Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Feudalism Nouveau

There was a time when the rich overlords not only owned everything but controlled everybody. We called it feudalism.

Welcome back!

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If we finally get rid of the last non-millionaire in the US Senate, can we rename it the House of Lords?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Problem with American Schools That Nobody Notices

2010 Sep. 12

Letters to the Editor

Your cover story on education laments that, out of 30 developed nations, the US ranks only 21st in science literacy and 25th in math literacy, despite our being 5th in per-pupil spending. The article goes on to place the blame for this state of affairs largely on teachers' unions.

However, in a typical demonstration of American hubris and denial, no mention at all is made of another likely culprit: The US is the only nation in the world that doesn't use the metric system. Since metres, litres, and kilograms are the language of science, American teachers have to waste valuable class time teaching their students the fundamentals of how to measure; kids from Sweden, Canada, Germany, Japan, etc. have already picked up these skills at home and so can buckle down right away to story problems and the periodic table.

It gets worse. American children may be exposed in school to the metric system (just as they are to, say, Latin or the abacus), but it's not something they get to use daily at the grocery store, the football field, or the weather forecast. So they don't connect science and math to real life; for them, those vital subjects are more like characters in a Dickens novel — mildly interesting in a limited context but ultimately irrelevant … and forgettable with no visible ill effects.

Finally, of course, those international tests aren't asking about pounds, miles, gallons, or degrees Fahrenheit, so guess which nation's kids take longer and do worse on them.

It didn't have to be this way. Under Gerald Ford, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. Jimmy Carter duly appointed members to a national Metric Conversion Board, and the US was on its way down a 25-year road to joining the rest of humanity in the world's 1st truly global accomplishment. Then President Reagan came along and threw out metric conversion along with the solar panels on the White House roof, and we've been stuck in our arrogant complacency ever since.

So, in the noble tradition of Ronald Reagan, go ahead and destroy the teachers' unions, then come back in 30 years and wonder why our kids' science and math scores STILL haven't improved.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

IRV for Wisconsin

2010 Sep. 9

Voice of the People
The Capital Times

Reader Paul Malischke suggests ( "Let's consolidate spring elections". This was partly in reaction to a new federal law that requires ballots to be available to overseas voters 45 days before an election. Currently, primary elections (both the non-partisan ones in the spring and the partisan ones in the fall) are too close to the following general elections to allow for results to be decided, ballots to be printed, etc. with 45 days' lead time, so something's gotta give.

Here's a better idea: Eliminate primary elections altogether!

This can be done by going to Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), also called preferential balloting. The idea is that ALL the candidates from ALL the parties are on a single ballot, and you rank them in the order you like them. So if your top 6 choices are Al the Democrat, Barb the Green, Charlie the Libertarian, Donna another Democrat, Ed the Independent, and Flo the Republican, but you'd eat ground glass before voting for George the Constitution Party candidate and Hilda the 2nd Republican, then you'd rank your top choices 1 thru 6 and leave George and Hilda's spaces blank.

When they get to tallying ballots, they start by counting only the #1 choice on each ballot. If someone gets a majority that way, election's over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped off the list, and all of her or his votes are allocated to whoever showed up 2nd on those ballots. And so forth. This may sound complicated, but it's actually really easy to do with computers.

What it means is that there's no need to hold a primary ahead of time, so we'd save all the time and expense involved in addition to getting a truer picture of the voters' actual preferences. (Imagine if all those Ralph Nader voters had had a chance to list Al Gore as their 2nd choice and have their votes counted for Gore after Nader was eliminated.)

This is not some pie-in-the-sky idea. It's being used in countries around the world and in selected localities within the US. It could work in Wisconsin as well.