Friday, February 18, 2011

We're melting!

This is mainly for my mother who, suffering as always from the extreme weather in Minnesota, loves seeing what's happening here in the more moderate weather of Connecticut. She has quite enjoyed the pain we've felt this winter. Remember this?

Our poor penguins on the front porch have been buried for more than a month. Not any more.

The car that disappeared sometime in mid-January...

is finally showing its sorry self.

Far more interesting is a blog I just ran across. James Nicoloro, who lives here in Redding, is making a documentary about Mark Twain's last years, including the time he lived in town. The photographs he posts are beautiful and it's interesting to follow the process of research and all else involved in putting together the film. Check it out here.

The gates leading up to Mark Twain's Stormfield property, photographed by James Nicoloro this winter.

Friday, February 11, 2011

2/11/2011 ~ Egypt Erupts with Freedom...

At least from the 30-year reign of 'President' Hosni Mubarak. I've had CNN on all morning and it's beyond compelling to watch. Wolf Blitzo [sic] did an interview with Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive (married to an American) who has played such important role initiating the protests and pushing them for the last barely two weeks. The two best quotes from the interview, already flashing across the world were: "If you want to liberate a country, give them the internet" and, when Blitzer asked Ghonim if other Middle-Eastern countries would follow Egypt down the same road, Ghonim replied (based on my memory), "ask Facebook." The whole interview is here. The quotes are on fire online.

                                          The celebration continues, tweeted by its participants.

The New York Times ran an article a couple of days ago about how a small group of people, including Wael Ghonim, got this whole party started. (Their action plan is here for any Tea Party members reading this.) Most of them lean to the Left but say they want a "Western-style constitutional democracy."  The article is interesting. Good quote:

"they also acknowledge deep divides, especially over the role of Islam in public life...On the question of alcohol — forbidden by Islam — he suggested that drinking was a private matter but that perhaps it should be forbidden in public...Asked if he could imagine an Egyptian president who was a Christian woman, he paused. “If it is a government of institutions,” he said, “I don’t care if the president is a monkey.”

The Economist published an article about what course the future of Egypt might and should take: whatever Egyptians believe it should be. It's quite derogatory about the West's attempt to prop up Hosni Mubarak in order to maintain stability in the region. It's interesting. Good quote:

"Egypt’s upheaval may make Westerners nervous, but when Egyptians demand freedom and self-determination, they are affirming values that the West lives by. There is no guarantee that Egypt’s revolution will turn out for the best. The only certainty is that autocracy leads to upheaval, and the best guarantor of stability is democracy.

The Middle-Eastern population is very young:

Middle-Eastern youth learned today that they hold some level of power to direct their own futures, even under oppressive governments. That can't be a bad thing. Let's hope that all the protesters...

will play a part in their future.

It's worth watching this video again. Listen to what the man says (at the 49 second mark) about why he is in Tahrir Square ~ twice. Gives me some hope.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cinnabons and Egypt...

As someone who loved the pictures of purple fingers and who, despite the evidence otherwise, wants to believe that all people have a desire for individual freedom, I am choosing to believe that there is a small possibility the young Egyptians who peacefully demonstrated in the streets are longing for *some autonomy in their lives. (*Some autonomy? Is that similiar to being half pregnant? Some is better than none, though.)

                                                                 Christian Science Monitor

Thanks to social networking sites like Facebook, young Egyptians have been able to identify like-minded people and recently, bring them out onto the streets in protest against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. The courage they've shown is obviously motivated by a desire for a better future. Is it also possible that some of that courage comes from being exposed, also via the internet, to millions of people who are living every day with freedom and economic opportunity? Or maybe from sitting in a Western institution like Cinnabons in Cairo, eating sweet rolls and fantisizing about a different life?

Almost exactly two years ago the New York Times ran an article about how Facebook opened up communication for young Egyptians. As one activist explained:

 “Facebook revealed a liberal undercurrent in Egyptian society...In general, there’s this kind of apathy, a sense that there is nothing we can do to change the situation. But with Facebook you realize there are others who think alike and share the same ideals. You can find Islamists there, but it is really dominated by liberal voices.”  

While many in the West are worried that the radical Muslim Brotherhood will replace the current regime, there are signs that at least a portion of the protesters are looking for secular values ~ freedom and economic opportunity. The Wall Street Journal ran an eyewitness account of the early days of the protest. He writes:

"Cheers emphasized the unity of Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—against the regime...It made us feel that only our own hands can bring change...The streets are the place to protest...Mr. Mubarak may hang on...But Egypt will never be the same.

Roger L. Simon interviewed the infamous self-named Sandmonkey, long-time, freedom loving Egyptian blogger. The interview is interesting; Sandmonkey's posts about the demonstrations are even better. Including this observation:

"This protest is not one made or sustained by the Muslim Brotherhood, it's one that had people from all social classes and religious background in Egypt...This is a revolution without leaders. Three Million individuals choosing hope instead of fear and braving death on hourly basis to keep their dream of freedom alive. Imagine that."

I do hope Sandmonkey is correct ~ that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't have the support necessary to form a new government. The ultra-courageous Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about the Muslim Brotherhood in her compelling book Infidel, following her journey from a childhood directed by strict Islamic law, to joining the Muslim Brotherhood, to (fast forward) living in America working to protect and defend the rights of women against militant Islam. She offers her views on the advantage the Muslim Brotherhood has over secular protesters, and explains what course the secular groups should follow. Scott Atran, writing in the New York Times, believes there is little chance the Brotherhood will gain traction.

It's not our fight though, especially after supporting the tyranical target of the protesters for 30 years. But we can support the secular protesters with words and information. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation and its Global Initiative works around the world (just read Tom Palmer's, in essence, a travel blog) educating and supporting people who embrace individual freedom.

Global Voices offers a forum for communication around the world in multiple languages. While they do not post every blogger who sends them links, according to their manifesto they do believe in free and open speech:

"We believe in free speech: in protecting the right to speak — and the right to listen. We believe in universal access to the tools of speech.

To that end, we seek to enable everyone who wants to speak to have the means to speak — and everyone who wants to hear that speech, the means to listen to it.

Thanks to new tools, speech need no longer be controlled by those who own the means of publishing and distribution, or by governments that would restrict thought and communication. Now, anyone can wield the power of the press. Everyone can tell their stories to the world."

As far as I can tell, Global Voices doesn't seem to have a hidden agenda. Right now the main page features a lot of blogging from Egypt, including this one.

Although I still believe that Western influences as silly as Cinnabon franchises in Cairo play their small part in making the West more familiar and less frightening, it's social media that, as Deborah Wheeler said on C-Span this morning, is the game changer.

Social media (and growing numbers of people joining in) is the protest movement's strongest weapon and, although the Egyptian government shut down the internet for a couple of days, they were forced to put it back up ~ it's the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.

This post is a spaghetti bowl of stuff having to do with what is happening in Egypt. This video distills everything down to what is really important, beautifully expressed by the man a minute or so into it.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

T&A is running scared...

Gee, I guess the T&A thinks we've forgotten what happened last fall. Well, we haven't.

Apparently, the T&A gets that the taxpayers who are forced to pay their salaries have NO faith in their ability to carry out their responsibilities with any sort of reasonable, reality-based effort. So...they have decided to end a program that allowed airports to replace the T&A with private companies who, while structured to provide the same services in probably a more cost-effective way, still had to conform to T&A oversight. Better nip that one in the bud ~ 16 airports, including San Francisco and Kansas City, had already opted for the private option.

Worried about losing power and money...and looking even more inept? Probably.

Place a bet...

When I was growing up in Minnesota, cars were driven out to the middle of frozen lakes and bets were made on the exact day in the spring the car would collapse through the ice. Anything to pass the time during sub-zero temperatures.

One of our cars, while not sitting on a frozen lake, is buried in a snow bank.

Yes, there is a car underneath that snowbank. When do you think the roof of the car will be free of snow? I'm going with St. Patrick's Day. 

Shocking update: more snow coming.

All winter we've used the penguins on our front porch to measure how much more snow we've received after each storm. Last week all but the one sitting on the top step were buried.

This morning there are two heads, at least for now.

Every week should be school choice week...

As National School Choice Week comes to a close the evidence keeps mounting that there is more and more support for reforming our public schools and, more importantly, ending the dominance of the teachers unions and placing the power of school choice back in the hands of parents.

While I remain unconvinced that the parent trigger laws gaining popularity around the country, after California passed one a year ago, are an efficient way to reform failing schools, it may trigger parents into believing it's time to stand up and fight. The California law allows parents, if 51% or more of them are willing to sign a petition, to demand reform for a failing school by replacing it with a charter school, by making administration changes or by shutting it down altogether.

The law is being tested in Compton, CA by 62% of the parents whose children attend McKinley Elementary School. They are asking for the school to be replaced by next September with a charter school they've already chosen.

It's not hard to imagine how vicious the push-back is from the-powers-that-be. Spreading lies and fear, the status quo education establishment is working hard now to rewrite the law. Let's not forget what the new head of the Washington, DC teachers union said when he took the's all about protecting the teachers. Hopefully the parents in the video will get that and stay strong.

Remember my post discussing the dismantling of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the US Senate? Well, there is hope that the program will be revived, an effort spearheaded by Speaker of the House John Boehner. OSP offered vouchers, definitely the third rail of the school reform movement, to 2000 children from low income families stuck in maybe the worse school district in the US. Put Kids First is a DC parents group who worked hard to keep the program alive.

President Obama understands that the DC schools are in a wretched state.

But President Obama stood by while his Education Secretary pulled 213 students, all new to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, out of the program last year in order to stop the growth of OSP. If the bill to reinstate funding for OSP passes in the Republican-controlled Congress, and in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and actually reaches the President's desk, I hope he'll watch this before he makes the decision to sign the bill or push it off of his desk.

In fact, I hope he watches it several times...with his daughters. I have a feeling they'd know which decision is the right decision.

Further signs the education powers-that-be need to be more open-minded: vouchers are gaining more attention. They are usually associated with falling school systems in inner cities. Interestingly, a wealthy county outside of Denver, CO is considering adding vouchers to the wide variety of choices the school system already offers, including nine charter schools, two magnet schools and even a school online. A school board member likens it to the choices we enjoy in other areas of our lives. The Superintendent, Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, has a more expansive view of how vouchers (and other proposals the Board is considering) fit into a model for education: a recent letter to parents of the district's 56,000 students, she said her leadership team "did not find the ideas alarming" and pledged the district would "set the stage for new thinking in education."

Support for shaking up the education status quo does seem to be increasing. I do wonder, though, why Waiting For Superman, after so much positive attention, excellent reviews and it's effect on increasing support for school reform from every corner ~ Oprah, Prince, Mark Zukerberg, to name a few ~ was not nominated for an Academy Award. Guess it doesn't matter. The film has opened a lot of minds to the failures of our schools and will, in the future, change the lives of thousands of children.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Enough already...

Was kept away from the computer for a few days by reality rearing its ugly head. Of course, aside from the repeal of Obamacare, nothing much has happened.

Except for even more snow...

Jeez. Enough with the snow. Even Gracie is tired of it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Excellent documentary about Realtors...

In my experience as a Realtor, most everyone is interested in real estate, especially with the change in the market. I just got back from seeing an excellent movie about the business with a close friend who is also a Realtor. We both agreed that this movie shows the nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes dynamics of real estate, especially given most Realtors are women. The scene showing the woman acting snarky towards each while they put their make-up on in preparation for work is particularly realistic, as is the furtive nastiness directed at the top agent.
Apparently it's headed towards at least a couple of Oscar wins so it's probably worth seeing while it's still showing in theatres.

Well, it seemed like it was about sociological dynamics of real estate.

Actually, The Black Swan is not what it's cracked up to be. This is slightly better.

But only slightly.

It goes without saying though, Realtors are scary.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This is ridiculous...

This is what the penguins who live on our front porch every winter looked like on December 27, the day after the infamous snow storm that showed the powers-that-be at New York City Sanitation Department at their worst.

This is how they look this morning, an additional 22" of snow later...and it's still snowing. Fortunately for New York City, only eight inches fell there and the Sanitation Department seems to have decided that another work slow-down wouldn't further their agenda.

This is my backyard the day before the Christmas storm.

Three snow storms later.

It's pretty but I like the first picture better.

Well, back to work. Won't be going anywhere anytime soon.

Can you find all three cars in this picture, not counting the one behind the zebras?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sounds like a plan to me...

StudentsFirst, the non-profit organization started by Michelle Rhee to organize a national movement for school reform, came out with its plan for fixing our broken schools today. A lot of it is familiar to anyone who has been following Ms. Rhee via her appearances on Oprah or in the film Waiting For Superman.

The pleasant surprise is the inclusion of vouchers. It makes sense to increase educational options by allowing access to private schools with public money but, historically, 'voucher' has been a dirty word in political circles as it rocks the union boats. Career politicians do not like to jeopardize reliable sources of campaign contributions.

Anyway, here's the list:

Our policy agenda outlines our immediate objectives and the reasoning behind them. It’s a big document, about 20 pages, so here’s an outline of our core priorities:

Priority One: Elevate the Teaching Profession by Valuing Teachers’ Impact on Students

StudentsFirst believes that all students can achieve at high levels when they have effective teachers. We will work to ensure every child is guaranteed that right. Excellent teachers and principals are the backbone of public education, they must be recognized as professionals with whom we entrust the awesome responsibility of developing our nation’s future.

For this reason, we will work to ensure, among other things, that teachers are evaluated based on evidence of student results rather than arbitrary judgments; that principals are evaluated for their ability to attract, retain, manage, and develop great teachers; and that excellent teachers are paid substantially more for their vital work.

Part of this will involve separating teacher evaluation from collective bargaining in union contracts (given the inherent conflict of interest), and removing certain seniority-based policies, such as “First in, Last Out,” which require districts to terminate the most recent hires when layoffs are required. The bottom line is that we can make teaching a profession based on respect and performance, not tenure.

Priority Two: Empower parents with real choices and real information.

Parents naturally put the interests of their children above the interests of the system, so the more power parents have over their children’s education, the more our education system will be a students-first system.

We will work to create more high-quality, public-funded school choices by removing caps on the number of charter schools allowed, eliminating the barriers to replicating high-performing public charter schools, and supporting private-public scholarship programs for students without quality options.

Likewise, we will work to empower communities by giving them the power to reform failing schools; we will encourage open enrollment policies that allow families to choose better-suited schools outside their neighborhoods; and we will offer parents clear and useful data about their schools, such as whether their child’s teacher has a track record of helping students progress academically.

Priority Three: Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely to Get Better Results for Students.

Over the past 40 years, per-pupil funding has more than doubled, but students have little to show for it. Student achievement has remained flat. This funding/achievement disconnect exists because in many cases states have spent money on some “feel good” things that have not been proven to increase student achievement, such as smaller classes or raising salaries based on advanced degrees instead of effectiveness. They also spend a lot on infrastructure, technology and facilities that could be streamlined and redirected to proven areas that improve student progress.

StudentsFirst will advocate for aggressive reforms in critical structural, operational, and budgeting activities throughout the country. We will work to eliminate laws that hamper superintendents’ and principals’ abilities to optimize their resources, help curb ineffective spending on the state level, and end bureaucratic policies that force district leaders to choose the cheapest food and facilities services, without regard to quality.

Well worth checking out the long version.

Go Michelle!