Sunday, September 20, 2009

Health Care Debate and Extremist Propaganda

Kudos to Carlos Sanchez for his column “Where Are Our Manners?” in the Sunday, 9-20-09 Waco (Texas) “Trib”. I, too, am tired of all the rude and disruptive behavior.

There is no excuse for Rep. Joe Wilson’s insulting outburst during the President’s address. It’s one thing to get acrimonious during Congressional debates, it’s quite another to disrespect the very institutions that bind us together.

Even Congressional debate has its limits: we do not need the likes of South Korea’s fistfights in the halls of our Congress. I am so tired of partisan politics trumping the good of our people, that I recommend we all “vote all the bastards out”.

I had the opportunity to visit with some good friends from Australia, and part of our conversation dealt with the US health care reform debate. It seems the Australians solved the same problem to the satisfaction of their people, and their doctors, about 1975.

Maybe we ought to look seriously at what they did. The same cataract surgery that rates a $7500 co-pay per eye over here, costs $1500 per eye over there, even if paid completely out of pocket.

Talk about cost control! So, now is anybody else interested in the Australian approach?

Our debate has devolved to the politics of fear over here. It invokes “capitalism” vs “socialism”, when those labels hardly apply.

I suggest that those shouting “socialism” need to go look that word up. Having a government-run program is not “socialism”, contrary to what so many very-vocal medicare recipients would have you believe.

Some of them seem not to know that medicare actually is a government-run program. And, one that would work, if funded and managed properly without regard to party politics.

Quite frankly, I am tired of all the vicious propaganda from both sides, but which recently is all the more obnoxious from the “far right”. That bunch fancies itself the standard-bearer for “conservatism”, but labels anyone in disagreement with its extremist position “liberal”.

Most of America is really rather “centrist” in its views, which puts most of us in the “liberal” camp, even if we do not admit it. That difference between “centrist” and “far right” is actually why the Democrats now control the White House and both houses of Congress.

As for extremist propaganda, I liken it to crying “fire” in a crowded theater when there isn’t one. That is quite properly a criminal act in all 50 states.

None of the 5 health care reform bills before our House and Senate will pass in anything resembling their current forms. There is much debate and compromise to be done, to forge actually-workable ideas out of what is now still political crap.

That is, there is debate and compromise to be done, if our politicians will act like the statesmen we hired them to be. If they don’t, they should be thrown out.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Analysis of Yet Another "Hit Piece"

A friend sent me a popular email forward that was really a "hit piece" about the President. There were many editorial comments from each forwarder (deleted here), but the "meat" was the link to a "DC beltway" blogsite.

Remember, there is nothing non-political from that area. All who work there have a hidden political agenda. Here is the link to the original article that sparked the forward:

This article basically makes a complaint that we are financing Brazilian offshore oil exploration with American monies. The article's slant is that our President would rather invest with foreigners than in his own country. The article does mention US offshore oil discoveries in the Gulf and both coasts. I am very surprised that it did not mention the Wyoming oil shales and the Alberta tar sands. Most of these pieces do mention them, usually in a way that implies they are ready to yield "easy oil".

My Analysis:

This stuff is true enough, as stated, but is quite misleading because of what it implies, and what it leaves out. Its conclusion is wrong, and all the more glaring because it is so transparently pre-ordained. The subtitle and second sentence tip that hand.

Implied: The article probably overstates the size of remaining US offshore and arctic reserves, and probably overstates the size of the new Brazilian offshore discovery relative to actual oil usage. None of these are large enough to eliminate US dependence upon middle eastern oil, even if we had all of them right now.

The truth: According to the refereed professional publication journal "Science", US oil production is now half what it was during its 1970 peak, and the trend has been steeply downward for the last 20 years. The sum of all known and projected remaining US reserves of drillable oil is far less than that shortfall. If Americans want to use oil, much of it must be foreign imports. There is no way to avoid that inconvenient fact.

Left Out: There are tremendous "local" petroleum deposits, in the Wyoming oil shales and the Alberta tar sands. These are said to be the equivalent of the largest finds in history, those being the giant oil fields under the middle east, and under the US Gulf Coast states. Unfortunately, the middle eastern fields are now in peak production, with depletion expected in less than 30 years, while the Gulf Coast states deposits are now already essentially depleted.

The (bitter) truth: But, oil shales and tar sands are not drillable oil. These are thick tar-like "petroleum" spread very thinly inside the pores of vast volumes of relatively impermeable rock. Oil shales and tar sands must be mined, not drilled, by very dirty strip-mining methods, on a scale far exceeding the whole-mountaintop-removal methods we now use for coal. Then that rock has to be broken-up, transported, crushed, ground, and thoroughly cooked to release the heavy tar. Then and only then may actual refining even begin, and being tar, lots of energy-intensive "cracking" is required. Think $4/gal was bad? This stuff will range between $40 and $400 /gal.

My conclusions:

Recent perhaps-stupid court decisions about what is leasible aside, anything that can get us oil from a friendly country, and one not part of OPEC, is a good deal in my book. Brazil has long been a good friend, and may well charge us a decent price. Not being part of OPEC means the oil money we pay them does not filter through the middle eastern countries to their favorite "charities": the very terrorists that we fight!

Far from being a reason to slam Mr. Obama, this Brazilian deal thing is actually a reason to praise him!

The misleading slant of the article reveals its true purpose as a political "hit piece". There's way too much of this stuff forwarding around out there, and way too many people (smart enough to know better) are falling for it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Space Program Public Support

Two related stories from 9-3-09 AIAA “Daily Launch”, about the future (if any?) of NASA. Bold italic subscripts added by me to relate to comments below.

Augustine Committee Report To Present "Tough Choices" To Administration.

US News and World Report (9/2, Lylte) reports, "Space exploration is at a crossroads," with NASA's scheduled retirement of the space shuttle next year. "Under severe financial constraints, President Obama must decide whether to continue on the current course" of creating a new launch system (1) "and infuse the space program with billions of dollars, or scale back the efforts and risk losing the leadership role the United States holds in space exploration." As the Augustine committee "gets ready to deliver its report to the White House and release it publicly later this month, the White House is finding out just how tough the choices will be," and "the White House and Congress will have to answer some thorny questions," such as if the shuttle or ISS programs should be extended, and if sending people into space should be a commercial, not governmental, task (2). As the charge to the "committee was to work mostly within the current budget," it the report "will most likely present an option that will try to excite the public imagination without a major infusion of cash," such as "a 'deep space' plan for flying out of Earth's orbit but not landing (3) on major planets or large moons."

Orion Could Be Used For Asteroid Missions. (9/2, Covault) reports, "A manned asteroid mission using two Orion spacecraft, docked nose-to-nose (4) to form a 50-ton deep space vehicle, is being studied by Lockheed Martin Space Systems as an alternative to resumption of US lunar landing missions." adds that using Orion "for asteroid missions and other deep space sites would maximize utilization of the Orion system if lunar landings are deleted as a near term goal." While "the official NASA line has been solidly 'all moon' for the last several years," despite "more realistic assessments" showing it "is not feasible, NASA more recently became "more open about an asteroid mission capability for Orion after space scientists and planners meeting before formation of the committee began to criticize the lunar goal as too fragile." Meanwhile, "a Lockheed Martin video "shown in early August at a propulsion conference in Denver sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics" had "the twin Orion configuration closely orbiting an asteroid while space suited astronauts explore its surface." The video was "part of a presentation delivered by former astronaut Brian Duffy, now Lockheed Martin vice president and program manager for the Altair lunar module part of the Orion lunar landing infrastructure," that "also cited satellite servicing that could be performed by astronauts from an Orion configuration, equipped with a shuttle-type manipulator arm deployed from its service module."

My comments:

Point (1) – They’re all missing the point of the Ares launch system. Under "Constellation" architecture, both the Saturn-1-like Ares-1 and the Saturn-5-like Ares-5 are required. Men ride up in the Orion capsule on the Ares-1. The Ares-5 may not even be man-rated, it is just a heavy lifter, far outclassing anything available or under development. Going into deep space (meaning out of Earth orbit) manned is beyond anything but a Saturn-5 class rocket. Period. We’re locked in: either finish the job or overtly decide to abdicate all capability for manned exploration and utilization missions.

Point (2) – They’re all failing to learn from history. The most successful colonial powers half a millennium ago had it closer to right. Government is better suited for exploration and for advanced technology leaps. Enterprise is better suited to utilization and colony development, using the results of the government efforts. We Americans have NEVER, EVER done it that way. We should. It works.

Point (3) – There’s no point to emasculating an exploration mission by not landing. It is being there that captures peoples’ imagination, not ogling-from-a-distance.

Point (4) – This proposal addresses an actual (but unstated, and probably not understood) need (information recovery for effective asteroid defense) but lacks at least three critical features for success (meaning survival of the crew):

Living space: Even with the full Ares rocket family behind it, these asteroid missions will typically have 6 month to two-year flight times. Two capsule volumes are not enough living space for a time like that. They need to dock these capsules to a reprise of “Skylab” made from an Ares-5 upper stage.

Radiation protection: Thin aluminum shells provide no protection from lethal solar storms. A steel plate shelter packed inside a utility water tank would. Orion capsules can never be modified to provide this, but a “Skylab”-like habitation module could include it.

Artificial Gravity: This is required for missions exceeding about one year, as has been known since the Russian “Salyut” space station series a quarter century ago. The only available physics for this is centrifugal force. We already know what spin rates are tolerable, but we do not know how much gee is enough. No centrifuge or spinning craft design is possible with Orion alone, but it is easily incorporated into a “Skylab”-type design.

Flight times: Although not critical at all for the first few (minimally-demanding) manned missions, later more demanding missions will require that we fly much faster. This will require very energetic (specific impulses above 5000 sec) and very powerful (vehicle accelerations above 0.1 gee) propulsion. Nothing is available, although there are a couple of old ideas that could be resurrected. The final form(s) will undoubtedly be nuclear in nature, but not with solid reactor cores. This kind of stuff is too dangerous to develop and test on Earth. Propulsion development tests cannot be done hanging weightless in space, where every test is a flight test. So, there is a real reason to return to the moon after all: put a nuclear propulsion development station there, so the technology will be ready when we need it.

My conclusion: The sooner we face these inconvenient truths and deal with them, the sooner we can put our space program efforts back onto a rational basis that everyone can understand, and the sooner we will capture the public’s imagination, and its sustained support, once again.

The truth about public education in Texas

A friend recently sent me a popular email forward about public education, one that I have seen before. Here is the text of that popular forward:

After being interviewed by the school administration, the prospective teacher said:

'Let me see if I've got this right.

'You want me to go into that room with all those kids, correct their disruptive behavior, observe them for signs of abuse, monitor their dress habits, censor their T-shirt messages, and instill in them a love for learning.

'You want me to check their backpacks for weapons, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and raise their sense of self esteem and personal pride.

'You want me to teach them patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play, and how to register to vote, balance a checkbook, and apply for a job.

'You want me to check their heads for lice, recognize signs of antisocial behavior, and make sure that they all pass the final exams.

'You also want me to provide them with an equal education regardless of their handicaps, and communicate regularly with their parents in English, Spanish or any other language, by letter, telephone, newsletter, and report card.

'You want me to do all this with a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a bulletin board, a few books, a big smile, and a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps.

'You want me to do all this and then you tell me. . . I CAN'T PRAY?

This was the essence of my reply to my friend:

Having taught math in two high schools, I can tell you that the email is a pretty accurate description of the situation. It is not exaggerated in any way. In point of fact, it is understated: they also expect you to teach-to-the-test instead of teaching the subject, while still accomplishing educational miracles. And, that test (in all its incarnations over the last several years) is a bonehead-level multiple-choice thing that never tests for anything beyond 9th grade, and precious little of that.

You see, I know exactly what is on the Texas 9th, 10th, and exit (11th) grade TAKS math tests. They differ only (ONLY!!!!!) in the number of problems. Start at 52, add 4 more each year. Same pool of nothing but 9th grade algebra-1 problems. No geometry, no algebra-2, nothing advanced at all.

The Texas state minimum salary for a beginning teacher is about $21 K /year. Only the richest districts pay more than minimum. The federal poverty definition for a family of 3 is over $27 K /year. No junior high ever hires a full-time math teacher to teach the critical junior-high math. Only coaches are used for that. By far, most of them "worksheet" the students, instead of instructing in the subject. A substantial fraction of them actually do not know the math themselves. Typically, coaches are paid twice what full-time instructors are paid. It's the only way to attract any.

The "accountability" of the test has completely backfired, as was already known over a decade ago. By linking school funding to test scores that no one can control, they encourage two very destructive things: (1) teaching-to-the-test, meaning only teaching how to check answers on a multiple-choice test with a calculator, instead of how to actually do the math, and (2) cheating on the test, which is really, really easy to do, and is very, very widespread.

In point of fact, the widely-touted "Texas miracle" that enabled Bush-43 to push through "No Child Left Behind" in Congress, was in reality a Houston school district that was later exposed as a blatant cheat.

I'm just glad I'm out of that game, instead now teaching college at Texas State Technical College in Waco, Texas, these last 2 years. Yet we have to deal every day with the product of that defunct public educational system. It was completely destroyed by a boneheaded "standardized" test and the related politically-motivated notions of "accountability" that were really nothing but a draw for votes. I am really pissed off that people (especially those here in Texas where I live) keep re-electing the assholes who did this.

The biggest on-going effort in TSTC's math department is "developmental math", meaning remediation of students, with diplomas, who were never actually taught anything at all. I know, I teach some of it as well as the "full-contact" college math. I have seen one student mis-placed into a college algebra class, who could not even add 2 and 3, and get 5, on his fingers!!!

Believe it. It is true. It was in my class that I saw this.

It is no different at MCC, at Baylor, at UT, at A&M, at Tech, or anywhere else in the state. There are a precious tiny handful of school districts that still actually teach. The rest just run "Friday night lights" as their main business.

This utter disaster is just another one of the little "open secrets" that no one has had the courage to reveal to the public. It would wreck too many still-ongoing political careers, I guess.

Here's the really frightening part. Now the politicians in Austin are making their first moves toward foisting this disaster upon higher education, too. You would not believe the pressures on me from high officials to pass students who do not deserve it. But it is true.