Archive for December, 2010

Is Christian astronomer a victim of religious discrimination?

Astronomer Martin Gaskell was in line to be founding director of a new observatory at the University of Kentucky.

However, Gaskell is also a skeptic about some aspects of evolution, based in part on his Christian faith, and has expressed those doubts in lectures and writings. For example, he writes, the theory of intelligent design “is just exploring the question of what evidence there is in the universe for design by an intelligence,” calling it “a general, non-religious question (although with obvious religious implications). Because of those beliefs, the University of Kentucky “went in another direction” in filling the job of observatory director.

As the Louisville Courier Journal reports:

One search committee member, Sally Shafer, called Gaskell “fascinating,” but “potentially evangelical” in an e-mail to the chairs of the search committee and the Department of Physics and Astronomy….

An astronomy professor, Moshe Elitzur, told department chair Michael Cavagnero …

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For-profit education sector overdue for reform

According to its website, the Atlanta campus of the for-profit University of Phoenix offers bachelor’s degree programs in English, environmental science, accounting, business, health administration and other fields.

According to federal data made available by The Education Trust, first-time, full-time freshmen seeking a bachelor’s degree — the type of student most likely to graduate on time — have a four-year graduation rate of 2.4 percent at the Atlanta campus.

Systemwide in its 42 campuses, according to federal data, the University of Phoenix graduates only 9 percent of first-time, full-time, bachelor’s degree-seeking students within six years. And unfortunately, most of those failed students leave school burdened with loans they have to repay. In a new report, The Education Trust reports that the University of Phoenix “brought in over one billion dollars in Pell Grant funding alone in 2009-10, and this year the school risks exceeding federal limits by deriving over 90 …

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Yes it’s cold; yes the planet is warming

I opened the back door Monday morning to let the dog out, and she bounded into the yard, alert for squirrels or any other mischief she might find.

But two steps out the door, she stopped, stunned by the frigid air. She turned slowly and looked back up at me with a comical, you-have-got-to-be-kidding look on her face.

Yes, it’s cold. Bone-chilling, maybe record-breaking cold. And when I opened the door again five minutes later, it was one relieved, happy dog who bolted back into the warmth.

But as the saying goes, one robin does not make a spring, and one winter cold spell does not alter the reality of climate change. Local conditions notwithstanding, the World Meteorological Organization says that 2010 is likely to rank as the third warmest year on record dating back to 1850.

NASA, which uses records dating to 1880, believes 2010 will top even the previous record set in 2005. Either way, 14 of the warmest years on record will have occurred in the last 15 years, which is a …

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Another chain hung on Bernie Madoff’s soul

I’ve always been dubious about the claim by Bernie Madoff’s sons that they knew nothing about the massive fraud perpetrated by their father even though they both worked in the family business. On the other hand, I’ve also never seen definitive proof of their involvement. The question is at issue in lawsuits filed trying to recover millions of dollars in assets still held by the Madoff family.

Mark Madoff, with his wife Stephanie and son Nicholas

Mark Madoff, with his wife Stephanie and son Nicholas

Over the weekend, however, 46-year-old Mark Madoff ended his role in the scandal by hanging himself with a dog leash in his Manhattan apartment. His two-year-old son was found alone in the next room. The younger Madoff’s death came on the two-year anniversary of his father’s arrest, and you have a sense that this scandal will keep playing itself out over generations, like something in a Henry James novel.

It cannot have been an easy two years. Mark Madoff’s wife had already changed her last name and that of their two children from …

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Bernie Sanders goes old school

I suspect Bernie Sanders has made himself into a star.

Yes, his eight-and-a-half-hour speech was a stunt. But it seemed to be a stunt born out of sincere passion. Liberals angry at the lack of backbone shown by Obama and other Democrats in Washington are rallying to the sight of an elderly man putting on a spirited marathon saying things not often heard in the national debate.

Nine hours of speaking creates a lot of soundbites, many of which will be dissected over and over again. Politifact has already taken a look at this Sanders’ claim:

“Mr. President, in the year 2007, the top 1 percent of all income earners in the United States made 23.5 percent of all income,” Sanders said. “The top 1 percent earned 23.5 percent of all income–more than the entire bottom 50 percent.”

Politifact’s conclusion:

“So, we’re left with three studies that vary slightly but which all point in the same general direction — showing the top 1 percent earning between 21.4 and 23.5 percent of the …

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For Aretha, who’ll be travelin’ a hard road

There’s nobody like Aretha, the Queen of Soul. She rocks, she wails, she croons, she scolds and pleads and she sings praises to the Lord in a voice that He gave only to her.

She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the top-rated vocalist in Rolling Stones magazine’s Greatest Singers of All Time. And this week, of course, we learned that she is struggling with pancreatic cancer.

My favorite Aretha song is probably “Call Me,” but the versions posted on Youtube don’t do it justice and in most cases are marred by some unfortunate work by her background singers. But this is probably her signature number.

Ladies and gentlemen, Aretha:

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In Florida, GOP moves to dismantle public schools

For years now, Georgia Republicans have been following a trail blazed by their counterparts down in Florida, slowly nibbling away at the foundations of public education by proposing limited voucher programs for disabled students or students in what were labeled “failing schools.

Now Florida conservatives may finally be ready to try for the full enchilada:

From the St. Petersburg Times:

“Traditional public school advocates shuddered Friday morning at news that Florida’s incoming governor was considering a voucher-like program that would be available to all students.

Called “education savings accounts,” the proposal would allow state education dollars to follow students to the schools their parents choose, whether public or private. Although there are few details, such a program could dwarf the state’s existing voucher programs, which are limited to either low-income or disabled students…

“There goes public education,” said Pinellas school board member Janet Clark.

“There had …

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GOP voters often more reasonable than radicals they elect

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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell offers a telling illustration of how differently the modern Republican Party thinks and operates. In fact, I’m not aware of any other major political party behaving in this fashion in the nation’s history, and if anyone can demonstrate otherwise, please do.

In the latest Gallup poll (see chart above), 67 percent of Americans say they would vote to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. There’s nothing particularly dramatic in that number; it’s in line with results obtained by other pollsters on the question.

But take a look at the breakdown among Republicans. Forty-seven percent want to end DADT; 48 percent want to retain it. Even among self-described conservative Republicans, 39 percent say they want to end the policy and allow gay Americans to serve openly.

Yet even though Republican voters are almost equally divided on the issue nationally, Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted almost unanimously against it, with just one GOP senator voting to end the filibuster …

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Senate refuses to act on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Efforts to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell failed to muster the 60 votes needed to end a Senate filibuster this afternoon. The vote was 57-40, and the only Republican to support the measure was Susan Collins of Maine.

With a Republican House coming into power in January, the chances of repealing the measure by congressional vote will evaporate for two years at a minimum, and probably longer, unless today’s vote is somehow reversed. And it’s hard to imagine how that might happen.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned earlier, a congressional refusal to act could force the courts to intervene, a process that would add chaos and uncertainty to an already delicate process.

“History will hold these senators accountable and so will many of their constituents,” Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group pushing for repeal of the law, told the Washington Post. “There will be no place for these senators to hide. The Senate and the president must …

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Job number better, but real estate remains anchor

This whole economic mess has its roots in the real-estate bubble, which was driven by inflated housing values and no-doc, lo-doc, subprime, interest-only and other “creative” mortgages that were packaged by Wall Street into supposedly AAA securities that were then peddled off to investors in what amounted to a giant pyramid scheme.

In the last few months, the economy has shown some halting signs of progress. Job growth remains positive, if barely. Holiday sales seem to be on the upswing. And as Bloomberg reports today:

The number of workers filing first- time claims for unemployment insurance payments fell last week in the U.S., showing the labor market continues to improve.

Applications for jobless benefits decreased to 421,000, less than the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, from a revised 438,000 the prior week, Labor Department figures showed today. The four-week moving average, a less-volatile measure, dropped to the lowest level in more than two …

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