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Finally, something to cheer about in US education

Finally, something to cheer about in US education

Americans are justly proud of their system of higher education. This is not surprising since it’s generally held in higher esteem than our K-12 schools whose performance, we are told constantly, lag those of peer countries. For instance, US institutions of higher learning in the United States generally dominate the top spots in most international rankings of universities. Something to cheer about, right?. Or is it?

The problem is that the metrics used by US News & World Report, the Times, the Shanghai Rankings et al to judge the quality of universities exclude the most fundamental one, namely, the quality of teaching, especially in subjects relating to Science, Technology Engineering and Math? The answer to how well they teach is arguably a better determinant of whether the world class reputation of US universities is deserved.

An international research team headed by Prashant Loyalka of the Stanford Graduate School of Education went in search of an answer, or a partial one anyway, insofar as it applies to computer science programmes from four countries which, together, produce 50% or more of the world’s computer science graduates annually. The results were presented in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year. A summary by the lead researchers is here.

In brief, a statistically valid sample of final year undergraduate CS students in the US, China, India and Russia at a cross section of universities and colleges in each country, took a 2 hour standardized test developed by the Educational Testing Service, a non-profit testing and assessment organization. The test was designed to determine how well students understood computer science concepts and principles and was administered in the language of each student. In order that the US results were not skewed by international students attending its universities, the test was only administered to students who gave English as their sole or primary language.

The results were stunning to say the least. American students in regular college and university programmes far outperformed students from the other three countries also attending regular schools. In fact, these American students by and large performed on a par with Chinese, Indian and Russian students enrolled in elite schools. Meanwhile, the average American student enrolled in an elite CS programme in the US far outperformed students at Chinese, Indian and Russian elite schools. The difference in performance between students from the other three countries was statistically insignificant.

Even more impressive is that freshmen American students generally entered their CS programmes with less math and science preparation than their peers in China and Russia and about the same as Indian students. All of which suggests that US undergraduate computer science programmes hold a strong qualitative edge and add substantial value compared to those of the other nations. Interestingly, the worst performers were China’s universities, often flagged as emerging power houses, since their students started their CS programmes better prepared in math and science than the others yet performed no better than Indian and Russian students and well short of Americans by the end.

This is very good news, at least for the parents of US students who are studying computer science since it suggests they are getting their money’s worth. The study also has labour market implications since it indicates that American CS graduates from regular undergraduate programmes only have direct competition from students in the other three countries who attended elite schools.

However, some caveats apply. This is just one STEM subject and more research is needed to examine whether American students receive the same high quality instruction in other programmes (one of the subjects of the team’s continuing research). But for now at least, if not three cheers then certainly one and a half are warranted.

Donald Trump is trying to lose – and failing

Donald Trump is trying to lose – and failing

Donald Trump is trying to lose. But he’s just as big a failure at that as he would be as President of the United States

Months ago I predicted Donald Trump’s unfair attack on John McCain’s military service would sink his presidential aspirations. No republican, I reasoned, could reconcile the indefensible position Trump was taking.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. Sarcastically, Trump quipped, “He’s a war hero because he was captured.” Then, he added, “I like people that weren’t captured.” – The Washington Post

Even the conservative Washington Post predicted this argument would go over poorly with the Republican party’s base. In this seemingly devastating indictment of Trump‘s vile attack on McCain, the Post pulled no punches. Quoting such GOP standard bearers as Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and even the RNC’s Chief Strategist and Communications Director Sean Spicer, the Post seemed to announce the death of the clownish political campaign of a man widely believed to be using his ostensible ambitions as nothing more than a narcissistic publicity stunt.

Read More Read More

Fred Phelps is Dead! Is he in Heaven or Hell?

Fred Phelps is Dead! Is he in Heaven or Hell?

Phelps the Hater

Fred Phelps died today!

Before participating in the poll below, read this excerpt from the CNN report:

Fred Phelps — the founding pastor of a Kansas church known for its virulently anti-gay protests at public events, including military funerals — has died, the church said Thursday.

The 84-year-old died of natural causes at 11:15 p.m. Wednesday, according to church spokesman Steve Drain.

According to Westboro, the church has picketed more than 53,000 events, ranging from Lady Gaga concerts to funerals for slain U.S. soldiers. Typically, a dozen or so church members — including small children — will brandish signs that say “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

Phelps was often called “the most hated man in America,” a label he seemed to relish.

“If I had nobody mad at me,” he told the Wichita Eagle in 2006, “what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?”

Under Phelps’ leadership, Westboro members have preached that every calamity, from natural disasters to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, is God’s punishment for the country’s acceptance of homosexuality. Phelps had advocated for gays and lesbians to be put to death.

Poll Question:

[poll id=”2″]

Boeing doesn’t pay federal income taxes, cuts employee benefits, and pays it’s CEO $27.5M

Boeing doesn’t pay federal income taxes, cuts employee benefits, and pays it’s CEO $27.5M

Boeing Corporation makes billions in profits but pays no corporate income tax. In fact, most years the government pays them – a lot. From today’s Seattle Times:

Although the aerospace and defense giant booked a profit of $5.9 billion last year, the U.S. government winds up owing the company $199 million.

“Every citizen of the state of Washington can proudly say that they pay more taxes than Boeing,” said Bob McIntyre, director of the Washington, D.C.-based tax-policy-research group Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ).

Boeing’s federal tax rate works out to negative 3.3 percent.

Over the past dozen years, during which Boeing reported to its shareholders a total profit of more than $43 billion, the company’s net cumulative refund of federal tax is more than $1.6 billion.

Taking all the federal taxes paid, or not paid, since 2002, Boeing’s average federal tax rate is minus 3.8 percent.

Their competitors pay taxes:

Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics are respectively plus 18.4 percent, plus 24 percent and plus 29 percent.

With all those profits and subsidies from the federal government, one would think Boeing could afford to keep funding the defined benefit plan for the machinists that build the planes. But no, the machinists had to cave in to corporate threats to move their jobs from Seattle to some southern state where unions have little or no power and accept a 401(k) plan in place of their pension plan.

With such a focus on profits the company also must have had to cut compensation and benefits for CEO Jim McNerney, right? Uh, that would be an emphatic “NO“.

Boeing Co. awarded Chief Executive Jim McNerney almost $27.5 million in annual compensation for 2012, a 20% increase from a year earlier

That’s 793 times the average worker’s pay. Well then at least he must have to expect lower retirement benefits, right? Another “NO“.

If McNerney retires now he will get $265,575 a month.

Okay then, so since he’s set for life and he’s made the tough decision cut benefits for workers that build the airplanes that make him so rich, he certainly wouldn’t do anything to interfere with what they can expect to receive in the way of Social Security benefits, right? Oh yes he would…

In recent years Boeing CEO Jim McNerney has headed the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of top U.S. corporations. Earlier this year that group called for raising the eligibility age for Social Security to 70 years old, as well as crimping back on the benefits (by reducing the index of inflation used to calculate payouts.)

So Boeing screws the federal government out of billions in tax revenue, pays it’s CEO tens of millions per year, cuts corporate benefits for its workers, and lobbies for reductions its workers federal benefits.

What a great corporate citizen! I mean “person”. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with a dick like that?

The Comet Tavern has shut down

The Comet Tavern has shut down

I blame John Boehner for this! Damn you John Boehner! You will roast in Hell for this one!

Seriously though, the Comet Tavern has closed. How can that be? Here’s a snippet about the closure from The Seattle Times:

For more than half a century, the Comet Tavern welcomed hippies and punks with cheap drinks in a dark bar. It was one of Seattle’s oldest, diviest bars, famous for its loud stage, pungent bathrooms, ceiling of nicotine-stained dollar bills and the way it fondly honored a departed bartender named Ethel. It kept her ashes inside the bar stool she used to sit on.

So when the Comet went into death throes last week, it was understandable that the wailing was loud.

“There’s few places left in this town of Hendrix (Nirvana, Soundgarden countless others…) for loud, sweaty, rock and roll anymore, and The Comet was a great one,” wrote local band Bad Love on Facebook.

The place should have landmark status – remember that saved the Blue Moon Tavern from getting torn down many years ago and getting replaced by a strip club. Well it wasn’t officially given landmark status, but the public outcry about its pending doom did save it.

The Stranger reports that there is some hope that someone will buy the Comet and reopen it, but it might be difficult to do because the owner, Brian Balodis, stripped the space of its sound system and changed the locks on the doors. Employees aren’t even able to get in and retrieve their belongings.

Anyway, I am sad to see the place go. I have many fond memories of going to that bar. My friends and I frequented it pretty often during the eighties and early nineties, and most recently when Capsula played there in October 2011 as part of City Arts Fest. Front man Martin Geuvara loved the venue and referred to it as “de puta madre.”

Back in the day we all liked going there to sit at the big graffiti-carved, wooden tables and drink pitchers of beer. We also were amused by the graffiti in the restroom while relieving ourselves of the beer. And we could help ourselves to free popcorn. That brings back a not-so-fond memory of the place. One night we noticed a patron had nodded off on one of the benches along the wall and, for shits and giggles, some of us tossed a few pieces of popcorn in his direction. When the guy woke up, someone must have said something to him about it, but instead of responding in kind with a few pieces of popcorn thrown in our direction, he grabbed a full pitcher of beer and smashed it into the skull of my good friend Gorby. The police arrived very quickly, and there was no more violence, but Gorby spent the night at Harborview and still suffers from hearing loss due to the blow.

Some time later (months? years? I don’t remember. Gorby! Fill in the blanks here.) he returned to the Comet and talked to the bartender about the incident. I think the bartender gave him a free t-shirt.

So farewell fine Comet. I hope you are resurrected soon and not torn down and turned into another Capitol Hill condo or cell-phone store or stupid Chase Bank or whatever.

Congress must defeat Rep King’s chickenshit amendment to the Farm Bill

Congress must defeat Rep King’s chickenshit amendment to the Farm Bill

The July/August edition of Mother Jones shines a bright spotlight on Big Agriculture’s efforts to prevent exposure of its many nefarious practices and abuses in the treatment of the animals which provide our daily food. Big Ag’s tool, for which the term ag gag has been coined, is to have state laws passed which make it a crime to infiltrate a facility to record the horrors within (the league of shame of eight states which have passed full-fledged ag gag laws comprises: Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Iowa, Kansas, S. Carolina, Missouri and Arkansas). In other words Big Ag silences its critics by making it illegal to obtain the proof that would expose its practices using compliant legislatures and governors.

The ag gag laws are not simply to prevent discovery of illegal treatment of animals (yes, there are some standards and rules believe it or not) but even more critically, perhaps, to ensure that practices which are legal but reprehensible by any reasonable standards and which might serve to make us queasy as we sit down to our breakfast of sausages and eggs, are not filmed; after all if we don’t see it, we don’t have to think about it.

A piece by Tom Philpott in the same issue of MJ includes this graphic description of a practice which is still legal, albeit in the face of increasing opposition, in all but nine states:

…of all the billions of beasts confined in our meat factories, the most miserable may be the 5.9 million sows that churn out the piglets that grow into chops, bacon, and ham.

Throughout their four-month pregnancies, many of these sows live in cages just large enough to contain their bodies. As the sows grow bigger, the tight confinement means they can lie face down but can’t flop over onto their sides. The floors under these “gestation crates” are slotted so that urine and feces can slip through into vast cesspits. Immobilized above their own waste, the sows are exposed to high levels of ammonia, which causes respiratory problems. Just before they deliver, they’re moved to farrowing crates, in which they have just enough space to nurse.

Once the piglets are weaned, it’s back to the gestation crate for the breeding sow, which averages two and a half pregnancies per year. After three or four years, the sow is slaughtered for meat.

While there’s some justification for farrowing crates—they prevent the sows from squashing their babies—the gestation stalls are mostly about cost-cutting: They allow producers to cram together as many working sows as possible. Not surprisingly, living most of its life in the functional equivalent of a coach airline seat—to use animal-welfare expert Temple Grandin’s comparison—is horrific. In 2010, when Humane Society investigators infiltrated a Virginia farrowing operation owned by Smithfield, the globe’s largest hog producer and pork packer, they found sows with “open pressure sores and other ulcers and wounds that developed from their unmitigated confinement and their inability to change positions in the crate.

Gestation crates may, thankfully, be on the way out but there is no such relief in sight for hens whose plight in our agricultural industry is described by Bruce Friedrich, Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives, Farm Sanctuary in the Huffington Post:

Battery cages are small wire cages where about 95 percent of laying hens spend their entire lives; each hen is given about 67-76 square inches of space (a standard sheet of paper measures 94 square inches). To get a sense of a hen’s life in a battery cage, imagine spending your entire life in a wire cage the size of your bathtub with four other people. You wouldn’t be able to move, so your muscles and bones would deteriorate. Your feet would become lacerated. You would go insane. That’s precisely what happens to laying hens.

Californians passed Proposition 2 in 2008 which: “Requires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. Exceptions made for transportation, rodeos, fairs, 4-H programs, lawful slaughter, research and veterinary purposes” (State Attorney General summary excerpt). California subsequently mandated that the same standard would pertain by 2029 to eggs sold in the state but produced elsewhere.

This modest law is now under attack in Congress by Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) who slipped an amendment into the 2013 Farm Bill in the House that overrides California’s right to set such a standard on the specious grounds that it fails to meet the requirements of the commerce clause. The Washington Post effectively debunked any semblance of an argument for his amendment and pointed out it would be a disaster to more than just chickens. (The Post editorial also contains a link to Stephen Colbert’s brilliant mockery of King and his amendment – a must see).

King is mostly known for his outrageous support for dog-fighting and general mouthing off in ways that would shame most congressional constituencies save that in his own hard-right district.

Until we pass strong national standards for the humane treatment of farm animals, states with a conscience must be free to enact their own.

The Farm Bill that emerges from congress cannot and must not include this chickenshit amendment from a similarly described congressman.

Adolf Hitler was a Meth Head

Adolf Hitler was a Meth Head

German World War II soldiers’ drug of choice.


From The Atlantic:

Pervitin was the early version of what we know today as crystal meth. And it was fitting that a German soldier would become addicted to the stuff: the drug, Der Spiegel notes, first became popular in Germany, brought to market by the then-Berlin-based drugmaker Temmler Werke. And almost immediately, the German army physiologist Otto Ranke realized its military value: not only could the methamphetamine compound keep fighters (pilots, in particular) alert on little sleep; it could also keep an entire military force feeling euphoric. Meth, Spiegel puts it, “was the ideal war drug.”

And it was, as such, put to wide use. The Wehrmacht, Germany’s World War II army, ended up distributing millions of the Pervitin tablets to soldiers on the front (they called it “Panzerschokolade,” or “tank chocolate”). The air force gave the tablets to its flyers (in this case, it was “pilot’s chocolate” or “pilot’s salt”).

Soldiers took it in tablet form. Hitler mainlined it.

Hitler himself was given intravenous injections of methamphetamine by his personal physician, Theodor Morell.

Hitler the meth head, Gangnam style:

And you think like I do, you are probably thinking Pervitin would make a great band name. Too late, already done.


Mosh Pit Simulator

Mosh Pit Simulator

Heavy metal physicists Matt Bierbaum and Jesse Silverberg have studied the motion of people in mosh pits and found that mosh pits are a gas gas gas!

That’s right, they say:

…the motion of people in a mosh pit looks kind of like molecules moving in a gas.

“It was basically just this random mess of collisions, which is essentially how you want to think about the gas in the air that we breathe,” he says.

Play around with the simulator they developed.

More information about it here.

Tom Tomorrow wins Herblock Prize for This Modern World

Tom Tomorrow wins Herblock Prize for This Modern World

I’ve been a big fan of This Modern World for many years. I’ve been reading it ever since it first appeared in black-and-white in the Seattle Weekly and continue to read it every week on The Daily Kos site. The Seattle Weekly stopped publishing the comic a while back because, well you know, people who pick up weekly newspapers in coffee shops and cafes have no interest reading comics do they?

Anyway, Tom Tomorrow has a gift for distilling complex political and social issues into six frames of insightful satire. This week’s comic is an excellent example:

TMW BS Approach 3 frames(click on the image to read the rest… )

Today I found out that Tom Tomorrow, aka Dan Perkins, was awarded the Herblock Prize for excellence in editorial cartooning. On the Herb Block Foundation’s site you’ll find:

Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins) lives outside of New Haven, Connecticut with his wife and their nine year old son. His weekly cartoon, This Modern World, appears on Daily Kos, where he is also editor of the comics section he created in April of 2011 in an attempt to provide a new, online venue for political cartooning. This Modern World also appears at and in approximately 80 papers across the country, including the Village Voice, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. His cartoons have also been featured in New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, Esquire, The Economist, and numerous other publications.

So congratulations to Dan Perkins for his much deserved award for excellence in editorial cartooning.

Renault driver speeds through France for an hour at 125 mph (200km/h)

Renault driver speeds through France for an hour at 125 mph (200km/h)

When was the last time you drove a car at 125 mph? I remember approaching that speed while driving a Jaguar XJ12 heading east on I-90, but only for a very short period of time – probably less than a minute. 125 mph is scary fast.

When’s the last time you drove that fast for a whole hour? Never.

So what I am I to think of this story?

Frank Lecerf, from his home in Pont-de-Metz, near the French city of Amiens, was making his weekly trip to the grocery store in his Renault Laguna. He was going 60 miles an hour when the car’s speed dial jammed. Lecerf tried to brake. Instead of slowing, though, the car sped up — with each tap on the brake leading to more acceleration. Eventually, the car reached a speed of 125 mph — and then remained stuck there. For an hour.

Lecerf, frantic, called the police from his car — and they sent an escort that The Guardian describes as “a platoon of police cars” to help him navigate a busy highway. (Lecerf stayed, appropriately, in the fast lane.) What resulted was a small miracle of technological coordination: Responding to emergency services’ advance warnings, three different toll booths raised their barriers as Lecerf approached. A police convoy ensured that roads were kept clear for the speeding car. Fellow drivers, obligingly, got out of the way.

The goal everyone had been working for, coordinating for — the speeding car running out of gas before its Newtonian nightmare ended in violence — was achieved. Lecerf’s car, finally out of fuel, came to rest in a ditch. He had driven from northern France and along the French coast up through Calais and Dunkirk, eventually crossing the border into Belgium. The little Renault had stopped, finally, in the town of Alveringem.

Before it did, though, Lecerf was stuck in his speeding car for an hour.

A16 Motorway - France to BelgiumSomething was obviously wrong with his car, but when I first read this story I was confused by the term “speed dial”. Like what kind of dial locks a car in at that speed? So I emailed N.J. Barnes to ask a European what the hell a “speed dial” is. He said it’s the same as a speedometer. I replied with, “Well then it’s very poorly written. The problem wasn’t that his speed dial was stuck at 125 mph, the problem was that the car was going 125 mph and could not be stopped. I was thinking what the hell? Some kind of dial that sets speed like a cruise control? I could see something like that causing a problem, but a speedometer? It’s an indicator of a problem, not the problem.”

Anyway, linguistics aside, looking at the map of his route you’ve got to wonder how he could maintain control of a car going that fast for so long and not collide with other slower moving vehicles or other obstacles along the road. Looking at the map, I see there are obviously corners on the route. Is the A16 Motorway designed for travel through corners at that speed for the length of the route? If it is, I need to go there and rent an XJ12. And if the Jaguar somehow got jammed at 125 mph, I think I might just turn the key to the “off” position. Seriously, can’t you turn off a Renault? (Am I missing something here?) The article says the police patched a Renault engineer through to Lecerf’s cell phone to help him stop the car, but he couldn’t solve the problem.

Helluva ride though if you live through it.