rapier for the folding katana sword (scha-winnggg indeed!). Alongside samurai charisma, he also gets comedy, forgetting to pull the Enterprise parking brake at Spacedock.
  • McCoy, as Dr. Blanchard rightly notes, is superb. He is perhaps the wartiest of the crew. We learn he joined Starfleet not out of a sense of duty to the Federation or humanity, but because he had nowhere else to go after a bad divorce. Yet McCoy recognizes Kirk's abilities and is instrumental in making sure Kirk makes it to his date with destiny... and the captain's chair on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Places to go, things to do, cosmos to save!
Running. Let me put it bluntly: people haul ass in this movie. People move as if the fate of the universe hangs in the balance... and it does! Ships haul, too. When ships warp out, boom! they are gone. No more majestic, streaking stars: starships roar like Jimmy's stepdad's Corvette (just ten billion times faster) through violent subspace distortions. When they throw on the brakes, they blast right into the middle of the battlefield... or the clouds of Titan! Our filmmaking technology has advanced beyond the practical restrictions of static soundstage shots and toilsome stop-action shots of static models. In our stories, we can better capture the movement of people—sorry, how Earth-centric of me—of beings, of characters on the big canvas of the galaxy.

The title and credits. The mark of an attentive artist is that he paints the edges of his canvas. For directors, the edge of the canvas is the credits. Abrams paints to that edge in a way that shows his deft combination of respect for the past and embrace of the new future. The title shot—almost black and white, with a big metal (duranium?) block carving of the Starfleet emblem and Trekkie font, feels distinctly retro. The closing credits offer the classic voiceover ("These are the voyages...") by Nimoy. But they go further, offering what none of the previous movies have dared: they return to that wordless soprano solo and theme of the original series. But that siren song plays over brilliant CGI images of strange new worlds whoosing into view. Ah, more movement!

Hmmm... homage, continuity, and creativity. Symbolic of our next issue:
The continuity... and disruptions thereof. Can James T. Kirk drive a car? Compare the well-known Corvette-off-the-cliff scene with this clip from the original series. Star Trek fans freak out over apparent inconsistencies like this, not to mention the fact that young Jim had a cliff to drive off in the first place. Where did he find a canyon like that in Iowa? (Ah, but watch closely: he drives by Iowa farm fields, and that canyon is actually a quarry, surely mining starship materials for the Riverside shipyard—perfectly consistent!)

Star Trek directors and writers face a unique challenge in maintaining continuity with the storytelling that has preceded them in the fictional universe of the Enterprise and the Federation, a universe arguably more richly populated and detailed than any other literary opus. But Star Trek isn't Lord of the Rings, with Tolkein working individually to craft the map, the language, and the story into a unified vision. Star Trek is a grand narrative enterprise shaped by thousands of writers, directors, set designers, actors, and others who were often just trying to do their jobs, not create a coherent fictional universe. How much loyalty does a new practitioner of the Star Trek art owe to a canon shaped as much by diverse minds, studio budgets, commercial demands, and limited 20th-century filmmaking technology as by any overarching artistic vision?

Abrams isn't the only one making new Star Trek.
Responses to that challenge vary widely. Consider Phase II/New Voyages, an independent fan-film effort that began in 2003. The five episodes Phase II has released online so far strive for continuity not just with the story but with the look and feel of the original Star Trek series. Even while reaching out to capture elements of the later series and movies, Phase II situates itself as an immediate continuation of the original series, as if NBC had renewed the show for a fourth season... and as if a couple of Macs with special effects software had dropped through a time warp into the Desilu/Paramount studios in 1969. (I consider Phase II a smashing success: see in particular their "World Enough and Time," an episode as dramatically sound as the best Star Trek episodes, and nominated for a Hugo Award.)

Watching Phase II helped prepare me for a discontinuity that I once would have thought inconceivable: actors other than Shatner, Nimoy, et al. playing these mythic characters. When DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, and Mark Lenard died, I had the sad feeling that we would never again see a new story with Dr. McCoy, Mr. Scott, or Sarek. Phase II helped me realize that no one actor owns the characters of the Star Trek universe, any more than Sean Connery owns the role of James Bond. I love the Connery Bond, but there are good Bond stories that we cannot tell with Connery but can with Brosnan and Craig. Similarly with William Shatner: he was a great Captain Kirk. We could still use him to tell fascinating Trek stories on the screen: stories of an old Kirk on an alternate timeline or an Emperor Tiberius from the Mirror universe. But as the Abrams movie shows us, there are still great Trek stories to be told of the early Enterprise, and for that, we need a young Kirk.

And then there's time travel. With one deft sci-fi conceit, bad guys come from the future and change the course of history 25 years prior to the main canonical events of the original series. Kirk more flippant? Different computer technology? No planet Vulcan for the events of "Amok Time"? No problem: this is a new timeline. Abrams and other Star Trek creators are as free now (maybe freer) to play with these characters and their universe as Branagh was to set his Hamlet in the 19th century. Nitpicking over stardates, clutches, and details of Vulcan culture can be fun sport, but it can also stand in the way of telling an entertaining, inspiring story.

Enterprise bridge, 2009: I wish my office looked this good.
For all this freedom, Abrams still shows remarkable fidelity to the letter and spirit of Star Trek. We still have phasers, transporter beams, and warp drive; they all just look more vivid, more real—a remarkable achievement for imaginary devices (and think for a moment: how many other literary works have created imaginary devices that everybody recognizes?). We still get Vulcan neck pinches, mind melds, and Spock's cocked eyebrow. Starfleet Academy is still in San Francisco. Kirk is still a cad, eying every lady who walks by. Spock is still a child of two worlds, struggling with his identity. Captain Pike is still alive (and that last shot with Pike in a wheelchair, recovering from his ordeal, is a clear nod to Pike's fate in the original timeline). And mankind's greatest hope is still a starship named Enterprise and a brave, smart crew to fly her through the galaxy. That's more continuity than Deep Space Nine gave us. That's all the continuity I need.

* * *
As I said at the top, my only disappointment with the Abrams Star Trek is that there is not more. I want to explore every corner of this gleaming new ship and every strange new world of the galaxy it will sail. I want to learn more about these characters and how they confront the challenges of their world. An experience that rich cannot come from a handful of movies stretched out over a decade or two. The full panorama of the future I crave can come only from a television series.

The Star Trek movies have delivered some fine moments. Kirk's eulogy for Spock in The Wrath of Khan, with that pause before the last word, redeems William Shatner for any bad acting or singing, past, present, or future. For all its flaws, The Undiscovered Country was a fine coda to the original series and the Cold War, complete with Klingons, battles, and Shakespeare.

But Trek movies are not free to explore the smaller, more personal details of the Star Trek universe. To sell the movie to the studios and the box office, the fate of the Earth or universe must hang in the balance. Ships and planets have to blow up. Trek movies must aspire to blockbuster status, so they can't be quiet, gentle stories that focus on the characters.
Raise a family, learn to play the Ressikan flute... not in the movies.
Some of the best Star Trek TV episodes, like "Amok Time," "The Inner Light," and "Data's Day," would never have made the big screen. Yet episodes like those give time for us to see the small things happen that make the characters who they are. "Amok Time" told us about Vulcan biology and courtship and gave Nurse Chapel time to show her love for Spock with soup. "The Inner Light" shows us Captain Picard living the last decades of a doomed planet in 20 minutes and ends with his playing a sad flute solo. "Data's Day" takes us to Chief O'Brien's wedding, reveals Dr. Crusher's secret past as the "Dancing Doctor," and shares some insights about being an android. All fun television, all good storytelling, but none of it big enough for the big screen.

Directors and writers only have time to tell us those stories in the 23-show run of a TV series, hopefully renewed for several seasons. And only a TV series can provide us fans with the experience of living and growing with the characters. Think how different another great Abrams endeavor, Lost, would be if instead of 120 episodes over six years, it were only six two-hour films spread over a decade. A purely cinematic Lost, like a purely cinematic Star Trek, could still be great, but it would be different, and much of the lore would be lost.

Various aspects of the new Star Trek story cry out for the treatment that TV could offer but the big screen likely cannot. Consider the destruction of Vulcan. A founding planet of the Federation is gone. A race of six billion wise and decent beings who were mankind's first alien contact and best ally is now reduced to an endangered species of maybe ten thousand. This single plot point offers rich material for some valuable storytelling:
  1. How does Spock (young and old versions) deal with the loss of his homeworld and his mother? How does Sarek?
  2. How will the decimation of their race affect Vulcans' position in the Federation?
  3. How will the old Spock deal with his responsibility for triggering this entirely new timeline?
  4. How will Chekov's guilt over not being able to rescue Spock's mother with the transporter affect his relationship with Spock?
  5. Will Spock's loss drive him closer to Uhura or make him resist personal commitments?
  6. How will young Spock's interaction with old Spock (Spock Prime, as the convention is developing) affect his personal development?
These topics all offer interesting narrative possibilities. But as even the current movie demonstrated, Trek films don't have time for such personal storytelling. We get a little: Kirk provokes Spock's emotions over the loss of his world to prove Spock unfit for command and win the captain's chair (an arguably heartless personal gambit that deserves a whole conversation and episode of its own), but by the end of the film, we get a cheery announcement that Spock Prime has identified a suitable homeworld where the Vulcan survivors can start rebuilding, and poof! We're off to the ship for more adventures. I want those adventures... but I also want to hear more about the aftermath of this genocide a thousand times worse than Earth's 20th-century Holocaust. That's a story that could resonate, a story from which we all could learn. But I don't think Hollywood movies can tell it.

"Live long and prosper"—Spock Prime blesses young Kirk, Nimoy blesses the next next generation.
So Mr. Abrams, think about it. You've done good work in both TV and film. You know the strengths and limitations of each. And you and your writers have a pile of amazing stories to tell. How will you do it? I hope you'll bring us another big screen Trek spectacular (my wife and I have many anniversaries to come!), but I also hope you'll find a way to tell the small personal stories that make Star Trek such a rich and inspiring universe.

Leslee's Latest Laughable Lie: "I've Never Liked Federal Money"

Big hat tip to DakotaWomen for pointing out the biggest whopper Leslee Unruh has ever told:

"I've never liked federal money," she said, decrying the restrictions attached to such grants. "If I had my way, I'd want no federal money going for this" [Josh Verges, "Abstinence-Only Focus Loses Favor, Money," that Sioux Falls paper, 2009.05.24].


Abstinence-until-marriage education was first given federal money in the early 1990s. The introduction of abstinence funds and abstinence education in schools coincided with the dramatic decreases in the teen pregnancy and abortion rates [Leslee J. Unruh, expressing no distaste for federal funds at all in testimony before U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, 2001.11.15]

The U.S. government has increased funding for the the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) grant program by $11 million for 2006. Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, told the Dakota Voice that the decision was “a victory for America's children.”

The increase was made to the appropriations bill by the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

President George W. Bush had initially requested an increase of $39 million for abstinence education in his proposed budget. But Unruh said she is grateful for the $11-million increase in this year of fiscal restraint.

Unruh said the increased funding is “a clear mandate to improve the health of the next generation and abstinence education is the best way to do that"[Catholic News Agency, "Federal Funding Increased for Abstinence Programs," 2005.06.14].

“The million dollar question remains: What will lawmakers do on the floor?" Unruh asked. "Are they going to continue to take the evidence to heart, stand up for the health and well-being of our young people, and fund programs that work? If the increase in abstinence finding is any indication, I think the answer is yes. Unfortunately, more than a billion dollars remain in the budget to fund ideologically driven programs that put youth at risk by promoting promiscuity."

"The Abstinence Clearinghouse thanks Members of the House of Representatives who paid close attention to the mounting research, and appropriated an increase to responsible education about sexual integrity. Tonight’s decision was a clear mandate to improve the health of the next generation. Abstinence education is the best way to do that," Unruh concluded ["Lawmakers Hear Students' Voices Loud and Clear, Says Abstinence Clearinghouse," available at strangely malfunctioning Dakota Voice webpage, 2005.06.17. Also posted at "This is not a job for superheroes: Voices carry" 2005.06.25].

But Unruh's agenda does not rely on elections going her way. It's cash she's after, and she feels certain she can get it, whoever occupies the White House. "If we can't get abstinence money, we'll apply for education grants or antidrug funds," she says. "I know how Washington works now" [Amanda Robb, "Leslee Unruh's Facts of Life," More, September 2008].

I cannot conceive of telling lies as big as the ones Leslee Unruh is willing to put in the press. To lie that big, I would have to abandon any sense of a coherent, integral self.

Leslee Unruh has actively lobbied to win federal funding for her preferred social programs. She has praised such funding. And now she says she never liked that federal funding. Nothing describes this turn of phrase more aptly than one word: lie.

Update 14:55 CDT: Doug Wiken offers more good perspective on Leslee's lying, as does SD Humanist (thanks for the mention!). Pat Powers conspicuously avoids commentary.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Campaign Promise Fulfilled: Madison Gets Main Street Flower Pots!

Cross-posted at RealMadison.org!

It's not a full downtown redevelopment program, but it is a fulfillment of city commissioner Karen Lembcke's campaign promise: Madison has new flower baskets on the lightpoles on Egan Avenue!

Lovely violet flowers on the 100 block North of Madison's Egan Avenue. Those downtown trees are just reaching full blossom. Keep pushing, little leaves! you can do it!

A closer view of those violet flowers, with Madison's most impressive Main Street fa├žades in the sunny background. Oh, the possibilities....

The 200 block North gets pink flowers, which we see here catching heck from the wind. I think my gardening wife calls that "hardening off." It's good for the plants, really. You can be beautiful in South Dakota, but you still have to be tough.

Flowers at the "Four Corners" make even this sign a little easier to take. Maybe the flowers will distract the lawyers who otherwise might bring a trademark infringement case. Hey, wait a minute: what's that little package hanging off the flower pot?

The flowers are nice. I'll bet our economic development director Dwaine Chapel finally took my advice and brought a good idea to work with him from his home in Brookings. You know, Brookings, that nice college town that has downtown flower baskets and a downtown development organization.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Declining Cities and Towns: Turn Declining Neighborhoods to Forest

I've heard our city officials express the view that we "can't just sit here and be stagnant," that Madison and any town must "grow or die." I'm not convinced that bigger is always better.

Flint, Michigan, may believe bigger would be better, but they are facing the reality that growth just isn't an option. Flint has struggled for decades as auto plant shutdowns have caused it to lose almost half of its population, from 200,000 at its peak in 1965 to 110,000 today. (See Michael Moore's classic Roger and Me for history—Moore notes that layoffs in Flint in the 1980s happened even as car sales rose and GM posted record profits.)

Naturally, Flint has tried to reverse or slow its decline. But as this New York Times article explains, some leaders in Flint are realizing the best way to save the city may be to shrink it faster:

Instead of waiting for houses to become abandoned and then pulling them down, local leaders are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods.

The population would be condensed into a few viable areas. So would stores and services. A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval.

“Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life,” said Dan Kildee, the Genesee County treasurer and chief spokesman for the movement to shrink Flint. “We need to control it instead of letting it control us.”

... Mr. Kildee was born in Flint in 1958. The house he lived in as a child has just been foreclosed on by the county, so he stopped to look. It is a little blue house with white trim, sad and derelict. So are two houses across the street.

“If it’s going to look abandoned, let it be clean and green,” he said. “Create the new Flint forest—something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure” [David Streitfield, "An Effort to Save Flint, Mich., by Shrinking It," New York Times, 2009.04.21].

Perhaps related, I had a conversation at last nights MWAIS conference dinner with Dr. David Olson, University of Nebraska–Lincoln prof and Montrose HS graduate. We talked about small rural schools and small towns. For all of our affection for small towns, we recognize that maybe some dots on our map just aren't culturally or economically viable. I certainly don't want to be the one to decide which schools or which towns don't get to survive. Officials in Flint will find it similarly challenging to decide which neighborhoods to bulldoze. But I suppose there comes a point where urban (or rural) decline is like gangrene: you're not going to save every neighborhood, and maintaining roads and water pipes and schools amidst abandoned houses is only sapping resources from viable neighborhoods. Sometimes you have to cut off the leg to save the patient.

And in Flint's case, cutting off the leg isn't a complete loss. I do find something appealing in the idea of replacing a dead neighborhood with a forest, a thing of beauty that would improve the quality of life for the folks who still call Flint home and would benefit generations to come.

Grow or die—I still don't buy it. Maybe there is an equilibrium point where a town's size is just right. Maybe cities need to accept growth and decline in harmony with changing economic conditions. And when decline is inevitable, as in Flint, maybe you can still grow... grow a good forest.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Waterboarding Is Torture: Shut Up and Watch

Hat tip to SD Humanist:

Chicago radio host Erich "Mancow" Muller said waterboarding wasn't torture. He agreed to have a U.S. Marine waterboard him live on air to prove it. Six seconds in, he changed his mind.

Waterboarding is torture.

SAT/ACT Test Prep: Worth the Money?

I taught for eight months at the Coquitlam branch of Elite Educational Institute, an SAT test-prep outfit. I felt a bit hypocritical, since I had always told high school students (and continue to tell them) that special courses and tutoring for college admission tests are a waste of money. At Elite, we did some good things in our after-school, weekend, and holiday classes: practiced writing, discussed novels (Frankenstein! Pride and Prejudice!), drilled vocab (especially good for all the Korean immigrant kids), even talked about some SAT-specific test-taking strategies. Elite boasts of 40 alums who have earned perfect SAT scores, but did those scores come from our efforts, or were those smart kids to start with who would have aced the test (or come darn close) anyway? It couldn't hurt kids to read more, but did we really make that much of a positive difference on test scores?

Making $26 an hour and thus covering our $1000-a-month Vancouver rent assuaged my guilt just enough to get me to work each day.

Now Marketplace's Wednesday show highlights a study by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling that supports my lack of faith in the very test-prep services I once provided... sort of. NACAC finds that commercial test prep boosts test scores by meager averages of 30 points on the SAT and less than one point on the ACT.

I want to get excited about this study, but if you read page 1 of the full report, you see a number of caveats:
  1. NACAC looks at a lot of old data. Not much research has been done in this decade. The test prep you buy your kids this year may be much better informed than the test prep available ten years ago.
  2. There are only two published studies on ACT scores and none on the new SAT that added the writing section in 2005 (a section we coached hard on at Elite).
  3. Even if the gains are statistically small, they may still have a big impact on getting admitted and winning scholarships. A one-point boost to your ACT isn't a big deal... unless that point moves you from 23 to 24 and wins you the Jackrabbit Guarantee. NACAC also finds that, like it or not, colleges say they use cut-off scores or factor even small differences in test scores into their admissions decisions. It may be a silly game, but for now, it's the game colleges are playing.
One could argue that if the expected value of test-prep is only a small point boost, you might get a better deal just by paying more attention to your regular classroom teachers (free for most of you), searching for some extra practice online (sometimes free!), or just buying one good test study guide (new running $15 for SAT, $22 for ACT). Compare that to dumping hundreds of dollars into extra courses (try $1500 for a ten-week program from MEK in New Jersey).

Or you could beat the rush and drill vocabulary with your three-year-old. There's my plan!