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Columns

  • Drones head in new directions

    “Drone” is a word whose assorted meanings fit the range of human industry.
    To honey farmers, a drone is a male honeybee, which is stingless and makes no honey.
    In military news, a drone is an unmanned aircraft steered by itself, or by remote control that packs detectors and deadly weapons. Some say the name comes from the plane’s bee-like shape.
    Bagpipes get their commanding voice from the loud one-note pipes called drones.
    Today’s topic is the variety of jobs being worked in new ways by drones that fly.
    Military drones, with all the issues they touch on, are frequent newsmakers. By contrast, civilian drones get less attention, which leaves a windfall of wonderment for Sunday writing.
    Drones bring new muscle to the old fight against wildfires. New tools include heat sensors, fancy cameras and weather instruments that are flown aboard drones in and out of deep forests. Firefighters get more of the needed data faster, day or night, than they could before.
    Drones help further by dropping fire retardant where it does the most good.
    In broad terms, small drones can fly a wide range of marvelous instruments into harsh, remote terrains to find out all sorts of things. The instruments sent out depend on what the user wants to find.

  • Defusing the explosive conversation on fracking

    Hydraulic fracturing started out as an “exploding torpedo” back in 1865. Today, the actual process has made giant technological strides, but now, it’s the topic that’s explosive. 
    Because of a lack of understanding about the process, reactions are often “explosive” —even to the point of causing family feuds. The biggest concerns are about water and chemicals.
    Water
    There are accusations that fracking is taking billions of gallons of water out of the hydrologic cycle — which poses an exacerbated problem in the arid southwest.
    The process of hydraulic fracturing has advanced from the first nitroglycerin “torpedo,” and well acidizing of the 1930s, to the modern mix of high pressure, water, and chemicals that began in the 1940s — and it continues to evolve.
    Today, less and less freshwater is being used. A typical frack job can use two to three million gallons of water and lasts about three days. The procedure can result in decades of oil or gas production.

  • Living wage job gap is a sign course change is needed for U.S. economy

    In August, fast food workers walked off the job in 50 U.S. cities, demanding a raise to $15 an hour.
    The strikes touched off a national debate about raising wage floors.
    But this debate has been missing some critical context: a data-driven analysis of what it actually takes to make ends meet in America today and how the $15 threshold and other proposals stack up.
    People who are working full-time should earn enough to be able to make ends meet. This is a basic American value.
    But it turns out $15 an hour falls short — for most family structures, far short. Furthermore, our current economic path isn’t creating nearly enough jobs that pay above even this basic threshold.
    These are some of the findings of a new economic study, released Dec. 3 by the Alliance for a Just Society, providing the data-driven analysis needed to put the wage debate in context.
    The study, America’s Changing Economy: Searching for Work that Pays in the New Low-Wage Job Market — 2013 Job Gap Study, calculates what it costs to make ends meet by analyzing state-level data on the components of a basic, no-frills household budget – including food, housing, utilities, child care, health care, and transportation.

  • Kids are more than a test score

    Last month ended yet another semester for Los Alamos students. The new year promises to bring forth new discoveries, new challenges and new adventures.
     But one thing remains stolidly constant, like an ink stain on the educational carpet. Students will have a warehouse of testing to look forward to.
     Ah, everyone loves tests, don’t they? Like Mary Mary, oh so contrary, students sit silently all in a row, with pencils sharpened and spirits dulled, pouring out their competencies in scribbled reflections of measured competencies.
     Make sure you completely fill in all marked circles. Do not make any stray marks on the form!
     Use a number 2 pencil only.
     Now, heels and toes together, close your eyes, extend your arm and touch your nose.
     Keep your eyes focused on your own paper! Wandering eyes will be plucked out and fed to incoming freshmen!
     MAPS testing. Chapter tests. PSATs, SATs and ACTs. Final exams. NMSBA/HSGAs. ADCs.
     And somewhere in between all that testing, students are expected to learn! There must be a better solution.

  • Congress can't give away power

    The American people should know that pending right now in Congress is a bipartisan bill that would virtually commit the United States to go to war against Iran if Israel attacks the Islamic Republic.
    “The bill outsources any decision about resort to military action to the government of Israel,” Columbia University Iran expert Gary Sick wrote to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in protest, one of the bill’s principal sponsors.
    If the government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military and economic support to the government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people and existence.
    This section is legally nonbinding, but given the clout of the bill’s chief supporter outside of Congress — the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), leader of the pro-Israel lobby — that is a mere formality.

  • Testing isn't helping state educators

    Over the last few years our state has seen a massive push from the governor’s administration to drive education improvements through an increase in testing in our schools.
    In isolation, this might seem like results-minded reform, but in conjunction with the testing efforts already in place, the resulting “over-testing” is taking the learning right out of our schools.
    In the last few months, I have received hundreds of complaints about over-testing from teachers, parents, students, principals and concerned New Mexican Democrats and Republicans.
    These complaints also stress deep objection to the continuing trend of out-of-state, for-profit testing companies’ intrusion into the classroom.
    Conceptually, citizens and legislators agree that our state is in dire need of improvement in our education system. Over the last decade, our school system, locally and nationally, has been transforming. New technologies, new challenges and new pedagogy have changed the way we learn and the way we teach.
    We also have come a long way with academic performance measurement. We now know just how behind our kids are and how we stack up to other states because of standardized testing and common core curriculums, which enable comparison and progress-tracking year after year.

  • What if your car gets totaled?

    Each year, auto insurance companies declare millions of vehicles to be “totaled,” meaning it’s not worth the cost to repair them. It doesn’t matter whether the car was damaged in a collision, during a flood or after a thief’s joyride went bad.
    It’s hard to argue with such an assessment if your car was wrapped around a telephone pole or the gas tank exploded. But what if the damage was more cosmetic, such as major dents on the roof and hood from a hailstorm?
    A vehicle is considered a total loss if the insurance company determines that the total cost to repair your car to pre-accident condition, plus fees for storage, salvage and a replacement rental car (if included in your policy), is more than a certain percentage of car’s retail value. Insurers set their own allowable percentage, within state-mandated guidelines (typically around 60 to 75 percent), and use their own formulas to determine a car’s value and estimated repair costs.
    Thus, if your $4,500-valued 2002 Honda Civic sustains $1,800 worth of damage — moderate bodywork and repainting these days — it might be deemed totaled, even though the engine still runs fine. On the other hand, a late-model Mercedes could sustain far greater damage and still be considered salvageable.

  • Three governors and a weather report

    Former Gov. Jerry Apodaca (1975-78) was in New York City to attend the Heisman Trophy awards in 1978. Before the festivities, he went jogging in Central Park, got lost and asked a policeman for help.
    He told the policeman he was the governor of New Mexico, and the officers shot him a look like, sure, and I’m the president. Apodaca’s attire (shorts, jersey, sneakers) had something to do with the policeman’s disbelief.
    Apodaca had no identification with him, but he did have his room key at the New York Athletic Club. After a call to the club, the officers drove him there.
    The story made the national news and reminded people there was such a thing as a governor of New Mexico.
    New Mexico Magazine has a long-running regular feature titled “One of Our 50 is Missing,” in which readers submit stories about snubs against New Mexico. In the typical story, the airline reservation person says you need a passport to book a flight to a United States destination, or a mail-order catalog order-taker says her company doesn’t ship internationally. The feature is still running in the magazine, but our last three governors have definitely put New Mexico on the map.
    Three in a row with national presence and national ambitions: Gary Johnson, Bill Richardson, now Susana Martinez.

  • Governing relies more on experience than charisma

    Friends tell us, with a mixture of surprise and parental pride, that a social media site recruited their oldest son. The guy was employed here and didn’t really want to leave New Mexico, but the company threw money and perks at him until he relented. He had the skills they needed.
    That’s the way it usually works in private industry. If a company was running the Obamacare website, it would have recruited some people away from Amazon, eBay or another high-traffic website. Government is normally stuck with the low bidder, and investigation has made it clear that the contractors didn’t have a lot of experience with the type of website needed.
    In my work, I’m in and out of many websites every day. Most of them work, some better than others. Some of them don’t work. The technology we depend on doesn’t always meet our expectations.
    Not that this gets the president off the hook. Low bidder or not, it’s reasonable to expect a project of this magnitude to be better executed. But then the nation’s CEO didn’t have that much experience in this type of thing either.

  • Amid platitudes, tax reform in the air

    To conclude from the New Mexico Tax Research Legislative Outlook Conference that tax reform is in the air, as did one report, is to vastly overstate reality. A more grounded reaction to the legislator and interest group discussions is that conversation about conversation about tax reform might be in the air.
    First, the speaker platitudes and obvious generalities.
    Mark Lautman, economic development consultant to the interim Jobs Council committee: For economic development in New Mexico, “we need to make some big changes.” The biggest problem is “just defining the term…Ultimately economic development means to grow your economy a little faster than your population.” And best of all, “You can’t plan an economy. Everybody knows this. But you have to.”
    Fred Nathan, Think New Mexico, about some proposals by his organization: “The focus ought to be on solutions rather than ideology. Broaden and strengthen the private sector economy. Create a climate for all businesses to be successful.”
    Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Farmington, member of a panel of legislators: “Tax systems are just that, systems. We need to have a complete understanding of our economic system.”