Archive for May, 2012

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Constitutionality

May 31, 2012

From the Illinois State Constitution, as ratified by the voters of Illinois in 1970:

SECTION 5. PENSION AND RETIREMENT RIGHTS
Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or
any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which
shall not be diminished or impaired.

Illinois legislators: Was that so hard to understand? Did you have to swear an oath when you were sworn in to your current positions?

Oh, I forgot – They’ve just learned from the President and the US Congress…

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Dragon is home!

May 31, 2012

Dragon in the water off Baja California after a successful flight!

The SpaceX Dragon COTS-2 demonstration mission is now complete, with a successful landing of the Dragon of the coast of Baja California this morning.

I’ve said a lot about this mission already. This last successful leg of the mission demonstrates something no other spacecraft, built for commercial or government use, can do – it can fly to the ISS, dock with it, and return safely to Earth unmanned. All the other cargo ships currently available burn up on re-entry. None of them can return cargo to the Earth except the manned Soyuz.

The COTS-2 demo logo.

I can’t say enough good about SpaceX and its vision. This is what I’ve been hoping for since probably 1980!

Now let’s get Dragon Rider up there!

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The further adventures of the Illinois legislature

May 31, 2012

I’m no union activist. I belonged to IEA/NEA because I was required to. (OK, there was that “fair share” clause, which meant I would pay essentially the same as the union dues while receiving none of the benefits. Clever.) I also just as a rule hate the idea of lobbyists. I know that some of them provide a useful function. Both at the state and federal levels, lawmakers and their staffs do not have the time, resources or expertise to know everything about every issue before them. However, lobbyists come with baggage – they are obviously attempting to influence the content of law as it is written.

I may be softening my opinion on lobbyists somewhat. “Of course, now it affects you! Hypocrite!” you say. And, to an extent, you’re right. I’m finding out as this “pension reform” bill gets bounced around the Illinois state legislature that not only are those whom we elected to represent us unable to know everything concerning decisions they are making, but that they are making those decisions based on how they will look for upcoming elections, not on what is good for the citizenry.

I know, big surprise, right?

You see, I’ve met or at least followed closely both state and federal representatives in both Ohio and Illinois. By and large, I think I’ve been well represented by my local reps. For example, I think Judy Biggert (in the US House) and Patti Bellock and Kirk Dillard (in the Illinois legislature) have done pretty well, overall. (Don’t start with me about the Illinois Senators, though.)

Unfortunately, that’s not true for everyone. In fact, I’d lean toward saying that there are many of our duly elected representatives who do not have our best interests at heart. I know, another revelation!

At the risk of going on too much about this, here’s a case in point: The Illinois “pension reform” bill included a clause that would shift the cost of the teachers’ retirement system to the local school districts, therefore shifting the costs to the local taxpayers. Note that we wouldn’t see a decrease in our state taxes – so this is an additional tax, and depending upon how much a district pays its teachers, the increase in property taxes could be large. In the “collar” counties we have a”tax cap” – property taxes can only be raised by so much by law. If the cost of the new retirement payments causes the budget of the district to exceed the capped amount, something else gets cut. And the property tax payers hate teachers even more.

Removing this clause was a sticking point, with the Democrats wanting it included, and the Republicans wanting it out. If it’s in, it will be unpopular with the voters. If it’s gone, where is the money to fund the system coming from?

The Governor decided he could live with the removal of that clause. He passed it on to the Speaker of the Illinois House, Michael Madigan, who then dropped the bill on the Minority Leader, Tom Cross (a Republican) to shepherd the bill through. This is called plausible deniability. “It’s not our fault!”

I’m waiting to hear if the bill comes out of committee this morning. I don’t know what else we can do to influence the outcome here. It sounds like “looking good” to the voters is far more important than actually getting a real solution. I’m afraid that the lobbyists are our only hope. I never wanted that to happen, but it’s all we’ve got!

I sent this message to Tom Cross, who is not my representative but is the Minority Leader:

Dear Rep. Cross:

I actually live in Rep. Bellock’s district, and I have emailed her and my Senator, Kirk Dillard. I am a recently-retired teacher from Hinsdale Township High School District 86. I am writing to you to add my voice to those who are urging you to abandon this pension “reform” bill and start over in a reasonable manner, instead of trying to push something through on the last day of the legislative session.

I am not a “union activist” – in fact, if I was not required to be a member of IEA/NEA I probably would not have done so. I generally dislike the influence of lobbyists both in Springfield and in Washington. However, I do not know of any other way to let our representatives know that this entire pension reform process seems to be flawed.

Obviously, no state legislator will admit that the reason for the pension problem today is that the state has not funded the pension systems as required by the Illinois Constitution. Now the day of reckoning seems to be at hand, and the Governor is trying to find a way to cover the shortfalls without doing what was legal and required in the first place. It’s difficult for me, and for others, to “feel the pain” of the state government when spending money they did not have caused the problem. If I overspend my income, I cannot go to the taxpayers for more money, no matter how good the reasons for my expenditures. Many taxpayers today find it hard to understand why the state and federal governments refuse to live within their means.

Back to the issue at hand: any solution to this “crisis” needs to follow the Pension Clause in the Illinois Constitution. It also needs to be done in a manner that demonstrates that our representatives are thoughtful stewards of our tax dollars, not merely politicians most interested in their re-election and handing out largesse to their constituents to buy votes.

Please take the “high road” on this issue – please do not push this reform bill, in whatever form it takes at the moment, through the legislature today. The Governor is most interested in looking good, not in finding a reasonable solution. I appeal to you as a reasonable man and a true representative not only of your district but of Illinois citizens in general, since you are the person who has the ability to determine the outcome of this process.

So we’ll see what happens. I hate this feeling of powerlessness!

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And my kudos to SpaceX for the Dragon docking!

May 30, 2012

So with all the travel this weekend, I completely forgot to offer my congratulations to SpaceX for the successful berthing of the Dragon cargo vehicle to the ISS on Friday! I was away from the computer a lot of the time and didn’t remember I hadn’t mentioned it. After all the talking I’ve done about the flight prior to the docking, I figured I had better say something!

I did get to watch the capture on the live NASA TV video stream on Friday morning before I left for Ohio. I have to say it was a lovely thing to see! And by the way, I’d like to recommend the web site Spaceflight Now for their excellent coverage of the mission, and of many others. If you want to keep up with what’s going on in space travel, US and others, that site is the place to go. They do a better job of collecting multimedia than anyone else I’ve seen as well.

Russian 1960s-technology Progress supply vehicle

Tomorrow the Dragon undocks and returns to Earth. That will also be a monumental first! The other unmanned supply craft – the ESA ATVs and the Russian Progress – can’t be brought down intact. With the shuttles being turned into museum exhibits, there is no way to return things to Earth from the ISS now except with the crew changes using the Soyuz, which still is a Gemini-era two-man vehicle modified to squeeze three men into it. Not much space for bringing things home. SpaceX is far ahead of all competitors right now.

 

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SpaceX has sold a Falcon Heavy flight

May 30, 2012

SpaceX announced yesterday that they have sold a Falcon Heavy flight to Intelsat, for launch probably in the 2017 time frame.

The Falcon Heavy has not yet flown, but it is scheduled for a first test flight from Vandenberg AFB in California in mid-2013. It’s a big beast, coupling three Falcon 9 core stages together. When operational, it will be the most powerful launch vehicle in the world – at least until NASA’s semi-mythical SLS heavy lifter actually flies. assuming it does.

SpaceX is completing work on the Falcon Heavy on its own dime. No NASA money for this one! And…they estimate they can sell a flight for a third of what a United Launch Alliance Delta or Atlas would cost. Yep, a third…and for a far more powerful booster.

I have much reason for optimism in our future as a spacefaring nation. It mainly hangs on Elon Musk and his company right now, but that’s far more than we had even five years ago. Not only will there be an economical way to supply crew and supplies to the ISS, but Musk is taking the long view. The Falcon Heavy is key to his plans to go to Mars.

What’s even more reassuring is that Musk is not quite 41 years old yet. Imagine what the next two decades could be like!

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Keepin’ up the skeer!

May 30, 2012

Over on www.keepamericansfree.us I did a short piece on my most recent email from the good folks at MoveOn.org. They are very unhappy with the level of donations they’ve been receiving and are really looking for money – even $ 5 donations!

Dwindling donations to groups like MoveOn.org are a Very Good Thing. I invite you to read the piece.

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SB 1673

May 29, 2012

The Illinois legislature is well-known for pushing through controversial legislation at the 11th hour just before the conclusion of a legislative session. SB 1673 is supposed to reform the state pension system, which everyone should be in favor of, right?

Except it doesn’t. It’s unconstitutional, it lets the State off the hook for the lack of funding to the system that was mandated by the Illinois Constitution, and it puts more strain on property owners. Information about it can be found here.

I don’t buy the argument that the system has to be fixed now as some sort of emergency. The legislature has been screwing with the pension system for decades. If private union pension systems were handled by the union leaders in this way, they would be in prison. As legislators, it’s “sound fiscal management.”

Maybe the current system is not working. It would have if the state would have been making its payments for the the last 30 years. But it was easier to use the money for other things and give IOUs to the pension systems. Now that mismanagement has come home to roost, and the way out of it is to reduce benefits and shift the burden to others.

Except it’s not legal. One law doesn’t negate a part of the Illinois Constitution, no matter what they say. It’s sort of our own Illinois Obamacare  – the legislation has to be passed now or disaster will befall us, but we can’t tell you what that legislation is, and it’s probably not constitutional anyway.

Unfortunately, this is business as usual in Springfield. I’m afraid they will get it through no matter how much we object.

If you believe pension reform should be done in a reasonable, fair, and constitutional manner, you may want to let your senator and representative know that – and soon. The thing might pop up to a vote tomorrow.

Here’s what I sent to my state representative:

Dear Ms. Bellock:

I wrote to you a little over a week ago about the pension debate in the Illinois legislature. If you recall, I am a recently-retired teacher from Hinsdale District 86. 
 
Now my worst fears are coming true – there is a bill that just came out of committee that is designed to “reform” the pension system. As I feared, it has only appeared two days before the end of the legislative session – a move clearly designed to make it impossible to marshall opposition to the bill in time and to make it difficult for representatives to get feedback from their constituents.
 
Of course, it does not reform the system. It provides political cover to those legislators who need to go back to their constituencies and say they held the line to try to save the State of Illinois from its “pension crisis,” and, if passed, it will probably help to do that for a very short while. However, it promises what it will likely not deliver, such as restitution to the retirement system of back payments by the State required by law.
 
On the other hand, it should be quickly challenged for its constitutionality, since the pension system was established in the Illinois State Constitution and this bill clearly negates parts of the Pension Clause. It also will cause no end of problems for school districts across Illinois – many of which cannot raise their property tax rates because of the tax cap. It widens the rift between the taxpayers and public employees that has been created by demagogues for their own purposes.
 
This bill is NOT the kind of reform we need. We need reform that can last, that is constitutional, and that requires the State live up to its obligations. The fact that the State now does not have the money to pay for pensions is a result of poor fiscal management and political pandering, not of the retirement system or its managers.
 
I am offended that some legislators believe this is the way to make law and handle the affairs of the citizens. Pushing this bill through may look good for a few politicians in the short term, but as the ramifications of it are felt down the line, those who are responsible will be remembered.
 
I consider you a “cooler head” and someone who has not fallen prey to the politician-as-celebrity style of representation. I hope you, and like-minded Representatives across Illinois, will do all you can to stop this bill. It is another example of a bandaid solution made so that some people – including the Governor – look good in the short term while only creating more problems down the line. Please do all you can to keep this bill from being driven through and becoming law.
 
Sincerely,
I urge you to send something similar, or call their offices.
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Stupid iCal tricks

May 29, 2012

I use the Reminders app on my iPhone and iPad a lot. I wish all the functions that are available in iCal were available on the phone, but I still use it without them. I actually use it more now that Siri adds them for me.

I created a new list because I had a bunch of things to do today, and I didn’t want to hunt through the long list. Then I moved the reminders from the default “Reminders” list to the new list. (I did all this on the iPad.)

When I opened Reminders on the iPhone, the new list was there, but the regular “Reminders” list had no entries! They showed up in iCal, and on the iPad, but not on the phone.

Searches through the intertubes didn’t help much, but finally, though, I found an old Apple forum post that said…you guessed it…turn the phone off and then on again. I figured it wouldn’t work since it described behavior from a previous iOS version.

Yeah. That’s all it took. Hold the Sleep button down until the red slider appears, then turn it off, then hold the button again until it starts up.

All my Reminders were there.

One the one hand, duh; on the other, why would you have to do that? I thought all this stuff was in iCloud and synced automatically? I had all the settings correct!

Anyway, they are in there, and that makes me happier. Not delirious, but happier.

Now I’d better get to work…

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The critics are sinking my “Battleship”!

May 27, 2012

I saw “Battleship” for the second time today. My son and his fiance had not seen it, and they wanted to see it instead of “Men In Black 3”, so we went to see it again.

The Cinemark theater in Independence, Ohio, had a great screen and decent sound – the sound wasn’t as deafening as a lot of theaters I’ve been in over the last few years, but it was loud enough to give some solid impact.

I’ve read a lot on the intertubes about what a poor film this is, what a stupid premise, poor writing, poor acting, poor casting – pretty much everything but the color of the US Navy ships has been criticized.

OK, I’ll agree that it has some plot issues. You can’t think too much about the astronomy and physics involved. Only six years after sending a signal into space from a Landsat – and that series of satellites were intended to study the Earth, not “deep space” – the nasty aliens appear. (Speed-of-light issues notwithstanding.) Nobody knows if they are really interested in wiping us out or not. We know they need to take over our communications equipment on Oahu to send a message back home. (Their own communications craft somehow had collided with a satellite on its way toward earth, destroying it and scattering pieces of it all over the planet.)

A case could be made that the aliens are just trying to take this set of satellite dishes over to phone home, but otherwise don’t necessarily want to conquer or exterminate us. They really didn’t bring enough manpower to do so. Was the signal supposed to say “Y’all come”? Are they the scout team?

If you can get past that stuff, the rest of the movie is a lot of fun. It’s not the only sci-fi movie with bad science. In fact, I’d wager far more science fiction films have been made with almost no regard to the science than those with even a passing nod to physics, chemistry or biology.

The real positives in this film keep it going when thing otherwise get weak. Taylor Kitsch, a total unknown to me before this, actually does a credible job as the screwup-with-tons-of-potential who comes through in the crisis. He is not terribly likable at the beginning, but you have to admire his dedication in the face of overwhelming odds. I happen to believe we need folks like him, the ones who are willing to go all the way out there, instead of playing it safe all the time.

The addition of so many real-live military personnel is a great touch. They helped us suspend our disbelief, and do so subtly. The tributes to the veterans – both active and passive tributes – was touching. There are always those critics who find such treatment of our men and women in uniform somehow old-fashioned and treacly, but I for one really felt director Peter Berg was honest and respectful in his portrayal of the military. I’m sure there were things that were technically and procedurally incorrect in the goings-on aboard ship. None of that detracted from my enjoyment of the film.

To me, the “third act” was what made the movie work for me. I can’t talk about it without serious spoilers, so don’t go further if you don’t want to know what happens yet. I advise you to see the movie yourself first. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Some years ago my wife and I were fortunate to visit Hawaii and tour the USS Missouri. We had already toured its sister ship in Norfolk, the USS Wisconsin. These World War II era battleships are very impressive even just tied up to the dock. We were told while in Norfolk that the Wisconsin was technically on “active reserve” status  – in fact, that is why we couldn’t go inside. The interiors were kept air-conditioned and humidity-controlled, and should the need arise, the ship could be recalled to active duty, as it was for the first Gulf War.

Since that time, both ships have been turned over to museums – the Missouri to an association in Hawaii, the Wisconsin to the City of Norfolk. That’s only occurred within the last decade, though, so the state of the ships should be pretty good. The Missouri actually was laid up in drydock a couple of years ago for repairs, so she’s probably more seaworthy than she was a decade ago!

If you didn’t know that, the idea of starting up a WWII battleship and getting it out of Pearl Harbor to fight in a matter of hours seems more than far-fetched. One single explanatory line of dialog would have helped make that clear. Otherwise, it’s a reach that the ship could even move! (Of course, where they found the ammunition and the powder bags is a question as well, but at least one plot hole would have been fixed.

The aliens’ behavior was not incomprehensible…but…the lack of an attempt to communicate with humans pretty much flew in the face of one of the main tropes in alien invasion movies – somehow, in almost every movie, we learn what the aliens’ motives are, for good or ill. These aliens were tough, but they didn’t leave their own behind – just like our own military elite units – and they were very single-minded and focused. Is this behavior all that much different from our SEALS or Rangers? Would they be expected to parley with local leaders, or would that be left to diplomats? Maybe all the diplomats were on the communications ship!

In fact, the red/green IDs for people and weapons in the aliens’ heads-up displays indicated that they believed in only attacking threats. If anybody was sneaky and underhanded, it was us!

So yes, there are holes and defects. Pretty much every movie has them. (Think hard about the physics of Iron Man’s flight characteristics – I dare you.) I think the premise that a popcorn movie was being made based on a game, and a game that lacks a real narrative at that, provided the fodder needed by a lot of critics who think they’re clever folk. For the really  lazy critic, sometimes it’s easy to go for the cheap shot, and if he doesn’t have to actually analyze the movie, it’s even better.

I think that’s what happened here. A lot of critics had their minds made up before the movie even came out. Unfortunately, that affects theatergoers and attendance. The presence of so many online critics makes them, as a group, far more influential than a few magazine or newspaper critics were twenty years ago, instead of the reverse.

I’m only going to mention the fact that movies that portray the US military in a positive light usually have a rocky road to go with many critics. I’m not going into that any more in this piece!

So…go see it. It’s the kind of movie that deserves the big-screen, big-sound-system treatment to be appreciated. Watching it on DVD on your 19-inch in the kitchen in six months is not going to work for this one. Make up your own mind. I think far more folks will enjoy this movie than think they might. Give it a try!

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Life Imitates Art

May 23, 2012

I just wrote a piece about how the themes in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged are being used by liberals, and particularly by the Obama campaign. It can be found at Keep Americans Free! I invite you to read it, and to read Atlas Shrugged.