Thursday, February 28, 2008

Achievement Gap

The article linked below from Penn State discusses recent research on learning gaps among children and how they widen as the children age.

Achievement gap among child learners can widen in later years

Environment, parental involvement, parental educational level, economic status and many other factors contribute to the learning gap. It is obvious that a good start down the educational pathway is critical to later learning.

Energy For Tomorrow

What is the answer to the energy question? It seems that no matter what form of energy is being discussed, there are proponents and opponents. The following list is for purposes of discussion. Pick your favorite and discuss why you chose it. Or, pick the ones you wish to vilify.

Nuclear Energy – fission or fusion
Fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, diesel, shale oil
Bio-fuels – corn ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, methane from refuse or bio-mass
Solar – land based and space based, large collector or individual
Wind power
Wave power
Hydrogen fuel
Ocean current generation
Wood or other bio-mass as direct source
Pedal power
Equestrian or other animal power

What have I left off of the list?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Frozen Food Isle

Many Americans are hearing the name, Svalbard for the first time. The Norwegian government, working with the Global Crop Diversity Trust opened today the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This structure, on an island well-inside the Arctic Circle, is a safe and very cold place to store representative samples of crop seed from all over the world.
The media, as they are wont to do, have dubbed this “The Doomsday Vault”, conjuring images of Hollywood disaster movies, wherein the human race (represented by hapless but stylish young people) fends off asteroids, comets, killer viruses, and occasionally aliens. This sensationalism belittles the importance and the project and the present threats to our food stocks. The project will have more immediate and pragmatic uses than repopulating the Earth in the aftermath of bionic space-zombies.
Many are unaware that the majority of our produce- everything from apples to zucchini- are grown from a decreasing number of strains. Even a hundred years ago, the produce in a local farm stand would likely have been different from the produce in a farm stand fifty miles away. New strains are bred (and engineered) for a variety of reasons. Some produce a greater yield per acre, some resist specific pests, or in some cases, crops are bred to look good on a shelf after a long trip. While there are undeniable benefits to some of these changes, we as a society seem again to be ignoring some of the long term implications of these decisions.
Among these implications are the creation of a genetic bottleneck as a small number of breeds begin to predominate; the loss of some of our historical and cultural fabric as unique and sometimes storied stocks are mothballed; and a dwindling number of choices at the supermarket.
The Svalbard project is insurance against ongoing shortage resulting from the genetic bottleneck we’re creating, from climate change, and from other humanmade and natural problems. But, government is not the only solution. The reader can be part of a similar biological archive by making some simple choices. Favoring in-season crops, buying from local farmers’ markets, and raising a garden from heirloom seed are inexpensive ways to support local crop strains, biodiversity, and a culinary legacy.

Image source: Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Norway

Post script: "Heirloom seed" sounds expensive, but it generally isn’t. In fact, many people give it away. For those readers interested in getting some heirloom seed of their very own, I provide links to some dealers and resources. You can also probably find sources at local garden clubs, and can certainly find other dealers on the Web:
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (This is where ERD shops)
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Native Seeds

Friday, February 22, 2008

Extra, extra! Some questions to the reader returns!

This week saw the quiet passing of a dubious anniversary in American history. On February 19, 1942, FDR passed an Executive Order directing the military to compel American citizens of Japanese descent into inland camps. This has returned my thoughts again to the question, “Who has rights?”
With this problem in mind I resurrect Some questions to the reader, a device that charged-up regulars and passersby on The Influence Machine. The questions posed below (and their sequents) are an invitation to the reader (and to the contributors of this blog) to build discourse, agree, disagree, get mad, ask related questions, and understand a spectrum of opinions.
Comments on Blue Island Almanack can be long and cerebral (I’m as guilty as anyone on this front), but please feel welcome to respond to any of these questions, to all of them, or to questions you can connect to them- I want to hear what you think.
So, you tell me:

Who has rights? Do any rights extend to those who are not citizens of a particular country (or state, or county, or city)? Are there rights that are not codified by any government? Do governments grant any rights that they shouldn’t? Can a just government suspend people’s rights? Who should decide these things?

Image source: National Archives and Records Administration (ARC Identifier: 539149)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Education and Economic Mobility

This article from the New York Times is directly related to the discussion that we have been having regarding education.

Higher Education Gap May Slow Economic Mobility

On particular quote from it:

"Mr. Butler said experts were likely to disagree about the reasons and, hence, on policies to improve mobility. Conservative scholars are more apt to fault cultural norms and the breakdown of families while liberals put more emphasis on the changing structure of the economy and the need for government to provide safety nets and aid for poor families."

I think we all agree that there are things that need to be fixed -- we just can't agree on how to fix them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

We Must Change

I'll start out by saying that this post is not about Barack Obama, voting for Barack Obama, or voting for the democratic party. This post is about what it will take to actually initiate effective change regarding the issues we are most interested in - education, economy, environment, and ethics.

Over the past years, when dealing with almost every issue, our nation has been told that there is either no hope (social security for example), no movement for change (education for example), or out right denial (climate change for example). Why is it that society has allowed itself to be told this over and over again?

We have allowed ourselves to be told that we should not get our hopes up...not have high expectations for the decisions of our policy makers...not have an optimistic outlook on the future. No wonder the youth generations are as inactive in public discourse as they are! They have been given no chance to lend their ideas - if it isn't a part of the political norm of the day, they are told indirectly that it is unrealistic, infeasible, or not good enough.

While we write, speak of, and comment on these posts, I think it is important to note that no idea is ridiculous. For example, it will take some outside-of-the-box solutions to truly fix increasing entitlement costs, climate change, and education (see comments from previous post)for example. Outside-of-the-box solutions could be something brand new or a solution that was deemed "not possible" by the current political crowd.

Society needs a change in message - one that is inclusive and open minded. High minded debate is excellent and needed, but will be for nothing if those very debates are constricted by a message of "it's not possible" or if the solutions of such a debate are passed over. It may seem unrealistic to think this way, but the issues that face us require it.

The video, while being for Obama, also tells the story of a new message. It says nothing of what cannot be done, but of the possibilities of what can be done. If anything, this message could make the ideas and solutions talked about in these posts real and within reach. Do you think a message such as this is good for society? Policy making? Will it be enough to tip the scales in favor of real solutions for education, the economy, ethics, and the environment?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

How should the educated legislators fix education?

Education is one of those issues that, I think, no party has any idea on how to fix. Increasing federal spending seems to not have much of a difference in some cases (Washington, D.C.), while school vouchers are unfair, aren't enough to make a difference, and make the system worse for everyone. So where does that leave us? I am fairly young, so eventually I will have children that need to become educated, and looking at how education reform has gone (No Child Left Behind), it won't be an easy process.

I think it is here that the point needs to be made. Education may not necessarily be just a funding issue - it is also a parenting issue, a teaching issue, a middle class economy issue, etc. Also, now that our economy has changed, the current way society teaches children is obsolete - it is this that makes us less competitive, not outsourcing, it seems.

With that being said, check out an Op-Ed in yesterdays New York Times by the Republican (I want to say strategist), David Brooks. He lays out an interesting set of policy ideas, that while not all of them are good in my opinion (health care savings accounts and assuming you need to reform unions to institute merit pay), many of them take a swipe at some of the deep rooted issues of education.

I bring all of this up because the Democrats want to take away No Child Left Behind - as do I - but what are they gong to do after that? Brooks brings up middle class tax cuts, so are the democrats going to focus their replacement of Bush's tax cuts with those? Can we cut taxes? Brooks talks about strengthening Kindergarten - a very liberal idea - but this will increase spending. Lastly, how do we reform education when each state has their own system of rules and regulations?

Something needs to give, but I don't think the Democrats have a solid plan and the Republicans tend not to have a clue, so where does that leave us?

Image Source

Stop trying to save the planet

Since An Inconvenient Truth's commercial and political success, I've seen a well-intended but potentially dangerous slogan rear its head again. "Save the Planet" and similar sentiments can be seen in the fickle fortunes of politics and fashion.
While I agree with the urgency of such enjoinders, I fear that people are interpreting them as rallying cries in a short-lived contest. I'm concerned that people want to "win the fight" and get back to living the way they did before, having thwarted those pesky polluters and depletors who were causing all of the problems.
This way of thinking is very much like that of the yo-yo dieter, who generally gets too little exercise and has an unhealthy diet, and who decides to take up running and eating only carrots for a month. Then, having vanquished 10 pounds, he contentedly goes back to the lifestyle that caused the problem in the first place. Almost as quickly as the weight was shed, it returns.
Likewise, many of us have been inspired to spend a week taking shorter showers, or for a time reused items that we can't recycle. Then the showers get longer and longer, and the non-recyclable items start going directly into the trash.
Instead of this pendular self-defeat, we need to look at long term solutions. This means changing our lifestyles and building a "new normal". Tastes, opinions, and appearances will change, but we need to recognize that we as consumers are the source of demand for products and the source of waste in the manufacture, use, and disposal of those products. With this in mind, "saving the planet" becomes not an event, not a fight, not something to be perpetrated upon a phantom villain, but an ongoing change in our own ways of thinking and living.

Image sources:
National Endowment for the Arts

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A watershed choice in party politics

The pundits called the race. And called it, and called it, and called it. Given the number of times that they’ve called it wrong, and given the simple arithmetic truth that the race is still on, one would hope to see the media spend more time observing and reporting than concluding.
The fact that the primaries rage on is a significant fact in my part of the country. Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia are holding their primaries today. This novel grouping was considered a harebrained idea when it began to materialize a year ago. But, for the two states involved, it now means a greater than usual significance in party politics. For the District, it means some rare diagonal say in how residents are governed.
I see what is perhaps an even greater change in this assemblage. The contest was at first nicknamed by the media, “The Beltway Primary”, a decision that irritated the many far-flung residents of the region who never use the road, and which similarly rankled those of us who unfortunately must. Who on Earth would want to be identified by a filthy, noisy highway, known for some of the worst traffic in the country? The moniker “Chesapeake Primary” now seems to be attached to the race.
Though I can’t imagine such reasoning entered into the minds of many who have popularized the name, Chesapeake Primary is both geographically and ecologically insightful. The vast majority of residents of Maryland and Virginia, and all of DC, live in areas that drain ultimately into the Chesapeake. The Bay affects our economy, our weather, and our identity. We impact the amount and cleanliness of the water that enters into it, influencing the health of blue crabs and oysters, and the livelihoods of watermen who depend upon them.
In this election’s name, we have organized part of a national political race around a bioregion. This decision could contribute to important changes in thinking in the relationships between politics and the environment. Chief among these changes is the realization that where we live and the resources we share are at least as important as our party affiliations when building our government.

Image source: NASA/GSFC Earth Observatory

Monday, February 11, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere -- Just Not Where We Need It

Water is our most precious resource. Life on earth requires it. Agriculture would not exist without it.

The amount of water on this planet is basically constant. We generally don’t create it or use it up. We use it for our purposes.

We sometimes contaminate our water so that it is unusable. However, the natural hydrologic cycle can cleanse that water through evaporation, condensation, and precipitation to make it usable again.

The issue is location. Is the water where we need it, when we need it, and in a usable form? Is it available in the correct quantities? Is there too much, or too little?

We can move water from one location to another. If we utilize the natural properties of water and gravity, it moves itself. If we move it uphill, it costs us energy – either to pump it or to haul it.

Competing demands for available water is an issue in many areas. People require water daily for drinking, bathing, watering lawns and plants and for other purposes. Manufacturing industries require water in various processes. Agriculture requires water for growing crops and for sustaining livestock. Water is being used everywhere.

As population grows the demand for water grows proportionally. Not only does the increase in population require more for drinking and other personal purposes, it creates demand for more manufactured goods and for more food. Growing demand by each use creates competing interests that bid for existing water. Rainfall is free, but water located in the right place, at the right time and in usable form is not. We must pay to get it there.

How do we balance the competing demands for our water resources? Is it something that must be left to market forces to determine? Who pays for developing new infrastructure for capturing or transporting water? How do we determine the allocation of those costs?

Droughts in various parts of the world that are unaccustomed to them have heightened the awareness of water as a growing concern. Both the Southeastern U.S. and the Western U.S. have faced droughts in the past year. Will concern over available water supplies force a reallocation among the competing concerns so that agriculture, the number one user of water in the west, will lose out to the cities? There has already been talk of farmers selling their water allocations to cities.

If population pressures force water costs to a level that agricultural concerns choose to sell their water to cities, what will be the impact to agricultural producers elsewhere? Will we see a further concentration of agriculture on arid lands that are productive only through supplemental irrigation? What will be the impact on the aquifers and reservoirs that supply that irrigation water?

There is a lot of talk among certain groups of pushing agriculture toward less intensive, more “environmentally friendly,” sustainable forms such as grass-fed beef and non-irrigated production systems. With a growing population demanding more-and-more food, how will that be possible?

The questions are many and the answers are few. Water is the root issue. Agriculture remains at the center of the storm. It is blamed for the problem and looked to for solutions. The level of turmoil is high.

With turmoil comes opportunity. Agricultural Experiment Stations, crop science companies, hydrologic engineers, and many others will have a tremendous task ahead of them. Genetically engineering plants to make them more drought tolerant is one possible solution. Water capture and recycling systems will become increasingly important. Re-thinking water use – such as for watering lawns -- is another area where we will likely see adjustment. Transportation of water from locations of abundance to areas of need will become more common. We may even see water-use zoning restrictions in the future.

The time is quickly approaching when water will be on everyone’s mind. It is a resource that is both abundant and scarce. How we manage it will determine our future.

Water. It's what makes this blue island of life unique.

Only the Beginning: When Science Meets Politics

The debate about anthropogenically induced climate change is taking a wild turn. At the end of this past December, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a statement entitled “Human Impacts on Climate,” which outlined the organization’s recognition of the impacts of Global Warming and called on the scientific community to further research, educate, and communicate their specialized knowledge on the subject with the public and policy makers. Statements such as these have become controversial, not because they are rare – the American Meteorological Society (AMS), for example, issued a similar piece earlier in 2007 – but because of the “consensus” view they represent.

This situation began to coalesce following the issuance of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report which presented hard data on the existence of Global Warming, backed up by expert sources in a variety of disciplines and its impact are exemplified by the rise of the vitriol opposing it and the consensus it represents. Interest groups in the fossil fuel industry, climate skeptics, and their political counterparts have led a fervent charge to discount Global Warming findings. For example, Marc Moreno, a minority staffer of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, falsely misrepresented the dissenting views of AGU scientists (Note Comment #10) in an effort to discredit the organization’s findings. In addition, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe has created a list of 400 scientists that he claims debunk the Global Warming argument.

While it is true that not all scientists in the World agree with everything the IPCC, AGU, or AMS say, it is important to note that what is occurring are the unfortunate consequences of the intersection between science and politics. Lists like Senator Inhofe’s represent what happens when politicians attempt to enter a scientific debate. Reports like those produced by the IPCC are part of the many steps the scientific community takes to understand the theory, uncertainty, and future importance of a topic. We as a society do not completely understand the Earth’s climate and therefore climate change, but we do have a considerable amount of information that can be brought to bear in this case. Given this, a large number of the scientific community has become convinced that we are actively and negatively affecting the very environment we live in.

Unfortunately, as science continues to bridge the gap between research and public policy, there will be consequences. Organizations like the AGU must realize that once politics enter their debate, the rules change. The research will be scrutinized more closely; predictions will be used as pure fact; and every error or mistake will be used to show how weak a scientific argument is, all in the name of politics. Regardless, the future of climate science, and in fact our society, lies in interdisciplinary and holistic research, whether we agree with the cut throat nature of policy making or not. Controversy, such as that surrounding the AGU statement and unfounded comments by politicians are only the beginning and it will only get worse. With confidence though, I believe not only will science win in the end, but ultimately society will reap the benefits of the hard fought battle between science and politics. It is only the beginning.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A great improvisation

We live in a contentious time, an era in which all of the rules seem constantly subject to revision without notice. People divide themselves based upon ideologies and geography. Our growing human population and fast-evolving ways of life fuel our needs, our wants, and the means we use to satisfy them.
This booming demand and frenetic change are complicated by the constraints and connections of our collective home, this blue island in space. We find ourselves fighting over beliefs, land, and natural and cultural resources. Likewise, we enjoy an exchange of ideas and benefits of connection.
Blue Island Almanack is established to explore our home and how we use, share, and compete over it. Sometimes this exploration may be personal or related to authors’ immediate communities, and at times it will deal with global or theoretical ideas. The contributors find particular value in the central ideas of economy, education, environment, and ethics; these concepts seem to strike a chord with many people, and permeate the variety, complexity, and connectivity of many issues.
The contributors to this blog invite readers not only to hear what we have to say, but to contribute to the fabric of the articles, essays, and discussions we offer by asking questions and providing insights and challenges. This discourse will lend shape and movement to the blog as we move forward.
On behalf of founding bloggers Panhandle Poet, Progressive, and Sue, I welcome you and thank you for taking time to participate in this project.

-E.R. Dunhill

Monday, February 4, 2008

economic lacunae

Over the weekend, I was browsing about on the Internet reading blogs by self-identified conservatives. While I am quite certain that what I am about to say applies all across the political spectrum, it was these conservative bloggers that brought it to my attention. It would appear that many, otherwise well educated Americans, lack a clear understanding of how our present day capitalist economy functions.

The primary misunderstanding seems to be lodged in the assumption that what is good for individuals and families is always good for the overall economy, and vise versa, what is bad for individuals and families is always bad for the overall economy. Certainly, many times that is true, but not always.

In many posts and comments I ran across this weekend, the writers blamed our current economic down turn (and possible recession) on Americans spending too much and getting too deeply into debt. Yet, when we look at the remedy being offered by President Bush to provide "economic stimulus," the solution offered is putting more money into the hands of people to spend; not to save, not to pay off existing debts, but to spend on new purchases. Notice also that the response of the Federal Reserve to the economic down turn is to reduce interest rates. Reducing interest rates encourages borrowing, and discourages traditional saving (although it may help encourage investment in the stock market). This is because President Bush, his economic advisers, and the Chair of the Federal Reserve understand that our economy lives or dies on consumption [even the consumption of goods made in other countries].

While the U.S. still does have a substantial goods producing economic sector, its importance in our economy today has declined in comparison to our service sector, where goods and services are sold. Back in the 1940's it was said "As General Motors goes, so goes the nation." Today it would probably be more apropos to say "As Walmart goes, so goes the nation."

I suppose that it is easy to confuse one specific economic problem -- the melt down of the subprime lending market -- with the overall economic process. Certainly the large number of defaults by subprime borrowers who were severely over-extended has contributed to current economic down-turn. However, it is how those defaults impact consumption through cutbacks in housing construction, purchases of construction goods, and workforce layoffs that is crucial.

From the standpoint of the individual or family, cutting back on expenditures and paying down debts is rational and sensible. Saving, may or may not be rational from an individual depending upon the relationship between interest rates and the cost of living. But for the economy as a whole, rebounding from recession depends upon expanding consumer demand for new products and services.

As presently constituted, our economy depends upon continuous growth in production of goods and services, which requires continuous growth in consumption. The expansion of credit in the United States has been one major means by which our economy has produced growth in consumption. This has obvious negative consequences for individuals and families whose debt grows to unsustainable proportions. Moreover, as our current economic downturn evidences, in the long run, growth cannot be sustained on credit.

The economic history of capitalism has been a cyclical history of booms and busts. After the Great Depression of the 1930's governments, including the U.S. government, became more involved with the economy to moderate the devastating impacts of the bust periods. Nonetheless, down-turns are inevitably built into to the our economic system, they are not the "fault" of the individuals and families who borrowed beyond their means, since that is exactly what is required to create the boom periods. This is one of the internal inconsistencies or contradictions of capitalism. To remove it, means to modify the economic structure in significant ways.

It is interesting to me, that one of the primary beneficiaries of our economic system has recently suggested exactly this, that our economic system requires modification. Last week Bill Gates, speaking to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said:

"We have to find a way to make the aspects of capitalism that serve
wealthier people serve poorer people as well. I like to call this idea creative
capitalism." He [Gates] also called for making changes to capitalism so that corporations and governments devote more time and money to doing work that "eases the world's inequities" - and bringing science and technology to everyone. ("World's Richest Man Criticizes Capitalism")
Ideas worthy of further consideration.