Archive for August, 2008

The Trail of ’08

Aug 30 2008 Published by under borderland,politics

Chilkoot Pass

Word of the McCain camp’s hot new prospect for the second slot on the Republican ticket reached Alaska yesterday morning. The most common reaction – regardless of anyone’s political leaning – was amusement. Friday’s Alaska News Nightly radio podcast offers a range of local responses.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the world beat a path to our door, and it’s always interesting when it does. From the gold rush to the pipeline construction, we’ve had our occasional moment in the national spotlight. This is another one for the books.

A lot of people underestimate us because Alaska is so far off the beaten path, but it would be a mistake to write Sarah Palin off as a misstep by McCain, even if it is. We mostly like her – even those of us who disagree with her. For example, Andrew Halcro, who ran against Palin in the 2006 gubernatorial election, offers a tutorial on her strengths and weaknesses:

Yesterday on the KTVA news they quoted me as saying, “One thing I have learned campaigning against her in 2006, I have a high respect for her and secondly, I’ve learned you never underestimate her.”

While I disagree with Palin on her economic policies, the governor is quite certainly due a tremendous amount of respect for her ability to make people feel she cares for them. In fact this is extremely rare for a Republican politician.

The Obama camp should read Halcro’s blog, since he’s been watching her for a while now. He believes, as do I, that her story has an uncanny resonance with a lot of people, and that doesn’t have anything to do with public policy.

Palin ran as a social conservative, but she hasn’t pushed a social agenda. She ran as a tax cutter, but she put a collar on the oil companies and gained the state a substantial tax revenue increase – our only real source of state income – as crude oil prices went through the roof. Then, with heating fuel and gasoline costs eating us alive (the highest in the nation even though we own the resource – which you’d think would work as direct evidence against drilling more to lower prices!) she lobbied the legislature for a $1200 payout to each of us. This was not exactly a finesse move, and even above objections that it didn’t get us any closer to a sustainable energy policy, it was approved. The result: We all get free heating fuel this year. Not exactly a test of tough leadership or fiscal conservatism, but a popular move, it was indeed.

Dermott Cole, a local news columnist wrote that Palin is unqualified to serve as vice president, even though he has no major beef with anything she’s done as governor so far. Her “chief qualification for being elected governor of Alaska,” he said, “was that she was not Frank Murkowski.” Everyone was pissed at Frank. He appointed his daughter to his senate seat after he vacated it to run for governor, cut a $250 per month “longevity bonus” to senior citizens, bought himself a jet for all sorts of questionable trips, and got real cozy with the oil companies, nearly giving away the store. We were all glad to see him go, and she’s been a welcome breath of fresh air in his wake.

So here’s the main thing I take away from this news. The media players have been saying that Palin’s appointment takes the ‘experience’ criticism off the table for McCain. That was my first reaction, and so it has. But there’s more. Bringing Palin in after using that argument against Obama should make it clear to everyone that even McCain doesn’t believe his own campaign ads – the definition of a bullshitter.

According to today’s local newspaper editorial, “Most people would acknowledge that, regardless of her charm and good intentions, Palin is not ready for the top job. McCain seems to have put his political interests ahead of the nation"™s when he created the possibility that she might fill it.”

This is a judgment issue. Will Thomas says, “…the argument practically writes itself: “Barack Obama selected one of the most qualified people available for the job of vice-president; John McCain picked one of the least qualified. Who really puts country ahead of politics?”

Politics, in the absence of real accomplishments, is just advertising, manipulating symbols and tapping into people’s passions. Robert Service, who fell in love with the mystique of the Northland understood what it means to pit passion against the test of cold reality:

Dreaming of men who will bless me, of women esteeming me good,
Of children born in my borders of radiant motherhood,
Of cities leaping to stature, of fame like a flag unfurled,
As I pour the tide of my riches in the eager lap of the world.”

This is the Law of the Yukon, that only the Strong shall thrive;
That surely the Weak shall perish, and only the Fit survive.
Dissolute, damned and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,
This is the Will of the Yukon, "” Lo, how she makes it plain!
-Robert Service, The Law of the Yukon

Time will tell. People should pay less attention to Palin, who is clearly in over her head, and focus instead on McCain’s reckless lack of judgment. He is, after all, the man behind this little dog and pony show. Frank Rich reminds us of what Obama said in his speech the other night: “We will only begin to confront the magnitude of our choice when and if we stop being distracted by small, let alone utterly fictitious, things.”

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When the Levee Broke

Aug 20 2008 Published by under borderland

Since reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (chapter 20, especially) I’ve been thinking about what happened to New Orleans after Katrina. Klein tells how the disaster was a business opportunity for contractors who bulldozed homes and privatized long-neglected public schools. This story, or rather the version of it that would be told by people who’ve been “displaced,” is not something that I’ve heard much about – maybe because I live so far away from there. Or maybe it’s because nobody’s talking about it anymore.

Dday’s post, It’s Time to Talk About Katrina, got me started looking around at stories about what happened, and what’s happening now. Dday announced the screening of a film called Trouble the Water that opens August 22, and after watching the trailer, I really want to see it. It’s not a perspective you’d find in the mainstream media, which pays more attention to what the power brokers have to say.

For instance, Paul Tough wrote a piece called A Teachable Moment published in the NYT Magazine a couple of days ago. Tough’s article tells about the major players in the New Orleans Public Schools, which now run a smorgasbord of publicly funded, privately managed charter schools including an entity called the Recovery School District, dedicated to catching the spillover from the more selective charters, and in effect offering “schools of last resort” to kids who don’t have the skills or the pull to find anything better. Tough acknowledges critics who claim this tiered system recreates the same inequalities that existed prior to the storm, but he brushes them off with the reassurances of Supt. Paul Vallas, who believes that “successful schools can be left alone to do their own thing, while failing schools are subject to increasingly active levels of, first, support and then control.” Not that control is a bad thing, but we should think about who is doing the controlling.

From the Cost of Doing Business Department: Just three months after Katrina, Milton Friedman published an article called The Promise of Vouchers in which he said:

Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.

Friedman believed, with religious conviction, that market forces would produce the greatest social good. He advocated vouchers as a way to stimulate competition between schools, and claimed they “would be a move to a bottom-up organization, which has proved so successful in the rest of our society.” But successful for who? I ask.

Ralph Adamo, a journalist and teacher living in New Orleans who was awarded an OSI Katrina Media Fellowship, calls the post-Katrina school reforms a Failed Education Experiment.

…one has to ask where on earth the proponents of a “market-driven” approach to public education got the idea that anything the public sector could do, the private sector could do better. Did they get it from the sterling job private hospital corporations and insurance companies have done to assure that all Americans have access to adequate medical care? Did they get it watching the delivery of privately contracted services in Iraq or in post-Katrina New Orleans — two places where any goods or services might cost a hundred times their actual value (sold by the private sector to government) and still not function correctly?

Adamo has another excellent article, Squeezing Public Education, in which he lays out the ideological foundation of the scheme to siphon tax dollars into the hands of charter operators in New Orleans.

The great experiment had begun. With seat-of-the-pants planning, with no community input, and against the objection of a smattering of political and social leaders, the state, Alvarez and Marsal, and the cast of the Greater New Orleans Education Foundation (working under new and different organizational names) brought us a new dawn of all charter schools all the time. Or that was the plan, abetted by the national charter school movement; right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation; and the libertarian or "œmarket-liberal" Cato Institute, one of whose members crowed at a public forum in February, "œWe got rid of the school board! Anyone interested in market-driven education should be watching New Orleans." Indeed. A flood of corporate foundation money poured in to help the representatives of the (market-driven) movement to get their schools chartered and staffed with a whole new kind of teacher (that is, young, inexperienced, and from somewhere else).

Is this what Friedman meant by a “bottom-up organization?” Whatever it was, it wasn’t ready for the return of thousands of students in the fall of 2006. What the Recovery School District lacked in supplies and teachers, they compensated by hiring extra security guards – as many as one for every 37 students.

And the story doesn’t stop with schools. Housing, as you may imagine, is a huge problem, or opportunity, depending on how you look at it. There’s a story about Karen Gadbois, a New Orleans blogger who uncovered discrepancies in the city’s records concerning contracted repair work that was paid for, but never done. In some cases, the “repaired” houses had been demolished at government expense!

Other stuff worth looking at

Dismantling a Community – testimonies from students along with a chronology of events from Spring 2005 to Fall 2006.

Katrina: An Unnatural Disaster
– a video about the long-term effects of Katrina across the Gulf.

Voices from the Gulf

Bill Quigley’s, “Reports on New Orleans’ Children Fighting for the Right to Learn” (Part I) and (Part II) – In Part II Quigley says that “A real positive outcome would be if the experiment could translate the advantages of the top half of the selective schools into success for the rest of the public school children as well. There is little evidence of that happening at this time.”

It’s a damn shame.

When the Levee Breaks

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Reclaiming Education

Aug 11 2008 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics,social class

Dissent Magazine kicks off a series of articles on education with this one from Susan Harman and Deborah Meier:

No matter what the question is, these alarmists have the answer. Why is the economy in bad shape? Look at the lousy math scores of U.S. students in the international competitions. Why are so many young African-Americans and Latinos in prison? They didn"™t learn how to read in school. Why do poor and minority children score so much lower on tests than better-off white children (the notorious "œachievement gap")? Teachers are engaging in the "œsoft bigotry of low expectations" and have allowed some students to fail to meet high standards without any consequences.


In these pages, we intend to connect the dots between the many pieces of research and demonstrate that the educational crisis is not what the public has been led to think it is, that there is virtually no research that supports ongoing corporate and federal policies, that the media has been irresponsible and complicit in hiding the truth, that the proposed solutions are unsupported and dangerous, and that the devastating consequences we are now seeing are not "œunintended." To the contrary, these radical reforms were intended by a powerful, well-funded wing of the reform agenda to dismantle our public education system and replace it with precisely the kind of marketplace reforms that are by their nature untrustworthy and unaccountable. We hope these articles will mobilize policymakers and citizens to join us in resisting this attack on our public education system and democracy.

Have a look at Stephen Krashen’s article on Reading First, in which he cites Elain Garan’s article, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, among other things, to support his contention that Reading First was flawed at its (pseudo)scientific foundations. Garan challenges the background of the panel members, the methodology, and the research base they relied on in determining “the status of research-based knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read.” Anyone interested in the roots of Reading First and NCLB should read what she had to say.

Jim Trelease provides background on Garan’s critiqe, and explains that the National Reading Panel did not actually write the Summary Report, which was produced by a public relations firm with ties to McGraw-Hill/Open Court, and differs in some respects from the full report. In her Minority View, found in the appendix of the Reports of the Subgroups, Garan explained why she sees the panel’s conclusions as being unbalanced:

Congress did not realize"”and the Panel itself did not fully comprehend at the beginning of its labors"”how large, uneven, and intractable the field of reading research really is. The Panel"™s preliminary electronic searches of databases uncovered thousands of articles on some topics, hundreds on others, only a handful on some. Their completed reviews on several topics disclosed that the critical question of generalizability (i.e., Does a skill or strategy taught and learned carry over to new experiences?) often was not answered by researchers. The reviews show, in addition, that questions relevant to the success of an instructional technique, such as "œhow much" to teach and "œwhen," were not even examined in most studies.

The issue of generalizability is key when you launch a nation-wide campaign. And questions about “how much” and “when” to teach various skills and strategies are of paramount interest to teachers with rooms full of kids with the usual range of interests and abilities.

Krashen argues that the real issue in improving instruction isn’t teaching kids how to decode isolated words, but rather, teaching them how to read complex texts. Part of the solution is encouraging recreational self-selected reading. Compare, he urges us, the $18.5 million available in grants to libraries with the $6 billion already spent on Reading First. But then, education policy reform isn’t really about education.

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More is More

Jesse Owens

Here on the edge of the edge of the continent, my family’s view of the 2008 Olympic Games is a little fuzzy since we’re too far out of town for cable service, and the rabbit ears antenna won’t pull down the local broadcast signal. We do (as of 6 months ago) have a decent wireless internet connection, though, so it looks like we can follow along on the web if we feel like huddling around the computer. But it just won’t be the same as using the tube.

I’ve been getting my news about the Games on the net, where there’s been a lot of publicity about China during the run-up to the opening ceremony. Stories about the $40 billion spent on infrastructure, the devastating earthquake in May, choking smog in Beijing, media censorship and the detention of political activists, the military occupation in Tibet, and China’s economic ties to Sudan have highlighted various criticisms from human rights groups.

But this, according to Naomi Klein, may all be a part of “China’s sheer awesomeness.” Klein writes:

The games have been billed as China’s “coming out party” to the world. They are far more significant than that. These Olympics are the coming out party for a disturbingly efficient way of organizing society, one that China has perfected over the past three decades, and is finally ready to show off. It is a potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of authoritarianism communism — central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance — harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism. Some call it “authoritarian capitalism,” others “market Stalinism,” personally I prefer “McCommunism.”

She sees the Olympics, for China, as a showcase for attracting foreign investment. For some US companies, the Games offer a market not only for consumer products, but also for the latest cyber-surveillance technologies to ensure the safety of athletes and VIP’s. According to Klein, “there are now 660 designated ‘safe cities’ across the country,” with cutting-edge surveillance equipment that will remain in place and even be expanded once the games have become ancient history.

Klein’s article is an updated version of a longer piece published in Rolling Stone last May. She tells the story of a visit she made to China. She spoke to a young entrepreneur there who is developing face-recognition software based on code he bought from a US firm, L-1 Identity Solutions, a US defense contractor. Klein says, “You have probably never heard of L-1, but there is every chance that it has heard of you.” L-1 has a database of over 60 million records.

The Chinese surveillance system, supported by US multinational corporations like Honeywell, Cisco, and General Electric (owner of NBC, the Olympic broadcast network) is ambitious, reminiscent of Orwell’s Big Brother. Not only does the system employ thousands of hidden video cameras, but it includes speech and face recognition capabilities, all linked to a database that tracks phone calls and credit card transactions, among other things. It’s part of a larger project that offers one-stop shopping for police investigations.

The larger project is known as the Golden Shield, or the Great Firewall, and was documented in 2000 by Greg Walton, a British researcher commissioned by the human rights group, Rights and Democracy, to look into how Chinese security forces were using information technology to monitor political activists. He made a connection between Western firms and the state security systems, but his findings were overlooked in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the WTC. According to Klein, rather than sparking critical outrage, Walton said, “…the paper was ‘mined for ideas’ by the U.S. government, as well as by private companies hoping to grab a piece of the suddenly booming market in spy tools.”

Knowing that state security functions are being contracted out to companies like L-1 is not reassuring:

Over the past decade, contracting for America’s spy agencies has grown into a $50 billion industry that eats up seven of every 10 dollars spent by the U.S. government on its intelligence services. Today, unbeknownst to most Americans, agencies once renowned for their prowess in analysis, covert operations, electronic surveillance and overhead reconnaissance outsource many of their core tasks to the private sector.

I wonder, who regulates the military-industrial complex, when the line between public and private ceases to exist? Where are the limits?

Ah, well…but this isn’t really what the Olympic Games are about, though some would want to make it so. Anywhere a large spotlight is shined, people will try to use it. The Olympics generate a lot of goodwill, a lot of drama, and a lot of money.

I’m still going to enjoy the competitions – those that I get to watch, anyway. I always feel inspired watching people who’ve dedicated themselves to reaching beyond conventional limits in pursuit of excellence.

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Aug 05 2008 Published by under borderland

It’s been wet here – very wet.

Chena River flood

The governor declared us disaster area:

FAIRBANKS — Damage assessments of hundreds of homes will move forward after Gov. Sarah Palin declared flooding across much of northern and Interior Alaska a disaster.

She made the declaration Monday in Fairbanks.

The declaration frees the state to use disaster-recovery programs to help repair homes, buildings and roads hit by the flooding.

Officials said flooding stretched across the Tanana River basin to hit cities and villages as far away as the North Slope Borough.

More Fairbanks ’08 flood photos.

August is usually rainy. But not this rainy.

photo source: Alaska Department of Transportation

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