Make American great again

The mantra “Make America great again” has been used by Mr Trump in this election season to summarize what the candidate suggests he can change about the United States. I disagree with Mr Trump on so many things and also reject his candidacy based on what he has demonstrated to be his personal values.

If you feel it is necessary to make America great again, allow me to offer a very different vision starting from a similar place. “That used to be us” is a book by Thomas Freidman and Michael Mandelbaum (see the wikipedia summary). While Trump and Friedman are both concerned. they have very different perspectives on globalization, diversity, education and energy. I have read most of the Friedman books and his analysis and explanations are deep and nuanced. You get a very complete picture without the vagueness I find in the Trump rhetoric.

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So what we teach is not reality?

I put most of my writing time into content for those in education. Some feel uncomfortable when comments on political issues are mixed with comments on educational issues. I understand this concern, but also feel that it is naive for educators to be passive when it comes to such issues. Public education is by nature political as funding and direction can be determined by elected officials. I sometimes accommodate this disparity by commenting on education issues on this site.

This has been a political season like no other. The issues associated with the Presidential race have been so contentious that the media offers nearly continuous commentary on the blow by blow developments. In comparison, other races seem almost invisible.

I wonder how educators are dealing with what students have seen and heard and how the “issues” have been explained in their homes. It seems to me that the model of the political process and notions of capitalism we promote as the “American” way have been exposed as idealistic and not useful for processing the reality that young people now see. This is far more than learning that democrats and republicans have predictably different perspectives on the role of government, funding responsibilities, and what we mean by equity and social responsibility. It seems business success involves more than the basics of having a great idea, borrowing money to develop and offer this idea as a product or service, compensating investors fairly for taking a risk, and supporting workers through reasonable compensation including benefits such as health care.

The very public reality is that successful business includes exploiting loopholes and stiffing investors and employees. Taking advantage turns out to be “genius”. Vague promises, simplistic charges of political failure, blatant sexism and racial bias promoted as telling it like it is, and dismissal of serious personal flaws as inconsequential in comparison to what I can do for you are the all too visible information offered as the basis for the decision voters are to make.

Students must wonder at the disconnect between the noble vision presented to them and the reality they experience outside the classroom. What is a teacher to do?

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Poilitical responsibility

This may seem like a civics lesson. It is not intended as such. I was not that interested when I took any coursework related to the subject. My understanding of government is pretty limited, but I am bothered by certain illogical positions politicians and perhaps the individuals who back them are willing to take in the political season.

What bothers me at present is the argument that because someone was President, Secretary of State, or a member of a specific party, things that happened when it is assumed these things are bad or do not happen when these things are good are the responsibility of those being held up for criticism.

They way government works was explained to me as a separation of powers. It is very difficult to do most things on your own. So, typically, responsibility for any given situation must be shared.

There are exceptions. For example, the President as “commander in chief” has certain decision-making powers regarding military issues. Accordingly, the rise of ISIS are attributed to the decision making of the president and secretary of state. As I understand the complaint, drawing down the military left this power gap allowing the germination and flourishing of ISIS.

Remembering your history is important here. What I remember is the frustration of the American people that the large number of troops and casualty levels in Iraq while we were mostly going it alone and feeling unsupported by Iraq was not received positively by the American people. Do you remember things differently?  I tried to find what I could about the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. You might be interested in what I found. President Bush (GW) signed the Status of Forces agreement establishing a commitment to get our troops out by 2011. The lower level of commitment was not the decision of President Obama and it was agreed to by both the U.S. and Iraq under a different administration.

While on the topic of the situation in Iraq. The situation in Iraq was destabalized based on the position that Iraq was involved in 9/11 and was using and developing weapons of massed destruction. Of course, both arguments used to gain the support of congress and the American people were false. One of the unfortunate consequences of creating a vacuum in a deeply divided region without appreciating the complexities of the region or without a long-term plan established the conditions for the present situation. Whether the decisions were appropriate is not the issue. Maybe it was a good decision (Saddam was a bad guy) and maybe it was not. Holding the present administration responsible for the consequences of decisions made by others represents simplistic thinking when a simple explanation is not sufficient and inaccurate.

Consider a different situation. The Affordable Care Act was passed with the President and majority control from the same party. The Affordable Care Act is complicated, but it set out to do some specific things. One important commitment from my perspective was the provision that prevented insurance companies from denying coverage based on a pre-existing condition. My wife and two daughters have a genetic mutation that makes certain cancers highly likely (BRACA). My wife has already dealt with cancer on two different occasions.  I assume you would agree with me that putting people who must deal with this reality is a situation that an insurance company can ignore them is unacceptable and the type of thing the government should remedy. The percent of uninsured has dropped from 15 to 9%. I assume this is a good thing. Since the uninsured tend not be denied treatment, but do receive inferior treatment, I assume this is a good thing.

What about the increases in cost? Some increase might be expected.The reason insurance companies do not want to cover those with pre-existing positions is because they have pre-existing conditions. This does change the odds a bit. Again, if you are against the role of government in addressing this issue, I regard you as self-centered.

There were potential opportunties. As I said, those without insurance are seldom ignored. They end up in the ER for things that could often be treated in the office because they cannot afford to go the office when a condition is in the early stages. They do not engage in preventative measures that would reduce the problems that puts them in situations others do not face. It is hard to know how these potential advantages have worked out.

What else has happened? It appears that some businesses have taken advantage of the situation to ask employers to seek insurance on their own. Medical costs and charges from the insurance company costs have increased.

So, here is where the political establishment and the business establishment have a different take on things. If you struggle with understanding how this works, I refer you to that genius Donald Trump and his explanation of how the job of a business person is to maximize profits for self and investors and take advantage of those situations allowed by the government. I am not sure what to say about responsibility in this case.


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The tax thing

Here is why transparency matters. Without an explanation, the present situation allows folks like me to use the limited knowledge they have to understand what is going on for self and others.

Here is how I understand the “genius” move Mr. Trump made to spin a billion dollar loss into gold. I am basing this on the analysis provided by economists explaining how a developer with what appears to be limited assets could invest and lose nearly a billion dollars and then receive multi-year tax breaks.

As I understand the explanation, Mr. Trump and those who provided funding to his company made investments that failed and the company had to sell at a substantial loss. The key here is who had the billion dollar loss. Say three individuals went in with Mr. Trump each putting in $300 million. Say the sale of what remained of the investment was worth 200 million and each investor received 50 million back. Who has lost nearly a billion dollars? One way of understanding what likely happened would be that all parties made a deal that the investors would provide funds to Mr. Trump’s company and he would provide some type of expertise with the expectation of some return to the investors. At one point the billion dollars belonged to Mr. Trump. A different interpretation would be that each party involved lost 200 million.

If the first scenario is accurate, most folks would probably not assume Mr. Trump deserved to benefit for taking a billion dollar loss when Mr. Trump or his business did not really experience this loss. Taking advantage of others for personal benefit is not what most of us consider representing business genius. Legal or not the impression it leaves matters.

For the record, the economist claimed that this scenario is no longer allowed under the law. Mrs. Clinton voted for the law that closed the loophole.

Is this an accurate representation? I don’t know. Given no additional information and an explanation that seems quite logical, it is hard to know what to believe.

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A genius?

There are fields in which it is helpful to bring in someone who knows how to abuse or manipulate a system in order to improve that system. Black hat hackers are often brought in by online security agencies to explain their tactics so that countermeasures can be prepared. Rely on criminals to explain how they do what they do is helpful if it is criminal behavior that has you mystified. Does the way some with the most resources avoid taxes a mystery?

Surrogates for Mr Trump are now describing Mr Trump as a genius because he has been able to take advantage of federal tax laws to increase his own wealth. Does Mr. Trump have insight that other politicians do not? I doubt that this is the case. The issue of loopholes afforded the very rich are well known and constantly noted by politicians. The problem is not so much with understanding or with the individual who happens to be the president, but with the unwillingness of congress to address the problem. It is important to understand that it is congress that makes the laws. Executive powers are quite limited in the area of generating the funds to maintain the needs of the country. This is one of those division of powers things.

The congressional representatives who could change the tax laws are heavily lobbied and supported by the wealthy. Ask those who represent you about the tax law.

The logic that a successful businessperson can use these same skills to benefit the country depends on what skills apply. As a leader of the country you cannot rely on bankruptcy as a solution to thee organization you represent. You pretty much have to pay those folks for goods and services you ask them to provide.

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In a few hours, the presidential candidates will engage in a “debate” with tremendous consequences. The impact their words have on the voting public may determine the results of the upcoming election. But, is what is about to happen an actual debate and will the public be informed in the manner expected from a debate?

Actual debates have some obvious differences. An actual debate is evaluated by judges looking for specific things. As neutral observers, the judges are to evaluate how well the participants support the position they are advocating and contest the position taken by their opponents. The quality of arguments is what matters. Are positions taken clear? Is a clear rationale provided for the position and is evidence offered to support the position? Are the rationales and evidence provided by the opponent accurately identified and disputed with evidence? Redefining the issue being debated, drifting from the topic, and personally attacking an opponent are evaluated as irrelevant (a waste of the allocated time) or reason for a more negative evaluation.

The debates leading to such important decisions for the nation are likely not to meet these expectations. The American people and not neutral judges will evaluate the performance of the participants. The actual moderator may not be able to keep the participants from deviating from the agreed upon topics. Reactions of the viewers may not be based on the quality of arguments and the accuracy or existence of the evidence offered in support of the evidence. Showmanship rather than substance may be what gains participants credit.

Argumentation (debate) is being taught in schools because it develops the skills of critical thinking. This focus is deemed necessary because so much information floats around that requires a critical eye and because people, in general, are not good at carefully evaluating the information they encounter.

I must say that while my position may seem biased it bothers me greatly that affiliation of voters with the two candidates taking the stage this evening can be related to the level of education of those who tend to back each candidate. Of course, there are many exceptions, but this difference stands out in analyses of possible predictive variables. As an educator interested in critical thinking and sound reasoning this just seems like a reason for concern.

So, my suggestion is to be critical when you listen tonight. Are the candidates staying on topic? Are candidates making clear explanations for the positions they propose? Is there evidence offered for these positions?

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Fantasy failure

Located in the deep woods or not, Sunday is still the day for football. Time to check my fantasy team. I have never been a fan of the fantasy game. You should root for one team and stick with your team. Being loyal is a big thing with me.

I have been participating in a fantasy league to keep other people happy. It seems to be the thing to do.

My team has been struggling. Today I am down 50-12 while having more men in play than my opponent. My quarterback earned one point today – two interceptions and no touchdowns. I did draft Tom Brady, but then I remember that he was ineligible for the first four games. I told everyone else that I thought this was a good move because the others thinking they were smart passed him up. I would have him for all, but the first four games. There are more quarterbacks – I think mine got to play the entire game. My players seem to be turning in poor performances just to spite me.

I see there is a button labeled “get a team”. Maybe I should give that a try.

My wife keeps trying to explain this fantasy thing to me. “You have to drop some players and look for better ones,” she says. I try to explain my loyalty thing to her, but she says that is not how the game is played.

Just wait – Tom Brady will return and my fortunes will turn around. This is probably why they call it fantasy football.

BTW – the Vikings (the team to which I am loyal) did win today (again). Take that all you midwest loser Packer fans. (Note – if you are really loyal, you get to trash talk.)

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To Maine and back

Time for another trip. I maintain another blog where I keep track of our trips so this post is just to let folks know we are travelling.

This is the first entry from our Fall 2016 trip. We decided to drive to Maine and back to look at the leaves. To get to Maine, we took the northern route through Canada. I have little to report from this part of the trip. You drive slow when pulling a camper and Canada is large. We spent most of the time driving. Nice country – Canada.

Now, we are in Maine. Our immediate goal is to spend time in Acadia National Park. It is the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Parks and Acadia is rated as one of the best. National Parks are great, but often very crowded. No place to park. No campsites unless you plan far ahead. We  waited until the kids went back to school and the parents went back to work. Old folks are smarter than most people think.

Today, it was time for lobster. We settled on lobster rolls – all meat and none of the mess.

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Cell phone companies

I understand that many people have struggles with phone companies. The various plans are complicated and the companies make it difficult to make transitions when the company will lose out on revenue. Phone companies and used car businesses are not good cases for the benefits of free enterprise systems.

My skepticism aside why is it that technology companies are so inept at taking advantage of technology. Why is record keeping and digital communication ignored as a way to better serve customers?

Here is an account of our recent struggles with AT&T. We are on the road for a couple of weeks touring the northeast U.S. We decided to drive through our destination through Canada. I am teaching at present and online communication with my students is important. We realized that the 4-5 days in Canada would be a challenge. However, just before we left we heard that AT&T was now allowing customers traveling to Mexico and Canada to use their US data in these countries. We have a 30-gigabyte monthly plan allowing up to 15 gigabytes to be rolled over from month to month. The only times we use anywhere close to this much data is when we travel. Anyway, Cindy called and talked to an AT&T rep and asked about our situation and we were assured that we would be fine and need not worry about data use.

As soon as we crossed into Canada we started getting messages warning that international rates would apply to any use of our phones. Cindy immediately called again to ask about these warnings. She was then told that while our plan was substantial it was not unlimited and that the deal applied to unlimited plans. Cindy has been through these issues so many times. She patiently explained that the unlimited plan was not particularly useful because unlimited does not allow tethering.  We need to tether computers and iPads so we purchased a large plan that allows tethering. In addition, we had purchased a UNITE (a mifi) as a third line to make tethering easier. So, we were paying an additional fee beyond the cost of our data so we can tether through wifi instead of our phones.

This conversation went on for 45 minutes. Finally, there works out some deal which provided us with 4 gigabytes of international data and switched our plan from 30 to 15 gigabytes as a way to save money. She was told you are allowed to upgrade on a month by month basis so we could change back to a larger plan in a month we knew we would use more data. Cindy then patiently went through her understanding – here are the three numbers from which we will access data, here is the amount of international data we can use, here is the time frame within which we can use this amount of data. We were told to ignore the warnings as the warnings would not keep up with the changes. She was assured that all of these commitments were entered as notes into our account.

Next day we continued to get warnings and it was indicated we had spent $500 in charges. Even without the expectations that had been established, this amount of money seems beyond belief. We had used all three devices, but the amount of data was very small – far less than a gigabyte.

So, Cindy calls AT&T again. The expectations we had were not allowed. The plan proposed to us was not an option AT&T allowed. I am still assuming that the charges have been dropped (after acknowledging that the amount of data used was very small). We will have to wait and see.

Here are some observations (this situation seems similar to an experience we had with Verizon).

  1. The representatives you contact may appear informed, but may actually be unfamiliar with the options that the companies actually provides. What you are told may not be accurate. I cannot say if this reflects a lack of training or something more sinister. What I can say after sitting in the car and listening to several hours of conversations is that what Cindy described to the representatives was very precise (she knows both the technology and our uses very well) and should have resulted in a negative response from the company representative should her understanding not have been accurate. She had three separate conversations with three separate representatives all of whom had access to all of our stored information and a clear description of the issue in question. Each appeared to understand AT&Ts plans in different ways.
  2. Do not assume that an accurate or complete representation of any discussion you have with a representative will be recorded “in the notes”. Comments associated with your call may not exist or be incomplete even when you ask that specific information be recorded.
  3. Do not assume that a representative will send you “the notes” in your record, identify himself or herself in a way that is useful in future conversations with other reps, or will send you anything useful related to your interaction as a text or email.

Phone companies have great opportunities for record keeping – your phone number (phone or device) is unique, is known to the representatives and is used to tag interactions and information.  Customers should have personal access to any notes claimed to reflect the issues and disposition of any interactions with the company. Entries in this record should identify all parties involved as a way to establish accountability. You should be entitled to the identity of anyone “helping” you. Your identity is known to the representatives. Why not record the audio from interactions with customers and link this file to the notes associated with a customer account?

The use of technology as a way make agreements concrete seems such a simple thing to do. The financial advantage to technology companies for being unsophisticated and unresponsive should not be tolerated.

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I just finished watching the Iowa/NDSU football game and was inspired to write a post about NDSU football. This is a very low probability event. I seldom write about sports and this is probably the first time I have ever written about NDSU for any reason.

I have a secondary connection to both Iowa and NDSU. I attended the other Iowa school (Iowa State) and I worked at the other North Dakota school (University of North Dakota). Still, I keep an eye on the other schools.

I watched ISU and Iowa play a week or so ago. It was pretty much a blow out. I thought Iowa had an obvious advantage over Iowa State because of the offensive and defensive lines. NDSU could have lost both of the first two games of the year, but squeaked both out at the end. I assumed Iowa would win their game with NDSU probably after a close first half by taking advantage of the extra scholarships allowed by BCS status and wearing the NDSU lines out in the second half.

I should have known better. NDSU has won the last half dozen or so games it has played against BCS opponents. Sure enough, NDSU came from behind to win on a last second field goal. Fewer scholarship players or not, it was NDSU dominating in the 4th quarter. Even after failing to go ahead by going for two after what could have been a tying score, NDSU immediately stopped Iowa and then drove the ball down field to score on a field goal.

When the UND/NDSU division II rivalry ended, I thought NDSU was craze to move to division I. UND dominated the final years of the division II rivalry and any North Dakota school faces recruitment challenges. It is cold. Somehow, NDSU turned their fortunes around even after moving up a level.

Explaining their success if difficult. I thought it was probably coaching. However, coach Bohl took advantage of his success at NDSU and moved up to coach Wyoming. UND then played up a level last year and defeated Wyoming. I suppose it takes some time to build up a program. I think the NDSU thing is really a matter of confidence. They just seem to assume they should win. They play the game to the end and seem to rise to the occasion in the most demanding situations. Pressure seems to improve their play and they have pulled out wins in three straight games. Whatever the level of an opponent, this is not a team you want to have to take on at the end of a tight game.

It would really be a shame if BCS teams starting avoiding good lower division I teams. You should get some credit for defeating a team that would be easy to rank among the best in any division.

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