Sunday, January 31, 2016

If co-workers can't go to the cake, the cake will have to go to the co-workers

Above is a Youtube video which explains Google Hangouts

     Jinny travels with her work; when she's not traveling she works from home. Sometimes she meets one of her co-workers on the road, but her entire division is never together at one time except for a few times a year.
    This is actually a challenge for workers who don't come into a common office. Time spent around the water cooler or in the break room gives people a chance to know each other. Being able to see and hear people is different from just reading emails.
    One of the things Jinny's company does is to meet together every Friday afternoon in a Google Hangout. This is essentially a group teleconference. I've posted a Youtube video that I found online above which explains Google Hangouts. This gives everyone a chance to see and hear what is going on in various parts of the company.
Everyone got their own cake for baby shower

    In an office, when an employee is about to celebrate a milestone the others will join in and celebrate with a lunch or other event. Kind of hard to do when everyone is scattered to the winds.
    A few days ago one of Jinny's team members announced that there was going to be a virtual baby shower for one of the crew following the company meeting. She ordered everyone a cake; Jinny's came from Kelli's Cakes and Confections in the Larson's Cash Saver shopping center. (I might add that Kelli's does wonderful cakes; this was the first we've had from them).
    And so on Friday everyone gathered at their computers, cakes at their side, and had a wonderful baby shower. As the social reporters for the small-town papers used to say, "A good time was had by all."

    Remember the old Spaceship Earth ride at EPCOT, where right at the end there were two kids, one in Japan, the other in America, talking to each other through their computers? They were actually LOOKING at each other on their computer screens! It was such an amazing concept that we all knew that it wouldn't happen until the distant future.
    Of course, I first saw that as a teen-ager. Now my hair is falling out and I have children not too far away from college. I guess the distant future has arrived!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jay Hughes is telegenic, well-spoken, and wrong on almost every issue

Elections have consequences, as they say, and the voters of my district have chosen to elect perhaps the most liberal Democratic member in the state to the legislature. Jay Hughes worked hard to get elected while Brad Mayo ran a lackluster campaign, and from the standpoint of hard work he deserves the job.

Hughes is telegenic and well-spoken, and I believe if he can temper his ultra-liberalism a bit he may become the frontman for the state’s few remaining Democrats. But that doesn’t mean he’s not dead wrong on virtually everything that comes out of his mouth.

Hughes recently posted a Youtube video, which he described as his response to Gov. Phil Bryant’s State of the State Address. Since the entire video is a criticism of Republican policies, I’m going to take the opportunity to respond to Hughes’ issues point by point (I actually agreed on him on one issue!). I’ve posted the video above; by all means view it and make your own judgements

Issue 1: Gov. Bryant has properly used the rainy day fund

Hughes takes issue with Gov. Bryant’s decision to tap into the “rainy day fund” to cover a shortfall in state revenue, since Bryant didn’t want to drain the fund completely dry to fund Initiative 42 or other Democratic spending proposals. Bryant used this fund exactly as it was meant to be used; revenue came up short, and thanks to this fund the state was able to deal with the problem. Perhaps Republicans were foolish in making overly optimistic projections, but they did not budget in advance for this fund to be spent. The Democrats have been chomping at the bit to spend every dime of this money as a general revenue fund. I assume if they have their way and the state comes up short we will just have to file for bankruptcy. This is not responsible government. Thank you Gov. Bryant for using the Rainy Day Fund exactly as it was intended to be used and not allowing it to be plundered by the Democrats.

Issue 2: Thanks to Republicans, there are lots of new jobs in our district

Asks Hughes: “Any new jobs around you?” Where have you been Jay Hughes? Thanks to various incentives, Winchester just opened a huge plant in Oxford, employing 1,000 people. Job growth in our district is robust. “Help Wanted” signs are all over town. Yes, there are new jobs around me!

Issue 3: Our state's franchise tax is among the nation's highest

Mississippi has one of the highest corporate franchise taxes in the nation. It’s is something that can keep businesses at bay. Believe it or not, corporations look at these things before deciding where to locate their businesses. Right now might or might not be a good time to eliminate this tax, but our goal, as a state, should always to be to have corporate taxes that are lower than any other state in the union. Quit trying to drive away jobs, Jay! Here’s a link that shows how high the Mississippi Franchise tax is in relation to other states. Of course, those states not listed on the attached link don't even have a franchise tax!

It should be noted that while some Republican legislators are pushing for a repeal of the franchise tax, Gov. Bryant apparently is not, at least for now. Bryant is pushing for a tax cut for people making under $52,000 a year; hardly the corporate fat-cats described in Hughes' video.

Issue 4: Corporate tax breaks are bringing new jobs and businesses to our state

All of this crap about corporate tax cuts being tax cuts for “their buddies” is just ridiculous. I dare say few state Republicans hang out with the top brass of Nissan, Toyota, Post, Volvo, etc. No tax breaks are provided to any of these people because they are “buddies.” They are provided because they benefit the people of Mississippi by bringing and keeping jobs in our state.

For example, in 2002 Mississippi enacted a Freeport Warehouse rule that exempted warehouses which shipped their goods out of state from the personal property inventory tax. This move was not without opposition, and I’m sure Hughes would have been opposed to this “tax break” if he had been in the legislature at that time. Since 2002 Warehouses have sprung up like mad in DeSoto and Marshall County, and the two counties have gone from having almost no warehouses to having more than 50 million square feet, with more coming almost monthly. Businessmen are actually building spec 500,000 sq. ft. warehouses. Volvo recently closed all four of their warehouses around the country and moved and consolidated them in Marshall County. Post Cereal has done the same. These are the types of “cronies” that Hughes wants to keep out of our state.

Well-tailored tax breaks for corporations don’t hurt Mississippians; they help them. We all know that Nissan, Toyota, and Winchester got tax breaks or incentives, and I’m glad they did. Hughes clearly doesn’t want any of this. I guess he wants us all to go back to an era of sharecropping. Well, just no!

Issue 5: Hughes is right, the Democrat should have been seated in District 79

Unless there is something I don’t know, Jay Hughes is absolutely right about House District 79. It seems to me that the Democrat was certified the winner in this race and should have been seated. If the Republican wanted to cite irregularities the proper venue is a circuit court, not through legislative shennanigans. See, everyone can find common ground!

Issue 6: As a practical matter we have no inflation; education funding increases are real

Hughes says record education funding doesn't matter due to inflation. This is just a crock! For the last four years the inflation rate has remained under two percent and for the past two has been under one percent. The inflation rate is negligible. Republicans have made real increases in education funding.

Issue 7: When properly used, testing is a vital part of the educational process

Hughes says time spent on testing is depriving our children of an education. Tests can certainly be misused and results unfairly used, but frequent testing is an absolute necessity if children are to be educated. Benchmark testing can tell teachers exactly who gets it and who doesn’t, so that children who need help can be identified. Children should be tested on a very regular basis, and every child should receive at least one nationally normed test per year. Testing is wonderful! I suspect Hughes is upset that test results don’t always come out the way ultra-liberal Democrats want them to, but that is no reason to deprive every child of a decent education. Make no mistake, those who attack educational testing are in reality attacking education accountability. Studies show that testing in general reinforces and solidifies learning. Leave our tests alone!

Issue 8: Transfering school taxing and spending to the local level is not a bad thing, particularly for Oxford

Hughes says state educational budget cuts may necessitate the raising of local taxes. Well, hallelujah! Anytime we can move taxation from the state to the local level, it’s a good thing. If the state were to cut taxes and quit funding education completely, forcing our local school districts to fund themselves entirely, most citizens would be far better off. The money the state spends is not produced by magic; it comes from taxing our local citizenry. The state funding formula is a complete rip-off for Oxford, and citizens could easily pay the added property taxes out of their savings from a state income tax cut. The lion’s share of local property taxes are paid by commercial businesses, industries, students through their apartment rent, and alumni with pied-à-terres, so shifting the tax burden would greatly benefit Hughes’ constituents at the expense of those rich fat-cats he hates so much.

Issue 9: If special needs vouchers help a single student, they are worthwhile

Hughes declares the special needs voucher program an “abject failure” because only 250 were approved and only 107 of these were actually accepted into private schools, which he accused of “cherry picking.” How if this a failure? One hundred seven students were able to get a better educational placement. Hughes wants to subject them to a life of slavery. If only one special needs student was helped the program is worthwhile. Why is it wrong to help people?

Issue 10: Americans and Mississippians deserve a say in how they receive their government-funded or subsidized education

I’m not gong to argue about school choice at length, save to say that there ought to be a way to allow citizens school choice while still protecting local school districts. Surely there has to be a way for everyone to come out a winner on this issue! Perhaps a student who opts out of a local school district should get a voucher for 60 or 70 percent of the funding that would be spent on him while the remainder would remain in his assigned district. And by the way, the government DOES give people a choice of where to spend tax dollars, whether it be through food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Pell grants, or a host of other programs. The idea that students should be forced to attend a school not of their choosing is, quite plainly, un-American.

Issue 11: Hughes fails to recognize that Mississippi has some of the best schools in the nation

Hughes says that tax breaks don’t attract businesses, good schools do. Actually both play a role. But Hughes fails to recognize that Mississippi already has some of the best schools in the nation, one of which is in the very district he represents.

Oxford High School students annually post extraordinarily high ACT scores, with 12 to 14 percent of each class scoring 30 or higher, compared to a national average of about five to six percent. In 2013 and 2014 eight Oxford students, or about 3.5 percent of the class, scored a 35 or 36 on the ACT. The national average? About half of one percent. Oxford offers four foreign languages and a host of AP classes.

Of course, there’s more to life than academics. The Oxford school orchestra has made great strides in the past few years. I was really impressed at their last concert. You can view a couple of their numbers by clicking here (or here). A couple of years ago I was stunned by the beauty of a performance of “Mary Did You Know,” which was arranged and sung by several chorus members. My friend Ed Meek was kind enough to send someone to video them the next day. And while the Oxford football team lost the state championship for the third time in a row this year, it’s quite a feat to have made it to state three years in a row.

Oxford isn't alone; there are outstanding schools throughout the state. DeSoto County and Madison Central come immediately to mind. Mississippi already has what relocating companies need as far as schools are concerned. We just don’t need to chase them away by enacting a bunch of punitive taxes. And we need for Jay Hughes to stop po’-mouthing us and start telling the world that “We’re the best!”

There, I’ve had my say. I’m sure Jay Hughes is a nice guy; clearly a lot of local residents like him. I don’t see the world as a zero-sum game as he does. But if it is a zero-sum game, the policies he is supporting will, after all is said and done, drain money from the Oxford community and deposit it elsewhere in the state. He ought to look after us instead.

If he really cares about our local community, he will start working to repeal MAEP and replace it with a per-student formula which treats every student and every school district exactly the same. This will dramatically increase funding for our local schools, which obviously will benefit the constituents that Hughes was elected to serve.

In short, I’m asking Hughes not to support the various liberal boondoggles of his friends and left-wing cronies on the backs of the hard-working citizens of Oxford and Lafayette County. Put us first!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Both NorthMississippiCommentor and ThusBlogged Anderson are now offline

    Although I started this blog back in 2008 -- at that time under the name Mississippi Madness -- I didn't begin blogging with any regularity until 2011.
    I got a certain amount of inspiration from Tom Freeland's "NorthMississippiCommentor" blog. Freeland was an extreme left-winger, but I enjoyed his mix of politics, recipes, restaurant reviews, and generaly mouthiness. Tom could be a little -- or sometimes a lot -- sanctimonious, but I still enjoyed reading his comments.
    After Freeland's death in February 2015 his blog remained online, and I would reference it from time to time. Sadly, his web hosting account has now expired and his blog has gone black. I suppose that's something to be said for Blogger, which is free and lasts forever, or at least until Google decides otherwise.
    Another recent blog loss is that of Thus Blogged Anderson. I don't know Anderson, but based on his blog posts he's really liberal and really smart. A lot of the commentors on his blog tended to be the ultra-shrill liberal types, but Anderson was generally willing to carry on a reasoned discussion. Apparently some jackass lawyer made a big production about something that Anderson wrote during some legal proceedings, and he just chose to roll it up and call it quits.
    Although I am a conservative, I do miss being able to read these blogs. I actually have several year's worth of blog posts for both Freeland and Anderson thanks to my blog reading app. I suppose I could copy and paste them all into some type of archive file for future reference.
    I'm sorry for the loss of these voices, even if I usually disagreed with them. And I'm sorry their blogs are no longer online, so that I could at least be allowed to read their old stuff. Life goes on, though.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

There is college merit aid available for students who work to bring up their ACT scores

    I'm not sure many high school juniors are thinking about their college search right now, but the hour is growing late. Time is also running to to figure out how to finance four years in college. This year's juniors won't have to pay their matriculation fees for another 18 months, but planning needs to have started yesterday.
    Most people don't qualify for need-based aid, so that leaves fairly limited choices in seeking colleges with good merit aid. But those choices are out there.
    Some of the most generous merit aid packages are offered closest to home, at Ole Miss. Ole Miss offers partial- to full-tuition scholarships based on student ACT score, and unlike most colleges, only a 3.0 high school grade-point-average is required. Students with a 3.5 g.p.a. do get additional money, though.
    Ole Miss offers numerous merit scholarships, and they are stackable, which means they can be cobbled together to create a full-ride scholarship. The Academic Excellence Award is the one of most interest, and it only requires a 3.0 high school average. It's an automatic merit scholarship granted according to ACT scores; an ACT of 27 gets $2,250 while a score of 32 gets $7,500, which is a few dollars short of full tuition. Out-of-state students get partial non-resident waivers, which rise to a full waiver. For students with a 3.5 high school g.p.a., an additional $1,500 to $2,700 is available. (The chart can be found by following the link, above).
    When I was in high school, the only kids I remember taking the ACT twice were a few people who didn't score high enough to get into Mississippi State. Jockeying for higher scores was just not something we did back then.
    But it certainly pays for students to do it now! Ole Miss rewards ACT scores as low as 24 with a $1,000 per year scholarship. So there is an incentive for virtually all incoming students to seek a higher ACT score by taking the test again; and again; and again.
    The Academic Excellence Award states that qualifying tests can be taken up until enrollment. So high school seniors planning to enroll at Ole Miss should just keep taking the ACT in hopes of getting a higher score, because the higher the score, the greater the scholarship. Some students do better on the SAT, and students should take it, too, as an SAT score can be used for the Academic Excellence Award.
    Some people will never be able to post a high ACT score, but many have low scores because they have trouble finishing sections or with the math or science. These problems can be resolved with practice. A nephew of mine had trouble finishing the ACT and scored a 24 on his first attempt; on his eighth try he made a 34. It can be done!
    For those who are just bound and determined to attend a cow college, Mississippi State has scholarships that are similar to those offered at Ole Miss. The MSU grants look to be a little less generous on the low end but include some bells and whistles on the high end, such as one year of free room for those with a 34 or higher.
    I've often mentioned the University of Alabama's generous National Merit Scholarship. Ole Miss has one, too, but Alabama also offers a good ACT scholarship. Students with a 32 or higher on the ACT with a 3.5 g.p.a. get a full tuition scholarship for four years. A unique feature of the Alabama scholarship is that it rolls over to graduate or law school, so that a student who arrives with lots of AP and dual enrollment credit might be able to get an almost-free graduate degree.
    It's easy enough to find out what merit aid offers are out there; just Google the name of the college and the words "merit scholarship." But do it now, because some merit aid requires applications as early as August.
    Juniors and seniors with any chance of ACT-based merit aid should take the ACT just as many times as is possible. It's going to be given to every junior in Mississippi in April, and there are paid test dates in April, June, September, October, and December.
    Just take it every time, kids. The more money you can save your parents, the more spending money they can give you for all the extra stuff that makes college fun. So everybody wins!


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

For Class of 2017, my prediction of the Semifinalist cutoff score for Mississippi and Alabama is . . .

UPDATE 2/8/2016: I predicted in this post that Mississippi's cutoff score would be 204. Apparently the Selection Index percentiles that the College Board released were based on a National sample rather than a User sample. Not sure why they have done this, other than perhaps to make people feel better, but if true then the cutoff will be higher than 204. A good guess might be at least 206, and my guess is now 207; and it could be higher.
    Another problem is that the College Board does provide some score percentiles based on what they believe to be a typical sample of test takers. However, it has become more common for students to "prep" for the test, and I suspect their sample doesn't include any hyper-prepared test-takers. The PSAT at present is a very poorly designed test. Hopefully they will work out the problems in the future.

    In past years I’ve written quite a bit about the PSAT/National Merit Test. This is the test juniors can take each October as practice for the SAT. In addition, for a lucky few it’s a chance to earn National Merit Semifinalist status, which usually goes on to become Finalist status.
    Earning National Merit Finalist status can be financially rewarding. Depending on where one chooses to go to school, it can be worth anywhere from $0 to $2,000 to $200,000. It can be a life-changing event, as I’ve described in many previous posts.
    There were some huge changes in the test this year, and the College Board has not handled the transition very well. Students were a month late in getting their scores, and some students still don’t have them. And since the test and scoring scale is entirely changed, nobody is really sure what a “good” score is. The College Board is going back to the old scoring method for the SAT, but just to confuse things they’ve topped out the PSAT with a 760 on each section instead of an 800. And the National Merit Selection score will go back to being calculated with math making up only one-third of the Selection Index but one half of the PSAT score. Understood?
    Today the College Board released a National Merit Selection Index Percentile chart that was made up of scores taken from a representative sample of PSAT participants. Obviously the chart would be a lot better if it were made up from all of the actual scores from the October test, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t, but the odds are the sample will be pretty close.
    With this chart we can now start to answer the question parents and students have been wondering: “Did my score qualify for National Merit honors?”
    And the answer is printed on the chart at right. There were approximately 1.5 million participants, and 50,000 – or three percent – will be honored with at least commended status. If the College Board chart is right, then students who scored a 200 or above will earn Commended status.
    Figuring the state cutoffs is more difficult, but it’s not impossible to make a good guess. Each state has a separate cutoff score designed to recognize the top one percent of scorers in that state. The result is that in some states students scoring in the 96th national percentile might get Semifinalist status while kids going to boarding school or in Massachusetts or California would require a score around the 99.7th percentile. All we have to do is look at what percentile a state’s past cutoff scores have been and then see what percentile corresponds to that percentile on the most recent Selection Index chart.
    For example, Mississippi’s cutoff score has been rising pretty dramatically over the past 10 years, in part because a number of large school districts have added year-long prep classes to the curriculum. In 2008 Mississippi’s cutoff score was 201 and the national Commended cutoff was 200. So a score that was just barely above the 97th percentile was enough for Semifinalist status.
    Last year, Mississippi’s cutoff score was 209 – the highest ever – which tied our state with Alabama, and put us ahead of or equal to 16 states, which was quite an accomplishment for a state used to being on the bottom. That score of 209 put Mississippi square in the middle of the 98th percentile scores, and probably represented a 98.4th percentile if I were to guess.
    And by the way, while this post addresses Mississippi PSAT scores, any state which has had cutoff scores below the 99th national percentile ought to be able to get a good idea of where the Class of 2017 cutoff will be. Look at past trends, look at the percentiles, and just hone in on a number.
    So now it’s time to look at the chart at right. A cutoff score of 205 is the lowest score in the 99th percentile, and I find it highly likely that Mississippi’s cutoff will be 205 or lower. The same goes for Alabama. Below that things get a bit trickier. The test was poorly designed, so the percentiles drop quickly, with only three scores in the 98th percentile instead of the usual five to seven. I think a score of 203 would correspond with last year’s cutoff.
    So the bottom line is that students with a 202 on the PSAT have some chance at Semifinalist status. A 203 is equal to last year, so who knows? A 204 is better. A 205 is in the 99th percentile, and really ought to be enough. And Mississippi (or Alabama) kids with a 207 or higher ought to be making their college visits with the assumption that they will be named Semifinalists.
    One requirement to advance from Semifinalist to Finalist status is to make a confirming score on the SAT. Any student with even the slightest chance of earning Semifinalist status should go ahead and take the SAT as soon as possible. On the old SAT a score of 1960 was required to be considered for Finalist, which was roughly the 91st percentile. In other words, they are just making sure people didn't cheat on the lower-security PSAT. Take the SAT early so that if you have a bad test day you can take it again.
   My prediction is that the Mississippi cutoff score for the class of 2017 will be 204. The good news for Oxford High School is that after a couple of kind of slim years they may produce a record number of Semifinalists; there are a lot of kids with really good scores. One of those is highly likely to be my son, and I offer him both prayers and congratulations.
    Official announcements aren’t made until September. Will any of these children have fingernails left?