Scanning the Heavens

Michael Gizzi is a professor of criminal justice, a political scientist, privacy advocate, and a geek.

Private Colleges paying students to take a year off from school

The associated press is reporting that there is a new movement afoot in private universities and colleges.  They are providing financial aid to “needy” students to take a year off between high school and college, so they can take a “gap” year to travel and experience the world, apparently like many of their more wealthy applicants are able to do.

Are you kidding me?  In a world, where higher education costs have increased more than 1,120% in thirty years, where college is increasingly out of the reach of many Americans, selective universities are PAYING students to go travel the world?   I have a better idea — MAKE EVERY student who enrolls at Princeton take a year working a crap minimum wage job BEFORE starting college.  Don’t PAY them to do it - make them live on that wage, and then let them enter the university.  That might not let students travel the world, but it will give them a taste of what life is like for many Americans.   

In the AP Story they report that this new trend extends beyond Princeton and Tufts, even smaller private colleges like St. Norbert’s College in Wisconsin are doing this.   I went to a college very similar to St. Norbert.  A college that cost $10,000 per year in 1986 (still a LOT of money); today cost more than $48,000 a year.  One year there today equals the total cost of a four year education in the late 1980s.   Is there four times the value of the education today?    

I guess I am not surprised that these elite institutions are offering such perks.   But the fact that these institutions take federal monies in many ways, really irks me to no end.   Given the crisis we face in the world of public higher education funding, how on earth anyone can justify providing funding to allow students to “take a gap year” and “explore the world” is beyond me.   Let them work at minimum wage, and experience “the world.”   Fries with that?  

Senator Diane Hypocrite Feinstein

So, let me get this right,  Senator Feinstein is upset when the CIA spies on the Senate,  but is perfectly ok with when the the NSA spies on the American public.    Yeah, ok.  

Unexpected reflection of visiting the Washington tornado site

I attended presbytery meetings today (the presbytery is the regional body of the Presbyterian Church (USA)).  Our assembly meetings are held in Washington, Illinois, less than a quarter of a mile from where an F-4 tornado cut a swath of destruction through the city last November.  The tornado was on the ground for 46 miles, caused the deaths of three people, and at least $800 million in damage.   The last part of our day-long meeting consisted of an update on tornado recovery from Presbyterian Disaster Services, and two testimonials from people from Washington.

The first woman who spoke was a farmer from the edge of town, whose farm, barns, and sheds were completely destroyed. As were the six buildings across the road (what had once been her grandmother’s farm and had been in the family for several generations). They are beginning the slow process of rebuilding, but need to be patient, and wait for the land to dry - first the snow to melt - then the mud to dry -  to clean the debris from the fields - they will be going through with a six foot magnet to try to remove the numerous nails that are in the fields, along with much else in debris fields small and large. She hopes they will be able to plant soy this year; they aren’t even going to try for corn.  It was a powerful and sobering testimonial.

When the meeting ended, I decided to drive through the disaster area.  While it did not look like what it did in November, as much of the piles of residential debris was cleaned up, it was a truly surreal experience. I drove past an elementary school and two nursing homes/care facilities,both undamaged, and then there were subdivisions - that looked like new neighborhoods going up. But then you’d notice there were roofs missing from houses, and others reduced to foundations. At one point there was a vacant lot with an American flag sticking out of the ground.  It was a strange sense of new life, as people’s homes and neighborhoods were being rebuilt, surrounded by still many homes that were still in ruins.

I continued on, and came around a bend, seeing more of the swath of the destruction, and as I turned north towards US 24, I realized I was looking at a field, and saw a lone tree - the remains of it anyway - - and there was what had been those six buildings of the grandmother’s farm. I quickly turned to the left, and there was the brick shell of the woman’s home. It was pretty inconceivable really. And made her talk even more powerful in strange ways.  I was struck by the power of nature, and how quickly it can turn the world upside down.  It looked like what I’d imagine the aftermath of a nuclear blast would be. And yet, that family is determined to rebuild, and put their farm back to work.  

I walk away from today’s meetings with a different perspective - and a sense of respect for the power of nature, and the power of the human spirit to overcome.  In the weeks after the tornado, Washington began referring to itself as “Washington Strong” - and they certainly are.  

Yellowstone is not the Wisconsin Dells

Yes, my response to the ignoramus who proposed caging in all the animals and opening up Yellowstone to timber harvesting.  

Today’s tale of the absurd in the world of law enforcement reasoning

Yesterday I provided a quote from the remarkable dissent from People v Weaver, a 1991 Court of Appeals decision involving a drug profile.   Today I’d like to share the reasoning (accepted by the Court’s majority, written by Judge Roger Wollman) as the basis of reasonable suspicion for a stop.

[An officer is waiting at the Kansas City Airport, watching people get off of a flight from Los Angeles at 6:45am].  As Weaver disembarked from Flight 650, he caught Officer Hick’s attention because he was a “roughly dressed” young black male who was carrying two bags and walking rapidly, almost running, down the concourse towards a door leading to a taxi stand.    Because Hicks was aware that a number of young roughly dressed black males from street gangs in Los Angeles frequently brought cocaine into the Kansas City area and that walking quickly towards a taxicab was a common characteristic of narcotics couriers at the airport, he became suspicious that Weaver was a drug trafficker.   -  People v Weaver, 966 F.2d 391 (1992) (Judge Roger Wollman).  

Wait, are you kidding me?  A “roughly dressed” young black man walking swiftly towards a taxi-cab after getting off a 3 or 4 hour flight is suspicious, since Los Angeles is a source city for narcotics in the midwest?  

I’ll say it again, are you kidding me?     This is a classic example of the way judges - particularly federal judges - accept wholeheartedly and uncritically - the rationales that law enforcement make up for profiling in the war on drugs.    While we can lay much blame for racial profiling on the police,  the Judicial branch deserves its share of blame for allowing such travesties of justice.   

“what is missing here, is an awareness that law enforcement is a broad concept. It includes enforcement of the Bill of Rights, as well as enforcement of criminal statutes. Cases in which innocent travelers are stopped and impeded in their lawful activities do not come to court. They go on their way, too busy to bring a lawsuit against the officious agents who have detained them. If the Fourth Amendment is to be enforced, therefore, it must be by way of motions to suppress in cases like this.”

—   Judge Richard Arnold, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, People v Weaver, in dissent, 966 F.2d 391 (1992)

So often forgotten, but never were wiser words spoken

In response to ignorance about the jewel of the national park system

An incredibly ignorant letter to the editor appeared in today’s issue of the Bloomington Pantagraph calling for privatizing Yellowstone National Park and opening it up to investment for things such as timber harvesting. 
My letter in response.

To the editor:

The letter about Yellowstone from March 4 is short-sighted and ignorant. Yes, there is limited lodging in Yellowstone, and narrow 2-lane roads. The National Park Service efficiently manages the park’s 3 million annual visitors and provides an appropriate balance between human interaction and the wildlife that exist in its near-wilderness state. The letter writer wants Yellowstone to become the Wisconsin Dells, complete with road-side zoos, water parks, and luxury hotels. He apparently thinks we should also open the park’s pristine forests for timber harvesting, perhaps to reduce the threat of wildfire?

It is only when Yellowstone is experienced from off those two-lane roads that you can truly appreciate its wonder. Venture beyond Old Faithful or the overlooks of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and hike the Hayden Valley’s backcountry in the midst of the great Yellowstone caldera. The park’s majesty is revealed when you encounter a free-roaming herd of bison or elk in their natural environment, or go on a hunt for backcountry thermal mud pots. It all comes into focus when you climb Mt. Washburn, only to slowly detour around the rocky mountain big horn sheep that make the summit their home, before viewing the entire Yellowstone basin. In the Yellowstone Dells the letter writer proposes, that would all be lost. Yellowstone is a jewel of the national park system. It is protected and well managed. It is not the Dells, and thank God for that. 

Tumblr told me that my blog, “Scanning the Heavens” turned 2 today!   Yet, I have been neglecting it the past few months, for no other reason than that I have been busy with other things.      But enjoy a calorie-free cupcake.  Sadly, they taste calorie-free too.
Facepalm of the day.   

The enemy’s gate is down…. thoughts on the Enders Game movie

I said in a Facebook status update that I love the book Ender’s Game. I do. I read it every year.  It is one of my all-time favorite reads.  In both print and even more in the unabridged audiobook. To me Stephan Rudnicki will always be the voice of Ender, and Gabrielle de Cuir the voice of Valentine.  

But I had mixed feelings about going to see this film for two reasons:

1)  I hate giving more money to the author Orson Scott Card, who has proven himself to be one hell of a bigot in recent years.   His anti-gay rants bother me.  Big time.    But I am not going to allow that to not let me enjoy a dramatization of one of my all-time favorite books, which have NOTHING to do with his close-minded bigotry.  His being a bigot does not take away from Ender’s Game being the award winning novel that it is.   

2) I was incredibly leery of the film from the first previews.   All the kids were teenagers. Enders Game is a story of children.  Ender is 6 when he goes to Battle School, 10 when he graduates, 12 when he, ahem… finishes Command School. In this film all the actors are teenagers in the 12-15 year ago;  the girls look to be more like 15-17.  And the launch group seems to be half-girls.    

But I told myself to "forget the book." This is a movie, it is a loose adaptation of the book. Enjoy it for what it is. The teachers are still the enemy, and the enemy’s gate is down.  Yeah, ok.   So I said that 10 or 20 times, and went to the theater.

I managed, for the most time to keep my “why isn’t this here? why did they do that with that character? etc…” out of my view.    i absolutely loved being immersed into the world of Ender’s Game, and thought some of it was really good.

I think Asa Butterfield did a great job as Ender.   Same with Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley.  I loved seeing Mazer sitting in Ender’s room, in that prostrate position.   Just like in a drawing of it from the graphic novelization.  I was sold.   I could live Viola Davis cast as  Major Anderson, I guess the major could be a woman. It worked.   

I have ONE casting issue that I could not get away from the book with.  Ender was a stinking foot taller than Bonzo Madrid?  Why on earth would Bonzo even be intimidating, other than that he was a bit muscular?   I wanted — No —  I needed Bonzo to be a foot taller, and intimidating.  

But I tried to think, If I did not know this story, would I walk away understanding it, or persuaded by it?  For example,  they move very quickly, it seems as if the whole story takes place in maybe a year.     Ok, I guess… but did Ender do anything in that short time which would make him stand out as the one last great hope for humanity?  I don’t know.  It seemed forced.    WHY was Ender better than Alai? Or Bean, or Petra?  Or any of them?     

And I started to cringe when Ender was holding Petra’s hand.   I thought, NO!   Don’t go there!   There is no kissing in battle school!!!   Luckily, that didn’t happen.  But it was almost there.  And if they did, I would probably have burst out swearing in Battle school slang.  

My son asked me when it was over - “what was that with Valentine and the dream?”    I don’t think they pulled off the ending very well.  I got it;  but I heard several people walking out kind of shaking their heads, “this is it?”   “What happened there?”     

I think the film-makers could have kept the film basically the same length and managed to spread out the story a bit.  They could have made a transition with something like “two years later” or something like that.  And still used the same actors.  They were teenagers anyways.   It might have made for a more compelling story on its own.  

Did I enjoy it?  Yes,   was I disappointed?   Not as much as I expected to be. Indeed, I’ll probably get the Blu-ray.    In many ways my criticism of the film is a lot like my criticism of the first JJ Abrams Trek (No, Not about the alternate universe, don’t go there!) in terms of plot holes and plot devices that did not quite work for me (i.e., take a disgraced cadet and make him first officer of the flagship, yeah, that makes sense!).     If I were to grade the film, I’d give it a low B.   Still a good paper, but not quite where it could be.