Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ethanol Fuel: Hope or Hype?

Summer is approaching. And with it comes vacation time when, traditionally, Mom and Dad load their 2.4 kids into the old minivan and head out for fun in the sun.

This summer, however, there will be fewer families who will be able to afford it. Instead, they may have to pass their free time sitting out on the porch, watching the price of gas go up on the sign at the filling station down the street.

With the price of a gallon of gasoline hovering close to three bucks, I wax nostalgic about the days when I first started to drive. Gasoline was about 32 cents a gallon and I could fill up my old American Motors Rambler for less than five dollars.

I seldom actually filled it up, though. Five bucks was a lot of cash for me back then.

Last month, for the first time ever, it cost me more than 30 dollars to fill my tank up. And, no, I don’t feel better about it knowing that Europeans are paying three times what we’re paying for gas. That’s their problem.

It’s when gasoline goes over three dollars for a gallon that talk starts getting louder about alternative fuels, such as ethanol. And right now, the buzz is almost deafening.

Sometime this month, representatives from the three big automakers will gather on Washington to tell Pres. Bush that we need to divert more resources into building our ethanol infrastructure. In other words, the automakers want more gasoline stations to start selling E85, the 85-percent ethanol fuel.

Ethanol is a type of alcohol that can be made from corn, soybeans, grass, and even waste matter derived from plants. Ever since the 1970s gas stations have been selling ethanol blends, sometimes called gasohol. But those blends typically contain only about 10 percent ethanol and can be used in all cars.

E85 can only be used in cars with engines specifically designed to burn it. My car can’t.

But, like with almost everything new and upcoming, ethanol has its critics. They say ethanol fuel takes more energy to produce than what it contains. In other words, some say it takes more than a gallon of gasoline to produce a gallon of ethanol. And gallon for gallon, ethanol doesn’t contain as much energy as gasoline.

Ethanol proponents, however, counter that the figures of the critics are off. Everyone agrees that ethanol contains only about two-thirds as much energy as gasoline. But it has a higher octane, so engines can be made that will burn it more efficiently.

In addition, ethanol is cleaner to burn. It, therefore, causes less air pollution, making ethanol more environmentally friendly.

And even though ethanol still produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when it is burned, the corn that is grown to produce ethanol soaks up that CO2. The carbon dioxide released from burning gasoline is new and has no sink mechanism to remove it from the air.

So is ethanol really the alternative fuel of the future for our cars?

It all depends on whom you ask. Proponents say it’s just around the corner. But critics say it will only increase, not decrease, our dependence on fossil fuels.

One thing that most experts agree on is that it won’t be economical to produce until it can sell for about $3.79 a gallon. But with gasoline prices increasing as fast as they are, that could be any day now.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Right-Wing Message Paid for with Tax Dollars

Would it surprise you to find out that a rock band is touring the country, performing at school assembly programs, and espousing their message that guns are good, science is wrong, and that the Constitution does not guarantee separation of church and state?

And even with an ultra-conservative evangelical president like George W. Bush in the White House, would it surprise you to find out that this band is being paid for by federal tax dollars?

Now, unlike the funds that went for the so-called abstinence program that proselytized to our nation’s youth under the guise of sex education, there is no evidence that the Bush administration is endorsing this rock band, or funding it directly.

But through grants from the Department of Education, local school districts are paying as much as $1,500 per gig to this band, Junkyard Prophet, to come to schools and spread right-wing propaganda to unwitting students.

Through its outreach program, You Can Run but You Cannot Hide, the band claims to have performed at more than 200 schools over the last few years, mostly in Middle America. Its official Web site claims its mission is to, “…reach the youth of this nation with a message of hope, conveying civic responsibility, morality and ethical behavior. Our method is to take our group with the band Junkyard Prophet to schools….”

The mission further states that the band will provide students with the tools they need to deal with social issues. The group wants students to understand the beauty and value of the moral absolutes on which this nation was founded. Of course, the moral absolutes they are promoting are that of the Conservative Christian Right. And the tool they use is nothing short of brainwashing.

Their mission statement goes on to say, “We speak the truth with no compromise.” But in at least one example reported by the Web site, the group separated boys and girls and told the girls they would, “…get black spots on their wedding dresses if they held hands with a boy and would be serving leftovers to their husbands if they lost their virginity before marrying a God-fearing man.”

The band’s promoter, Bradlee Dean, has alleged that alcoholism is not a disease but a choice and that pornography doubled during the Clinton administration. His entourage also distributed religious literature at some of the band’s performances.

There are lots of Christian and right-wing rock bands out there these days. One of them, The Right Brothers, has a popular video of their song “Bush was Right.”

And whether you agree or disagree with their message, they have the right to promote it. And so does the band Junkyard Prophet. But they don’t have the right to promote it in public schools and at public expense.

Even if Junkyard Prophet performed at schools for free, they would be violating the laws of the land by promoting their right-wing agenda and religion to a captive audience. But they are not performing for free; we, the taxpayers, are paying their fees.

Not surprisingly, some students, their parents, and school administrators have expressed outrage over Junkyard’s shenanigans. They promote their assembly programs as a way to stress alcohol and drug prevention to students. But they go way beyond that, promoting their ultra-conservative political ideology and religious views instead.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has always been quick to denounce federal funding of educational programs that tend to be liberal. And perhaps she’s correct. Liberal ideologies shouldn’t be promoted to students with public funds either.

But where is she now when the religious right’s message is getting a lift with federal dollars? Her silence is deafening.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

DMCA: Prior Restraint Gone Amok

The First Amendment guarantees all Americans several basic freedoms. Among those are the freedom to speak freely and to publish the printed word, pictures, drawings, and anything used for communication. Our First Amendment rights are the very foundation of liberty.

Granted, there are instances when the use of speech may present such a clear and present danger that those instances may not be protected. The most often-used example is that you do not have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater.

But almost every exception to the right to freedom of speech is restricted to when someone’s life or limb is in jeopardy.

In addition, the Supreme Court has ruled that prior restraint is unconstitutional. In other words, an activity cannot be barred or restricted by a government agency just because it might cause a problem. People, for example, have a right to gather in protest even if there is a reasonable likelihood that such protest will result in violence.

Speech that most of us would find reprehensible is also protected by the Constitution. The writing or speaking of racial slurs, for example, is protected. The publishing of those inflammatory cartoons that depicted a caricature of the prophet Mohammad is protected, even though doing so has already led to widespread violence and even death in the Muslim world.

Even publishing directions on how to build a bomb is protected.

But there is one exception to our freedom of speech and press in which the speech does not lead to direct bodily harm. And yet it is against the law now, and Congress is considering making the law even tougher.

It has nothing to do with terrorism or even violence. It is a form of prior restraint which ought to be ruled unconstitutional.

If I were to publish information explaining how to get around the copy protection of a CD or DVD, for example, I would be breaking the law, even if nobody used the information I published to hack into someone else’s intellectual property.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 is a powerful tool that has been used to sue individuals for doing nothing more than exercising their freedom of speech. And now, Congress wants to strengthen it and broaden its reach.

A new bill up for consideration would double the jail time for some infractions of the DMCA. And it would allow government wire taps to investigate possible infractions of it.

At a time when most scholars, computer programmers, and technology companies are lobbying Congress to back away from the DMCA, Congress is considering doing just the opposite.

The new bill is backed by the Bush administration, obviously. And it is also backed by the big record companies and the motion picture industry. These are the same corporations that have been bullying everyday people by threatening fines and jail time to old ladies for unknowingly allowing their grandchildren to download songs from the Internet.

They are the same companies that attempt to guilt you into not making copies of a movie for personal use.

When a thief pilfers something from a store or an individual, such as a CD, the store or individual who owned it no longer has it. It’s gone and must be replaced.

But when a person downloads a song from the Internet, the song remains where it was before. Nothing is taken away. And as long as you don’t make multiple copies of it and sell them for personal gain, no one has been harmed. But you can still be fined or thrown in jail.

I’m not against copyright laws. I create intellectual property myself for the Web. I also police the Web for those who copy my stuff. And if I find a violation, I confront the violator and make them take my content off their site.

But the DMCA and, if passed, the updated law that strengthens it goes way too far. It is prior restraint gone amok. And I can’t wait until the constitutionality of it is challenged.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

ISTA Lawsuit Attacks School Funding

Last week, the same time that Pres. Bush was in Silicon Valley expressing concerns that the United States was falling behind other nations in technology research, the Indiana State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming insufficient funding to educate its public school students.

Bush was touting the same science and technology plan that he revealed during his State of the Union Address in January. It’s difficult to believe he’s paying anything more than lip service to what sounds like a good idea.

After all, this is the same president who has barred federal funding for the most promising kind of stem cell research and who seems to have endorsed teaching Christian mythology in science classes. But at least he’s talking the talk, even if no one in the government is walking the walk just yet.

And one of the problems to walking the walk is that both the federal and state governments are mandating educational programs that they have not funded. And, at least in Indiana, the funding formula is so bizarre and unfair that it needs a complete and utter overhaul to make it right.

That’s the reason for the lawsuit filed by ISTA. It claims Indiana’s school funding formula not only provides for insufficient funds to educate Hoosier youngsters, but that those from poorer neighborhoods are really getting shafted educationally.

But it doesn’t take a highly-trained educator to clearly see that not all of Indiana’s school children are receiving an adequate education. School funding distribution is far from equitable.

There are suburban schools in upper middle class neighborhoods that do fairly well educating their students. And there may be a number of reasons for this. Among those reasons is that these schools receive the most state funding.

Then there are schools in poorer communities and neighborhoods where kids attend classrooms with no air conditioning, limited resources, and are equipped with stone-age facilities.

In Indiana, schools are funded in part by property taxes. But it is the local property taxes that help determine how much money a school will get. So schools in communities with older homes, a lot of rental property, and few businesses don’t collect as much tax as schools in wealthier communities.

So, on the one hand, little Johnny who comes from a middle-class neighborhood, gets to go to a school with teachers who are paid a decent salary and classrooms that are equipped with clean, new facilities. He gets to learn in a climate controlled environment and is provided with all the educational supplies to make his learning experience bearable.

On the other side of the tracks, however, little Susie comes from a poor family and attends an older run-down building with creaky floors, no air conditioning, a radiator in her classroom that makes an annoying hissing sound all day, and where she has to share limited classroom supplies with her peers. Teachers in Susie’s school lack motivation, not only because of the decrepit learning environment, but also because they don’t get paid well.

This is the reality of education in Indiana. And it is a clear violation of our state constitution that guarantees equal education for all students.

Instead of dolling out money to schools commensurate with the wealth of the community, the state should set minimum standards for facilities and the learning environment. It should then fund schools based on the size of their school population without regard to the tax base of the community.

It might be expensive bringing sub-standard schools up to code, but it would be well worth it in the long run. One of the reasons for the disparity in education is that education is not a high priority for lawmakers who control the purse strings.

They need to realize that education is the most important investment in our future that we can make. It has to be priority number one, and it isn’t.

Hopefully, the ISTEP lawsuit will make it so. But it will take years to happen.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Bush and Rumsfeld bring Shame to the Nation

The other day, I took my college-age daughter clothes shopping. After too much time browsing through the stock at the local mall, she picked out a pair of pants she liked, but couldn’t decide on the color.

“Do you like the brown or black best?” she asked.

“Brown,” I replied.

So she put down the brown pair and said, “Black it is, then.”

I didn’t take it as an insult. My fashion sense is usually 180 degrees away from mainstream and she knows it. I can usually expect that she and I will disagree on trivial things like fashion.

But this column isn’t about fashion and it isn’t about my daughter’s shopping habits. I related the above story as an analogy to what is going on in the political world.

I am loathe to compare myself to Pres. George W. Bush, but whereas my inability to discern what’s trendy in fashion is fairly trivial in the whole scheme of things, Bush’s inability to discern what is best for the country sometimes results in huge and costly blunders.

For the last five years, almost every time a major decision regarding anything from national security to scientific progress has come across Bush’s desk, he has picked the wrong alternative.

If it weren’t so serious it would be funny. In fact, sometimes it is funny, which is why Bush is such good fodder for late-night comedians.

One of the very first mistakes Bush made after he was elected the first time was to select Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.

This was the same Rumsfeld who, as defense secretary under Gerald Ford, indirectly killed 52 people after urging the president to hastily produce vast quantities of swine flu vaccine.

A single military recruit fell ill in New Jersey in 1976 of what some medical experts speculated might be the swine flue. At Rumsfeld’s urging, Ford implemented a program to inoculate all Americans with a hastily produced vaccine that was ultimately responsible for killing those 52 people and resulting in 600 more becoming ill.

That was the first in a long series of pronouncements that would define Rumsfeld’s decide-it-now-plan-it-later method of decision making.

Rumsfeld has been dropping the ball long enough that at least half a dozen retired generals have called for his resignation. Since the beginning of April, six retired generals have come forward to criticize Rumsfeld’s decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan. These are among the highest-ranking officers in the Army, all of whom have vastly more military experience than does Rumsfeld.

But Rumsfeld, in his usual arrogant manner, shrugged off the criticism as coming from a few disgruntled officers. And Bush, who has taken obstinacy to almost an art form, stood by Rumsfeld and said he would continue to stick by him and his decisions.

“Secretary Rumsfeld's energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this period,” Bush said.

That’s right. Much like a broken leg needs a good swift kick.

Rumsfeld is steady, perhaps. At least he’s consistent. Almost every decision he’s ever made that could possibly impact soldiers or Americans in a negative way, he has made the wrong decision. In that regards, he’s exactly like his boss.

The list of foul-ups is long. He was complicit in the alleged war crimes at Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan.

He quarreled for months with the CIA over who had the authority to fire Hellfire missiles from Predator drones. The quarrel kept the Predator from being used against al Qaeda.

One CIA terrorist hunter complained of Rumsfeld that he never missed an opportunity to fail to cooperate. He also called Rumsfeld an obstacle, to the point of helping the terrorists.

Rumsfeld may also have an ongoing conflict of interest. CNN and USA Today have published stories implying that Donald Rumsfeld profitted from sales of Tamiflu to the US government. Tamiflu is used in the treatment of bird flu and is produced by Gilead Sciences. Rumsfeld was Chairman of the Board of Gilead Sciences.

Rumsfeld has shown no inclination to resign and Bush has shown no inclination to ask him to. They are just a couple of old-school buddies who have banded together to bring ruin and shame to America.

Whether they mean to or not, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

New Viewing Options Great for Couch Potatoes

When I was a kid, we could get all of four channels on TV and if we wanted to watch a favorite program, we had to be there in front of the set when the program was on. Otherwise, we would have to wait and hope we could catch the episode during the summer reruns.

We received our programming over an antenna and it was limited to the three major networks, because there were only three at the time, plus independent Channel 4. We had no cable, satellite dishes, VCRs or DVRs.

Today, of course, there are dozens of cable and over-the-air networks. In addition to CBS, ABC, and NBC, the 1970s brought us PBS. Then cable came along and suddenly we had HBO, USA, CNN, and a host of special interest channels like the Food Network, the Science Channel, and all kinds of music channels.

There are channels for sports and fashion. There are channels for high society and rednecks. There are channels specifically programmed for women’s interests and those for men.

In addition, we no longer are a slave to the TV executives’ programming schedule. If we want to watch a favorite program, we don’t have to be there in front of the TV when it’s broadcast. We can video tape it or digitally record it to watch whenever it’s convenient for us.

The VCR helped to change our TV watching habits by introducing something called time shifting. We could record a program and watch it later.

But the newer digital video recorders, or DVRs, have perfected what the VCR introduced. We don’t have to learn how to set the recorder for a certain time and channel. All we have to do is tune to the on-screen programming guide and select the show we want to watch. The DVR will record a single episode or all episodes, whichever we choose, of the program we want.

The viewers have become the master schedulers of programming. No matter what time a program airs, we can watch it whenever we want.

And now, we don’t even have to have a television to watch our favorite shows.

With all the different channels, along with the Internet, the competition for viewers is fierce. So major networks are clamoring to offer their viewers even more options.

With broadband Internet access becoming more prevalent, networks have started offering many of their primetime programs online. You can download a program and watch it from your hard drive, or you can stream it.

Some programming is free and includes advertisements. Other programs you have to pay to download and they are commercial free.

So if you happened to miss an episode of your favorite program, don’t worry. Just go download the episode from the Internet and watch it on the computer. Or you can even transfer it to a portable media player, like the iPod, and take it with you.

A new computer network system is now coming on the market that will let you network your TV to your computers. If you are hooked up, you can send a downloaded movie or TV program to your television from your computer.

Couch potatoes are no longer tied to the oftentimes annoying programming schedules of the TV networks. With the right equipment, they can watch all their favorite shows during a single block of time, one night a week, and have the rest of their evenings free to join the rest of the world in other activities.

With all the TV viewing possibilities these days, I can’t say I miss the good ole days of television.

How About a Nice Plate of Gopher?

Some people don’t eat meat. Others don’t even eat meat products, like eggs or cheese. I guess they have their reasons, but I’ve always been, and will remain, a carnivore.

But while I was eating a hamburger the other day, I got to thinking about the kind of animals people typically use for meat. You have your big three: pigs, cows, and chickens.

There are others, of course, like lamb. Then there’s fish, which a lot of people don’t include as meat. But most meat comes from the big three.

Hunters eat more kinds of meat. They may eat venison, which comes from deer. Or some eat rabbit and squirrel, which taste a lot like chicken. Rabbit tastes like the white meat and squirrel tastes like the dark meat.

International markets carry more kinds of meat. If you know where to look, you can also find buffalo meat and kangaroo. And there is more to seafood than fish and shrimp.

But I’m curious as to why some animals are considered fit to eat while others are not. Who makes those decisions? For example, somebody had to decide that it was perfectly okay to eat a pig, but not a horse. Why do we not eat horse?

And why is it fine for hunters to haul in their limit of squirrels and rabbits to consume, and yet it's taboo to eat such animals as raccoon or beaver?

Think about it; if it were considered proper by modern society to eat cat and dog meat, then we wouldn’t have to worry so much about strays. Don't start moaning and groaning; after all, some farm children have pigs as pets, and yet I bet they still eat pork. What's the difference?

If our taste in meat were a little broader, we wouldn't have to be confined to eating just beef, pork, and chicken. People could make a nice living raising such animals as hamsters and guinea pigs for their flesh.

But I’ve never heard anyone claim they had some nice chipmunk steaks thawing for the grill.

I, for one, would not be averse to trying some of these exotic delicacies. I have consumed such creatures as squid (calamari), snails (escargot), and French-fried caterpillars. The first two are yummy. The latter was very bitter and I don't intend to eat those little buggers again. But at least I gave them a try.

I do enjoy various types of sushi. I don’t like the octopus, though; it’s way too tough.

I guess most Americans are a little up-tight about what species of animal they put into their mouths. Maybe that is why there are so many different ways a person can eat a pig - bacon, ham, pork chops, sausage, tenderloin, pigs feet, souse, etc.

And that's another thing; if some restaurants can serve something called "hog fries," or "Rocky Mountain oysters," then what would be so bad about serving up a nice plate of gopher?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Phish More Malevolent than Spam

For decades, everyone with a mailbox has had to put up with junk mail. There just seems to be more of it these days.

There are few days that I don’t pull a fist full of the stuff out of my mailbox. Whatever it cost the advertisers to send it to me, it was a waste of money. I never even open most of it, and I never respond to any of it by making a purchase, unless I was going to buy the product anyway.

When fax machines began to increase in popularity, hawkers decided it would be a good medium to use to sell their wares. But that idea was short lived and soon became illegal when it brought the ire of the fax machine owners.

Then came spam. I don’t mean SPAM, the trademark of the Hormel Meat Company, but spam, the colloquial moniker of unsolicited commercial e-mail. While all three forms of unsolicited ads are annoying, the latter two are also restricted or regulated by law.

The reason is simple. Junk mail delivered by the Post Office was paid for by the person or company that sent it. It is, therefore, self-limiting. Junk faxes and spam, however, also cost the recipients.

While it might cost the sender 15 or 20 cents to send a flier or catalog, it costs a tiny fraction of a penny to send an unsolicited e-mail. Larger spammers may send out millions of them every day.

They are not only annoying, but costly in terms of time, Internet bandwidth, and disk storage space. Far more than half of all e-mail messages sent are spam.

So the Federal Trade Commission is charged with locating and prosecuting spammers who do not follow strict federal guidelines. Several states also have their own anti-spam laws.

California has one of the harshest spam laws. And last week that state and the FTC put one group of spammers out of business for good. Optin Global, Vision Media, Qing Kuang "Rick" Yang and Peonie Pui Ting Chen agreed to pay a fine of $425,000 and never send spam again.

But as prolific as that group was in sending spam, putting them out of business won’t result in a noticable decrease in the amount of junk e-mail most of us get each day.

And spam isn’t the only illegal e-mail activity that is troubling. Spam, although unwelcome and annoying, is typically used to advertise real products or services. Sometimes it is used to advertise scams.

But there is one type of e-mail that is always a scam, and it is becoming as prevelent as spam. It’s called phishing.

Phishing is a scam that tries to obtain personal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers, from unsuspecting victims by using e-mail trickery. Most of us who use e-mail have been victimized by phishing attempts, even if we didn’t bite.

But phishing scams are getting more sophisticated. I hate to admit it, but I recently fell for a phishing scam, and I pride myself on being one of the least gullible computer users around.

I accidentally gave out my eBay password in response to an e-mail that not only looked identical to a legitimate question from an online bidder, but also seemed to have a legitimate eBay Web address from which a reply could be sent. I immediately figured out that I had been duped, so I quickly changed my password. I lost nothing. But others have not been so lucky.

People have lost hundreds or even thousands of dollars by being the victims of phishing trickery. It’s not only every bit as annoying as spam, but potentially very costly as well.

I applaud every effort made by state and federal governments to shut down spammers. But there now needs to be a greater effort to go after the phishing scammers.

Individual computer users naturally must be vigilant to the problem. Never click on any link in an e-mail unless you’re 100 percent certain where the link is taking you. It’s better to use your bookmarks.

But phishing is fraud. And it’s a special kind of fraud that seeks to scam the masses. It’s potentially a much bigger problem than spam and should receive attention from the FTC commensurate with the potential harm it can cause.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Truth about Eternity

I was on my lunch break the other day, sitting in the teachers’ lounge carrying on a conversation with a friend of mine. We share the same Alma mater, Franklin College, so that often gives us something to talk about.

This conversation, however, was not about college life, but religion. I happened to mention that I thought religion had held society back. He agreed.

Then he told me that, although he wasn’t officially an atheist, he didn’t believe in a heaven or a hell. He said he believes that when we die, that’s it. Nothing else happens.

I explained I wasn’t ready to give up on an afterlife, even though I had no evidence of one. It’s nice to hope there is something more than what we see. Again, he agreed.

In the mean time, another teacher happened to be in the lounge, having her lunch. When she was finished, she threw away her lunch bag and headed for the door. On her way out, she turned and said confidently, “There is a heaven and there is a hell and every word in the bible is true.”

When she left, we acknowledged that she had the right to believe whatever she wished and that it wasn’t our intent to offend her with our conversation.

Later, during the students’ lunch, the other teacher and I had lunch duty together. I walked over and told her that we didn’t mean to offend her; we were just having an interesting conversation about religion.

She said she wasn’t offended. But then she added something that truly offended me and she offered no apology for it. She said, “But if you ever want to know the truth, I’ll explain it to you.”

I made her the same offer and left it at that.

She probably didn’t realize she had offended me. But, like most fundamentalists, she obviously believes she has a monopoly on the truth and that those who hold different beliefs than she does are obviously in need of being set straight.

It’s rare that I meet a fundamentalist teacher, but when I do, it saddens me. Fundamentalists don’t realize that other’s points of view about religion may be equally valid.

If she had said something like, “I believe there is a heaven and hell and that the bible is truth,” it would have been much more diplomatic. And if she had offered to explain her religion to me and why she believes it to be true it would have been much less offensive than offering to explain to me the truth.

My personal belief is that religion in any form has done nothing but hold society back. Humans are an innovative species. Unfortunately, their awareness of their limited lifespan has caused them to invent religion to make them feel better.

That’s all fine and good, except when the dogma associated with the fundamentalist varieties of religion begin setting barriers that apply to everyone, even those of different faiths, or no faith at all.

A recent scientific study conducted by Harvard Medical showed that at least one kind of prayer, called intercessory prayer, doesn’t work. Heart patients were divided into three groups: Those who were prayed for every day but didn’t know it, those who were prayed for and knew about it, and those who were not prayed for.

The group that was prayed for but didn’t know about it and the group that was not prayed for had exactly the same rate of complications following surgery. Surprisingly, the group that was prayed for and knew it had even more complications.

The study was large enough and lasted long enough to be scientifically valid. It doesn’t prove that all types of prayer never work, but it suggests that maybe God has more important stuff to do than listen to us whine.

In America, thankfully, people are free to believe what they want. It’s just sad that some people believe that when it comes to religion, only they know the truth.

The fact is, the truth about eternity won’t be revealed until after we’re dead. And if my old college friend is right, we won’t even know about it then.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Education Should be Top Priority

Unlike a mischievous child who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and then learns his lesson after his parents dole out the punishment, the government never seems to learn lessons.

One lesson a boy scout learns from the beginning is to be prepared. Government agents at all levels must never have been boy scouts, because their preparedness for the aftermath of a disastrous hurricane strike last summer in the wake of Katrina was put to the test. They failed miserably.

But, the thing is, government officials and their agencies should have been highly prepared for a disaster since that’s pretty much all they’ve been training for since the 9-11 attack.

One of the problems is that their focus was too narrow. Apparently, training for a disaster brought on by terrorism doesn’t prepare you for a disaster brought on by nature.

Even a lesson learned in one area never seems to be applied to other areas of concern. One lesson that might have been learned from New Orleans is that a few billion dollars spent on prevention might have saved a hundred billion dollars on reconstruction, not to mention saving countless lives.

Terrorists and hurricanes may strike us again. And maybe the government has learned a hard lesson on how to deal with such eventualities. We can hope so. But there are other disasters waiting in the wings that could very well be prevented, but won’t be.

America’s education system is only years away from a disastrous implosion, especially inner-city education. Indiana’s school systems won’t be spared.

Currently, metropolitan schools in Indiana are filled with over-stuffed classrooms, less-than-adequate numbers of qualified teachers, and decrepit facilities.

So what is the response to this disaster-in-waiting? The people who hold the purse strings tighten the budget. So schools are forced to lay off more teachers, cut back on school supplies, and delay improvements to facilities.

Classrooms that have been barely functional in recent years will be non-functional in years to come.

Take, for example, a class of 32 diverse students and one teacher. Many classes now contain inclusion students, those students who have some kind of special need and who used to be taught in special education classes, but who are now lumped together with gifted students and average students in one classroom.

It forces the single teacher to differentiate instruction and cater to the needs of a diverse group of students in a single setting. Discipline becomes an issue as the more advanced students get bored and run out of things to do while the teacher is trying to get the less-prepared students to catch up.

Teaching a large, diverse classroom becomes nothing more than stylized babysitting. As ISTEP testing is showing, students aren’t learning nearly as much as they should be.

Just as spending $10 billion to improve the levy system in New Orleans would have prevented disaster and saved over $100 billion in clean up efforts, spending sufficient funds to fix our faltering education system will prevent the disaster of a poorly-educated public who will be in charge of running this country in a few years.

Other countries in Europe and Asia take education much more seriously. The result is fewer welfare recipients, higher employment rates, and less crime.

Instead of cutting funding for education, it should become this nation’s number one priority. Cut anything else if you have to, but fund education properly.

Educational funding is an investment in the future. Shortsighted politicians would rather see immediate returns.

But a highly-educated populace that can compete dynamically in a global economy is the only way the country is going to progress in the 21st century.

Spend the money to bring class sizes down, to add extra teachers to service the special needs students, and to bring the facilities up to standard. Spend the money to deal effectively with troubled students who cause the discipline problems. Spend the money to purchase needed supplies and equipment that will make youngsters more eager to learn.

Some people may say throwing money at the problem won’t solve it. But don’t just throw money at it; invest the money in a wise manner. Create a master plan that is designed to solve our education problems within 10 years, and then properly fund that master plan.

The lessons we supposedly learned that spending a little now will prevent having to spend a lot later should be applied to our education system. Otherwise, down the road, the price will be far greater than what we spent on hurricane relief.