Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Next Big One Could Come Any Minute Now

Some people say that California really isn’t so bad, despite its faults. Ok, sorry about the bad pun, but those kinds of faults exist in the Midwest, too, including Indiana. Another thing they say about faults is that they are like people; they keep building up stress until, eventually, they snap.

That snap can be felt as an earthquake. And, like with people under stress, the longer a fault goes without snapping, the bigger the resulting earthquake will be.

Geologists have recently concluded that the part of the San Andreas Fault that runs through Southern California, including Palm Springs and Los Angeles, has built up about 300 years of stress. That means it could let go any minute now. The average time between major quakes in that region is 250 years.

Actually, the exact prediction is that there is a 70 percent chance of a major earthquake sometime during the next 30 years. Predicting earthquakes is far less accurate than predicting the weather, which is still not too exact going beyond tomorrow.

It still makes me glad I don’t live in California, though. In Indiana, we have tornadoes. But one can go an entire lifetime without ever seeing a twister. In fact, most people in Indiana live out their lives without seeing one up close and personal.

But in California, no one escapes earthquakes. They have relatively minor quakes all the time, and most people get used to them. But a major earthquake along the San Andreas Fault will happen. That’s a certainty.

In a sense it’s like being able to predict that a tornado will definitely hit downtown Franklin. We just don’t know exactly when but there’s a 70 percent chance it will be within 30 years.

The odds that a tornado will actually hit downtown Franklin are nowhere near that great. Yet, it could happen, and that fact is what Midwesterners learn to live with.

But, since I’m talking odds, it might surprise you to know that the odds that a major earthquake will strike Southern Indiana are greater than the odds of a twister striking any single place over the same time period.

Seismologists, the people who study and try to predict earthquakes, say that when the San Andreas Fault does finally slip, the resulting earthquake will be at least an eight on the Richter scale. It would be devastating.

But the largest quake ever to hit the United States occurred in December, 1811. Its aftershocks continued into the following year. And, no, it was not in California. The epicenter was near the town of New Madrid, Mo. And it was felt throughout much of the Midwest, including Indiana.

Fault lines in the New Madrid system of faults run along the Mississippi and Ohio River basins. Earthquakes large enough to be felt are rare in these parts, but they do happen.

There was a noticeable trembler that occurred in 1968. It was during the presidential campaign and one of the local newspapers quipped, “Nixon said he had some earth-shaking ideas, but this is ridiculous.”

In the mid-1980s, I was sitting on the deck of my home in Hobart, where I lived at the time. I thought I felt something, as if I were in a boat. I looked at the kids’ swing set and noticed the swing had begun to oscillate. I checked the news and it was, indeed, an earthquake.

But those were small earthquakes. We’re all waiting for “the big one” to strike California. And, indeed, it may strike at any time. But an equally big one could strike anywhere between Memphis and Evansville. And as difficult as it is to predict earthquakes in California, earthquakes in the Midwest are even more mercurial.

After all, the last big one to strike the Midwest changed the course of the Mississippi River and sent coal hurling skyward from fissures that opened in the earth. And that was long before Hollywood invented such scenarios.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bush's Education Policy Not Working

It has now been five years since this country implemented Pres. Bush’s education policy of No Child Left Behind. The goal of the program is for all children in all social classes, of every race and at every school to improve in the target areas of math and reading each year. All schools are to have reached their target goal by 2014.

So how have schools been doing over the last five years? Are they on their way to meeting that challenge? Are students showing adequate yearly progress, as the program mandates?

The Bush administration claims that the educational divide that exists between whites and minorities is closing and that students are beginning to improve in both targeted areas.

But a recent Harvard University study disagrees. Using the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress test, generally considered to be the most accurate indicator of student achievement, the Harvard study found absolutely no improvement in reading scores since 2001. There was some improvement in math scores, but the improvement was at the same rate as was occurring prior to 2001. So, again, the No Child Left Behind Act seems to have had little if any effect on improving students’ progress.

The latest Harvard study agrees with last year’s conclusions of the Great Lakes Center for Educational Research, which commissioned a study of states in the Great Lakes region. According to that study, anywhere between 55 percent and 85 percent of Indiana’s schools will fail to meet the adequate yearly progress goals of No Child Left Behind by 2014. As bad as those figures are, they are still better than the prediction for some other Midwestern states.

Currently, only 67 percent of high school students graduate. Only 50 percent of black and Hispanic students complete school. The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to provide a nationwide set of standards for all students and, therefore, close the gap between whites and minorities. That is not happening.

There is nothing wrong with the goal. But the program suffers from poor implementation, inadequate funding, and an urealistic interpretation of educational processes. It puts far too much burden on teachers and administrators to control variables that are largely out of their reach.

All across the country students who come from poor families or from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods do far poorer on standardized tests than do students from middle class families in nicer neighborhoods.

Why this is so is debatable. There are probably many factors, not least of which is that schools in poorer neighborhoods are under funded and do not have the tools necessary to provide high quality educational experiences that schools in wealthier neighborhoods can provide.

But it is not only the schools that cannot do their jobs properly in poor neighborhoods. The parents and families in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods have different priorities. Some do not see the advantage to higher education. Others give lip service to a good education, but pragmatically do not give it a very high priority.

One of the goals of any national education policy should be to educate the families in economically deprived neighborhoods about the importance of education. Provide monetary incentives to families whose children excel in school. If money talks, it surely speaks louder to those who are most desperate for it.

Teachers cannot provide a solid education to students who are unwilling to learn. Most students are not eager to be taught, but those from good neighborhoods are at least willing. Children from poor neighborhoods are often not enthusiastic about learning and sometimes are actually averse to being taught. They see no need for it and some even actively vandalize the process so that even willing students cannot achieve.

Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy does not target the real causes behind a lack of education in America. Instead, it threatens punishment for schools and school districts that do not meet their annual yearly progress goals. School administrators, feeling the pressure, lean on teachers to do a better job of teaching.

The increased atmosphere of tension that permeates failing schools actually makes it more difficult for those schools to meet their educational goals. It becomes a self-perpetuating feedback loop that ultimately leads to exactly what the Harvard study has found. The No Child Left Behind Act is not working.

It cannot work. It, therefore, should be tossed aside and replaced by a policy arrived at by those who understand the inner workings of education and how social norms affect it.

Teachers, principals, and sociologists, not politicians, should be in charge of building our next national education initiative.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Doctors Want to Tax Soft Drinks

Items for consumption that are bad for you, but legal, often carry a hefty tax. Alcoholic beverages, for example, and tobacco products are taxed heavily.

And some say it’s time to start taxing another class of beverages that have also been shown to be unhealthy – soft drinks. The American Medical Association passed a resolution last week to encourage localities to put a tax on soft drinks.

I agree that sugary soft drinks are not healthy for you. But I’m not sure that taxing them is the answer. For one thing, I’m sure the tax would apply to all soft drinks, even the ones without sugar. For another, soft drinks are not the only sugar-filled beverages on the market. Do the others get a walk?

Take orange juice or apple juice, for example. You might believe that juices are healthful because of all the vitamins they contain. The truth is, an eight-ounce serving of orange juice contains more sugar and more calories than the same size serving of soda pop. Sure, there is some vitamin C, but there are better ways of getting vitamins than by consuming all that sugar.

In addition to causing obesity, sugar-sweetened beverages, as well as fruit juices, definitely lead to tooth decay. That in itself might be too high a price to pay for the momentary pleasantness of the taste, even if it contains a few vitamins.

So what’s wrong with a tax on soft drinks then?

In theory, it does tend to make sense. The revenue collected would be earmarked for health programs that combat obesity. The higher prices might also decrease consumption a bit.

The problem is with focusing only on soft drinks. True, soft drinks are claimed to be a big causative factor in America’s portly obesity rate. But the culprit is not the drink itself, but the sugar that’s in it.

Diet soft drinks do not lead to obesity, and I’m sure they would be taxed as well. And, as stated, other drinks that contain sugar are also at fault. But it’s not only drinks that are the problem. Why not also tax candy, cookies, donuts, and all those other yummy snack delights that make us fat and give us diabetes?

If we tax soft drinks, why shouldn’t we also tax other unhealthful foods and beverages? It doesn’t seem fair to single out just one class of foods. If we’re going to have a sugar tax, it should apply to all offending products.

Americans are not going to cut back on their consumption of soft drinks or other sugary foods anyway, not even if taxed. Although studies show that tobacco use decreases in proportion to the amount of tax levied on it, there is no proof that the same would hold true for soft drinks. It would take a very hefty tax to curb consumption of pop.

The concept of taxing things that are bad for you is sound. It does raise money, which if used properly would help to educate the public on the dangers of an unhealthy diet. And taxes might reduce consumption of the offending product.

But in the end, it’s the consumers themselves that have the real choice in the matter. As long as people choose to consume unhealthy foods and beverages, those chock full of sugar, salt, and trans fats, then America will continue to be a nation filled with overweight diabetics with heart problems.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Gay Marriage Amendment a Political Ploy

President Bush’s support among American voters is abysmal. He’s a sinking ship and he seems to be taking the Republican Party down with him.

So in an effort to buoy up support by his core constituents, the conservative religious right, he lobbied hard for the passage of a constitutional amendment which would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, thus banning the recognition of same-sex marriage by all states.

He, and his conservative backers in the Senate, knew there was no hope that the proposed amendment would garner enough votes for passage. It was purely a political ploy to show his core constituency that he hasn’t forgotten about them. The fear is that by losing those constituents, Republicans will lose control of one or both houses of Congress after this fall’s election.

Earlier last week, Republicans in the Senate were heartened by the prospects that several more senators would vote to support the proposed amendment. Although they would still fall short of the 67 votes they needed for passage, Republicans saw the increased support as a good sign that they could still use this hot-button issue at election time.

Unfortunately for them, the Senate soundly rejected even debating the issue further. They came up 11 votes shy of having enough support to even keep the debate going. It was another resounding defeat for Bush and his theocracy-bent supporters.

Changing the Constitution by amending it is a monumental undertaking. The Founding Fathers designed the Constitution to be a fluid document, which would change over time to more closely match latter-day societal norms. But its fluidity was also designed to be very viscous.

The framers guarded against a document that could be changed in a heartbeat to mollify the whims of an overly zealous transient majority. The Constitution was not meant to be flexible enough to accommodate supporters of the political issue de jour.

Additionally, almost every time the Constitution has been amended to alter the rights of Americans, it has increased those rights. The lone exception was the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages. And it wasn’t very long before that amendment was repealed.

Other amendments have granted more freedoms to Americans, including the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights. Other amendments granted blacks and women the right to vote, applied federally guaranteed rights to the states, and granted those who are 18 and over the right to vote.

Passage of an amendment to ban gay marriage would have been the first time in nearly a century that an amendment to restrict certain freedoms would have been passed.

But the proposal didn’t even make it over the first hurdle. To become part of the Constitution, a proposed amendment must be passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and then by three-fourths of the states.

Of course, failing to pass a constitutional amendment restricting same-sex marriage doesn’t mean the issue is dead. Most states already have laws or amendments of their own that define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Massachusetts last year passed a law making same-sex marriage legal. That law was the direct result of a court ruling that overturned the state’s previous law which defined gay cohabitation as a civil union.

Polls show that a majority of Americans oppose giving marital rights to same-sex couples. But the same polls also show that the majority oppose amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage.

Most sociologists define marriage as being a legal union between two consenting adult partners. I prefer to define it as a legal bond between a man and a woman. I believe tradition and history should be given due consideration in defining what marriage is.

There are other ways that same-sex couples can get their legal rights besides marriage. But whatever we, as a nation, finally decide about the definition of marriage, a constitutional amendment is not the best way to solve the debate.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Better Traffic Signals Needed

I’m all for traffic safety; I drive and I want to be safe doing so. I’m not an aggressive driver, but consider myself a defensive one. I seldom take unnecessary chances on the road.

But Johnson County law enforcement agencies have recently earmarked a $9,500 grant from the Criminal Justice Institute to enforce a relatively minor traffic violation just because it happens to be the sheriff’s pet peeve.

Sheriff Terry McLaughlin says it’s a big safety issue, especially along U.S. 31 between Franklin and Greenwood. Motorists continue to turn left at signals even after the green left-turn arrow has gone off.

There is a law on the books that makes it a violation to run a red light, whether turning left or going straight. It would seem to me that the violations are equally dangerous and drivers who run red lights ought to be ticketed.

But why crack down on drivers who are simply trying to beat the light as long as they do not actually enter into the intersection after the light has turned red?

The sheriff specifically stated the violation includes those drivers who turn red after the green arrow goes off. After the green arrow goes off, the yellow arrow comes on. The yellow arrow is a warning to drivers that the red light will soon come on. But it is not against the law to enter an intersection on a yellow light.

It’s not even specifically written into the law that simply being in an intersection on a red light is illegal. Indiana Code states, “…vehicular traffic facing a steady circular red signal alone shall stop at a clearly marked stop line.” It goes on to say that, absent a clearly marked line, the vehicle will stop before entering the intersection.

As for a yellow light, the code says that it is simply a signal to the motorist that the light is about to turn red. It does not prohibit a vehicle from entering an intersection on yellow.

So why am I knit-picking?

There is so much traffic on the roads these days that any measure taken by police to keep traffic moving should be encouraged. If a driver enters the intersection after the light turns red, whether turning left or not, he or she should be ticketed. But if three or four cars continue on after the light turns yellow, that’s three or four cars that no longer need to wait in line, possibly building up road rage.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to put extra funds into technology that would vastly improve our traffic control devices. There haven’t been any significant refinements in the way traffic signals operate for decades.

Traffic signals need to be smarter. They need to know the traffic patterns at the intersection and react accordingly.

Currently, there are metal detectors embedded in the road at most intersections that have traffic signals. These detectors are better than nothing. Signals at intersections with no detectors are simply timed, and it’s not uncommon for vehicles to have to wait for several seconds at an intersection that has no cross traffic.

But even with the in-pavement detectors, traffic signals are not smart enough to efficiently direct a huge amount of traffic, such as what occurs during peak driving times.

Miniature cameras and motion detectors connected to a computer with software designed to analyze traffic flow on the spot is what is needed to keep traffic flowing. These smart signals could allow an entire line of traffic to make it through the intersection, then quickly switch the right-of-way to cross traffic without the need to wait an extra five to seven seconds for an intervening yellow light.

In this scenario, yellow lights would be needed only to stop a very long line of continuous traffic once the cross-traffic line reaches a certain length. During lighter traffic periods, yellow lights would be unnecessary, since the computer would know that there is no oncoming traffic to warn.

Smart traffic signals could behave like traffic cops. In the city, traffic cops are often used during times of extremely heavy traffic because the human brain is better at making decisions than metal detectors built into the roadway. Smart signals could use algorithms that mimic the brain of a traffic cop to keep traffic moving much more efficiently.

In addition, smart signals could detect when someone runs a red light after a change from yellow. The computer could then delay giving the green light to cross traffic until the perpetrator clears the intersection.

Smart signals are probably possible with today’s technology. Certainly, installing them would not be cheap. But in the long run, they would more than pay for themselves by keeping busy intersections clear and by preventing accidents caused by drivers trying to beat the light.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Long Distance: A Concept from the Past

I tried to make a long-distance call on my home phone the other day but failed. It’s not that I had forgotten how to do it, but that I had not selected a long-distance carrier. So I got a recording telling me that there was no long-distance carrier attached to my phone number.

The event led me to wonder why we still have long-distance calling. I obviously haven’t made a long-distance call on my home phone in months. I always use my cell phone. There is no long-distance calling on most cell phone plans. A call is a call, regardless of where it goes.

The whole concept of long-distance calling is archaic. Local calling area boundaries are pretty much arbitrary. And the designation of long-distance didn’t always refer to actual distance. Once upon a time, it was long-distance to Franklin but not to Columbus, even though they are both equally far from Edinburgh.

Calling long-distance wasn’t always straight-forward. I can still recall my mom making a long-distance call to one of our relatives in Kentucky back in the early 1960s. She started out by dialing the operator, another outdated concept. Most of today’s operators are automated recordings.

The next 10 minutes or so of her call consisted of one operator talking to another as each one plugged in the next connection between Edinburgh and Taylorsville, Ky. Once the connection was made, she didn’t talk very long, because the cost was a factor. In those days, due to the human involvement in the call and the equipment used, a 10-minute long-distance call could cost several dollars.

These days, people make long-distance calls simply by dialing them. No operator is involved unless it’s a collect call, and then the operator is automated. Real live operators are relegated to director assistance duty.

On the equipment side, nobody has to plug in wires or flip switches anymore. It’s all done by computer. And with the advent of fiber optics networks, no longer does there have to be a single line leading all the way from the home of the caller to the home of the person called. Fiber optic cables can carry several calls at once.

In fact, it doesn’t take the computer much more effort to connect you with someone in California as it does to connect you with your neighbor across the street. So why is the phone company still charging long-distance fees?

The answer probably has something to do with federal regulations. Local calling areas were set up decades ago, when it took substantially more resources for the phone company to place a long-distance call.

A new type of phone system is gaining popularity these days. It’s called voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP. There are several companies that offer the service, including many cable TV companies.

VoIP calls use your broadband Internet connection to send your voice over the Internet digitally. It’s much more efficient for a couple of reasons. One is that your voice information can be compressed. More importantly, though, is that there doesn’t have to be a continuous connection between you and the person on the other end of the line. Information is sent only as needed in packets. Phone lines can carry many packets from different callers at the same time.

VoIP companies charge a flat fee each month and you can call anywhere in the U.S. There are no long-distance fees unless you call outside the country.

There are still some kinks to be worked out with VoIP, not the least of which is that 911 operators can’t locate you yet. But it’s probably the future of telephony once the technicians get all the bugs out.

In the mean time, I’ll stick to using my cell phone to make those calls the phone company arbitrarily designates as long-distance.