September 2007

Cool stuff online

Educate yourself and others:

Carnegie Mellon University has developed an interactive computer game dubbed Anti-Phishing Phil, which helps teach the player how to discern real websites from fakes. I breezed through the first level, but was surprised to get tripped up by one in the second round. I highly recommend that you check this out, and if you have children in the house who use the internet at all, have them play it too.

I plan to send the link to my parents, as well as to my kids. And my friends. Sure, the graphics are targeted to children, but the lessons are extremely good for all of us.

Then, have some fun:

I do like music — a lot — but I am a little particular about what I listen to. Last week, a good friend (thank you, T.) dropped a fabulous find on me — RadioTracker! Unlike most music subscription-based services I’ve found, this one actually has what I’m looking for.

You can download the software for a free trial first, just to make sure. I think it’s cool.

Food, Fuel and Fiasco

Just last year, there was great excitement in rural America over the installation of ethanol plants. Corn prices were rising, and everyone wanted in on the game.

Corn prices rose all right, but there’s one little problem that someone failed to consider: what are we going to feed our beef cattle? Our dairy cattle? With this year’s drought, in the Southeast, hay is downright scarce. Cattlemen are struggling, selling off their herds because they can’t afford to feed them.

The New York Times has a good piece today about the upheaval in ethanol, but they don’t devote more than a sentence or two — buried in the third page — to the effect that ethanol production is having on other food prices. Most of their focus is the instability in pricing, due to the rapid ramp-up of production capability with lesser development in getting the ethanol to the blending and resale points.

As ethanol competes for corn, however, corn as food becomes more expensive, but so does beef (which is fed corn), chicken (which are fed corn), pork, milk, eggs, butter, cheese, and so many of the staples on which we depend.

At least NPR has picked up on the problem.

Help Wanted

Google "bus drivers" shortage, and the results will show that Oak Ridge’s problem (this one in particular, anyway) is far from unique.

More surprising to me was finding that the hourly rate offered is about the same as places like Northern Virginia, Seattle or Salt Lake City, despite the fact that our cost of living is (along with wages generally) lower here.

Bill Dodge, a frequent writer to members of the school board, claims that Oak Ridge pays drivers 50% more than surrounding districts.  Although I have not verified Mr. Dodge’s claim, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website shows that the mean hourly wage for school bus drivers nationally is just $12.08.

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The News-Sentinel reports this morning that the Anderson County jail is overcrowded again, with 19 positions open.  Of the last 20 to take the Civil Service exam for that job, only 4 passed. Local governments are hiring, but no one’s answering.

Sept. 24 in Oak Ridge

This evening brings two meetings of interest in Oak Ridge; City Council will vote on the second reading of a rezoning ordinance for a proposed hotel in Woodland, and the School Board is set to approve —  on second reading — the 2008-2009 calendar.

At the school board meeting, there is also the possibility that a hearing officer will be selected for a much-publicized personnel issue.  It’s not on the agenda at this point, but board members were made aware on Friday that it might be added if additional information was received over the weekend.

City Council meets at 7:30 p.m. in the Municipal Building, and the Board of Education at 7 p.m. in the school administration building (also the Oak Ridge Preschool).  Because I will be at the school board meeting, I won’t be liveblogging Council — anyone else interested in doing so?  There’s open wi-fi access at City Hall.

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Tomorrow at 4 p.m., the Anderson County Ethics Commission (p. 3, bottom of the page) will hold their first meeting; one possible agenda item may be discussion of the County’s firewall policy.  People who work in the courthouse (including state employees) are blocked from accessing several local sites, including yours truly as well as Atomic City Talk, while others more friendly to the current administration are not.

Alan Beauchamp’s PR platform, Inside Anderson County, has been offline for a few weeks now, so access from the courthouse only means that they can all see it’s not there.  Nonetheless, there remains a glaring disparity between sites that are blocked and those that are not, and it certainly has the appearance of being based on whether or not the content is friendly to the County Mayor.

I wish I could be there, but due to other commitments, I cannot.

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I predict that the Woodland rezoning will pass, and that the addition of a small but nice locally-owned hotel will have a positive impact on the crime rate in the immediate area (not to mention a positive impact on the tax base citywide).

Two Woodland residents in close proximity to the property in question have indicated to me that they hope the rezoning passes.  I have to wonder how many others there might be, who are simply keeping quiet to avoid conflict with their neighbors.  I suspect there could be quite a few.

Take a bite of this Apple

Here’s an Apple I might just have to have a bite of…

You have to admit: it’s sweet. It’s like the iPhone without the AT&T commitment (or the hack that I’m not prepared to tackle). For now, I’ll just stick to a plain phone on a plan with few surprises.

As for digital sound, I listen to a few tunes, but mostly, it’s audio books for long drives or to ease the drudgery of doing laundry and other mundane household chores.

Thus far, I’ve managed on fairly inexpensive devices, because I’m never all that far from my laptop to change out and reload the contents of my audio player. However, the new iPod Touch has an interesting characteristic: it has a built in browser and wireless capability. So, from anywhere there’s wireless access, I could check what’s going on in the larger world.

Or my e-mail, for what’s going on in the smaller world.

Or, I could watch a movie, in complete disregard of what’s going on in either the smaller or larger real worlds.

My first computer was an Apple II+ (minus the joystick, but with two floppy disk drives, 64k RAM, and a 300-baud modem, thank you very much); that was where I learned to program, back when Apples still came with a command-line interface and geeky teenagers could still derive some joy from the things.

Now, far more computing power than a pickup truckload of those things could have produced would fit in a pocket (or a phone, for that matter). Still, I might just have to have one of these, once Alpha’s next tuition payment is made.

Simple mistake, or panic time?

I got an unsettling call from the election commission this morning, informing me that Nashville had issued a report stating that Alpha’s social security number was previously assigned to someone in Shelby County.

After double-checking that the number Anderson County has on file is the same as on our last several years’ tax returns,, as well as Alpha’s tax returns, and on her card, the nice lady from the election commission went downstairs to the Department of Safety to check and see what number they had on file for Alpha on her driver’s license.  It was the same.  Knowing that she had to show her social security card to get her license, the election commission is now satisfied that Alpha’s number is correct.

The fellow in Shelby County’s license is revoked, so he’s theoretically not driving on it… but her social security number is evidently the one attached to his revoked license.

The Social Security Administration was most unhelpful; they’ll only change the number if it’s a life-or-death stalking situation.  They’re not interested in any report of someone using her number fraudulently. 

There are a couple of possibilities: one, that this guy mis-remembers his number, and the folks in Shelby County just aren’t diligent about asking to see the actual card, or, two, that this stems from personal information (tax returns, bank statements, etc.) that may have been taken in our burglary a couple of years ago — the house was so trashed and files strewn all over, it’s hard to know what was missing and what wasn’t.  Maybe it’s just one digit off or something… I don’t know.

Either way, it’s a pretty scary problem.  I’ll have her pull copies of her credit reports (which should be absolutely blank, except for the existence of a bank account).  Assuming those are okay, we’ll file a fraud report with the FTC and put in an alert with the credit reporting agencies, just to be safe.
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I’ve always been very protective of the kids’ social security numbers; the school requires them at enrollment, but on the forms that come home each year, I simply write "on file" in that blank.  I had them check the "do not show" box for their social security numbers on their driver’s licenses, because it’s really not necessary for every store clerk taking a check to see that number.  Besides, kids lose purses and wallets, so it’s one more way to guard against identity theft.

In spite of all that, there’s still a problem.  Any other suggestions would be most welcome.

No Child Left Behind (really!)

I’ve had a virtual gumbo of thoughts simmering this week, but this news piece provided the shrimp, if you will.  I’m fired up for Fred Thompson for many reasons, but this one really pleases me.  It goes back to the basic Republican philosophy of "the government closest to the people is the best."

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The side effects being caused by the penalties for failing to meet ever-increasing standards are showing up in ways that most people wouldn’t have imagined.  For example, if Podunk School System expels Bubba for drinking moonshine in the locker room, then he won’t graduate and they might miss the ever-increasing graduation rate standard.

But they can’t take any more of Bubba’s nonsense, and have to do something.   So, they call Bubba’s folks into the office, and the conversation goes something like this:

Principal:  "Now we just can’t tolerate stuff like that going on in our school; moonshine’s a Zero-tolerance offense.  So, there’s going to have to be some serious consequences for this mess…  unless maybe you folks put Bubba in school over across the county line.  You can pay tuition and send him there, or you can move and send him for free."

Ma Bubba:  "They’ll still take him over there, even though he’s in trouble here?"

Principal:  "Well no, not if he gets expelled.  But it’ll take us a week or so to do the paperwork on that, so if he were to go over there and enroll, say, tomorrow, then we technically wouldn’t  have any record of  disciplinary action against him.

So  Bubba’s folks mosey on across the county line and enroll Bubba in a new school.  The new school calls back to Podunk County to get his records, and asks if he has any behavioral issues.  "Not that we know of" is the response from the Podunk County Principal, who then chuckles all the way to the lunchroom, knowing that he’s rid the school of its biggest troublemaker but hasn’t taken a ding on the graduation rate since he can document that Bubba enrolled in another school.

Don’t kid yourself; it’s already happening.

*  *   * 
The graduation rate bit of NCLB is one that needs to be clearly understood, for "graduation" in NCLB doesn’t really mean graduation; it means graduation in precisely four years plus a summer (if needed) with a regular diploma.

So, a developmentally disabled child who simply cannot — will not ever — perform up to the standards required to pass the gateway exams and graduate with a regular diploma, simply counts as a dropout.  Even if he or she stays in school until age 21 (as the law allows), works hard, and earns a special ed diploma, he or she is still a dropout on the NCLB scorecard.

And it’s the schools’ fault, of course, because everyone knows that every child is the same — each capable of the same mastery in the same time frame. There’s no such thing as mental retardation, after all.

Equally tragic is that a student who just screws up for one year, is denied the chance to repeat a year in high school (getting back on track academically) because he would count as a "dropout," even though he might graduate with honors (given that extra year) and go on to college fully-prepared.

The other thing that befuddles me is that a GED doesn’t count.  If it doesn’t count, why do we have one at all?  The answer, of course, is that there needs to be some avenue to demonstrate basic competence for those people who — for whatever reason — don’t get enough credits in high school.  When a student moves into a district at age 17 with only five high school credits, it’s just not possible to earn all the credits needed in the one remaining year.  But, of course, it’s the district he moves into that will suffer a hit to their graduation rate, not the school that failed him to begin with.

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That’s a lot of bellyaching over one pot of educational gumbo, I know.  Believe it or not, I am very much in favor of standardized testing and accountability for results.  I believe we have an obligation to provide students with the knowledge and skills to push the limits of their potential — whatever that potential may be.

Success for some will be a PhD and a brilliant research career; for some it may be certification as a plumber, and for others, simply the ability to dress themselves each morning.  People are not born with equal gifts and abilities.  To try and force all into the same mold is a gross disservice to all.

I like Thompson’s approach: get the federal government out of the way and let states and local governments do what we need to do for our students.

Patriot Act, revised

Interesting (from ZDNet):

A key portion of the Patriot Act is unconstitutional and violates Americans’ free speech rights, a federal judge said Thursday in a case that could represent a bitter setback for the Bush administration’s attempts to expand its surveillance powers.

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero said the section of the Patriot Act that permits the FBI to send Internet service providers secret demands, called national security letters, for customer information violates the First Amendment and unreasonably curbs the authority of the judiciary.

FBI agents can use NSLs to surreptitiously obtain logs of American citizens’ e-mail correspondence, a list of Web sites visited and queries submitted to search engines, without obtaining a judge’s approval in advance. NSLs can also be used to obtain bank and telephone records. They are supposed to be used only when an investigation is allegedly relevant to a terrorist investigation.

It was the letter that ran in the Washington Post that really made me think.

Burn, Baby Burn!

After the municipal election and referendum in June, we picked up a lot of signs — mine, and others that needed to be removed as well. The candidate signs were returned to their rightful owners, and the "vote NO" signs went to the dump.

Except one, which Delta wanted to save. She wanted to burn it.

Somehow though, we all forgot about it, and it lingered in various places until this evening, when she brought a friend and wanted to torch it. Now given the serious lack of rain, this seemed ill-advised, but given Friday’s announcement that Target isn’t coming at all… I really wanted to. Then inspiration struck: the chiminea.  Naturally, she requested some appropriate background music for the ritual.

The irony of it is, Delta doesn’t even know about the Target announcement. She just knows that our chance to get a bunch of cool stores kind of went up in flames on June 5, so now, she’s had her little revenge.

But I feel marginally better.

You gotta have this!

If you’re not using Firefox, there’s yet another (in a long list) reason that you should be:  AdBlock Plus.

The New York Times has an interesting pro-and-con piece, but the bottom line is most effectively summed up by the plugin’s creator:

“There is only one reliable way to make sure your ads aren’t blocked — make sure the users don’t want to block them,” he wrote. “Don’t forget about the users. Use ads in a way that doesn’t degrade their experience.”

That means no flashing whack-a-mole banners, no large (especially animated) ads smack in the middle of newspaper stories, no goofy dancing mortgage guy, and the like.  Advertising is useful to a degree, but when it reaches the point of saturation and irritation, people will either abandon the medium or find a way around it.

A few months ago when I ran for re-election, I did purchase a couple of online ads.  The local daily, however, had eliminated the ad space that I really wanted (tastefully off to the right side), and could instead only offer a larger ad that showed up in the middle of the page.  I specifically asked that the ad NOT run in the obituaries — this being offensive to me, even without friends or family listed therein — but of course, it showed up there anyway.  And I received complaints.

AdBlock Plus does allow for customization, allowing the user to exempt certain sites.  Google ads, for example, are non-intrusive and often helpful, so I’ve exempted Google from ad blocking in my browser.

Best of all, like all Mozilla products and add-ons, it’s free.

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