24 December 2006

First Diorama

Not my best work, but definitely my most time consuming Christmas gift. I got this Old Glory antitank gun and crew for my brother in law and did my first diorama.

Suicide Solution (A Christmas Story)

What a dipshit. With all the evil that has and is now being done in the name of religion, this idiot does the human torch thing over what a school district wants to call their winter break. It's not like the world isn't filled with serious examples of religion having veto power over reason and human rights.

Man Sets Self Aflame in Calif. Protest

Dec 23 10:48 AM US/Eastern

A man used flammable liquid to light himself on fire, apparently to protest a San Joaquin Valley school district's decision to change the names of winter and spring breaks to Christmas and Easter vacation.

The man, who was not immediately identified, on Friday also set fire to a Christmas tree, an American flag and a revolutionary flag replica, said Fire Captain Garth Milam.

Seeing the flames, Sheriff's Deputy Lance Ferguson grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran to the man.

Flames were devouring a Christmas tree next to the Liberty Bell, where public events and demonstrations are common.

Beside the tree the man stood with an American flag draped around his shoulders and a red gas can over his head.

Seeing the deputy, the man poured the liquid over his head. He quickly burst into flames when the fumes from the gas met the flames from the tree.

The deputy ordered the man to drop to the ground as he and a parole agent sprayed him with fire extinguishers.

"The man stood there like this," the deputy said with his arms across his chest and his head bent down, "Saying no, no, no."

The man suffered first degree burns on his shoulders and arms, Milam said.

Kern County Sheriff's Deputy John Leyendecker said the man had a sign that read: "(expletive) the religious establishment and KHSD."

On Thursday, the Kern High School Board of Trustees voted to use the names Christmas and Easter instead of winter and spring breaks.

16 December 2006

D&D-Worthy Baby Names

I was inspired by a pregnant friend's humorous baby name list (which includes Beorthilde - Shining Battlemaid), to look up some other names with bitchin' fantasy meanings worthy of a Dr Pepper-fueled, late-night, dice-rolling shindig.

Longwei - Chinese. Means "Dragon greatness." I know it's pronounced "way," but it's the closest to a good wang joke I could find.
Malandra - English. Blend of Malinda ("Dark Serpent") and Sandra ("Defender of Mankind").
Medousa - Just Greek for Medusa, but coolness factor added by the fact that in looks like it's being said by some thick-necked flunky from the Godfather.

Afreda - Unknown. "Elf Power." Eeeelf Poweeeeer!
Alva - German. Army of Elves.

Alberich - Norse. A mythic Dwarf.
Napoleon - French of Germanic origin. From "Sons of the Mist," - the name of a race of dwarves. Isn't it ironic, doncha think?

Oberon - Shakespeare. King of Fairies. (This is now my new pejorative for my little brother) :)

Eginhard - German. "Sword Power." Swooooord Poweeeeer!
Melvin - English. "Sword Friend." Who knew?

Gordon - Scottish clan name. "From the roomy fort." I wonder whether they were bragging, or trying to convince themselves.

Harvey - English. "Eager for battle; strong and worthy." Again, who knew?

Duncan - Scottish. "Brown Fighter." OK, nothing to do with the theme, but it's now the new name of my pooper-scooper.

03 November 2006

1, 2, 3, 4, Could We Please Have A Fuckin' War?

Alright, the war. I've been past the ever-present urge to stick a gun in my mouth for a while now, and until fairly recently I've been in a phase where I just take my goddamn pills and more or less try to ignore the larger world. Now I'm just pissed off.

Things I'm not going to address: 1. Myself. 2. The ridiculous, shit-for-brains arguments that have surrounded this issue (blood for oil, nuke 'em all, 911 conspiracies, presidential daddy issues, etc.). 3. Afghanistan, as in hindsight most everyone agrees on this one, some forgetting their prior drivel about a central Asian pipeline.

Premise 1: Governments rightfully exist for the protection of their citizens, both of their innate rights and of their physical safety.

Premise 2: Militaries are instruments of force.

Conclusion: The proper use of the military instrument is to employ force in pursuit of the rights and safety of citizens.

What's wrong with the war in Iraq:

Fundamentally, our error in Iraq is a failure from the beginning to properly employ the military instrument. Having made the decision to employ force, half-measures are a recipe for disaster. Failure to lean on Turkey as successfully as we did on Pakistan resulted in a massive reduction in the force brought to bear on Iraq during the invasion. Failure to see the long road ahead (mission accomplished, greeted as liberators, etc) led to an 'end to major hostilities' far too quickly and before the military instrument had been brought fully to bear throughout much of the country. Failure to stomach what had to be done in Fallujah for nearly a year created far more bloodshed than the eventual solution. The list goes on.

Underlying this failure is an unwillingness to face certain realities. Primary among these, is that force is the opposite of freedom. In fact, it's the opposite of reason, reason and force both being means. My meaning here is that the use of force is by definition a removal of the freedom of the recipient of that force. You can, contrary to the popular argument, "impose democracy at the end of a gun" (see Germany, Japan), but you cannot execute a military action (force) while at the same time extending freedom to the target of that action.

We have in this administration all the idealism of the Kennedy years tempered by none of the realism of Truman or Reagan, the latter of which combined realism and idealism fairly well, in my opinion. In their rush to create a democracy in the 'heart of the Middle East', they have hobbled our ability to win the war that still rages. Iraq now has a president who is literally three degrees of separation from Iran, which is one of the two great enemies of the U.S. and with which we are now engaging in a proxy war in Iraq. Sadr, without whom Talabani would not be in power, is Ahmadinejad's chief lieutenant in Iraq. We've just been ordered out of Sadr City in Baghdad by this puppet of a president--and complied!

We occupied and ran Japan for seven years. Their new constitution, imposed by us, went into effect two full years after the war's end. In it, we stripped the Emperor of all practical power, instituted three coequal branches of government, demilitarized the country, and enshrined human rights and nondiscrimination. This in a country with a very distinct, non western culture where people literally worshiped the Emperor as a god. Iraq is not Japan, of course, not the least because it is three separate non western cultures in conflict with one another, but this argues all the more for an approach more similar to Japan, 1945. Instead, we have a constitution a year after the conflict began created by a committee including the enemy! It enshrines Islam while paying lip service to freedom and human rights. While the conflict drags on, we kowtow to a government with which we're half-way at war, because we're apparently no longer made of the stern stuff that enabled our grandfathers to create thriving, economically powerful republics out of the dust of dictatorship.

Thoughts on common arguments

They weren't there. Major failure of the world intelligence community, not an invention of Bush's addled brain. The administration's failure was in relying on this rational almost exclusively, even though it certainly wasn't the only reason for the war. We've been at war with Iraq since 1991. They never complied with the ceasefire agreement, attempted to assassinate two presidents, and were a rogue state in the center of an volatile region. A dictator has no more right to rule than a mugger has to mug, and anyone with a purpose other than to become the new dictator has a moral right (though not an imperative) to off the sonofabitch.

Saddam was bad / There are a lot of other baddies:
Both sides of this discussion are, of course, technically true. The administration flipped to this argument when the WMD branding evaporated. Everything they say in support of this argument is absolutely true. Saddam and his regime were unspeakably, undeniably evil, but that was not the only, or even the chief reason for going to war, which leaves them open for the standard response: Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cuba, China, North Korea, and others all have bad regimes doing bad things to their people, but we're not invading them. I doubt most who raise this argument actually favor intervention in any of these places, but that doesn't excuse the administration's sloppy and perhaps disingenuous argumentation. The real and justifiable reason we went to war with Iraq is that they were a threat to us and our allies. Reasonable arguments can be had about the severity the threat Iraq posed and how this compared to various other threats, but not the existence of the threat. The reality employers of the second argument should admit is that to actually intervene in a situation, we must have a reasonable chance of success when compared with the risks. Clearly we're not succeeding in Iraq, but few would argue that our probability of success vs. risk is better in Iran or North Korea. I would also argue based on the above premises that humanitarianism alone is not an imperative for use of the military instrument, which puts me at odds with both the administrations' argument an the instincts of many good folks on all sides of this issue.

He's a motherfucker, but he's not the only one, or even, any longer, a principal. The folks most likely to use the 'there are bad regimes all over' argument usually also seem unnaturally focused on this guy while others plan and execute terrorism in planes, trains, and automobiles the world over--not to mention buses, restaurants, subways, and nightclubs.

Pull out now:
This is almost in the 'not to be addressed category', but I think it's a position arrived at honestly, though emotionally by a lot of people. The instinct is understandable, and one I share, "things are fucked up, let's get the hell out." The reality is, however, that a pullout would create a situation much more threatening to the U.S. and our interests than Saddam's regime before the invasion.

Stay the course:
The course is wrong! Fiddle or dance, shit or get off the pot, and so forth, already! This is pure political branding and it's as just as despicable as the opposition politicians' spurious 'bring the boys home' positioning. What we need is to win, to succeed. This recent bullshit about changing tactics is just that, bullshit. Of course we change combat tactics, what we need is to change strategy, to commit to victory even (or especially) if it means abandoning our altruistic fantasies.


I don't have all the answers. There are a lot of hard and undesirable choices that need to be made, and I'm not sure what the right course is in every instance. My point is, I have a family to feed and it's ultimately out of my control--these are not my choices to make. What pisses me off is that the people we entrust to make the difficult choices that will affect all of us for decades aren't having an honest and open debate with the good of the country at heart about what we should actually do. Washington is full of Neros fiddling via soundbite while Baghdad burns.

26 October 2006

Evolution for Dummies

From a Scientific American list of 15 common attacks on evolution. I'll spare the more mundane or ridiculous items (semantics about 'theory', no one has seen evolution, etc).

6. If humans descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

This surprisingly common argument reflects several levels of ignorance about evolution. The first mistake is that evolution does not teach that humans descended from monkeys; it states that both have a common ancestor.

The deeper error is that this objection is tantamount to asking, "If children descended from adults, why are there still adults?" New species evolve by splintering off from established ones, when populations of organisms become isolated from the main branch of their family and acquire sufficient differences to remain forever distinct. The parent species may survive indefinitely thereafter, or it may become extinct.

8. Mathematically, it is inconceivable that anything as complex as a protein, let alone a living cell or a human, could spring up by chance.

This explanation is good, but leaves out a key element--the vast amount of time over which natural selection has in which to work. Similarly to the vastness of space, the vastness of time is something we all have trouble wrapping our minds around. We can look at the numbers in scientific notiation, even read examples and comparisons, but at the end of the day time and space are too vast for us to really take their measure in a way we can internalize.

Chance plays a part in evolution (for example, in the random mutations that can give rise to new traits), but evolution does not depend on chance to create organisms, proteins or other entities. Quite the opposite: natural selection, the principal known mechanism of evolution, harnesses nonrandom change by preserving "desirable" (adaptive) features and eliminating "undesirable" (nonadaptive) ones. As long as the forces of selection stay constant, natural selection can push evolution in one direction and produce sophisticated structures in surprisingly short times. As an analogy, consider the 13-letter sequence "TOBEORNOTTOBE." Those hypothetical million monkeys, each pecking out one phrase a second, could take as long as 78,800 years to find it among the 2613 sequences of that length. But in the 1980s Richard Hardison of Glendale College wrote a computer program that generated phrases randomly while preserving the positions of individual letters that happened to be correctly placed (in effect, selecting for phrases more like Hamlet's). On average, the program re-created the phrase in just 336 iterations, less than 90 seconds. Even more amazing, it could reconstruct Shakespeare's entire play in just four and a half days.

11. Natural selection might explain microevolution, but it cannot explain the origin of new species and higher orders of life.

Evolutionary biologists have written extensively about how natural selection could produce new species. For instance, in the model called allopatry, developed by Ernst Mayr of Harvard University, if a population of organisms were isolated from the rest of its species by geographical boundaries, it might be subjected to different selective pressures. Changes would accumulate in the isolated population. If those changes became so significant that the splinter group could not or routinely would not breed with the original stock, then the splinter group would be reproductively isolated and on its way toward becoming a new species. Natural selection is the best studied of the evolutionary mechanisms, but biologists are open to other possibilities as well. Biologists are constantly assessing the potential of unusual genetic mechanisms for causing speciation or for producing complex features in organisms. Lynn Margulis of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and others have persuasively argued that some cellular organelles, such as the energy-generating mitochondria, evolved through the symbiotic merger of ancient organisms. Thus, science welcomes the possibility of evolution resulting from forces beyond natural selection. Yet those forces must be natural; they cannot be attributed to the actions of mysterious creative intelligences whose existence, in scientific terms, is unproved.

14. Living things have fantastically intricate features--at the anatomical, cellular and molecular levels--that could not function if they were any less complex or sophisticated. The only prudent conclusion is that they are the products of intelligent design, not evolution.

This "argument from design" is the backbone of most recent attacks on evolution, but it is also one of the oldest. In 1802 theologian William Paley wrote that if one finds a pocket watch in a field, the most reasonable conclusion is that someone dropped it, not that natural forces created it there. By analogy, Paley argued, the complex structures of living things must be the handiwork of direct, divine invention. Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species as an answer to Paley: he explained how natural forces of selection, acting on inherited features, could gradually shape the evolution of ornate organic structures.

Generations of creationists have tried to counter Darwin by citing the example of the eye as a structure that could not have evolved. The eye's ability to provide vision depends on the perfect arrangement of its parts, these critics say. Natural selection could thus never favor the transitional forms needed during the eye's evolution--what good is half an eye? Anticipating this criticism, Darwin suggested that even "incomplete" eyes might confer benefits (such as helping creatures orient toward light) and thereby survive for further evolutionary refinement. Biology has vindicated Darwin: researchers have identified primitive eyes and light-sensing organs throughout the animal kingdom and have even tracked the evolutionary history of eyes through comparative genetics. (It now appears that in various families of organisms, eyes have evolved independently.)

Today's intelligent-design advocates are more sophisticated than their predecessors, but their arguments and goals are not fundamentally different. They criticize evolution by trying to demonstrate that it could not account for life as we know it and then insist that the only tenable alternative is that life was designed by an unidentified intelligence.

16 October 2006

Minis: First Commission

So my buddy asked me to paint the cool 1940's sleuth mini he's using in his Star Wars game.

In process.

The finished product, and something for size reference.

Minis: Orcs and Goblins and Ogres, Oh My!

Finally finished (that is to say stopped) several of my Reven figures.

14 October 2006

A Queer Exhibit

Birds and bees may be gay - museum exhibition

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent Thu Oct 12, 6:52 AM ET

OSLO (Reuters) - The birds and the bees may be gay, according to the world's first museum exhibition about homosexuality among animals.

With documentation of gay or lesbian behaviour among giraffes, penguins, parrots, beetles, whales and dozens of other creatures, the Oslo Natural History Museum concludes human homosexuality cannot be viewed as "unnatural".

"We may have opinions on a lot of things, but one thing is clear -- homosexuality is found throughout the animal kingdom, it is not against nature," an exhibit statement said.

Geir Soeli, the project leader of the exhibition entitled "Against Nature", told Reuters: "Homosexuality has been observed for more than 1,500 animal species, and is well documented for 500 of them."

The museum said the exhibition, opening on Thursday despite condemnation from some Christians, was the first in the world on the subject. Soeli said a Dutch zoo had once organised tours to view homosexual couples among the animals.

"The sexual urge is strong in all animals. ... It's a part of life, it's fun to have sex," Soeli said of the reasons for homosexuality or bisexuality among animals.

One exhibit shows two stuffed female swans on a nest -- birds sometimes raise young in homosexual couples, either after a female has forsaken a male mate or donated an egg to a pair of males.

One photograph shows two giant erect penises flailing above the water as two male right whales rub together. Another shows a male giraffe mounting another for sex, another describes homosexuality among beetles.

One radical Christian said organisers of the exhibition -- partly funded by the Norwegian government -- should "burn in hell", Soeli said. Laws describing homosexuality as a "crime against nature" are still on the statutes in some countries.

Greek philosopher Aristotle noted apparent homosexual behaviour among hyenas 2,300 years ago but evidence of animal homosexuality has often been ignored by researchers, perhaps because of distaste, lack of interest or fear or ridicule.

Bonobos, a type of chimpanzee, are among extremes in having sex with either males or females, apparently as part of social bonding. "Bonobos are bisexuals, all of them," Soeli said.

Still, it is unclear why homosexuality survives since it seems a genetic dead-end.

Among theories, males can sometimes win greater acceptance in a pack by having homosexual contact. That in turn can help their chances of later mating with females, he said.

And a study of homosexual men in Italy suggested that their mothers and sisters had more offspring. "The same genes that give homosexuality in men could give higher fertility among women," he said.

04 October 2006

Google Rocks

I absolutely love Google. Finally a homepage you can get just exactly how you want it.

27 September 2006

Minis: In process and terrain

So I did the trees today. This is the grand sum of my terrain at present, save three more 2'x2' boards to make up the total 4'x4' playing area I'll use whenever I can beg, pay, sucker, or otherwise get someone to play with me. I'm also including a shot of minis in progress. I have a number in my office still in blister packs, and another $50 worth from eBay on the way (have I mentioned I love eBay?).

16 September 2006

Middle East Media Research Institute

I highly recommend MEMRI. Actual TV clips and analysis of Arab media throughout the Middle East.

13 September 2006

But Michael Moore said Canada was the land of peace...

From the BBC:

Gun rampage at Canadian college
A body lies next to a police car at Dawson College in Montreal
Police said the gunman was killed during the incident
A gunman has been killed after shooting and injuring at least 20 people - three seriously - at a college in the Canadian city of Montreal.

The man entered the canteen of Dawson College, in central Montreal, during lunchtime and began firing.

Eyewitnesses described fleeing from the campus grounds as the gunman, clad in black, turned the gun on students.

Montreal's chief of police said the gunman was killed during the police intervention.

Terrified students and teachers from the college of 10,000 fled the campus, some with bloodstained clothes.

'Hiding in bushes'

An eyewitness described the moment that the gunman began shooting.

"He shot the people right next to us. They were all running, we were hiding in the bushes, there was debris flying from the bullets shot right next to us," she told CBC television.

Police with drawn guns were seen sheltering behind vehicles outside the site.

Professor Robert Soroka told Reuters news agency the shooting began at 1245 (1645 GMT), and said he heard about 20 shots fired over 30 minutes.

In December 1989 a gunman shot and killed 14 young women in Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique, before turning the gun on himself.

07 September 2006

Interesting Tax Ruling

A consumption tax has it's own issues, chiefly that research shows governments can get away with raising such taxes (value-added taxes are common in Europe) more easily because it is less visible. I'm not sure which argument I buy, but a consumption tax has always seemed fairer to me. The wealthy can't avoid it with lawyers and accountants the way they can avoid income taxes, so they end up paying more tax--something the left is behind. Since an income tax is at some level a tax on work, many conservatives like consumption taxes as well, seeing it as a way to get around the disincentive of an income tax.

What Can the Government Tax?
The answer, never set in stone, may be changing.

By Bruce Bartlett

Last week, a federal appeals court in Washington handed down an important decision relating to the definition of income for tax purposes. What is important about the decision is that it is the first in decades to say the Constitution itself limits what the government may tax. If upheld by the Supreme Court, it could significantly alter tax policy and possibly open the door to radical reform.

In the case, a woman named Marrita Murphy was awarded a legal settlement that included compensation for physical injury and emotional distress. The former has always been tax-exempt, just like insurance settlements. Obviously, it makes no sense to tax as income the payment for a loss that only makes one whole again; one is not being made better off and therefore there is no income. But under current law, compensation for non-physical injuries is taxed.

Murphy argued that just as compensation for physical injuries only makes one whole after a loss, the same is true of awards for emotional distress. In short, it is not income within the meaning of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution. The appeals court agreed, ruling that Murphy’s award for emotional distress is not income and therefore not taxable.

Tax experts immediately recognized the far-reaching implications of this decision for other areas of tax law. Tax protesters have long argued that the 16th Amendment does not grant the federal government the power to tax every single receipt that it deems to be income. Yet, in practice, that is what the Internal Revenue Service does.

The problem is that the very concept of income has never been defined in the tax law. It is pretty much whatever the IRS says it is. Tax analysts generally use a definition devised by two economists, Robert Haig and Henry Simons, which says that income consists of consumption plus the change in net worth between two points in time.

But the Haig-Simons definition goes far beyond that of the tax law. Most important, it includes unrealized capital gains. There also is no room in the Haig-Simons definition for things like 401(k) plans, IRA accounts, or other retirement savings, nor for lower tax rates on realized capital gains.

Under Haig-Simons, owner-occupied homes would be treated as businesses, with homeowners taxed on the implicit rent they pay to themselves, less depreciation. And if your home’s value increases over the course of a year, Haig-Simons implies that you should pay taxes on this event, even if you don’t sell your house.

Clearly, the IRS is not going to tax any of these events, nor would Congress allow it to do so. But because tax analysts implicitly accept the Haig-Simons definition of income, even though it appears nowhere in law, there has been a long-term tendency for the IRS to push the limit of what can be considered taxable income.

Now, a federal court has said there is a constitutional limit.

I would like to see the court go further in regards to the question of whether interest constitutes income. To economists, some portion of the interest we receive on our savings is merely compensation for loss — loss of the immediate enjoyment we would receive if we consumed our income today instead of saving it.

Think of it this way. Would you be satisfied receiving your paycheck a year from now instead of on payday? Of course not. You would be suffering a real loss if you had to wait a year to get paid for your work. But if you were offered, say, 10 percent more in a year, you might be okay with this. Collectively, our willingness to put off consumption today for greater consumption in the future is what determines the pure rate of interest.

But in the view of many great economists, such as John Stuart Mill, the future interest one receives is merely compensation for the loss of immediate satisfaction. Therefore, it is not income, and something more like an insurance settlement that simply makes us whole.

Obviously, market interest rates are more than simple discounts between the present and future, as my example implies. Interest rates also represent a return to risk and an adjustment for expected inflation. In principle, however, some portion of interest is the compensation for loss, and therefore not income.

Given the logic of the Murphy decision, it is quite possible that the risk-free, inflation-adjusted rate of interest could also be excluded from taxation on constitutional grounds. Following through on this logic consistently would revolutionize taxation and eventually lead to a pure consumption tax, which most modern economists favor.

I’m not predicting the Supreme Court will follow this logic. But for tax analysts, it does represent the opening of an interesting possibility.

04 September 2006

Minis: Inaugural

So, I've taken up paining fantasy miniatures this summer. I grabbed some paints and some unpainted minis I had around for D&D and went to town. Now I've bought around 30 models for Reaper's Warlord skirmish game. Part of me wonders why I never tried this before. I think the answer is I until now I couldn't unclench enough to just go for it without getting frustrated that it wasn't perfect. Anyway, here's the first Warlord model I've finished:

This is the River Troll after prepping (sanding off all the flashing and mold lines), and after a black priming coat (Krylon flat black).

Here he is with his basecoat (Reaper Master Series, Vallejo)....and after a wash for shading.

Here's the finished product after highlighting and basing work. The water is E-Z water. Inaptly named, I must say, at least for a delicate operation like this. You have to heat it and it cools/hardens insanely fast. Fine for doing little pools, I'm sure, but this was ambitious.

Hopefully, my photography gets better along with my painting.

28 August 2006

31 July 2006

The Hulk, apparently


Green Lantern
The Flash
Iron Man
Wonder Woman

Click here to take the "Which Superhero am I?" quiz...

13 June 2006

Religious Transmission

So utlawgirl got me researching a bit this morning (I'm like dry tinder around a match in that regard) while I waited for an hour for a data report that should take five minutes (dammit!).

The topic is transmission of religion from parents to children. It's of course obvious and unsurprising that the vast majority of religious people share their religion with thier parents, rather than having chosen a religion after some sort of spiritual search or a comparative evaluation. Here are a couple bits of info on the subject (I have to work sometime, after all).

Regarding the second excerpt, elswhere in the paper a study is referenced that found parental religiosity was positively associated with "authoritative" (damanding and responsive) parenting and negatively with "authoritarian" (demanding and unresponsive) parenting.

This got me thinking about myself (that didn't take long!). I love my parents very much, but I'd venture that they likely fall into the authoritarian camp. I worry about this in my own parenting--that I'll enforce the rules but neglect the close relationship I'd like to have. This probably leads to leniency in some areas, of which religion one. I often wonder if I'm doing enough to explain my views to my son. After all, I'm in a 10% minority of the U.S. population, and of those that share my religious views, the vast majority share little else philosophically, tending to be leftists and relativists. Should I be doing more? In a very real sense, it almost seems silly to try to impart what I don't believe. The answer is probably to demonstrate and nurture an inquisitive and rational mind, open to many possiblilities. Still, religion is an ever-present reality he will encounter throughout his life, which seems to demand some some sort of action on my part. Thus far, I'm pretty much limited myself to short, honest answers when I'm asked what I think about something, and, when I hear something asserted, responding that some people believe that, others believe this way, still others think this. I never want this or any subject to be something about which he feels he can't talk to me. So often deeply-held parental beliefs are untouchable, unquestionable axioms for children, and that's the last thing I want to perpetuate.

A 2004 study of religion in Britain reports these statistics on religious transmission:

An HHS paper on measurement of family religiosity has this to say about transmission:

Transmission of Religiosity. The transmission of religiosity itself within families has been the focus of research on socialization, and is of interest as a special case of family communication. Many factors influence the transmission of religious beliefs and practices to children and adolescents, with parents and family generally being viewed as the primary agent of religious socialization (King, Furrow, & Roth, 2002). Some researchers have found that parents transmit their religious beliefs, affiliation, and activities to their children, and this is more likely to happen when parent-child relationships are warm and parental communication about religion is clear (Bao et al, 1999; Benson et al, 1989). Myers (1996) found that three factors aid in the familial transfer of religiosity: parental religiosity, quality of the family relationship, and traditional family structure. Of these factors, parental religiosity was the biggest determinant of offspring's religiosity.

Other researchers have added insights into the process of religious transmission. For example, Regenerus, Smith, & Smith (2004) find that parental religiosity is more strongly related to adolescents' religious participation (a behavior over which parents can maintain a certain level of control) than it is to their sense of the importance of religion. Erickson (1992) found that parents' religious influence and activity had an indirect influence on adolescents' religious commitments by directing them to other social influencers (peers, school, faith community) that have increasing salience during adolescence. Similarly, Martin, White, and Perlman's (2003) analyses found that parents have an effect on adolescent religiosity through peer influence.

07 June 2006

Nothing Fails Like Faith

Lioness in zoo kills man who invoked God

Mon Jun 5, 8:31 AM ET

KIEV (Reuters) - A man shouting that God would keep him safe was mauled to death by a lioness in Kiev zoo after he crept into the animal's enclosure, a zoo official said on Monday.

"The man shouted 'God will save me, if he exists', lowered himself by a rope into the enclosure, took his shoes off and went up to the lions," the official said.

"A lioness went straight for him, knocked him down and severed his carotid artery."

The incident, Sunday evening when the zoo was packed with visitors, was the first of its kind at the attraction. Lions and tigers are kept in an "animal island" protected by thick concrete blocks.

06 June 2006

Markets Work for Education Too...of Course

How per-student funding can revolutionize public schools

Imagine a city with authentic public school choice—a place where the location of your home doesn’t determine your child’s school. The first place that comes to mind probably is not San Francisco. But that city boasts one of the most robust school choice systems in the nation.

Caroline Grannan, a public school advocate and super-involved parent, lobbied hard to wear down the San Francisco school district back in 1996 and get her son William, then an incoming kindergartner, out of his assigned neighborhood school, Miraloma Elementary, and into a “more desirable” alternative school called Lakeshore. In 1996 Miraloma had low test scores and a low-income student body bused in from other neighborhoods; its middle-class neighbors shunned it. Lakeshore had a better reputation and higher student performance.

Once, Grannan remembers, it was conventional wisdom in San Francisco that there were only five decent public schools in the city; if you couldn’t get your child into one of them, it was time to move to the suburbs or to find a private academy. But a lot has changed since 1996. Today Grannan could send her child to any school within the city. What’s more, she would happily send her kids to Miraloma, one of many elementary schools in San Francisco that now attract eager middle-class clients. Miraloma has a new principal with a parent-friendly attitude, has begun to raise its test scores, and is more diversified. Families now feel secure taking advantage of Miraloma’s longstanding positive attributes, including its small size and its sheltered and attractive setting.

Grannan’s more recent experience with her children’s middle school also reflects how San Francisco schools have changed. Her son William just graduated from Aptos Middle School, and her daughter Anna started sixth grade there this year. This school is now in high demand, but in 1996 parents considered it dirty, dangerous, and academically weak. Today it offers enriched language, arts, and music programs, and its test scores continue to improve.

Grannan is more than just a concerned parent. She is a founding member of the San Francisco chapter of Parents for Public Schools, a PTA board member, and a prolific writer whose articles about local schools appear in the San Francisco Examiner and other publications. She has argued passionately against both vouchers and charter schools, and would wince to be portrayed as a partisan of school choice. Yet she has become an avid supporter of the San Francisco system and the benefits it brings to San Francisco families.

San Francisco is one of a handful of public school districts across the nation that mimic an education market. In these districts, the money follows the children, parents have the right to choose their children’s public schools and leave underperforming schools, and school principals and communities have the right to spend their school budgets in ways that make their schools more desirable to parents. As a result, the number of schools parents view as “acceptable” has increased greatly in the last several years. In Grannan’s words, “Parents who are willing to go beyond the highest-status schools can now easily find many more acceptable options, and can avoid the fight for a few coveted seats in the most prestigious schools.”

Decentralization Rules

Give credit to Arlene Ackerman, San Francisco’s superintendent of schools since 2000. Ackerman introduced the weighted student formula, pioneered in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1976, which allows money to follow students to the schools they choose while guaranteeing that schools with harder-to-educate kids (low-income students, language learners, low achievers) get more funds. Ackerman also introduced site-based budgeting, so that school communities, not the central office, determine how to spend their money. Finally, she worked to create a true open-enrollment student assignment system that gives parents the right to choose their children’s schools.

In San Francisco the weighted student formula gives each school a foundation allocation that covers the cost of a principal’s salary and a clerk’s salary. The rest of each school’s budget is allocated on a per student basis. There is a base amount for the “average student,” with additional money assigned based on individual student characteristics: grade level, English language skills, socioeconomic status, and special education needs. These weights are assigned as a percentage of the base funding. For example, a kindergartner would receive funding 1.33 times the base allocation, while a low-income kindergartner would receive an additional 0.09 percent of the base allocation. In 2005–06 San Francisco’s base allocation was $2,561. Therefore, the kindergartner would be worth $3,406, and the low-income kindergartner would generate an additional $230 for his school.

The more students a school attracts, the bigger the school’s budget. So public schools in San Francisco now have an incentive to differentiate themselves from one another. Every parent can look through an online catalog of niche schools that include Chinese, Spanish, and Tagalog language immersion schools, college preparatory schools, performing arts schools that collaborate with an urban ballet and symphony, schools specializing in math and technology, traditional neighborhood schools, and a year-round school based on multiple-intelligence theory. Each San Francisco public school is unique. The number of students, the school hours, the teaching style, and the program choices vary from site to site.

The pressure to attract children has produced not just a greater variety of unique schools but new school capacity based on the specific demands of parents. For example, as demand has exceeded the number of available seats the district has added more Chinese and Spanish dual-language immersion programs. The weighted formula ensures that schools have an incentive to recruit and serve students with learning disabilities, limited English proficiency, and other difficulties.

All this diversity is useless if parents don’t know about it, so schools have an incentive to market their programs as well. Much of the marketing is done through a local chapter of Parents for Public Schools. The district and the chapters host school enrollment fairs, and the schools offer parent tours throughout the school year. Parents can select up to seven schools on their enrollment application. In the 2005–06 school year 84 percent of parents received one of the schools they listed, with 63 percent receiving their first-choice school. More than 40 percent of the city’s children now attend schools outside their neighborhoods.

Decentralized school management is a growing trend in the United States. To date the weighted student formula has been implemented in Cincinnati, Houston, St. Paul, San Francisco, Seattle, and Oakland. This year a weaker version that does not include school choice is being implemented statewide in Hawaii, and pilot programs are underway in Boston, Chicago, and New York City.

By contrast, most districts in the United States use a staffing ratio model, in which the central office directs school sites to spend their resources in a particular way, through allocations of staff and a small supplies budget. For example, a school might be sent one teacher for every 28 students. This system gives individual institutions little control over their financial resources and personnel choices. Under the weighted student formula, each school site receives a budget denominated in dollars instead of positions and decides what staff and nonstaff items to purchase with that money.

Oakland, which completed its first year of the weighted student formula in 2004–05, is taking the decentralized concept further than any district in the United States. Edmonton, San Francisco, and the others all charge each school not for the actual salary of each teacher but for “average teacher salaries” in the district. This means that, for the sake of school budgets, differences in teacher salaries are ignored; on paper, a first-year teacher costs the same as a 30-year veteran. This practice hides funding inequities within districts where more desirable schools are stacked with senior teachers and other institutions are staffed with less experienced instructors. In practice, schools with lower-paid teachers end up subsidizing schools with higher-paid teachers. In Oakland, by contrast, schools are charged the actual cost of their employees, so a school with more novice educators has more money left over to pay for training or supplies or even to hire another teacher and reduce class size—all of which could make a school more attractive to potential students.

Another way some districts go further than San Francisco is in the extent to which parents are allowed to choose their children’s schools. Edmonton’s system is particularly robust, allowing students to apply directly to any school in the system. Similarly, Cincinnati’s high school open enrollment system allows students to apply directly to 26 different high school programs on a first come, first served basis. Such systems stand in stark contrast to the form of choice embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Under federal law students in failing schools are guaranteed the right to transfer to a school that isn’t failing. But districts have not made a good-faith effort to implement public school choice. In New York City this year, for example, 11,000 kids applied to leave failing city schools, but only 2,250 city kids received one of their choices. Since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, fewer than 2 percent of parents nationwide have used the law’s provisions to transfer their children to other public schools.

School closure is another prominent feature of the weighted student formula model. In Edmonton, if a school declines to the point that it can’t cover its expenses with the per student money, the principal is removed and the remaining teachers and facilities are assigned to a strong principal—or the school is closed altogether, and the staff is moved to other, more successful schools. The San Francisco school district closed five schools in 2005 because of underenrollment and is considering closing or consolidating 19 other schools.

Lifting All Boats

San Francisco’s system produced significant academic success for the children in the district. Miraloma Elementary, the school Caroline Grannan would not consider for her children in 1996, has seen test scores for second-graders in English language improve from 10 percent proficient in 2003 to 47 percent proficient in 2005. “Now’s the time to get in on the ground floor of one of the most up-and-coming schools in San Francisco,” one Miraloma parent recently wrote in an anonymous review for greatschools.net. “Student achievement is rising, parent involvement is soaring and the entire community is working very well together to improve the quality of every aspect of the school.…Parents are moving their kids from private schools to Miraloma because they like what they see. Yes, there is still work to be done but I am very confident that Miraloma will be the next Rooftop or Alvarado.” (Rooftop and Alvarado are two previously average schools that are now considered top-notch by parents due to high student achievement.) Greatschools.net had 19 similarly positive reviews for Miraloma.

Similarly, at Aptos Middle School, where Grannan’s daughter started this year, the share of students scoring proficient in English language increased from 29 percent in 2002 to nearly 50 percent in 2004–05. Aptos is also the most ethnically diverse school in the district: Its demographic composition in 2004–05 was 26 percent Hispanic, 32 percent Asian, 19 percent black, 13 percent white, 6 percent Filipino, 3 percent multiracial, and 1 percent Native American. Close to 50 percent of the students participate in the federal free lunch program, which is the standard proxy for poverty in public schools—schools with large free lunch populations generally have a more difficult time with academic achievement. California’s academic performance index (API) ranks a student body’s performance on several standardized tests. Aptos’ score has just risen from 6 out of 10 to 7 out of 10 (10 is best); it ranks 8 out of 10 when compared to schools with similar demographics.

Such gains have been made throughout the school district. Every grade level in San Francisco has seen increases in student achievement in math and language arts, and the district is scoring above state averages. (Fifty percent of San Francisco seventh-graders were proficient in language arts in 2005, compared to 37 percent proficiency statewide.) Even high schools, the most intractable of all schools, appear to be improving. Mission made Newsweek’s 2005 list of the nation’s top 1,000 high schools. Galileo has shown a big jump in test scores—its statewide API ranking jumped from a 3 to a 6 in just one year, while its ranking compared to similar schools climbed from a 2 to an 8. Balboa is on the radar for families who never would have considered it a few years ago.

These gains have been made even as students who used to be excluded from standardized tests are increasingly being tested. In the last year of Superintendent Bill Rojas’ administration, 1998–99, only 77 percent of the district’s students in the tested grades were included, with kids who were deemed likely to bring scores down left out whenever possible. In 2003–04, 98 percent of students in the tested grades were included.

San Francisco is not alone. William Ouchi of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management has done extensive research on the effects of school district decentralization throughout the United States. Ouchi and his team of 12 researchers studied three very centralized public school districts: New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago; three very decentralized public school districts that used the weighted student formula: Seattle, Houston, and Edmonton; and three very decentralized Catholic school systems: Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles. In his 2003 book Making Schools Work, Ouchi found that the decentralized public school districts and private Catholic schools had significantly less fraud, less centralized bureaucracy and staff, more money at the classroom level, and higher student achievement.

He also found that most districts merely give lip service to local control. According to Ouchi, the money must follow the child. The only true local control occurs when the principal controls the school budget.

At John Hay Elementary School in Seattle, which Ouchi profiled, the principal controlled about $25,000 a year before decentralization and now controls about $2 million. The principal used her new freedom to hire 12 part-time reading and math coaches and set up a tutoring station outside every classroom, plus another station in a wide hallway, for “turbo-tutoring” the gifted children. Now the school teaches reading in groups of five to seven students while other classes are in larger sections, and every student who is behind grade level receives one-on-one tutoring.

During a four-year period following the change, the school’s standardized math scores rose from the 36th percentile to the 62nd, and reading scores rose from the 72nd percentile to the 76th. In third grade, black and white students now have identical reading scores, and all of them are at or above grade level.

Such gains also occur in other districts that have implemented public school choice and the weighted student formula. After Oakland’s first year of student-based budgeting, a majority of the city’s African-American students met basic reading standards at their grade levels in 2005—probably a first in recent district history. In addition, every grade level in Oakland saw increases in the number of students who were proficient in reading and math. Similarly, in 2005 Cincinnati public schools, where 70 percent of students are African-American, improved their state rating from “Academic Watch” to “Continuous Improvement,” and test scores were up for most students in most grade levels. Seattle also continues to see increases in student achievement and in 2005 reduced the number of schools rated “failing” under the No Child Left Behind Act from 20 to 18, even as the state raised the bar for proficiency.

As a result of these changes, parents are returning to public schools. In Seattle, the public school district has won back 8 percent of all students from the private schools since implementing the new system. In Edmonton, where it all began, the public schools are so popular that there are no private schools left. Three of the largest private schools voluntarily became public schools and joined the Edmonton district. (This has not held true in San Francisco, where families continue to leave the city, largely because of high housing costs. San Francisco’s private schools have lost enrollment as well, as the city’s child population reaches an all-time low of 11 percent.)

The Constraints of Public School Choice

Public school choice is not a panacea. In many districts there have been tensions between parents who want more choices and parents who want their children to have a guaranteed spot in a neighborhood school. In Seattle, the district recently considered abolishing the school choice system in favor of the traditional system based on a child’s address. The district’s reasoning is that busing students all over Seattle is complicated and expensive. So far, a parental outcry has staved off the plans to return to residence-based schools. Parents have suggested charging for transportation or leaving it up to families rather than killing off school choice.

In addition, unlike an actual market system in education, public schools are still strapped with myriad local, state, and federal regulations. No matter how decentralized San Francisco schools become, they still must comply with the No Child Left Behind Act and abide by silly state laws, such as the California statute that forbids parents from bringing home-baked cupcakes to school to celebrate their children’s birthdays with classmates.

Public school choice is at best a weak substitute for true school choice, where parents are not bound by excessive government regulations. In support of this point, Ouchi’s research found that the three Catholic school systems he examined—Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles—were the most decentralized. They have very small central staffs, spend the least money per pupil, and have the highest student achievement. (While demographics do not affect the per-pupil spending or smaller centralized staff in Catholic schools, they probably contribute to higher test scores. For example, the New York City Catholic schools in Ouchi’s study have only 32 percent low-income children, compared to 74 in the city’s public schools.)

Ouchi’s findings reinforce the main criticism of decentralized public schools: Is it really necessary to stay within the bounds of the existing public school system and complete the difficult task of changing the system from within? A better alternative would be to move to a direct financing mechanism through vouchers, tax credits, or charter schools—an arrangement under which per-pupil funding immediately empowers parents and leads to the most decentralized schools of all, with 100 percent local budget control.

Yet the better alternative is not always the politically feasible alternative. School decentralization offers a compelling model for restructuring school financing, giving principals and parents true control over their schools, and offering real school choice to all students within the constraints of a public school system. It also gets parents used to the idea that schools need not be linked to real estate. And it demonstrates that even within a limited pseudo-market, when families become consumers of education services with the right of exit, schools quickly improve to attract them.

The San Francisco parents I spoke with probably would be alarmed by the market metaphor. In general, these parents do not support education tax credits or school vouchers. They are for public education. Yet San Francisco has adopted a school district financing system that mimics a school market and has led to a revitalization of the city’s public schools. And these parents have taken full advantage.

Caroline Grannan admits she probably could have worked the old residential assignment system to get her kids into good schools. But times have changed in the City by the Bay. When Grannan’s son William was applying for high schools, she was one of many middle-class parents now willing to send her child to Balboa High School, which not long ago was viewed as a low-performing, dangerous “ghetto school.” William ended up going to SOTA, the School of the Arts, to which students are admitted by audition. But as Grannan says, “Knowing that we were fine with Balboa if he hadn’t gotten into SOTA made the entire process much lower-stress.” The difference, she says, is “the comfort in knowing that parents have more than one option.”

Lisa Snell is director of education policy at the Reason Foundation.

01 June 2006

Something's alive near the Dead Sea

Unique Underground Ecosystem Revealed by Hebrew University Researchers Uncovers Eight Previously Unknown Species

Example of one of the unique crustacean species found in the cave (photo by Sasson Tiram)
Example of one of the unique crustacean species found in the cave (photo by Sasson Tiram)

Discovery of eight previously unknown, ancient animal species within “a new and unique underground ecosystem” in Israel was revealed today by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers.

In a press conference on the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University, the researchers said the discovery came about when a small opening was found , leading to a cave extending to a depth of 100 meters beneath the surface of a quarry in the vicinity of Ramle, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The quarry is operated by cement manufacturer Nesher Industries.

The cave, which has been dubbed the Ayalon Cave, is “unique in the world,” said Prof. Amos Frumkin of the Hebrew University Department of Geography. This is due mainly to its isolation from the outside world, since the cave’s surface is situated under a layer of chalk that is impenetrable to water. The cave, with its branches, extends over some 2½ kilometers, making it Israel’s second largest limestone cave. It is to remain closed to the public to permit further scientific research.

The invertebrate animals found in the cave – four seawater and freshwater crustaceans and four terrestial species – are related to but different from other, similar life forms known to scientists. The species have been sent to biological experts in both Israel and abroad for further analysis and dating. It is estimated that these species are millions of years old. Also found in the cave were bacteria that serve as the basic food source in the ecosystem.

“The eight species found thus far are only the beginning” of what promises to be “a fantastic biodiversity,” said Dr. Hanan Dimentman of the Hebrew University Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, another of the researchers involved in the project. He said that he expects further exploration to reveal several other unique life forms.

The animals found there were all discovered live, except for a blind species of scorpion, although Dr. Dimentman is certain that live scorpions will be discovered in further explorations and also probably an animal or animals which feed on the scorpions.

The underground cave includes an underground lake, in which the crustaceans were found. The lake is part of the Yarkon-Taninim aquifer, one of Israel’s two aquifers, yet is different in temperature and chemical composition from the main waters of the aquifer. The lake’s temperature and salinity indicates that its source is deep underground.

Among the interesting features of the discoveries thus far in the cave is that two of the crustaceans are seawater species and two others are of a types found in fresh or brackish water. This can provide insights into events occurring millions of years ago regarding the history of ancient bodies of water in the region.

In addition to Prof. Frumkin, who heads the unit for cave research in the Department of Geography, and Dr. Dimentman, others involved in the project are Prof. Dov Por and Prof. Aharon Oren of the Institute of Life Sciences, graduate student Israel Naaman, and several others. The Israel Water Commission has assisted in the research, as has Nesher Industries.

Yoel Feldschue, director-general of Nesher Industries, said today that Nesher will preserve the ecological ecosystem which has been revealed in the center of its quarry in order to avoid any damage to the important findings there. He added in that regard that he is hopeful that the planning authorities will enable the company to operate in alternate areas in order to help preserve the scientific site.

23 April 2006

Workplace Fit

A Jedi friend of mine recommended Live Career, which has a free career personality test. A portion of my results are below. I was a bit surprised that I scored as high as I did on Attentive and Creative, and as low as I did on Conventional (though the last is, I'm sure, mainly self-delusion--I'd like to believe I'm more orderly and less easily bored than I am).
Realistic (Doers) -
Realistic types like physical activity, working with their hands, and are mechanically-inclined. They enjoy working outdoors and do not mind dealing with physical risks on the job.
Investigative (Thinkers) -
Investigative types enjoy the challenge of problem solving in mathematics, technology, and sciences, and the abstract and practical ideas related to these areas. Applied science, such as engineering, technology or computer science may also be of interest to them. They can be technically creative.
Artistic (Creators) -
Artistic types are often thought of as original and creative by others. Such people enjoy expressing themselves in artistic ways such as acting, dancing, creating music or visual art, or by expressing their ideas either through discussion or debate.
Social (Helpers) -
Social types are interested in helping to keep others emotionally or physically healthy, or in teaching others. They enjoy giving advice and working directly with people, either in groups or individually.
Enterprising (Persuaders) -
Enterprising types are people-oriented. They like to talk to, influence and persuade others. They are confident, adventurous, assertive and show leadership.
Conventional (Organisers) -
Conventional types enjoy supervising others in jobs where rules and tasks are well defined. They show careful attention to detail, are organized, follow instructions well and prefer jobs where their daily duties are regular and fixed.
Attentive (Servers) -
Attentive types enjoy helping others, serving others' personal needs and looking after the comfort and well-being of others. They are happy in jobs requiring sociability, politeness, patience and a happy disposition.