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Okay, I’ve been miserably long in posting this (and it’s still not complete) but here is the first installment of a look at U.S. education.

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I recently finished the classic tale of The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Theodore Dostoevsky, as it’s sometimes anglicized). If the name didn’t tip you off, he’s Russian, and so are the brothers he writes about. The tale was written in the nineteenth century, about the scandals of nineteenth century life in a small Russian town … and yet I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece in every sense.

Once I came to that conclusion, I wondered why it was that my school-age self never got the chance to read him. Was, in fact, forced to slave through stories that were boring and verbose, like Last of the Mohicans, instead. How was Dostoyevsky dismissed (never even mentioned, actually) when Romeo and Juliet was crammed down our throats not twice but three times in high school alone? At least I heard about Tolstoy’s massive classic War and Peace, and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though neither ever had a place on our bookshelves nor in our library nor curriculum. So I began thinking about our education system. I began to wonder, what are students actually learning? When English class rolls around and pupils open their textbooks, what greets them?

From my own school days I recall curricula that rarely wavered from writings of the “Big Three” – the US, the UK, and Ancient Greece – with virtually nothing newer than the nineteenth century except for a handful of short fiction and poetry. It never really struck me at the time how little we read of international authors. Even my university literature classes – open to anything written anywhere, anytime – featured little outside the well-worn paths of American, English, and Greco-Roman classics. Just in case we missed them in high school, I guess. I recall only two exceptions: a piece by Voltaire, a Frenchman; and Metamorphosis, by German author Franz Kafka. For crossing borders, that’s a terribly poor selection. Not that those authors don’t have writings worthy of study, but they were the only representatives of the greater world. I had in fact read Kafka’s famous tale as a teenager without realizing he was not American, which seems an even poorer world lit choice. I expected a great deal more out of my “education.”

I expected my horizons to be stretched; I wanted to be introduced to all manner of thing new and exotic (to me, at least). Growing up in rural mid-America and attending a small public school, I understood they operated under certain limitations. There were few frills – no AP classes, no special college jump-start programs. It was a small school with only a handful of faculty and staff, with mostly older buildings and low district millage rates. It was considered a stretch of our horizons to read Antigone (the story of Oedipus was pretty scandalous for the youth of a town with one gas station, one bank, and five churches). But now our “small” public schools have budgets rivaling that of my university alma mater. So I wonder if the latest crop of students are more well-read than my antiquated little class.

I still live in a rural area, very much like the one I grew up in, and I’m going to use the nearest public school as my model. Its middle and high school sections (with adjoining campuses and shared buildings) serve less than 900 students with more than 100 faculty and major staff (not including higher school officials or secondary staff). The middle school includes thirty-five classrooms; the high school has more, though I’m not sure by what margin; and most of the buildings are less than ten years old. Students can compete in eight different sports and graduate with more than 20 college credit hours. Sounds good, right? So let’s see how they measure up via ye olde standardized testing (not the best judge but the most decent judge I have easy access to).

Let me pre-empt these numbers by noting that very little is available on post-8th grade rankings, and virtually nothing prior to 1998. So, for starters at least, I will have to settle for comparing the 8th graders of 2009 to the 8th graders of 1998 to get any picture of the system at all. Now, on with the show. Since we’re talking literature, tests in Reading and Writing seem the most relevant, and from 1998 to 2009, there was a whopping change in our 8th graders statewide. Writing showed an increase of 5% and Reading showed an astounding increase of … [drumroll, please] … 1%. Wow. Wait a second; let me pull my socks back on before plunging ahead. In 1998, 8th graders in the state ranked 29th nationwide in Reading; in 2009, they ranked 41st. In Writing, their ranking fell from 33rd to 36th. But those are statewide and nationwide numbers, not a representation of my model school. So let’s see what else we can find.

According to 2009 literacy test results, my local high school ranked 96 of 253; the middle school section ranked 102 of 299 – both solidly mediocre. Not bad, not good, but I find it very disappointing given the present funding. Compared to what my former high school worked with, this model school is rolling in money. For instance, my high school had unpaved parking lots, not ideal but certainly functional and low maintenance. The model local school recently spent $1,000,000 on one paved parking lot. Let me repeat that: they spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS to prepare and blacktop ONE LOT so visitors and employees could walk to the main building without getting dirt on their shoes. Never mind the curriculum, crushed rock is hell in heels. But maybe their test scores are fantastic and their budget is overflowing with surplus … which I’m presently researching and hope to include in the upcoming Part 2.

As an interesting aside, I checked the state requirements, and the language arts standards specifically mention only “American, British, and Greek/Latin” literature, with later mentions of “and/or other” literatures. No wonder our school featured nothing else; the Big Three were the only outside sources of literature specifically approved by the state.

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What to look for in Part 2:

Local school results
Teachers’ pay versus test scores
State and National test scores
and anything else I run across that looks juicy

Stay tuned.

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I titled this post Nikola’s Newest Incarnation to tip my hat toward old Nikola Tesla, who changed all our lives, and to pull out a terrible pun. See, this is about the upstart automobile manufacturer Tesla Motors (hence the Nikola). And since they build cars… Incarnation = in”car”nation. Get it? (I told you it was terrible.)

Anyway, I got in a discussion about cars and MPGs with a few family members and, amid talk of dismal hybrids and costly conversions, I suddenly remembered a bright spot in the world of automotive technology: Tesla Motors. Or rather, I remembered rumors of their exciting (but expensive) Roadster that had raised eyebrows a few months ago. To refresh our memories, the Roadster is a two-seater sports car with acceleration to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds with a top speed of 125 mph (electronically limited) and maximum 248 horsepower at 6,000 to 8,000 rpm (it redlines at 14,000 rpm). It has a range of over 200 miles on a single charge and can re-charge in three and a half hours with the high power connector (also from Tesla). It’s just over nine and a half feet long and six feet wide, has independent front and rear suspension, a clean and uncluttered interior, all the amenities one expects in a car (air-conditioning, power windows and doors, spiffy stereo system, cruise control, etc.), and – most importantly for a sports car – is a convertible. For an electric car, it’s pretty impressive.

But when I visited Tesla’s homepage to check the specs I discovered a more interesting feature: three new models. Okay, one’s not exactly “new” since deliveries are already being made but it was new to me. So, first up, the Roadster Sport, a beefier (288 horsepower), faster (0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds) and more performance-minded car with, unfortunately, a price tag to match ($121,000). The other two are sedans, the Model S and Model S Signature (which is presumably a slightly beefier version of the former, as with the Roadster and Roadster Sport), scheduled for delivery next year.

So let’s run the new specs. The Model S can go 160 miles on a charge or, if you want to upgrade, 230 miles … or if you want to upgrade more, 300 miles. It can charge to 80% capacity in 45 minutes, accomodate 5 adults and two children, and goes from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds with a maximum speed of 120 mph (also electronically limited). It has a small rear hatchback for storage, as well as a full trunk under the hood (Volkswagen, eat your heart out). The rear seats fold flat to increase storage area if needed and it can purportedly haul a 50″ flatscreen TV or a full set of drums. The base model comes with all the usual amenities (like the Roadster) as well as a 17″ touchscreen with in-car 3G connectivity. I’m no techie but that sounds pretty cool. It costs about $4 to fully charge the battery pack, which has an estimated life span of five to seven years (although it noted ten years was not uncommon with proper maintanence). Best of all, it starts under $50,000.

Although all of Tesla’s products are out of reach for many Americans at this point, I think the progress they’ve made is huge. And if these are any indication, the electric car may not be just an idealistic dream for much longer.

To find out more, visit the Tesla Motors homepage.

All photos courtesy of Tesla Motors.

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Okay, I know I’ve posted nothing since coming back but I have to re-visit a recent topic before I can in good conscience move on to post anything new.

In my travels I picked up a newspaper which had been discarded in a hotel lobby. You may ask why, when it would normally be more suitable for the bottom of a birdcage, but en route I had already devoured the voluminous novel I was hoping to ration out while away from home. And being a cheap word-oholic, I detest buying reading material on the road. So I snagged the paper free and clear. It turned out to be an issue of the Herald, based in Everett, Washington, with coverage centering on Snohomish County. If you’ve never heard of Everett, or Snohomish County, here’s a short geography lesson: Everett is a city of roughly 100,000 people about 25 miles north of Seattle; it is the only city of size within Snohomish County, which extends from the edge of Puget Sound into the mountains of Washington state’s impressive Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest. Now, back to the point I am slowly homing in on …

Buried on page B7 of the Local section, nestled somewhere between the obituaries and a piece on English ivy, lay an opinion column headlined with ‘Extremism’ report and Homeland insecurity. Written by Debra J. Saunders, a columnist for the San Fransisco Chronicle, it made some interesting notes about a report circulated by the Department of Homeland Security regarding extremism and terrorism. (It was also the first I’d heard of such a report.) The nine-page assessment (which can be read in full at the bottom of this post) is entitled Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment and was purportedly released to help educate law enforcement officials in recognizing home-grown terrorism through the extremist influence of militias. Sounds reasonable. It’s no secret that some militias condone violence and that some militia members/supporters have been directly involved in violent attacks. The percentages are very small, of course, and I think you’d find as much (if not more) political dissent in the streets of Washington, D.C., but when has the government ever let facts stand in the way of federal actions? At any rate, is it just me or … does all this seem eerily familiar?

Hmmmm, seems to me I mentioned a very similar report in my recent (if ill-titled) post Crackers Beware. Remember that one, about a young guy in Missouri being detained at the airport for carrying some cash and political paraphenalia in support of two non-violent entities denounced by an 8-page law enforcement report handed down from a state and federal level organization? I do. So now we have another report, which is clearly federal and supports the idea that this was federal from the start, and nationwide. As I suspected, and just as Chuck Baldwin supposed in his article Missouri State Police Think You And I Are Terrorists.

And just as in the Missouri report, this newer DHS assessment – distributed April 7, 2009, the same date of my little Crackers Beware post – points its militant-wary fingers at people who oppose abortion, free trade, gun control, and same-sex marriages. It also earmarks recent veterans, Christians, and those who dare “bemoan the decline of U.S. stature.”

Now, this report is better written and less blatently biased than the one from Missouri, and makes a political step forward in noting that “law-abiding Americans” can take the same actions, with no harm intended, as the possibly dangerous “lone wolves,” “small terrorist cells,” and militia members (i.e. “suspicious” actions do not necessarily equate to dire motives). But that’s where the good news ends (if you wish to be so bold as to call that less-dreary sludge “good news”). Aside from improved grammar and more palatable profiling, this is the same document that Missouri rescinded a couple weeks ago. It’s tantamount to slapping a nice suit on a sewer rat; at the end of the day, no matter how you dress it up, its still just a stinking rat.

Debra Saunders was equally unimpressed. “The assessment reads like a sophomore’s bad political science essay,” she shares bitingly in the Herald column. “That career officials would write such tripe should scare you.” On the subject of targeting veterans and right-leaning groups as possible dangers, she write, “Thanks for your service, vets, but Homeland Security is stuck on Oklahoma City bomber and Persian Gulf War vet Timothy McVeigh.” In the next paragraph: “Many Democrats have opposed illegal immigration and NAFTA, too. And what business is that of Homeland Security, unless the individuals broke federal law?”

And to add confusion to the mix, a sub-section at the bottom of page 7 notes that white supremacists acting as “lone wolves” are the greatest threats … but are nearly impossible to identify “because of their low profile and autonomy – separate from any formalized group.” And if they are the greatest threats, but do not belong to any formalized groups, why is the government releasing all these reports and assessments on militias?

Does anyone have any idea what’s going on here? Because I’m lost.

Let me state for the record I am not a militia member. I do not agree with many of the basic ideals militias are founded on and believe most of them to be more fear-mongers than anything else. And while they have on very rare occasions spawned (or at least been associated with) real acts of violence and destruction, such acts are much the exception. Due to their nature, I would expect a government to keep an eye toward such groups, in case one indeed turned criminally ugly, but I do not understand the current push for law enforcement across the country to identify, monitor, or otherwise track possible militia members or recruits without provocation. They aren’t pinpointing criminals on the lam, they are lumping terrorists in with a Sunday school teacher (who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage) and a soldier back from war (who was held over four months beyond the original length of his or her tour) and a trucker (who thinks free trade has too many Canadian rigs on the road). Perhaps it’s just me, but this doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And for a report regarding militias, there seems to be very little militia activity to report. Of the various violent acts, or conspiracies to commit them, that are listed in the assessment, not one involved more than six suspects. That seems quite the paltry militia if you ask me, which only seems to deepen the rift between the report and what it purportedly seeks to accomplish. The DHS report seems to focus on recruitment of new members into extremist groups as the mark of evil, but if the reportedly growing ranks of these “formalized” groups are breaking no laws and are not among the leading parties for terrorist activities, what is the motive?

“The DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) has no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence…”

“Threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts.”

Call me what you may, but I think these reports have a great deal more to do with keeping an eye on average Americans who happen to be conservative and lean a bit to the right.

I don’t know what else to say. I don’t like that concept, at all, but that’s the picture I see being drawn out. And if someone in a uniform starts asking questions, I’m going to do my best to be vague, short-winded, and moderate.

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Crackers Beware

Terrorist profiling isn’t just for Middle Easterners anymore.

A young whitebread American professional was recently held by TSA agents in the St. Louis airport. Did he mistakenly leave a screwdrivier in his carry-on? A pocketknife in his suit pants? He did verbally threaten someone or carry prohibited substances? No. Nothing of the sort. He was detained, his possessions searched, and threatened with arrest because he had roughly $4700. In cash.

Maybe you’ve already heard about this. But probably not. The news broke at least four days ago but I didn’t catch a whiff of it until today. There was no mention of it on Good Morning America, our local news broadcast, or even my Rueters and AP news feeds. And you may be asking yourself why you should care in the first place; what’s the big deal? My reasons for mentioning it here are two-fold.

First: I don’t find $4700 to be an exorbitant sum to be in the hands of a young professional. He was polite, compliant, well-dressed, a United States citizen, had proper identification … and yet they detained him. Why?

Second: Not long before this young man was detained, a state-and-federal joint organization had distributed a confidential report to law enforcement officials across the state, a report which “depicted Christians, anti-abortionists, advocates for protecting our borders and supporters of certain political candidates as potential ‘threats’ to public safety,” according to Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder (the report, titled “The Modern Militia Movement,” can be read in full, as released, at the bottom of this post). Forgive me, but those delineations seem broad enough to condemn just about anyone.

The young man detained had the misfortune of falling into several of their “threatening” categories: being an aide to Texas Republican Representative Ron Paul, who was on the “certain political candidates” list; being the Director of Development in the politically-involved organization Campaign For Liberty; carrying “political paraphenalia” for both previous entities, in the form of fliers and bumper stickers; and possessing $4700 in cash. Trouble is, that report was supposed to be rescinded, its content disregarded. Though originally distributed as a sensitive “Law Enforcement Only” document, an unidentified officer leaked the report to the media on March 11 and the cat was out of the bag. The following public outcry led to apologies, public condemnations of the material, and supposed retractions of the report. And yet a young man who fell into several of the categories outlined in that report was detained, with no explanation except that the cash he carried somehow made him suspect.

I’m sure a lot of shady drug and/or terror-related deals go down between the St. Louis underworld (mafia, Al Qaeda, etc.) and a twenty-five year old Christian Republican who is well employed and politically active. Yes sir, I believe someone fitting that description proves a threat to our public safety. Sounds like a terrorist to me. Looks like one, too …

Yup, that’s the face of evil if I ever saw it.

His name is Steve Bierfeldt. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 2006 and then spent two years in Virginia working for a non-profit and an election campaign. Prior to the TSA intervention, he had been in St. Louis helping at a Campaign For Liberty convention where they had sold tickets and merchandise, with roughly $4700 in cash transactions. Yes, yes, I see a threatening pattern emerging … It is my belief, ladies and gentlemen, that his problems stemmed from being a conservative, working for another conservative, supporting a conservative organization touting the need for antiquities like Freedom and Liberty. Oh and he’s a Christian, too.

Tie him to the stake! Light the kindling!!

This sounds eerily like a witch-hunt. During questioning, he repeatedly asked the TSA agents if he were required by law to answer. It seems a legitimate question to me, especially if they are looking to peg me as a militant extremist of some sort, but none of them responded except with condescension, threats of arrest, “going downtown,” and confrontation with the DEA and/or FBI.

Witch! Witch!!

Bierfeldt recorded much of the interaction on his cell phone, part of which can be heard on the embedded video at the bottom of the post. And while he was eventually released, catching his plane without further hassle, I still find this story very compelling. The fact remains that he was singled out and held without good reason. It was, purportedly, because of the cash, but on no flight rules list or FAA regulation anywhere does it even hint that cash is an article to be carried in limited quantities, or that substantial quantities of it could make you suspect and a likely candidate for detention. (And what would be considered a “substantial” quantity? Where do they draw those lines?) Young Bierfeldt would have been arrested, or at least held for further questioning, if not for an apparent plain-clothes FBI agent who ordered his release. Without once checking his documents, asking him a single question, or even inspecting his possessions.

A government document advised that someone like Bierfeldt – a Christian, a Republican supporter, a political citizen – could be a threat to public safety and so he was pulled aside. I’ll be honest with you … this kind of stuff scares me. Our rights and liberties and freedoms have been so thoroughly stripped away that, truly, nothing remains but their memory. And this is only the beginning. Tighten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a long, hard ride.

A few parting thoughts and links…

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“I realize that there are people who will dismiss this kind of story as insignificant. They shouldn’t. This is very serious and should be treated as such. Anyone who knows anything at all about history knows that before a state or national government can persecute – and commit acts of violence against – a group of people, they must first marginalize the group from society’s mainstream and categorize it as dangerous. Rome did exactly that to Christians, as did Mao’s China; Hitler’s Germany did the same thing to Jews; Stalin’s Russia did the same thing to political dissenters, etc…
…This is very serious business! We are not talking about private opinions. We are talking about law enforcement agencies. And remember, most law enforcement agencies share these types of reports; therefore, how many other state police agencies have similar reports floating around?”

A quote from Chuck Baldwin’s article Missouri State Police Think You And I Are Terrorists.

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“The show-me state made the news recently when the Missouri Information Analysis Center, a state-federal law-enforcement partnership, released an inflammatory report alleging that libertarians, constitutionalists, supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and other people skeptical of powerful government should be considered as potential terrorists-in-the-making.”

A quote from the Examiner article Political activist detained by TSA for carrying cash.

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“We believe that freedom is an indivisible whole, and that it includes not only economic liberty but civil liberties and privacy rights as well…”

A quote from the Campaign For Liberty website.

You can also visit Steve Bierfeldt’s profile page and weblog on their site.

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