Monday, June 29, 2009

A Little Fun With Solicitors

Late one night, I'm on Yahoo instant messenger when I get a message from a stranger. I figure it's just some other "webcam" nut doing a hit-and-run, but this one is different, and keeps saying hi. I think for a moment that maybe it's someone I know, and actually ask. Come to find out, it's just someone selling something. The chance for anonymous interaction with a salesperson is just too delicious to pass up, and the following hilarity ensued:

“samantha”: Hi
“samantha”: How are you?
“samantha”: Hello Friend this is Samantha
Dave: Samantha who.
“samantha”: Well friend i am a webmaster
“samantha”: We offer various seo services such as directory submission article submission for your site at FREE of cost
Dave: Why are you writing to me.
“samantha”: We also design logos baners templates icons headers at FREE of cost
“samantha”: Well you own a blog right?
Dave: I am not in a position to say.
“samantha”: I visited your blog site and it was pretty cool
“samantha”: Why Dave?
Dave: Because...They might find out.
“samantha”: What
“samantha”: It will help increase your site traffic
Dave: Please...if They knew I was talking to you...
“samantha”: Hey come on dont get scared
“samantha”: I am just offering these seo services at FREE of cost
Dave: I know, and that's great, but I really want to keep my ears. I saw what happened to the last one.
“samantha”: What happened?
Dave: I can't...I mustn't.
Dave: There's just too much jello at stake.
“samantha”: Ok
Dave: You're a doll, thanks for caring. Return to your life, and I shall return to "mine"...
“samantha”: Ok fine

[Real names redacted]

Note to "Samantha": If you really read this blog and are just some freelancer trying to make a start in the world, then I hope you'll forgive a bit of fun. But I'm not stupid; you don't spend your time cruising Yahoo IM just to offer "free" services, and we both know that my blog is not going to lift you into career web design, so really, you were the one taking up my time.

Next time, my overlord commanders suggest you just have some jello.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Music - The Other Superpower

It was the last semester of my senior year, and I only needed three classes to graduate. (Actually four, but the fourth was easily done away via a CLEP test.) So I've got room for some recreational classes, and I mention it to a friend in London, who knows I've always wanted to learn music. "Take piano," she says.

Schwing! Light bulb goes on.

If you graphed my interest in music, it's been an upward spike since around 2001. It actually started with Alan Jackson's September 11th-themed Where Were You? (When the World Stopped Turning). The melody wasn't particularly gripping but the words hit home. I started flipping on country music stations a little more frequently. (It's Kentucky...there's at least three of them.) Soon enough, I began hearing songs about me, that I could identify with or that entertained. I sometimes checked out the contemporary/pop stations too and found a few that were interesting. Once Celtic Woman hit the airwaves in 2005, my interests opened up to the (sometimes ambiguous) Celtic genre. Things took an operatic/classical bent when I listened to some of my sister's Josh Groban albums. Thanks to Pandora, all sorts of other classical influences began to trickle in, such as Paul Cardall, Jim Brickman and Tim Janis. Soundtracks filtered in early, probably starting with the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack by Howard Shore.

Within Temptation took me down an interesting, slightly darker path, upon which I expound some here. Somehow, their epic choral symphonic blend made the metal side not only bearable but enjoyable. (It's also a great way to bring one to the battle mindset in preparation for Krav Maga.)

Once Phil Collins hit a common denominator with "On My Way" (one of only a few songs I enjoyed during my tenure behind the jewelry counter at Kohl's) and songs from Tarzan ("You'll Be In My Heart"), I looked more closely into his music. The guy mostly sang about life, love and loss (often a combination of the three) and he had a jazzy, sad sort of sound that appealed to me. "Can't Stop Loving You" is probably one of my favorite songs across any genre. As it turns out when I purchased more of his music, they call it "rock." Never thought of myself as a rock music type for one very important reason; I'm not. But then, neither is most of his music.

So excepting rap, 99% of heavy metal, and most other unwholesome, uncouth, ear-bleeding music, my interests have been increasingly broadening.

But I digress...back to the part where I get in on the act.

Years before, I took piano classes from a grandmotherly instructor who was accustomed to teaching 6-year-olds, so there was doubtless a significant teaching gap. That's probably why I retained virtually none of my lessons. My sister on the other hand took to it, and in good time was playing well. Whenever she sat down to play, I was torn between listening with enjoyment and listening with envy.

It was reading the music that was most daunting. It seemed I could never glance at ten lines on a page with dots scribbled in at various intervals and translate them into 88 keys. It was like learning to read all over again. And if each note is a word, eventually you progress to "reading" several "words" at the same time and in rapid order! Nevertheless, as she plays, it's sounding better and better to hear music from Lord of the Rings pour out of the piano I'm sitting next to.

So, long story short, this business student is motivated by the time he walks into his first piano class.

Motivated or not, he's also at a disadvantage. Most of these students are music majors who have had a solid background in music theory. (And who also don't cut their hair. What's with that?)

As the semester progresses, I realize that there are a lot of things I don't plan on needing a lot, like how to identify half/quarter/eighth notes, timing, etc. (Reason being I don't plan on teaching myself a melody from scratch. There's tons of music I'm already intimately familiar with, and as it happens, I have a great ear for tunes.)

There were plenty of times I was still lost, but I made quick progress, and even the teacher seemed impressed. My semester project became Josh Groban's February Song. I only make it through the first two or three pages, and a miniature recital (just for my classmates, a daunting eight or nine of them!) found my knees shaking and a foot squarely on the pedal the whole way through. (The bass on the piano was also, as my teacher described, "muddy" which was disappointing because much of the song is bass notes.)

The semester's over now, of course, but I'm armed with a new (if somewhat faltering) superpower...I can pick my way through music on the piano.

Since then, I've been like a kid at the buffet, delighted and overwhelmed by the possibilities and taking some of every dish. I began making copies of my sister's sheet music, rifling through stacks of old sheet music at home, and even purchasing some online. Here's a brief list:
  • So She Dances (Josh Groban)

  • The Dance (Garth Brooks)

  • Live to Love (Paul Cardall)

  • Caledonia (Celtic Woman)

  • February Song (Josh Groban...of course)

  • People Ain't No Good (Nick Cave)

  • Watermark (Enya)

  • On Your Shore (Enya)

  • From Where I Am (Enya)

  • Fallen Embers (Enya)

  • Against All Odds (Phil Collins)

  • Evening Falls (Enya)

  • Remember When It Rained (Josh Groban)

  • Sanctuary (Secret Garden)

  • Our Farewell (Within Temptation)

  • Sanctuary (Secret Garden)

  • Hymn to Hope (Secret Garden)

  • A Day Without Rain (Enya)

  • Send Me A Song (Celtic Woman)

  • Moonlight Sonata - 1st Movement (Beethoven)

  • Eowyn's Theme/Rohan - Howard Shore

And there's plenty more...there's sheets from Sound of Music, Lord of the Rings, Prince of Egypt, Narnia, tons of Christmas music, and plenty of transcribed music from the internet, including portions of Murray Gold's magical Doctor Who themes.

Unfortunately, the buffet analogy I just used a moment ago holds true for the consumption of the buffet dishes...I'm taking bites out of each one and not finishing. And I'm still envious of my sister, who can hammer out a poignant "Face of Boe" rendition with skill and ease I still lack.

Still, this is a skill I plan on furthering if not mastering. The good news is, this buffet is endless, isn't fattening, and may even lend itself to making my own dishes in the future.

Considering that I've only been at it for about six months, I daresay I'm..."On My Way"

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Junk DNA: Reverting to Junk Science

Anyone who reads this blog (all two of you) knows that I love Doctor Who. Whenever I try to recount the plot of an episode I've seen, I'm left realizing that to the uninitiated, the show sounds absolutely nuts. (Unless we're talking about the rogue episode "Love & Monsters" then I'd agree, not one of their better ones.)

But I must register a complaint about the episode I've most lately seen, "The Lazarus Experiment". You see, for once when the Doctor blurted out an explanation (regarding the mutated scorpion-like monster with a human face clawing and trying to consume him and his companion) I understood him. The idea was that the beast was a man who'd put himself through a machine to alter his DNA and make him young again, but the Doctor notes that in doing so, he activated so-called "junk DNA" in his code.

Supposedly, scientists think that we still have non-coding portions of DNA in our genes, and since they consider us products of millions of years of speciation, they think our genetic code is like a refrigerator that's been neglected for weeks; chock-full of useless leftovers.

Star Trek and other shows have played off this idea, suggesting (at least in fiction) that by mutating the genes, they can somehow reactivate so-called extinct portions of the code and revert the human back to an evolutionary ancestor. Star Trek: The Next Generation had an episode based on this folly, where members of the crew were (re)turned into various primordial creatures.

The idea of junk DNA is based on one and only one scientific fact; scientists haven't identified or don't yet understand the functions for between 90% and 98% of our genetic code. Given their assumptions about evolution, they automatically assume that absence of identified function is an identified absence of function and brand it "junk DNA" and unworthy of further research.

But they're so wrong.

Back when I was arguing this topic more heavily, I set up an RSS feed for news articles that talked about junk DNA; it was an area of special interest because any scientist who stepped past his or her preconceived notions were constantly debunking this idea of junk by finding function for portions of the genome that they didn't know existed.


A list of assorted articles from 2007 about finding function in DNA

Article admitting evolutionary assumptions about DNA get in the way of research (Also notes finding function)

Some nice headlines from March '09 about junk DNA

(Trust me, the above merely scratches the surface. There are some archives here and here on the subject. A visit to might prove enlightening as well.)

In fact, I predicted to myself after starting this blog entry that I could return to my RSS feed and find very recent functions of "junk DNA" uncovered. My prediction was validated...

'Junk' DNA Proves To Be Highly Valuable (Science Magazine, June 2009)
So-called junk DNA may not be junk at all (May 2009)

Doctor Who episodes are always absurd, but always delightfully entertaining. A bulwark of creative genius engineers those plots, and the resulting strangeness just smacks of that peculiar strangeness that truth often has. But sometimes the suspension of disbelief is a fine line for me, and when the Doctor offers an explanation that even I know is scientifically false, it jars that suspension just slightly.

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Laughter, the Best Medicine

I tend to live my life by the saying "if you can laugh your way through anything, you can laugh your way through everything." That doesn't mean not taking things seriously, or being goofy and stupid all the time. It just means learning not to take everything so abominably serious. It means to take stock of a situation and, with the knowledge that you'll laugh about it in the future, going ahead and laughing about it in the present.

You might try it some time.

It is easy enough to be pleasant
When life flows by like a song,
But the man worth while is the one who will smile
When everything goes dead wrong.
For the test of the heart is trouble,
And it always comes with the years,
And the smile that is worth the praises of earth
Is the smile that shines through tears.

It is easy enough to be prudent
When nothing tempts you to stray,
When without or within no voice of sin
Is luring your soul away;
But it's only a negative virtue
Until it is tried by fire,
And the life that is worth the honour on earth
Is the one that resists desire.

By the cynic, the sad, the fallen,
Who had no strength for the strife,
The world's highway is cumbered to-day -
They make up the sum of life;
But the virtue that conquers passion,
And the sorrow that hides in a smile -
It is these that are worth the homage on earth,
For we find them but once in a while.

Report: Successes & Failures in Louisiana's 2008 Session

The following is a final paper I submitted for a political science class in spring 2009.

A report on Gubernatorial Successes & Failures in the 2008 Legislative Session

By David Burnett


Louisiana has been chosen as the focus of this paper because because there are a number of distinct features about the state which make it unique in the country. It is the only state to have been ruled by the Spanish and the French at the same time, the influences of which continue to dominate the political culture. Louisiana’s economy is largely petrochemical and agricultural. Historically, it has largely been both Democrat and black, yet has voted for Republican candidates on the national level. Additionally, several unique and unconventional circumstances have occurred in the past five years which have altered the state – and arguably, the national – political landscape significantly. Most notably, hurricanes Rita and Katrina devastated the state, and temporarily put Louisiana on a national stage, front and center.

This paper focuses on the actions of the newly-elected Governor Jindal in Louisiana, his focus on ethics, education and public health, the extent of his power and authority in the state and his use of it in two special legislative sessions and the 2008 General Assembly.

Background: Climate

One of Louisiana’s foremost distinctions is its adherence to Napoleonic Code rather than English Common Law. This concept has far-reaching consequences; it effectively negates the concept of legal precedent in its judicial governance, which creates a need for specialized law study in the state, and affects property and family rights laws. This oddity sets the state apart from every other of the 49 states in the Union.[1] The strong French and Spanish influences responsible for the Napoleonic or “Civil Law” code are also a factor in Louisiana’s districts being known as “parishes” instead of counties.

The state is also one of the southern-most, and its position near the Gulf of Mexico means it is heavily involved in the seafood and oil industries. Louisiana managed approximately $40.2 billion in exports in 2008, with nearly $16 billion (38%) in agricultural exports, with petroleum and coal products second at $10 billion (24%).[2]

Louisiana is among the top ten states for total African American residents, and is third in the nation for black residents per capita.[3] As of 2009, approximately 30% of registered voters were black, with only about 3% of them registered as Republicans, compared with about 65% of registered voters being white, 24% of whom are registered as Republicans.[4]

The state struggles with various low rankings. It ranks 50 out of 51 in citizens with education levels of high school degrees or higher.[5] It is number 2 for number of poor citizens, with 19.4% of the state living below the poverty line.[6] As of March 2009, it ranked 7th for unemployment.[7] According to’s summary for the state, Louisiana “leads the nation in homicides per capita, the per capita number of state and federal prisoners in jail, as well as relatively high levels of aggravated assaults and violent crimes,” also noting high sexually transmitted disease rates, low healthcare rates, and rates of child deaths.[8]

Background: Politics

In 2005, a category three hurricane came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico and wreaked havoc on Louisiana and its surrounding neighbors. After dams, levees and sea walls failed, inhabitants who failed to heed the orders to leave were stranded, and some lost their lives, and causing roughly $81 billion in damage to property.[9] The matter quickly became political as victims, politicians and media hosts sought to place blame. Louisiana’s Governor Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans’ mayor Ray Nagin, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and President Bush all faced public relations troubles due to action or inaction taken in the hurricane’s aftermath.

Michael Brown, the head of FEMA was fired.[10] Mayor Ray Nagin rebounded to win reelection,[11] but lost many former supporters. President Bush’s approval numbers continued to slip after his handling of the disaster, ranking among the lowest in departure approval ratings when he left office.[12]

Following the hurricanes, the state lost more than a million residents as citizens fled to other states. A full third of these citizens never returned.[13] Many of the remaining inhabitants relocated; the population of Baton Rouge doubled in size after Katrina, threatening to divide the formidable New Orleans parish control in Louisiana’s General Assembly. This change may also impact future redistricting, dividing voting blocs crucial to the Democrat party.[14] While these population shifts certainly affect the state demographics and voting numbers, the shift in population also indicates the loss of at least one seat in congress, as well as a decrease in federal funding.

Oddly enough, despite this population exodus, Louisiana reported its highest voter turnout ever in the 2008 presidential election.[15] This may possibly be attributed to the high percentage of blacks living in Louisiana and presumably voting for a black candidate, although Mayor Ray Nagin’s voting support as a function of race has been volatile.[16]

Following on the scandals of disaster management, Governor Kathleen Blanco did not even try to seek reelection.[17] which cleared the way for Congressman Bobby Jindal to win election.[18] Though Jindal had sought the office in 2003, he was narrowly defeated in a runoff against Kathleen Blanco. His victory in 2008 was the result of defeating eleven other contenders in the nonpartisan primary.

Jindal’s victory came with many firsts; the first Indian-American to hold a governorship, the youngest governor in the United States, and the first to win an open gubernatorial election since Louisiana’s nonpartisan primary system was installed. [19]

Jindal made good on his promise to call a special session of the legislature, concentrating heavily on ethics reforms for the state. Specifically, Jindal called for vast new accountability and disclosure requirements for the personal finances of legislators, judges and most other elected officials, as well as greater transparency in lobbyist finances. Jindal sought to crack down on corruption by eliminating taxpayer-funded pensions for corrupt officials, and to remove the ability for politicians to use public funds to pay/hire family members. He also sought to limit campaign finance, and disclosure of any third-party ad sponsorship.

These goals were far from token; the language was written very specifically with the intent of preventing legislators from tampering with it. And just in case legislative support was not sufficient, Jindal toured the state to gain support for his agenda. [20] Weeks later, the General Assembly voted to pass the measures on financial disclosure (albeit in weakened form), conflict of interest with state contracts, and lobbyist transparency. He did not succeed with removing public funding of pensions for convicted politicians, nor in preventing family members from being hired. The session victories, however, were called a “home run” by the governor.[21]

Governor Jindal then called a second special session just a month later to deal with financial spending proposals, tax incentives and tax breaks. Spending proposals included millions on highway and infrastructure improvements, clean-up from past hurricanes and protection from future ones, tax deductions for families with children in private schools, and to remove a sales tax on business utilities.[22],[23] Of the second session, Jindal stated that the legislature had batted a thousand. – a total spending package of $1.1 billion was passed, as well as nearly all of Jindal’s session goals.[24]

With the regular session occurring just days after the close of the second special session, Governor Bobby Jindal had clearly taken control of the legislative scene even before the traditional session had begun.

Regular Session Priorities

With these successes pocketed, Governor Jindal took the stage for the session-opening speech in which he outlined his priorities for the regular session. Education and jobs were a prime focus; Jindal iterated his goal to create a Louisiana where “every young person has an opportunity to get a high-paying job, start a great career, get a quality education, access the best health care, and raise a family in a safe community.”

In accordance with these goals, Jindal sought to bridge what he called a training gap between available jobs and available workers, and educate the growing population to fill jobs in coming years. The elaborated goals (those with any defined measure of success) are split into three general categories – labor and jobs, education, and welfare/public safety.

The following are specific and semi-specific goals stated by Governor Jindal pertaining to labor and the job force:

  • Prioritize community and technical programs to meet the demands of employers.

  • Establish “centers of excellence” on college campuses

  • Invest $10 million annually to fund training programs

  • Transform workforce development efforts; establish the "Louisiana Fast Start Program" for quick response to workforce opportunities and challenges in the state.

  • A “Day One Guarantee” that workers could begin work on the first day of employment

  • Maximize the role of business in workforce training programs and tear down the current structure to build a re-designed, well-coordinated system geared toward a 21st century workforce.

  • Replace the existing Department of Labor

  • $4.5 million for skills training

The following are elaborated goals pertaining to education reforms and improvements:

  • High school redesign – early participation in schools

  • $4 million for early enrollment programs

  • $2.5 million for LA4 program

  • Establish a Teacher Bill of Rights

  • $70 million in teacher pay raises

  • $8.5 million into the Recovery School District

Towards the end of his speech, the governor made some mention of sundry public health and safety goals, such as:

  • Mental healthcare - $89 million in additional mental healthcare ($26 million - $60 million)

  • Creating a Louisiana Health Care Consumers Right To Know Act

  • Decreasing Non-emergency use of emergency rooms

  • Tighter restrictions on sexual predators, including doubling or tripling offender sentences, as well as making permanent the label of sex offender

  • $6.5 million for an additional 50 Louisiana State Police Officers and will increase patrol trooper strength to 657 across the state.[25]

The Legislature

Louisiana’s legislature composition is currently held by a Democrat majority in both houses. The Senate has 39 total members, 15 of which are Republican. The House has 105 members, 50 of which are Republicans.[26] Therefore, Governor Jindal was working with a legislature controlled by a slim majority of the oppositional party in both wings. (A potential factor in this control may be term limits installed in 1995 which threaten a number of established and long-standing Democrat officials; thus paring a Democrat majority down from an overall gauge of state-mandated values to a simple vote count.[27])

An asset in Jindal’s camp, therefore, was the appointment of Jim Tucker as the Speaker of the House. Tucker, the first Republican since Reconstruction, made overtures of bipartisanship in committee appointments, but describes himself as a Reagan Republican[28], and therefore doubtless an ally for Governor Jindal’s Republican agenda.

2008 Session Successes

Governor Jindal chose to implement many of his expressed priorities through his budget, which came to the Assembly as House Bill 1.[29] (This paper will progress by goals fulfilled, in sequential order as listed above.) Among them was the promised workforce/labor achievements: $3 million was invested in the promised “Fast Start” program, and multiple other labor programs.

However, many of Jindal’s goals were fulfilled in one sweep with HB1104, which created the Louisiana Workforce Commission, replacing the existing Department of Labor and making good on Jindal’s promise to revise the workforce policy and appropriating $10 million dollars worth in training programs. The budget approved contained the promised $4.5 million investment in skills training.

Dual and early enrollment incentives in the form of $4.5 million to the Department of Education were included in HB1, but provisions were also in SB482 regarding private and homeschoolers.

On education, the Teacher Bill of Rights was passed.[30] Teacher salaries, however, were more difficult to gauge. The accomplishment touted was a $1,000 average increase in teacher pay. To determine whether this was close to the $70 million increase required consulting and comparing the 2007 and 2008 teacher salary totals multiplied by number of teachers. In 2007, the total salaries (without additional compensation) amounted to approximately $2,088,820,347. In 2008, the amount was $2,196,937,470, a difference of $108,117,123.[31] Therefore, we may safely be able to conclude that budgeted salaries for public teachers was comfortably increased.

Likewise, as planned, the Recovery School District received the additional $8.5 million from the budget (HB1).

Multiple bills addressed perceived weaknesses in healthcare programs. SB182, SB155, HB930, HB366, SB228 and others augmented healthcare in Louisiana in multiple ways. Most notably, SB287 created the Healthcare Consumer’s Right to Know Act.

The final goal listed was a $6.5 million increase in funding for, and to increase the numbers of troopers and police officers. This too found passage in HB1, the budget bill.

However, not all objectives needed a legislative stamp of approval. Jindal’s “Day One Guarantee” was accepted and implemented by college networks directly.[32]

2008 Session Failures

Jindal’s pledge to increase funding for the LA4 program (an early childhood development initiative) seems to have been sidelined in the budget. Although the program is spoken of in HB1, no funding increases are discussed.

The goal of establishing “Centers of Excellence” on college campuses was also not addressed.

Somewhat less of a failure, but certainly not a success, was HB155, which “Urges and requests the Department of Health and Hospitals to study the development and implementation of civil commitment procedures for the treatment of sexually violent predators and child sexual predators.” There is no immediate and measureable outcome from forming a committee.

While classification as success or failure is debatable, the governor used a line-item veto option to reject 258 provisions in the budget, the most in Louisiana history and more than double the previous number of vetoes.[33] as well as creating controversy by vetoing SB672 regarding legislator pay raise.

Public Response

Public approval data has been difficult to find for Governor Jindal. Two data points were uncovered: a 77% approval of Jindal at the start of the session (7% disapproving), and a 59% approval afterward (36% disapproving).[34] No further explanation or elaboration of these approval numbers could be located.

A new poll released during the compilation of this report, however, indicates that Jindal’s approval number rests at 67%[35] which indicates that, despite being down 10% from the previous session, the governor still has a solid approval base going into the second legislative session.

Of note, legislators passed SB296, presumably in response to Governor Jindal’s two special sessions, which called for a vote on a constitutional amendment that all “extraordinary” session proclamations be issued five days before the session commences. The amendment was voted on and passed comfortably with 60% of the vote.

There were six other constitutional amendments put forth to the public, two of which passed. The successful measures addressed term limits for public boards and commissions, and provisions for rapid replacement of legislators called up to active duty. Amendments which were defeated related to severance taxes, property sales and confiscations, and retirement investment.[36] (Louisiana’s constitution is frequently amended; since its 1974 incarnation, 28 of the past 33 elections have seen one or more amendments proposed.[37])


The Governor’s specific proposals are only means to an end; not an end themselves. Though the Governor saw many of his legislative goals met, time will tell whether or not his true goals of repairing and improving labor, education and public welfare will be met. Since the session only ended ten months ago, it seems both overly difficult and overly hasty to gauge the success of these long-term projects. However, it is clear that Louisiana’s freshman governor has made a splash in the state and instigated many overhauls to the state government. His successes in Louisiana politics have even caught the eye of some national Republicans who have mentioned his name as a presidential or vice-presidential contender in the 2012 elections.

It is clear from the goals listed and the corresponding number of them directly addressed in the legislature (most of them successfully) that Governor Jindal had many favorable aspects that granted him significant sway in the 2008 General Assembly, but one of the strongest factors could well be the “honeymoon” period of his governorship, in addition to the fact that Louisiana was both desperate and ripe for change in leadership after its previous leaders scandalized. The governor seems to have recovered a comfortable share of public approval, but his gubernatorial authority will likely see more difficult testing in the 2009 legislative session.


[1] Engber, Daniel. 2005. “Louisiana's Napoleon Complex: The French influence on Pelican state jurisprudence”, September 12. (April 29, 2009)

[2] World Trade Center of New Orleans. 2008. “Louisiana Exports by Industry” (May 1, 2009)

[3] “Total Black Population (per capita) (most recent) by state” (April 29, 2009)

[4] Louisiana Secretary of State. 2009. “Registration Statistics – Statewide” (May 1, 2009)

[5] “High school diploma or higher, by percentage (most recent) by state” (April 29, 2009)

[6] 2004. “Percent of People Below Poverty Level in the Past 12 Months (For Whom Poverty Status is Determined)” (April 30, 2009)

[7] Bureau of Labor and Statistics. 2009. “Local Area Unemployment Statistics: Unemployment Rates for States” (April 30, 2009)

[8] “Louisiana Background Stats” (April 27, 2009)

[9] National Hurricane Center. 2005. “Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Katrina” (April 28, 2009)

[10] Mills, Jim and Sarah Herndon. 2005. “FEMA Chief Brown Resigns” Fox News, September 13,2933,169169,00.html (April 28, 2009)

[11] Corley, Cheryl. 2006. “Nagin Re-Elected as Mayor of New Orleans” NPR, May 21. (April 28, 2009)

[12] CBS News. 2009. “Bush's Final Approval Rating: 22 Percent” January 16. (April 28, 2009)

[13] U.S. Census Bureau. 2005. “2005 American Community Survey Gulf Coast Area Data Profiles” (May 1, 2009)

[14] Alford, Jeremy. 2005. “CENSUS; Population Loss Altering Louisiana Political Landscape” The New York Times, October 4. (May 1, 2009)

[15] US Election Atlas. 2008. “Presidential General Election Data by state (% of Voting Age Population)” (May 1, 2009)

[16] Nossiter, Adam. 2006. “Vote For Mayor Points To Change In New Orleans” The New York Times, April 24. (May 1, 2009)

[17] Cillizza, Chris. 2007. “Louisiana Governor Announces She Won't Seek Reelection” The Washington Post, March 21. (April 28, 2009)

[18] Fox News. 2007. “GOP Congressman Bobby Jindal Wins Louisiana Governor's Race” October 21.,2933,303782,00.html (April 28, 2009)

[19] Moller, Jan. 2007. “Jindal Wins” The Times-Picayune, October 21. (April 28, 2009)

[20] Barrow, Bill and Jan Moller. 2008. “Jindal's special session agenda is heavy on ethics” The Times-Picayune, February 1. (April 28, 2009)

[21] Shuler, Marsha and Mark Ballard. 2008. “Jindal praises session” The Advocate, February 27. (April 29, 2009)

[22] Barrow, Bill. 2008. “Jindal announces agenda for second special session of legislature” The Times-Picayune, March 4. (May 1, 2009)

[23] Louisiana Office of the Governor. 2008. “Governor Jindal's Second Special Session Speech” March 8. (May 1, 2009)

[24] Anderson, Ed and Robert Travis Scott. 2008. “Jindal 'bats a thousand' at session” The Times-Picayune, March 14. (April 28, 2009)

[25] Louisiana Office of the Governor. 2008. “Governor Jindal's Regular Session Opening Speech” March 31. (April 28, 2009)

[26] National Council of State Legislatures. 2008. “Louisiana Partisan Composition - Election Results” (April 28, 2009)

[27] Cross, Dr.. 2008. “Term Limits and Representation in the Louisiana Legislature” Presented at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, LA, Jan 09. (April 28, 2009)

[28] McCant, Shelia. 2008. “A Bit of History in Louisiana Speaker's Ascent” National Conference of State Legislatures (April 28, 2009)

[29] To prevent onerous links and footnotes to bill texts, all bills hereinafter referred to can be located by number at the Louisiana 2008 Regular Session Summary Page:

[30] Louisiana Department of Education. 2008. “Department Of Education Issues Statement Regarding Signing Of ‘Teachers’ Bill Of Rights’” (April 28, 2009)

[31] Louisiana Department of Education. 2007, 2008. “Planning, Analysis, and Information: Budgeted Average Salaries” (April 30, 2009)

[32] Louisiana Office of the Governor. 2008. “Governor Bobby Jindal Announces Immediate Implementation of "Day 1 Guarantee," Key Part of Comprehensive Workforce Development Reforms” May 14. (April 29, 2009)

[33] Louisiana Office of the Governor. 2008. “258 Vetoes of More Than $16 Million in HB 1, Most Vetoes in LA History” July 14. (April 27, 2009)

[34] Niemi, Richard, Thad Beyle and Lee Sigelman. 2008. “State Governors 1958-2008 Database” (April 29, 2009)

[35] Barrow, Bill. 2009. “New poll: Jindal, Landrieu remain popular; Vitter slips since scandal” The Times-Picayune, April 29. (April 30, 2009)

[36] Louisiana Secretary of State. 2008. “Louisiana Secretary of State Official Election Results Results for Election Date: 11/04/08” (April 30, 2009)

[37] Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. 2008. “Guide to the Proposed Constitutional Amendments November 4, 2008” (May 1, 2009)

© David Burnett 2009. All Rights Reserved. Contact the author for use, reference or citation.

All content of this paper, excepting quotations and where noted, are the original, intellectual property of David Burnett. This paper exists in paper and digital form with a university professor as well as in database form, and the contents thereof can be cross-referenced by other professors both inside and outside the state of Kentucky, to guard against plagiarism. Anyone using materials from this paper, or submitting the paper itself without permission or citation, is subject to disciplinary action by their educational institution.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

On Colleges and Graduation

A dozen thoughts scamper through my mind as I hold my graduation cap and gown, including Business & Economics tassel, and a blue cord for high grade achievement.

Who invented these gowns, and then decided that a graduate was not properly attired without one? They do, after all, look a bit absurd. (Bill Cosby’s routine with Theo’s flat-top graduation cap comes to mind.) But nevertheless…I earned this uniform, and by jove, I’m going to wear it. I’ve been through more than 40 classes to get this gear, and now that I’ve got it…oh dear, is this me getting a little nostalgic?

I start to look around the halls I hated and maybe even feared when I first started, and now that compulsory attendance is through, I’m almost starting to feel fond about them. And I’m thinking a hundred different thoughts about how this school is so messed up. How can the university expect to achieve their coveted Top 20 status, when they can’t even make the sink knobs turn the same direction? Every single sink is different; some knobs both turn left, some both right, and all manner of combinations in between. Seriously, what’s with that? It’s like a game of odds to see if you’ll actually see water on your first try. And what about those doorless stalls? I wouldn’t go near them, and I haven’t seen anyone who does. (To say nothing of the graffiti.)

What’s with that?

I ask that question about a hundred other things on this campus. What’s with the people who come to the “free speech” zone and preach their hateful version of Christianity all day long? It gave me multiple opportunities to plant seeds of the true Gospel, but it was still unpleasant and in bad taste.

And what’s with denying students the right to meaningful self-defense on campus? Why am I a responsible citizen licensed by my state to carry a concealed firearm for protection, but upon crossing an invisible barrier onto a college campus, I’m suddenly breaching an academic code of conduct and subject to expulsion? “Knock on wood” never was a good security policy.

I’m also thinking back to the multiplicity of ways in which I’m different than when I started. In a ton of ways, we graduates are radically different than the whippersnappers we wouldn’t admit to being when we started. In other ways, we just spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to get a little slip of paper saying we’re smart, educated, and ready for a job. Of course in reality, when interviewing for a job, that degree is only going to be part of the equation. We still have to impress them with skill sets we never learned in college.

Along that line, it occurs to me that college really doesn’t do a good job of preparing you for the “real world.” Really, it’s a farce; never again are you going to be in a classroom after four or five months of learning, required to regurgitate the culmination of those five months in the proper order on the paper in front of you, else you will not succeed.

For that matter, college spends the first two years or so teaching you material that you’ll seldom need, just to ensure that you’re a “well-rounded” individual, yet they teach you very little about practical life skills. In my ideal world, you would learn a little of everything. Medicine and first aid, finances and mechanics, car repair, electronics, cooking, CPR and so forth. In short, as author Robert Heinlein put it, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

I can’t help but think about the grades I didn’t get. Dr. Cho’s awful political science class, where out of 90 examinees, only 10 got an A and 60% of the class got a C or lower. Or Dr. Yu’s class, where despite not speaking intelligible English, he also managed to fail utterly at genuine instruction of students. I sure wish he’d focused more on regression analysis. That was almost fun. (A mate in the econ department, and a data set from a professor in Florida helped me pass.) Still, it was cool to have the lead SEC football kicker in the class with me. That Finance 300 class was an absolute beast too…the first time I ever failed a test.

I remember Dr. Dahlstrom’s class, and how much like a politician he looked on stage, and how our final exam review was interrupted by a student proposing to his girlfriend. I could tell stories about half the professors, instructors and teaching assistants in the business department, and probably most of the political science professors. I’m still friends with many of them.

The classes I enjoyed the most are the ones that sparked creative streaks in my mind, to the point where I was furiously jotting down notes to myself for later; thoughts about blog entries, articles, arguments, philosophies, new insights on debate points I’ve shared, and so forth. Big Questions. They weren’t always related to the class material, but the class was clearly igniting the animus of the brain. In particular, my debate class of my final year. The professor had a way of plucking out abstract concepts of argumentation and rhetoric and crystallizing them inside a concrete frame of discussion, like a scientist putting an actual specimen under the microscope for investigation.

During my junior year, I was suddenly catapulted into some measure of public figure status, when I joined forces with Students for Concealed Carry on Campus. The idea was novel and not always well-received, but it led to local TV and radio appearances, a newspaper article about me in one of the state’s biggest papers, a position conducting media interviews, live radio appearances (at least one to a nationwide audience), a small amount of notoriety on campus, a conference in Washington DC, legislative efforts across multiple states, and eventually, a spot on the Board of Directors. That’s all been awesome, and it’s barely the beginning.

I’m also relieved. Mostly because, thanks to the fact that I transferred from the community college to the university just as the two were engaging in a corporate divorce, I had multiple loose ends to sew up…including proving to the college that I actually did take English 101. (One would think that when I take 200 level English courses for which ENG101 is prereq, it would be no great leap to assume I took 101.) I had to take some Microsoft Office certifications during that last year, approve a writing sample for a 2nd Tier English Writing Requirement, a CLEP test for sociology, and all sorts of fun details…on top of law school applications.

But transcending all the individual thoughts is the idea that I’ve actually done it. I’ve survived that beast men call “college” and I’ve conquered it. Better than that, I’ve excelled, and in a business program that required its fair share of difficult math classes.

Yet, I notice when you read the biographies of important figures past or present, the college degree – this great four-year struggle to get educated, enlightened and experienced in the Ways of the World – is mentioned only in passing, if it’s mentioned at all. Despite all the emphasis placed on this sacred education, in the end it’s little more than a springboard out into the Real World.

Fortunately, through various different experiences detailed in this blog entry and others, I feel myself more than capable of taking on the adventures that lie ahead. One of which may simply be to reenter the academic environment at a higher level…law school.

Bring it on.

"Many a venture herebefore
Hath fallen such as this;
May He that bore the grown of thorn
Bring us unto His bliss."

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Here Comes Da Judge

In the Disney/Pixar film Ratatouie, a food critic notes “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.”

The experience of judging high school debate was a learning curve from the beginning, but while it was a contest of nerves and wit for these high school students, it was an exercise in self-measurement and semi-formal jurisprudence for me.

It became readily apparent that most of these kids exhibited more dedication and skill for their age than most, and were more versed in presentation and argumentation than was I. And here they were at my university, quasi-experts in their given subject matter, most of them having traveled hundreds of miles and championed other debates. And they’re placing their rhetorical talents and future success in the matches under my purview; it’s up to me to issue a ruling on the best between the two teams.

Like most adults, underneath I’m questioning if I’m competent and capable of living up to the role. Kevin, a school counselor from New York and my cohort during the informal orientation, seemed to be pushing back the same doubts. But there’s not a lot of room for doubts here; I’m wearing a suit, for heaven’s sake. Like most adults, I’ve got to suck it up and act like I know what I’m doing.

Back up for plot exposition: I’m here because I signed up for a one credit hour class at the University of Kentucky, billed as a debate class. After not even being present for the first class (due to mislabeling; it wasn’t my fault), I made contact with the professor who explained that really, it was just a way for members of his college debate team to earn college credit for all of their work. However, he was willing to put a custom curriculum together so that I could still earn the credit, and after hearing some of my previous experience with argumentation, he thought I might make a good judge for the Tournament of Champions event taking place near the end of the semester. As it turns out, UK hosts the thing, and it's quite the to-do in the world of debating. It seems to be the famous event no one's ever heard of.

So on a somewhat drippy Saturday morning, I’m on a campus which would normally be deserted, but is instead a hive of activity with students and their coaches.

Kevin and I follow one of the debate coordinators to a basement room to watch her judge one of the first debates. The topic is not particularly interesting to me; whether or not the Employee Free Choice Act was good for the American people. While we watch, two teams of two each take positions. The first two present cases individually, with rebuttals, then in a two-person crossfire, then the other two members, second rebuttals, then a second two-person crossfire, and finally a grand crossfire. One student mentions a violation of a constitutional amendment in his presentation. Somewhat familiar with the document, I grab my pocket copy out of my laptop bag and consult it, finding no basis for the claim. I mention this privately to the judge, who responds that I may be right, but it’s the other team’s job to point this out.

The judge also introduces us to her informal system of judging each person and each team, using a diagram to fit each candidate in their own box. (I tried my own method for the first debate I judged, but quickly found hers worked better.)

The judge issues her verdict, and we file out of the room to make way for the next judge and students. The opponents, as will be the case for most of the rest of the debates, were hotly contesting the points during crossfire, and one could infer that they were bitter ideological enemies, until the debate ends and each member shakes hands (which, by the way, was against medical advice, thanks to scares about “swine flu”, which has yet to wipe out the human race) and makes chatty comments back and forth.

So that’s it, then. I head back to the debate office (once the site of most of the my informal classroom discussions on argumentation, it’s now grand central for judges) and pick up a ballot with my name on it, and the names of the kids I’m about to judge. Whoa.

I also find that I’m one of only a few natives to the area; everyone else is asking where the student center is, or where this building or that building is, or where restaurants are, and I get to draw on my knowledge of the area to help people.

I find my way to the classroom where my first debate is taking place. ("Finding my way" because after all, it’s not like I go to every building on campus; there are large portions I’ve never been to.) I rather pictured more of an audience. Instead, in most cases, I’m alone in the room with the two teams. This first time, one or two coaches were there for support. Hmm.

The teams commence their debate, and I begin scrawling notes to myself. Like any debate, there are good points and there are weak ones. Soon enough, it’s over, and I finish making notes. Though I allowed no prejudices to influence my vote, a winner began emerging even as the debate went on. Whether or not I agree with the Employee Free Choice Act is irrelevant; I have to judge based on who argued their side most effectively. Nothing external that I know (even a statement I know to be false that goes unchallenged by the other side) can factor in.

After hearing the ups and downs from five or six different teams, I soon became well-versed indeed in its merits! Politically, I do not agree with it. Yet, three of the four opinions I “handed down” went to the pro side. (IE, "the EFCA is good for the American people.")

Feedback is strictly at the discretion of the judge. I am usually the type that gives feedback, but while I was still finishing my notes, one of the team members asked “Sir, do you give feedback?”

Note to self: Get used to being called “sir.”

I said I would when I finished writing my notes and filling out the ballot, and offer my feedback and constructive criticism. I ask if they want to know who I will be marking as the winner, and both sides do. If disappointed at the outcome, neither side shows it, but it’s early in the debate stages, so a loss is not a crushing blow yet.

I have a large gap between the next debate. (Should have brought my laptop, but instead I spend time chatting with another judge or two, and reading from Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny, which is an awesome read by the way.) I judge the next debate, once again offering feedback. One student mentions that few judges actually make comments on the presentation style; only the substance. (I had made comments such as, “when you present, your posture is hunched over to look at your notes. You might be more effective, authoritative and project your voice more if you stood erect” or “your crossfire sounded a bit hostile there, you may want to dial it back a bit to create a more positive image.”) I didn’t know this, but I thought it only made sense to offer as many tips as I could to these guys. As if they needed much; I later learned that many of these students had been accepted to such prestigious schools as Harvard, MIT, Stanford or Yale.

One’s faith about the younger generation is slightly uplifted.

Sunday, I leave church and return directly to campus. One of the debate coordinators hands me a ballot and tells me I’m “in for a treat” and says he picked me to judge this debate because I was such a good sport the previous day. (I was?) But it was a treat. The two teams packed multiple good points on both sides into their time-limited presentations, questioned precisely the weaknesses of points I had silently noted, and picked apart different definitions with legal precision. At the end, I congratulated both teams, told both what the debate coordinator had told me, and said that I had not been disappointed. (Most amusing in this debate was the argument about how Friedman changed his mind on EFCA. Both teams realized only after the debate that they were talking about two different Friedmans, Thomas and Milton.)

Here though, a potential conflict could have existed. Judging is a zero-sum game. Even if both teams (who, let’s face it, don’t really care about EFCA) had presented excellently, as these two had, I had to brand one the winner and one the loser. As luck would have it, I’ve already been informed that both teams are doing well in the tournament (no surprise) and will progress no matter what the outcome of this match. Whew.

Now everyone is biting their nails; the first round progressions are being posted, and everyone is anxious to know. I’m fortunate not to be under any pressure.

Once again, I have a long period between times, so this time I go find a free computer to browse on until my next debate.

There’s one last elimination debate to judge, and it turns out to be a humdinger. Everyone is murmuring about it. Two teams from the same school have been randomly matched up in the computer, which apparently makes things dicey. Both teams are happy to debate against each other, but the coaches want to make sure that purely objective judges are in place. This is an elimination round, so three are needed. Turns out I fit the bill of being 100% objective, so Kevin, some fellow from Florida and I are it. The room is small, but packed. The same format holds, and many of the same arguments, testimonies and experts are kicked back and forth. The end result is that, for the first time, I vote with the con side of the debate. Kevin sides with the other side, and the fellow from Florida reluctantly agrees with my vote. The losing team is slightly irate, feeling that they dominated the debate, and even makes some attempt to dispute the point with me.

But this was no 51/49 split; I felt one side outperformed the other by a comfortable margin. In the end, there was no right or wrong. Just my opinion, and once given, it was all that counted. High school debate or not, that seems like a lot of power.

Welcome to being a judge.