Thursday, July 31, 2008

Are You Different

Chris Bowers strikes again with a wonderfully insightful post today entitled "Different People Suck."
People who are different suck. Because Obama likes different stuff, you shouldn't like him. Even though I am a straight white dude from the suburbs who grew up Catholic in the predominantly Catholic northeast, I've been dealing with this shit since about the fifth grade. Even if you are demographically identical to the local plurality or majority, if you don't like the same stuff as everyone else, then you still suck. And while it is certainly not to the same level as what people face for demographic differences, it still goes for your interests in music, food, clothes, television and pretty much any cultural or consumer object you can name. Being different means you are bad, and should be scorned.

This attitude of scorning those who are different has been the primary dividing line in American politics for a long time. It is the basic conservative mantra, and it can be seen quite clearly in voting patterns. - OpenLeft
He gets at a very key insight in the post - a coalition of the non-majority is, in fact, a majority. The Democrats have been and continue to be a coalition of the non-majority. No one single subset of the Democratic party is a majority (or even a good plurality) of America. Even christian white male Democrats (like yours truly) are merely a small minority in the Democratic party (outnumbered by, for example, women).
This pattern isn't surprising in the least. Given that the conservative message is constantly "different people suck," it was pretty much inevitable that all of the different people, even if they are all different from each other, would eventually band together and turn against that message. Functionally, it turns our political discourse into a never-ending replay of what most people experienced since they first entered adolescence: the freaks versus the norms. - Chris Bowers
This has been my experience as well, and I am sure the experience of many of my friends. We're band geeks and nerds. We've only found strength in each other, and had to constantly fight for respect and recognition. Now, the tables are turning as the outcasts can band together to form a new majority, one that will keep America looking forward, rather than backwards. And that's a good thing.

So yeah, I am different, and damn proud of it. I'm a Band geek wannabe engineer Democrat. And I'm coming for your vote.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Story Of A School

If you get a chance, go read the latest post over at Our Loudoun Shools.
Northwood Middle School in Smyth County serves a very impoverished student population. Six times as many families live below the poverty line as in Loudoun County. Over half of the Middle School's 200 students receive free or reduced-price meals from school, and for many of them, those are the only good meals that they eat. Students frequently come to school on Monday morning and ask for two breakfast servings because they've had little more than soda and chips all weekend. Sports teams competing on the weekend are fed prior to games to ensure that they've eaten that day. - Our Loudoun Schools
Let's consider that for a minute. In the U.S.A. in the 21st century, there are kids who come to school on Monday morning hungry, looking forward to the meals their schools provide. It is easy to say that schools exist to train the next generation, but they do so much more than that. In communities like Saltville, they are the social safety net for the town's kids.

And there are people who would begrudge this school district its funding. There are people who would leave these kids to their own devices when it came to nutrition, even though it has been shown that nutrition and acheivement are linked. There are people who do not realize that Northwood's fight is our fight too.

It is because of places like Northwood Middle School that we fight, that we work the polls, that we work, every day, to make America stronger, together.

McCain's Money For Nothing

John McCain is out of touch with America, and no amount of grocery shopping can fix that. From birth control, to higher education costs to Iraq, he has come down on the side opposing what a majority of Americans know is the right direction for our country.

Smintheus at DailyKos helps illustrate how unlike our lives Sen. McCain's life is.
- DailyKos
Think about that for a minute. If you hadn't showed up for your job since April, you would have been fired. Sen. McCain has made more than the median income of the average American since April, without actually going to work.

Well, back to work for me, and the rest of us, I guess.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Marriage And The Census

What if you were legally married, but the Census Bureau said otherwise?
The U.S. Census Bureau, reacting to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and other mandates, plans to edit the 2010 census responses of same-sex couples who marry legally in California, Massachusetts or any other state. They will be reported as "unmarried partners," rather than married spouses, in census tabulations - a policy that will likely draw the ire of gay rights groups. - The Mercury News
This may not strike the chord it ought to with many, but consider this: Census data is used to determine things like school funding and school population projections in many areas. Shouldn't a married gay couple that is more likely to adopt a child (or make a child using fertility techniques) register when trying to figure out how many kids will be in our schools in five or ten years?

Affordable Housing in Leesburg

A local neighborhood and home builder are teaming up to offer affordable housing just blocks from downtown Leesburg.
Konkel serves as property manager for Leesburg Mobile Park and several months ago reached out to Ken Semler, president of Willow Pond Homes, which produces manufactured homes. Semler is now at work bringing his homes to the mobile park and already has several lots displaying Willow Pond's product.

The two have teamed up to launch the Hometown Heroes Affordable Home Program, which reaches out to community members like police officers, firefighters, nurses and teachers, encouraging them to become homeowners in desirable downtown Leesburg. Semler describes the program as "an affordable housing option for those who otherwise couldn't afford a home." - Leesburg Today
Konkel and Semler should be commended for reaching out to those working in the public sector and offering them a good, local option for a home. That being said, it would be wonderful if similar programs were offered for people working low-wage jobs in Leesburg in the private sector.

Of course, there is the negative connotation that comes with the idea of a "mobile home." I suspect that this connotation creates a damper on demand for quality, reasonably-priced homes among some residents who might otherwise buy rather than rent. It would be very interesting to understand whether this kind of attitude is, in fact, prevalent and widespread and creating a gap in the market between expectations and realities among buyers.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Your Brain On Hope

Here's one of the funniest ads I've seen this cycle.

(With all credit to MyDD.)

The IMF Increases TB

I have always been something of a fan of the IMF. I like the idea of an international organization which helps developing countries prevent the collapse of their economies while creating incentives to keep their fiscal house in order. It seems to me that we all benefit from well-run countries with functioning economies.

One of the critiques of the IMF, however, has been that the "austerity measures" which often come with IMF loans are disproportionately harmful to the citizens of the countries in question. Evidence for this has been anecdotal, until recently.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans were associated with a 16.6% rise in death rates from tuberculosis (TB) in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern European countries between 1992 and 2002, finds a study in PLoS Medicine.
Between 1992 and 2002, most of the countries studied in this analysis received IMF loans for the first time. As Stuckler and colleagues note, "According to the IMF, the objective of these programs is to achieve macroeconomic stability and economic growth...", yet a recent report from the Center for Global Development has suggested that countries receiving IMF loans may constrain spending on health and social services. For example, countries receiving IMF loans might need to reduce social spending in order to meet the targets set as a condition of the loan, and do so by placing caps on public wage bills or by privatizing healthcare services. However, previously it has not been clear whether IMF loans are actually linked to any changes in measurable health outcomes. - ScienceDaily
Fiscal restraint and economic conservatism in the interest of getting a nation's financial house back in order is one thing, but spreading TB is something else entirely. I believe that the IMF still has an important role to play to prevent economic collapse and dislocation in nations on the verge of sovereign bankruptcy, but this study makes it clear that the IMF will have to coordinate its lending efforts with efforts by its sister organization, the World Bank, to mitigate the worst of the social costs towards which its lending requirements may tend.

The IMF and World Bank should together launch a new initiative to link IMF loans directly with World Bank programs to ensure the preservation and efficacy of healthcare and other critical safety net services in the country at risk. And this should become a standard practice for all future IMF interventions.

Sen. Obama's Tax Plan Impact

In more difficult economic times, everyone gets up in arms about taxes (whether they should or not). So it is useful to examine the relative impacts of the tax plans being proposed by Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain. The Washington Post provides this handy graphic illustrating the difference.

As you can see clearly, Sen. Obama's plan is progressive and balanced, with reasonable cuts for the middle class, help for the more than 60% of taxpayers whose incomes have stagnated relative to inflation and productivity increases in the past ten years. Those who have seen their annual incomes go up the most, at the very, very top of the income scale, will see their taxes increase. However, it must be noted that during the Bush Administration, these taxpayers incomes have gone up much higher than Sen. Obama's tax reform will ask them to pay back for that privilege.

(With a tip-o-the-hat to The Richmond Democrat.)

Sam Rasoul Still Rolling

Virginia's Congressional races are getting a lot of attention of late. Tom Periello has become a darling of the blogosphere for his fight against the backwards Virgil Goode, and Judy Feder has moved her race against Frank Wolf out of "safe Republican" territory. Down in Hampton Roads, Glenn Nye has been gaining attention in his challenge to Karl Rove and George Bush's favorite Virginian, Thelma Drake. And everyone expects the Democrats to pick up the open seat in VA-11 that Tom Davis is leaving.

Meanwhile, down in the 6th District, Sam Rasoul has been working hard, under the radar, to make a difference for his neighbors. Sam is running against Bob Goodlatte, who has held the seat since 1993. This is a reliably Republican district, but Sam Rasoul is the kind of Democrat who has a chance to change its representation. He's a young businessman who has made it a point to knock as many doors as he can (shades of Gary Trauner), and show up at as many events as he can in order to actually meet as many voters as he can and talk to them.

This is the kind of hard work and real voter outreach that makes a difference and changes minds in the long-haul. With his campaign against Bob Goodlatte, Sam is more than fighting for VA-06 in 2008, he's fighting for the Democratic Party in VA-06 in the long-haul. His campaign, for example, has a goal to knock 100,000 doors in a district with fewer than a million voters. That kind of Democratic outreach can make a huge difference in Democratic turnout in November, not to mention 2009 and beyond.

Sam has detailed opinions and plans on a wide range of issues. He is fighting against income inequality, one of the scourges of Virginia's economy. And he has made the case for universal healthcare from a businessman's perspective. These issues resonate in the Valley, and in a year like 2008, with economic insecurity at the top of so many people's minds, Sam's clear thinking on these issues may help him over the top.

There has been very little fanfare for Sam's campaign in the major media, possibly because there has been little to no polling of the race. That does not mean it is not an interesting race to watch. The level of energy and effort being put forth by this unregarded campaign should be commended and considered. In VA-06, Sam Rasoul is still rolling.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Thought To Ponder

"It's one thing to be distrustful of government. It's another thing to hate government so much that you don't run it well."
- Harrisonburg attorney A. Gene Hart Jr., one of the first crop of candidates for House of Delegates in 2009 [Daily News Record, 7/23/08]

See Where Development Is Going

The Piedmont Environmental Council has introduced a fantastic new online tool which shows where development is going in Loudoun:

loudoun development map
(The PEC's site)

The site offers an interactive map of the area, and details all the planned and approved developments coming to Loudoun. You can click on a development to see its status, or run a search to discover that there are no fewer than 126 residential developments already approved in the pipeline. It should be noted that the current Board of Supervisors bears the burden of dealing with these approved developments, which were largely put in place by the previous Board of Supervisors. This is where the oft-repeated "38,000 new homes yet to be built" number comes from. The number actually on the way may vary (other estimates put it at over 41,000), but we cannot deny the impact tens of thousands of new homes will have on our community.

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

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gov. Warner Supports Net Neturality

Just in case you need another reason to vote for Mark Warner in November, he supports Net Neutrality.

Diverse Schools, Tolerant Kids

It turns out that kids who attend diverse primary schools tend to get along better with people of different backgrounds.
For the first time, children as young as 5 have been shown to understand issues regarding integration and separation. The research confirms that the ethnic composition of primary schools has a direct impact on children's attitudes towards those in other ethnic groups and on their ability to get on with their peers.
Highlighting the challenges faced by immigrant children, the study also showed that those attending schools characterised by higher ethnic diversity experienced fewer peer problems and less prejudice than those attending schools that are more homogeneous. - ScienceDaily
For those who question the value of diversity, there it is, in black and white. Kids who go to more diverse schools are more tolerant and accepting of people with different backgrounds. We as a community should be working to break down the prejudices and assumptions which divide us. Fear of our neighbors and distrust of the differences between us leads to more problems and fewer solutions. We're all part of this County, together, and our kids may know that better than ourselves.

And you know what else? Kids in diverse schools also have higher self-esteem.
"We found that, when the proportion of ethnic minority children in a school is at least 20%, both ethnic minority children and majority children tended to have higher self esteem, children had more friendships with children from other ethnic groups, and there were fewer problems with peer relationships such as bullying". - ScienceDaily
This is something to keep in mind as we consider the future of education and schools in Loudoun County. For more well-adjusted kids, a diversity in their school community is important. For a more integrated County, we need diversity in our schools.

Is Sterling a Suburban Slum?

The Board of Supervisors has made a point of reaching out to eastern Loudoun this year. A wide range of resident concerns, from safety to zoning to foreclosures and overcrowding have been perceived there as overlooked and underserved over the past five years or so. The latest effort to listen to residents was this week in Sterling Park.
The board held the special meeting to present a report on findings from its Potomac/Sterling outreach efforts and to hear from residents.

There, Castellano and others pleaded with the supervisors to give Sterling the money and attention it needs to help solve problems like the high crime rate, spike in foreclosures and influx of immigrants to the area. - The Loudoun Times-Mirror
Many residents of Sterling Park believe that the root cause of their problems is immigration, and the changes in resident population in Sterling Park that have occurred in the past decade or so.
"Community change" was also listed as a key concern. In recent years, the community has become "more economically and ethnically diverse," the report stated. "While many appreciate this diversity, there are also many who believe these newcomers are responsible for the loss in their quality of life." - LoudounExtra
But the migration of new residents into Sterling Park is, itself, a symptom of a different problem, one touched on but not truly appreciated by some of the residents at the forums the Board is holding. The issue is not migration, but housing. Low-income housing is at a premium in Loudoun, and home values (and thus, the cost of housing) are lower in Sterling Park than elsewhere in the County. This means that people with lower incomes are attracted to the area, and because even less-expensive homes in Sterling Park are often too expensive for one family, often turn single-family homes into multi-family residences.
"Sterling Park is starting to turn into a slum," said Donald Stephens. "We can't take everybody on the bottom end of the scale in Loudoun County. It'll turn into a ghetto. Some of the other districts will have to share some of the low-end housing." - The Loudoun Times-Mirror
The issue of low-income housing is real and growing in Loudoun as foreclosures and economic downturns hit our community hard. Furthermore, the problems are exacerbated by high gas prices. This begins to raise the question of whether Sterling Park will turn into a suburban slum. The Atlantic wrote an important story on the decline of suburban neighborhoods in some areas earlier this year.
The decline of places like Windy Ridge and Franklin Reserve is usually attributed to the subprime-mortgage crisis, with its wave of foreclosures. And the crisis has indeed catalyzed or intensified social problems in many communities. But the story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the crisis, and will not end with it. A structural change is under way in the housing market—a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes. And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound.
For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay. - The Atlantic
The thesis now is that people want "walkable communities" in which they can live, work and shop without having to go too far. This is a good trend, as it helps our environment (less driving) and our communities (more social interaction in neighborhoods). We can see the success of communities based on the idea of walkability with the popularity of Lansdowne, here in Loudoun, whose towncenter is always busy and provides a patina of urban life in the capital of suburban Virginia.

The demand for more walkable communities means that less walkable and integrated communities suffer, however. And that brings us back to the struggles of Sterling Park.
If gasoline and heating costs continue to rise, conventional suburban living may not be much of a bargain in the future. And as more Americans, particularly affluent Americans, move into urban communities, families may find that some of the suburbs’ other big advantages—better schools and safer communities—have eroded. Schooling and safety are likely to improve in urban areas, as those areas continue to gentrify; they may worsen in many suburbs if the tax base—often highly dependent on house values and new development—deteriorates. Many of the fringe counties in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, for instance, are projecting big budget deficits in 2008. Only Washington itself is expecting a large surplus. Fifteen years ago, this budget situation was reversed.
As the residents of inner-city neighborhoods did before them, suburban homeowners will surely try to prevent the division of neighborhood houses into rental units, which would herald the arrival of the poor. And many will likely succeed, for a time. But eventually, the owners of these fringe houses will have to sell to someone, and they’re not likely to find many buyers; offers from would-be landlords will start to look better, and neighborhood restrictions will relax. Stopping a fundamental market shift by legislation or regulation is generally impossible. - The Atlantic
This is the exact problem faced by eastern Loudoun. The community of Sterling Park is perceived as less desirable by new home buyers who could afford something different or better, leaving much of its real estate subject to the risks of subprime mortgages. When the housing market collapsed, Sterling Park was hit especially hard by foreclosures. Many of the houses there are beginning the transition to de facto apartments, and the existing residents are fighting that change.

It is incidental that the people who used subprime lending and/or could only afford to rent were also often migrants. In another era they would have been Irish or Italian. The core cause and issue is housing. How desirable is it, and how affordable is it?

Until we solve and address the need for reasonable low-income housing and more integrated, walkable communities, we will continue to go back and forth arguing over symptoms, while the cause is unrecognized and unsolved.

Sen. Obama's Perfect Metaphor

Given the past week, this video of Sen. Obama may be a metaphor for his campaign right now.

And as for Obama's popularity among those serving in our military, as demonstrated in the video. Well, they tend to give more money to Obama's campaign than Sen. McCain.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Where Is Wolf On Iraq?

There has been a lot of change in positions on Iraq in the past few weeks. Even the President now accepts the concept of a "time horizon" in Iraq. Noticeably silent in this debate is that great champion of ceremony and study, Frank Wolf.

For months in 2006 (during his last challenge by Judy), Frank Wolf positioned himself as an expert on the Middle East and a champion of a solution there through the Iraq Study Group. Predictably, that path to a solution was cut off by Republican obstructionism. In 2008 reality has caught up with his rhetoric, and all parties agree it's time to plan an exit for America. And remarkably Frank Wolf has been silent and invisible on the issue on which he staked such a claim to leadership in 2006.

The voters of the 10th District deserve to know where Frank Wolf stands on the issue of withdrawal from Iraq today, in 2008. Does he stand with the American people who overwhelmingly want a withdrawal timeline in line with the vision of leaders like Sen. Obama and Judy Feder, or does he want an unending occupation, like Sen. McCain?

Unfortunately, Congressman Wolf's office is refusing to take phone calls on these questions, and will only accept faxed inquiries. So send your Congressman a fax at 202-225-0437, and ask him whether he supports a timeline for withdrawal by 2010, or whether he stands with Sen. McCain, and an Iraq commitment without close?

A Poisonous Parting Shot

In a big-ole screw you to the American worker, The Executive is trying to ram through new workplace toxins rules that will make it much harder to issue and enforce new regulations on exposure to chemicals in the workplace.
Political appointees at the Department of Labor are moving with unusual speed to push through in the final months of the Bush administration a rule making it tougher to regulate workers' on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins.
The text of the proposed rule has not been made public, but according to sources briefed on the change and to an early draft obtained by The Washington Post, it would call for reexamining the methods used to measure risks posed by workplace exposure to toxins. The change would address long-standing complaints from businesses that the government overestimates the risk posed by job exposure to chemicals.

The rule would also require the agency to take an extra step before setting new limits on chemicals in the workplace by allowing an additional round of challenges to agency risk assessments. - The Washington Post
It is that "extra step" that is key to this measure. An additional round of challenges means and additional span of time when the rule is not in effect, and a higher bar for workforce health and safety advocates to jump.

But don't take my word for that.
David Michaels, an epidemiologist and workplace safety professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health, said the rule would add another barrier to creating safety standards, in the name of improving them.

"This is a guarantee to keep any more worker safety regulation from ever coming out of OSHA," Michaels said. "This is being done in secrecy, to be sprung before President Bush leaves office, to cripple the next administration." - The Washington Post
So, on the way out the door, the Bush Administration wants to make it easier to literally poison the American worker.

As ever, it will take a Democrat to clean up this mess.

Negotiating With Evil

Has anyone else noticed that The Executive is now negotiating with both remaining members of the Axis of Evil?

Aren't you not supposed to negotiate with evil?

And doesn't this validate the position Sen. Obama has taken since he started his campaign?

So, the prime minister of Iraq agress with Sen. Obama's plan to get out of Iraq, and the Bush Administration's actions agree with Sen. Obama's positions on negotiations with N. Korea and Iran.

Hmmm... Interesting.

Decentralized Power Grid

After Katrina, a researcher did some examining of how decentralized microgrids could have helped restore communications services faster. That connection to the outside world would have meant a lot less trauma and crisis for a lot more people.
"There has been surprisingly little research on disaster damage and restoration of telecommunications systems," says Kwasinski. "My survey of the Gulf coast after Katrina showed how devastating a single downed line or incapacitated substation can be. The answer is diverse power input. You integrate different types of local power sources with diverse energy delivery infrastructures through multiple-input converter modules."

Since the communications industry power standard is direct current (DC) local networks, Kwasinski is exploring DC generation systems using a microgrid-based telecom power plant with a modular distributed architecture. Energy would come from a mixture of renewable energy sources, microturbines, fuel cells, and interconnection to the existing utility grid. Converters in secondary distribution frames would isolate short circuit currents. Since the utility grid is a secondary source, the microgrid would be protected against the grid's surges and failures.

The savings would be generous. Microgrids could "sell" excess power to the utility grid. Costs decrease because of reduced energy storage, less down time, equipment operating at maximum efficiency, lower hardware expense, and optimal power input control based on energy costs. - ScienceDaily
Given the growing power stability problems in our area, and across America, I believe a decentralization of the grid and a diversity of input sources is the key to future sustainability of power generation and transmission in America. Like the telecom system, the power grid is going to have to become more modular and flexible.

Sen. Holtzman-Vogel's Appearance Of Corruption

Something a little disturbing happened during the Special session of the Assembly last month. Sen. Jill Holtzman-Vogel introduced a bill (SB6016) to impact the outcome of a court case to the advantage of one of her most important supporters, who happened to be a developer.

Lake Holiday News has been on top of this story.
Vogel chose to interfere in an active court case. Her interference was prompted by the request of 1 side, not all sides, and was accompanied by strong and repeated requests by plaintiffs that she abandon her ill-advised plan. Those facts don’t square at all with her own statement that she is not trying to “mess up” the plaintiffs’ position in an active case. That is exactly what her legislation is all about: messing up 1 side for the benefit of the other, which just happens to be that of a big developer. - Lake Holiday News
I do everyone a disservice to try to get into the nasty details myself considering the excellent coverage and level of detail available on Lake Holiday News, so I encourage people to go read the full story there.

That being said, it is undeniably inappropriate for a state Senator to involve herself in an active lawsuit by pushing legislation specifically aimed to change the outcome of that lawsuit. It goes beyond an appearance of corruption to de facto corruption itself when you consider the personal relationships that lead to the legislation. (See, I told you to go read the original post!)

We in Loudoun would do well to pay attention to both the lawsuit and the legislation. The bill in question appears to shift strength from individual property owners to HOAs, and especially HOAs that are still under the control of the original developer by introducing technical changes to how HOAs charters can be challenged as developments are built out in "phases." Considering the collapse of the housing bubble, most developments in Loudoun will have unfinished "phases" for years, and it seems that this legislation ensure that unfinished phases will give the developer explicit and exclusive judicial remedies against legal action on the part of homeowners going foward.

Considering past developer/owner conflicts in Lansdowne, this bill ensures that the only property rights that matter are large property owners' rights. If you do not own an entire develpoment, but instead only own - say - a house in an "unfinished" development, then your voice should be muted and your rights to redress in our Courts should be reduced.

It can only be hoped that the voters remember this action on behalf of a special interest when Sen. Vogel is up for re-election.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Subtle Gender Bias

There has been a lot of good commentary in the past week about the seen and unseen struggles that women in America face every day. Once again, some of the best comes from the United States of Jamerica. In a post entitled "Nickeled and Dimed," the author explains and illustrates the small, subtle, and often invisible actions and inactions that add up to gender bias in some of the most progressive vocations in America.

The entire post is worth reading and considering, but here's a taste.
In less positive, but related news, at work the other week I was reporting on the status of my attempts to get two fiddly little stamps to stamp in alignment using a machine crafted mainly for this purpose. I’d been successful about 1 in every 4 tries in doing so. I was explaining the problems I’d been having with the machine, and was met with the question “Yeah, but the machine works, right?”

Well, yes and no. The real problem is that there are so many different, little, fiddly ways that something can go wrong with what I’m trying to do that it becomes far rarer for me to actually succeed, navigate all the potential hurdles, than to fail. - The United States of Jamerica
The author goes on to draw a parallel to all the "little, fiddly ways" that gender bias creeps into our days, without our even noticing. I suspect I sometimes suffer from "Sudden Male Deafness Syndrome" for example.
Namely, you suggest an idea in a group, which is ignored. Later, some (male) colleague suggests the same idea, which is discussed thoroughly and perhaps eventually implemented. Who gets credit for such an idea? I’ll let you guess. - The United States of Jamerica
I have seen this happen in my professional career, without realizing it was happening.

These kinds of biases and experiences are critically important to understand, and respect, when looking across the Democratic coalition. It is because women's voices have been minimized historically that many people became angry at some of the things said about Sen. Clinton during the primary campaign. And it is because of Sen. Clinton's lifetime fighting through and rising above such things that she served as such an inspiration for millions.

It is critically important that we in the reality-based community remember that to understand a problem is not to condone it, and to fight against a historic wrong is not to win, but only to continuously improve.

Iraq is an Occupation [updated]

And in any case, it's a bit creepy that a general insists that he knows better what US troops in Iraq should be doing than the Iraqi government. That makes it seem like the US presence in Iraq is an .... occupation. - Kos
The Iraqis don't want us there anymore. The Iraqi government doesn't want us there anymore. Our allies in the region don't want us there anymore, and the American people don't want us there anymore.

Yep, let's stay for 100 years.

[update] VoteVets gets the last word.

Off-Leash at Ida Lee

A proposal to allow off-leash hours for dogs in parts of Ida Lee has been revived. What a great idea.
The two requested that town staff and council members consider instituting off leash dog hours for a six-month trial run from dusk to 9 a.m. on the northern end of Ida Lee Park. Acting Co-Director of Parks and Recreation Bill Ference said recently that he is also looking at the possibility of evening off leash hours in two potential sites at the park, on the King Street side as well as a side near Old Waterford Road. Both sites would be about seven acres, he said.

Ference acknowledges that town staff looked at the option of off leash dog hours two years ago but decided that a formal dog park was the better solution. - Leesburg Today
In an era when people complain about being disconnected from their neighbors, there are few things as connecting as dogs. Having an off-leash play area for dogs at Ida Lee would get neighbors to meet neighbors and create one more nexus of social interconnection in the fabric that is Leesburg.

The Council should make this happen. Many kudos to Gigi and Sally for reviving the idea and pushing it forward.

No Houses at Crosstrail?

The saga of Crosstrail continues, but changes in who is serving on the Board of Supervisors means changes in the fate of the land south of Leesburg.
Following a closed session June 3, supervisors approved a resolution to initiate a zoning map amendment for the property that would permit industrial and office development, but prevent residential development. The property is located between the Dulles Greenway and Leesburg Executive Airport and is currently zoned AR-20, permitting low-density residential development. - Leesburg Today
The process to implement this policy continued this week as the Planning Commission voted - unanimously - to forward the "upzoning" (i.e., zoning up to commercial instead of mixed-use) application to the Board of Supervisors with a recommendation that it be approved.

There is still a long way to go before the issue of homes being built next to the Leesburg Executive Airport is fully resolved, but this is an important about-face in County policy that is a direct result of the election of people like Kelly Burk to the Board of Supervisors.
"We had no idea that the board was contemplating [this change]," he [Ed Gorski, PEC] said. "I think they should be applauded for taking the initiative to do that." - Leesburg Today
Of course, the land is still subject to a lawsuit and annexation by Leeburg. But both the Town and the County are now opposing houses on that land, so it seems likely that no new homes will be built there.

The remaining wild card is the lawsuit that the Peterson Companies is pursuing against the County's original zoning. If that lawsuit succeeds, we may be back to square one, regardless of the express wishes of the voters, the County and the Town of Leesburg.
The previous board of supervisors voted 8-1 to deny the proposal last July and Peterson Companies filed a lawsuit one month later, alleging that the previous board's 2003 vote to downzone the property to low-density residential uses was inconsistent with the long-established planning policies supporting commercial development in the area. The lawsuit seeks to have the court declare the Joint Land Management Area-20 zoning as unreasonable and illegal, and to declare that the uses proposed in the developer's rezoning application represented a reasonable use and development of the property. - Leesburg Today

Monday, July 21, 2008

Make Sure You're Registered

This year, with the projected massive influx of new voters and attendant complexities it is critical to make sure that you're registered to vote in advance of the election. In Loudoun, there is still time to validate your registration, and there are multiple ways to do it.
You can either:

1. Call the Loudoun County Voter Registration Office at 703 777-0380.


2. Access the State Board of Elections through

on the left is a drop down menu called Most Popular Pages select "voting"
on the left, under "Related links" select "State Board of Elections"
on the left, under the gray box, select the big, red check mark in a box that says "Check voter registration status."


3. Go directly to the State Board of Elections voter registration website.
This is very important, because these days so many of us are moving in between elections.
Did You Know?

If you have moved since the last time you voted, you need to update your address to remain eligible to vote this November. Check your current registration status online and update your address if it is not current!

If you need to update your name and/or address, you must do it no later than Monday, October 6, 2008. You can submit your notice of name and/or address change either by mail to: 801 Sycolin Road, SE, Suite 102, Leesburg, VA 20175-5686, or by fax to: 703-777-0622.

In either case, the notice must include your signature to be valid. Notice cannot be made by telephone or by e-mail.

After your change is processed, you will be mailed a new Voter Information Card. If a new card does not arrive within a few weeks, please call us at 703-777-0380 to confirm your change was received. -
I just checked my registration, and it was there and valid. So double check yours today.

Pictures of Polls

Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

(With a tip-o-the-hat to

New Homes, New Students

During the budget debates this year, the growth in the need for schools was a major point of contention. Our Loudoun Schools now presents the mechanics behind the schools estimates.
If I understand this correctly, according to the Approved Residential Projects list, there were 41,712 units in approved or by-right developments which have yet to be permitted in Loudoun County as of January 1, 2008. So without further approvals that's another 41,712 homes on the way (more than that actually, because it only lists developments of 20 or more homes, but let's stick with what we know).

Housing Type# UnitsSGF# Students
Single Family11,1610.839,264

That's a total of 26,803 kids who have yet to arrive (to provide a sense of scale, one year ago our student population was about 54,000). So how many new schools does that call for?

School Type% of Students# StudentsSchool Capacity# Schools

So that's a total of 24 new schools. Most of them will be south of the Greenway (Rt. 267) or West of Rt. 15. Again for scale, we currently have 75 schools, most of them with smaller capacity than the models listed here. - Our Loudoun Schools
When people complain about the cost of education in Loudoun, and the revenue the County needs to support educating our kids, it may be interesting to ask them whether they were complaining when the previous, pro-development Board made the decisions that put the County in a position to be absorbing 41,000 new homes in the next decade.

Suspicious Diebold Election Patch

In another example of the fact that reality is always weirder than fiction, a top cyber-security advisor to the McCain campaign suspects that the CEO of Deibold attempted to influence the outcome of critical elections in Georgia in 2002 by applying a patch to the Diebold machines in critical counties.
Stephen Spoonamore is the founder and until recently the CEO of Cybrinth LLC, an information technology policy and security firm that serves Fortune 100 companies. At a little noticed press conference in Columbus, Ohio Thursday, he discussed his investigation of a computer patch that was applied to Diebold Election Systems voting machines in Georgia right before that state's November 2002 election.
The first red flag went up when the computer patch was installed in person by Diebold CEO Bob Urosevich, who flew in from Texas and applied it in just two counties, DeKalb and Fulton, both Democratic strongholds. The source states that Cox was not privy to these changes until after the election and that she became particularly concerned over the patch being installed in just those two counties.

The whistleblower said another flag went up when it became apparent that the patch installed by Urosevich had failed to fix a problem with the computer clock, which employees from Diebold and the Georgia Secretary of State’s office had been told the patch was designed specifically to address. - The Raw Story
This story exploded onto the blogosphere Friday.

We remember the 2002 elections in Georgia as a shock to the system, as multiple-amputee war hero Max Cleland was (theoretically?) defeated by now Sen. Saxby Chambliss by being cast as soft on terrorism. Now, doubt is raised that the Republicans would have done so well had there not been some sneaky software shenanigans in the election machinery there. The article goes on to talk about potential expansion of this tampering in Ohio in 2004. The patch in question included, for example, two full copies of the voting software, and the question is asked, why would a patch need two full copies of the entire operating code? My company does software for a living, and our patches never include two copies of the entire program being fixed.

Viewed in a wider, and admittedly tin-foil-hat perspective, it is now possible that the Republicans did not actually win the Presidency in 2000 and did not achieve the level of Congressional dominance they assumed in 2002 and perhaps were in a position to tweak the results in 2004. We should not go down the road of conspiracy theories, but America should get a full investigation and accounting into these allegations to prevent further uninformed speculation and suspicion that our elected leaders were not elected after all.

Who Holds The Gun?

So this image is a little overwraught, and "trenchant" in the words of a colleague, but it does distill a certain truth from centuries of political theory.

“It’s akin to negotiating with someone who has put a gun on the table in front of you,” Derek Hunter, federal affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform, said, describing the administration’s effort to oversee a coordinated response from the private lending sector to assist distressed homeowners.

“It’s not regulation in the traditional sense; it’s, ‘Here’s what we’d like to see, and if you don’t come to something soon, ... we will come down with the force of government on you and make it happen.’ It’s definite market interference,” he said. -
It is frustrating to hear arguments that markets and capitalism do not need the state, and that governments just get in the way when they get involved in market affairs. Without governments we would have no currencies to enable fungible trade, no third-party enforceability of contracts, and no property protections themselves.

The extent and role of government is, of course, debatable, but too often conservative arguments end up asserting that all government is always bad, as characterized by the "necessary evil" formulation. Does it really make people feel better to call something necessary "evil?" To denigrate and minimize the importance of the necessary is what got us to Katrina, Iraq, the mortgage crisis and the past seven and a half years of mismanagement.

In the end, it always comes back to public action to resolve public problems and that is the role and importance of government. It is the reason that government should be professional, respected and most of all effective. That does not mean that government actions should not be examined and critiqued, far from it, but it does mean that we should all recognize that in a Democracy, we are the government, and a government not acting in our own interests and preventing private actors from inflicting public harms is a government in need of change.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lies About Taxes

There's a virulent email going around that is full of flat-out-falsehoods about the relative impacts of Sen. Obama's and Sen. McCain's economic proposals. Essentially, it states that Sen. Obama is going to significantly increase taxes on everybody, which is false. You can get the facts on the matter from

Here's the summary conclusion from that neutral public-interest site:
A new e-mail being circulated about Obama's tax proposals is almost entirely false.

Alert readers may already have noted that this chain e-mail does not provide links to any of Obama's actual proposals or cite any sources for the claims it makes. That is because they are made up.This widely distributed message is so full of misinformation that we find it impossible to believe that it is the result of simple ignorance or carelessness on the part of the writer. Almost nothing it says about Obama's tax proposals is true. We conclude that this deception is deliberate. -
It's pretty important to smack these falsehoods down as soon as they crop up, just remember that accurate information on the Internet should be - and will be - sourced to original documents. If it's not, it's someone's assertion, not a fact.

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

Best Campaign Site Ever

You gotta love a candidate who is running for office xkcd style.

This is the kind of difference we want to see more of in our political systems. People who believe in science and technology taking on entrenched interests in places like Kansas. This is what the 50 state strategy means. This is what we need to take back our country.

(with a tip-o-the-hat to Vivian Paige.)

Loudoun Is a Purple Place

The Washington Posts' Virginia Politics blog has a summary up of the commonwealth's "Purple Places" and at the top of their list is Loudoun County:
Loudoun County: Until early this decade, Loudoun was solidly Republican because of its mix of conservative, rural residents and people who were fleeing the inner suburbs. But the county's rapid growth -- its population has risen by nearly 50 percent since 2000 -- is changing its politics.

In the 2005 governor's race, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine surprised many by convincingly winning the county over Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, a former attorney general. A year later, Sen. James Webb (D) won Loudoun over former GOP senator George Allen. Democratic gains in the county were reinforced last year, when Democrats secured a majority on the Board of Supervisors.

Many parts of Loudoun are still relatively conservative, and Democratic presidential candidates have not had much luck there. President Bush won Loudoun with 56 percent of the vote in 2000 and 2004, although the number of people casting ballots in the county increased by more than 25.percent between the elections.

But Loudoun voters are among the wealthiest, most educated in the nation, making them one of Obama's prime targets in the fall, because he did well with those groups during the primaries. Minorities who tend to vote Democratic could also give him a boost in Loudoun, where 11 percent of residents are foreign born. - The Washington Post
So there you have it. Loudoun is "purple" according to the Post, though the Democrats have won the past few years. I hope we will all work hard to make it Blue in 2008, and elect President Obama, Senator Warner and Congresswoman Feder, so that in 2009 and on, Loudoun takes its rightful place among the leading Blue localities in Virginia.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sen. Webb Saves Scout

It is a measure of the absurdity of our immigration system that a Boy Scout whose family is in America legally was saved from being deported, potentially alone, by the intervention of Virginia's Sen. Webb.
Less than a week before his court-ordered deadline to pack up and leave the country, 13-year-old Boy Scout Jose Andrade got a reprieve.

Thanks to a half-dozen or so letters of concern sent to U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) about the teen's deportation and separation from his family, Jose can still call Virginia home. - Loudoun Times-Mirror
Would that we wouldn't need a U.S. Senator to intervene to prevent cases of gross injustice from being inflicted on children.

Credit is due to the Loudoun Times for being on top of this and providing reporting on it in a timely manner. It is likely that without their original article Jose would have been lost in the system, and sent to a place that is not his home.
“We received the initial communication from the Scout leader on May 14,” said Jessica Smith, Webb's communication director. “More letters followed from concerned community members after [a Times-Mirror] story [on Jose] ran in mid-June.”

She said Webb's office in late May sent a standard letter of inquiry to ICE. The merits of Jose's case and not the senator's inquiry played the lead role in ICE's decision, Smith said. - The Loudoun Times-Mirror
Although this, single case of injustice has been averted, Leesburg Tomorrow's commentary on this case from June remains true, and relevant for thousands of other families in the Commonwealth.
Jose's mother is here legally, and her other two children are U.S. Citizens. It is unconscionable to insist that two citizens and a legal resident leave the country to remain united with their son and sibling. It is an impossible choice, and yet one that current policy forces parents to make.

Our immigration laws and policies are not just broken, they are fundamentally unjust and harmful to those who are most vulnerable. In a nation that is supposed to provide "equal justice for all" there are people who have a very difficult time with the definition of "all." Justice for all means everyone, not just people who look like you. Tearing a family apart for the sake of bureaucracy is not justice, it is a crime. - Leesburg Tomorrow, June 12, 2008

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Earth Collapses Under The Weight Of Houses

Some more for the "Consequences of development, 2003-2008" file. In this case, how the previous Board of Supervisors' no-holds-barred development policies approved development on ground that could not support it, literally.
Since 2000, dozens of sinkholes have opened up in a 28.5-square-mile area stretching from Leesburg to Point of Rocks near the Maryland border. Although many of the sinkholes were less than a foot wide, at least two that formed in an area slated for a housing development were 30 feet wide and 30 feet deep, a county official said. Another in 2005 created a chasm in the middle of Route 15.
The problem, county officials said, is rapid development of land that rests on soft, porous limestone, often referred to as karst. Another danger of building in such areas is groundwater pollution, which occurs when pesticides and other contaminants rush into the water supply. - LoudounExtra
A lot of land slated for development is on top of limestone karst. That's bad. When the water in the limestone drains out because we're using more of our available water than we used to, the ground becomes less stable, and the pores in limestone collapse, causing sinkholes.

In 2003, the Board of Supervisors adopted regulations that limited development in limestone areas as part of a broad plan to slow growth in Loudoun, one of the nation's fastest-growing counties. But a year later, the Virginia Supreme Court threw out the plan on a technicality.

The supervisors who took over the board that year generally supported the growth and rejected limits on development in limestone areas. Last year, in the waning weeks of the pro-growth supervisors' term, the members reversed course and said they would support some regulations governing construction in the limestone area. - LoudounExtra
So not only did the previous Board leave us with lawsuits and budget deficits, but also actual, physical holes in the land itself caused in part by rampant development. We should keep these issues in mind as we evaluate the job the current Board of Supervisors is doing. This Board has done a remarkable job so far cleaning up the mess they inherited, up to, and including sinkholes.
The current board, which supports a slower rate of growth, today is scheduled to consider new regulations for the county's limestone area. Under the proposed rules, builders would have to take steps to minimize the risk of sinkholes, and homeowners would have to be educated about the danger of groundwater contamination.

"It is one of our most sensitive geographic areas. We have historically seen an increase in sinkholes as development has gone on in the corridor," said Supervisor Sarah R. "Sally" Kurtz (D-Catoctin), whose district includes most of the limestone area. "It's a matter of preventing property loss — as in, your whole ... house goes down a sinkhole." - LoudounExtra
One could be forgiven for thinking that "house goes down a sinkhole" was only a metaphor for the mortgage crisis, but here in Loudoun, it could be both metaphor, and reality.

Sen. Herring, Judy Feder at the LCDC Tonight

If you want to know what happened to our transportation solution in Richmond last month, come to tonight's LCDC meeting. Sen. Mark Herring will be there to talk transportation and provide some insight into the special Assembly session.
Remember, that we are having our monthly Loudoun County Democratic Committee meeting tomorrow, Wednesday, July 16 at 6:30pm. Join Senator Mark Herring, Judy Feder and the LCDC for a fun and informative meeting.

Senator Herring will share his views on our transportation problems and the next steps. Time allowing he'll share with us his experiences in Richmond.

Dr. Judy Feder will talk with us about her plans to change Washington, by changing a Congressional fixture who has been trudging along as the 10th CD Representative for over two decades. President Obama will need the legislative support he can count on from Judy.

In addition, you'll hear about the Coordinated, Obama, Warner and Feder campaign strategies and plans, the Young Democrats new and growing organization and what is going on in your neighborhoods and districts.

We start at 6:30 with a social half hour while we gather. The meeting begins at 7:00 and ends no later than 9:00.

John W. Tolbert, Jr. Elementary School
691 Potomac Station Drive
Leesburg, Virginia 20176

Richmond's Habeas Corpus Role

Everyone has heard of the Supreme Court decision granting habeas corpus rights to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. That was an important battle in the restoration of civil liberties in the United States. But the next battle runs through Richmond, Virginia. There, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled on the single civilian being held indefinitely under an order from President Bush.
President Bush has the legal power to order the indefinite military detentions of civilians captured in the United States, the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., ruled on Tuesday in a fractured 5-to-4 decision.

But a second, overlapping 5-to-4 majority of the court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, ruled that Ali al-Marri, a citizen of Qatar now in military custody in Charleston, S.C., must be given an additional opportunity to challenge his detention in federal court there. An earlier court proceeding, in which the government had presented only a sworn statement from a defense intelligence official, was inadequate, the second majority ruled. - The New York Times
What is interesting is that the 4th Circuit has ruled on al Mirri before. The circuit's original panel decision was among the first reversals of the Bush's claims of power under national security doctrines. The 4th Circuit is extremely divided, so the Supreme Court is likely to get a crack at this decision in the coming term.

Thus, the Circuit Court in Richmond has been playing an important role in the evolution of habeas corpus in the U.S., demonstrating the divisions on this question and providing fodder for ultimate decisions by the Supreme Court. Virginia serves as a microcosm for America in many ways.

The Nuclear Anniversary

From a mailing list a colleague is on:
In 1945 on this day, the first atomic bomb exploded at 5:30 a.m., 120 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. People saw a ball of fire that rose rapidly, releasing four times the heat of the interior of the sun, followed by a 40,000 foot mushroom cloud. The bomb was supposed to give the United States "peace through strength." Officials told the New Mexican citizens that an ammunitions dump had blown up. The project's director, Kenneth Bainbridge, watched the column of fire and dust and said, "Now we are all sons of bitches." Today, radiation levels on the spot are still 10 times that of radiation levels found in nature, and the ground is marked by a lava stone obelisk and a plaque that reads, "Where the World's First Nuclear Device Was Exploded on July 16, 1945."

Congress Protects Doctors

Add another win to the list of the accomplishments our Democratic Congress has under its belt. This time, they overrode President Bush's veto of the Medicare bill, literally at the last possible moment.
President Bush sought to block a bill yesterday aimed at forestalling an 11 percent cut in payments to doctors taking care of Medicare patients, but Congress quickly overrode his veto.

The House voted 383 to 41 to override the veto, while the Senate voted 70 to 26, in both cases far more than the two-thirds necessary to block the president's action. - The Washington Post
The key to understanding this action is the timing. When Sen. Kennedy dramatically returned to the Senate to cast the 60th vote on the bill in June, it led to a stampede of support from the other side, leading to a remarkable abandonment of party unity and principles on the part of Senate Republicans, and a 69-30 ("veto-proof") majority. This was largely because Doctors had screamed bloody murder to their representatives in the Senate when faced with cuts in their medicare payments, going so far as to withdraw support for Sen. Cornyn in Texas. Needless to say, Republican Senators have few friends in the world these days, so they're willing to sell their loyalty and principals if faced by a threat to their incumbency.

Of course, a majority is only "veto-proof" if it overrides an actual veto later in the process, which set up yesterday's machinations. I will let our friend Kagro X explain.
The veto is given little chance to be sustained, but it's interesting to watch Bush go through the motions even when he "doesn't have the votes."

Why tomorrow and not today? Because President Bush is a petulant, vindictive and childish dick, that's why:
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had issued a temporary delay on physician pay cuts until July 15 to allow lawmakers more time to pass the legislation. - McKnights
Tomorrow's date, of course, is July 15. This way, Bush assures either that the bureaucrats have to go through an embarrassing scramble again, or that medical care providers actually get hurt by his veto crayon.

The "grown up" in charge, ladies and gentlemen. They can't get this asshole out of the White House fast enough. - Kagro X
So, basically, President Bush wanted to force Congress to try to get this veto override done in one day, hoping to throw a shoe in the machine like a luddite. Of course, all The Executive succeeded in doing was further fracturing Party unity among the Republicans in Congress.
With organized medicine and other lobbies promoting the popular measure in an election year, Republicans broke heavily from the White House. A total of 153 House Republicans voted to defy the White House, 24 more than in a June 24 vote that started the momentum toward passage of the Medicare doctors' bill yesterday. Twenty-one Senate Republicans voted for the bill this time, including four senators who had voted "nay" in the two previous Medicare votes. - The Washington Post
So, this week alone, our Democratic Congress passed mortgage reform and prevented doctors' from seeing arbitrary cuts in their Medicare payments. All this in the heat of a Presidential campaign and over the objections of the White House.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

An Interlude: 24601

In honor of Dr. Horrible, a friend sent me a link to this.

Consider it your Wednesday morning funny.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An Interlude: Tasty Burger

If they pull this off, I may never eat anything else for dinner again.
The quest for the perfect hamburger, as any ambitious barbecuer knows, is an exact science. And science is all about trial and error.
The result is a lean beef burger that is low-fat, low-sodium and juicy, without saturated fat, and that tastes -- according to limited consumer tests -- as though it probably shouldn't be good for you.

Essentially, what the scientists have done is take the beef fat out of the meat and replace it with a combination of substitutes less likely to clog arteries. Those substitutes include high oleic sunflower oil and fats from seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which many studies suggest benefit cardiovascular health. They also added phytosterols to the mix -- a byproduct of soybeans that can lower the body's cholesterol absorption. - The Washington Post

And how about a new Joss Whedon musical?

Hiring The Wrong Teachers? [updated]

A friend forwarded an interesting article from Slate on the impact of hiring the right (or wrong) teachers and student achievement on standardized tests. While the value of the standardized test measurement is debatable, the entrenchment of bad teachers is a chronic problem in many underperforming school districts. When I lived in New York City, for example, the renewal of the teacher's union contract was a hot button issue for the Bloomberg administration. And I found it absurd that there were hundreds of teachers paid not to teach because they were too risky to be exposed to the kids in the classroom.

The principal in the Slate article has this proposal for dealing with the "who to hire" question.
What if there were a way to screen out the bad teachers before they get entrenched? Currently, New York City teachers get their union cards their first day on the job. In theory they're on probation for three years after that, but in practice very few are forced out. Lombardi suggests replacing this system with an apprenticeship program. Rather than requiring teaching degrees (which don't seem to improve value-added all that much), new recruits would have a couple of years of in-school training. There would then come a day of reckoning, when teachers-to-be would face a serious evaluation before securing union membership and a job for life. -
What an interesting idea. Though I do not like the "apprenticeship" aspect. Personally, I feel that all our teachers should have college degrees. That being said, a real 3-year probation period, without a de-facto guarantee of tenure, and using objective measurements of classroom results to determine union eligibility at the end, appears to be a good way to ensure that teachers who are doing their job and doing it well get the rewards of tenure without allowing a few bad apples to bring disrepute onto the union and the profession.

Teachers unions are blamed for a lot, and are seen widely as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Support for an enforceable system of accountability and stringent qualifications for membership would go a long way, I believe, towards mitigating these misplaced attitudes.

Note: Since Virginia is a "Right to Work" state, Virginia's schools are not impacted by union contracts the way that New York schools are. In fact, Virginia has far greater labor and workforce flexibility than many other areas. Within the first three years the contracts required annual renewal and any teacher's contract can be "non-renewed" without cause. After three years state law implements a series of protections for teachers that include longer contracts and a lengthier for-cause termination process.

[update] A quote from another friend.
"In a completely rational society, the best of us would aspire to be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest responsibility anyone could have." - Lee Iacocca
In the interest of full disclosure, my mom was a 3rd grade teacher, my brother teaches special needs kids in Australia, my daughter's godfather is a teacher, and my wife has taught at the college level, and will again. Oh, and I was proud as hell to help elect a teacher, Kelly Burk, to the Board of Supervisors last year.

[update 2] School Board member John Stevens has a great post up on student achievement and the difficulty we have pinpointing its causes.
Ogbu's book was controversial, and some academics fault the research. Ultimately he concluded that it was the failure of parents, and not the school district, the led to the gap. Even critics of his book seem to agree that the fundamental difference between these students is not at school but the degree to which parents oversee their own children's education instead of leaving it entirely to the school. If I understand these reports correctly, they conclude that what the schools need to do more than reach out to the students is reach out to their parents. - John Stevens' commentary on John Ogbu's research
Go. Read.

[update 3] And my daughter's godfather gets the very last word.
I don't think you can objectively measure a teacher's effectiveness through student grades and test scores because there are so many other variables at play (namely, the students themselves).
Ah yes the students. They're kinda the whole point.

Thanks for the reminder.

Less Coal = Better Cognition

This sounds like a fantasy, but it's true.
Closing Coal-fired Power Plants Improves Cognitive Development Of Children, New Study Suggests

Closing coal-fired power plants can have a direct, positive impact on children's cognitive development and health according to a study released by the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH) at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. The study allowed researchers to track and compare the development of two groups of children born in Tongliang, a city in China's Chongqing Municipality -- one in utero while a coal-fired power plant was operating in the city and one in utero after the Chinese government had closed the plant.
"This study provides direct evidence that governmental action to eliminate polluting coal-burning sources benefits children's neurodevelopment," said Frederica Perera, DrPH, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health, and lead author of the study. "These findings have major implications for environmental health and energy policy as they demonstrate that reduction in dependence on coal for energy can have a measurable positive impact on children's development and health -- in China and elsewhere." - ScienceDaily
Just more evidence that coal is unhealthy, period. Sure, we have a lot of it, and sure, it's an economic engine for parts of Virginia with little else to provide jobs, but expanding our coal-based economy has consequences, and we need to consider them carefully in debates over energy going forward.

Letters, Accusations and Loudoun's Homeless

The tete-a-tete between the GSA and Supervisor Waters has moved from private communications in the halls of Government, to the newspapers, and now to an exchange of letters. Supervisor Waters responded first to articles in LoudounExtra and the GSA.
Over the last week and a half, Good Shepherd Alliance (GSA) has launched accusations about the County’s services to the homeless through a public input session and the press. I was quite surprised at the approach taken, especially since the GSA spokesman, Mr. Nicholas Graham, has frequently communicated with my office directly with questions on various issues. If GSA officials had questions about the county’s operations, I would have expected them to call me or the Director of Family services directly instead of starting a public controversy based on no dialogue. - Supervisor Lori Waters
Supervisor Waters then goes on to address many of the critiques of County performance in taking over the Leesburg drop-in facility on an item-by-item basis. In essence, Supervisor Waters' letter says that the County is doing all it can and all it agreed to, and the GSA should have been more cordial in its information inquiries and advice to the County as the County takes over operations of the Leesburg facility.
Based on all of this, I believe that the county is absolutely living up to its promises made last year, including the provision of drop-in services to homeless individuals and especially the seven men who regularly use the center. Loudoun County has stepped in several times to meet the needs of the homeless overall and in instances when GSA no longer could. - Supervisor Lori Waters
In the content of her letter, however, Supervisor Waters raises the spectre of homeless people invading Ashburn, even though the entire point of the agreement between the GSA and the County was to avoid having "those people" come to town and Supervisor Waters herself believes there to be only five to seven homeless men in need of help, all of whom are known to the County. She closes this appeal to fear with an ominous and unspecified threat to the GSA.
I do not know why GSA took the approach it did in communicating its attacks, but on the other hand, I don’t believe it is out of character based on how they communicated with the public last year about their move to Ashburn. Considering the unfounded accusations of the county abandoning the homeless, I am certainly having difficulty with rebuilding trust and reaching a new, positive relationship. While I do not believe that GSA selected the best location to serve the homeless population or specifically their clients, I do not have the legal authority to prevent them from using their Ashburn Rd. location. However, I would note that GSA Board Chairman Joyce Trickett unequivocally and unconditionally stated in a Nov. 27, 2007 letter to the community, “GSA has NO plans to establish any kind of day or drop-in center in Ashburn. We could not be more clear.” If they now intend on amending their plans to include a drop-in center or even “appointment” based drop-in services, they will be breaching the understanding from last year and doing so based on their own choices, not because of the county’s actions. If GSA is going to have a true or de facto drop-in center, such actions will have consequences though. - Supervisor Lori Waters
As we assess the assertions and information contained within Supervisor Waters' letter, we must separate the issue of County management of the drop-in center in Leesburg from the issue of the Center Of Hope in Ashburn. It is one thing to explain how the County is fulfilling its responsibilities in the operation of the Leesburg facility. Supervisor Waters does well to explain the actions of the County when they are called into question.

However, it is another thing entirely to imply that the GSA intends to turn the Center of Hope into a "de facto drop-in center" and warn about "consequences" even though Supervisor Waters does not "have the legal Authority to prevent them from using their Ashburn Rd. location." This is an appeal to the fears and worries of her constituents, pure and simple. All the GSA can do is show its good faith through its many actions to keep the community informed and involved in its plans and activities. They cannot prove the negative that they will not operate a drop-in center in Ashburn. In effect, Supervisor Waters can forever have the GSA at a disadvantage by implying that next year, the GSA will invite homeless people to Ashburn.

The GSA has now responded to Supervisor Waters' response with a lengthy letter of its own. In it, the GSA draws attention to its role not only as providing services for those who need help in Loudoun, but also advocating for them before elected officials.
It is a mistake and misguided to simplistically translate genuine, fact-based expressions of concern and advocacy for “accusations” and “attacks”. Nonsense. If the County is going to take away and takeover a non-profit’s longtime operation, then the County must be prepared to receive the exact same level of scrutiny to which the GSA has been painfully subjected since last Fall’s community meeting at Ashburn Elementary. - The Good Shepherd Alliance
The GSA provides its own version of the events leading to the County's temporary closure of the Leesburg facility and its aftermath.
It is exceptionally important that citizens understand that before the GSA took its case to the community regarding the daytime drop-in center we vacated as scheduled on June 30th, we communicated thoroughly and diligently about the transition of the space and operations with the County staff. In fact, we have been feeding the County information and data about its operations since the early winter. In June, both our GSA Administrator and Chair of the Board of Directors communicated with County staff and Mr. Rob Eamich about the drop in center and concerns we had.

Only in mid-June we were informed – through a mass email – that the County was reducing the hours of operation by 50%, operating it part time 9am to 1pm, Monday through Thursday, and Friday from 1pm to 5pm. (the GSA operated it all day from 9am to 5pm, based purely on need and demand). We immediately expressed our concern and opposition to County staff, and to HOAs and residents. We were not properly consulted. How that transpired remains unclear and confusing to us. Then, just before we vacated the premises on June 30th, we were told that the day center would be closed until further notice. Then, after we vacated the premises, a visit to the center demonstrated that there was no documented efforts to make its users aware and educated about any transition period or transition services…no posted signs, no handouts, nothing.
We were absolutely promised that the drop-in center, under the County’s operation, would be ‘seamlessly’ transitioned, and it would be ‘turn-key’. Those words were inferred at the time very clearly to mean that the County would operate the day center in the exact same manner in which the GSA did, and in the manner accustomed to by the very clients and guests who use it. That was the deal. That was the handshake. Plain and simple. Not open to interpretation. It is enfranchised in the Board vote of November 20th, 2007. - The Good Shepherd Alliance
It is interesting to note that the resolution the Board voted on in November, 2007, anticipated renovations to the facility, which would involve its temporary closure.
Supervisor Waters moved that the Board of Supervisors endorse the plan by Supervisor Waters for the County to assume responsibility for providing drop in services to the homeless in Leesburg as soon as it is practical given the need for improvements to the site and for staff to identify potential sources of funding and partnerships for this program, including but not limited to a review of the funding provided to GSA by the County, funding in the Housing Trust Fund, a HomeAid partnership, and negotiations with the Sycolin Road property owner. Seconded by Supervisor Kurtz. The motion passed 6-3, Supervisors Delgaudio, Snow, and Staton voted no. - Board of Supervisors minutes, November 20, 2007
Thus, while things may be implied and inferred, the County did state, explicitly, that they would provide drop-in services "as soon as it is practical given the need for improvements to the site..." Thus, the County was, in fact, fulfilling its obligations by resolution in its renovations to the site. That, of course, does not obviate legitimate criticisms of how the County informed those it served at the facility about the closure.

It is easy and unhelpful to get bogged down in accusations about who promised what when there is little written record supporting either side. It is likely the case that representatives of the County, probably including Supervisor Waters herself, verbally agreed to a seamless and turn-key transition of the Leesburg facility's operations. But it was somewhat naive of the GSA to take their word for it without getting it in writing in the enabling resolution before the Board of Supervisors. The GSA is to be commended for its idealism and trust of the word of a Supervisor, but will be justified in its skepticism of official promises without official documentation going forward.

The real issue in this argument is the extent to which the needs of Loudoun's residents who are in between homes or at risk of homelessness are being served, and thus the demand for services at the Leesburg facility and the GSA's Center of Hope in Ashburn. Supervisor Waters emphasized the "five to seven" men who use the Leesburg facility. The GSA provides some illustrative data about the real extent of Loudoun's need for homeless assistance.
In paragraph five, the letter overviews demand for services at the day drop-in center. This is at the core of our concerns regarding the drop-in site. The letter cites that “only five to seven” citizens used the drop-in center. That is wholly inaccurate. We know that 5 to 7 is the minimum level of usage at the site. During many other times of the year – usually during ‘back-to-school’ and winter days, or extremely hot days – that number can rise to as much as 20 people daily. It could change tomorrow. In addition, a documented measurement of usage this year from January to June shows exactly 88 different, unique visitors using that facility, and 1,200 meals being served.
Let us be clear about the daytime usage. It fluctuates. It’s seasonal. It’s certainly ongoing. By focusing on the minimum of “only 5 to 7” users, the County is not operating for planning purposes on true long-term needs. It’s not reflective of a week to week, or month-to-month measurement. It appears that this measurement was taken informally in a survey over a few days in late June or July, at one of the slowest, “low-point” times of the year for day center usage…and over a holiday week.
The GSA’s own year-round data collection showed that we had to turn away almost 1,000 women, children, and babies in 2007 due to lack of shelter space, staff or resources. That was a huge increase over 2006 levels. This year alone, our cumulative count as of June 30 shows almost 500 turnaways, on par to meet – and perhaps exceed – last year’s count. - The Good Shepherd Alliance
Good management means avoiding surprises. It would be awful if the County were surprised by the extent of the demand for the services it has agreed to supply, and is forced to spend extra money on an emergency basis later this year to meet that demand. Indeed, it would be a minor scandal in its own right at a time when the County is looking to improve its efficiency and long-term planning.

The GSA's letter concludes with a proposal to lay this issue to rest and bring all concerned to a compromise.
To the entire Loudoun Board of Supervisors, we make this appeal for an immediate compromise: vote on a new County-GSA brokered proposal that maintains the Sycolin Road’s day drop-in center operating hours per our agreement of last fall (M-F, 9am-5pm); following one year of complete operation, let’s together sit down and re-evaluate operations, when we can then review the usage numbers for seasonality fluctuations and reassess demand moving forward. By doing this, we fully serve our homeless, maintain the previous agreement’s good-faith intent, and this plan would also – according to the County and Ms. Waters’ “Open Letter” - take us roughly to the time when the County will be opening their new shelter in the Fall of 2009, which will have “…a new, permanent drop-in center, which does include the potential for full-time hours.” That, to us, is the exact right approach and common-sense middle ground here. - The Good Shepherd Alliance
This is a reasonable, responsible and middle-of-the road proposal which takes the vitriol out of the conversation about what those most at risk of destitution in our community do, and do not, need to get back on their feet. It returns the Leesburg facility to its original operating hours, but provides a checkpoint at which the necessity of those hours will be considered in light of actual, recorded demand for services over a relevant and significant period of time.

What is necessary is not letters and accusations between Supervisor Waters and the GSA. What is necessary is real help for the real people in real need of assistance. The GSA is fulfilling its mission in advocating for that cause before the Board of the Supervisors, even as the Board is fulfilling its mission in making the most efficient use of County revenues in its operation of the facilities it took over from the GSA. It is absolutely imperative, however, that the County understand that assumption of that responsibility does not immunize it from outside accountability and criticism. External criticism and accountability are absolutely essential to honest and open government, and are to be expected, always. If you want to avoid criticism, avoid public office.

Supervisor Waters should remember that.