Thursday, February 25, 2010

Video games -- our Sputnik? -- Feb. 25, 2010 column


More than half a century ago, Americans looked up in shock as Sputnik rolled across the heavens.

The Soviets beat us into space in October 1957, and they brought the insult home weeks later by sending a mutt named Laika on Sputnik 2.

Americans were, in the words of Elvis Presley’s hit single that year, “All Shook Up.”

The Soviet satellite was a potent symbol that rallied Americans and gave us a shared purpose. We focused education on science and math, set our sights on the moon and roared into the space age.

Today, the Soviet Union is no more, and President Obama is steering away from space exploration. The United States risks falling behind China and other Asian nations in a science race.

The president has promised to double funding for the National Science Foundation during his term. His budget for fiscal 2011 proposes to end the moon- and Mars-bound Constellation rocket program. His budget shifts research priorities – redirecting some R&D money from military to civilian projects.

Explaining the new race for scientific and technological supremacy, Obama uses a story about his lunch last year with the president of South Korea.

Obama asked President Lee Myung-bak his biggest challenge in education. “And he said, ‘my biggest issue, my toughest fight, is that Korean parents are too demanding. They want their kids to learn English in first grade, and so I’ve had to ship in a whole bunch of foreign-speaking teachers to meet the demand,” Obama told governors at the White House this week.

Korean parents want their children learning math, science, foreign languages – everything -- as soon as possible, Obama said.

“So that’s what we’re up against. That’s what’s at stake. Nothing less than our primacy in the world.”

American eighth graders have sunk to 9th in the world in math and 11th in science. Obama has called for new reading and math standards, noting that under No Child Left Behind, some schools dropped math standards.

Telling the Korea story last December, he said, “Their kids aren’t spending a whole bunch of time playing video games or watching TV. They’re out there -- they’re working. They’re working in math, they’re working in science, they’re working in foreign languages. They are preparing themselves to compete.”

A new report by the National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation, lays out the science race in facts and figures.

“Science and Engineering Indicators 2010” compares worldwide research and development spending, trends in education and workforce development and concludes that U.S. dominance in science and engineering has eroded significantly in recent years because of a science boom in Asia, particularly China.

The NSF report comes out every two years and is used to shape federal policy. Still, it’s easy to be blasé about reports. We’ve heard for decades that the United States is losing its technological edge, that our educational system is broken, that kids need to work harder and study more.

In the 1980s, the threat was the economic powerhouse of Japan, whose auto companies were eating Detroit’s lunch. Some people suggested it might take something dramatic, like Toyota’s launching a car into space, to rally support for policy changes.

What’s changed is that the world has grown smaller and nations more connected. China holds much of the U.S. debt. At the same time, China is aggressively improving the quality and availability of its education, producing more graduates in engineering and the sciences, publishing more academic research papers and boosting funds for research and development, according to the Indicators report.

Staying competitive will require more than a shift in federal funding and another new education policy. American children may need to put down their video games.

“If our kids are spending all their time playing video games, and somebody else’s kids are getting the math and science skills to invent video games, we’re not going to be No. 1,” Obama said at a town hall meeting in Nevada earlier this month. “It’s as simple as that.”

In the 20th Century, Sputnik symbolized the space race. In the 21st, video games symbolize the science race.

The question is: Will we be the country that plays video games -- or invents them?

(c)2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Of counselors and drunk mice -- Feb. 18, 2010 column


Nearly forgotten in the political fight over last year’s $862 billion stimulus package are the two million people who do have jobs because of it.

We’ve heard more about the three million jobs lost since President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act a year ago. The layoffs are truly disheartening, no matter one’s politics, and everyone agrees that a 9.7 percent unemployment rate is too high.

But here’s House minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio: “Americans are asking, 'where are the jobs?' but all they are getting from Democrats who control Washington is more spending and more debt piled on the backs of our kids and grandkids.”

That’s all they’re getting? Well, not exactly. We no longer are heading toward a depression. The economy shows signs of life. Some people are getting or keeping jobs.

It behooves Republicans to persuade voters the Recovery Act is a disaster. Not one Republican in the House voted for it although, as the president and others have observed, that hasn’t stopped GOP lawmakers from showing up to cut ribbons on projects funded by the stimulus package they opposed.

And Republicans are winning the war of public opinion. Fifty-six percent of people surveyed by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. last month opposed the stimulus package and only 42 percent supported it. The poll offered one surprising bright spot for Obama. While most people opposed the stimulus, 58 percent thought it had stabilized or improved the economy.

With congressional Democrats anxious about November’s elections, Obama booted up the White House message machine. Two million Americans who otherwise would be unemployed are working today because of the Recovery Act, he said, and more jobs are on the way.

But the president also conceded Wednesday, “It doesn’t yet feel like much of a recovery.”

Vice President Joe Biden and the Cabinet went on the road. Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, blogged about hopeful economic numbers. The White House Blog highlighted “What You May Have Missed About the Recovery Act." It featured a Department of Education video about three high school guidance counselors in Fairfax County, Va., who held onto their jobs because of stimulus money.

The six-minute documentary takes viewers down gleaming halls and into classrooms of three schools, where the counselors’ dedication to their work is palpable. When Sue Synan of Mount Vernon High School says, “I absolutely love my job,” there’s no doubt.

Fairfax County was about to lay off 58 guidance counselors when $23.7 million in stimulus funds came through. It’s heartwarming to see how grateful Synan, Jon-Paul Sousa and Jill Wilson are.

Yes, I know these counselors may yet face cutbacks when the stimulus money ends. And, we’d also like to see more jobs in the private sector. But in 2010, a paycheck is a paycheck.

Critics may say the White House is engaging in taxpayer-paid propaganda. Every White House uses the PR tools at its disposal, and today that means Twitter, blogs and Web videos.

Nobody wants to see tax money wasted, however. I’m as skeptical as the taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste about such porcine projects as the federal contract to get mice drunk in Florida.

Florida Atlantic University got $8,408 in stimulus money last summer and had two undergraduate research assistants ply mice with ethanol to see how their spatial skills were affected. I’m prepared to believe that science works in mysterious ways, but I wonder about this supposed creation of 0.92 jobs.

An analyst at, run by Citizens Against Government Waste, said, “They hired 2 students to work for 11 weeks…for a total of 22 weeks of work. If they actually created 0.92 jobs with that money, you would have to assume they are paying less than $4.40 per hour (less than minimum wage) and that the university uses none of the funds for overhead or materials (which never happens).”

Such reports – even about miniscule grants -- fuel distrust of the government and the recovery. Better news is that $69 billion in Recovery Act education grants has gone to states. That means more than 300,000 jobs will be created or saved for teachers, principals, librarians and counselors.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

'At home all day,' like George -- Feb. 10, 2010 column


On Monday, the nation will celebrate the birthday of George Washington, who was born Feb. 22, 1732.

Dubbed “Presidents Day” by Richard Nixon, the federal holiday also has come to honor Abraham Lincoln and other presidents. Like most holidays in America, Presidents Day typically is observed by shopping.

This year, though, if people in the city named for “the father of our country” want to shop, they may have to do so online, assuming they have electricity. Two back-to-back blizzards have pummeled the mid-Atlantic region this month, turning the powerful into the powerless.

Record-breaking snowfalls paralyzed all methods of transportation – except foot travel. The federal government, including its proud museums and monuments, shut down for days on end at a cost in lost productivity of $100 million per day. After the first February blizzard last weekend, the statesmen and women of the House of Representatives high-tailed it out of town for two weeks.

During the second blizzard, which began Tuesday night and continued Wednesday, even snowplowing was temporarily suspended in Washington, Virginia and Maryland. Officials said conditions were too dangerous for the snowplows to operate.

Alexandria, Va., where George Washington had a townhouse, liked to socialize and attended church, has canceled its annual birthday celebrations, including a 10-K race and a parade through historic Old Town.

The progression of destruction in Old Town and across the mid-Atlantic went something like this. During a December snowstorm, beautiful lamplight shone on the snow that covered trees and softened branches. In the first February storm, lamplight illuminated trees bent double under crippling snow weight. In the second February storm, raging winds carrying snow and ice smashed the lamp.

Some reporters on Snowmageddon 2010, searching for a comparable winter season in America’s history, cited 1772. That was before snow totals were recorded officially, but George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were said to have commented in their diaries about the snow.

Those noble early Americans surely had it so much worse than we do, I thought.

I was grumpy and homebound, a few miles north of Washington’s beloved home, Mount Vernon. Normally open 365 days a year, Mount Vernon also had shut down.

The snow had won.

The weatherman called the furious snow blowing horizontally on Wednesday a white-out condition. My all-wheel-drive car was useless, buried in snow on a street that would not see a snowplow anytime soon. Occasionally, a load of snow and ice roared off someone's roof and fell perilously to the ground.

A prisoner of snow, I started wondering how George Washington had fared in the winter of 1772. The man who later commanded troops during the American Revolutionary War surely wouldn’t have let a little thing like three feet of snow stop him from his surveying and other duties. Washington was accustomed to living with Mother Nature. He never had to worry about losing his electricity or Internet.

I Googled and was surprised to find volumes of Washington’s diaries easily accessible at the American Memory area of the Library of Congress’ Web site. Here, with updated spelling, is what he wrote.

On Feb. 7, 1772: “Attempted to ride to the mill, but the snow was so deep and crusty, even in the track that had been made, that I chose to tie my horse half way and walk there.”

Feb. 8: “At home all day.”

Feb. 9: “Ditto – Ditto.”

Feb. 10: “Ditto – Ditto.”

Feb. 11: “Went out … and was much fatigued by the deepness and toughness of the snow.”

Feb. 12: “Attempted to ride out again but found the roads so disagreeable and unpleasant that I turned back…”

Washington was about to turn 40 when he made those entries. He would become president 17 years later.

It’s reassuring to see that although he persevered the first day and walked half way back, after tying up his horse, the great patriot was forced indoors for several days at Mount Vernon. He, too, found deep snow fatiguing, disagreeable and unpleasant.

Few of us can imagine what life was like in the early days of the Republic, let alone before 1776. Through Washington’s diaries, weather links his days to ours. In 2010, many in the mid-Atlantic share the frustration of his austere notation “Ditto -- Ditto.”

As we celebrate George Washington’s 278th birthday, we may shop online, but we’re walking in his snowy footsteps.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

It must be February -- Feb. 4, 2010 column


There’s a reason John McCain flip-flopped on gays in the military.

It’s why Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood slipped up and advised owners of a recalled Toyota to “Stop driving it.” And why President Obama had to apologize to Las Vegas, of all places.

It’s February.

The great newspaper columnist Charles McDowell once observed, “Nobody should be asked to be consistent in February.”

McDowell, a friend and colleague for many years in Washington, wrote annually about man’s struggle with February. His humorous tirades helped generations of readers in Richmond, Va., and elsewhere survive the miserable month. When Charley retired in 1998, his rite of February went too.

As puzzling news stories began to pile up like icy snowdrifts, I remembered Charley’s wisdom. February 2010 was rant-worthy from the first.

The nation’s capital is snowed out. The normal seasonal snowfall here is 15.2 inches. The Washington Post published a handy chart showing that 24 inches of snow had fallen as of Feb. 1. Another four inches or so fell Feb. 2. With the sky a cloudless blue, the governor of Virginia then declared a state of emergency in anticipation of a weekend snowstorm of epic proportions.

Charley had it right about the power of February to confuse, befuddle and perplex..

Take McCain’s reversal on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Just three years ago, the senator from Arizona was as unequivocal about the policy that prohibits gays from serving openly in the military as a politician ever is.

“The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it, because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to,” McCain told students at Iowa State University in October 2006.

But when the February day came, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said it was time to change the policy, smoke practically rose from McCain’s ears.

“At this moment of immense hardship for our armed services, we should not be seeking to overturn the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.’” McCain declared. He had his own list of military officers who oppose changing the policy.

Poor Ray LaHood thought he was merely repeating what everyone already knew when he said that owners of a recalled Toyota should, “Stop driving it. And take it to a Toyota dealer.”

But in our hyper-linked age, LaHood’s first three words rang like an alarm. Toyota’s stock plunged, and the company lost $3 billion in value in minutes. The secretary backtracked. What he’d said was “obviously a misstatement,” and people should take their recalled cars to a dealer.

You’d think a man who has had to scrape and shovel snow and ice repeatedly might be forgiven a poor choice of words, but no. Toyota dealers were livid and called LaHood reckless.

And there was the presidential pivot over Las Vegas. Obama said at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire that people who are saving for college shouldn’t “blow a bunch of cash in Vegas.”

This sounds like ordinary common sense, but before night fell, Obama had written a “Dear Harry” letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, saying he hadn’t meant anything bad about Las Vegas.

In fact, there is “no better place to have fun than Vegas,” the president burbled. He has always had fun there and can’t wait to go back. He hopes “folks will visit in record numbers this year.”

Tuition? What tuition?

I found the first February column Charley McDowell wrote. February 1967 was a trying month in which the news focused on war, the budget, wintry weather and flu. Sound familiar?

Charley credited a Washington Daily News editorial writer who had written a filler for the bottom of a page:

“Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November;
All the rest have thirty-one
Except February, which is endless…“

February, the Daily News writer said, was “a whole month of dismal Monday mornings.”

“February depresses,” Charley wrote. “It litters the landscape with dirty, clinging snow. It sabotages the automobile battery. It brings man into bitter conflict with his furnace.”

February, you see, is consistent -- even if we, who have to cope with it, aren’t.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.