Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Things You Have To Believe To Be a Republican Today

Not original with me, but too good not to pass along:

Things You Have To Believe To Be a Republican Today

Jesus loves you, and shares your hatred of taxes, homosexuals, and Hillary.

Saddam was a good guy when Reagan armed him, a bad guy when Bush's daddy made war on him, a good guy when Cheney did business with him, and a bad guy when Bush needed a "we can't find Bin Laden" diversion.

Trade with Cuba is wrong because the country is Communist, but trade with China and Vietnam is vital to a spirit of international harmony. The United States should get out of the United Nations, and our highest national priority is enforcing U.N. resolutions against Iraq.

A woman can't be trusted with decisions about her own body but multi-national corporations can make decisions affecting all mankind without regulation.

The best way to improve military morale is to praise the troops in speeches, while slashing veterans' benefits and combat pay.

If condoms are kept out of schools, adolescents won't have sex.

A good way to fight terrorism is to belittle our long-time allies, then demand their cooperation and money.

Providing health care to all Iraqis is sound policy, but providing health care to all Americans is socialism. HMOs and insurance companies have the best interests of the public at heart.

Global warming and tobacco's link to cancer are junk science, but creationism should be taught in schools.

A president lying about an extra-marital affair is an impeachable offense, but a president lying to enlist support for a war in which thousands die is solid defense policy.

Government should limit itself to the powers named in the Constitution, which include banning gay marriages and censoring the Internet.

The public has a right to know about Hillary's cattle trades, but George Bush's driving record is none of our business.

Being a drug addict is a moral failing and a crime, unless you're a conservative radio host. Then it's an illness and you need our prayers for your recovery.

What Bill Clinton did in the 1960s is of vital national interest, but what Bush did in the 1980s is irrelevant.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Peg Lautenschlager for Wisconsin Attorney General

For the last 1/3 of a century, I’ve lived in Madison, where of late it’s been my privilege to have Kathleen Falk as my county executive. I have unbounded appreciation for her talents and her record of accomplishment. There’s little doubt that she would be the 2nd best attorney general the State of Wisconsin has ever had.

But, come September 12, I will be breaking my perfect record of voting for her every time I could, because I’d have to vote against the VERY best AG in state history: Peg Lautenschlager!

Back in 2002, Peg already had the best resume of any candidate for the office. A Phi Beta Kappa college graduate with double honors, she started out as a private attorney and subsequently served on the faculty of UW Law School, as district attorney for Winnebago County, in the Wisconsin Legislature, and as US attorney for western Wisconsin. Now, after 4 years of actual on-the-job experience, nobody else even comes close to her qualifications.

So let’s talk about the drunk-driving thing. You’ll hear a lot about it in this campaign because, frankly, it’s all her opponents have got. They can’t challenge her professional competence or her performance, so they’re stuck having to bring up a personal problem.

For me, it comes down to one simple question: Did it affect her ability to do her job? Answer: no. Case closed.

But I recognize that there are a lot of people for whom personal issues are important, so for them I offer 2 considerations:

(1) Peg admitted immediately what she’d done, forthrightly acknowledged it as a mistake, warned others not to do likewise, and took the consequences the law handed out without demur. Isn’t this exactly what we’d want a public official to do? If we thereafter reject such an honest person at the polls, aren’t we sending all our other public officials the wrong message? Aren’t we telling them to go ahead, lie, cover up, pull rank, deny, intimidate the arresting officer, bribe, try to blame someone else -- do anything you can to get out of it, or your political career is doomed? Shouldn’t we should encourage them to do the right thing, as Peg Lautenschlager did?

(2) If you really think that personal issues are important, how about throwing one into the opposite side of the balance scales: Peg’s fight against cancer and the baldness-inducing chemotherapy that came with it. She won’t say anything about it, because she correctly views it as irrelevant to her job performance, but if personal sagas are important to you, shouldn’t this year-long battle count for at least as much as a single night’s mistake?

We should be grateful that Peg Lautenschlager is willing to give us 4 more years of her talent and dedication. (And, frankly, I want to keep my county executive, too.)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Voucher Schools Coming to Canada?

On 2006 Aug 24, Bill Broderick of the Humanist Association of Canada inquired:

How do school vouchers work in the U.S.?  They may be coming to Canada.

= = = = = =
Richard comments:

Oh, boy, lucky you!

There are 2 possible ways of reading your question:
   (1) How do vouchers get instituted in the 1st place?
   (2) How well do they function once in place?

To answer Question #1, they get there by means of lies and phony arguments. Common arguments (which I'm sure you'll hear repeated in the months ahead) are that the public schools are failing, parents deserve a choice, the free market is the answer to all our problems, you should be entitled to spend your education dollar wherever you want, private schools perform better than public schools, kids need more discipline, variety is the spice of life, public schools have no morals or values, black (or other minority) kids want their own schools, this is a Christian nation, we get more bang for our buck with the more efficient private schools, and several more that I could probably remember if I spent a little longer at it.

To answer Question #2, mechanically they work OK. In theory, the vouchers should be going to the parents (that's the way the program is invariably sold to the suckers), but the actual physical vouchers are bypassed in favor of just getting summary reports from the schools, based on which the state generates checks that go directly to the schools. (The idea of parents walking around from school to school, vouchers in hands, looking for the best place to educate their kids, is mythology.)

Educationally, the BEST that can be said is that kids going to voucher schools are, in general, not much worse off than if they'd continued going to public schools, based on 2nd-hand data like dropout and pregnancy rates, SAT and ACT scores, and college-admission levels. In general, their GPAs are higher, but that's less likely attributable to increased performance than to lower expectations and grade inflation. The one positive note is that parental satisfaction is higher in the voucher schools.

As a matter of public policy, school vouchers are -- like ALL contracting-out schemes -- masters of obscurity. There is very little public accountability for where public tax dollars are going or how they're being used. Private schools are not required to submit their students to standardized testing, there are no expectations for their curricula, their teachers don't have to be licensed or even qualified, needless to say there are no elections, and they're free to discriminate in hiring and firing of employees as well as with regard to what students they'll take. (In theory, they're prohibited from discriminating among students, but there are a thousand ways of communicating the "You're not our kind" message during the admissions process, and flat-out legal exemptions for handicapped or disruptive kids that they're not equipped to serve.)

All of the foregoing is based on my observations during a 25-year period when I was an analyst for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which got to oversee (to the limited extent permitted by law) the school-voucher "experiment" that was conducted in Milwaukee, our state's largest city (called by some the most segregated city in America).

This program was sold to the public during the administration of Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (who later became the current President Bush's 1st Secretary of Health and Human Services) on the afore-mentioned basis of being an experiment. The idea was to put to rest, once and for all, the question of whether private schools (comprising 90% parochial schools and 10% proprietary, or for-profit, schools) did indeed outperform public schools. As part of the legislative act authorizing the program, there was an evaluation component. We at the DPI contracted with Dr. Alex Molnar of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee to conduct the evaluation. It was done using rigorous scientific methodology, in which every kid who took advantage of the voucher program was matched with another, closely comparable kid, who stayed in the public school the 1st kid had left behind. At the end of every year, all of the voucher kids and all of the control-group kids had data reported for a wide variety of different educational and social indicators.

Every year, as more and more kids went into the voucher system (the full quota was phased in over a 5-year period), the results came back with an ever more solid foundation in the data. And they demonstrated conclusively that the private schools were in NO WAY better than the public schools and were usually a bit worse (except for the GPAs and parental satisfaction, as mentioned above). They weren't generally terrible, but they sure didn't live up to their advance billing as being the answer to all our problems, either.

So what was the reaction of the Thompson administration, once the 5 years were up, the results were in, and the theoretical basis for having voucher programs in the 1st place had been demolished? They renewed the program without the evaluation component. And this time they made it permanent. And raised the cap on the number of students eigible to participate.

Did I mention that all of the funding for the voucher schools came by taking it out of the state-aid allocation that would otherwise have gone to the Milwaukee Public Schools?

For every success story in the voucher program (like the continuation of Milwaukee Messmer High, a Catholic school that by all accounts was quite good but which was teetering on the brink of closing due to financial problems), there's a counter-example (like the teachers and kids who showed up at their voucher school one morning to find the place locked up, because the state-aid check had come in the previous day and the principal had cashed it and taken off with the money for parts unknown, leaving the public schools to pick up the pieces even tho they didn't have the money to cover it).

Last year Wisconsin's latest Republican governor, Jim Doyle (who ran as and claims to be a Democrat), negotiated a deal with the Republican-dominated Legislature to raise the enrollment cap on the voucher program yet again, in return for which he got some tepid accountability language built into the law that permits some very limited inspections of the voucher schools by DPI personnel and requires them to comply with the same standardized testing requirements that have been in place for the public schools for the last quarter century.

As you can see, the technique used here in Wisconsin is to start small and keep wedging 1st the toe, then the foot, then the entire leg thru the door. The good news is that nobody outside of Milwaukee really wants anything to do with this idea. The bad news is that it keeps getting bigger in Milwaukee, and the public schools there keep getting short-changed.

Part of the reason why the voucher idea hasn't caught on elsewhere in the state is because we adopted the idea of open enrollment. That is, the normal expectation is that kids will attend school in the schools operated by the geographical school district within whose boundaries they reside. But there are a number of reasons why the kids or their parents might not want to do that. The classic illustration is a parent who lives in Community A but commutes 15 miles to work at a business in Community B that happens to be right next door to a pretty good school that her kids could easily attend. There are a flock of other motivations as well, but the bottom line is that allowing kids and parents pretty much open season to choose among any of the PUBLIC schools in their area has greatly diminished the appeal of having PRIVATE schools as an alternative.

OK, I've rambled on way too long here, but ya gotta understand that this was my life for over a quarter of a century, and I'm still very interested in the subject, even tho I'm retired. If there's anything more info I can provide, I'd be happy to do so.

Friday, August 18, 2006

About Science Fiction

I am a science-fiction fan. Been reading it all my life. Regularly go thru over 20 SF books a year. Attend SF cons. Participate in SF listservs. Hang out with SF fans. Watch every SF movie that comes to town and almost all of the SF TV shows. Love the stuff.

And, in my experience, SF fans are better than most at making the distinction between science and fiction.

They also tend to be atheists.

Indeed, most of the big SF cons have a tiny little room somewhere where the Christian SF fans can get together and bemoan their minority status and the fact that everyone else in fandom thinks they're a little weird. (In other words, they're like atheists in the Mundane World.)

One friend of mine who happened to fall into this odd overlapping intersection of the Xian and fannish subsets was bemoaning his love life one day. His wife had divorced him, and he said "Do you know how HARD it is to find a single Xian woman in fandom?". Because he really WAS a friend, I eschewed the opportunity to advise him that he'd probably have better luck if he abandoned the Xianity crap and joined the real world. (Besides, it's not as if my own love life served as such a sterling counter-example.)

At WisCon 30, held here in my home town of Madison WI last Memorial Day, we had a panel called "Pick Yer Poison", where the blurb read "You're an elderly black female atheist liberal lesbian feminist SF fan in a wheelchair. Which of these characteristics gets you the most grief (a) in society at large? (b) as a character in an SF novel? (c) in fandom? How about your 2 fellow siblings, identical in every respect except that one's a born-again Christian and the other's a Republican?" I wasn't able to attend the panel, but I heard that the born-agains actually came away with a little more audience sympathy than the Republicans.

A field closely allied with science fiction is fantasy, which for present purposes I'll take to include the subgenre called horror, which some split off into a genre in its own right. I liken it to playing poker. SF allows you to have up to 2 wild cards (like time travel or ESP) in the deck; anything more than that, and you're dealing with fantasy.

These conventions are widely understood by fans, and tolerated as long as they don't get in the way of a crackin' good story, or if they're not pulled out of nowhere at the end of the story to create a deus ex machina ending.

But, for the most part, fans get irritated when the science isn't right. They don't want noisy spaceships (no atmosphere to carry the sound waves) or everyone on Pluto speaking English or aliens who look just like us (except for the pointy ears) to the point of being interfertile. (As Carl Sagan once observed, you'd have a better chance cross-breeding with a cauliflower than a sentient being from another planet.)

Fans understand that the Universe is an amazing place, with all sorts of strange wonders. They can contemplate opening diplomatic relations with sentient mushrooms that communicate by means of chemical gradients. With a background like that, they think petty difference between human beings (like different skin color) are so trivial as to be hardly worth mentioning. And they (usually) recognize religion as being yet another cultural artifact, strictly a byproduct of the environment's influence on thinking minds and subject to change over the centuries.

I recently read an SF short story that contained a mental image that I'm going to make more extensive use of in the future. It's this. All of us picture ourselves at the center of a notional Universe in which we're represented as dots and so is everyone else. And we draw lines in these diagrams. There are basically 2 kinds of lines you can draw: circles or spokes. Draw a circle around yourself and include as many of your family members, friends, co-workers, etc. as you want, and you've provided what seems like a safe, tight little community. But you've limited yourself, and invariably there's way more outside your circle than there is inside. OTOH, you can draw spokes, radial lines emanating from you and going as far away as you want, connecting you to other people and walling you off from none of them. Spokes allow for more possibilities than circles, and they're not constricting.

This is the kind of mindset that science fiction encourages.

As long, of course, as it doesn't get in the way of a good story.

= = = = = =
There are many intelligent species in the universe. They are all owned by cats.
-- anonymous

Thursday, August 03, 2006

John Waldo Russell -- Born 100 Year Ago Today

John Waldo Russell
1906 Aug. 3 – 1960 Jan. 20

My father, John Waldo Russell, was born 100 years ago today. Thruout his life he was known as Waldo, Lick (short for lickety split – he was apparently quite the runner as a boy), Jack, Mr. Russell (to his barbering students), Daddy (to my mom and sister), and Pop (to me).

He died young, at age 53. The ostensible cause of death was complications of atherosclerosis, but I chalk it up to the fact that he drank too much, smoked too much, ate too much, and exercised too little. His DNA was probably OK; his own father, Richard Kemper Russell (1873 June 22 –1965 Nov. 15) outlived him.

Occasions like this always give one the opportunity to reflect on one’s own mortality. As Garrison Keillor put it about his own father’s death, the buffer between you and the Grim Reaper is gone.

I grew up during the Eisenhower Era, when kids were supposed to be seen and not heard; women were supposed to keep house; and men were supposed to work all day, come home at night, read the paper, and be inscrutable. We did our part.

I think my folks weren’t quite sure what to make of me, their geek kid. “He’s always got his nose in a book!”, they’d apologize to visitors. But, to their credit, they didn’t push me to, say, take up the violin or go out for football. After awhile, they kind of let me search out my own path (as long as the lawn was mowed and the sidewalk was shoveled).

Consequently, I didn’t have many chances to learn much from my father. “Always clean your tools when the job is done.” is one that’s stuck with me. And “Always leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.”, which is the out-the-door advice I got as he shipped me off on a Boy Scout camping expedition. (After 4 years in Boy Scout Troop 89, I found out he’d been on the parent board the entire time, but didn’t think to tell me about it.)

Altho I don’t consciously remember his ever telling me that a union is a working man’s best friend, his union activism must have somehow rubbed off on me (tho even after all these years I find it odd that barbers — the quintessential independent businessmen — had their own union). I heard 2nd-hand stories of how he’d been active in the Madison Federation of Labor before he married my mom and moved to Eau Claire, and apparently he was chosen to introduce Franklin Delano Roosevelt when his campaign train arrived in Madison, probably in 1932. I have no idea whether this is true or just family folklore.

Every Sunday afternoon Pop would turn on the radio to hear “Hello, Wisconsin! This is William T. Evjue, editor and publisher of The Capital Times in Madison” and then listen to 15 minutes of Evjue railing against the evils of Joe McCarthy and “the one-party press”. (Hint: He wasn’t talking about the so-called “liberal media”.) This was followed by the Green Bay Packer game, but that was my mom’s thing, not my dad’s. (Her nephew Dan Orlich played defensive end for the Packers from 1947 to 1949, and everybody on that side of the family, including me, became a Packer fan for life as a result.)

The main lessons I learned from Pop were the negative ones: DON’T drink, DON’T smoke, DON’T overeat, and DO exercise. In case there was any glimmer of reservation about this course of action, it didn’t survive the early 1990s when 4 of my co-workers at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction — George Kolb, Amza Vail, Roy Richgels, and Don Russell (no relation) — all died within a couple of years (one way or the other) of retiring.

Keeling over in the traces, or even shortly after being put out to pasture, didn’t strike me as a good idea. I myself retired in 2000, at age 55, and have not regretted it. Serious financial advisors talk about the 3-legged stool of retirement: your pension, Social Security, and “other income” (by which they mean investments, rental property, your kids, odd jobs, and so on). The 3rd leg of my stool has been lowered expectations. As a working person, I made more money than I needed myself, so I annually gave away thousands of dollars to various worthy causes. Now that I can’t afford it any more, I don’t. My lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much.

I guess that attitude was one other lesson I learned from Pop: don’t get too full of yourself, live within reason, enjoy yourself if you can, but don’t shirk any serious responsibilities.

I’m sure you can spend a dime for a dozen shrinks who will tell you all about the lifetime traumas that are inflicted on Impressionable Youth when they lose a parent during their formative years. (I was 15 when Pop died.) And I suppose they’ve got plenty of examples they can cite, too. But I’m not one of them.

I’m not sure whether the kind of medical care we have now in 2006 could have helped my father back in 1960. I’m guessing it would probably only have netted him a few more years at best, and probably not very happy ones.

But I’m taking full advantage of 21st Century health care and expect it to keep me alive and kicking until my own 100th birthday. Alas, that’s probably not true for all of my friends, however, so I’ve decided I’m going to celebrate it early, on 2009 May 7 (which would normally be my 65th), so everyone else can attend while they’re still young and healthy enuf to enjoy it.

But that’s a few years off still, so for now, happy birthday, Pop. You’da been amazed!