Thursday, January 31, 2008

Our Nominee

Something to consider:
Never before in the history of the United States of America have the voters and delegates of a major political party had to choose their nominee for President from a field that did not include a white male. - DailyKos
That folks, is tangible progress. There is still a ways to go, but that is progress.

Karl Phillips for Purcellville

Loudoun County and Purcellville are locked in a massive legal struggle over the Fields Farm high school. To date, Purcellville alone has spent over a million dollars of the taxpayer's money fighting the high school which the town itself planned in the mid 1990s. And in the ultimate twist of irony, Purcellville residents are not only paying to fight the County, they are paying for the County to defend itself, since Purcellville residents pay County taxes too. Here we have millions of tax dollars going for the county to, in effect, fight itself.

Talk about schizophrenic government.

A local Democrat has stepped up and united with concerned Republicans in Purcellville to present a united front, and end the madness.
As widely anticipated, former Purcellville Councilman Karl R. Phillips made official his decision to run for the mayor's seat yesterday. - Leesburg Today
Karl spoke to the LCDC this week about his candidacy. The remarkable thing was how this Democrat came before fellow Democrats and explained that he would be campaigning as hard for his allied Republicans as he would for himself. The issue of Mayor Lazaro's tilting at the high school windmill is more important than partisanship to Karl Phillips.
The election promises to be hard-fought, with the planned Woodgrove High School at Fields Farm being the core issue. According to Phillips' release, the four candidates support the construction of the high school and the immediate cessation of the town-county litigation concerning the development of Fields Farm. The slate calls for open government, a pro-business environment, lower taxes, reduced spending and improving the working relationship between Purcellville and Loudoun County. - Leesburg Today
The question of millions of tax dollars wasted on lawsuits insists on a strong answer, and Mayor Karl Phillips will provide it.

A Trans Fat Tax

We all know that Virginia's budget is tightening thanks to declining revenues. We also know that another huge gap has recently been introduced, as the abuser fees were abolished without any revenue plan to take the place of that money. Virginia also faces a looming potential gap as future SCHIP funding remains at risk.

Virginia needs more revenue. It is not a matter costs and better management of existing government functions, Virginia is among the most efficient, best-run states in the nation. The need for basic government functions (roads, schools, basic safety net, etc.) is growing with our state and our economy. Virginia is among the lowest-tax states in the country, and that is a good thing. It is an important element of our quality of life. However, in order to maintain our lifestyle and the quality of our government, we need to find a way to raise more money without negatively impacting that quality of life.

One of the tenets of good government is well-targeted taxes and programs, like gas taxes going for transportation improvements, or early-education programs with which a little spending now reduces the need for a lot of spending later. An important driver of government costs is the health of the population. The less healthy people are, the less they work and the more they use government services. This is among the reasons for cigarette taxes. Cigarettes cause health problems, so the government needs money to pay for the effects of cigarette use.

Today, a very similar argument can be made for trans fats. Research has shown that trans fats are remarkably unhealthy, linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, even belly fat. The impact of this unhealthy element of our diet is felt directly in the costs of public health, as more people need help managing and controlling chronic health problems, and the emergency healthcare system is strained with more acute problems resulting from untreated conditions.

Virginia should implement a trans fat tax. The state should tax the sale of foods that contain trans fats at between 1% and 1.5%, depending on how much it costs to implement the tax at the point of sale. Businesses should not have to bear the cost of implementation, so the tax must pay for itself. This money would be designated towards the state's healthcare costs (FAMIS, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) in the same manner that the gas tax is designated to transportation improvements.

By creating a dedicated source of revenue for the cost of public health care, Virginia's citizens would be somewhat insulated from the vagaries of government funding which come from unpredictable budget cycles. Furthermore, such a tax would create an incentive to eat healthier, which would reduce the state's long-term costs for care of conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Furthermore, Virginia should pass legislation allowing localities to introduce their own trans fat tax, of up to an additional 1% (depending on the cost of implementation, as above). In this manner, places that want to reduce the use of trans fats, like Arlington, would have a tool available, while other localities which might prefer not to introduce another tax would have that option. In light of revenue shortfalls in County budgets resulting from the mortgage crisis, an alternative source of revenue which is linked to a cause of county government costs makes sense.

A trans fat tax splits the difference between an outright ban on trans fats, which may raise the questions of liberty and choice, and ignoring the fact that these foods lead to direct costs for all taxpayers down the road. It creates an incentive to eat healthier. It is a tool for closing budget gaps without cutting back on the education of our children or the well-being of our most at-risk populations. Finally, a trans fat ban would emphasize the link between cause and effect in our everyday choices, and help capture the costs that some decisions impose on society.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

An Interlude: What Kenton Said

Perhaps one day America will figure out that I am not an Asian-American, or an ethnic American, or some kind of bloc. I am an American that happens to care about the same country as the rest of you. Hopefully the same will go for everyone else. - Kenton Ngo, 750 Volts

SCHIP: Where's Jim Gilmore?

In the late fight over SCHIP spending, which puts 80,000 Virginia kids at risk of losing their health insurance, one voice has been notably silent. Former Governor Jim Gilmore, the presumptive Republican nominee for Senate took credit for SCHIP when he signed a a bill for the program in 2001, but not before vetoing the same program in 1998. Here is what Jim Gilmore had to say in 2001.
"When faced with mounting medical bills, many low-income families simply can't afford to wait for coverage," said Governor Gilmore. "My administration is committed to providing timely and affordable health insurance for working families in Virginia who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but do not have private health insurance." - Jim Gilmore, 2001
Remember, Jim Gilmore said this in 2001. Since then, health insurance premiums in Virginia are up 40% and 191,000 more Virginians have gone without health insurance.

SCHIP (FAMIS here in Virginia) addressed the most needy of this crisis, our kids. FAMIS stands between preventative care and emergency hospitalization for 9.3% of Virginia children. Jim Gilmore took credit for it in 2001 as Governor, and is now running for Senate. SCHIP funding is one of the defining Federal/State issues of the political moment. As the man who was governor when it was implemented, Jim Gilmore should have something to say about it as a candidate for Senate. And yet candidate Gilmore has been silent. And in that silence, six of Virginia's Republican members of Congress have voted to stand with George Bush against the most at-risk members of our society.

Virginia is listening, Mr. Gilmore. Will you speak for our uninsured kids? Will you lead by insisting your fellow Virginia Republicans in Congress stand up against President Bush for a bipartisan SCHIP bill, the way that some Republicans already have? Or will you put Party before Commonwealth and stay silent?

Virginia is listening.

Seriously People, Reform The SCC

The three SCC judges are the state's supreme regulators. The odds are you can't name a single one of them, but outside of the governor, the House majority leader and the Senate majority leader, they may be the three most powerful men (and/or women) in Virginia. - Jim Bacon, Bacon's Rebellion
The SCC is Virginia's public regluator. That means they are responsible for monitoring and overseeing state-licensed corporations. In last year's 33rd District Delegate election, SCC reform was part of Marty Martinez's platform. Since then, no one has picked up the torch of reform, and we are living with the consequences.

Many of the issues currently facing the Commonwealth can be traced, in part, to a SCC bound to consider the interests of corporations over consumers. Three come immediately to mind:Consider first the tolls on the Greenway. Republicans from Congressman Frank Wolf to Delegate Joe May to Attorney General Bob McDonnell have made this a "major issue" and proposed investigation and legislation. All of this is so much heat and very little fire. The issue of toll increases would not be an issue if the SCC had real authority to regulate state-licensed semi-monopolies and a statutory mandate to look out for the voters of Virginia before large corporations. And every one of those three had the time and authority to make something happen in their tenures of office. Frank Wolf could have taken action while in the majority on the Transportation Committee in Congress. Del. May has had ample opportunity to act in his thirteen years in the Assembly, also serving on the Transportation Committee there. And Attorney General McDonnell was the "chief patron" of the Transportation Trust Fund bill while in the Assembly, surely he could have taken action on the issue of regulation and tolls while there, if not while Attorney General.

And yet none of them ever took action. Instead they chose to keep the SCC toothless and beholden to the corporations it is supposed to regulate, so that they could have an opportunity to have an issue in their elections, without actually doing anything about that issue while in office.

Next we come to Dominion Power. Dominion is the definition of a state-regulated semi-monopoly. The Commonwealth counts on the SCC to oversee and regulate this powerful corporation. And yet, when the re-regulation bill was before the Assembly, the Assembly ignored the warnings of the most senior SCC Commissioner and passed a bill essentially written by and for Dominion. Now, Loudoun's Delegate Joe May rails against the Power lines made possible by legislation he approved last year without any concern. And his answer for SCC reform is to meet with the power companies, and ask them how it should be done.

Meanwhile, in Congress, Frank Wolf supported the legislation to designate National Electric Corridors, the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It is this act, which allows the Federal Government to overrule state oversight and regulation in the interests of national electrical stability, gives Dominion Power the de-facto authority to stick its high-tension lines wherever it deems necessary in Virginia. So while Frank Wolf publishes policy papers against the power lines, when he had the opportunity to actually do something about them, he voted in favor of Dominion and against Virginians.

So our SCC has been asked to "regulate" Dominion with both hands tied behind its back. First, the Assembly passed a bill requiring the SCC to "consider" but not "require" actions by Dominion. Then, the SCC is told that is decisions are likely to be moot if they decide against Dominion because of Federal legislation.

Finally, we come to health insurance. Since President Bush took office, the health insurance premium for the average American family has gone from $6,230 to $12,106. The number of uninsured Americans has increased by 9 million (it's now over 15% of the population), and the number of uninsured children in Virginia stands at 9.3% of the population. These numbers are the result of two trends, the increasing cost of insurance premiums (even Jerry Kilgore knows this), and the reduction in benefits provided by employers.

In Virginia, all insurance companies, including health insurance companies, are monitored and licensed by the SCC. When premiums increase, it is the SCC that has jurisdiction over the increases. Thus, the SCC could be given authority by the Assembly to look more closely at premium increases, and provide enforcement mechanisms that insure that premium increases are being used for health care, rather than profit and marketing. Virginia's SCHIP program, FAMIS, is already in place to provide a model for coverage and efficiency (even Jim Gilmore thinks so) the SCC could use to measure licensed insurers. A model mechanism for looking out for Virginia's consumers is there for the implementation, if only the Assembly would do so.

But our Republican representatives and candidates would prefer to have issues to campaign on, than solutions to Virginia's problems. As a result, the SCC remains a whipping boy, purposefully kept at the mercy of powerful interests.

Reform of the SCC is the beginning and foundation of a newly vibrant citizen perspective on state-licensed corporations in Virginia. It may be the case that the only way to get this done is to elect people like Judy Feder to Congress and a Democratic majority in the Assembly. But we can hope that the legislators and leaders in Richmond will not wait for the next election to begin the work of reform that is so necessary.

Let's get this done, Richmond.

Changing Minds has an interesting essay question up: "What have you changed your mind about?"

This inquiry really does get to the heart of public discourse, politics and generally who societies progress. At its heart, all political discussion and debate is about convincing people and changing minds, but one must be truly willing to change their mind in order for the system to work.

This was the subtext of the 2004 critique of The Executive, who could find nothing he had ever done which was a mistake. The first step to changing your mind is admitting that you might have been wrong (or, at a minimum, misinformed) in your previous position.

The question has essay contributors varying from Alan Alda to J. Craig Venter. I wanted to share the comments of noted skeptic, Michael Shermer.
When I was a graduate student in experimental psychology I cut my teeth in a Skinnerian behavioral laboratory. As a behaviorist I believed that human nature was largely a blank slate on which we could impose positive and negative reinforcements (and punishments if necessary) to shape people and society into almost anything we want.
The data from evolutionary psychology has now convinced me that we evolved a dual set of moral sentiments: within groups we tend to be pro-social and cooperative, but between groups we are tribal and xenophobic.
I have thus changed my mind about this theory of human nature in its extreme form. Human nature is more evolutionarily determined, more cognitively irrational, and more morally complex than I thought. - Michael Shermer,
It is wise to ask ourselves whether we would be as willing to set aside an ingrained belief in light of compelling contrary evidence?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Twenty-Six and Counting

With the widespread confirmation that Tom Davis will retire from the House of Representatives this year, 13% of the entire Republican Caucus in the House is retiring. And this could be just the beginning.
It should be noted that at this point in the 2006, there were only 13 announced retirements by GOP House incumbents. February and March still offer some time for more House crumb-bums to cut their political careers mercifully short, and I expect that a few will follow the recent example of Reps. McCrery, Baker, and Walsh. - Swing State Project
That compares with five Democratic openings, three of whom are running for Senate, and one of which died while in office. Larry Sabato at UVA's Center for Politics has speculated that 2008 will be a "consolidation election" for the Democratic party, which will show gains in its majorities, confirming the Party as the majority for some time to come.
By the way, the 2008 House GOP exodus is quite normal. When a party loses control of the House, some senior members of the new out-of-power party miss their perks and chairmanships, and they decide to call it a day. - Sabato's Crystal Ball
The get-the-heck-out-of-dodge trend is not limited to Congress. Republicans are fleeing state legislatures, too.
A dozen Republicans - eight in the House and four in the Senate - have announced they will not seek re-election. Two Democrats from the House are seeking Senate seats this fall while one Democratic senator is not seeking re-election.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Des Moines Democrat, told reporters Thursday that "there are indications there will be anywhere from five to 10 more Republicans announcing their retirement" in the House this session. McCarthy declined to give names but said he made the estimate judging from the relative inactivity some Republicans have had in fundraising during the past year. - The Des Moines Register
And there are Republican retirement trends in Minnesota and Pennsylvania as well.

The Democrats currently control Congress and 23 legislatures, it will be interesting to see where the bleeding stops. It seems likely that in January 2009, fifteen percent or more of the elected bench of Republicans will be out of office.

(With a tip-o-the-hat to MyDD.)

[update] And it might even be twenty-seven!

Sen. Webb's Fraud Commission Is Law

Jim Webb's initiative to create a modern-day Truman Commission has been signed into law. The issue of fraud and corruption in our military contracting is an important one. (Alan Grayson is running for Congress on it.) Every dollar these contractors take illegitimately is a dollar not spent defending our country and supporting out troops. Every illegitimate dollar adds to our debt and deficit.

This is a small step towards transparency and accountability in a trillion-dollar, global war effort. The fact that it took six years and Democratic control over the Senate to get this done is further evidence of the abandonment of fiscal accountability by the Republicans. During WWII it was a member of the President's own party, Harry Truman, who aggressively held war contractors accountable. Today, accountability of war spending is apparently a partisan issue. As a friend in Minnesota has said, "for my entire life, I thought of myself as a Republican because of fiscal responsibility, but the only time the budget was ever balanced was under a Democratic administration!"

From war contracts to earmarks, it is only when the Republicans are out of power that they suddenly get religion on the question of fiscal responsibility.

(Photo from The Gavel)

So who are the real fiscal "conservatives?" The party who says one thing and spends on six others? Or the party that has balanced a budget and was prevented from implementing it by Republican obstructionism?


The implementation of this bill is the beginning of finding where our money has gone for the past six years, and the start of reining in an out-of-control spendocracy.

Thank you Senator Webb.

Debating Virginia's Gun Laws

Even as the General Assembly buries further work on gun show background check legislation, the debate in Virginia over the question of gun rights continues. On the Washington Post's "Virginia Politics" page, a story by Anita Kumar on the latest compromise efforts has sparked an intense discussion in the comments over rights and reason. Here is a small sampling.
The VA Tech killer obtained his guns and went through a background check - why is it people keep forgetting that??? The issue is the availability of mental health data, not with private sellers who may want to sell their shotgun to a friend or relative. Criminals do not obtain firearms legally. This proposal will not help, nor would the one which was defeated. - Posted by: VA native
Responsible gun owners, like me, support responsible gun laws. We don't need felons and psychos buying firearms. The opposition to closing this loophole is nothing less than cowardly pandering by a bunch of spineless politicians. - Posted by: Oakton, VA
Regardless of your position on the question, the growth in online debate and discussion on these important issues is a good thing. It is too infrequent that people from northern Virginia and people from southside, for example, have a forum to talk, citizen-to-citizen. While our elected legislators interact and debate in Richmond, our prespective on those debates is only strengthened by direct conversations between places like Herndon and Roanoke. In the comments section of the Washington Post, Not Larry Sabato and Raising Kaine, this happens, even though all of those sites originate within a few miles of Washington DC. Through blogs and the Internet, Virginians are being tied together in debate, discussion and ideas. In the end, the result can be a stronger Commonwealth, and that is good for everyone.

Regional Homelessness on the Rise [updated]

The impact of the housing downturn is starting to be felt among the most at-risk in our region.
Organizers at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, who expect to release results of the survey in June, said they will be studying the information for insights into the effects of the troubled housing market. Slowing construction has taken a toll on workers in service, building and landscape jobs. According to the Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development, nearly 20 percent of all home loans in the region are high-cost subprime loans.

At the same time, dramatic increases in utility, gas and food costs are compounding the difficulties for residents trying to hold on to their homes.

"I am seeing more families with children," said Rose Powers, who runs Streetlight Community Outreach Ministries in Woodbridge. Many have turned to her in recent weeks for help paying for a motel room, she said, "because the shelters are full." - The Washington Post
And the problem is not limited to the inner suburbs. Here in Loudoun, the second-richest County in America, the fight over what to do about shelters simmers. The managers of the County's leading service provider for those in need, the Good Shepherd Alliance, have proposed a community advisory board, to help mitigate local concerns over the impact of their shelter.
"We felt that having a continuing dialogue on a month-to-month basis wasn't just something that was necessary to earn trust, we felt it was also good for the long term," Graham said.

Graham said the organization hopes the advisory council will evolve into a forum in which residents not only discuss the center's effect on the neighborhood but also focus on community volunteering — planning food and clothing drives for the homeless and recruiting volunteers for the thrift store. - LoudounExtra
It is admirable that the GSA is willing and able to spend its time and energy on a community advisory board in the interests of being a good neighbor. It is truly sad that they have to. The time and energy spent on this Board is time and energy that could be spent helping our neighbors in need. A wealthy county like Loudoun has a responsibility to be compassionate to its homeless population, especially in a time of growing economic displacement. In a time of growing need, it is remarkable that Loudoun County appears to only have housing for thirteen families who are without homes.

We can only hope that the County will be able to bring its shelter online quickly, since some folks in Ashburn have slammed the GSA's door, leaving many of our neighbors out in the cold.

[update] The County has determined that the GSA's original plans for the drop-in center in Ashburn were within their by-right uses under County zoning. The GSA is not going to invoke those rights however.
"The only purpose for the building being renovated on-site will be to house our consolidated administrative offices and thrift store. There will be no change of course in view of this announcement," Graham said. "We urge the Ashburn community to join us in accepting closure on the zoning issue, and placing it behind us. There are far more daunting and timely issues for us to address together, and we look forward to rallying hand-in-hand with the Ashburn community to help us make the daily lives of the homeless and indigent better, safer, and more humane." - Leesburg Today
Also, LCPS has joined with Wegmans to try to mitigate some of the effects of economic dislocation. It's good to see some local companies and institutions reaching out a helping hand.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Washington and Lee Predicts Clinton

Washington And Lee holds a mock convention every presidential cycle, and they have been remarkably successful at predicting the eventual nominees of the two major parties.
Since 1908, the Convention has correctly selected presidential primary candidates 18 out of 23 times, with only one error since 1948. The Washington and Lee campus is looking forward to yet another successful selection during its centennial meet in 2008. - Washington And Lee
(A delegation at the W&L Mock Convention)

This year, the Convention, after two days of deliberation, selected Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee.
Most Accurate Student Mock Convention
Predicts Clinton as Democratic Nominee

LEXINGTON, Va. – After two days of political events at Washington and Lee University, the 2008 Mock Convention selected Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee. The prediction marks the 100th anniversary of the most accurate student-run mock convention in the nation.

Students at W&L, a historic liberal arts college, have picked the correct presidential nominee for the party out of power every time but once since 1948, and have a perfect record since 1972. Since its inception in 1908, the overall record stands at 18 correct predictions out of 23.

More than 90 percent of the student body is involved in running the convention. They spend over two years planning, researching and organizing the quadrennial event, which has consistently featured prominent political figures and received national media attention. - Washington and Lee Press Release
There hasn't been a Presidential race like this one in many generations, as there is no incumbent and no heir apparent in either party. It will be very interesting to see if W&L continues its successful prediction streak. If there is a year in which they might be wrong, this is it. Opinion polls have been remarkably wrong throughout the race. And the voters seem to take pleasure in defying expectations.

On a more local note, it is a credit to the Commonewalth that Virginia's Washington and Lee hosts this event. As the state through which so much of our democracy has flowed throughout American history, it seems appropriate for another Virginia school to lend its voice to our national political conversation. Virginia institutions of higher education take their politics seriously. From the discussion and analysis fora of the Miller Center of Public Affairs and the Center For Politics at UVA to Christopher Newport University's Center for Public Policy, which provides excellent polling of Virginia, with many institutions in between, Virginia's schools provide a deep pool of knowledge and wisdom about our republic from which to draw.

Frank Wolf, The Ceremonial Congressman

Frank Wolf does love the ceremonial. From swearing-in firefighters to speaking on Martin Luther King day, our Congressman makes the rounds being seen in the community, doing ceremonial things. He is a master of the photo op and the three-line blurb. His skill in this area allows him to maintain a strong level of mild approval and name recognition. However, a rational look at both his record and his influence demonstrates that Frank Wolf is all style, and no substance. He is a ceremonial Congressman, with only the efficacy of a figurehead.

We could start with SCHIP. On this important issue, Frank Wolf was against it before he was for it. Like a figurehead, he only points in the direction other people turn him. As the dean of the Virginia delegation to Congress, it should be his responsibility to not only vote for SCHIP, but to convince his Virginia colleagues to do so as well. If it is good enough to vote for, it should be good enough to fight for. But Frank Wolf has done no fighting on behalf of Virginia's uninsured kids. His silence stands in sharp contrast with his claim to be one of the most important Republicans in Congress (he's a member of the Appropriations Committee, after all).

This raises the question of Frank Wolf's influence and effectiveness as a Representative. While Wolf has railed against tolls on the Greenway and tried to fund rail to Dulles, his record of success in these signature areas is remarkably slim. He took credit for adding money to the Dulles Rail project in 2007, when he also spoke out strongly against a tunnel, so surely he must also take blame for the near-collapse of the project today. For a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and a twenty-six year veteran of Congress to have a Federal agency controlled by his own party thwart the most important project in his district, without his advanced knowledge is a demonstration of irrelevance, not influence. It is as if the President of his own party knows that Frank Wolf has no real power, and can thus be ignored.

If Frank Wolf is not showing leadership in his caucus or among the Virginia delegation, and there is little recent evidence of any kind of influence he may wield over issues that are important to Loudoun and the 10th District, is he at least looking out for us in Congress?

On this final issue, the answer remains "no." In a time of economic uncertainty and mortgage catastrophe, Frank Wolf's attention has been elsewhere. Even as Congress works to mitigate the foreclosure crisis, Frank Wolf spends his time dealing with Connecticut Indian tribes. While our neighbors are losing their jobs, Frank Wolf is employing people in other states to look at porn. And while our troops have been fighting in Iraq, Frank Wolf claimed credit for a memorial to the Civil War.

On the Iraq issue, Wolf's lack of effectiveness is incredibly stark. He was a major sponsor of the legislation creating the Iraq Study Group, but when the time came to implement the Group's recommendations, Frank Wolf abandoned his own solution and voted against the recommendations.

So yes, Frank Wolf attends many ceremonies, memorials, celebrations and parades in Loudoun. But that is all he does - show up and be seen. We neither want nor need a ceremonial Congressman, but someone who will fight for the citizens of the 10th in Congress. We need a Congressperson who will help effect change in our Iraq policy, who will help fix our healthcare system, and who will take action on our behalf.

The 10th District should not stand on ceremony. The 10th District should elect Judy Feder.

[update] Not Larry Sabato provides even more evidence that Frank Wolf's attention is not on the 10th District, and might even be in some dark corners.
Former Congressman Mark Siljander was recently indicted for his participation in a fundraising ring that allegedly sent more that $130,000 to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a supporter of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Congressman Frank Wolf is listed prominently on Siljander's lobbying company's web site as a reference. Global Strategies, Inc. - NLS

Sunday, January 27, 2008

$1/Gallon Ethanol

Talk about a paradigm-shifting technology. One dollar ethanol could revolutionize transportation, power generation, and a wide variety of other industries.
A biofuel startup in Illinois can make ethanol from just about anything organic for less than $1 per gallon, and it wouldn't interfere with food supplies, company officials said.

Coskata, which is backed by General Motors and other investors, uses bacteria to convert almost any organic material, from corn husks (but not the corn itself) to municipal trash, into ethanol.

"It's not five years away, it's not 10 years away. It's affordable, and it's now," said Wes Bolsen, the company's vice president of business development.
The end result will be E85 sold at the pump for about a dollar cheaper per gallon than gasoline, according to the company. - Wired
We would be a lot better not generating our ethanol from food, especially when the technology at hand is an American technology (not, say Brazilian) and can use "just about" any organic material. Of course, the whole thing could be vaporware.
The end result will be E85 sold at the pump for about a dollar cheaper per gallon than gasoline, according to the company. - Wired
(With a tip-o-the-hat to Slashdot.)

A Citizen Fights Back

Digby writes about a citizen waging a campaign against the frauds and corruption emergent from the Bush administration and the GWOT(tm). Alan Grayson of Orlando Florida is running for Congress. He has spent the past few years pursuing civil court cases against the companies and people who have defrauded the American taxpayer over the past six years. While Sen. Webb and the Senate Freshmen have called for a new Truman Commission, Mr. Grayson has been implementing one on his own through the courts.
Alan Grayson has spent the last four years of his life combating some of the worst abuses of the war. He has filed dozens of citizen lawsuits against crooked contractors who have cheated American troops and taxpayers. He is the prosecuting attorney in all five fraud cases currently pending against contractors in Iraq. He won a $10 million jury verdict last year, the second largest False Claims Act verdict in history in a case that the Justice Department refused to prosecute. - Alan Grayson for Congress
There is a lot that could be written about Mr. Grayson's candidacy, but as ever, Digby says it best.
I like it. I like it a lot. We need people in congress who understand that the last seven years weren't some bad dream from which we can awaken and simply carry on relieved that it wasn't real. It happened and it has to be dealt with. - Digby

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Dave Butler Runs For Unity

Dave Butler held his campaign kickoff this afternoon at the Thomas Balch Library. Kelly Burk and Susan Horne introduced him, and Councilmembers Kevin Wright and Katie Hammler were in attendance along with many friends and neighbors.

Dave's speech begain with his experience serving the Town on the Trails committee, the Utility Rate Advisory Committee and the Economic Development Commission. The heart of his campaign message was unity. Dave told a story about five people moving a piano. The essence of the story was that things get done better and faster when people are pushing in the same direction, instead of against each other. Dave is running to bring people together and move the Council together, in the same direction.

That spirit of progress and cooperation will serve Leesburg well on the Town Council. With the endorsement neighbors with such diverse opinions like Kelly Burk and Susan Horne, not only is Dave Butler running to unite the Town Council, in some small way his campaign already has.

The Dulles Rail Fiasco

There is a lot of discussion on the Dulles Rail fiasco all over the Virginia blogosphere right now. If you are looking for a good article generally summarizing the situation and circumstances that led to our current condition, LoudounExtra did a great job today: Contradictions Surface in Dulles Rail Talks. Here's a taste.
At several points in the past two years, Federal Transit Administration officials said the project was doing fine on cost and construction management, according to the correspondence and phone calls with Virginia officials.

But Thursday, the tone changed. FTA chief James S. Simpson declared the project unfit for federal funding. And he pointed to many of the issues that project officials and Virginia politicians had thought were settled and done with. - LoudounExtra
Since we have reached a point of total boondoggle, it makes sense to revisit the entire project. Elements like dedicated funding, competitive bidding, a tunnel and better project management and control should be fundamental issues addressed in a comprehensive project review. Once that is completed, we will have a much better idea of what is involved in getting this transformative project done right. The last thing our area needs is a Big Dig.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Better Economic Stimulus Plan

Jackson over at Rule .303 puts up some thoughts on economic stimulus.

Step 1. Build things, roads, schools, bridges. American things.

Step 2. Start with things already designed, but unfunded. "Have the first phase of the thing be solely the construction of projects that have already been planned and prepared by state governments."

Step 3. Watch the effects flow from construction to steel and American industry.

Step 4. Keep the money in America, not spent on things made elsewhere.
Throwing money at people and asking them to piss it away on consumer junk that came from overseas only reinforces what is going horribly wrong in the American economy. We have got to make things. A society that builds, has. Economic stimulus needs to not only be rapid but it needs to focus on encouraging the employment of Americans to build things. - Rule .303
The whole thing is worth a read by everyone. This is the right idea, and the best idea heard in a long time. It's too bad Congress and The Executive aren't listening.

(With a tip-o-the-hat to Waldo.)

[Update] I spoke too soon, and with a relevant link in the Shared Items, as well. Sen. Webb had essntially the same idea, and said so.
Webb: Invest in Infrastructure to Stimulate the Economy

Urges Senate Finance Committee to Invest in People and Job Creation by Investing in Vital Construction Projects

Washington, DC-Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) said today that the best way to spur job creation and economic growth is to prioritize investment in infrastructure projects. In a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and Ranking Member Charles Grassley, Webb urged that a large portion of the stimulus package be devoted to infrastructure development, "putting people to work and at the same time benefiting the nation's capital needs.
Thanks, RaisingKaine.

Leesburg Guard Coming Home?

Last year, some of our neighbors were sent to Iraq. Since they left, the 109th Virginia family was visited by tragedy resulting from war, the 3910th American was killed in Iraq, and Sen. Jim Webb called for a modern-day GI Bill.

Now, there is word our neighbors may be coming home.
About 30 Leesburg Army National Guard soldiers soon will return from deployment to Iraq.

The National Guard sent notice Jan. 24 that about 160 soldiers would be returning home. Of this number, about 30 are from the Leesburg Army National Guard unit (C Company 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry).

Many of the returning soldiers departed for training or Iraq in early January 2007.

Some members of the Leesburg C Company -- about 120 -- left for Iraq in late August and were told they would be spending the following 11 months in active duty. - Loudoun Times-Mirror
To all the families who will be reunited, thank you for the service of your mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. To all the service members who spent the past year Over There, thank you for your service. We sincerely hope your experience abroad will be brought home, and your voices will be added to the great discussion about our future as a County and a Country.

God bless you, and thank you.

Dave Butler Campaign Kickoff Tomorrow

Dave Butler is kicking off his campaign for Leesburg Town Council tomorrow.
Come to Dave's Campaign Kickoff
Where: The Thomas Balch Library 208 W. Market St.
When: 2:00 pm, Saturday, January 26, 2008
What: Campaign Kickoff with light snacks
Who: Everyone!

"My family and I moved here six years ago. While driving down to my job interview in Sterling, we passed through Leesburg. Almost immediately, my wife Pam turned to me and said, "This is where I want to live. It feels like home." She was right. We looked at a lot of houses, many in other places, but all of our top choices were here."

Deciding to live in Leesburg was an easy choice for my family. However, Leesburg continually faces many, much harder, choices. With my experience on the Planning Commission, Traffic Committee, Water Rate Committee, and Trails Committee, as well as my background in engineering, security, project management, and process improvement, I can find solutions and make the choices that will be the best for Leesburg and that will improve your quality of life.

We have we choose determines our future.

I need your help to help you. Please support me in the upcoming election for Town Council." - Dave Butler
If you would like to support a good neighbor and consensus-builder for Council, come join Dave tomorrow at 2.

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Sen. Herring Sponsors Ballot Audit Bill

Loudoun's own Sen. Mark Herring has sponsored a bill to provide random audits of elections in Virginia. SB292, "Optical scan tabulators; random audit after each election to take place within 24 hours," specifies that:
The State Board of Elections will establish procedures for the audits, hand counts, and evaluating discrepancies between hand counts and tabulator tallies. The bill also requires that recount officials select a random sample of at least five percent of the optical scan tabulators used in the election being recounted and that the paper ballots counted by those tabulators be recounted by hand. If the hand count detects machine errors, then the recount officials may designate additional machines to hand count. SB292, Richmond Sunlight
The bill goes before a Senate committee on January 30th. Virginia is lucky to not have had the voting problems of Florida, Missouri or Ohio, but there is a difference between problems with voting and problems with vote counting. This bill attempts to stave off vote counting problems by introducing a mandatory audit step aimed and enhancing the verified accuracy of vote totals. The State of Maryland did a comprehensive analysis of voter verification, and one of its key recommendations was implementing post-count audits of a selected sample of systems and ballots to verify results. Sen Herring's bill effectively implements this recommendatoin for Virginia. This is the kind of technical, but practical legislation which causes minor impacts in the short-term, but yields major results in the event of a problem. Kudos to Sen. Herring for sponsoring this bill!

However, transparency and accountability in our electoral process is too much for our Delegate, Joe May, apparently.
In an Action Alert I received this week, the Verifiable Voting Coalition of VA made me aware of HB638 (May) which not only seeks to overturn the legislation on DREs, like SB685, but also changes the process of securing voting equipment. This bill needs to be defeated. This bill is assigned to the Elections subcommittee of the House P&E committee. The coalition expects that the committee will take up this bill at its next meeting and is requesting that you contact the subcommittee members by 5pm Wednesday, January 30, and let them know that you are opposed to this bill. - Vivian J. Paige
May's bill would lift the prohibition in Virginia on electronic-only voting machines (aka, "DREs"). These kinds of systems have caused dozens of voting problems throughout the country, so it is unfathomable why Del. May would deem it appropriate to free localities to buy DREs in Virginia. May's bill would invite lawsuits and the necessity of replacing entire voting infrastructures in the event of any kind of problem. In a time of budget limitations, Del. May should not be introducing legislation which could lead to significant and unnecessary future costs for the Commonwealth. Especially when optical-scan systems are cheaper. (Incidentally, Loudoun uses a mix of touchscreen DRE and optical-scan systems.)

If you want to follow this and other Assembly bills in detail, Richmond Sunlight offers a legislation tracking feature: Photosynthesis. If you want to track these bills with excellent commentary, I strongly recommend reading Vivian Paige, who is using Richmond Sunlight to follow this and other bills in great detail on her blog.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Town Representation on the NVTA

Del. Rust has introduced a bill which would secure representation for towns on the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. The bill was requested by Rust's constituents in Herndon, and is supported by the Leesburg Town Council.
Leesburg Town Council members voted last night to endorse HB 451, now under review by the General Assembly, which would increase the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority's membership from 16 to 17 by adding one town representative with full voting rights. - Leesburg Today
This is a generally good adjustment to the NVTA. Towns are the one local government form not represented on the NVTA, and increasing the number of voting members from 16 to 17 will insure no tie votes. Towns have unique transportation circumstances, without the authority of independent cities, but often expected to handle their own problems by the Counties of which they are a part. Leesburg, for example, invested its own money in completing Battlefield Parkway when potential problems arose.
Last year, the project hit a speed bump when it was discovered that it was nearly $14 million over budget. Town Manager John Wells and members of council decided to borrow money from other projects to cover the shortfall, and plans for the link continued. - Leesburg Today
With representation on the NTVA, Towns would have a forum to address their unique burdens with other Authority members.

It is interesting to note this vote in Council this week.
The motion to endorse HB 451 passed 4-0-3, with Mayor Kristen Umstattd, Councilwoman Katie Sheldon Hammler, Councilman Kevin Wright and Reid in favor and Councilman David Wright Schmidt [sic, I a pretty sure they meant David Schmidt -P13. UPDATE, the author has updated the article, and it was David Schmidt who was absent. -P13], Vice Mayor Susan Horne and Martinez absent. - Leesburg Today
We cannot be positive that Councilman Schmidt was absent, given the clear mistake in the story above and the fact that the minutes are not online yet, but if he was absent it Councilman Schmidt's absence is poor form. In the first month after his appointment, David Schmidt should not already be missing Council votes.

Consumer Licenses for Prescription Drugs

Here's a novel idea, instead of paying per pill and per prescription, consumers could pay to "license" the use of the prescription drugs they need.
Researchers propose that consumers pay an annual "license" fee that would entitle them to a year's worth of medicine for each prescription they take on an ongoing basis, with a very small or no co-payment for each monthly supply.

Such a system could be used to pay for medicines that treat chronic conditions such as high cholesterol, diabetes or asthma without increasing the cost to consumers and may reduce the periods when patients go without such medicines because of the cost, according to a study published in the journal Health Affairs. - Science Daily
In the long-run, this could significantly help the health care system by making drug regime compliance easier. It could reduce the emergency and urgent care necessary for people who go off life saving drugs because of costs, then wind up in need of acute medical care, the costs of which are often shifted to hospitals and taxpayers.
Researchers propose that consumers pay a $195 fee for an annual license for the statin drugs -- equal to what most consumers now pay out of their own pockets each year if they have insurance plans that require $25 per-prescription co-payments. Insurance companies would pay an additional $374 to drug companies for each statin license.

Because there would be no monthly out-of-pocket payments for consumers, researchers suggest that patients would be more likely to take their prescriptions. Analyzing past research about the impact of rising co-payments on patient compliance, researchers suggest the average annual use among patients taking statins would climb from 7.8 months to 9.8 months under the new pricing plan.

The increased use of the medication among patients may result in fewer long-term health problems and lower overall costs to insurance providers, according to the study. - ScienceDaily
An interesting idea, in any case.

Cell Phone Bill Scams

Loudoun is a county with lots of children and ubiquitous use of technology. As such, we are especially vulnerable to scams and shady practices which prey on children and technology, even while the same technology helps parents and children stay in touch in emergencies.

I strongly urge readers to surf over to Loudoun Force and read their discussion of the latest questionable cell phone bill practice.
As soon as I got my child a cell phone, I noticed these two itemized charges, under the “Downloads and Premium Content” section:

257 Subscription Surfpin Alerts $9.99
258 Subscription Surfpin Alerts $9.99

I spoke with a rep from the cell company, who indicated that I needed to turn off web access to make these go away. I immediately did. However, recently I noticed the charges where still there.

I called the cell company again, a bit incensed this time. I found that Surfpin had apparently underhandedly signed my kids up for some monthly subscription service. Something my child had no idea he did. - Loudoun Force
In our world of prevalent and inherent connectivity and technology, it is ever more important to pay close attention to our bills and the companies with which we do business.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing our Attorney General or the SCC could look into?

Del. Rust's Bill To Ratify Chairman York's Authority

Del. Tom Rust (R-86th) is championing legislation in Richmond which would guarantee the authority of Loudoun's County Chairman. This bill was introduced in reaction to the actions of the previous Board of Supervisors, which removed much of the authority from the Chair at the start of the previous session and gave that authority to a Vice-Chair of the majority's choosing.
York asked Rust to propose the bill to prevent a repeat of 2004, when the board, in usurping his authority, essentially ignored the wishes of the voters who elected him, he said.

“I kind of suspected that they would try something, but I didn’t think it would be as draconian as what they did,” York said of the former board, which voted to transfer his agenda-setting power to then-Supervisor Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac). “For that and other things, they paid the political price for it this past election,” York said, referring to the four board members who were ousted in November. - LoudounExtra
Given the change in the affiliation of the majority on the Board, this bill would preempt any similar usurpation of authority in the future, without the consent of the Chair themselves.
While in committee, Rust’s bill was amended to say that the chairman’s powers could be modified by only a unanimous board vote, meaning York, and his successors, would have to consent. - LoudounExtra
It is interesting that Del. Rust's legislation is limited to Loudoun County's Board of Supervisors, in spite of the fact that there are four counties (Loudoun, Prince William, Fairfax, Frederick) with similar systems, in which the Board Chairman is elected at-large from the entire County. It would seem more logical to structure the bill to apply to all these counties than limit it to Loudoun. This point is especially valid considering that Del. Rust also represents parts of Fairfax county.

Del. Rust's reasoning for why he limited it to Loudoun, "Loudoun is the only one who asked for it," may demonstrate short-sightedness given the political controversies already stirred up by Chairmen in Fairfax and Prince William. If Board majorities in Fairfax and Prince William choose to act to rein in their at-large elected Chairmen, bills similar to Rust's will be back in Richmond, only specifying these two localities. Virginia would be better served by a bill covering all at-large elected Chairmen, rather than one limited to Loudoun.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Public Officials and Home Privacy


Attention all public officials: You are being recorded.

From Macaca to "get over it kid, and go to school!" public officials and their families have been rudely awakened to the YouTube revolution. Whether you like it or not, the public knowledge of your semi-public comments is here to stay.
It started with Thursday's snowfall, estimated at about three inches near Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke. On his lunch break, Lake Braddock senior Devraj "Dave" S. Kori, 17, used a listed home phone number to call Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for the county system, to ask why he had not closed the schools. Kori left his name and phone number and got a message later in the day from Tistadt's wife.

"How dare you call us at home! If you have a problem with going to school, you do not call somebody's house and complain about it," Candy Tistadt's minute-long message began. At one point, she uttered the phrase "snotty-nosed little brats," and near the end, she said, "Get over it, kid, and go to school!"

Not so long ago, that might have been the end of it -- a few choice words by an agitated administrator (or spouse). But with the frenetic pace of students' online networking, it's harder for grown-ups to have the last word. - The Washington Post
The pandora's box was opened by the Republican Congress in 1998, when the Lewinsky scandal centered on questionably taped phone conversations and uncleaned dresses. The semi-private-as-public standards of that moment in time were indelibly seared into the heads of a generation just beginning to come to terms with its role in society. The validation of this practice came in the 2006 Senate campaign of George Allen, when a remark about a member of that generation, then taping the Senator, set off a firestorm that may have cost him re-election. Now, the practice of retaining and distributing the recorded comments of officials and their families is part of the mainstream, whether the folks in charge realize it or not.

This presents our officials and leaders with two options. First, they can accept and understand this new reality, and choose to lead not only with their decisions, but also with their words and deeds. Leadership by example is the most powerful form of leadership. The future majority expects our elected leaders to be consistent in their private and public lives.

Alternatively, our officials and leaders can whine and complain. they can say it is not "fair" for "kids these days" to call them at home, or expect prompt responses to inquiries. But in doing so, these leaders and officials will only prove themselves irrelevant, and lose both the support and respect of the generation who will decide whether to take away their Social Security. Our children live in a time of ubiquitous connection to their community, leading to rapid and immediate responsiveness to ideas and inquiries. If that expectation is not going to be met by our leaders and officials, then those leaders and officials need to make that exception clear. It is the assumption of privacy and unconnectedness which is no longer valid, not the expectation.

Here is a general rule, do not leave a recorded message when you are angry.

Here is another rule, always assume you are saying something publicly, unless you have expressed assurances that it is private.

Here is a final rule, if you want things to be kept private or would rather be left a lone for a little while, say so. This is a generation used to "afk" and away messages on IM. It's also a generation that has never known a time when you couldn't screen your calls. So, screen your calls and ask for privacy when you want it.

Perhaps we will even get to the point where "I wanted to spend some time with my family" actually means the official wanted to spend time with their family. One can dream.

Mayor Umstattd Runs for Reelection

Leesburg Mayor Kristin Umstattd is running for re-election.
Umstattd said she decided to run again because she thinks it is "important to have someone on council who is a strong voice for the taxpayers in the town and for citizens and neighbors that often need an advocate on the council."
If re-elected, Umstattd said she would also like to continue to hold down real estate taxes for residential property owners, work to complete the transportation network in town and complete town storm drainage projects. Umstattd pointed out the completion of Battlefield Parkway and the Sycolin flyover and storm drainage problems on Wage Drive and Fort Evans Road as priorities. - Leesburg Today
(Photo from Leesburg Today)
Mayor Umstattd has been on the council since 1992, and during those sixteen years, has been focused on the unglamorous, but critical aspects of governing. This governing style has allowed the Town to weather lawsuits and conflicts, while maintaining our quality of life. Her agenda for her next term, with its focus on completing the transportation work started by the Town in the past few years and improving other critical infrastructure, is the kind of practical local focus which has served so well for the past six years.

The Mayor's focus on what is best for Leesburg has meant standing with people like Frank Wolf, when that is best for the Town, in spite of the political implications.
One of her proudest accomplishments as mayor, she said, has been working with Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA-10) to get funding for construction of Battlefield Parkway between Kincaid Boulevard and Rt. 7, as well as working with representatives from the Virginia Department of Transportation "to ensure they were fully supportive." - Leesburg Today
While the Mayor is a Democrat, she is Mayor first and always puts Leesburg first. Her opponent this year, David Tevis, appears to be more against things than for Leesburg. The Mayor (along with candidates like David Butler) is running for Leesburg (supporting transportation improvements, expansion of the tax base, infrastructure maintenance, etc.), while many candidates are running against the success the Town has had in the past six years. If opponents are advocating a change in leadership, they must explain how they will fulfill the responsibility of governing well and providing what the Town requires (roads, services etc.) in a time of declining budgets and growing needs. Without an answer to that question, the voters of Leesburg are better off re-electing and reinforcing the leadership which has served us so well.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Joe May's Declining Influence

One of the arguments for retaining Joe May in the House of Delegates was his seniority in the House Republican Majority. In theory, a more senior Delegate gives Loudoun's issues and concerns more weight in Richmond. That argument, however, has been proven at least partially false by recent developments.
Dels. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), R. Steven Landes (R-Weyers Cave) and Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) - The three Republican delegates on the Appropriations Committee were passed over as budget conferees, even though they have more seniority than Del. Clarke Hogan (R-Charlotte), who was selected. - The Washington Post
In the arcana of the Assembly, this means that Del. May will not be in the final group of legislators to decide what will and will not be in the ultimate state Budget. That may have significant import for issues critical to Loudoun, like education funding, power lines and transportation. In a time of strapped county budgets, every dollar from Richmond counts and Joe May's reduced influence could translate into larger budget deficits or reduced services for our neighbors.

Parents, Kids and Text Messaging

The Town of Leesburg is offering a training session to help parents understand how to use text messaging to contact their children in emergencies.
Leesburg IT Commission to Host Public Forum on Text/Alert Messaging Technology on January 29, 2008

Children's Safety Through Text/Alert Messaging Technology

The Information Technology Commission of the Town of Leesburg will hold a forum on the topic of Textual and Alert Messaging Technology for the benefit of the public on Tuesday, January 29th at the Ida Lee Park Recreational Center at 7 PM. The featured speaker will be Robert Jones. A short networking session will precede the forum starting at 6:30 PM.

In light of the of the Virginia Tech tragedy of last year, the Leesburg IT Commission decided to seek out speakers with expertise in the Textual and Alert Messaging field to provide the public with a better understanding of the technology, its use, and its possible future. Three speakers will be presenting at the Forum: Robert Jones, Director of Marketing, Rave Wireless, Inc; Ara Bagdasarian, co-founder and President of Omnilert, LLC; and Jill Stelfox, Chief Executive Officer, Defywire. An earlier news release provided background information on Mr. Jones. This news release will provide background information on Mr. Bagdasarian and his portion of the presentation.

Mr. Bagdasarian is the co-founder and President of Omnilert, LLC the leading mass notification communication provider for Higher Education in North America and will be presenting on the possible future of Text and Alert Messaging technology. Prior to Omnilert, Mr. Bagdasarian worked as national sales manager for Vcall, founded web(((RESONANCE))), worked in channel sales at technology distributor Ingram Micro, Inc., and founded XNETIX Internet Technology Group in Buffalo, NY in 1996. He also managed business development with the McBride's web services division.

Currently Mr. Bagdasarian is involved with Ominlert's "e2Campus" service. The e2Campus service was conceived in late 2003, when the company founders read a story about a female student who was horrifically raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dormitory in 1987. The article revealed one key factor in the incident was the fact that the tragedy may have been prevented if the student had been informed about the criminal activity on campus.

This sparked the idea that became the e2Campus service, "there must be a better way to communicate with the campus community”. The basic premise for the service being, “Since most students carry mobile phones, we can alert them via text messages". The founders ran this new idea by a local community college (Anne Arundel Community College) and they agreed to pilot the program. In the Fall of 2004, AACC launched e2Campus and became the first campus in North America to use a text mass notification system. Three years later over 300 colleges and universities (including Lehigh University) are using e2Campus in a mission to make their campuses safer through instant mass communications.

Information Technology Commission
Town of Leesburg, Virginia
25 West Market Street
P.O. Box 88
Leesburg, VA 20178
(703) 737-7003

Forum Contact: Commissioner David Kirsten
Given the criticality of communications in today's world, and the ubiquity of text messaging has the communications technology of choice among the under-25 population, it is important for parents, teachers and other community leaders to understand and use text messaging.

If you do not know how to text, please consider attending this important forum.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King Day in Leesburg

Happy Birthday Dr. King.
LoudounCounty Democratic Committee
Celebrates Martin Luther King's Birthday

Leesburg, Virginia -- The Loudoun County Democratic Committee will be joining families, friends and community organizations of Loudoun plus the Douglass Alumni Association, Loudoun NAACP, Bluemont Concert Series, and the Baha'I Community of Loudoun, the sponsors of the Martin Luther King Birthday 16th Annual March and celebration on Monday, January 21st, 2008.

LCDC member and former candidate for the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Broad Run District, Phyllis Randall will be this years keynote speaker. Phyllis authored the first resolution recognizing African American History Month in Loudoun, was the first African American to seek the office of Supervisor is Loudoun's 250 year history.

The celebration includes a march from the Old Loudoun Courthouse beginning at 10 AM to the Douglass Communiy Center, formerly the Douglass High School. After the march, refreshments will be offered at the center followed by a program of music and short messages.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Belief vs. Understanding

Participants in the faux debate of "science vs. religion" might be mistaken in the approach to the fundamental question at hand. Is it possible that we do not need everyone to believe in all well-established scientific theories as long as they understand them? Perhaps the entire frame to teaching evolution (for example) should allow students to refrain from belief in one side or the other, as long as they demonstrate understanding of the nature of the idea.

As an illustration, in the time of slavery and abolition, the fundamental causation and economic properties which underlie that peculiar institution were not really at issue. It was understood that chattel labor was inherently necessary for the southern plantation economy and class system. The fundamental operating processes were not at issue, it was the moral and social values implied by that system which were at issue.

Similarly, should it not be possible to reframe the teaching of something like evolution so that students can understand how and why it works without having to attach a moral or social value to that process? In political science, one can understand Marxism-Leninism without believing in it. In law enforcement, it helps to understand the mind and impulses of a criminal, but that does not excuse the criminal. In comparative religion itself, one can understand and explain the Buddhist concept of nirvana without believing in it. In all three cases, an understanding of the idea or process illuminates the greater debate and allows for a more complete experience of our world, without creating an obligation to believe or act in one manner or another on the person doing the understanding

The requirement for a functional citizen is an understanding of how the world works, not a value judgment that it should work that way. The fight for Americans to understand evolution can be a battle separate from, though related to, the fight for Americans to accept evolution.

And reframing the debate in this way may have many significant, long-term benefits. I would submit that if pollsters were to ask whether people understood evolution, rather than whether they accepted or believed it, the nature of the debate over the question itself would change. If headlines read that 80% of Americans understood how evolution is supposed to have brought us into being, our standing in comparison with other countries would be much different. There is already anecdotal survey evidence that evolution is understood among the creationist population, it is acceptance of human evolution which is the difficult barrier.

A change in how we approach this divisive question would also allow us to achieve the ends of wider acceptance of evolution. After all, with understanding comes acceptance. We can achieve a kind of herd immunity from irrational thought if we can spread the understanding of science, while - for now - ignoring the question of whether those who understand truly accept it. After all, without manifestation in irrational action, disbelief inflicts no harm on society. This is the essence of the separation of church and state, "believe what you want, but understand these are the rules."

Thus, it may be a good long-term plan to attack ignorance instead of belief in our current tilt with those who would deny evolution, because it creates a path for the knowledge of evolution to seep into uninformed corners: In order to know thy enemy, you must first understand their motivations and tactics. In order for them to know how to "defeat" evolution, they must first understand it.

And since it is supported by logic, upheld by observable evidence, and tested by experimentation, I will put my money on evolution in that battle, every time.