May 31, 2011

today's science links

Mars rover Spirit is gone for good? Probably.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome caused by a rodent virus?? Probably not.

Government funds ridiculously wasteful research??? Not exactly.

Cell phones cause cancer???? Uh, insufficient evidence, thanks.

Washington teen discovers that diaper powder increases crop yields????? You better believe it.

Added: Now with a panda tie bonus.

May 29, 2011

Evergreen's Science Carnival: more science than carnival

Yesterday's Science Carnival at The Evergreen State College brought a lot of science, and a little bit of carnival, to the public. The Olympian sent reporter Rolf Boone to cover the story:
Elementary school students descended on the campus Friday as part of school field trips, while more children – this time with their parents – attended Saturday.

Over the two days, more than 150 science presentations were primarily presented throughout three buildings on campus, with an emphasis on hands-on activities.
I sampled some natural soda (dandelion blossoms should not, under any circumstances, be carbonated), saw how bacteria can power a fuel cell, and learned how oyster mushrooms are crucial to mycoremediation. The only disappointment: the cancellation of the 1:00 showing of "That's a Chicken?!" I never did learn what the putative quasi-chicken was, or what it all meant.

The carnival closed with Mentos/Diet Coke fountains set to "Thus Spake Zarathustra," which mostly made a mess of Red Square and the students manning the event.

Oh, and to Jimmy S., the commentator on the Olympian's website who claims that "The words science and Evergreen do not belong in the same sentence," you are obviously right. Clearly, an institution that sponsors cutting-edge phage research, has a "Research Ambassador Program" to connect science to the community, gets high school teachers involved in lab work, and has several top-notch programs in various scientific fields (with unparalleled opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research!) , and, for goodness' sake, HOSTS A SCIENCE CARNIVAL, has nothing to do with science.

Added: Science!

May 27, 2011

identity in duality: craniopagus twins

The story first caught my attention in November. Now, in a humane and insightful piece, the NY Times magazine gives the incredible, philosophically- and neurologically challenging tale of craniopagus twins the long-form treatment.
The explanation Cochrane proposes is surprisingly straightforward for so unusual an outcome: that visual input comes in through the retinas of one girl, reaches her thalamus, then takes two different courses, like electricity traveling along a wire that splits in two. In the girl who is looking at the strobe or a stuffed animal in her crib, the visual input continues on its usual pathways, one of which ends up in the visual cortex. In the case of the other girl, the visual stimulus would reach her thalamus via the thalamic bridge, and then travel up her own visual neural circuitry, ending up in the sophisticated processing centers of her own visual cortex. Now she has seen it, probably milliseconds after her sister has.

The results of the test did not surprise the family, who had long suspected that even when one girl’s vision was angled away from the television, she was laughing at the images flashing in front of her sister’s eyes. The sensory exchange, they believe, extends to the girls’ taste buds: Krista likes ketchup, and Tatiana does not, something the family discovered when Tatiana tried to scrape the condiment off her own tongue, even when she was not eating it.

Even knowing about the tests and what Cochrane believed, I listened to the family’s stories with some amount of skepticism. Perhaps they were imagining it or exaggerating for the sake of a good story. Then in one of the many idle moments of the five days I spent with the family, the girls were watching television, and I absent-mindedly gave Tatiana’s foot, which Krista could not see, a little tickle. She turned to me and smiled, and then Krista spoke: “Now do me,” she said. Had she felt the sensation but wanted the emotional experience of knowing that she, too, was receiving that kind of playful attention?
If you TL;DR this one, you're going to miss out.

May 26, 2011

National Board bonuses preserved (mostly)

One of the bigger surprises of the 2011 legislative session, at least from this board-certified teacher's perspective, is that the bonuses for NBCTs came out relatively unscathed. A little accounting trickery, plus a reduction for first-year certificate-holders, saved roughly $61 million. The rundown:
Two changes are made to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) bonus program. Beginning in the 2011-12 school year, The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction must pay bonuses on July 1 of each school year, achieving a one-time savings in fiscal year 2012. Additionally, first year national board bonuses will be prorated by a factor of 60 percent (a 40 percent reduction), to reflect the percentage of the school year newly NBPTS-certified teachers are certified. The proration produces a first year base bonus amount of $3,054, and a first year high poverty school bonus of $3,000. With the exception of the first year proration, the $5090 base bonus and $5000 high poverty school bonus are fully funded in the 2011-13 biennium.
I heard from several sources that NBCTs were some of the most persistent, consistent, and articulate gadflies at town hall meetings--which squares with my experience with a local NBCT advocacy group-- and apparently we got results.

May 25, 2011

final budget: not the worst of the worst

For this post, I'm not going to focus on the budget deal now heading for the Senate, which includes a 1.9% pay cut for teachers, which was expected, but not the worst case scenario. We won't know the impact in the Olympia School District until the Board adopts its budget, slated to take place June 28th, although we'll probably soon get an update from District officials.

Instead, without comment, I'm going to zoom in on this bit of behind-the-scenes reportage:
"You go on adrenaline," Dunshee said, noting there were no catered dinners. "You sort of forage around the building looking for something. You find some old Girl Scout cookies or granola bars."

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he can tell lawmakers are ready to go home. "People are flipping out over different things ... People are exhausted," he said. "I'm so tired it kind of scares me."

May 24, 2011

when Wal-Mart called

After school. The phone rings. I answer it, trepidatious.

"Hi, this is [redacted] from Wal-Mart, hoping to talk with you about [redacted]."

Excellent. I am a reference for a former student seeking gainful employment. Shall I expound, at great length, as to [redacted]'s character and accomplishments, fortitude and charisma? Shall I relate a piquant anecdote, recount [redacted]'s classroom odyssey of learning? Possibilities! Ask, dear Wal-Mart, and I shall--

"Do you have any reason to believe that [redacted] poses a violent threat to any other person?"

Uh... No.

"Do you have any reason to believe that [redacted] lacks integrity or honesty?"


"One last thing. Is there any reason you would not recommend [redacted] for a position at Wal-Mart?"


"That's all. Have a nice day."


May 23, 2011

budget deal within sight?

Up until now, negotiations over worker's compensation were the major holdup in Washington state's budget wrangling. No more:
A path emerged Sunday for lawmakers to wrap up their work without delaying their overdue exit any further. It came in the form of an agreement between the Legislature’s four top leaders and Gov. Chris Gregoire to reduce the costs of the state-run insurance system for injured workers by $1.1 billion by 2015.

Lawmakers are putting the plan on a fast track to approval as early as today, giving the business lobby a version of what it has been demanding: an option for workers hurt on the job to take payments to settle their injury claims.
There's been movement, if not progress, on the education front, too:
Teacher pay remained one of many spending items on the chopping block. Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, was resigned to seeing a cut to teacher salaries and said top budget negotiators had rejected her idea to cut the number of school days by a corresponding amount.

School districts that can’t persuade teachers’ unions to accept the pay cuts, she said, would have to make the cuts elsewhere.
If the extra session wraps up on Wednesday, teachers will know shortly after just how bad the bad news will be.

May 22, 2011


Earlier this year, I recommended Lawrence Rosenblum's See What I'm Saying, which explores the lesser-known aspects of sensation and cognition. What I didn't mention was that I had two of my English classes read an excerpt, then head out into the halls to test our echolocating skills. Since we had so little practice, we were terrible at it--but we could hear the possibilities. Navigational failure was a pedagogical success.

I was reminded of that experience when pointed by Maggie Koerth-Baker to this blog entry by neuroscientist Bradley Voytek.
We're used to thinking of our senses as being pretty shite: we can't see as well as eagles, we can't hear as well as bats, and we can't smell as well as dogs.

Or so we're used to thinking.

It turns out that humans can, in fact, detect as few as 2 photons entering the retina. Two. As in, one-plus-one.

It is often said that, under ideal conditions, a young, healthy person can see a candle flame from 30 miles away. That's like being able to see a candle in Times Square from Stamford, Connecticut. Or seeing a candle in Candlestick Park from Napa Valley.

Similarly, it appears that the limits to our threshold of hearing may actually be Brownian motion. That means that we can almost hear the random movements of atoms.
Voytek calls humans "inattentive superheroes," our skills fundamentally underdeveloped in a world full of noise. We underestimate the value of silence, of darkness, of time spent alone. We'd like to be more focused, but we don't know how--and we keep filling our lives with more things that siphon attention away.

Much of the siphoning is well-intentioned, an attempt to remind us--to alert us--to pay attention. You're rolling through a residential neighborhood, at the wheel of a two-ton death machine. In the corner of your eye, a yellow warning: "Children at Play." It's a safety measure that can be--and will be--easily ignored. And probably should be torn down.
The National Cooperative Highway Research Program, in its "Synthesis of Highway Practice No. 139," sternly advises that "non-uniform signs such as "CAUTION--CHILDREN AT PLAY," "SLOW--CHILDREN," or similar legends should not be permitted on any roadway at any time." Moreover, it warns that "the removal of any nonstandard signs should carry a high priority."

One of the things that is known, thanks to peer-reviewed science, is that increased traffic speeds (and volumes) increase the risk of children's injuries. But "Children at Play" signs are a symptom, rather than a cure--a sign of something larger that is out of whack, whether the lack of a pervasive safety culture in driving, a system that puts vehicular mobility ahead of neighborhood livability, or non-contextual street design. After all, it's roads, not signs, that tell people how to drive. People clamoring for "Children at Play" signs are often living on residential streets that are inordinately wide, lacking any kind of calming obstacles (from trees to "bulb-outs"), perhaps having unnecessary center-line markings--three factors that will boost vehicle speed more than any sign will lower them.
If, at our best, we're "inattentive superheroes," at our worst, we're overly confident, cognitively-deficient supervillains.
As is often the case in driving, when we meet the enemy, it is us. You want difficulty in judging spatial relations? Consider the research, by Dennis Shaffer, that showed people reporting 10-foot-long highway stripes to be two feet long. You want difficulty estimating speed? Consider this study, which found drivers underestimating their speed in the presence of children by upwards of 50 percent. You want exceeded sensory abilities? Consider the widespread phenomenon of "overdriving" one's headlights. You want trouble estimating distance? Ask any driver how many feet they'll need to stop, driving at 65 mph. You want impulsive? Who's reaching across the seat for that buzzing BlackBerry?

If "Children at Play" signs are ineffective at capturing our attention--or doubly ineffective when they do--what about other supposedly helpful road signs: speed limits, "Road Narrows," "Koala Crossing?" (We'll leave aside "One Way" for now.) What if they were gone--all gone? John Staddon points toward a possible future:
So what am I suggesting—abolishing signs and rules? A traffic free-for-all? Actually, I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that. A few European towns and neighborhoods--Drachten in Holland, fashionable Kensington High Street in London, Prince Charles’s village of Poundbury, and a few others--have even gone ahead and tried it. They’ve taken the apparently drastic step of eliminating traffic control more or less completely in a few high-traffic and pedestrian-dense areas. The intention is to create environments in which everyone is more focused, more cautious, and more considerate. Stop signs, stoplights, even sidewalks are mostly gone. The results, by all accounts, have been excellent: pedestrian accidents have been reduced by 40 percent or more in some places, and traffic flows no more slowly than before.
Of course, all of this could be moot once automobiles become truly auto. And then we can turn our attention toward more important things.

For some, it's even harder than usual to block out the tumult of the everyday. In the fourth part of a fascinating series, Marie Myung-Ok Lee describes how her autistic son was finally able to learn how to ride a bike.
After my husband and I bought him a bike with training wheels, he would sometimes sit on it for a minute or two, try to pedal, and then have a tantrum, hurling the bike in frustration. His classroom bike-riding lessons weren't going any better. At a school meeting, the consensus among his teachers and other professionals was that independent bike riding was something he'd probably never learn.
They probably would have been right, were it not for Lee's persistence in seeking out a remedy: high-grade marijuana.
[C]annabis not only mitigates J's pain, it also seems to help him to focus... [M]arijuana's effect on short-term memory allows a user to focus intently on a single sensation (that "Whooooaaaa, man... look at that flower" feeling). One feature of autism is a heightened, disordered, nondiscriminating sensitivity, so that autistics seem to see and feel and hear and smell everything at the same time.... But with cannabis (which also regulates anxiety and stress), I noticed that J had a much higher tolerance for activities that involve multiple steps, like unloading the dishwasher.

Bicycling, when you think about it, involves myriad functions: coordination of gross motor movement with the vestibular, visual, and proprioceptive systems that regulate balance. On a nice weekend I brought J, his bike, his helmet, and a wrench to a nearby private school that has a bunch of wide, paved paths. I removed the training wheels from his bike, put him on it, and gave him a push, figuring that once he realized how good it felt to bike--to move along on his own power--he was going to love it. He pedaled and immediately tipped over, laughing, as he was expecting the training wheels to be there holding him up. But after a few tries, he started to get it. And before the afternoon was over, he was biking independently.
Lee's story is inspiring and infuriating; our federal government's increasingly bizarre insistence on persecuting medical marijuana users made her take unnecessary personal and medical risks. In a saner world, her doctor would have been able to prescribe a standard, fully-tested treatment, and her son's triumph would have been heartwarmingly ordinary.

It may tax your 21st-century attention span, but start with the first part and keep going until you're done.

When I was young, I could get so wrapped up in a book (or so focused on my Legos) that I'd shut out the world. Maybe that's why I've never been interested in trying pot: that "Whooooaaaa, man..." sensation may not sit well with a brain perfectly comfortable managing its own focal point.

When we let someone else sort the signal from the noise, we risk missing the whole signal. Call it a "filter bubble," algorithmically facilitated attention-narrowing.

Just because you can see a photon from space, doesn't mean you should drive without your glasses.

Driverless cars? Soon. But not quite yet.

May 17, 2011

Olympia in springtime

Robert "Berd" Whitlock is one of Olympia's indispensables, a photographer who blends politics, philosophy and imagery from his unique, and uniquely Olympian, perspective. Regardless of your partisan proclivities, you can enjoy his work--and, if you're like me, it'll inspire you to go outside / get a better camera / learn how to actually use the better camera.

Here's his latest set, in which he somehow manages to make the Ugly Building look beautiful.  And here's his Flickr stream.  Enjoy.

smoke 'em if you have the proper permit for 'em

The Washington State Senate has passed a bill re-legalizing indoor smoking--in select locations.
The plan would permit up to 100 cigar lounges and 500 retail tobacco shops to allow smoking.
The bill would reverse part of a wildly popular 2005 initiative, which banned smoking indoors in public buildings and places of employment.

The bill may hurdle the House, but I'd be surprised if Gregoire signs on. After all, as Attorney General, she made her political reputation by leading the campaign to sue tobacco companies for deceptive practices, to the tune of $206 billion, $4.5 billion of that for the Evergreen State alone.

Even if the bill passes, don't go celebrating the moderately reasonable rollback of nanny-state social engineering, or lament the death of democracy. There's one overwhelming reason for the exemption:
Businesses would have to pay annual fees of $17,500 to obtain cigar lounge endorsements and $6,000 to obtain tobacco store endorsements.

May 15, 2011

Olympia Awesome Film Festival lives up to its name

The Rundown
Last night's Olympia Awesome Film Festival, the first ever, showcased the talents of twenty filmmakers from all over the U.S., with 24 low-budget short films in 5 hours--sci-fi, action-adventure, music videos, slasher parodies, documentaries, mockumentaries.

The festival's producers and attendees clearly loved all things cinema, bringing great energy to the evening. The event's sponsors also played a huge role in the festival's success, giving away hundreds of dollars in gift certificates, from pub fare to oil changes. (I'm not even mad that I didn't win one.)

The Subjectively Chosen Highlights
The audience favorite, Daniel Klockenkemper's Deathwalker, shot on Super 8 stock for an especially Carpenteresque look, had some of the best moments of visual humor. Apparently a foldable walker + a shotgun = comedy gold. (Couldn't find it on YouTube, sorry.)  Accepting his award, Klockenkemper noted that the short was ten years in the making. Here's hoping the sequel comes out a little faster.

For its composition and overall excellence, the judges chose--and chose well--Never Been Used, a simple premise neatly executed, short and sweet. Unsurprisingly, it was 1st runner up at the Seattle 24 Hour Film Race in 2010.

Documentaries deserved their own award, but since there wasn't one, I'd pick Hamilton: Town at the Tipping Point, a thought-provoking look at "FEMA welfare."

The animation Asteraceae and the mockumentary (at least, I think it's a mockumentary) Rats also entertained.

The two biggest "WTF" moments* were the slasher Waffle, perhaps the festival's riskiest entry, and My Brother's Dog Helen, a documentary that, in a few painful and surprisingly poignant minutes, deconstructs notions of family and forgiveness.

The Suggestion Box
The following suggestions are offered in love, as I'd really like to see the festival become an Olympia tradition.

Speed it up a bit. The festival started close to six, and wasn't over until 11:00. A good chunk of the audience left early, missing out on the final raffle and the prize announcements, probably because that's a lot of seat time (in a fairly stuffy venue, which, to be fair, wasn't the organizers' first choice). Cut a few films (see below), shorten up the breaks, and count votes while the raffle's going.

Quality over quantity.
A small festival, starting out, is in a tricky spot. You want to attract a wide variety of talents, and you want to attract and retain an audience. You want your films to be good, but you don't want to be so picky that you entirely shut out amateur auteurs.

Limiting to one film per director might help--did we really need two "instructional" films, Let's Shoplift and Save and Hot Wiring Made Easy, where the joke and the execution were nearly identical?

Also, to keep quality high while simultaneously building buzz, why not include your potential audience in the selection process? Choose, say, five flicks you're not sure will make the cut, put 'em on the website, and let the Internet vote for their faves. The top choice makes it into the festival, while the other four at least get some exposure, without slowing down the action. Everybody wins.

The order matters.
Selection and arrangement are critical. The festival had great variety in tone and style, but ended, I thought, on a bit of an anticlimax, an actioner with great production values (and lots of fight sequences) but a thin storyline--and only Part 2 of a 3-part series.

It's small, but important: if this is a film festival, let's have film-quality popcorn. Butter it up.

In Summary
The Olympia Awesome Film Festival has great potential. I hope there's another next year--and I hope to see you there.

*And I should point out that this is meant as a term of endearment.

defining "national interest"

Recently, a reader noted,
I am having a lot of trouble defining "national interest". I feel like definitions are going to be extremely important for this resolution.
I agree that it's difficult to precisely define "national interest"--and that a good definition is critical for the universal human rights resolution.

Here's my brief attempt to un-muddy the waters.

National interest is usually defined in terms of the actions or policies that advance a nation's economic, cultural, or political standing. In the introduction to Michael Roskin's incisive analysis of the phrase, Col. John Mountcastle offers a decent summary:
The "national interest" is a composite declaration derived from those values that a nation prizes most--liberty, freedom, security. Interests are usually expressed in terms of physical survival, economic prosperity, and political sovereignty. The list invariably expands, and is ultimately shaped by subjective preferences and political debate. As an object of political debate, the concept of national interest serves to propose, justify, or denounce policies.
Roskin himself begins,
The student new to international relations is often at first intoxicated by the concept of "national interest." It seems crisp, clear, objective: what's good for the nation as a whole in international affairs. (What's good for the nation as a whole in domestic affairs is the public interest.) National interest lies at the very heart of the military and diplomatic professions and leads to the formulation of a national strategy and of the calculation of the power necessary to support that strategy. Upon reflection, however, one realizes how hard it is to turn concepts of national interest into working strategy.
The boundary between international and domestic concerns can be fuzzy, since the two are often (or always?) intertwined. Also, it's possible that national interest-seeking is a zero sum game--that one nation's interest rises only as another's falls, or, in other words, we have to define a nation's interest relative to other nations' interests.

Roskin traces the history of the phrase from Machiavelli to Morgenthau and beyond, summing them up in the overall concept that a nation's sole interest (from a practical and empirical perspective) is in preserving its own power. Roskin also notes the difference between vital and secondary interests, which could be important to clarify the debate.

For the LDer interested in this resolution, Roskin's essay is quite useful. Check it out.

May 13, 2011

Seven Ways of Looking at a Necktie: a Twitter poem

Apologies to Wallace Stevens.

One time, while surfing in the bluest ocean that ever evaporated into sky, I accidentally swallowed a sea slug.

Swirling dust in a desert of cupcake mix.

When flowers rained like diamonds, and distant strains of a pan flute grazed mist-soaked hilltops, a forlorn sheep bleated in the afternoon.

Three tigers prowl in a jungle of their own making.

As they argued over the nature of the soul, Picasso became enraged, and punched Matisse in the mouth. Matisse bled pure color.

Fiesta, a party. Fiesta, a car.

Burning with the fury of a thousand sunlamps.

[Original version starts here and ends here. Oh, and the tie is here.]

May 10, 2011

WEA Chinook rallies at the Capitol

WEA Chinook hosted an impromptu rally at the state capitol Tuesday, and about 110 teachers showed up to gather, mill about on the capitol steps, and wander peacefully into the building to chat with whomever might still be around. It started at 4:00 by the John L. O'Brien building, and ended roughly at 5:30, with a few latecomers trickling in as the early birds departed.

It was a low-key, friendly protest, with nary a chant or incident. Did it accomplish much? Probably not in the grand scheme of Washington politics. But it did remind this sometime-jaded political participant/observer that even in a maelstrom of despair, there are a lot of good people holding on to hope.

Pictured at the front of the slideshow is Capital's own Mike Deakins, a master of activism and sloganeering. (Ask him to write you a ditty sometime.) I hope to add links once the WEA posts their own official photos / writeup.

Update: WEA photos are now available. If you look closely, you'll find me in a few of them, protesting and such.

The Olympian hears about Olympia's RIF

They're a little late to the party, but at least they have the story now.
The Olympia School District is notifying 48 teachers this week that they might not have jobs in the fall, as it works to close a $2.3 million deficit.

Of course, the real number of teachers who could lose their jobs – and the actual amount of the deficit – depends largely on how things play out in the state Legislature’s special session, and how many teachers decide to retire, resign or take a leave of absence during next school year. “The majority of those folks will be offered their jobs back,” said district spokesman Peter Rex.

So far, 27 teachers have indicated they don’t plan to work next year. The district plans to basically leave 40 positions vacant to balance its budget. Unless there’s more attrition, about 13 teachers will lose their positions, Rex said.
More accurately, the 40 positions vacated may help balance the budget. There are other cuts planned; you can read all about the details here. If teaching positions are salvaged in the best-case scenario, many of the other cuts will still be necessary.

Chapter One of the worst case scenario has already been written, I should point out. As expected, the House has voted to suspend I-728 and I-732. Again.
The votes were lopsided but not unanimous to suspend initiatives 728 and 732 in the state House of Representatives Monday. The two iconic education-funding measures were first approved by voters in 2000 to provide class-size reduction funds and also to provide K-12 public school employees with annual cost-of-living raises.

The vote was to temporarily suspend the voters’ will on both measures, saving more than $1 billion in general fund outlays over the next two years.
We'll know in the next 15 days or so how the next chapter plays out.

May 9, 2011

do or do not. there is no "be."

Sartre meets Star Wars.

[via Maggie Koerth-Baker]

the happiness gene

On some level, it's obvious that happiness is genetic. Your ability to think and feel come from the brain you own (and that owns you), and the basic instructions to build a brain are found in your genes.

On another level, though, the complex interplay of environment, culture, genetics, and development means there's no gene for happiness.

Survey says: sort of.
The happiest people tended to have a long variant of a gene called 5-HTTLPR. This gene makes a transporter molecule for serotonin, a chemical that brain cells use to communicate with each other, and the long variant helps to recycle serotonin faster and more efficiently than the short one.

De Neve extracted his data from the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which has been following the same set of adolescents for 13 years, from 1995 to 2008. Genomic information in this study allowed him to distinguish respondents who had two long versions of 5-HTTLPR from those who had two short versions, or one of each.

Twice as many respondents with two long versions said they were very satisfied with life compared with carriers of two short versions.

Conversely, 26 per cent of those with two short versions of the gene said they were dissatisfied with life, compared with 20 per cent of people carrying two long variants.
Since there's not yet a truly objective way of measuring happiness, one wonders if 5-HTTLPR is just the gene variant for optimistic self-delusion. Or so says my skeptical gene.

May 8, 2011

conglomerated edu-blogging

For a while, I was writing about educational issues on three blogs--this one, 5/17, and Washington Teachers. At the time, it made sense to divide my efforts along personal, local, and state-based lines. Eventually, though, it became a time management nightmare--and the latter blog, a group effort, dwindled into nothingness as my co-bloggers and I were too busy elsewhere.

But it's not like I've run out of educational opinions. Now, thanks to the 5/17 label, you can access them all in one convenient location.

You're welcome.

the RIF hits home

Friday, OSD officials came to Capital High School to personally deliver RIF notices to six teachers, our rookie staff who find themselves in the "lower 48." Having barely scraped through the '04 RIF, I can speak to the fear and uncertainty the process creates. (It got my students fired up, let me tell you.)

Capital's situation is a little more precarious than some, not only because of the political and economic climate, but because of our shifting demographic. With anticipated enrollment declines, we're overstaffed by 3.2 FTEs--and could lose an additional 1.8 positions if the Superintendent's proposed cuts are adopted.

The good news, at least as good as we can get at the moment, is that the 48 RIF notices mean, even in the worst case, a loss of 13 positions beyond the 29 already eliminated. The bad news is that even if a legislative miracle occurs and all the 48 teachers are retained, we're still going to face larger classes and fewer course offerings. Departing or retiring teachers just won't be replaced. But let's close on better news: District and school officials are optimistic that the worst case is unlikely.

Tomorrow's OSD Board Meeting (Knox Building, 6:30 p.m.) is your first chance for public comment on the proposed cuts. Can't make it? There's a survey.

blogging by request

Recently my life outside of decorabilia has become, paradoxically, both simpler and more complex, and I'll write about it when I'm ready. Until then, my blogging is going to be a little less debate-heavy than usual, a little more locally focused, and a lot more sporadic.

Casual readers and passers-by might not even see a difference, but some of my more ardent fans may have already noticed the changes, especially when it comes to debate-blogging.

I'll still provide the same level of quality, excellence, and customer service. Not getting the blogging you need? All you have to do is ask, either via comment or email.

And yes, I have a life outside of decorabilia. Promise.

May 6, 2011

The Wire short-circuits in Seattle

Anyone interested in criminal justice and civil liberties in the Age of Perpetual Terrorism should read Brendan Kiley's deconstruction of an FBI investigation gone wrong--because it could never go right.
"The degree of surveillance and monitoring has been extremely expensive," the officer tells Rick, sounding equal parts intimidating and frustrated. "When you've gone to the QFC and Corsair and Tubs. Think over the last two years—everything you've done in private and on the streets, people you've talked to, what you've had in your possession, conversations, intentions, plans... I have to emphasize the level of surveillance we've run over the last two years. Tell us about all the drug deals in The Yard. You want me to tell you about the red cabinet where you keep the drugs? The cocaine? We have hundreds of hours of surveillance, wire, video..."

"That would seem to be an absurd waste of state financing and funding," Rick says. "And that actually scares me more than the charges... You guys aren't after anything bigger than this? This is it?..."

The Seattle police seem to think that Rick's guns point toward some kind of guilt.

"Why the need to have so many weapons on the premises?" one of the officers asks.

"My home?" Rick asks, sounding flabbergasted. "That's my home. I own a small amount of firearms legally, most of which are locked in an extremely secure gun safe in an unloaded manner. I'm a man from Oklahoma," he continues, "and there's no such thing as a man from Oklahoma who doesn't own a firearm or two. Even the hippies own guns."

The agents sit silent, seemingly flummoxed. They've pursued this target for years, luring him into a bust that they hoped would scare him into giving up some valuable intelligence about domestic terrorists, or city politicians, or at least some drug dealers. But they've fundamentally misunderstood their own investigation.
And what does it get them? Four indigent poker players.
The defendants are quiet, well dressed, and bewildered by the charges. One of them told me that the poker stakes were so low, he would lose or win $100 at most in the course of a night. ("All those guys were broke, broke as a joke," Mia Brown agrees. "They'd borrow five dollars from someone to go put on the card table. It was small and it was stupid.")

The defense lawyers will be bewildered by what they find in the discovery process--all the paperwork and evidence and audio and video surveillance accumulated by the two-year investigation that involved the FBI, SPD, SWAT teams, and federal firearms and immigration and customs agents. One defendant's discovery request turned up nearly 2,000 pages of documentation and over 100 CDs and DVDs, and even that defendant's attorney had to file extra requests because he said there were big gaps of time missing.

Why did law enforcement dedicate such massive resources to bust some penny-ante card players for charges that only one person has faced in the past 10 years?

One of the defendants, Brady McGarry, had a simple explanation: "If you spend that much time and money, you have to put somebody up on that cross."
Read the whole thing, if you have the patience--and stomach--for it.

May 5, 2011

the context of the Olympia School District RIF

As announced yesterday, the Olympia School District is planning to send RIF notices to the 48 least senior teachers in the district.

To understand why, it's important to know a little bit about how teachers get paid here in Washington.

In the Evergreen state, your standard teacher's paycheck comes primarily from state coffers--and, more specifically, from sales tax receipts. Districts receive allocations based on student enrollment, divvied into FTEs--Full Time Equivalencies. Cut state funds, and you have two choices: shorten the school year, or cut teaching positions. (Or both? Don't say both.)

When the Great Recession tanked Washington's economy, sales tax collections tanked as well. Now, with the gap between will and way sitting somewhere near $5 billion in the coming biennium, the Legislature, at least until this point, has refused to consider new revenue sources by closing tax loopholes*, or--horrors!--raising taxes. (If anything, the recent $263 million boon from Sales Tax Amnesty proved that the state isn't yet entirely competent at collecting the taxes we're already supposed to get.)

Word is now coming from Governor Gregoire that she'll support closing the gap with a 1.9% pay cut for teachers--purportedly to keep things in line with the cuts other state employees have taken.  Fair is fair, right?

Not exactly. As The Olympian's Brad Shannon writes,
The House and Senate are negotiating daily during a 30-day special session on the 2011-13 operating budget, and the pay cut has left the chambers at odds. The House took a different approach, suspending COLAs and saving almost $57 million more by cutting “step” pay increases granted each year to teachers, based on their years of service and educational attainment.

House Education Appropriations Committee chairwoman Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, has said she would prefer to shorten the school year so that teachers would work and earn less – while avoiding the sticky problem of having rich districts cough up money to avert the pay cuts while poor districts cut pay.
Other state employees have received furlough days commensurate with their salary reductions--but the Legislature finds itself in a bit of a constitutional mess, knowing that the state's mandated "paramount duty" is to fund public education, which seemingly prohibits shortening the school year, currently 180 days. Learning Improvement days can disappear--and they're gone--but school days are sacred.

Gregoire's accommodation is at least better than the Senate plan, which would not only eliminate the LID, but cut an additional 3%. Hats off to local rep Chris Reykdal, a former teacher who gets what's at stake.
Reykdal, a freshman who has been out-front among Democratic lawmakers this year in trying to raise new revenue by closing a few tax breaks, said there is a fairness issue for teachers. While the Senate wants additional 3 percent pay cuts to match the 3 percent pay reductions Gov. Chris Gregoire has negotiated with many public employee unions, Reykdal said the general-government cuts are accompanied by an equivalent amount of extra time off for workers.

“So our unit cost didn’t change” per day worked, Reykdal said. In the Senate plan, he said teachers see it as a cut in pay with the same workload.
And it is.

The rumble around the lunch table doesn't yet involve serious talk of strikes or walkouts or Work-to-the-Contract days or Wellness Walks, but if the Legislature foists its fiscal decisions onto local districts, abdicating its responsibility and leaving teachers in the lurch, you can bet that the rumble will turn into a roar.

* But that may soon change.

May 4, 2011

Olympia School District faces RIF

This afternoon, the Superintendent of the Olympia School District released a recommended list of budget cuts for the 2011-2012 school year. Thanks to a legislature that's still squabbling over state budget particulars, local school districts have had to draw up worst-case contingency plans. The OSD's proposal assumes a roughly $2.3 million drop in the next fiscal year.

Since the bulk of the District's funds go toward personnel, two of the biggest potential cuts involve increased class sizes, and, concomitantly, lost teaching positions.
  • Increase elementary class size by about 2 per class, at grades 1-5. This is consistent with the new state funding schedule which provides 1 teacher for each 25 students in grades K-3. (OSD continues to subsidize kindergarten class size at about 23 students where the state pays for 1 teacher for each 25 students.)
  • Increase secondary class size by 1.3 students from 28.7 students per teacher/section to 30 students per teacher/section. This represents an increase in the average; as is the case today, class sizes will vary depending on content and student interest.
According to the more detailed outline, this means a loss of 8.2 and 7.8 positions, respectively. Add (or subtract?) the nearly 14 positions lost to declining enrollment, and more (of an uncertain number) lost to vaporized federal stimulus money, and the District is looking at losing dozens of teachers--or, in the "best" case, simply not replacing those who leave.

Other recommendations include charging students for zero-hour classes, converting all middle school sports into intramurals, delaying social studies textbook purchases, and cutting the reserve from 4.3% down to 3%.

The OSD Board of Directors will take public comments on the budget at several upcoming meetings, beginning with a 6:30 p.m. meeting, May 9th the Knox Building. And if you live in (or teach in) the Olympia School District, you should take this survey, too.


The RIF communication team has more details:
We are writing to share difficult news. Although the State Legislature has not completed their budget work, the District is moving forward with its proposed budget and reduced education plan for the 2011-12 school year. This reduced education plan prompts a reduction-in-force (RIF) process that includes, but will be limited to, the 48 least senior certificated employees on our seniority list....

There are important considerations to keep in mind in this process. Although the employees who fall within the 1-48 seniority rank will receive RIF notices, the actual number of positions the District will eventually reduce will be fewer. Factors that will be taken into consideration to determine the final number of reduced positions include:

* The eventual number of retirements, resignations and leave of absence requests;
* The final state budget which will determine the actual revenue loss for the District;
* Updated projections of District expenditures for the remainder of the school year;
* Enrollment changes; and,
* Decisions made by the School Board.
No mention yet in The Olympian.

Added 5/5: The RIF in context.

May 1, 2011

Resolved: When forced to choose, a just government ought to prioritize universal human rights over its national interest.

The NFL has released the topic for the 2011 national tournament:
Resolved: When forced to choose, a just government ought to prioritize universal human rights over its national interest.
It's classic LD, a clash between cosmopolitanism and sovereignty, and among competing visions of the social contract. It's timeless--and, thanks to recent American involvement in Libyan strife, perfectly timely.

I wrote about this resolution in my summer preview of my favorite topics; it was number three on my list. It reminds me of the UN vs. sovereignty resolution from a few years ago, and will include some of the same basic arguments.

I've reposted some of my initial thoughts, have added more, and will continue to add more material as demand arises.

First, some key questions:

What is a "just government?" What is the nature of its social contract? And which contractarian gets it right? If the world is a Hobbsean "war of all against all," the argument is quite different than if the ideal of justice is Rawlsian egalitarianism.

I'd imagine that many Affs would have a value of justice aligned with a criterion of "protecting rights." But the Neg has to ask in Cross-Ex, immediately: where do rights come from? What defines or limits them? If "universal human rights" includes, for instance, trade or labor rights, must nations abandon protectionist trade schemes, or, conversely, stop trading with nations that allow sweatshops--even if it means a loss of economic security?

Why have nations at all? Why not have a universal government? Wouldn't that be the best way to protect universal human rights? Would affirming the resolution lead to a super-state?

Who or what defines "national interest?" Who is the "agent of action" in the resolution? The people? Government agents? Can we make any assumptions about the nature of the government in the debate?

What situations might lead to an forced choice between universal human rights and a nation's interest? (Some might include, but are not limited to, war, torturing terror suspects, immigration / refugee crises, trade agreements, dealing with dictatorships / oppressive societies.)

If a nation's citizens know that its government is going to prioritize universal human rights, will they remain loyal in a time of crisis? What are the upsides of nationalism?

What obligations follow from prioritizing universal human rights?

Do universal human rights exist? Can the Aff, for the sake of clarity, presume that they do--otherwise there's no forced choice?

Links, Analysis, etc.
1. Which human rights? A post from the vault noting the fractious origins of the United Nations' approach to human rights law.
2. Speaking of, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
3. The SEP's article on human rights is, as typical, excellent.
4. How should we define "national interest?"