Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Mold Rush.

Fascinating, isn’t it? We coexist with mold for thousands of years. My friend, Walter Olson of the Manhattan Institute has said sarcastically “How unfortunate must we be to live in the twenty-first century, when plaintiffs’ lawyers have discovered the terrible health effects!”

Economic incentives have a lot to do with it: trial lawyers have an economic incentive to describe something relatively innocuous–vaccines, mold, powerlines, silicone breast implants, Bendectin–as something deadly and fit it into the fictional Erin Brockovich paradigm, which appeals to jurors’ preconceived notions. (Erin Brockovich herself has brought a number of bogus lawsuits trying to invoke this paradigm–including over mold.) Low-quality scientists of a variety of levels of sincerity are given the economic incentive to take the same position. Journalists have the economic incentive to tell a story that fits the paradigm whether or not it’s true, because the victims-and-villains storyline that could affect the viewer attracts eyeballs. The three work together symbiotically: the expert witness feeds stories to the lawyer and vice versa; the lawyer feeds stories to the journalist with the expert; the journalist creates publicity that generates business for the lawyer and the expert witness, which in turn creates more stories for the journalist.

The culture of fear is a lot larger than that (others take advantage of it), but I think the reason it is so much larger in America is because only here do we make people millionaires for inventing new things to be afraid of.

Confessions of an anti-Iraq War Democrat.

I had been strongly opposed to the U.S. intervention from the start. I felt this way even though I believed (as did most everyone, including the intelligence community) that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and even though I thought that he was a murderous, genocidal thug and the world would be better off - and the U.S. safer - with him dead.

However, I reasoned, the WMD inspectors were back in, and we had Saddam surrounded - thanks to George Bush, by the way, for which we Democrats did not give him sufficient credit at the time.

So why risk the uncertainties of a pre-emptive invasion, loss of life and treasure, and diverting our attention from 9/11 and the war against terrorism, which most U.S. intelligence indicated had nothing to do with Saddam?

Of course, all these remain good reasons for opposing starting the war, even as I look back now.

But ... then came my first moment of doubt.

I saw on TV in early 2005, in their first preliminary democratic elections, long lines of Iraqis waiting to vote under the hot desert sun with bombs and shrapnel exploding around them. Waiting to vote!

And then there was that indelible image - an older woman shrouded in a carpetlike cape, smiling gleefully and holding her purple finger in the air for the TV cameras, purple with ink showing that she had voted.

Why are Public Schools so Bad at Hiring Good Teachers?

PS 49 in Queens used to be an average school in New York City's decidedly below-average school system. That was before Anthony Lombardi moved into the principal's office. When Lombardi took charge in 1997, 37 percent of fourth graders read at grade level, compared with nearly 90 percent today; there have also been double-digit improvements in math scores. By 2002, PS 49 made the state's list of most improved schools. If you ask Lombardi how it happened, he'll launch into a well-practiced monologue on the many changes that he brought to PS 49 (an arts program, a new curriculum from Columbia's Teachers College). But he keeps coming back to one highly controversial element of the school's turnaround: getting rid of incompetent teachers.

Firing bad teachers may seem like a rather obvious solution, but it requires some gumption to take on a teachers union. And cleaning house isn't necessarily the only answer. There are three basic ways to improve a school's faculty: take greater care in selecting good teachers upfront, throw out the bad ones who are already teaching, and provide training to make current teachers better. In theory, the first two should have more or less the same effect, and it might seem preferable to focus on never hiring unpromising instructors—once entrenched, it's nearly impossible in most places to remove teachers from their union-protected jobs. But that's assuming we're good at predicting who will teach well in the first place.

It turns out we aren't. For instance, in 1997, Los Angeles tripled its hiring of elementary-school teachers following a state-mandated reduction in class size. If L.A. schools had been doing a good job of picking the best teachers among their applicants, then the average quality of new recruits should have gone down when they expanded their ranks—they were hiring from the same pool of applicants, but accepting candidates who would have been rejected in prior years. But as researchers Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger found, the crop of new teachers didn't perform any worse than the teachers the school had hired in more selective years.

The Carbon Curtain.

To judge by actions, not words, the carbon-warming view hasn't come close to persuading a political majority even in nations considered far more environmentally enlightened than China and India. Europe's coal consumption is rising, not falling, and the Continent won't come close to meeting the Kyoto targets for carbon reduction. Australia is selling coal to all comers.

On the far side of the environmental curtain China already mines and burns more coal than any other country. Together, China and India control more than one-fifth of the planet's vast coal reserves. Dar predicts--very plausibly, in my view--that the two countries may fire up a new coal plant as often as once a week for the next 25 years, adding about twice as much coal-fired generating capacity as the U.S. has today. Persian Gulf states are planning significant coal imports, because coal generates much cheaper electricity than oil or gas.

The Bathroom Mirror Prank.

How a Young Lawyer Saved the Second Amendment.

For decades the Second Amendment might as well have been called the Second-Class Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court spent the late 20th century expansively interpreting the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth amendments, not to mention unenumerated rights ranging from travel to sexual privacy. But not until last month did the court hold that the Second Amendment means what it says: that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

What took so long? I put the question to Alan Gura, the 37-year-old wunderkind lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in District of Columbia v. Heller.

Read the whole thing.

2 Shot In Bicycle Drive-By Outside South Los Angeles House.

Man, those gas prices are murder.

Oceans Election.

The short version of the Democratic Party primary campaign is that the media fell in love with Barack Obama but the Democratic electorate declined to.

"I felt this thrill going up my leg," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews after one of the senator's speeches. "I mean, I don't have that too often." Au contraire, Chris and the rest of the gang seem to be getting the old tingle up the thigh hairs on a nightly basis. If Obama is political Viagra, the media are at that stage in the ad where the announcer warns that, if leg tingles persist for more than six months, see your doctor.

Out there in the voting booths, however, Democrat legs stayed admirably unthrilled. The more the media told Hillary she was toast, and she should get the hell out of it and let Obama romp to victory, the more Democrats insisted on voting for her. The more the media insisted Barack was inevitable, the less inclined the voters were to get with the program. On the strength of Chris Matthews' vibrating calves, Sen. Obama raised a ton of money – over $300 million – and massively outspent Sen. Clinton, but he didn't really get any bang for his buck. In the end, he crawled over the finish line. The Obama Express came a-hurtlin' down the track at 2 miles an hour.

But what does he care? Sen. Obama has learned an old trick of Bill Clinton's: If you behave like a star, you'll get treated as one.

USCG Eagle: Aboard the Coast Guard's Tall Ship.

Last week there was a parade of tall ships in San Francisco. More than 30 sail-powered vessels participated in the show, but by far the most spectacular of the bunch was the USCG Eagle, a steel-hulled, three-mast ship that's used as a cadet training vessel by the United States Coast Guard.

The Eagle has a fascinating history: Originally built in 1936 by the Nazis, the ship was seized as a war prize by the U.S. military after World War II. Once in American hands, it was turned over to the Coast Guard, and it’s been in use at the Coast Guard Academy ever since.

AP: "US Now Winning Iraq War"

Somebody really ought to tell Obama about this.

What Does Obama Offer America, Minus The Hype?

It is not John McCain who fundamentally fails to understand the Surge or the nature of the enemy we face, but Barack Obama. The Anbar Awakening was, like many gains purchased at such great cost in Iraq, indeed fragile and easily reversible. It took a massive and credible demonstration of America's ongoing commitment to the future of democracy in Iraq to move those early gains from the "clear" column into the "hold" column; to build trust in the hearts of ordinary Iraqis that we would not pull the rug out from underneath them, to convince them to risk retribution from the insurgency and report the militia members in their neighborhoods.

Clearly, Barack Obama still does not understand simple human nature. He does not understand the nature of instilling trust, whether it be among our foreign allies or in the troops he would one day lead should be become Commander in Chief.

Read the whole thing.

Is green U.S. mass transit a big myth?

A full bus or trainload of people is more efficient than private cars, sometimes quite a bit more so. But transit systems never consist of nothing but full vehicles. They run most of their day with light loads. The above calculations came from figures citing the average city bus holding 9 passengers, and the average train (light or heavy) holds 22. If that seems low, remember that every packed train at rush hour tends to mean a near empty train returning down the track.

Transit vehicles also tend to stop and start a lot, which eats a lot of energy, even with regenerative braking. And most transit vehicles are just plain heavy, and not very aerodynamic. Indeed, you'll see tables in the DoE reports that show that over the past 30 years, private cars have gotten 30% more efficient, while buses have gotten 60% less efficient and trains about 25% worse. The market and government regulations have driven efforts to make cars more efficient, while transit vehicles have actually worsened.

In order to get people to ride transit, you must offer frequent service, all day long. They want to know they have the freedom to leave at different times. But that means emptier vehicles outside of rush hour. You've all seen those huge empty vehicles go by, you just haven't thought of how anti-green they were. It would be better if off-hours transit was done by much smaller vehicles, but that implies too much capital cost -- no transit agency will buy enough equipment for peak times and then buy a second set of equipment for light demand periods.

Transit planning is also driven by different economies. Often transit infrastructure (including vehicles) is paid for by state or federal money, while drivers (but also fuel) are paid from local city budgets. This seems to push local city transit agencies to get bigger vehicles and fewer drivers where they can, since drivers tend to be hired full-time and can't be kept idling in low-demand periods.