Saturday, March 29, 2008

Earth Hour, tonight Saturday March 29

The second annual observance of Earth Hour, is scheduled world wide for 8 to 9 PM tonight (local time, not simultaneously), Saturday March 29. Cities, communities, corporations, and individuals around to globe are being asked to voluntarily turn off all the lights, TV, stereos, computers, microwaves, and other electricity consuming accouterments of modern life for one hour.

The idea is for each city/community to cut the power at their own time zone's 8:00 PM, so that there is an effect of rolling darkness following the setting sun.

The first Earth Hour in 2007 was a project of the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald. More information is available at the Earth Hour - North America web page and The Daily Kos (where there are some nice comments about thing people might do instead). .

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Yep, It's Hot in Texas

Here is an interesting story from the AP....

Census: Texas Is the Hot Place to Live

Some quotes:

"Experts credit much of the growth in the South to relatively strong local economies and housing prices that are among the most affordable in the U.S."

"According to figures compiled by Eschbach, 16 percent of Americans who moved to other states between July 2006 and July 2007 came to Texas, which led the nation for the second straight year in that category."

The story further cites housing cost as the biggest factor stating that housing is "undervalued" in places like the Dallas-Fort Worth market.

What do y'all think? Why are people flocking to the south -- Texas in particular?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What Should be Done by Governments?

Over the history of this country, business owners and managers have already asked and gotten government (local, state and federal) to do the following: print money, control monetary supply, set interest rates; establish laws and maintain courts that enforce contracts and protect property rights, patent rights, copyrights, trademark rights; build and maintain highways, roads, bridges, harbors, airports; provide police protection, provide fire protection, incarcerate or otherwise contain persons who violate property laws (theft, embezzlement), provide military protection outside of U.S. boundaries and during national disasters; provide flood insurance, disaster relief; establish and enforce standardized weights and measurements; do research and development of new technologies that can create new products; develop and maintain space rocket/shuttle services necessary to create and maintain satellites for telecommunications; provide basic education to produce a work force that can read, write and do basic mathematics. Which of these things should government continue to do? Which should government stop doing? How should we pay for the cost of doing these things?

What are other things [aside from what government does to promote business profit] that you as a citizen, want government to do? What do you want your local government to do? What do you want your state government to do? What do you want your federal government to do? How should we pay for the things that you want government to do for you?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Scorpions in the Constitutional Bottle: Uncivil Speech, Civil Society

I shamelessly rip-off today's questions from the description of an American studies course at Georgetown:
Tensions exist between the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and the goal articulated by the Framers in the Preamble of The Constitution of establishing a society that would “insure domestic Tranquility and promote the general Welfare.” What happens when these goals collide? What is permissible under the constitutional protection of free speech? In pushing the free speech envelope, how far is too far? When is speech so uncivil that domestic tranquility takes precedence? What is lost and what is gained as a society in resolving these tensions?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

O wonderful, wonderful

I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet the last several days. A week ago, my wife and I welcomed into the world our first child, a son. Mother and baby are both in great health. This is one of those great moments in a person’s life that is formative of everything to come, and which colors all of the memories that precede it.
This is also an event that brings home the reality and immediacy of the need for broad change in how our society does things. Any parent knows that they must provide a safe home for their child and ensure that they are well fed and cared for. A good parent also knows that he must thoughtfully raise his child and provide for his future. Yet, somehow, we’ve failed to recognize that we can’t make reckless use of finite resources, or produce persistent waste without limits. Ensuring that our children have everything they will need for a healthy, dignified life is no less our responsibility than feeding them and keeping them warm. This is a time of great celebration for me (not to mention a time of abject sleep-deprivation), but is also an opportunity to renew my focus on what is increasingly the work of my life, the pursuit of a sustainable community.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

AMS Science Policy Priorities

The AMS (American Meteorological Society) has recently posted a draft policy statement regarding weather and climate priorities. Over the previous months there have been discussions on numerous blogs, in Congress, and within Universities regarding what needs to be prioritized due to our increasing susceptibility to extreme weather events as well as impending climate shifts.

These discussions have taken place regarding historic storms, like Hurricanes (Should New Orleans rebuild?), flooding (Should people still live along flood prone rivers?), and tornadoes (Should people in severe weather prone regions not have adequate shelter or warning systems?, for example.

These debates, while important, seem to be draining societies abilities to plan and adapt to possible impending disasters. Therefore, it is applaudable for the AMS to set out a "first-stage" list of priorities. I have my own set of opinions, but because this is a draft and open to public criticism, all of our comments could be forwarded to the AMS, which will be discussed by their board and possibly made into changes for their final-permanent statement. The following are the listed priorities from the linked draft and my comments:

1. Ensure That New Knowledge Will Be There When Needed.

a. Goal: Ensure that the scientific understanding needed for tomorrow's decisions
is indeed available.
b. Action: Congress should meaningfully augment the funding for weather and climate basic research over each of the next five years. The incoming Administration should mount an immediate, high level review of current agency work in this area to prioritize the allocation of these new resources. Members of the AMS community will be largely responsible for implementing the new research and should identify and take concrete steps to accelerate, and report on, progress.

2. Improve Infrastructure and the Utility of Forecasts.
a. Goal: Advance the quality, timeliness, geographical specificity, and socio economic impact content of products and services.
b. Action: Congress must continue support for ocean–atmospheric–terrestrial measurements and modeling of the Earth system, associated computing infrastructure, building the weather and climate workforce, and educating the public. Some very specific actions include federal investments and addressing the recommendations made in the recent National Research Council Earth Observation Decadal Survey. The incoming Administration must tighten interagency accountability and coordination with respect to development and use of the new capabilities. Congress and the incoming Administration should also work together to identify and develop the funding needed to support the coming new generation of operational polar orbiting and geostationary satellites, surface radar networks, etc.

3. Develop Leadership and Coordination.
a. Goal: Appoint key leaders and improve federal coordination.
b. Action: To ensure investments in infrastructure and forecast utility achieve the greatest benefit, the federal agencies including NOAA, USDA, DoE, DoI, EPA, NASA, NSF, and the White House itself (OMB and OSTP) must take more leadership in coordinating these efforts. The incoming Administration must appoint strong, qualified leaders, especially to top policy positions. NOAA will play a key role in this effort and top NOAA and Commerce officials should be selected who can make strategic decisions relative to weather and climate issues. An experienced and knowledgeable leader coordinating overall federal efforts should report directly to the President. The President's Science Advisor would be an appropriate position for such a leader; the position would require an individual with a broad weather and climate background. Congress must call for such appointments, and exercise its powerful advise and consent and oversight role. For its part, the AMS community will recommend slates of qualified candidates for these positions and provide such lists to the new Administration.

4. Build Partnerships for Action.
a. Goal: Create public, private, and academic partnerships that can develop better approaches and tools to plan, prepare for, and cope with local and regional weather and climate impacts.
b. Action: A decade ago, the United States undertook a national climate assessment, to better understand the needs of local and regional decision makers facing climate change impacts. Congress should mandate a new national assessment. The incoming Administration should make this assessment a priority, and focus on developing the tools and resources needed to deal effectively with local and regional weather and climate impacts. This assessment should begin with a national summit of key stakeholders (i.e., governors, emergency managers, and information users and providers from the public, private, and academic sectors) to define goals. The AMS community can help facilitate this assessment with its current network of companies and universities throughout the country — many of which already have relationships and projects with local and regional decision makers. The assessment would build a national network of partners skilled in dealing with weather and climate impact decision making.

5. Evaluate Progress and Make Needed Mid-Course Changes.
a. Goal. Create a mechanism to monitor progress on goals.
b. Action: Congress should request that the incoming Administration establish a Commission that reports to the President and the Congress on the progress in addressing these priorities, and on their impacts with respect to national policy. The Commission membership should draw members from public, private, and academic sectors and include information end users as well as providers. The AMS community should also help, initially by making recommendations with respect to the composition of such a Commission, and subsequently, by developing and providing information for use by the Commission throughout its deliberations

Monday, March 10, 2008

Moral Crusader

In recent posts there has been much talk about morals, relativism vs. absolutism, and what is deemed right or wrong. It is obvious that we can debate relativism vs. absolutism for an infinite amount of time without coming to a consensus view. This is what is most important, I believe, because one persons views will always differ from the next. While religiosity can be called into play here, it must be stressed every individual in society is brought up uniquely. Each person has their own set of experiences, given-advice, and environmental upbringing, which creates a persons moral standards.

Regardless of calls for moral absolutism, there will always be deviations. With that being said, how does this play in policy making and the electorate? Todays headlines flash the tragic news of New York Governor Elliott Spitzer's involvement in a prostitution ring. It is yet another case of our policy makers getting illegally wrapped up in the very laws they are charged to enforce and follow. It is interesting to note how quickly the electorate will turn on those politicians that are caught in an unfortunate, and sometimes illegal, act. It is common place for an individual to harp on the bad deeds of their politicians, while also performing their own less-than-moral acts.

In the case of Spitzer, it is obvious that he must step down as Governor, but as more of a political and familial decision (much can be said of the politics that pushed this story forward as well as why other flagged politicians have not stepped down as well). Morally, though, is it right that society holds their decision makers to a higher standard then how they hold their own? While moral relativism (in my opinion) is the only possible case for society, is it right to act as moral absolutists in regards to their elected officials? Is public policy more of an "ideas game" than an "individual game"?

Image Source: CBS News

Friday, March 7, 2008

Relatively Wasteful

When is waste waste? The linked article below poses an interesting view of waste. What do you think?

YOU DECIDE: Is waste relative?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Says who?

There's been a good deal of discussion here about how we decide what is right. There's been concern over moral relativism, moral or religious law, and the roles of government, society, and community in making these determinations. I find a number of nagging questions amidst these discussions, which are worth addressing in some detail. Those questions beg a few preamble questions that frame the discussion. I ask the reader:
Does a deity, or do deities, exist? If not, would people have invented one (or several)? Do morals other than providing for one's own interests exist if there is no higher power? Or, do other people become more inherently valuable in the absence of such a power? Are there other metaphysical phenomena that could promulgate a moral framework?

Image sources:
Freer & Sackler Galleries
US National Gallery of Art

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A plague of plagiarism

I just put an 8 week on-line sociology class to rest; entered the grades and said farewell. I was, up until the very last moment, about to have an all time record for on-line classes. For the first time since I began teaching on-line classes in 2000, I was about to have a class in which everyone who had not officially withdrawn actually completed the entire course with a passing grade. Some of those grades were going to be D's, but they were still going to pass. Normally there are several students who neither complete the course nor take the time to formally withdraw and thus end up with failing grades -- an "E" in our system.

Unfortunately, when I got to the very last student (both alphabetically and because she had waited until the last day of class to turn all her papers for the whole eight weeks), all the work she turned in was plagiarized. Some were papers taken in their entirety from one of the free on-line paper mills, other she apparantly did the work of hunting down paragraphs to copy from the internet herself. Plagiarism is always upsetting and disruptive, but this coming as it did at the last minute to ruin what would otherwise have been a class for the record book, was crushing.

I have less plagiarism in my classes since I got seriously tough on it, and created ways of getting the message across to students at the beginning of the class (borrowed some great "For Better For Worse" cartoon strips from Lynn Johnston -- with references of course) that drive home the point. But even with all the warnings, students still do it. I don't remember have these problems when I first began teaching 30 years ago.

As a sociologist I have to wonder, is plagiarism more common today or is it just easier for teachers to check for it? If it is more common (which I suspect but cannot prove) why is it?

For a time I thought that what I perceived as an increased incidence of plagiarism was only because the types of students that I taught had changed. I began teaching at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and then moved on to the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, now I teach at a community college, in a poor, rural area. Was the increase plagiarism due to my students having poorer preparation and poorer college skills? Since discovering the Rate Your Students blog, I realize that the problem of plagiarism goes well beyond my little corner of academia.

So if, as I believe (but cannot prove), plagiarism has increased, the question is why? I know lots of people who would jump to "declining values" as their first response. That answer reminds me of a quote from sociologist Abraham Kaplan "We do not explain why there is a lion in the garden by pointing out that in fact there are two of them in there." If values have changed what caused them to change? Values are a cultural phenomenon, they are the result of social processes, and do not float down from the ether. For there to have been widespread changes in values, there have to be widespread changes in society that produce those value changes.

What has changed? One thing that has changed is opportunity. The technology of computers and the Internet has certainly made plagiarism far easier than it was in my college days. I would liken it to changing the channel on the TV -- from the time I was 5 until I was 34, when I wanted to change the channel on the TV I got up, walked across the room and turned a nob to change the channel. I didn't change channels often, and used the TV Guide to look up what I might watch before changing channels. Then I got a remote control, and overnight I became a channel surfer, and changed my viewing habits just like that. My values and attitudes about television viewing changed after the fact, as a result of access to a new technology.

Something else that has changed is that a much higher percentage of high school students (and the population in general) are going to college, than did when I went to college. While the increased access to college has benefited many people who want to go to college who might have been left out forty or fifty years ago, it has also meant that many people who aren't really interested in what colleges offer (academic learning) are nonetheless attending college. They are attending college because that is what the job market demands. As a society we have lost alternative career paths -- even though there are shortages in fields that don't really need college (electricians, plumbers, construction, repair work). When economic necessity is forcing you to get a diploma, but you don't care for the activities that are required to get that diploma, short cuts become appealing.

These are just two ideas I've had about the sources of plagiarism. I think that there are more things, and I'd like to hear other people's thoughts.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The right to pollute

Whether you're a global warming true-believer, iconoclast, or somewhere in between, the subject begs questions about the tragically unglamorous, hugely important question of pollution in general. Among them:
Do individuals (or groups, or corporations) have a fundamental right to pollute? Do economic and business activities (including personal business) necessarily result in pollution? Do I have the right to not accept someone else's pollution? Do I have any particular recourse if someone else's waste winds up on my property? What if I am only a part-owner of that property?

Image source: National Archives and Records Administration (ARC Identifier: 557246)