Thursday, January 29, 2015

Stop Worrying about Salt



When I sit down for dinner tonight, I am going to sprinkle a little salt on the main course.  Also at lunch.

I know, I know.  For many, many years, we have been urged by major medical groups to limit our salt intake.

Now comes a challenge to that rigid nostrum, in a major report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy.

The report reviewed the results of many years of studies, worldwide, on "The Consequences of Sodium Reduction in Populations."  (FWIW, I looked up the editors of the report.  Their credentials are impeccable.)

Here's the conclusion:  Too much salt will increase your risk of heart disease.   And so will too little salt.


How Are We Doing?

Let's set the table here.  Americans consume a bit more than 3 grams of daily salt.  Major health agencies have been after us for years to reduce that to 1.5 grams or less per day.

Here are two data points from the recent report:

     --  A 2008 Italian study of Italian heart patients compared two groups, one consuming 1.76 grams and the other 2.76 grams of daily salt with no other dietary changes.  At the end of the study, those eating the lesser level of salt were more than three times as likely to have been readmitted to a hospital and more than twice as likely to have died.

     --  A 2011 study of almost 30,000 people aged 55 and older with high blood pressure.  The report concluded that cardiac risk was higher for those salt consumption was 7 grams or higher and also for those whose consumption was less than three grams.  

The New York Times' very able medical reporter, Gina Kolata, followed up in her story on the report by talking with a doctor with relevant experience.  He told her that as salt consumption declines, bodily levels of triglycerides, insulin resistance and sympathetic nervous system activity increase.  All three are associated with greater cardiac risk.


A Plausible Explanation

In a way, I can see why American nutrition "experts" concluded that we all were eating too much salt. Packaged foods and fast food menu items typically include more salt than meals prepared from scratch in home kitchens.  Salt gives food a nice little kick, and if most of your diet comes from fast-food restaurants, you probably get used to this.

So there is the possibility that at least some of us are getting too much salt.  (Or, possibly, the food authorities were afraid some people out there were having too much fun.)  In fact, prepackaged and fast-food meals also tend to be heavier in saturated fats, which also are tasty and may well be associated with cardiac risk.

As in so many areas, moderation seems to be the best policy.  Our health experts, particularly dietary advisors, have hared down many blind alleys over the years.  (Remember the nutrition pyramid?)  Their credibility would improve if they approached these issues with a little more skepticism and a lot more common sense.



Addendum

I don't want to beat my own drum too much here, but I have challenged salt-shaming before.  My August 2014 post follows below.




How Much Salt?



"Ideally, the best way to go is completely 'Salt Free.'"

                                                                     From a 2014 Cleveland Clinic post
                                                                     advising on reducing salt intake



For many years now, it has been a received truth that if you suspect you are eating too much salt, then you probably are right.

In 2005, the American Heart Association (AHA) called for Americans to limit their salt intake to less than 2.3 grams daily, or just a teensy bit less than a teaspoon.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control took up the cudgel, recommending a maximum of 2.3 grams daily, and even less, 1.5 grams, for children and those over the age of 50.

In 2011, the AHA struck again.  It recommended a maximum of 1.5 milligrams, between half and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt daily, for all Americans.

According to the AHA, if we all followed this advice (average American salt consumption was just over 3.4 grams at the time), stroke and heart attack deaths would be cut by 20 percent and the country would save $24 billion in health care costs.

I don't eat much salt.  I use very little in cooking, and we never put a salt shaker on the table. Our family eats very little packaged food.  I probably meet the AHA guidelines.

But sometimes I wonder why I bother.


A Study in the UK

In 2011, a British journal reviewed the results of seven studies involving almost 6,500 people who were asked to reduce salt consumption from an average of 8-9 grams per day to 4 grams.

The result:  "Intensive support and encouragement to reduce salt intake did lead to a reduction in salt eaten and a small reduction (emphasis mine) in blood pressure after more than six months."

The researchers' conclusion:  "We believe that we didn't see big benefits in this study because the people in the trials only reduced their salt intake by a moderate amount, so the effect on blood pressure and heart disease did not change."

In other words, having found almost no improvement, the researchers recommended doubling down further on reducing salt consumption. 

In 2011, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence set a country-wide goal of reducing UK salt consumption by half, from 6 grams daily to 3 grams by 2025.

Based on numbers possibly drawn from a hat, the National Institute assured Britons that this dietary change would prevent 40,000 deaths from heart disease.


The Worldwide Study

No doubt you read news reports a couple weeks back about an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.  It concerned a study of 100,000 people worldwide and how much salt they ate.

"In fact," the article said, "People who consumed 3 to 6 grams per day had a lower risk of cardiovascular events than those who had more than 6 grams or less than 3 grams."

So, while US health experts recommend 1.5 grams or less of salt per day, the healthiest people seem to consume between two and four times that amount.

Move along, nothing to see here.

According to the report, only four percent of study participants, in 18 different countries, met recommended American guidelines.  In fact, most people ate from 3 to 6 grams, the amount of salt that correlated with the best results.

I know, I know, perhaps the people who consumed less salt already knew they were at risk of heart disease and had trimmed their consumption.  Possibly that's the real correlation.  Possibly everyone you know who is at risk -- anyone who takes a beta blocker or a statin drug -- also has taken all the salt out of his diet.  Call me a skeptic.  I also find it hard to believe that any of the 17 other countries in the study have as vigilant a bunch of dietary scolds as we do here.

More likely, different people people respond differently to salt.  Maybe genetic differences or the age of the salt eaters has something to do with the inconclusive results.  This has been suggested several times over the last 10 years, and when it has, it has been swatted down and dismissed as unscientific if not outright heresy.

After the latest report showing no correlation between salt consumption and cardiac health, the American Heart Association issued its own advice:

"Looking at the data, we consider it irresponsible not to make recommendations to reduce salt content...."

Well, of course.






Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Killer Robots?


Friend or Enemy?

Recently a group of scientists, two actors and at least one visionary entrepreneur released a letter titled "Research Priorities for Robust Beneficial Artificial Intelligence."

The idea was that artificial intelligence (AI) has great potential but "it is important to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls."

The group that released the letter -- modestly named the Future of Life Institute  -- advocated "making AI more capable, but also maximizing the social benefit of AI."


Decoding the Letter's Meaning

At least two prominent supporters of the letter followed it up with specific and scary-sounding warnings.

". . . full artificial intelligence could lead to the end of the human race," said Stephen Hawking, the brilliant British scientist.

Hawking's reasoning:  Computers learn faster than people.  "Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete and would be superseded," he was quoted as saying in a BBC article.

AI is "our biggest existential threat," claimed Elon Musk in the same piece.  Musk, the Tesla and Space X founder, has given $10 million to the Future of Life Institute.

Musk believes that, over time, computers will learn to design other computers.  By the time this process is in its fifth generation or so, he says, computers could favor the survival of digital beings over that of humans.


Skepticism

In this month's edition of Wired, another computer scientist called foul on the whole business.

"The press accepts these claims with the same gullibility it displayed during Apple Siri's launch and hails arrival of 'human like' computing as a fait accompli," wrote Roman Ormandy, who also has worked in AI and is the founder of something called Embody Corp.

Ormandy's argument is that the human brain and human learning are vastly more complex and subtle than the central processing units of digital machines.

"For the last 50 years," he writes, "AI researchers have promised to deliver intelligent computers, which always seem to be five years in the future."

Ormandy sees great potential for AI, particularly in the development of  sensors to assist people with physical ailments.   Indeed Hawking, an ALS patient, is benefitting now from Intel developments that allow him to speak.


What to Make of It All

Computer work can be rewarding or frustrating, but it seems like a big leap to assume that a computer could form an intention to make a human happy or angry.

Even after computers have learned to solve the Sunday crossword puzzle, can we really expect them to become wise and creative?  I enjoy crosswords myself, but they have not led me to more complex reasoning or new ideas.  Alas.

Obviously it would be good if artificial intelligence were developed to ennoble ennoble humanity and improve life on earth.  But who would decide what the appropriate research should be?

The concept of thoughtful computers was originated by authors and screenwriters.  Its danger is being promoted by at least one billionaire who is spending much more of his own money on bringing space tourism to rich humans than on thwarting the development of demon robots -- and this in a world beset by poverty, disease and warfare.

It might be well to question whether any of these people is equipped to channel AI toward "maximizing (its) social benefit."


End Note:

This killer robot panic seems to have overtaken much of the tech world.  Just yesterday I read a New Yorker profile of one of its rising stars.  He specializes in what he calls "virality."  This means that he has figured out how to attract millions of readers (if you want to call them that) to short posts and lists composed of information that critics say his staff has cribbed from other people's research.

Anyway, in the interview, the fellow shared his concern about the future of smart computers: "We'll soon get to a point where AI fully surpasses us.  When you think about what asymptotic growth looks like, there's no way humans are going to be able to keep up."

"Asymptotic" is a big word, and my guess is that most of his readers don't know what it means.

It occurred to me that humans who flock to his sites may be hastening the process he fears by making mankind dumber as robots grow smarter.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Artificial Intelligence in Film

I spoke recently of the speed at which computers are learning to beat humans at board games from checkers to chess.  Scientists train the machines to develop decision rules by having the machines play the same games millions of times and apply what they absorb to make decision rules about optimal playing strategies.

Now the concern seems to be that more sophisticated computers will acquire enough artificial intelligence (AI) to outsmart humans at every turn and become the bosses of us all.  This may have originated in the fervid imaginations of screenwriters and film producers.

Let me trace the ways.

The Tin Man




This early robot was created by Frank Baum in his series of books about the land of Oz.  The Tin Man was featured in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz as a sweet character who regretted his lack of a heart, a situation that was fixed by the movie's end.



It was a charming movie, but writers of later stories and films got the idea of generating more conflict -- that is, warfare -- by inventing scary robots who threatened humanity.

Here are a couple examples.


The Matrix

By 1999, the computers had turned into bad guys in the Matrix trilogy.

In it, robots developed by humans had transformed into sentient beings.  They rebelled against humans, and the humans battled back by blocking sunlight.  The robots took control of humans and used them for energy.  The situation, an existential threat to humanity, turned into three movies, comics and video games.


Transformers

Perhaps the most prominent and successful battling robot movies are the Transformer series, based on the Hasbro group of toy characters.  The toys are robots that can be manipulated to turn into transportation vehicles like helicopters or weapons.  The toys have been very popular.

In the four Transformers movies (starting in 2007 and running through 2014 with more expected to be released), some of the robot characters are good bots and others are evil bots.  As they battle each other, the fate of humans hangs in the balance.

Here are a couple of the major Transformer characters:


Optimus Prime, a heroic bot and the compassionate leader of the good-guy Autobot forces, whose alter ego is a Freightliner truck.

OP believes that "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," including humans, and the survival of his enemies, the Decepticon forces, weighs on his conscience.



Megatron, the leader of the bad-guy Decepticon forces, can transform himself into a Walther pistol.

His motto is said to be "Peace through Tyranny," and he has led a Decepticon revolution that, "like many such movements, ended up becoming a whole new tyranny."


Here we have the seeds of conflict.


Naturally these leaders and their lieutenants have backstories and battle in each film for control of the world and, probably the universe.  I didn't play with Transformer toys as a child and so have not kept up with developments of their characters through the story lines of the Transformer movies.


What's Happening Now

The sentient robot threat now has leaped out of science fiction literature and film and into the scientific community itself.  More on that tomorrow.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

First Checkers, Now This

This is all very humbling.

For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, people have played games to challenge each other, to while time during idle evenings and, they hoped, to keep their minds sharp.

Now we have a growing body of research that suggests that, before long, no human will be able to beat a well-trained computer at any board game, anywhere, ever.


Checkers




As best I can tell, it began with checkers.

In 1989, a professor at the University of Alberta designed a program called Chinook to play checkers, a board game with 88 spaces, two sets of 12 round tiles and the goal of each player of one set of the tiles to wipe out his/her opponent.

I played a lot of checkers in my childhood and got better with practice and age.  Chinook also played a lot of checkers -- 500 billion games, in fact -- and it never forgot any move it learned in practice.

By the summer of 2007, Chinook could beat any human player who made even a single misplay.  The best a person could do was play a perfect game and wind up with a draw.

(By now, Chinook may have played many billions more games and come up with strategies to beat any human at any checkers game, under any circumstances.  Who knows?)



Chess



Chess of course is devilishly more complicated than checkers.  While played on a similar 88-space game board, it has two sets of 16, not 12, markers.  Each has several movement options for every play.

In 1985, two students at Carnegie Mellon University began grooming a machine and program called Chip Test to play chess.  Four years later, IBM hired the team and took on the project, renaming it Deep Blue.   Progress came in fits and starts, but Deep Blue marched forward.

IBM's pockets were no doubt deeper than those of the academics who worked on the chess challenge, and so by 1996, Deep Blue was judged ready to take on the human chess champion.

Deep Blue lost.

But Deep Blue was "game."  It learned more and tried again.  By 1997, Deep Blue's programmers knew that it could evaluate as many as 200 million potential moves in a single second.

In 1997, according to an IBM history, another match was scheduled.  Here is the what happened.

       "The grand chessmaster (Garry Kasparov) won the first game, Deep Blue took the next one,
        and the two players drew the three following games.  Game 6 ended the match with a
        crushing defeat of the champion by Deep Blue."



Jeopardy




After crushing in chess, IBM's next wizard computer, Watson, managed to defeat the two highest-scoring champions of the television game show Jeopardy.

As in each previous challenge, the computer was adjudged beforehand to be unable to process the volume of different information -- in this case more subtle verbal clues -- as well as the human winners.

Whiners complained that Watson may have been able to punch faster on the answer button, a common complaint among Jeopardy also-rans.  But this factor seems to have been ruled out.

In that year, 2011, we learned that computers, with enough practice, could beat us at Jeopardy too.

Still, this did not prepare me for the latest reports.



Two-Hand, Heads-up Limit, Texas Hold'Em

Poker players like to think that their personal demeanor -- for instance the "poker face" -- can cause opponents to make ill-considered moves in games of chance.

The fellows at the University of Alberta seem, once again, to have broken the code.  Their explanation:

      "The solutions for imperfect information games require computers to handle the additional
      complication of not knowing exactly what the game's status is, such as not knowing an
      opponent's hand.  Such techniques require more computer memory and computing power."

Research into this challenge apparently consisted of pitching two computers against each other in Texas Hold'em games many millions of times.  A winning strategy emerged.

Surely there are many human players -- in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Macau -- with even more millions of games of poker experience than computers have had time to play.  Surely they have had the experience to learn enough to prevail in virtually any situation.  But no.

Unfortunately, humans are not computers.  We do the same thing many times and sometimes learn from our experience.  

Just not often enough.





Tuesday, January 20, 2015

News from ISIS

Perhaps the fighters of the Islamic State were feeling upstaged by Al Qaeda, the other name-brand Islamic terrorists who gained such notoriety for the killings in Paris last week.  Maybe the ISIS people thought it was time to grab a little attention for themselves.

Whatever.  In the last few days, ISIS has taken three actions.

The first was an online posting of pictures of two Japanese prisoners kneeling in the now-familiar orange jumpsuits with a black-clad, hooded thug.  ISIS has made an offer to the Japanese government:  Pay $200 million or watch their citizens die.

Then came two actions out of Mosul, the Iraqi city now held by ISIS:

     -- Two men were thrown to their deaths off a tower block.  According to the terrorists, the men
         had engaged in homosexual activities.

     -- Thirteen teen-aged boys were executed by machine guns and their dead bodies left on the street,
         their families forbidden to collect and bury the remains.  According to the terrorists, the boys'              offense was watching a televised soccer match between the Lebanese and Iraqi national teams.

Both killings were said to be punishment for offenses against Sharia law, which takes its restrictions from the Koran and sometimes the Hadith, another ancient text.  I am not well-versed in Sharia law, although I have read of thieves' hands being amputated and female rape victims being stoned for their offenses.

It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Sharia law does not condone homosexuality.  If I were gay and living in Mosul, I would be most circumspect.  But, you know what?  I don't necessarily believe the two defenestrated men were gay.  Sharia law, at least as practiced by the Islamic State, doesn't appear to have a particularly careful justice system.

As to the offense of watching a soccer match, I am puzzled.  The match was between two Muslim countries' teams, so I'm guessing not all Muslim people are opposed to soccer.  (In fact, I read this morning that sports training has been supported by some Islamic groups, the better to train fighters to pursue jihad.)  Perhaps the Islamic State is resentful because it does not have its own national soccer team.  Maybe watching television is against Sharia law, but it is hard to believe that Sharia's codifiers anticipated TV when writing their rules more than 1,000 years ago.  And, even if they did, why is the Islamic State employing even newer technology to broadcast its bloody executions?  I don't see it.

Time to leave the kidding aside.  I imagine the horror of the 13 boys' families and of the relatives of the two allegedly gay men killed.  I imagine the dread the people of Mosul feel living every day with the boot of ISIS on their throats.

    

Above is a map of Syria published today in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper.  It shows the spread of ISIS from August 2014 (in green) to January 2015 (in a reddish tone.)

I am not naive enough to believe our country can fix something as screwed up as Syria is now.  But  I mourn for those who are suffering.  As a human being, I wish I could help them.

Monday, January 19, 2015

W.B. Yeats -- "Under Ben Bulben"


Drumcliff churchyard with Ben Bulben in the background

A death in my family has me turning to the subject in literature, specifically poetry.

Today I read again a poem of the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats.  It is believed that he wrote it during the last week of his life in 1939, when, 74 years old and in ill health, he had been sent to southern France to recuperate and observe the gathering horror of another world war.

Yeats was absorbed with Irish folklore and then the battles to establish an Irish state.  He founded Dublin's Abbey Theater for performances of Irish art, and he was a senator in the early Irish parliament.

The poem is regarded as a last will and testament -- asserting his belief in an afterlife, challenging artists to set lofty classical aims for themselves and even leaving instructions for his burial in Sligo in western Ireland, where he was born.

When reading Yeats, it helps to have some background in Irish lore, Irish history and the classics; even without these, it is not difficult to catch the drift.  The power of his writing -- rhythm and phrase -- never fails to move me.  Section II is probably the most accessible, and VI, the final section, closes with Yeats writing his own emphatic epitaph.





Under Ben Bulben
       by W.B. Yeats


I.

Swear by what the sages spoke
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the witch of Atlas knew,
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.

Swear by those horsemen, by those women
Complexion and form prove superhuman,
That pale, long-visaged company
That air in immortality
Completeness of their passions won;
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.

Here's the gist of what they mean.


II.

Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers' toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong.
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.


III.

You that Mitchel's prayer have heard,
"Send war in our time, O Lord!"
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.


IV.

Poet and sculptor, do the work,
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did.
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.

Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.
Michael Angelo left a proof
on the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there's a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.

Quattocento put in paint
On backgrounds for a God or Saint
Gardens where a soul's at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye,
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky,
Resemble forms that are or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream.
And when it's vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That heavens had opened.

Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer's phrase, but after that 
Confusion fell upon our thought.


V.

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers' randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.


VI.

Under bare Ben Bulben's head
in Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Dale Don, 1928-2015

      My father died this morning.

      He was a strong and principled man who woke up every day of his life and set out to do
      the right thing. He raised his family well and endured a long illness with courage and grace.
      We knew he would not be with us forever, but it is a shock to realize that, at least for now,
      we must bid him farewell.





Death, Be Not Proud
by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest, our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou are slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.




Friday, January 16, 2015

Whose Lives Matter?

 Some interesting news reports:

1)  Between January 7 and 9, terrorists in France assassinated eight journalists, an unrelated woman and four shoppers at a kosher supermarket, in what the BBC called one of the country's "worst security crises in decades."
     Several days later, 40 heads of state and an estimated 3.7 million people participated in demonstrations of mourning and solidarity around France.  French security is now on high alert, with 18,000 police and soldiers deployed to protect the country from future attacks.

2) A few days earlier, the terrorist group Boko Haram conducted a four-day siege on two cities in Nigeria.
      In the city of Baga, 620 structures were destroyed.  The damage was worse in Doron Baga, where 3,100 buildings were destroyed.  Here is an Amnesty International aerial image of property damage in the two cities.


      As you can see, the damage in Baga was much less widespread.  Before the attack its population was estimated at 10,000.  As many as 5,000 people fled.  Now Baga is said to be empty.
       Witnesses who fled during the attack on Baga reported that people were being "killed like animals."
      Amnesty International quoted one man who said this:  "They killed so many people in Baga.  I ran to the bush.  As we were running, they were shooting and killing."
      A woman said this:  "I don't know how many, but there were bodies everywhere we looked."
      Remember, these quotes came from Baga, the less damaged city.
      The government of Nigeria says 150 people, including Boko Haram members, died in the attacks.  Other reports range as high as 2,000 dead.  Both estimates seem like understatements, but with Boko Haram now in control of the region -- an area about the size of Costa Rica -- no accurate estimate can be made of the loss of life.
       Neighboring countries are discussing sending 3,000 troops to the area to fight the terrorists.

3)  In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls.  The West responded with a blistering barrage of twitter posts, #BringBackOurGirls, that numbered in the millions and continues to this day.
     Two or three of the girls have managed to escape, but the rest, or at least those still alive, are still being held by the terrorists.




Thursday, January 15, 2015

The $4 Billion Train Station

The small PATH subway system that runs between northern New Jersey and two stops in Manhattan has stations that could be described fairly as the dingier step-brothers of New York's MTA subway stops.

That should change a bit later this year, though, when the new PATH station opens at the World Trade Center.  The old stop was destroyed in the 9/11 bombings, and the new hub will be pretty jazzy, judging from the look of it.

Twelve years ago, officials selected a design by famed architect Sergio Calatrava for the new station.  He was inspired by the idea of a child releasing a bird, as seen below.  The cost was estimated at $2.2 billion, and its opening date was set for sometime in 2009.


Later, according to Stephen J. Smith of nextcity.org, the plan was scaled back.

"The light and airy bird-like structure with a retractable roof simulating flight was value-engineered down, its wings rendered immobile and its rib-like supports doubled, leading to a heavier-looking structure."   

You can see the result below.


Wags say the thing now looks more like a stegasaurus, or a "Calatrasaurus," after the architect, who is known for graceful white designs and massive cost overruns.  

Meanwhile, nearby, ground was broken on One World Trade Center in 2006.  Known as the Freedom Tower, its cost was estimated initially at $3 billion and then rose to $3.9 billion.  The shimmering tower, tallest in the country, opened in November. 

Back to the train hub, which will include a huge retail space and a $100 million hallway that is brighter, and no doubt bigger, than a baroque cathedral.  The project's total cost has risen to $4 billion.

People now are wondering where all that money went.  A post by The Angry Architect on the architizer.com website explains.

"To put that into perspective . . . this train station will cost more than the tallest all-office building in the western hemisphere.  Couple this with the fact that the station is not even one of the top 10 busiest stations in the city . . . and you begin to wonder who was in charge of the feasibility report, if anyone at all." 

Another complaint is that the new construction missed an opportunity by not adding a short tunnel to connect the PATH hub with the NY subway station at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge.   

Port Authority

Tempting as it is to blame the architect, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey probably deserves the greater portion of responsibility for the ridiculous cost.

Even at that, assigning credit for the station would be impossible.

The PA is an enormous, murky agency.  It operates three airports, the biggest shipping operations on the East Coast, six bridges and tunnels, the PATH train system and the World Trade Center.  Its annual budget is more than $8 billion.

New York and New Jersey share responsibility for the PA, with each state's governor wielding a great deal of influence.  The governors like it that way.  Each selects a senior official for the PA, and in the time since the PATH station was planned, both states have changed governors and both governors have replaced their executives.  The system almost seems designed to accommodate political capture.








Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What's the Product?

Printers or Ink?

Recently the Significant Other and I purchased a new printer. It's pretty cool -- it scans, emails, makes full-color photos, and does two-sided prints.  Seemed like a great deal, too.

"Wasn't that a lot cheaper than the last printer?" I asked the SO.

"Sorta," he said.  "But the cartridges are smaller."

He was right.  We got a good price on the machine, but the printer company got an even better deal:  An annuity in the form of regular sales of high-priced ink cartridges for as long as we use the printer.

In effect, the manufacturer is in the ink business, not the printer business.  Ink is cheap, but ink cartridges manufactured specially for our printer are expensive.  Over the course of a year, we will spend as much money on ink cartridges as we did on the printer.  If we keep the printer for five years, the "printer" company will make a good, steady profit on our purchase.



Razors or Blades?


Many years ago and even now, the Bic company made cheap, disposable razors that cost less than fifty cents apiece.  Its early promotions included an advertisement featuring a rich tennis star who was asked, "Why buy this when you can afford to buy the most expensive razor in the world?"

"I also can afford not to," he said.  It was a great pitch, and it worked well, but maybe a bit too well in the view of major companies in the razor business.

The world's biggest razor company poured money into research to develop better razors.   It added a second blade, then a third and, most recently, a fourth.  It mounted the blades on a razor handle with a swivel head.

Men like these new, more malleable shaving implements, but they come at a price.  The razor itself costs about ten bucks.  Each new blade cartridge costs at least $3, and often $4 or more.

Like the printer company, the razor company is primarily in a different business:  the blade business.  It makes most of its money keeping the razors stocked with blades.

Perhaps that is why we see so many guys wearing full beards these days.  It's more economical.


Cellphones or Service Contracts?

For years, mobile service providers have offered free or reduced-price cellphones to people who sign service contracts of varying lengths.

The phone is almost a loss leader, a bit like the printer or the razor handle, with the cost recovered over the period of the service contract.  At least the mobile service providers admit that what they are selling is access to the internet, parsed out in monthly fees and, sometimes, extra charges for heavy usage.

In all cases, the companies assure themselves steady revenue streams not contingent on the vagaries of their markets in a given quarter or year.

(The state of California, for one, is not buying the "free phone" dodge, though.  A couple years ago, the younger person negotiated a cell contract that included a nice phone at no cost.  California had got there ahead of him and passed a law imposing sales tax on the imputed value of the phone -- a $50 charge in his case.  So much for the free phone.)




Monday, January 12, 2015

No Pants Subway Ride 2015


Well, I missed it again.  While I was at home nursing a cold, thousands of people around the world were dressing down in January to ride public transit in their underpants.

This seems to be the official video from New York, where the event originated in 2002:



Looks like wacky fun for the whole family, doesn't it?

Improv Everywhere, "a New York City-based prank collective," started the event in January 2002, when seven men rode the MTA in their skivvies.  The next year, 30 people participated, including several women.  By year eight, the numbers had grown to 2,200 in many cities.  It now seems to be an international juggernaut.

According to the sponsors, "The idea behind No Pants is simple: Random passengers board a subway in the middle of winter.  The participants behave as if they do not know each other, and they all wear coats, hats, scarves, and gloves.  The only unusual thing is their lack of pants."

The high temperature in New York yesterday was 37F.  (Gee, I think, I didn't even participate, and I STILL got this crummy rhinovirus.)

No Pants seems to conclude in every city with a big get-together at a bar.  (Personally, I would have suggested a sauna.)  Presumably the underpants people like to share snickers about disapproving reactions they observed on the faces of shocked squares.

That's fine, of course, but I'm guessing it's getting difficult to find suckers willing to react in any way to their fun prank.  The New York subway offers a great variety of human strangeness even on regular days.  Not much shocks those riders anymore.

Still, there are at least few places where such a display would not be welcome.

Just last week, a heavily armed man declined to shoot a woman worker in a Paris magazine office.  Instead he told her she should read the Koran and cover herself.  In his ideal world, women most likely would be dressed like this:


Imagine his distress if he had lived long enough to see something like this on the Paris Metro:



Here's another thought.  What if a student from an American women's college found herself in a train car full of people in their underwear?  Imagine the horror.

Just last year, a temporary statue of a man in underpants -- not even a live guy -- on one such campus prompted so much dread and fear that a petition was launched immediately to remove the traumatizing artwork.

(Trigger warning:  A photo is below.)


I posted a discussion of this sad event, "Scary Men in Underpants," on May 24, 2014.

People do love to participate in things.  We have flash mobs, all manner of demonstrations, selfies taken with celebrities or in famous locations, crowds scooting to Banksy graffiti sightings, naked bike rides, crowds outside the windows of network morning shows and thousands of people standing for hours in freezing cold to watch a ball drop on New Year's Eve.

Who knows what to make of it all?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Jeeves to the Rescue



When I came down with the annual cold recently, I followed my usual procedure:  Brewed a cup of hot tea, grabbed a box of tissues and pulled a P.G. Wodehouse novel down from the bookshelf.  If you were hearing hearty chortles emanating from California, that would have been me.

This time it was a Jeeves and Wooster title, The Code of the Woosters.   In it, Bertram Wooster endeavors to assure that his college friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle, an amateur scientist devoted to the study of newts, goes through with his marriage to Madeline Bassett, a thoroughly sappy young woman who believes that "Stars are God's fairy chain."

Bassett, in a previous book, had come to believe that Bertie was in love with her, and she accepted the presumed proffer of marriage from an extremely unwilling Bertie.  He got out of the jam, as usual, with the aid of Jeeves, his smarter, more polished man's man who is always quick with a strategy to save the day, almost always embarrassing Bertie along the way.

In other Jeeves books, Bertie fends off another potential fiancee, Honoria Glossup.  He gets into scrapes with his Drones Club buddies, including Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright and D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright.   He does his best to avoid his greatest scourge, Aunt Agatha, and is only a bit more fond of his Aunt Dahlia because her chef, Anatole, is a fabulous cook.

In fact, Dahlia sets Bertie a task in The Code of the Woosters, and then tracks him down to take him to task at the country home where he has taken refuge.  His observation:

         "It is no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts.  At the core,
          they are all alike.  Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof."

In every book, Jeeves "shimmers" into the room to steer Bertie straight, but only after Bertie has got himself into a seemingly hopeless pickle.


Jeeves and Wooster in Other Media


There have been several television serials of these stories, but the 1990s PBS Jeeves and Wooster series featuring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie is by far the most popular.  (Hugh Laurie camps it up gleefully and is far more fun as Bertie than in his later role on American television.) The series can be found in DVD form or in full episodes on YouTube.  Almost but not quite as good as the books themselves.

Last year in London, a Jeeves-derived play, Perfect Nonsense, won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.  Since it closed on the West End in September, it has been touring the country.

And in 2013, author Sebastian Faulks published Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, an addition to the well-loved series, at the request of the Wodehouse estate.  I of course have read it, and it too is great fun, even if its premise is at odds with an earlier Jeeves declaration that Bertie is "one of nature's single men."


The Author

P.G. Wodehouse
Pelham (Plum) Grenville Wodehouse was born in 1881 and seems to have had a dreary childhood, raised first by a nanny and then in boarding schools.  After college, he served two years as a banker in London and then broke free to make his living as a writer, following his true passion.

Happily for us, his work found an audience.  After a few years of the subsistence-level piecework that is the scourge of early writerdom, Plum's humor began appearing as serials in magazines, and the author developed a huge fan base in the Anglosphere and the United States.

What is remarkable to me is that virtually no reader alive today is familiar with the world in which Wodehouse set most of his books:  the idle rich in between-the-wars Britain.  Surely, I think, there will come along a generation so distant from this situation that the humor, for them, will fall flat.

So far, no.


Controversy

Wodehouse was living in the south of France in 1940 and did not get out of town (a dog lover, he spent too much time worrying about his Pekingese) before the German occupation.  He was interned in Silesia for some months and then was released to Paris, where he spent the rest of the war at the Hotel Adlon, living on the aid of friends.  He wrote and read on radio five essays about the experience, in a stiff-upper-lip, Wodehousian style.  After the war, British critics accused him of collaboration and being in the pay of the Germans, but neither charge proved true.  Wodehouse moved from Paris to the U.S. in 1947, became an American citizen in 1955 and was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth shortly before his death at 93 in 1975.  In 2000, the Bollinger company established the annual Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize, the only UK award for comic literature.

Wodehouse has been accused of anti-Semitism because of his stereotypic characterization of Jewish people as clustered in the fields of theater, movies, art, music and banking.  His American agent was Jewish, and he worked on theater productions with Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein and Irving Berlin.  In one letter, he said "apart from my inner circle (numbering about three) most of the men I like best are Jews".  Last year, the website semiticcontroversies.blogspot.com said this:  "The simple fact is that Wodehouse did exhibit what modernity would consider anti-jewish stereotypes (as well as 'racist' ones [in his early years in particular] on a frequent basis) but that these would not have been such to Wodehouse who simply was reporting reality which just happened to broadly conform to some of the substance of anti-jewish argument made then and now."

As to racism, I will say that in one book, Thank You, Jeeves, Bertie referred regularly to some black musicians by a term that is now deeply offensive.  (Jeeves, interestingly, did not do this.)  The plot made clear that Bertie admired the musicians' skill and hoped to meet them and gain their help in learning to play his own musical instrument.  The usage, painful to read now, was almost certainly more acceptable many decades ago.  In fact, Wodehouse disparaged the shallowness of Wooster and his friends, albeit humorously, more than the qualities of his much less prominent black characters.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Wall Street Bombing of 1920



On September 16, 1920, the United States experienced a terror attack something like the one that gripped Paris this week.  As in the Paris situation, the attackers belonged to a group utterly opposed to the country where they lived.  And the attack was plenty deadly. 

On that Friday, a horse-drawn wagon carrying 100 pounds of dynamite and another 500 pounds of metal pellets pulled up in front of the J.P. Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street.  The spot was just around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange, perhaps the busiest intersection in town.  The driver got out of the wagon and walked away. 

Just after noon, lunchtime, a delayed-reaction detonator set off the dynamite.  The explosion sent the shrapnel rocketing through the air in all directions.  Thirty-eight people were killed, most of them young workers in the area.  At least one witness described a woman's head detached and lodged in a wall, her hat still on.  Windows shattered for many blocks.  Holes still visible today were etched into the bank's exterior walls.

Workers ran from their offices and commandeered cars to take victims to hospitals.  One hundred and thirty-four survived with injuries.  

Here is a newspaper drawing -- a cartoon if you will -- of what happened that day.



Police were unable to account for the incident until several paper fliers, apparently dropped a few days earlier, were found in a post office box nearby.  Their message:


Remember, we will not tolerate any longer.
Free the political prisoners, or
it will be sure death for all of you.
                                                American Anarchist Fighters


Wall Street symbolized the American financial system that was detested by anarchists.  The political prisoners, police surmised, were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and anarchists, who had been arrested several months earlier in Massachusetts.  They were charged with the armed robbery of a company in which a guard and an employee had been shot dead.

Over time, investigators came to suspect the two men's friend, Mario Buda, another anarchist with experience in bomb-making.  By the time his name surfaced, he had hopped a ship to Naples.  He lived till 1963, never returning to the United States.  No one was prosecuted for the act of terrorism.

Like Parisians today, New Yorkers were horrified.  Thousands gathered at Wall Street later with World War I veterans and a brass band to sing the national anthem.

The French are planning a big solidarity gathering of their own in Paris on Sunday.



Thursday, January 8, 2015

Je Suis Charlie


Everything that can be said about the despicable murder of French journalists yesterday has been said already.  I will not pile on just because I too found the incident deeply disturbing.

Not surprisingly, the killing of cartoonists has led other cartoonists to make their own comments.

I like the image above, which was created in just a few hours by Lucille Clerc, a young French illustrator who has been based in London since 2008.  Simple and profound, it is an expression of loss, but also of defiance and courage.

It does not particularly resemble Clerc's typical works, which are intricately detailed.  Below is a representative sample commissioned for Eurostar's Metropolitan magazine.


Eurostar recently celebrated 20 years of high-speed rail service connecting London, Brussels and Paris.  The print is a joyous representation of the three cities and, by extension, the high points of European culture.  Seems appropriate at this moment.

Clerc made 100 copies, and all but two have been purchased.  If you'd like one for yourself, you can buy it for 100 pounds on her website, LucilleClerc.com.



Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Young Adult Fiction



One huge trend in literature has been the emergence over the last 70 years of a genre now described as "young adult fiction."


I think of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, published in 1951, as the first big title of this type.  The follow-ons are legion:  The Outsiders, Lord of the FliesA Wrinkle in Time, Judy Blume's books, The Giver, R.L. Stine's Goose Bumps series, the Harry Potter adventures and the Hunger Games trilogy. Many fine books here.

Some YA books qualify as serious literature, but most do not.  What they seem to share is teenage protagonists.  It has been explained that teenagers seek understanding of their own situations and are less interested in, say, midlife crises or the issues of aging.  Fair enough.


(Curiously, it was reported in 2012 that more than half the YA titles now are purchased and read by people between the ages of 18 and 40.  Perhaps some people take a little longer to ease into adulthood.  Or maybe grownups' vocabularies are shrinking.  Who knows?)


Current Young Adult Titles

Every year since 1922, the Association for Library Service to Children has given annual Newbery Medals for young people's books, including for outstanding young adult titles.  Awards for 2014 books will be announced next month.



I went on a bibliophile website, Goodreads.com, to see which books are trending in its site's voting for this year's young adult award.

At right is the candidate most favored by Goodreads reviewers.  It embodies two of the most common themes of last year's YA output:

     -- It has a female author, like eight of the ten top-rated books.  (Take that, STEM people!  No glass ceiling in YA!)  Of course, it is possible that 80 percent of readers are female as well.

     -- Its plot radiates and pulses with magical realism.  Only three of the top 10 YA books seemed to involve plausible, real stories.  The other seven dabble in everything from the above-mentioned magical realism to fantasy to storytelling with a "possibly magic hairbrush."


Here is a description of the storyline in A Snicker of Magic:

      Twelve-year-old Felicity arrives in Midnight Gulch with her nomadic, ever-relocating
      mother.  The town, once filled with magic, has lost its gift.  Felicity, a "word person,"
      sees magic everywhere -- "shining above strangers, tucked into church eaves, in her
      dog's floppy ears."  Can she restore the town's magic and make Midnight Gulch her
      real home?

As I mentioned, this is the most favored book for the Newbery Medal this year.  I'm not a fan of magical realism, which is also a big theme in films and adult fiction these days.  I'm pretty sure my 12-year-old self would not have checked this book out at the library.

And reader reviews at Goodreads did run the gamut.  One woman even said it was a good "pick-me-up" to read when she was suffering a painful case of shingles.

Another said, "This was sweet and maybe a little too adorable.  I liked it though."

Then there were my people.  One wrote, "It was okay but the words moving around and having life almost was a little much for me. . . .  And when the shadows started dancing I was done."

Several commenters objected to the possibly excessive use of the (apparently positive) descriptive term "spindiddly." One posted this amusing graphic.


Much as the Goodreads people favor this book, I'm skeptical.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that the Newbery judging panel will award its prize to some other title.

More on that next month.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Notes from the Airport

I spent yesterday traveling across the country.  Several thoughts sprang to my wandering mind in the airport.
   
     1) This country really, really needs a dress code.
     As we waited to board the jet, I mused that a better photographer than I could create a website called People of the Airport, a variation on that People of Walmart thing that was cruel but popular a couple years ago.  So I looked up the idea and, sure enough, there already is such a site.  It is full of people in tailored, chic suits, not the Real People of the Airport.  At least not my airport.
   




      Think about it.  People seem to haul most of their wardrobes in the bags they check and carry onto the airplane.  Surely inside most of those bags are simple, tasteful clothing items in non-garish colors.
     I've said enough.  You know what I mean.  Let's up our game, folks.

     2) The "it" gift this last holiday season obviously was the "toast phone," available from Android, Apple and others.  Essentially it is a six-inch phone that accommodates people's increasing use of mobile for essential tasks like taking selfies and watching movies.


     Everyone in the airport seemed to be consulting these new, larger phones.  I'll probably get one myself pretty soon, but I wonder where this will end.  Will we have eight-inch phones in time for the next presidential election?  Phones that look suspiciously like tablet computers a few years after that?
      Think about the implications.  Those toast phones wouldn't fit in my pocket, and I don't think they can be particularly convenient for men to carry.
      Will the next fashion be very exaggerated cargo pants with great big pockets at the knee level? Will the market for murses (man purses) make a comeback after Jerry Seinfeld so effectively drove a stake through its heart all those years ago?
      I worry about these things.

      3) TSA Precheck is not bad.  With it, you don't have to dig out your laptop or baggie of tiny liquids for the luggage scanner.  You also can leave on your shoes and most of your clothing while walking through the metal scanner.
     Plus, you do not have to walk through a millimeter radiation full-body scanner, whose effects scientists are -- only now! -- starting to study.  Unfortunately, we learned recently that TSA employees really do laugh at our body images on those scans from a distant spot in the airport.

      Last year, I was offered the opportunity to purchase Precheck authorization for $85, but I declined.  I seem to be sorted into the Precheck line on most flights anyway.  It is a small comfort when navigating the airport.



Monday, January 5, 2015

E-Cigarettes: Why So Angry?




E-cigarettes are becoming popular in the United States.  Like traditional cigarettes, they convey nicotine, but in a steam vapor, not in smoke that is inhaled into the lungs.

E-cigarettes employ delivery systems that look like actual cigarettes, and this seems to make health authorities' heads explode.

Now, as many states are legalizing largely unstudied marijuana for "medicinal" use, the FDA is keeping quiet about that and instead is going on the warpath about the nicotine in e-cigarettes because it is believed to be addictive and may cause yet-to-be specified harms.

Interesting.  People have been smoking cigarettes for more than 100 years.  There is incontrovertible evidence that inhaling the smoke in real cigarettes greatly damages the lungs and heart and raises the incidence of certain types of cancer.  Nicotine, not so much.

There is likely to be an outright ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18, which makes sense.  I wouldn't recommend "vaping" myself, but then I also don't recommend drinking sugary sodas or riding a bicycle without a helmet.

In fact, there are three groups of people for whom e-cigarettes might be a very good idea indeed.

First are current cigarette smokers.  Between 400,000 and 500,000 Americans die earlier deaths each year, mostly of lung cancer and emphysema, following many years of smoking.  More than 18 percent of adults still smoke, and most of them want to quit. There is growing anecdotal evidence that e-cigarettes help them with this.  At its yet-to-be-defined worst, vaping is vastly safer than smoking.

Second are alcoholics in recovery.  Not all of these people smoke cigarettes, but studies suggest that more than half of them do so, at least for a time, substituting a bad drug for another that, in some ways, is worse.  If vaping helps them, I'm for it. (In fact, even more recovering alcoholics drink coffee, often lots of it, which suggests that it, too, is helpful through a very difficult process;  maybe the FDA should investigate the safety of the caffeine in coffee beans.)

Third are people with schizophrenia.  It has been observed for decades that almost all of them smoke cigarettes.  Scientists suggest that the active ingredient in nicotine binds to brain receptors that release dopamine and serotonin, offering comfort with a very challenging disease.  In addition, there is some evidence that nicotine may improve schizophrenics' focus and may, at the margin, turn down some of the noise in their heads.  Would it be so awful if switching to vaporized nicotine offered these unfortunate people some small comfort?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Common Core: Top-Down Ed Reform Doesn't Work

Below is a letter to the editor published in the New York Times the other day.  It references an earlier opinion piece, "Rage Against the Common Core," that was skeptical that setting new standards would achieve better academic results in public schools.

        "A significant group of students doing poorly are from backgrounds of chronic
        deprivation and neglect.  The No Child Left Behind law and the Common Core
        standards both ignore the problem:  chronic absenteeism, disorganized homes,
        living in shelters, parents incarcerated or using drugs, separation from siblings,
        foster care and more.

        "Those who develop these 'solutions' and the politicians who promote them show
        no understanding of the challenges these students and their teachers actually
        face.  No curriculum will address these obstacles to academic success."

The Times noted that "the writer was a teacher and a psychologist for the New York City public schools for 35 years."

Teachers understand this.  The idea that new top-down standards and testing will change schools is an idea that has been tried and tried again, at district, state and federal levels.  But it has failed, every time, for at least 30 years.  And yet we still keep trying it.


Why It Has Failed

Years ago, French schools used a single curriculum.  Every eight-year-old in every French classroom would read the same passage of the same book on the same day.  This seemed to work in France at the time, but at that time, all the students were French and there were homogeneous values across the country's culture.

The United States is not a homogeneous country.  We have students from a variety of family backgrounds and countries and speaking many different native languages.  There is no universal commitment to education from family to family.  Children are raised in a variety of situations, ranging from upper-middle-class security to utter chaos marked by poverty, family upheaval and parents who cannot organize their own lives, let alone attend to their children's schooling.

Put simply, students start from different places.  The idea that one set of education standards issued by the federal government will assure that they all end up in the same place -- with no adjustments along the way -- is ludicrous on its face.


What to Do

We need to tailor schools to work with students as they come.

In relatively wealthy districts with well-educated parents and intact families, the old paradigm of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. classes for 9 months each year still works pretty well.  In these districts, parents have for years resented the instruction time diverted to testing because their schools were effective and students finished high school ready to succeed in college or on the next step of their careers.

In inner-city districts with parents of all backgrounds, annual testing schemes have slotted schools and students as losers.  A more useful approach would be diagnostic tests at the beginning of each school year to give teachers an idea where individual students were weak and strong, and to help teachers address their individual needs.

Additionally, students in inner-city districts might benefit from longer school days, longer school years, extra P.E. periods, personal tutoring and regular contact between teachers and parents or guardians.

This would cost more than the average school program, but at least some of the needed funds have been there for years.  Every state I know of devotes vastly more per-student funding to school districts in high-poverty areas. So does the federal government.

Unfortunately, the money does not yield results.  Inner-city schools by and large are organized in the same traditional way as schools have been for generations.  The idea of starting with students -- individually, as they come -- seems not to be considered.

Unfortunately, mandating a new set of outcomes will not do any good until the process of schooling students -- students as they are -- is given as much attention as specifying what they should know at the end of their high school years.

Note:

I do not mean to say that the situation is impossible.  I know of many efforts that are helping poor children achieve and thrive, and I plan to describe some of them from time to time.

What distinguishes these successful efforts is that they are small in scale.  They are achieved by private and religious groups, by well-led charter schools -- essentially,  by community-based commitments to individual children and their needs.

Unfortunately, there is no top-down solution.  That is why federally imposed Common Core standards seem likely to fail.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tree Huggers of Los Angeles

Much has been said about the California drought, which may be easing a bit with a more rainy fall and winter season.

I learned recently of one group that has been working for years to improve water flow through the almost entirely paved-over environment of Los Angeles.

Its founder, Andy Lipkis, explains the situation in a brief, watchable post below.




Also, below, is a 2011 description of a neighborhood project in one Los Angeles area.   It seems to have done a lot of good.



In fact, Californians approved a $7.1 billion water bond project in November.  Nobody seems to believe that the money will be enough to fix all the issues the state faces, and urban needs will have to compete with river health and agriculture demands for allocations of the money.

A bigger proposed bond program -- $11 billion in size -- was pulled from the ballot in 2012 after complaints that it was too expensive and larded with pork.  Both complaints were probably true.

But grass-roots efforts like those sponsored by TreePeople may gather momentum and scale to improve the situation even in an enormous area like the Los Angeles region, which is home to 25 percent of California's population.