Thursday, March 31, 2005

Unasked Questions

Below is a link to a recent blog post about teaching tricks. This post and a conversation had in my Bioethics class last night led to thinking about a common problem in society, not just education--i.e. the almost blind respect we have for experts in positions of trust.

Katie talks about how students will ask a teacher a question and get the answer once and then head back to their desk, even though they may still not get it. In Bioethics, we were discussing the concept of informed consent in the context of medical trials on humans. One step that must be taken is the the patient/subject of the trial must be informed of a whole host of items, including risks, alternatives, objectives of the treatment/research, etc. I mentioned that most Americans have an almost blind faith in the medical profession, to the point that asking detailed questions when one does not understand what the doctor has said borders on heresy.

I realized this morning that such a situation exists in almost every situation where one is dealing with experts in an authority position or a position of trust. For example, as a future attorney I could be adivising a client about a matter in their case that to me is so basic as to not warrant discussion, but the client may not understand. In general, that client is not likely to keep asking me questions until they do understand. Thus the burden is upon me to make sure they understand, which is normally done with the question, "Do you understand?" or something similar. The usual response would be just like Katie in her example, a quick nod the head and continued existance in the dark.

Given that kids do it in school and adults do it with experts in positions of authority and trust, so have we done in the world of education? The answer, I fear, is that exact same thing, we ask a question (because no question is too dumb), get an answer and if we don't understand still-fail to ask a follow up question!! We do it because we don't want these experts to think we are stupid, uninformed or unable to comprehend their answer. Doing so may be contributing to the failure of our schools.

Many education experts drive our public education system, after all we want experts to do that. But what we have done is let the experts get away with not making sure we, the tax paying public, understand what they propose, what the experts have found out or anything. We may ask a question or two, but we fail to take the time to make those in a position of authority make sure we understand what is going on. We simply don't want to look like we are foolish.

Education is not a great mystery. The job of the education establishment to teach our children the basic skills and knowlege to be a thinking citizen. But if we don't act like thinking citizens ourselves, there is no check on the activities of the education establishment.

So to Katie at A Constrained Vision, thanks for reminding me to ask questions until I understand.

A Constrained Vision: My one teaching trick

The Democrats Should Have Hired This Guy

In this New York Times Op-Ed, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley has presented the most succinct explanation for the consistent failure of the Democratic party in the past 20 years (save for Bill Clinton). Bradley points to the organization built by the GOP since 1964 and the reasons for the GOP successes in the past 10 years or so. Then Bradley points out why the Democratic party fails.

To be sure, the Democratic Party has had its share of charismatic leaders, such as Kennedy and (it pains me to say) Clinton. But as Bradely points out, "Charisma didn't translate into structure." And party structure is what wins elections over time, despite some mistakes or losses, which are short term.

The Democrats are looking for a short cut to success and it ain't happening.

Too bad for the Democrats that Bradley didn't run for DNC Chair then the GOP would be in trouble in about 20 years.

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: A Party Inverted

The Ultimate Irony

The DC based center for Education Reform posted this little gem:

LOUISIANA: Voters in the Bayou State overwhelmingly agreed that the state should take over failing public schools. Probably the first system to feel the effects is New Orleans. Some 60 percent of Louisiana voters approved the amendment that gives the state board the authority to take over public schools that have failed to meet the state's student performance minimum on state tests and indicate little or no improvement in three years. A vote of confidence in parents came from opponents such as the New Orleans school board president Ellenese Brooks-Simms, who argued that it passed only because voters are not very smart. She said: "It won in New Orleans because our people aren't educated. The people in general did not know what this really means." It is estimated that 16 New Orleans schools could qualify already for state takeover this year if there is no improvement, and 34 more schools in the next several years if improvements are not made and academic goals not met. The election shows that community support, a component found necessary for such takeovers to succeed, is there as a clear majority of New Orleans residents supported the amendment." (emphasis added.)

At last check, the role of the school board was to educate the citizenry, apparently not only does this school board member and president not trust the population to make a rational and informed decision because they are "not very smart" she fails to see the irony in the statement. Evidently she has failed to do her job.

I can't say for certain, but there seems to be a trend toward parents exhibiting a lack of faith in their local school boards. I am not sure if the parents don't trust the school board or don't like the manner in which the school board is handling their tax money.

I for one would like to see a different approach for school boards to be compensated (which most are well-compensated). Like most poeple, school boards want to keep their jobs. Fine, an understandable motivation, but unlike most private workers, there is no incentive for them to be good at their jobs, even if they are elected. If a person at a private sector job fails to meet performance standards,they are fired or at the very least they get no extra pay. Unfortuneately, that is not an option for public officials--firing them that is. But it is possible to tie the performance of the school board and the performance of the performance of the kids they are responsible for educating.

Starting at a specific point in time, the school board loses one dollar of their annual salary for every child who fails to meet minimum standards of performance. Such a direct impact on their pocket book will help school board members realize that their petty little turf wars cost the kids of the community a quality education. School boards will also be more willing to try different tactics to educate kids--because if they don't, no paycheck.

Of course, for this to happen, County Council's and state legislators have to have the backbone to put such a compensation system into place--but it certainly would turn the politics of school boards on its head.

Center for Education Reform

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

This Week's Listen--Eric Johnson--Ah Via Musicom

This week's listen is decidedly older on the time scale. (to be honest one reason is that funds are limited after dropping cash on bar review courses and paying off the extortion from my law school) But Eric Johnson came about rather fortuitously. In the early 1990's I was in the Navy stationed in DC. A friend who had seen and heard Johnson on the local scene in Texas noted that Johnson was coming to town. We went to the show and within a week, I had purchased this disk.

Certainly Johnson is a guitarist in the light of last week's Joe Satriani mold, with a couple of significant differences. First, Johnson has a better singing voice that Satriani, which is fortunate since Johnson has more vocal tracks than instrumentals. Second, given his Texas roots, the music has more of a cleaner sound, there are fewer guitar effects, but that doesn't detract from Johnson's technical skill. Third, I like the diverse styles of music on the disk, perhaps the extra diversity of influences makes the disk more palatable in that regard to non-guitar people.

I wish that I had seen Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani on the G3 tour oh so many years ago in order to compare their live work, but that opporutnity is somewhat available on the G3 Live In Concert disk.

My favorite tracks are all in a row at the start of the disk.

Cliffs Of Dover--straight ahead guitar instrumental with some blistering work by Johnson. The sounds are clean and free of embellishment. Johnson brings some speed and it makes for some fun. But the whole piece works together because there are some parts of melody and composition that hold Johnson's solos together.

Desert Rose--A neat love song without the more ballady aspects. The lyrics are simple, but so are Johnson's vocal styles, so it fits well. Even my wife likes this song and she generally hates most guitar heroes'

High Landrons--Johnson's Texas roots shine through here with song about the peace of the Texas back country.

This is a good disk for someone looking for something a little different, but with a need for some diversity on the disk.

School Privatization and The Definition of Insanity

My fraternity has a saying, "Merely because a practice is prevalent may be the poorest reason for continuing it." I have spent most of my adult life watching the debate surrounding the "privatization" of public education and the general nature has been mixed, but gernerally fearful. Comments such as those posted over at Education at the Brink are but one example.

I don't know for sure, but I think it was Einstein who once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same think over and over again and expecting a different result. For decades state legislatures, schools systems, Congress and just about every other legislative body or elected official in America has promised, and often delivered, more funding for elementary and secondary education, yet the results don't seem to be getting any better. That same action over and over, year after year, administration after administration has yielded the same result, yet we continue to expect different (read "better") results if we just spend more money. Insanity indeed!

In short, the practice of throwing more money at the education system has become so prevalant that institutional inertia has taken over along with a healthy dose of group think. Just because we wish it to be so, doesn't make the practice worth continuing. Allocating more money represents the easy solution and the easy solution doesn't work.

So if the old prevalent practices no longer work, and clearly a majority of Americans feel that way even if the education establishment claims they are wrong, then let's try something new. The fact that schools run by private companies have not been able to prove equivalent or superior quality is a result not of poor management, but rather poor opportunity. These operations have not been in operation for enough time, on a wide enough scale, to be able to prove effectiveness. If these schools show improvement, the education establishment is quick to dismiss the improvement as a blip or the result of a one time infusion of money or effort. If, heaven forbid, performance shows a decline, however small, the Educrats are quick to jump all over the decline as an abject failure of privatized education.

The truth of the matter is that most politicians and educrats are too fearful of backlash to even take a risk such as privatization on a wider scale. But at this stage a risk is necessary. American education at the collegiate level is, in my humble opinion, head and shoulders above all other university systems in the world. I firmly believe it is because these colleges and universities, both public and private, compete for the finite (although very large) amount of money in the form of student tuitions. Why, then, cannot the same spirit of educational competition permeate the elementary and secondary spheres? The answer--lack of will power and some outdated perceptions of the type of education necessary and that the only way to deliver an education is to do so through the state.

The current educational system is based upon a 1930's and 1940's perception of a proper education system. In the modern world, such practices jeopardize our children's future. We must break out of that mindset of thinking and find new practices.

My first suggestion would be to step out of the insanity and rethink our "fears" about privatization. It has not always worked in other fields, but no one ever succeeded without trying first.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Thoughts on Schiavo and the Rule of Law

I have, like most Americans, been inundated with press coverage on the Schiavo case in Florida. Probably unlike other media and posters, I don't want to talk about whether she should have her feeding tube re-inserted or not, that issue has been talked to death.

Rather, I find fascinating the governmental, constitutional, and public perception issues that have either tangentially affected the matter or have been central to the case. On an initial level, one thing bothers me about this case more than any other, the overwhelming attention paid to the case. While tragic to be sure, the decision faced by the courts and the family differs in no way from the thousands of other cases involving the termination of life support for patients with no hope of recovery. Courts and judges are called upon to make these kinds of decisions on a frighteningly regular basis. Yet, those other decisions, as fraught with drama and tension as the Schiavo decision, are made in the private chambers and courtrooms, far from the prying eyes of the media and would be moral leaders. What may set this particular case apart is the status of Terri Schiavo--that fact that she is in a persistent vegetative state, but her other autonomic functions, like cardiac, respitory and digestive systems continue to operate without machinery. That and her age, along with the efforts of her parents to publicize the story (and they have not matter what their lawyer says).

Another matter I have found intriguing has been the interplay between the various branches and levels of government. By legal tradition and necessity, local and state courts exercise jurisdiction over family law matters and for good reason. Local judges maintain a closer connection to the community they serve than federal judges, while at the same time having the competence to decide issues involving state and federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that state judges have just as much knowledge and competence to decide issues involving federal law as it is the same U.S. Constitution for everyone. See Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983). Thus Judge Greer in Pinellas County not only possessed the competence but the duty to ensure Mrs. Schiavo's federal rights were protected.

The progression of the case through the court system, both state and federal is rather unremarkable. Many cases take years to make their way through the courts, though, admittedly I am not sure about family court matters such as this one. What has been interesting is the willingness of the legislative and executive branches, on all levels to get involved in this, in the grand scheme of things, local, family law dispute. The Florida legislature and Congress passed laws specifically relating to the Schiavo case. I am not sure of Florida's rules for private legislation, but Congress's role has routinely been limited to issues related to federal benefits, land grants and other matters related to direct transactions with citizens. Despite the assurances that the Terri Schiavo Act does not have precedential value for Congress in a legal sense, it surely does in a practical sense.

Of course, Congress, according to the Constitution, has the right to define the subject matter reviewable by the federal courts, a power it has exercised before in a broader sense. For example, Congress has, over the course of our history, routine increased the threshold amount of money necessary in a dispute to be considered for federal jurisdiction, assuming all other factors are present. This prudential and practical power enables the Congress to help the judiciary handle its case load. However, the passage of the act earlier this week by Congress, represents the first time that I know of where a specific case--not a type of case, but a specific case--has been placed into the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Again, while Congress has this power, there is wisdom in not exercising the power. By placing the case in the federal court's jurisdiction, Congress, acting in a political manner, exacerbated an already tense situation and brought criticism upon itself for no particular advantage to the institution.

The truly fun part of the move by Congress lies in the possibility that the District Court and Judge Whittemore could have ruled the bill an unconstitutional intrusion on states rights and the ability for state courts to determine what state law says. Yes that is right, Judge Whittemore could have said Congress crossed a constitutional line and decided to not review the plea for a temporary restraining order. But at least one person in the federal government acted with responsibility, Judge Whittemore decided to deny the plea rather than hiding behind a constitutional technicality. Interestingly, Judge Whittemore's actions were doomed to criticism no matter what his decision. Had he ordered the re-insertion of the feeding tube he would have been hailed as a hero by the conservative right and demonized by the left for being an activist judge. By denying the injunction, the conservative right has labeled him as evil and heartless. The left is silent.

But Judge Whittemore and everyone else who takes an oath to uphold the Constitution is bound by the same rules of law. No matter what your thoughts on the result, Judge Whittemore's decision is proper. Schiavo's parents have a bad case on the merits. That is not a criticism of their love for their daughter. Rather, they simply have a bad case on the federal level. As has been pointed out, the case has been through dozens of courtrooms, all populated with judges mindful of their duty to ensure both federal and state rights are vindicated for Terri Schiavo. All Judge Whittemore said is that the judges in the state courts did their job. There simply does not appear to be any ground in the merits of the case under which the parents would succeed. If you think this was an easy decision to make, just read the last paragraph of Judge Whittemore's opinion--which he undoubtedly stay up all night writing.

Yesterday and today, Schiavo supporters have been calling on Governor Jeb Bush to take custody of Schiavo and re-insert the feeding tube. Such a move would have almost certainly landed the governor in hot water for violating the law. One commentator thought such an action would lead to impeachment for the Governor, but I find that unlikely. However, had Governor Bush done so, he would have been guilty of violating both a state court order and a federal court order, the consequences of which remain unclear. As a constitutional officer, Governor Bush has a responsibility to uphold the law, even if he doesn't like. The Florida legislature tried to get a law to protect Schiavo in the past couple of days, but failed to do so.

Had the Governor, or the President, acted in a way demanded by the far right, a constitutional showdown would have occurred, one whose outcome, if we are indeed a nation of laws, would have resulted in a real loss for our country. The executive branch would, under the law, lost, but the fact that a small and vocal minority would have blamed the courts, the judiciary would have lost just as much.

Finally, I have found that lack of understanding of Americans and many talking heads in the press about the basic functioning of American government. To be sure, as a law student, former lobbyist and student of government, I don't expect the average American to understand all the nuances, but surely the concept of judicial review, of limits on the power of government and the basic purpose behind the court system should be in the knowledge base of all Americans. But the one thing this episode has shown be is that such knowledge is lacking. The Judiciary, even the most activist of judges, is not in the business of making decisions without a foundation in law. The, sometimes vitriolic, attacks on Judge Greer and Judge Whittemore have been made from ignorance, a simple lack of understanding of the role of judges in our society. Sometimes these men and women are called upon to make the decisions we not equipped, or unable, to make. It doesn't make the decisions any easier just because they are judges nor should the fact that their duties require them to make decisions we lack the courage to make ourselves be the basis of attacks on their qualifications or actions. The judges did what we require of judges, if you don't like it, make the decision yourself and see how easy it is.

Similarly, many Americans don't seem to understand the relationship between the judiciary and the executive. The legislature passes laws, the courts interpret the laws and the executive enforces them. The calls for the executives to reach beyond their powers belies a fundamentally flawed understanding of the executive in the system of checks and balances we have. For our system of law and government to work, the executive branch is as beholden to carry out the decisions of the judiciary as much as the laws passed by the legislatures. The executive has the luxury of disagreeing with the judicial decisions, but lacks the luxury of disregarding the decisions. Governor Bush, President Bush and all the other executive branch officials out there cannot just pick and chose the laws they want to enforce, including judicial decrees with the force of law, they must enforce them all.

Sadly, it has taken the case of Terri Schiavo to bring all of these problems into the stark light of public understanding. Of course, I don't expect most Americans to take away all the lessons of this episode, but if they take away one of the lessons to be had, we will be a better country. Also, I think we need to do a better job educating our kids about government, but that is the subject for another rant.

The Greatest Ex-President

Former President Jimmy Carter is set to head up a commission to study election administration in America. It has always struck me funny that we as a nation claim the moral status of the greatest democracy in the world, but can't seem to run our elections with any kind of certainty. Carter certainly has the credentials to lead this commission and I hope they come up with some strong recommendations that Congress and the states will implement. To say that we have had problems is an understatement of monumental proportions.

One quick thing about President Carter. To be sure, I was just a kid when he was in the White House, so I don't remember much--aside from getting slighted for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier when he brokered the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel--but that is another matter. Since leaving the White House 25 years ago, his career and work have been spectacular. Without a doubt, when Mr. Carter leaves this world, we will have lost a great man. In my opinion he is the greatest ex-President we have ever had and likely will ever have. I disagree with some of his politics, but his heart and his efforts have always been to making the world better and who can argue with that.

Carter to Head Elections Panel (

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Not As Surprising as You May Think

From Professor Hasen and Bob Bauer comes this story about the Pew Charitable Trusts funding the efforst at campaign finance reform. The fact that a charitable organziation was funding studies to support a political goal of theirs is not particularly surprising--it is after all how much of politics in Washington in done. Nor is it particularly surprising that the elite media did not report on the matter. Most of the elite media was in favor of the McCain-Feingold "reforms" in the first place and probably view Pew as a good institution.

I have no beef with Pew or any other organization pursuing politcal and policy goals it deems "good," such efforts are at the base of our democracy. What is interesting to me is the failure of pople like Ryan Sager to understand that such mechanisms are how politics is done in Washington and in America. Only those with an interest or a stake in a political fight are likely to spend much time or money on any one issue. Few issues reach a broad national concern or achieve any consensus among most Americans. So, in order to generate movement on an isssue that most Americans don't care about, organziations such as Pew and those groups supported by Pew grants try to generate a "grassroots" movement through various means. Such tactics are not new and form the basis of a large and growing business in Washington.

Anyone remember Clinton care--a broad national issue spearheaded by a group led by the Health Insurance Association of America and the National Federation of Independent Business, but not by name. (by the way, for a good dissection of that effort, read "The System" by David Broder and Haynes Johnson.) Politics in Washington, including so-called reform politics, are conducted by interest groups who work very hard to generate the appearance, rather than the reality, of grassroots interest.

Sager raises a number of questions about the press treatment of the campaign finance reform effort and the funding underlying such an effort. But rather than trying to educate the public on the effort of interest groups on an issue of at best marginal concern to most American, Sager would have been much better off looking at the mainstream press treatment of larger issues, like education or homeland security. These issues touch the lives of all Americans, but if you look at the MSM, the slant is decidedly one way--and dissenters be damned!!.

On another level, does Sager really think that anyone in Congress is so stupid as to believe that an issue consistenly ranked as one most American's didn't care about was teh subject of a groundswell of grassroots support. You don't have to be a rocket scientist or theoretical mathematician to be in Congress, but no-one in Congress who has been in the game for more than five minutes knows that most "grassroots movements" are anything but. What the motivations of individual congressmen were on the reason they voted are theirs alone, but I seriously doubt they thought that the issue resonated with majority of their constituents.

UPDATE--3/22/2005This editorial by the New York Post that further perpetuates the myth that somehow Congress is nothing but a bunch of addle-minded dolts who are fooled by massive "grassroots" campaigns on an issue most of their constitutents tell them is not all that important. While Congressmen are no rocket scientists, they do understand public opinion.

This is not to say, as the editorial points out, that Pew doesn't have some explanations to make since the organization is forbidden, by law, to engage in lobbying or else it would lose its tax-exempt status.

New York Post Online Edition: postopinion

Monday, March 21, 2005

This Week's Listen--Joe Satriani: Flying In a Blue Dream

This week, I went a little old school. This was the first Joe Satriani piece I ever heard, based on what is arguable one of the lesser quality songs on the disk "Big Bad Moon" which I had seen on MTV in 1990. While the lyrics and the singing left a lot to be desired, the guitar work was amazing. I went out to buy the disk (I had just bought my first CD player at that point) and was immediately impressed by the artistic creation of the disk.

To be sure, there are songs where Satriani devolves into the "guitar player" mindset of the more notes in the least amount of time is good-style of speed playing. However, the tracks that display the greatest amount of creativity, while containing some of the speed play, truly set a mood and evoke a feeling, which is what great music should do and makes him more of a musical artist.

The disk contains a surprising number of tracks, but several are smaller intro songs of 1 to 1.5 minutes. Many of the songs contain layered guitar tracks that would seem to make the songs difficult to play live (a fact refuted with some live recordings Satriani has put out--sort of). But the layering creates a much more musical album rather than just a stripped down, guitar--bass-drums presetnation.

Now a lot of people don't like rock guitarist going solo, noting in many cases, that the music is just lots of notes, really fast. But this is one of my absolute favorite Satriani disks in that he shows that he can forgo that attitude and still have a disk that people may find accessible.

One note about Satriani, while he may be able to write good lyrics such as on "I Believe," he should really think about hiring a vocalist to sing them. As a vocalist, Satriani needs to stick to guitar.

My favorite tracks:

"Flying In a Blue Dream" This song remains my absolute favorite Satriani track. Ethereal backing guitars, solo work that fits the tone and tune, and a smooth feel make this a Satriani classic. If I had to pick my ten favorite songs of all time, this would probably top the list.

"The Forgotten Parts 1 & 2" More of a technique piece, I just like the way the notes are played. The song is more moody, definitely a nice break from the faster pace songs.

"The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing" Remember the layered guitars earlier, this song is a prime example. The song would work great live with two guitars.

"I Believe" Mostly I love the lyrics, although Satriani's singing needs work.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Schiavo Goes from Pathetic to Bizarre and Back Again

the case of Terry Schiavo has gone completely off the deep end, now with Congress getting involved, issuing subpoenas for Terry Schiavo, her husband and family to appear before Congress next week.

The stunning lack fo respect for this woman and her husband boggles the mind. The case materials must occupy a good size room, with multiple injuctions and other material issued on a regular basis, but with Congress getting involved, this case is sure to generate even more press.

The Senate and House committees with jurisdiction over health matters issued the subpoenas in order to do one thing--generate press for some presidential wanna-bes. It is one thing for members of Congress to issue press releases and statements about the case--it is, unfortunately a public case. But it is another to issue subponeas for a woman in a persistant vegetative state and her caregivers to appear before the commitees.

This is not an area for Congress to legislate--doing so will only open the doors to future cases.

I have no doubt that people on both sides of the issue believe passionately about the case and further believe they have the power of right and God on their side. But this is a decision between the next of kin and the patient's doctor. When Michael Schiavo and Terry Schiavo got married, the legal next of kin became Michael--not her parents. Her parents hold out the valiant hope of her improvement--something that has not occured in 15 years!!!

I believe in hope and the power of the human will and spirit, but I also believe in the facts. This woman has been examined by a multitude of doctors who have come to the conclusion that she will not regain higher brain functions. In the meantime, the care provided to Terry Schiavo continues to rack up bills, which I hope are not being foisted upon Michael Schiavo.

Speaking of Micheal Schiavo, here is a man in literal, legal, press and personal limbo. He deserves to be able to put this painful episode behind him. Let's look at his options right now.

First, he can't withdraw the feeding tube--the courts and now Congress won't let him. Not to mention his wife's family. Thus if he withdraws the tube, he is a bastard.

He can't divorce his wife--because divorcing a brain dead woman makes you a bastard.

Assuming Terry Schiavo dies, which eventually she must, Michael Sciavo will have to change his name, his address and his way of life--again--in order to have any sembelence of a normal life.

To say that his life has been destroyed is an understatement of monumental proportions, but enough is enough. The Florida courts have ruled dozens of times on this case. The U.S. Supreme Court has, wisely, declined to get involved. But if Congress gets its way, the Supreme Court will once again have to visit a no-win issue--one that should not be in the courts to begin with and certainly not the federal courts.

Judge Blocks Removal of Schiavo's Feeding Tube (

Thursday, March 17, 2005

This Week's Listen--The 5 Browns

As I have gotten older, I have tried to diversify my listening habits, looking for music that provides a different experience than the metal/rock of my younger days. This is not say I don't enjoy a good guitar or drum solo, but I have found I need something different.

As you can see from my posts under this topic, I have tried (perhaps deliberately so) to talk about different artists. This week's listen is perhaps the most dramatic musical change for me. The 5 Browns are, well 5, piano playing siblings who have a great deal of talent. All five attended Julliard (at the same time, an impressive enough feat) and show incredible talent. Their debut album (link to Amazon) has been at the top of the classical charts for some time now.

I must admit that I didn't know the names of the composers the siblings chose to present (aside for "Scenes from West Side Story'), but I did recognize about half of the works, having heard them in total or in part in varied musical sources.

Four tracks on the CD are performed by all five siblings, a truly wondrous presentation since they had to memorize the pieces in order to watch each other to stay on pace with the others. The pieces were orchestrated so that each sibling plays a different segment, making the whole a powerful piece. To hear Flight of the Bumblebee played by five people is truly a different experience, because it doesn't sound like five people playing--two or three maybe, but not five.

The other half of the album is either piano duets or solo pieces played by various siblings. These are the least recognizable pieces in terms of the music, but I do recognize the names of the composers like Rachmaninoff. In some respects the playing is a little cold and mathematical, a feature I would attribute to the relative youth of the artists. But the mathematical nature of classical music is a little appealing.

I suspect that the 5 Browns could bring about a resurgence of pure classical music. Unlike the classical crossovers of Bond, Vanessa-Mae and others, these five players are playing true classical music, unadorned by synthesizers or drum machines. I would hope that as they mature, this musical family begins to write some of their own music instead of relying on others. Writing original music for five pianos might be challenging, but the possibilities are amazing.

Now for my favorite pieces. Right now I have three,

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice". Whenever I hear this piece I always think of the brooms carrying water in the Disney movie. But the playing of the five pianos makes this piece a lot of fun.

"La Valse (poème chorégraphique) " I guess what I find intriguing about this disk as a whole is the interaction of the pianos. The duet piece between two sisters is seamless, and fun to listen to.

"Scenes from West Side Story." I know, a bit of a cop out selection, but to be honest I am still learning to like classical music and having some familiar tunes helps.

Amending the Constitution for Arnold and Jennifer Granholm Columnist John Dean again takes up the issue of amending the Constitution to allow naturalized citizens to run for President. In this post, Dean discusses a Boston University Law Review article that takes a long, hard look at the history of the natural born citizen clause and its interaction with other aspects of the Constitution.

Taking the stance that the interpretation of the clause should be addressed before the issue comes up is important, authors Sarah Duggin (a mentor and former law professor of mine) and Mary Beth Collins, argue that issue may have come up before were it not for the vagaries of electoral politicsl.

For example, 1972 Democratic Candidate George McGovern was born of American parents in Mexico. Would he have been qualified to be President. More recently, John McCain, who was born of American parents in the Panama Canal Zone (an American protectorate at that time), could arguably not be a natural born citizen. My brother and sister were born on an American Naval Base in Rota, Spain. While it is unlikely that neither would run for President (while I love them both dearly, electing by brother President would probably scare the pants off me and my sister would probably lack the diplomatic finesse to say something that is not direct), would my brother and sister and the thousands of Americans like them be disqualified.

As you can see, the issue of who is qualified to be president extends beyond the arguement of naturalized citizens like Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) or Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Rather the matter of the natural born clause's obsolecence carries far greater implications for the future of this country.

FindLaw's Writ - Dean: A Fresh, Powerful Case for Amending the U.S. Constitution to Remove the "Natural Born" Qualification For the Presidency

Friday, March 11, 2005

GOP--Expanding the Big Tent

Roll Call columnist and former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile notes some of the efforts of the GOP to make inroads into traditional Democratic groups, particularly conservative African American pastors and churches. Brazile argues for a strong Democratic response to fight for the Democratic voters. However, Brazile unspoken premise is that Democrats are merely going to assume that Blacks will vote Democratic.

While it is true that Blacks will, at least in the near future, vote largely Democratic, assuming something to be true often results in it being proven false. In 2004 Bush won 11% of the African American vote. To be sure, a paltry sum, but 2 points better than his performance in 2000 and a much bigger increase in real numbers given the larger turnout in 2004. Among Latinos, Bush achieved near parity with Kerry, winning 44% of the Latino vote, an 11 point jump over his 2000 total. Bush and the GOP made specific efforts to court minority voters, pointing out that Democrats often take them for granted, and showing that on many issues, the minority voter and the GOP agree.

Of course the GOP must do much better as drawing the distinctions between the GOP and the Democrats. One fact I am fond of pointing out is that never before has an African American been the Secretary of State under any administration, Democrat or Republican. President Bush has appointed two in succession, including the first African American woman. George W. Bush has also appointed the most racially diverse cabinet ever. While the Cabinet is racially diverse, they generally agree with the President on major policy issues--proving that you don't have to be white to be Republican nor do you have to be a Democrat if you are a minority.

In many respects the Latino and African American communities are culturally conservative. Issues such as gay marriage and even abortion cut in the direction of the GOP among minority communities. Policies of empowerment and personal liberty AND personal responsibility resonate well among minorities. One could argue that Democratic policies and preferences do little more than ensure an economic underclass dependent upon government for subsistence. On the opposite side, GOP policies tend to favor individualism over governmentalism; person freedom rather than reliance on government.

Right now Democrats have begun to entrench themselves as the minority party, because they make assumption about their base--assumptions that may no longer be true. At the same time, the Democrats are more anti-Bush policy rather than pro-Democratic policy proposals. As the GOP works to build its appeal, the Democrats, just as Brazile stated, had better get a response out there that is independent of Bush policies.

Will GOP�s Effort to Make Inroads With Blacks Finally Pay Off?

Democratic Malaise-You Can't Be an Anti and expect to Win.

Republican pollster David Winston talks about a key victory of the Bush Administration regarding the debate over Social Security. Bush, by arguing that there is a problem that needs to be addressed has successfully changed the debate.

Previously Democrats would argue that there was no problem. But as Winston points out, most Americans believe a problems exists in Social Security, including the Democratic leadership. The problem for the Democrats now is that the only position they have is anti-Bush plan. They have no plan of their own, which is why they are the minority party.

Among my Democratic friends, we often talk about Bush policies and Democratic policy proposals. But of late, the discussion has moved from arguments about proposals to arguments about Bush policies only. This trend, given that it occurs among a wide swath of Democrats, indicates a fundamental shift in Democratic thinking. While I was not a fan of Al Gore, at least he had policy proposals. Right now, I cannot think of one policy proposal of John Kerry. His campaign was not about ideas for making hte country better, but about being against George Bush's ideas for making the country better.

Ever since the State of the Union and the full force effort by the Administration to debate and consider reforming Social Security, the only Democratic response has been, "No." At first, it was, "there's no problem." Now, "there's a problem, but we won't talk about the Bush proposal."

It seems as though the Democrats fear losing and thus won't play in the game. I have no doubt that what ever final solution Congress produces, it will not look like Bush proposal--that is the nature of politics. But you can't delay and ignore and expect to win in 2006 or 2008.

Democrats seem to be falling into a funk where they cannot come up with original ideas and revert back to treating voters like idiots. Voters can make decisions about policy; voters can choose among competing ideas. But voters will not chose no idea over someone with an idea. Through some realistic ideas out there and you can be assured that there will be some dialogue, but if you don't come to the table, you don't get to talk.

In Social Security Talks, Democrats Ask for Seat at a Separate Table

The New SAT-Quit Whining

Much has been made of late regarding the new version of the SAT that includes a writing section. The story linked below discusses the issue from the viewpoint of a English as a Second Language student. But this is no ordinary ESL student, this is a young woman who carries a 4.0 GPA at a prestigious Montgomery County Maryland high school and scored 1520 out of 1600 on the old version of the SAT, yet expects to do much worse on the new SAT because of the added writing requirement.

Since my time as an undergrad working in the University of Maryland's Writing Center, I have come to the conclusion that most of America's high school students simply lack the skill and knowledge to express themselves in a coherent fashion. I realize that such a statement represents a blanket indictment of American teenagers, but at Maryland, which during the time I attended was morphing into a top research and academic school, non-ESL students would come to the center with simply atrocious papers, making me wonder what is being taught about the English language and the art and skill of writing in modern high schools.

Arguably the most valuable skill any school can impart is the ability to express oneself in the written form. If the SAT begins to test for writing ability, then high schools will be encouraged more to provide such instruction, if for no other reason than to be able to boast that the school has high SAT scores. I believe that the addition of a writing portion on the SAT should have been done years ago. Leaving aside the question of whether an written sample can be graded on a standardized scale, at least schools will now have something to consider in terms of a student's preparation for the rigors of writing at a collegiate level.

Returning to our 4.0 student. This young lady, according to the article scored at very strong 720 on the verbal. Now she worries about a lowered score with a written segment. To have scored as well as she did, she has proven that she has a solid vocabulary and reading skills--two skills necessary to write well. If her academic instruction at this point did not provide instruction in writing, then the fault is not hers, but the school's.

Finally, I want kids to stop whining about standardized tests. Many things we do in life are not fun, but must be done. Right now, if you want to go to college, you probably need to take the SAT or the ACT. Accept the fact that it cannot be changed and move on. If they change the test, quit whining. TAke the test or don't take the test, but stop complaining.

SAT's English Focus Worries Students (

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

This Week's Listen--Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits

Under normal circumstances, I would never review a greatest hits album since I usually find them to be nothing more than a money-making and marketing ploy for an artist who has not done anything of late. However, I have to make a exception for Mellencamp's Words & Music.

Mellencamp is another artist l learned to love thanks to my father (who for a non-musician, has an amazing depth of listening habits). Mellencamp's music and lyrics have always told a great story. From the powerful family farm anthem "Rain on the Scarecrow" to the love stroy of "Key West Intermezzo," you can always count on a Mellencamp song to have a story with a beggining, middle and end. I think that such songwriting is truly an art and usually makes for entertaining music.

Mellencamp's true talent lies in three areas. First, his songs evoke an image and a feeling. Whether that feeling is one of sadness, like In Jackie Brown or joyful past (Cherry Bomb), you feel something. Second, Mellencamp as a musician is able to craft music that helps evoke those feelings, emphasize them or present a counterpoint to the lyrics. It takes a true craftsman to do that in so many different formats. Third, and finally, Mellencamp and the musicians he surrounds himself with can create stripped down rock music (R.O.C.K in the U.S.A) and layered, multi-instrument sounds (Paper in Fire) with skill and style.

One of the nice things about Words & Music is that the 33 "Greatest hits" are truly that. There is no question that these songs were on the charts and are among Mellencamp's best material. Furthermore, the songs span an impressive time range, from the mid-70's to the early 2000's. I enjoy the way the collection is put together, although, like most people, I think I might have done better. But at least there is an attempt to do something other than a chronological listing of songs.

A quick word about the two new tracks, "Walk Tall" and "Thank You." These two tracks show a stripped down version of Mellencamp's lyrical style, but still present a complete song. The two show a maturity in an artists who still has something to say. Musically, the songs are more complex, with some layered backing vocals and strong musicianship.

Again, even though I wouldn't normally recommend a greatest hits album to most people, those who only know Mellencamp through a couple of songs would do well to consider purchasing this album, a true greatest hits album that still holds together, despite its varied sources. - The Official John Mellencamp Website

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The New School Day--English, Algebra, Lunch, Breathalyzer Test, P.E.

Attached below is a link to a New York Times story (free subscription required) about schools using breathalyzers during the school day to prevent alcohol use by students. In the East Hampton School District in New York, "[d]istrict officials said they grew concerned after hearing of rampant student drinking. Teenagers were caught drinking on school trips to Costa Rica and Italy. A drunk student vomited on a bus on the way to a field trip. Then there were students showing up in class drunk, sometimes after having alcohol at lunch."

Although almost sure to generate legal challenges, the school is probably on safe ground if the proposed procedures discussed in the article are followed. Schools are permitted, constitutionally, to search students and their belongings on school property to prevent crime and unsafe conditions. The institution of breathalyzer tests is not an illogical step for the schools to take.

While the connection between the tests and the drinking is obvious, the policy raises two questions. First, why does the need for breathalyzer tests exist? It seems obvious that the social standards in this community are such that the "year-round residents describe 16 as the de facto drinking age." The problem is one of community standards and I am unsure of the ability of a school to prevent something which the community appears to endorse. How does a 16 year old kid get alcohol? How do lunchtime beach parties with alcohol occur with probable school and police knowledge? Who supplies these minors with alcohol? The most likely answer is parents and older adults. Of course if part of the problem is lunchtime beach parties, a more elegant, and cost effective, solution would be to prohibit students from leaving campus a lunchtime to go to a party.

Second, and more troubling, why does it fall upon the school system to address this problem? If underage drinking is rampant, what are parents, elected officials, and the police doing to prevent it? Permitting or prohibting the activity falls upon the community and while schools can help enforce the law, they should not be the first and last line of defense. The response from the community is split and troubling: "Last month, parents and teachers crowded a school board meeting to cheer the proposal. The op-ed pages of The East Hampton Star overflowed with letters, many of them calling the plan heavy-handed and invasive."

I can see teachers applauding the move, removing drunk kids from their classroom removes a problem teachers shouldn't have to deal with. Parents of non-drunk kids also have a right to praise the plan. These parents have apparently instilled in their children respect for the law and respect for the school, if not for the actual education. But putting the responsibility on the schools to conduct these breathalyzer tests perpetuates the expectation that many people have about schools, specifically that the schools should do what parents lack the will to do--namely discipline and control their children.

But why are some people opposed to the policy? Possession of alcohol by a minor is illegal. Consumption of alcohol by a minor is illegal in most circumstances. Given that these kids are probably driving to school, driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated is clearly illegal. The breathalyzer tests will serve two functions--prevention and detection. If the mere presence of a policy allowing for breathalyzer tests deters drinking by students, then the policy is a success even if no test is ever given. If the test finds one student who is drinking and must face the consequences, then the policy is a success. Preventing illegal behavior is duty of the entire community.

If the police set up a check point on a road near the school and conducted breathalyzer tests on the road of drivers, there would be no question of the propriety and legality of such a checkpoint. But to move the checkpoint to the school suddenly becomes a debate of Herculean proportions. If the rest of community won't do its job, and the schools must do this policing, better that is it being done than not.

The New York Times > New York Region > Sobriety Tests Are Becoming Part of the School Day

Good Critique of Supreme Court's Decision On Juvenille Death Penalty columnist Edward Lazarus offers this critique of the Roper v. Simmons case banning the application of the death penalty to convicted murderer who were minors at the time of their crime. The tag line to the article, "A morally good result, supported by less-than-convincing legal reasoning" sums it up quite well.

On a more troubling ground, the majority used less than convincing support in the form of other nation's laws, unratified treaties and other less compelling authority as support for their argument. This was the subject of a colloquy between Justice Scalia and Justice Breyer at American University's Washington School of Law. See here for the press release and full transcript of the event. Here is the link to the Real Video Archive from C-SPAN

FindLaw's Writ - Lazarus: The Supreme Court Strikes Down the Death Penalty For Juvenile Offenders A Morally Good Result,

Update: Yale law student Will Baude presents an opinion about Justice Kennedy's reasoning in the juvenile death penalty case in The New Republic Online. hat Tip to The Volokh Conspiracy

The Count Every Vote Act

Senators Hilary Clinton (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) have introduced a bill called the Count Every Vote Act which, they say, will address several key concerns about American voting. Among the concerns the bill addresses are: a voter verified paper ballot for electronic voting machines, "access to voter verification for all citizens, including language minority voters, illiterate voters and voters with disabilities. The bill also designates Election Day as a national holiday and requires early voting in each state, and allows for same day registration for voting.

So let's take a look at the major provisions one by one, starting with some easy ones.

Early voting: This in essence is not a bad idea and one that could be encouraged among the states, but it should not be required. The time place and manner of elections, as clearly stated in Article I of the Constitution is the purview of the states, the Federal Government should not be involved in mandating this--at least not without funds to pay for the expenses.

Felon Re-Enfranchisment--under most state laws, if a felon has completed his/her sentence, including an probation, they can and should have their voting rights re-instated. However, this has turned out to be more of a problem than it would seem. States do need to do a better job of this. In the era of computer records, this shouldn't be a problem.

Election Day as a National Holiday: I have always been a big proponent of this idea. We are the only democracy in the world--to my knowledge, that doesn't have election day on a weekend or a national holiday. We also have the lowest voter turnout of any industrialized nation. Even Iraq, where voters had their very lives threatened if they voted had a better turnout than the United States. Giving Americans the day off to participate in their most important right is just good government. It also reduces the excuse--I had to work.

No-Excuse Absentee Balloting. Many states require voters who wish to submit and absentee ballot provide some sort of excuse for requesting one, like going to be out of town on business or vacaction, working a job that prohibits voters from making it to the polls, etc. I don't know whether anyone has the excuse denied since that could be seen as an infringement on their ability to vote. So If someone wants to vote absentee, the states should not stand in the way. Provided the person is a registered voter, the state should provide an absentee ballot no questions asked.

Disabled Access--This is a no brainer. Voting should be available to all citizens regardless of their physical handicaps. The fact that some states do not have provisions for handicapped voting is downright shocking if it indeed exists.

Voter Verification in Minority Languages--this is plain dumb and an affront to me as a citizen. If some immigrates to this country, becomes a citizen and choses to vote--excellent, welcome to the grand experiment. But to provide that person, who had to demonstrate proficiency in English to become a citizen, with minority language verficiation is an expense that the government should not be forced to bear. If a person cannot verify, in English, their choices, then is that person a fully functioning citizen. I think not. Besides, what are they verifying, their selections for office, meaning the candidates names, which is not provided in other languages since they are proper names.

Finally, the big one--a Voter Verified Paper Trail. If one of hte goals is to reduce wait times a polls, having this mandate will guarantee longer lines since it will take time. I have seen electronic voting machines and the ones I have used can be programmed to warn voters that they have not voted in some races, prevent the selection of two candidates and other steps to ensure that the ballot, once cast is valid. Having a paper trail is merely a Luddite response to the fears of people that someone will hack the machines. A Paper trail is no guarantee that the voters intent will be more discernible than electronic voting or any other method of voting. This method will simply increase the expense of voting with no discernible effect on the security and sanctity of the voting process.

All in all, this bill is a mistake because the big errors outweigh the smaller more common sense gains.

The bill is S.450 in the Senate and HR 939 in the House. To get a full text of the bill, go to Thomas, the Library of Congress legislative website.

Here is Sen. Boxer's Press Release on the bill.

Hat Tip to Election Law Blog

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

No Consequences

I suppose everyone and their grandmother is going to post something on the death penality decision of the Supreme Court from yesterday. At the bottom of this post is a series of links to various news stories, opinion pieces and blogs about the decision. I feel the need to throw a little something out there as well.

First, I believe the death penalty, when properly applied and decided, is a valuable deterrent, a key portion of punishment. I know there are studies out there that there is a disproportionate number of minorities on death row, arguements about sentencing the mentally retarded to death and other issues. But I am talking about something different--realziing that there are consequences for your actions, even if you are a legal minor.

By holding unconstitutional the imposing of hte death penalty to minors, the Court has opened a dangerous door, one that tells 16 and 17 year old gangbangers that they can kill with relative impunity. Sure a life sentence is still a possibility, but really, what kid thinks about that. Some minors today know that the crimes they commit as juveniles are subject to less stringent punishment because society has determined that "they don't know any better." Which, in impolite terms is a crock of shit. These kids know that by taking a life, they are committing a crime. They know that in committing the crime they are subject to punishment if and when they are caught. Finally, these kids know that society treats them differently.

The death penalty need not be applied to be effective. The mere fact that the penalty is available is enough to provide some detterent. Now a seventeen year old kid, three weeks from his 18th birthday can go out and murder someone, in cold blood, in a violent and heinous fashion and never fear the gas chamber, lethal injection or the electric chair. The same crime committed three weeks later would surely mean, in some states, that the prosecution could seek the death penalty.

I know that the courst need to draw a line somewhere. But there needs to be a little consistency. If a 16 year old kid negligently kills or injures someone in say a car accident, under modern tort law they can be held liable for that wrongful death. As a matter of law in most states, 14 year old minors can be held civily liable for their own torts. So a 16 year old can be held liable for wrongful death, but a cold blooded murder who happens to be 16 does not have to face the full range of the statye's punishment. How is that consistent?

News links:

The Decision--Courtesy of Findlaw and the Washington Post
The Washington Post
New York Times--story and analysis
Fox News

Schwarzenegger Rocks the Budget Process

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, gave the Governator, Governer Arnold Schwarzenegger the highest score for fiscal responsibility in its bienniel fiscal policy report card.

I must admit that the California recall circus a year and a half ago made me laugh when the state elected Schwarzenegger. But despite some missteps, he has done well by the state both in terms of fiscal and other types of policy. Arnold governs the way I would, by determining what is in the best interests of the state and its citizens and then daring the legislature to defy him and the state. It has been masterful PR and framing of issues. By moving from issue to issue with ease and pre-empting the legislature on issues, Schwarzenegger has been keeping them on the defensive, which is how you win politics.

Schwarzenegger has been particularly masterful when it comes to the budget process. Here is a man who came to the U.S. with nothing and managed to build a business empire. People know this and respect it, trusting in him to re-build the 4th or 5th largest economy in the world.

One other bonus of Arnold is that people don't view him as a politician first, which allows him to be credible about the issue before people start being the usual skeptical selves.

Cato News Release - March 1, 2005

The Flu Sucks

Having been beaten down by the flu for the past several days, I can say that it did not get the best of me and I am back. I would normally post an ode to flu shots, but since I didn't get one, I won't.

Here's to trying to get back into the swing of things. Lots of stuff to talk about.