Thursday, February 24, 2011
That’s the reward posted by a consortium of private environmental groups for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator who shot and killed a male bird in the Alabama marshlands in mid-February, one of six such endangered birds killed in the last fourteen months. Estimates of remaining birds in Canada and the United States suggest that the entire remaining population of this species numbers somewhere between 50 and just over 400, and a breeding campaign has been mounted in the last couple of years to restore this species to the continent. “The Whooping Crane (Grus americana), the tallest North American bird, is an endangered crane species named for its whooping sound and call. Along with the Sandhill Crane, it is one of only two crane species found in North America. The whooping crane's lifespan is estimated to be 22 to 24 years in the wild.” Wikipedia
Embellished by the civil laws of many states, killing or illegally transporting a whooping crane in the United States carries a federal penalty of $10,000 and up to six months behind bars. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been slowly breeding and releasing whooping cranes back into the wild in several states, and the bird killed in Alabama noted above, who carried federal market (22-10 – the 22nd bird bred and release in 2010), had been originally released in Wisconsin the year before.
Here is the process of breeding and reintroduction as described on the FWS Website: “The crane chicks are being captive-reared at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center [in Laurel, Maryland] until they are 40 to 60 days old. Training started from just before hatch with exposure of the eggs to sounds of crane calls and ultralight aircraft engine noise. At Patuxent, chicks will be trained to follow the ultralights in the protected captive environment and later in the out-of-doors pens at the center. When the chicks no longer need heat and protection from the elements, they will be moved to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge [Wisconsin] for flight training behind the ultralight…
“When teaching cranes to follow an ultralight aircraft they can easily become overly tame. If this happened, they could suffer an "identity crisis" when they reach breeding age and not recognize other whooping cranes, or become a nuisance because they associate people with a source of food. While interacting with the birds, the Operation Migration handlers minimize human contact time. They work in silence while covered head to toe in gray fabric costumes that disguise the human form. This is done so that the cranes will not be familiar with the normally dressed humans they may encounter after they are released.”
There is concern among those investigating these killings that somehow they might be linked. The February 20th AOLNews.com explains the killing that immediately preceded the death of 10-22 above: “The crane discovered last month, #12-04, was an adult male who had learned how to migrate behind an ultralight aircraft flown by Operation Migration, a partner in a group formed to increase whooping crane numbers… That crane made its first migration to Florida in 2004, wintering there for five years until it started spending winters on the marshes around Weiss Lake, Ala., where the Fish and Wildlife Service said it was found dead. The crane had nested with a female in the spring, producing a chick that did not survive… ‘This is a six-year-old bird, one of a couple of dozen that are old enough, sexually mature, and could breed,’ Liz Condie of Operation Migration told the St. Petersburg Times....‘This crane had a chick. Could this be any freaking worse?’ Condie said. Three cranes -– two males and a female that hatched in 2010 -- were found shot to death in Calhoun County, Ga., on Dec. 30.”
In the end, nature remains ambivalent about extinction; she has seen it come and go millions of times before. She does not care if we destroy the planet, eliminate species, or even if we create an environment that will not even sustain human life. Nature has time on her hands. She sends us little reminders of what irresponsible environmental behavior could mean for human beings, but if we die off, she’ll let the environment recover for a few dozen millennia… and simply and slowly replace us… or not. It is our world, our environment and our responsibility… if we expect to survive in the longer term. Whooping cranes, beautiful and magnificent, are just one more reminder.
I’m Peter Dekom, and living well while still maintaining a sustainable environment is the most complex balancing act entrusted to human being.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Maybe you remember standing in line at the high school or college cafeteria, particularly with one of those prepaid, all-you-can-eat, meal plans. Hey, you paid for it so… bring it on, a little (but not destined to stay so little) voice might cry. Heaps of pasta or pancakes, sausage and scrambled eggs, and large lumps of palpitating cake… thump, thwack, grab! Do you remember considering carrying a heavy “punched out,” prison issue metal tray laden with excess food a form of collegiate exercise? One, two, three, four… lift!
Remember the “freshman ten” or “fifteen” or “twenty-five”? For some, that was a transition period that remained, you should pardon the expression, swell for life. Many blamed that late-night pizza delivery dude with pepperoni poison dripping with gooey, oil-oozing cheese. Yum, even better the next day after being left out overnight! Sitting around, late at night, chewing the fat? Comfort food… great for exam period… and pre-exam period… and to celebrate after exam period.
And who could resist, on a snowy campus, using a metal tray purloined from the cafeteria as a sled…. Weeeeeeeeee! I’m getting exercise! Weeeeeee! That means I can load the one I will use at the cafeteria with even more… lift, one, two, three… So campus administrators, wanting to save money, avoid waste and help their chubby-and-getting-chubbier students avoid waist! But, Ms. College President, the ones stamped with the college seal make such great souvenirs?! What if the carrying surface from the food line simply were smaller and held less food? Hmmm… could that diabolical plan hold water?
All over the country, schools & universities are shedding those seemingly efficient, one-tray-as-a-plate-holds-all, and replacing them with… tum-tee-dum… with… er… plates. Smaller, right? And oddly, students are shedding pounds and reducing waste/waist. The February 17th Washington Post writes: “Without a tray, students have to be pickier during the first sweep of the cafeteria line and make trips back for more. It results in as much as 25 to 30 percent less wasted food, according to a 2008 study of 25 campuses by food services provider Aramark.” Yeah, and a few kids consider the extra walking back and forth to get seconds and thirds to be a new form of exercise!
Young men and women faced with losing their favorite ftv (food transport vehicle) for a small plate and a single cup are often upset… and even protests can emerge. Not exactly like a Bahrain bash or a Cairo cabal, but reflecting not being consulted. “At Virginia Tech, administrators recruited the student government and campus environmentalists to help [sell the plan]. It started as an Earth Week experiment during the 2008 spring semester, when student volunteers weighed the amount of food waste in dining halls with and without trays. Without trays, students wasted 38 percent less food. By summer, the trays were gone in the two main dining halls on campus, D2 and Shultz.” The Post. Perhaps, loyal readers, you are finding all this much too difficult to swallow! Chances of the world’s staying the same are… er… slim… to none!
I’m Peter Dekom, and with commodities prices destined to soar, perhaps this really is one of my economic blogs after all!
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Explosive and violent riots have shaken the Middle East to its core, sent a couple of dictators packing, and threaten to topple additional strongmen and monarchs alike. The patterns are the same – high unemployment, particularly among the educated classes with the knowledge and the networking tools to incite, corrupt privilege accorded to the connected few at the expense of the hopeless many, all accelerated by the regional success in Tunisia and Egypt. As the Chinese curse suggests, Middle Eastern prelates are living in “interesting times.” The names roll off the tongue: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Bahrain… and maybe Lebanon, where an election in a violence-plagued country has placed a Hezbollah prime minister at the helm.
American policy-makers fear that this sequential litany of power vacuums will be filled with vitriolic and violent anti-American and anti-Israeli Islamists, resentment reinforced because it was often U.S. military aid that tipped the balance to allow such greed-invested regimes to maintain their repressive control. The U.S. has a long-standing practice, administered by Presidents on both sides of the aisle, of granting aid and support to any regime that advanced U.S. goals, willing to look the other way at the nefarious and corrupt hands reaching into local pockets, executing and imprisoning “dissidents” who resisted. Indeed, the numbers of pro-American charismatic leaders waiting in the wings for “their turn” to replace the regimes that have fallen or that are teetering are particularly small, secular or Muslim.
While anti-Americanism is almost a mandate for any modern Middle Eastern leader-wannabe, the survivalist incumbent power elite (facing anger and scrutiny from the masses), willing to sacrifice a few of their own in a grand gesture seemingly in support of radical change, are also the ones reaching out to American largess for foreign aid grants in exchange for mediating and moderating the degree of change. The most obvious case-in-point is the Egyptian military, the ultimate power that sanctioned populist change, removed the last vestiges of the Mubarak regime, and is administering the arrest and trial of former cabinet members accused of waste and corruption. Yes, the same Egyptian military that controls the Suez Canal, is allowing Iranian military traffic through that canal and that… and here’s the biggie… still has its own corrupt stranglehold on privileged economic benefits that it is most unwilling to relinquish. Their hands are outstretched to the U.S. to continue that military aid package, willing to agree to maintain the existing treaty structure with Israel in exchange for hardware and cash.
Yet even as Mubarak and his cronies are gone, protests and strikes continue to rock Egypt. Didn’t the people get what they wanted? The evil and corrupt leader is gone, his henchmen unseated and elections are looming after things “settle down.” What’s the problem? The notion of a strict Islamic Republic, mirroring the Iranian revolution, strikes fear in the heart of American policy-makers, but the reality of repression represented by Iran seems to have taken that political structure off the table, at least for Egypt and the other threatened powers in the Mediterranean Muslim world. Even the rhetoric of those able to congeal a Muslim radical focus seems strangely at odds with an Islamic Republic a la Iran.
A banished 84-year-old Muslim cleric (pictured above), Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, 84, who fled Egypt for Qatar in 1961 after spending significant time in Egyptian prisons, returned home to deliver a much awaited sermon. As a regional televangelist, Qaradawi served as an “intellectual inspiration to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood… His prominence exemplifies the peril and potential for the West as Egypt opens up. While he condemned the 9/11 attacks, he has supported suicide bombers against Israel and attacks on American forces in Iraq.” New York Times, February 18th. But his opening words on February 18th suggested how from Islamic intolerance the possible “next powers” to lead Egypt are likely to be: “Oh Muslims and Copts [referencing the Coptic Christian minority],” he extolled, “I invite you to bow down in prayer together.”
Make no mistake, Qaradawi’s message is and continues to be anti-American, but his sermon “praised Muslims and Christians for standing together in Egypt’s revolution and even lauded the Coptic Christian ‘martyrs’ who once fought the Romans and Byzantines…He urged the military officers governing Egypt to deliver on their promises of turning over power to ‘a civil government’ founded on principles of pluralism, democracy and freedom. And he called on the army to immediately release all political prisoners and rid the cabinet of its dominance by officials of the old Mubarak government.” New York Times. Radical Islam knows that it can no longer sell the repressive Islamic Republic; Iran’s example ended that structure as viable, and even in Afghanistan where the resurgent Taliban is taking over, they are able to do so only with violence and threats… filling a power vacuum created by an horrifically corrupt and very unpopular American-supported regime. The Taliban aren’t “selling” their system of government to the people; they are shoving it down their throats.
The Egyptian Army is still sweating bullets, and while Bahrain and Libya are willing to apply lethal force to repress the populist uprisings, Egyptian military forces are trying to broker a new and vibrant future… well maybe a tad less vibrant if the top military leaders are able to maintain their existing economic privileges. It is a careful balancing act, but as the continued strikes and protests suggest, the people know what is going on… and they may add the Army to the list of political elements that must let go as well. Indeed, as an increasing number of soldiers identify with the populist movement, the Army may face that change from inside as well.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Here in budget-impaired California – home to quakes, fires and resulting mudslides – an explosive forest fire is attacked from the ground and the air by every modern fire-fighting piece of equipment and trained volunteers and professionals, not only from California, but from neighboring states dedicated to mutual cooperation. News reports blister containment statistics from every medium known to man, and Californians track the devastation vs. containment battles on interactive maps that are constantly updated. As climate change has seeped and then flowed into our lives, fire season has grown longer every year. With the massive rains we have had this year, the hills are festooned with beautiful and inevitably dangerous kindling, simply awaiting the inevitable long, dry season.
So it is in a relatively wealthy Western society, but where fires burn across drought-stricken African plains, where grasslands and forests feed and shelter both people and wildlife, impoverished peoples watch with passive acceptance as their resources burn away. They are used to inhaling the toxic clouds of black smoke that smolder unchecked, sometimes for weeks on end… growing into unstoppable blazes. Feed grasses, livestock and farms become fuel. Species, a mass of individual feelings and fears, slowly are deprived of their habitats, face extinction in a modern and unforgiving world. There is no money for firefighters here.
For photographers, the orange sun blocked by thick clouds often form magnificent silhouettes in mid-day heat. But while fire has always been a cyclical natural phenomenon necessary for the very survival of the land, climate change has pushed “necessary and cyclical” to “never-ending drought followed by the seeming permanence of desertification.” Fire is simply an accelerant of this life-destroying climactic shift.
Daniel and Sindiso Mnisi Weeks expressed their vision in the February 15th New York Times as they honeymooned in Zambia, a gorgeous if impoverished nation in southern Africa: “Tucked in the middle of southern Africa, Zambia is burning because life south of the equator is becoming dangerously hot and dry. That is in large part because since the Second Industrial Revolution of the middle 19th century, the West has been pumping billions of tons of climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere with impunity, leaving Africa hotter and drier than at any time since our earliest ancestors found their feet and began to walk away….
“There wasn’t a fire truck or helicopter in sight…small wonder in a country where the average individual earns $850 per year and it costs nearly $100 to fill up a tank of gas. Even if Zambians could afford the trucks and choppers to fight the fires, where would they find enough water to fill the other tank?
“… When Zambia burns by fire it burns by poverty too. And one cause, at least, is shared by both. The rise in concentration of atmospheric carbon from 284 parts per million by volume (ppmv) 150 years ago to nearly 400 ppmv today is hastening drought and desertification in sub-Saharan Africa to a shocking degree. It’s a cause which cannot be addressed by improving governments or building schools or staffing clinics on the ground, desirable as those things might be. Rather, it’s a cause for which we in the industrialized West must take a large share of the blame.” In the end, Americans are unlikely to do much about this anomaly for which we are partially responsible. People and animals will starve to death. Families that were poor will sink to new depths of poverty. Species will disappear from the face of the earth. But nature is agnostic; she accepts whatever happens to the scarred surface of her planet, and if a few animals or species disappear now and again, so be it; it just is. She sends us messages, but we often don’t listen or look.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I cannot turn my eyes away.
Friday, February 18, 2011
If you want to see a wild experiment in self-motivation, click on this now-famous TED presentation by University of Newcastle (U.K.) Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences. Sugata Mitra; it should blow you away:
The good professor donated an Internet-connected laptop “kiosk” (pictured above in the background) to a community of under-educated children in southern India. The kids were given a genetics problem, vastly beyond any possible capability they had… and were left alone with the device. Basically, they taught themselves how to use it, enhanced their language skills, actually began to understand the question, mastered “search,” and solved the problem.
“Mitra discovered that groups of children spontaneously formed supportive learning communities when given access to Internet stations and challenged to answer scientific questions… Mitra tells how a humble pre-teen girl led him to believe that he had underestimated his first experimental group of Tamil-speaking children. ‘So a 12-year-old girl raises her hand and says, literally, 'apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecules causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing else.'’ Emboldened by findings that one academic reviewer called ‘too good to be true,’ Mitra is seeking billions in funding and millions of voluntary man-hours to launch his educational vision into a global movement.” Fast Company.com, February 1st. By the way, the kids are still Googling away; they’re addicted to it.
So like, computers can replace teachers, right? I mean with one-on-one interactivity with a cool device, kids can pace themselves, are immediately tested as to their mastery of a particular subject, and can move through a course of study in they own way… backing up and going forward as they develop understanding. Teachers cost money, computers represent a much cheaper alternative, and as school districts face massive budget cuts, programmed learning is the answer, right? But it feels so wrong…
Nevertheless, “Districts all over are experimenting with teacher-less computer labs and green-lighting entire classrooms of adult-supervised children exploring the Internet--an Android powered tablet designed specifically for students. Teachers' unions' protests notwithstanding, the cybernetic takeover might mean a redefinition of ‘teacher’ as a research assistant or intellectual coach, since subject-matter lecturers are no match for access to the entirety of human knowledge.” FastCompany.com. The Department of Education, in a 2009 report, observed that: “Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.” That’s it, then, right? Hey, add sexy visuals, interactive game-like learning systems, and kids will learn so fast, we’ll be handing out PhDs to teenagers!
Now you know I’m spinning this in another direction, but it’s not a bad direction, after all is said and done: “Yet, student-driven classrooms do have serious flaws. In the condition without any adult supervision, Mitra found that children achieve only half of what their peers in face-to-face instruction can. The lure of video games and other mindless online activity quickly eclipse the fleeting intrigue of scientific exploration. Children, it seems, still need the encouragement (or coercion) of an adult to keep them from drifting off….” FastCompany.com. Miami-Dade County, Florida is conducting a really big experiment in programmed learning: “[O]ver 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools enrolled in a program in which core subjects are taken using computers in a classroom with no teacher. A ‘facilitator’ is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with an y technical problems.” New York Times, January 17th.
With state-mandated class-size limitations, the school district felt it had to find a labor-saving method to comply with the law. But this e-learning solution was imposed on students, and the reaction has not been as positive as administrators might have hoped; the NY Times presents this response: “Alix Braun, 15, a sophomore at Miami Beach High, takes Advanced Placement macroeconomics in an e-learning lab with 35 to 40 other students. There are 445 students enrolled in the online courses at her school, and while Alix chose to be placed in the lab, she said most of her lab mates did not… ‘None of them want to be there,’ Alix said, ‘and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice.’”
The problem might be mitigated if the “facilitators” were actually “teachers” who actually… er… “teach.” This blended approach would allow adjustments, humanizing the educational experience, while still bringing the advantage of a resource-rich computer-learning-system to the classroom. “Michael G. Moore, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, said programs that combine virtual education and face-to-face instruction could be effective. This is called the ‘blended learning concept.’
“‘There is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more effective than a classroom,’ said Mr. Moore, who is also editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. He said, however, that research and his experiences had shown that proper design and teacher instruction within the classroom were necessary. A facilitator who only monitors student progress and technical issues within virtual labs would not be categorized as part of a blended-learning model, he said. Other variables include ‘the maturity and sophistication of the student,’ he said…. Despite some complaints about the virtual teaching method, administrators said e-learning labs were here to stay. And nationally, blending learning has already caught on in some areas.” NY Times.
The truth is that this teaching system is in its nascent stages, but clearly, there is something wonderful buried deep in this field of “some of our ideas work, and some just don’t.” We really need to succeed in this noble effort, or the United States will fall farther behind those “better than we are” educational models in developing nations. Our future depends on it.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
On October 15, 2010, I blogged about the massively unfunded and unsustainable aggregation of state and local pension benefits (A Pension for Failure). Today, I’d like to continue with an analysis of a comparable deficit of unfunded post-retirement health benefits – $555 billion – reported by the Pew Center on States (A Trillion Dollar Gap, February 2011). The big picture, however, remains the pensions – “[A]t the end of 2008, there was a $1 trillion gap between the $2.35 states and participating localities had set aside to pay for employees’ retirement benefits and the $3.35 billion price tag of those promises.” The recession has only amplified the harm as state and local property, sales and income tax revenues plunged.
But the big shocker in this mess has been the almost 20% annualized increase in post-retirement healthcare, benefits which so many local jurisdictions simply can no longer afford. Just as one segment of American politics is pushing to eliminate a more generalized availability of so-called “Obamacare,” a very large group of retired individuals is about to discover that they are either without such benefits or are going to be required to pick up a much greater piece of that cost formula, just at a time in their lives when they can afford it least. The problem with state-provided retiree healthcare is that it is generally a “pay-as-you-go” unfunded liability (only 5% of such programs are funded), and the capacity of states and municipalities to continue along this road has dropped to “impossible.”
The pain is not equally divided among the states (95% of the liability comes from half the states); California (what a surprise) leads the list with an estimate $68.9 billion with New Jersey a close second at $62.5 billion of unfunded healthcare retirement benefits. While 14% of states pick up 100% of such retiree costs, it is no surprise that states are massively moving towards making retirees pay more, and for new workers, to have such benefits (if they are permitted at all) kick in later and after many more years of service: “In state after state, the changes are occurring rapidly. For example, New Hampshire has stopped financing health insurance for many future retirees, while North Carolina has begun requiring state employees to work 20 years, up from five years, to qualify for full retiree health benefits. Michigan officials complain that retiree health obligations consume one-seventh of the state’s payroll costs, and New York City is slated to pay $2 billion toward retiree health next year.
“Overall, the Center for State and Local Government Excellence found that 68 percent of city and county officials surveyed said they were pushing to have retirees assume more of their health costs, while 39 percent said they had eliminated or planned to eliminate retiree health benefits for new hires… In many cases, states and municipalities are not required to negotiate these changes with retirees, and lawsuits challenging the cutbacks as a breach of contractual promises to retirees have resulted in mixed decisions. Many state or local workers retire before age 60, making them too young to turn to Medicare, prompting them to rely heavily on state and local plans for retirees.” New York Times, February 13th. Last month, I blogged (State of Confusion: the “B” Word) about the growing need for federal bankruptcy law to allow for a new form of state-filed bankruptcy protection, mostly to accommodate these long-term pension and healthcare retirement benefits, many of which have contractually “vested” and cannot be changed without drastic legal measures.
All that said, these numbers are still fighting two very clear trends: (i) a graying population where Baby Boomers are retiring or set to retire in droves over the next few years and (ii) a complete and utter failure to contain rising medical costs. Couple these demands on our safety nets with the growing practice of “hiring” workers on a contract or part-time basis with no retirement or health benefits, and you have a huge looming healthcare debacle. Indeed, if the much-maligned “Obamacare” package doesn’t survive either court or legislative challenge, the very people who are battling to remove this cost from our federal ledger may be the ones struggling to find a way to cover these “out of control” medical costs long before they could possibly expect.
I’m Peter Dekom, and no matter how catchy a slogan might sound, there are no easy buttons in a world of decreasing choices, increasing needs and an economic future that, under any scenario, is unprepared for what is happening.