Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Solving The Opioid Epidemic With Infrastructure


Hello Everyone:

Before we get started on today's topic-the opioid epidemic-Blogger would like to send a big hello to all of the people fleeing the countries named in that ill-conceived executive order, hoping to enter the United States.  To the families and friends of the detainees: please make sure you find a good lawyer to advise you.  To the protestors: love will triumph in the end.  To former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates: you are a hero.  Shall we get started on opioid addiction and infrastructure?

Abandoned house
Wilson Ring/AP
Addiction to opioids, defined as a synthetic compound prescribed to treat pain (http://www.drugabuse.gov; date accessed Jan 31, 2017), has reached epidemic levels in the United States.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov; date accessed Jan 31, 2017), 91 Americans died from opioid overdose everyday.  Since 1999 the number of overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled.  (Ibid)  Rural towns and smalls cities have been acutely affects by this epidemic.  Research conducted by the National Institutes of Heal found that people in states with a larger rural population (i.e. Kentucky, West Virginia, Alaska, and Oklahoma) have higher rates of drug- and drug-poisoning related deaths (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov; date accessed Jan 31, 2017).

Housing Ast. Council on Twitter
Ellie Anzilotti of CityLab reports, "At the recent HAC Rural Housing Conference, national policymakers proposed a decidedly urban solution to the addiction epidemic: infrastructure."  In her article, "How the Opioid Epidemic Is an Infrastructure Issue," former U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack cited the lack of housing as a primary engine of the epidemic.  Admittedly, it sounds odd that the  USDA would get involved in the opioid addiction epidemic however, since it is concentrated in the rural areas, it falls under the USDA's purview.  Over the summer, The Department outlined a plan to finance transitional housing for people in drug rehabilitation treatment programs in 22 states.  Other speakers at the conference called for the federal government to invest in more affordable housing development in rural communities.

CityLab spoke with Alan Morgan, the director of the National Rural Health Associate, about why housing infrastructure is important in the battle against the opioid epidemic.  Below are excerpts from the interview.

Man walking down the dark path of addiction
CL: What is your perspective on the scope of the opioid addiction in rural America:

AM: The opioid crisis has impacted the whole country, but Secretary Vilsack and even former President Bill Clinton have acknowledged that this is uniquely a rural issue...it's a growing problem.

It's not just in the emergency rooms-you really see the effect in the life expectancy data.  From 1990 onwards, the life-expectancy rate has risen in urban areas, but there's actually been a decline among rural populations (for more information, please go to http://www.countyhealthrankings.org)...This for a number of reasons: smoking, cardiovascular disease, and cancer...,but overdose deaths and suicides are a big part of the problem, which is unusual, because these behavioral health issues...

Opioid crisis infographic
CL: What's driving the disparity between urban and rural health, particularly when it comes to addiction?

AM: When you look at the prevalence of behavioral health specialists and mental health specialists, there's a clinical shortage when it comes to these types of professionals in rural areas.  So you've got a self-perpetuating systems where the most in need of health care services have the fewest options available...

In urban, you've got treatment centers, you've got behavioral health professionals.  You have drug-recovery programs and protocols.  In rural communities, you might not have that safety net available, but health care options are built around prescription opioids...without good follow-up treatment...And  often, this is a transportation issue-the nearest health care facilities can sometimes be hours aways, and when sustained treatment and follow-up is inaccessible, addiction takes the place.

A typical opioid
CL: The opioid addiction crisis has been at the forefront of a lot of discussion this past year, but it still seems as though there are many challenges to worked through-especially housing.  How does affordable housing intersect with the opioid epidemic in rural communities?

AM: We have an unfortunate tendency to silo our sectors.  When it comes to the opioid epidemic, we can no longer afford to do that.  It's a health issue, but there's a transit component, and there is certainly a housing component.  People need to be in a stable, drug-free environment to complete the recovery process...in rural areas, there's a real shortage of affordable housing that is safe and drug-free.  If people get into treatment then are released back into the same housing situations where they have access to opioids, then it just exacerbates the issue.

So what often happens is that people struggling with addiction fall into homelessness: Around 35 percent of homeless individuals nationwide struggle with drug abuse...rural homelessness doesn't have the same visibility as it does in urban areas...the transient nature of homelessness is not a visual cue that people understand.  It's been hard for communities to come up with a solution to problems they can't see.

Former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack
CL: Secretary Vilsack and the USDA have piloted a program to increase the amount of transitional housing in rural America.  What needs to happen in order to ensure that's successful?

AM: It's going to have to be a cross-agency coordinated approach as we move forward...I have to add a cautionary note.  The federal government is redirecting resources at a national level to address this crisis: The partnership between the USDA and the Rural Housing Service will get more people into stable living situations, and the agency is devoting more funds toward awareness and treatment programs.

The problem that we face is that when you have a national effort like this, it involves investing a lot of resources and funds, and you want to be able to demonstrate that those efforts have a significant impact.  You want to show that the programs have dramatically reduce the prevalence of addiction and made headway in addressing the crisis.  In short, you want numbers.  But the most striking numbers will still come from urban areas.  It's always going to be harder to demonstrate need with rural populations, where the numbers are in general smaller.

HUD Secretary-designate Ben Carson

CL: Especially with Ben Carson appointed to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it's hard to ignore the intersection between housing and health.  How do you see rural communities working to integrate the two over the next several years?

AM: The key will be to connect the dots between health services and social services at the community level.  That has play out at the federal level under the current administration (i.e. under President Obama)-and hopefully the next-but it's got to happen locally.  How does the community hospital step up as a leader and integrate services with local housing agencies?  There's got to be a social structure in place to tackle this crisis, but it will require support from federal departments: the USDA, the Department of Transportation, HUD, the Department of Veterans Affairs.  We'll have to talk across sectors and engage all levels of government.

If you, a friend, or loved one is struggling with opioid or any addiction, please consider attending a 12-step meeting.  Below are some links:

Alcoholics Anonymous: http://www.aa.org
Narcotics Anonymous World Service: http//www.na.org
Cocaine Anonymous: http://www.ca.org

For more information on addiction recovery, please go to http://www.addictionrecoveryguide.org

Monday, January 30, 2017

Land-Use And Zoning Ordinances As A Weapon Of Bigotry?


Culpeper, Virginia
Hello Everyone:

President Donald J. Trump's administration has gotten off to a chaotic start.  The executive order banning entry to the United States from several Muslim nations has touched off widespread condemnation and protest.  The underlying emotion is fear, specifically, Islamophobia.  However, ill-conceived unvetted executive orders are not the only tool being wielded against Muslims.  Planning and zoning ordinances have become the everyday weapons against adherents of the Islamic faith.

Samer Shalaby
This is the current situation in Virginia.  Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak reports in her article, "A smokescreen for bigotry: Disguising anti-Muslim bias with land-use objections," that local ordinances regarding sewage lines, traffic patterns, and zoning have become the latest mechanism of religious bigotry.  Ms. Dvorak focuses her article on three Virginia cities where these rather banal municipal laws "have been used to smokescreen surging Islamophobia."  This is a new experience for the people who live in the highlighted communities.

Same Shelby, a civil engineer, told Ms. Dvorak,

I would never believe in my life that something like this would happen.

The something Mr. Shalaby is referring was the anti-Muslim epithets tossed about during one of his community presentations.  The shouting match at the November 2015 meeting went viral.  A man, who identified himself as a former Marine, yelled at Mr. Shalaby,

Nobody, nobody, nobody wants your evil cult in this country.

Islamic Center of Fredericksburg
Fredericksburg, Virginia
Allow yours truly to explain the situation.  The Islamic Center of Fredericksburg, Virginia has existed in Spotslyvania County for 28 years.  The Shalaby family has lived in the county for 31 years.  Until last year, they were considered neighbors, going about their day like anyone else.  Then Donald Trump tossed his hat into the presidential ring, pledging to prevent Muslims from entering the United States and floated the idea of a Muslim American registry.

Amid all the vitriol, expansion plans for the Islamic Center in Fredericksburg were announce-immediately colliding with a wall of opposition.  One year late, the Islamic Center is still enmeshed traffic-patterns objections and subdivision disputes.

Culpepper County Islamic Center
Culpepper, Virginia
Forty miles, in Culpepper, local officials routinely approve pump-and-haul permits to handle swag for businesses and places of worship.  Since 1992, Culpepper County approved 26 of these permits, nine of which have been for churches.

Petula Dvorak writes, "But when the Islamic Center of Culpepper bought a parcel of land and proposed a small mosque, a local Republican activist whipped the community in a frenzy over the sewage permit, which become a sneaky way to block the entire project.  Said activist wrote,

I understand the Islamic Center of Culpeper wishes to rehabilitate the existing and use it on a weekly on a weekly basis as a place of prayer.....Hmmmmmmm...

Immediately, as in Fredericksburg, there was a boisterous community meeting with a n unusually high attendance, with all the grandstanding and round of applause when the board broke a quarter century streak of issuing permits and denied that one.

This decision was so heavy handed that the Department of Justice sued Culpeper County in December 2016 for violating the Religious Land Use Act.  In this case, the DOJ has plenty of evidence from emails sent out before the meeting to correspondence board members received from people opposed to the mosque.  The emails mentioned terrorists, not sewage.  Then we have the case of Nokesville.

ADAMS rendering of Nokesville mosque
Nokesville, Virginia
inside nova.com
In Northern Virginia, about 200 Muslims hold their services in a rented hotel space in Manassas.  They want to build their own space that would be known as the Nokeville branch of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, one of the largest and best known mosques in the country.  ADAMS has eleven branches in Northern Virginia and Washington D.C.

Supporters of the mosques have been cooperating with county officials for the past two years on the building's height, lighting, and parking on the site.  However, that cooperation is not enough for opponents of the project.

Cries of No more suburban sprawl have resounded allover the community.  Opponents have also been pressuring civic leaders to deny the mosque the necessary sewage connection.  Two churches recently received approval for the very same connection.  Understand the problem?

Rizwan Jaka, the chairperson of the ADAMS board told Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour that the sewage issue "is a red herring and something he's seeing across the country."  Mr. Jaka said,

With over 30 mosques being prevented from being built based off anti-milim bigotry or implicit bias wrapped in land-use arguments that gives us some concern.

Petula Dvorak offers her opinion, "The case in Fredericksburg really shows the ridiculous hoop-jumping Muslims are facing."

Case in point, when the leaders of the Islamic Center purchased a parcel of land just outside of town, the believed they were doing everyone a favor by funneling traffic away from town.  Not so.  The resident not only had an issue with the traffic but they also complained that the area was inappropriate for a religious building.  Same Shalaby said,

We're still fighting the battle, and still trying to be good Samaritans and good neighbors to everyone.

Mosque officials offered to divide the ten acre parcel into single-family home sites and sell that, using the proceeds to buy less than an acres of land, near their current site in Fredericksburg.  That should shunt traffic away from town, right?

Mr. Shalaby added, We gave them an option.

They mailed letters to the residents, explained the plans, and solicited input.  The problem, still?  Traffic.  He continued,

We thought this would be a way to get past the unfortunate bigotry...But a lot of use are having problems like this now.  It's amazing.  I never thought it would happen in this country.


Protests at Los Angeles International Airport
Hello Everyone:

Well now, a week into the President Donald J. Trump administration and chaos reigns.  On Friday, January 27, 2017, President  Trump issued an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries for 120 days and permanently banned Syrian refugees.  Absolute pandemonium spread throughout American airports, including Blogger's hometown Los Angeles International Airport.  The ban ensnared travelers with green cards (legal resident alien cards), who were detained for hours at airports, without access to legal representation.  Meanwhile, protests blossomed, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Let Them In"
The power of the social media was harassed to organize peaceful, albeit noisy, protests at major airports.  The protestors were followed by pro bono immigration attorneys, and family members anxiously awaiting the fate of loved ones.

As of today, POTUS has back pedaled the order to exclude green card holders but that was after a number of card holders, some of whom are eligible for citizenship, were detained by Customs and Border Patrol.  This is disgraceful, to say the very least.  This unvetted document plays on the fear of terrorists and terrorism that permeates throughout the country.  Fear is an emotion and emotions are not facts.  Fear is what propels people to act in a irrational manner.  The truth of the matter is a person is more likely to die in an accident than a terrorist attack.  This ban was an ill-conceived order that plays on that fear.  On the social media pages, some of the supporters of the ban admitted they felt safer. Blogger asks, do you really feel safer?  Does the detention of a five-year old or a grandmother make you feel protected?  How do we call ourselves an inclusive nation when slam the doors on the faces of men, women, and children fleeing non-stop conflict?  This issue continues to unfold and Blogger will stay on top of the matter.  This ban is not just a blot on the United States, it is a permanent stain on the American conscience.  Blogger urges all the fans, followers, and friends to support the immigrants and spread the word.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Blogger Candidate Forum: The Infrastructure Bank Explained


The opening of The Trump International in Washington D.C,
Photograph by Jim Bourg/Reuters
Hello Everyone:

It is time for the weekly edition of Blogger Candidate Forum.  Five days into the presidency of Donald J. Trump and the sky has not fallen, yet.  POTUS's inaugural speech was darkly authoritarian.  It painted a grim picture of the United States of America.  It repeated one of the key themes of his campaign, "America First."  Five days later, we are seeing President Trump carrying out what candidate Trump pledged to do.  One of those campaign pledges is improving American infrastructure.

On the campaign trail, he repeatedly took Secretary Hillary Clinton to task for a proposed infrastructure bank.  He criticized it as being controlled by politicians and bureaucrats in Washington and bankrupted by a $275 billion tax increase on American businesses.  All familiar conservative critiques of a national infrastructure bank.  Think about it, the just the word bank (national no less) can make a grown Republican cringe, as a Politico (http://www.politico.com) article, last year, pointed out.

Trump Inauguration
In her post-election article, "Be Wary of a Trump-Led Infrastructure Bank" for Citylab, Laura Bliss looks at the concept of an i-bank and whether or not policymakers should participate.

We should not be surprised that POTUS is doing a policy U-turn and supporting this liberal-backed policy.  The purpose of an i-bank is "encourage public-private partnerships on projects selected for their ability to return on loans-in addition to meeting key national objectives."  Indications are that the Trump administration will heavily rely on private partnerships to fuel the much-tallied about $1 trillion spending spree.

What exactly is an infrastructure bank?  What does a good i-bank look like?  More important, why is this idea so embraced by liberals, only to be cast aside?

Infrastructure bank flow chart
First, it's not like a regular bank

The word bank conjures up a place that people go to deposit or withdraw money, get a loan for a house or car.  An i-bank is not this type of a place.

Like a regular bank, a federal i-bank's purpose is to lend money but not for a house or car.  Instead, it lends  money to state or local governments to build or repair roads or dams.  The operative word being lend as opposed to grant-"the expectation is that the federal government would get its money back."  To make this possible, the bank would take several billion dollars in seed capital-possibly from repatriating foreign income tax, an idea supported by both major party candidates-"then use that money to issue bonds, tax credits, and loan guarantees to state and local governments and their various private partners."  Like a typical individual loan, both parties would submit a loan application, which would be reviewed by the federal government and grant  based on the project's merit.  Federal backing of infrastructure loans would, theoretically, encourage private entities to invest more (exponentially more) amounts of money to fully fund a major project.  Over time, the tolls, rate payments, and assorted usage fees would be used to repay the principle amount and interest.

California's I-bank
 What makes it so alluring?

Laura Bliss writes, "Federal administrators already use very similar financing tools to help state and local infrastructure projects."  Case in point, the Department of Transportation has the TIFIA program that issues direct loans, loan guarantees, and lines of credit to qualifying road, transit, and walk-bikes proposals.  The RRIF programs does something similar for railroads.  Ms. Bliss continues, "The federal government also authorizes state infrastructure banks to use revolving funds for water and energy improvements.  These programs function essentially as an infrastructure bank would."

The key difference is "...that a national infrastructure bank would consider and finance all kinds of infrastructure: ground, air and rail transportation, ports, energy projects, water, telecommunications, and so on."  Typically, a water treatment plant in New Jersey would not compete with broadband expansion in California, which would not compete with a streetcar project in Michigan.  However, all of these proposals could apply for loans from an i-bank, which would decide which one to finance based on a number of determinants.

State of Michigan Infrastructure Bank
Among the determinants would be the issue of returns.  Which projects would yield the highest returns in order to pay back its federal loan?  (Laura Bliss writes, "This raises some concerns, addressed here later on.").  A project could be evaluated on a set of criteria pre-determined by the president and/or Congress.  This is another major difference: an i-bank, unlike other financial instruments that align with the priorities of specific agencies, i-banks could be used to strategically further national policy objectives.

One example, hypothetically if POTUS wanted to double American exports, improve access to ecumenic opportunity, or upgrade every neglected water system in the country, then an i-bank could use that as guidance for choose the projects it lends money to.  Ms. Bliss writes, "Ideally, the bank would judge a project across multiple criteria, all at once-its social, environmental, and economic impacts."

Secretary Hillary Clinton's Infrastructure Plan summary
What's the drawback?

So far, we have been looking at the positives of an i-bank but what about the negatives?  Let us start with the question of why we do not have a national infrastructure bank?  First, like any regular financing scheme that requires federal decision-making, there is concern that if the performance guidelines are written to loosely, the bank could end choosing project proposals that fail to deliver on optimistic projects and end up being bailed out by the public sector.  The flip side is if the federal government ran the bank, it might select projects that are most likely to yield a great return, not ones that serve the national or public interest.

Georgia State Transportation Loan and Grant Basics
Related to this is one last concern: "Who would run the national infrastructure bank?  Would there be a new, independent agency appointed to the task?  Would there be a committee created across different agencies?"  Finding the right combination of people to administer the bank would be tough, given that an i-bank's function is to consider a variety of projects on a level playing field.  Conceivably, you could have administrators from DOT, the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture.  Others have proposed making a national i-bank a function of the Department of Treasury.  The negative of that is it could place undue emphasis on a project's ability to pay off its loan quickly.

All of the above reasons are why many a transportation policy makers have described a national i-bank as the next best idea for the past 25 years.  Former President Bill Clinton pledged to establish one.  Former President Barack Obama (this hurts yours truly to write) unsuccessfully tried to establish one during his tenure.  The idea has Republican supporters, including South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.  The idea sprung to life in 2015 just as Congress was careening towards its last "cliff".  Its opponents argued that an i-bankwas "just another way to get stuff done with IOUS-and others just didn't like the fact that Obama was associated with the concept."

A literal fork in the road
Forks in the road

Laura Bliss speculates, "Still, if it was seeded adequately and guided by strategic policy objectives, a national infrastructure bank could serve a new and meaningful purpose, as an addition to federal government's existing suite of financing tools."

Whether or not Congress gets behind a Trump-supported i-bank or, for that matter, any portion of a Trump infrastructure plan is a separate issue.  Prominent Democrats have broadcast their intentions to work with POTUS on his public works projects.  What is troubling is POTUS's plans to privatize infrastructure projects, as explained by his advisors, is seriously unviable.  Also not entirely clear is what at the national objects of President Trumps's infrastructure building spree beyond, jobs, jobs, jobs.

POTUS on the campaign trail
Examination of a Trump-led i-bank must go further.  In the Washington Post, former President  (http://www.washingtonpost.com) former President Obama assistant Ronald A. Klain characterized POTUS's infrastructure proposal as:

a tax-cut plan for utility-industry and construction-sector investors, and a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors...

Mr. Klain warned that the i-bank was "just a deal-sweeter to win over liberal in Congress."  Paul Krugman of The New York Times (http//www.nytimes.com) expressed similar concerns, referring to POTUS's scheme as a "scam primed to rip off taxpayers and enrich cronies in the construction and utility industries. "  Mr. Krugman writes,

It's hard to see any real for a roundabout, indirect method that would offer a few people extremely sweet deals...unless the inevitable corruption is a feature, not a bug.  (Ibid)

It is no secret that President Trump may already be mixing his business affairs with presidential duties thus, it seems logical to expect more.

Laura Bliss throws in a short paragraph that compares POTUS's rhetoric on infrastructure development with Germany in the thirties.  She writes, "And then there's Hitler.  It's hard not to notice the parallels between Trump's rhetoric on new roads and airports and the way highway construction helped citizens acquiesce to Nazi rule in 1930s Germany"  A jarring comparison?  Absolutely.

Which way are we headed?  Hard to say until President Donald Trump outlines the legislative details, then who knows?  Infrastructure bank or not, Americans should always remember "Buyer Beware."

Think Differently


Child building a robot
Photograph by Amy Susan/AP for LEGO Systems
Hello Everyone:

Children have wonderful imaginations.  Give a child some empty boxes, art supplies, minimal instructions, and watch magic happen.  Children have an innate sense of design but can it be harnessed into lessons on critical thinking and solving problems?  The ability to thoroughly analyze a problem and come up with a logical solution is a necessary skill both in school and in the workplace.    This is the question that Jessica Lahey asks in her CityLab article, "What Kids Can Learn From Urban Planning?"  In some schools, "design thinking" has become the key phrase for teaching those skills.  Ms. Lahey looks at the way teachers are incorporating lessons from urban planning into their lesson plans to teach students the value of critical thinking and solving problems.

Add caption
At a recent teachers's conference in Richmond, Virginia, there was a  session dedicated to "design thinking" in education.  The session drew a capacity crowd who marveled at the way two middle-school used the concept to plan and implement an urban-design project "...in which students were asked to develop a hypothetical city or town given factors such as population, geography, the environment, and financial resources."

The teachers in attendance were fascinated by the details of the projects as were the students who participated in the lesson.  The facilitating teachers were bubbling with enthusiasm for what they believed to be the potential inherent in design thinking lessons.

Child in the City
Many of the teachers at the session were completely confused.  One woman was overheard  remarking to another "...that while the urban design-design project looked like something she'd like to try in her own classroom,"
... I think I missed something.  I still don't understand  what design thinking is.  Do you?

Her colleague replied, equally baffled,

I think it's a curriculum, but I'm not really sure.

"Confusion around the precise definition of design thinking is understandable," according Neil Stevenson, the executive portfolio director of IDEO Chicago, a leader in design thinking.  Mr. Stevenson told Ms. Lahey in a phone interview,

Design thinking isn't one thing,...but a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term, which obviously has the potential to ambiguity.

Children planned a city
Mr. Stevenson's roundabout explanation is not a precise definition for the concept.  Jessica Lahey admitted that he spent a good deal of time explaining mindsets, what creativity is, and the evolution of design.  Even Mr. Stevenson had difficulty giving a brief definition.  Finally, Mr. Stevenson outlined, what he believes, are the foundational aspects of design thinking as it related to teachers:

First, he stressed that design thinking begins with empathy.  Designing something intended to be used by another person, the designer must understand the needs of the person (end-user in design speak).  In the case of urban design projects, students cannot simply design pretty buildings, they have to take into account the needs of the people who will used it as well as the available resources, budget, and the affect the building will have on the surround landscape.  Neil Stevenson explained,

The design-thinking philosophy requires the designer to put his or her ego to the side and seek to meet the unmet needs, both rational and emotional, of the user.

What children can learn from urban planning

The process begins with the student designers gathering and organizing reach, then make some sense of it all.  The information gathering process includes: interviews and reach of the needs of their city's future inhabitants.  The students must decide how best to use the information, based on residents's needs.  For example, if the future residents's highest priorities are affordability and opulence, the student designer will have to find a way to meet these conflicting needs.

Last, design thinking requires the designers come up with a lot of ideas and create prototypes.  In order for this process to work, both student and teacher must accept failure as part of the process.  This is especially frustrating for students programmed to succeed.  Mr. Stevenson said,

People tend to come up with an idea early on, and know that this idea is it, the perfect idea and get emotionally invested in that one thing.  Then, when their perfect idea fails, they fall apart.

The design process is mostly trying and failing until that proverbial lightbulb moment.

Learning urban planning through arts and crafts
Naturally there will be ample time for brainstorming.  Once the ideas have been developed into prototypes and tested, the student begin working toward one, effective, final solution-a product that can be evaluated, present, displayed, or utilized in the classroom or community.  Supporters say, "The beauty of the design process,.., is that the value of the experience does not lie solely in the end product."  Learning takes places during the process, from the research process to the final presentation.  The benefit is it allows both students and teachers to focus on process, rather than the product.

Apollo 13: the movie
Jessica Lahey uses a scene from the movie Apollo 13 to illustrate the design-thinking process.  After the lunar module is crippled by an explosion, the astronaut are stranded in space.  The air filters in the vehicle are failing, thus the NASA engineers must device a square air filter that will into a round hole using the material available to the astronauts.  The engineers employed design thinking: "by understanding the needs and resources of the astronauts, organizing the resources available on the lunar module, then working together to develop and prototype many ideas."  The final solution was not pretty, but it did work.  The astronauts's lives were saved and they returned home.

This step-by-step methodical approach to creative problem solving was not just something the writers of the movie used to move the story along.  This "revolutionary and counterintuitive" strategy was first developed in response to the launch of Sputnik in 1957.  When Russia (then the Soviet Union) jumped ahead of the world in the space race, the United States needed to respond with a fast and speedy acceleration in technological innovation.  Out of this need, the process of design thinking emerge as a way to encourage all scientists to be bold, daring, and novel in the the way they solve problems.

Steve Jobs creative quote
Creativity is an elusive thing-someone touched by the muses.  Something you cannot summon or teach to the mentality rigid, unimaginative, or muse-less populace.  "Design thinking upends that perceptions and assumes that anyone can be creative problem-solver."

At best, design thinking includes "proven-effective teaching techniques such as self-directed inquiry and collaborative problem-solving, and dovetail nicely with social-emotional leaning curricula that emphasize interpersonal sills such as collaboration and empathy."  The final result of a design-thinking project is frequently tangible product, like a model, a robot, or a better mousetrap.  Therefore, it is not a big surprise that many teachers and administrators are anxious to adopt design thinking into the curricula  and as way to help students learn through finding solutions for real world problems.

Dr. Seuss creative quote
The popularity of design thinking could be the reason why there confusion surrounding it.  What took place at the teachers's conference, according to Neil Stevenson,

It's been extremely gratifying for all of us practicing design to see the ideas taken by so many people.  There's a downside, though, which is that when something becomes popular, now suddenly everyone wants to learn it and lots and lots of people will spring up and teach it.  For the sake of communication, we tend to define design thing as A followed by B followed by C, but in doing this, we are guilty of oversimplifying.

Rarely does the design process follow a linear pat

George Bernard Shaw creative quote
Jessica Lahey reports, "As teachers seek to learn more about design thinking and its application in their classrooms, conference sessions and certificate programs have emerged to accommodate demand."  Stanford's D-School and IDEO offer two in-demand courses, however design thinking comes in many different brands, enough for teachers to pick and choose from.

In essence, the lack of a precise definition makes explaining, evaluating, as studying design thinking a real challenge.Some of the teachers at the conference, including Ms. Lahey who was in attendance, were skeptical, and went to the design thinking sessions to get a better grasp on whether or not this concept is an effective learning methodology or just another trend got viral with little data regarding its efficacy.

Virginia Woolfe creative quote

When put into practice with a clear understanding as a strategy for fostering empathy, creativity, and innovation, design thinking can be a powerful mechanism for learning and change.  If teachers put it into practice quickly and without any real understanding, it will result in a waste of precious class time and energy.

The best way to understand design thinking is to put into context.  Ms. Lahey cites Carol Dweck's research on fixed and growth mindsets and Angela Duckworth's study on grit as "complex and nuanced approach to learning rather than a checklist of executable tasks."  Ms. Dweck was very concerned about "the rampant oversimplification of fixed and growth mindsets," set forth in an article she wrote for Edutopia.  Ms. Dweck's work cannot be reduced down to a life hack and Ms. Duckworth's research is likely to be misunderstood when reduced to "listicle."  In short, design thinking fail as an educational instrument when reduced to a "Five Simple Steps."

Charles Mingus creative quote
like success.comConcepts
 Concepts like mindsets, grits, and design thinking have fallen victim to their own massive success, and the rush to incorporate them into current lesson plans, they sometimes become check list items.  Within the classroom milieu, instead of an action, "design thinking (as well as mindset and grit) may revolutionize the way teachers and students think about failure, creative problem-solving and teamwork."

The bottom line is design thinking is not a curriculum, opines education advocates like Neil Stevenson (are paying attention Betsy DeVos).  It is a process for problem solving, a methodology to bring forth creativity founded in empathy married with failure.  Jessica Lahey writes, "Teachers can use design thinking to create a classroom layout that conforms to the news of their student, they say, or to plan lesson that will work best for the students in a given school or classroom. At the macro-level, design thinking can be applied to whole school districts that create spaces and curricula centered on intellectual and emotion needs of their students.  Teachers also have a hand in helping their students implement design thinking in real world problems, like the urban planning projects at the Virginia conferences.

Rest in Peace
like success.com
There is not an ample body of scholarship to support any particular version of design thinking as an effective teaching or learning method.  The essential elements of design thinking will be familiar to any teacher well grounded in the basics of effective teaching: begin with empathy, push ego off tot he see, and support the students in the process of frequently failure often and early on the path to learning.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Creature Feature

The Broad Museum
Diller, Scofidio + Renfro
the broad.org
Hello Everyone:

Blogger noticed that human typist was developing a serious case of cabin fever and decided she needed to go outside.  Blogger thought a trip to The Broad Museum in Downtown Los Angeles (http://thebroad.org) to take in "The Creature" exhibit, continuing until mid-March.  That seemed to work wonders because Blogger was in fine form and a little less peevish the next day.  As yours truly promised, the pictures that human typist took would be posted.  Enjoy the photographs and make sure you check out this fine museum, dedicated to contemporary art, when you are in Los Angeles.

Creature Feature

The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), 1963
Andy Warhol
Screenprint on paper; 30x40 inches

Late Afternoon In The Forest, 1986
David Wojnarowicz
acrylic, spray paint, and collage on muslin
79 5/16x158 3/4 inches

Giant figure (Cyclops), 2011
Thomas Houseago
Bronze; 177x67x66 inches

Tender Is The Night, 1999
Cecily Brown
oil on linen; 100x110x1 3/4 in

Have Me Feed Hug Love Me Need Me, 1988 (Blogger's Valentine card)
Barbara Kruger
lenticular photograph; 19 1/2x119 1/2 inches

Beef Ribs Longhorn, 1982
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Acrylic, oilstick, and paper collage on canvas mounted on tied wood supports
60x60 inches

Nurse K02
(Original rendering by Nishi-E-Da, Modeling by Bome and
Genpachi Tokaimura, advised by Masahiko Asano,
full scale sculpture by Lucky-Wade Co., LTD), 2011
Carbon and urethane paint, transparent epoxy resin,
eyeglasses, aluminum, book
74 3/4 inches

Venice Set,  2011
Josh Smith
Printed paper and painting on cardboard; 180x480 inches

Dancing To Miles, 1985-86
George Condo
Oil on canvas; 110 1/4x137 3/4 inches

Untitled Turkey XIV, 1992
Meyer Vaisman
Icelandic lambswool, chicken wire, stuffed turkey, and mix media on a wood base
28x28x27 inches


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Blogger Candidate Forum: A Done Deal?


Pro-immigration rally in front of Trump Towers
Hello Everyone:

After spending a lovely at The Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles (pictures to follow http://www.thebroad.org), Blogger is ready to write this week's edition of Blogger Candidate Forum.  The mood of the nation is anxious.  The Inauguration is on Friday and no one knows what happens next.  What will President-elect Donald J. Trump say and do over the next four years.  The future of healthcare is in a state of flux-repeal and replace with...  Another campaign issue that is in a nebulous state is immigration.

Somewhere between boarder walls and immigration bans, one issue that is not quite a vitriolic is sanctuary cities.  There is no official definition for sanctuary city, however it basically refers to "...rules restricting state and local governments from alerting federal authorities about people who may be in the country illegally."  (http://www.washingtonpost.com; date accessed Jan. 18, 2017)  Examples of sanctuary cities are: Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Boston.  One of PEOTUS's campaign promises is an end to federal funding for cities that provide safe haven for undocumented immigrants.  The matter came under scrutiny in 2015, following the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant.  The question we are going to address, with the help of Natalie Delgadillo's CityLab article, "How Badly Could Trump Hurt Sanctuary Cities?"

Governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. D-Ca
In early December 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown became a hero to many anti-Trumpeters during a speech on climate at the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco.  He told the cheering assembly:

If Trump turns off the satellites [collecting climate data], California will launch its own damn satellites!"

Blogger's home state governor, a symbol of resistance-Fight On.

In the waning hours of President Barack Obama's administration, local and state governments around the United States, are preparing for battle against the incoming administration on a number of policy issues including climate change and immigration enforcement-an especially pressing issue for cities.  In essence, PEOTUS has promised to "revoke federal funding for sanctuary cities within his first 100 days."  A host of cities have stated for the record they will not change their policies in the face of this threat.  However, if PEOTUS does succeed in keeping every federal grant from reaching city treasuries, it could result in a devastating financial hit to metropolitans that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

The operative word here is if, as in if all the legal obstacles that block the Trump administration from implementing this policy could be overcome.  Ms. Delgadillo speculates that the legal obstacles "could prove onerous enough to new his attempts altogether, or water them down so much they become nothing more than wrist-slaps for the cities in question."  CityLab spoke to constitutional law and for the purposes of this article, the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability experts, to explain what road blocks the administration might encounter to get cities to comply with federal immigration enforcement efforts and how much money is at state.

San Francisco skyline
A statutory challenge

CityLab spoke with Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University of Law, the first obstacle PEOTUS faces has nothing to do with constitutional law; the issue is statues.  Ms. Delgadillo writes, "For decades, Supreme Court precedent has maintained than any condition on a federal grant must be expressly written into the law in 'clear and unambiguous' fashion."  Prof. Somin said, "there are likely very federal grants expressly condition on compliance with deportation efforts-in fat, he can't think of any at all."  Thus, President elect Trump would simply be able to tell a sanctuary city, "comply or no federal grant"  on his first actual day of work.  Rather, he would need the help of Congress in the way of new grants, all written with a stipulation that cities must comply with deportation actions in order to receive any funds.  This could take longer than PEOTUS envisioned, however with a Republican majority in Congress, it is certainly a major challenge.

Los Angeles skyline
Is the funding 'germane'?

Is the funding relevant?  This is another question that could stymie The Trump administration's efforts to withhold funding for sanctuary cities.  Hypothetically, let us pretend that the administration got Congress to enact a law that binds federal grants to local compliance with deportation efforts.  The next question is Are al of those grants germane?  Meaning, "...are the conditions for withholding relevant to what the funds are actually used for?"

Natalie Delgadillo writes, "States and localities across the country receive federal grants for everything from education to housing to infrastructure to law enforcement."  A narrow interpretation of germane qualification means "...only grants related to law enforcement or immigration would be at risk, since those are ones directly relevant to immigration enforcement."  This would, more likely, be a manageable loss for the majority of large cities-they represent a small portion of their overall budgets.  However, University of Chicago law professor William Baude who spoke with Daniel Hertz at the CBTA told CityLab, "...courts could also conceivably take a much wider view, and decide that all grants that benefit undocumented immigrants are fair game."  This could mean all grants, "...because city services and programs-from infrastructure to education to parks-all benefit undocumented people in one way or another."  This would result in a bigger loss for large cities.

Chicago skyline
Are the conditions coercive?

Do the conditions of grant add up to the proverbial "gun to the head?"  This was the question the Supreme Court considered-the federal government cannot place onerous conditions- in last year's Affordable Care Act ruling.  In this case, they determined that the Obama administration's attempt to hold back Medicaid funding from states that refused to expand the program was deem "unconstitutionally coercive."

Applied to the Trump administration, if the incoming administration somehow found a way to withhold federal grants from sanctuary cities, this could also be considered "unconstitutionally coercive."  Prof. Somin, added what exactly qualifies as gun to the head remains unclear.  In context to big cities, federal funding is about five percent of the total budget, theoretically less financial pressure than ACA exerted on states-however it does not necessarily mean that the loss would be manageable.

Boston, Massachusetts

How much could this hurt a city?

How much would withholding federal grants from sanctuary cities hurt?  Hard to say whether or not how much PEOTUS's policies could hurt cities enough to make sanctuary policies untenable.  Just how much depends on whether or not the city could fill in some of the gaps opened by the loss of funding with its own revenues, and the level of political will it has to continue its sanctuary policies.  It is also contingent on exactly how much money the Trump administration takes away.

Baltimore harbor at night
Baltimore, Maryland
If you follow the link: http://www.citylab.com to the article, you will find a chart  that lays out what would happened to five different sanctuary cities if they lost all of their federal grants and the percentage of their total operating budget.

Overall, with the exception of Washington D.C, the federal grants represent less than 20 percent of the total operating budgets.  Federal grants to Washington D.C. represent 29.40 percent (the numbers are approximates for Fiscal Year 2016 obtained from civic officials except for Chicago, where CityLab used CBTA numbers).  Given that withholding federal grants to the Capitol City would meet the "gun to the head" test, it would be rendered unconstitutional.  However, in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the effect is smaller, losing federal funding could still do damage.

Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, California
Press secretary to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Connie Llanos, told Ms. Delgadillo,

L.A. has an $8 billion budget, but some of these [federal grants] go to our highest-need areas...It's not really about something being about X percentage of the total budget.  If you remove one of these pots of funding, there's nowhere for the city to backfill it from because it's not something we fund.

Thus, given these enormous sums and logistical tangles, it appears unlikely (but not impossible) for the Trump administration to halt the flow of federal funds.  To understand this further, CityLab turned to Philip Wolgin at the Center for American Progress for clarification.  CityLab outlined another approach the Trump administration could take: Again, follow the link  http://www.citylab.com, you will find a chart of five specific grants going to the same cities.  Ms. Delgadillo writes, "These grants were chose, Wolgin explains, because congressional Republicans have already targeted them in legislative attempts to defund sanctuary cities in 2015 and 2016."  A reasonable place for the incoming administration to start.

Aerial view of  downtown Washington D.C.
The grants chosen by Mr. Wolgin are earmarked for law enforcement (JAG and COPS), reimbursement for incarcerating undocumented immigrants (SCAAP). and economic development and anti-poverty programs (The Economic and Community Development Block Grants).

These grants compose less than one percent of each of the cities's total budget.  Mr. Wolgin told CityLab via email, "these funding streams shouldn't be taken as as a complete list of those that could be at risk-just a starting place..."  Specifically,

I also do not mean to concede in any way that the administration of Congress legally could cut any of these fundings streams-there are may be constraints on what conditions can be placed on various funding streams (which is a big open question)

Most of the cities contacted by CityLab told the publication that they could not speculate about what cutting off these funding streams could do their budgets.  Ms. Llanos mentioned that if Los Angeles lost several grants-particularly the CDBGs which facilitate job creation in high-need areas-it would possibly affect low-income residents.

The city officials that spoke with Natalie Delgadillo reaffirmed their commitment to keeping their policies in the face of funding cuts.  Deputy press secretary to Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bower, Susana Castillo, said in an email,  [The Mayor] will standing opposition that threaten our values.

One of the uncertainties of the new administration is just how resolute Mayors Bowser and Garcetti (or any other mayor) remain in the face of threats to cut off federal grants.  On a somewhat optimistic note, the myriad of legal roadblocks in President elect Donald Trump's way make that threat not quite as resolute as it seems.