Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Saturday, November 26, 2005
We were open Thanksgiving, with a winter storm watch and blizzard warnings. There was nobody in the joint, so we were pulled oof the tables and sent to the office, where I spent a few hours gluing used dice to chains of Christmas lights for our department's Christmas tree. (The dice are lucite and different colors, so when you drill them out and light them, they look quite cool.)
The picture was taken for our tree, where we have the faces of our staff on the faces of a deck of cards.
Driving home was sort of like plowing snow with one's car. The wind had stopped blowing, leaving only thick bands of lake effect snow. There weren't even any tracks to follow for the last mile. The slot attendant who lives two miles past me said it wasn't snowing at all once he got a mile past my house.
The day after Thanksgiving we were busy. Our new Christmas decorations looked nice. The surveillance department's tree had a "Santa is Watching You" theme. It featured hidden cameras that played to video monitors under the tree, but there were also hidden radios, so the staff on duty could listen in and respond to the conversations going on around the tree.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
The Detroit Free Press yesterday outlined some of the issues in the ongoing struggles to balance school districts' budgets.
Ann Arbor Public School's Superintendent outlines his cost cutting concerns. Once again, they are running out of ways make cuts without adversely affecting education.
Across the country, schools are experimenting with selling the naming rights to buildings, athletic fields, or even whole schools. A quote from a spokeswoman from the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood:
We used to name public buildings for heroes, and we're not doing that anymore, we're naming them after the highest bidder. What kind of message is that sending to kids?
Finally, a rumor of a plan by Michigan House Republicans to boost school funding using a projected $55 million surplus in the school aid fund.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Our first snow came suddenly. I went to work in a sweater and when I came out there was four inches of wet snow on everything. Through the next day it got colder and the wind picked up. By Thursday morning trees were breaking all over. This lilac was our kids' only climbing tree for years, but the storm took it down.
These four pines, at the south end of my garden, survived the storm but will come down by spring to make way for new power lines. They have been shading my garden out every late summer, so I hope my gardening will be better, even if the view is worse. Still I wonder why they can't bury the lines. If you look closely you can see the snow-laden branches lying over the wires.
Across French Road from us, a pole broke and was swinging back and forth hanging from the wire.
That line is the path of the new power line, so I'm hoping that the replacement pole they are setting in this picture turns out to be what the new line will look like. Those linemen worked their rear ends off last week, trying to get everyone's power back on. Some friends in Leland were without power for three days. I was afraid this truck would sink into the mud under the snow, but they got the job done and made it back to pavement.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Last week the Senate and House leadership put the legislature on notice of their intention to address the Heath Care and Retirement crisis facing school districts across the State by introducing legislation to help school districts provide affordable benefits. The legislation will impact current employee health as well as future employee retirement benefits.
Currently the legislature is on Thanksgiving recess but there is a commitment from leadership to vote on this legislation when they return on the 29th. This legislation is on a fast track and therefore YOUR ACTION IS IMPERATIVE.
Legislation has been introduced in two parts (House and Senate). The Senate will be addressing the Health Care while the House will be focusing on Retirement reform. Here is what you should know:
The Senate has introduced Senate Bills 895-898, which would make it easier for school districts to enter into health insurance pools or to self-insure as an individual district. The legislation includes the following:
* Mandates the release of school district claims data to allow better informed decisions by the school employees and administration regarding the benefits that employees use.
* Creates a new state managed catastrophic claims insurance that will result in lower premium costs for districts because of the greater purchasing power in pooling.
* Allows competitive health care purchasing through coalitions or pools.
* Allows for the creation of proactive state of the art programs to improve member health
It appears now that the House will not introduce new legislation but rather substitute language into a vehicle bill (House Bill 4947). This proposed legislation will bring about much needed reform in our public school retirement system. This bill currently is sitting on the House floor and will include the following:
* A graded health insurance policy that would give retirees a health insurance subsidy based on the number of years worked. This will cut out a number of loop holes that are currently used.
* A change that would prevent retirees from receiving free health insurance for years purchased from the system until they hit their thirtieth year. This does not prevent early retirement, just the free health insurance for up to the five years of purchased time.
* Language that would prevent an individual from purchasing time until they have accumulated two full years of service credit. This would prevent the purchase of time at a rate that is not financially sound for the retirement system.
* Note: This bill may also include a defined contribution provision which does not have MASA support at this time. We will work through the legislative process to address this.
Our timeline for hearings, votes, and passage is the first two weeks of December. After the first of the year it will become increasingly difficult to get movement on this type of reform.
Both of these pieces of legislation include provisions that your Legislation Committee and Council support. Together, they represent two of our strongest Legislative priorities. Your Government Relations office and many MASA members have worked hard to get to this point, now we need an all-out effort from our membership to bring home results that will begin to provide the critical cost containment relief so badly needed while protecting access to quality health care benefits for the next generations of school employees and retirees.
Mike goes on to ask that supporters of Michigan's public schools contact their stste legislators in support of House Bill 4947 and Senate Bills 995, 896, 897 & 898.
He also added a page of FAQs:
Q: What is the proposal?
A: The proposal allows school districts to create regional pools to purchase health care for current employees. The proposal also requires the state to establish a statewide fund to cover catastrophic claims. Premiums would be lowered because better claims, cost and quality data availability, as well as enhanced collective bargaining power, allowing school districts to better negotiate and seek competitive prices.
Q: Will school employees be forced to accept inferior benefits?
A: No, school employees can keep their benefits and collectively bargain for health care benefits in the future.
Q: Are school employees losing their right to collectively bargain for health care?
A: No. School employees and administrators can still negotiate and will bargain with more collective strength through larger employee pools.
Q: If savings don’t come from cutting school employee’s benefits or raising co-pays, where do they come from?
A: Savings will come from:
• More efficient administration;
• Getting better deals by pooling employees in regional pools;
• Providing school districts and employees with information to negotiate fair premiums and identify high-quality providers;
• Competitive bidding for health care;
• Creating a statewide fund to pay for catastrophic care.
Q: Will schools be forced to pool together?
A: No, they can determine whether pooling would be beneficial. Most school districts would see cost savings from pooling.
Q: How much money can be saved and instead go towards student’s needs?
A: The American Federation of Teacher-Michigan estimates that it will save $573 million over the first three years.
Q: Through collective bargaining, Michigan teachers have at times traded salary increases for health care benefits. Why should they change?
A: Pooling creates cost savings that can increase benefits, allow the hiring of more teachers or the funding of programs that had been eliminated without cutting employee benefits or pay.
Q: Why is the Legislature attempting to change the school employee’s benefits?
A: This proposal was offered by the American Federation of Teachers – Michigan, and supported by school administrators and school boards. The Legislature is only trying to be responsive to the education community.
Q: How much does health care cost schools?
A: A district’s annual health care costs comprise 12-18 percent of costs, or approximately $1000 per pupil. The total cost is projected to be $2.3 billion this year. On average, school employees covered under individual school district plans will cost $12,149 in 2005, while state employees covered under the consolidated state employee plan will cost only $9,212.
Q: Will this be a statewide or regional pool?
A: Schools will be able to choose whether to join regional pools or have their own separate plan.
Q: Is this an attack on MESSA?
A: No. MESSA can continue to provide health insurance for school districts. This proposal merely gives schools districts more choices and generates cost savings so those dollars go towards educating children.
Q: When is the Legislature going to lower the cost of its own health care benefits?
A: The Senate has already done so and the House of Representatives is considering several options to lower health care costs.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
I don't think he actually shot this deer, since there is a later picture of a lady with a gun and the same deer. Her face is blurred; she seems nervous. Perhaps she is uncomfortable standing next to the dead deer. I would be uncomfortable posing with a rifle aimed at my chin.
These photos are part of a collection of photos that Richard found while cleaning out Grampa Gord's garage. They were taken by Gene Lignian (left), who married Grampa's sister Eva. They are small 2" by 3" prints, mostly of Aunt Eva but many of other family. Some are dated 1931 or 1932.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Santa has never brought our kids any of the toys that are advertised on TV. When my kids talked about those toys, my response went something like this:
The toys you see on TV are not really good toys. In the commercials they look like fun toys, but those kids aren't really playing. Those kids are actors and they are just pretending to have fun. Sometimes they are really good actors so the toys look like they're amazing --but if you get those toys they don't do what the commercial made it look like they do. The plane doesn't really fly. The doll doesn't really eat. They break, or the batteries run down, or there are so many pieces that it takes longer to clean up than it does to play.
Santa only brings toys that are going to be fun for a long time. He doesn't like toys that break or get their pieces lost. He likes to bring toys that can be whatever you need to pretend. He likes sturdy toys, and books that are good enough to read over and over.
The people that make TV toys have to spend so much money to make those commercials that they don't have enough money left to make really good toys; that's why Santa won't put those toys in his sleigh.
I said these things over and over again until they became family lore. And as I watched how my kids played, I saw over and over again that a few good toys are much better than piles and piles of crappy ones, or pieces of crappy ones.
I happened upon Shelagh and Liz one day with a pile of marbles in the rocking chair, and a group of Fisher-Price people standing in a semi-circle around the back of the chair. I was attracted to the sounds of their play: One marble would fall, then there would be some ooohs and aaaaahs and maybe a comment: "Look! a green one!"
When I asked what was going on, they said "Fireworks!" The Fisher Price people were watching a fireworks show, and the kids were rolling marbles off the back of the chair to make it happen. The marbles and the Fisher Price people were recast in various roles for years, while other toys fell by the wayside.
I wrote down the "Santa Spiel" a few years ago after a parents' discussion at the Leelanau Children's Center. I was really worried about the number of parents who thought that their children would feel deprived if they didn't get everything on their Christmas list. Even when I pointed out that many toys are just worthless junk, and some (video games) make kids boring, parents felt pressured to come up with this stuff. This is how I always explained the situation to my kids.)
These are a few places that I like to look for cool, lasting toys and books:
American Science and Surplus
And here in Leelanau:
Enerdyne (Shelagh's summer job)
Misfit Toys Suttons Bay's new toy store
Their lead in:
When it comes to testing, it's always great to hear a parent's perspective. Over at French Road Connections, Susan has written a must-read post about testing, teaching, and learning.It's nice to be read.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Bread and Chickens was one of my first entries, explaining the economy of keeping a small flock for eggs and supplementing their diet with table scraps.
Artificial Intelligence and Chickens was a comment about my own adventure in inserting Google Adsense ads into my blog. The ads that were generated led me on an exploration of poultry related sites.
About My Flock is, well, about my flock.
Real Intelligence in Chickens reports on a major reassessment in the science of birds' brains.
The Chicken Farmer Reviews HONK! Can you believe it? The school musical featured my teenagers impersonating poultry!
New Chicken Questions is a spring piece, answering the questions that crop up once the chicks that were hatched at school go home to someone's house. I also wonder of it is possible to influence a flocks behavior with better nutrition.
Harry Houdini, Girlie Rooster. He sure is a pretty boy.
Avian Flu and the Home Flock is my attempt to make sense of conflicting news and science reports as of November 2005. I tried again in Avian Flu Hits Europe and Avian Flu and Intellectual Property. I'll keep trying.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
Q: We keep a small flock of chickens. Should we get rid of them?
Keeping chickens is a sort of window to the wider world. The everyday chores of caring for poultry is something that humans have been doing in similar fashion for most of recorded time. It is also something that is done, with little variation, almost everywhere that people live.
It was hard to stop thinking about those first bird flu reports from Asia. I saw fleeting images of beautiful birds on the evening news as they told of killing all poultry in whole provinces. At first I wondered how many interesting breeds of chickens were going extinct.
Then I worried about the households that owned those birds. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tells us that one-quarter of the world's poor keep livestock and that livestock is often the "only means of asset accumulation and risk diversification that can prevent a slide into abject poverty by rural poor in marginal areas." Poultry is traditionally the livestock of choice for women because the animals are smaller and more manageable, and they don't require a long trek to pasture. If culling chickens was impoverishing households, these were likely to be the households headed by women. It was particularly hard to imagine impoverishing more women in Thailand, which has an active prostitution industry, and where AIDS is already entrenched. I wondered if culling chickens to prevent a potential bird flu epidemic was really preferable to leaving women and children with no economic alternatives except the sex trade and the very real AIDS epidemic.
For a while, watching the avian flu news was like watching two raindrops make their way down a windowpane. The virus would eventually make its way to my neighborhood, but would it be spread by humans or birds? When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, the chicken farmer in me started to relax. It seemed inevitable that all of those people crowded into refugee camps would be the opportunity the virus needed to start spreading through the human population.
But it didn't happen that way. Now the nightly news tells us that the virus has been found in Turkey, then Romania, then London. The matter-of-fact explanation is that the virus is spread by the migration of "wild birds".
Bird lovers are, naturally, alarmed by this talk, especially when authorities start proposing to kill wild birds and drain wetlands. Seattle Audubon published a nice page on the implications for bird watchers and policy-makers. They note that songbirds are not known carriers of the virus and that keeping feeders in one's backyard is not a health risk. (Birds can spread other diseases to each other at backyard feeders, so it is a good idea to disinfect them periodically with bleach.)
Living the Scientific Life lays the blame for SE Asia's poultry epidemic on farming methods, not wild bird:
Bird flu is typically carried in the intestines of wild birds. These avian carriers often remain healthy but shed the virus in their feces, especially when they are under stress, thus transmitting it to other birds and also becoming ill themselves. In 1997, this bird flu virus roared onto the epidemiological scene by decimating poultry markets in Hong Kong and stunning health officials around the world by killing six people in that city. However, after extensive testing, scientists realized that this supposedly new virus had actually been identified decades earlier: It is a variant of the H5N1 virus that was first isolated in 1961 from terns in South Africa.
It is not known how this particular virus managed to disperse away from South Africa, but scientists suspect that it sequestered itself inside the intestines of migratory wild birds and hitchhiked around the world, as is typical for flu viruses. But this virus did not pose an international health problem until it reached eastern Asia, where huge concentrations of domestic poultry are found. Thus, combined with the effects of widespread poverty, particularly with its resulting overcrowding, poor hygiene and inadequate nutrition, H5N1 found itself in the ideal environment to enhance its lethality and transmissibility while also being presented with numerous opportunities to jump the species barrier into humans and other animal species.
A population addicted to CSI-style dramas might just appreciate the science thriller of avian flu research, except that the tools and funds that real scientists have at their disposal grossly inferior to the glamorous world of TV crime labs. A January 2005 article in Nature, Vietnam's War on Flu, details the opportunity for studying human exposure to the virus in the countryside of Vietnam:
Vietnam's economy may be growing rapidly, but the vast majority of its people are still small-scale farmers who share their living space with chickens and ducks. "The hinterland of Vietnam is, for all practical purposes, one huge free-roaming farm," says Anton Rychener, who heads the Hanoi office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This, experts agree, provides the ideal breeding ground for deadly strains of flu, which are likely to emerge when viruses pass between different species of livestock and people, and exchange genetic material in the process.
Yet, the few epidemiologists working in Vietnam complained that the rest of the world is interested, not in doing public health research in Vietnam, but in collecting samples and then high-tailing it back to their first-world labs. Many people have been exposed to avian flu in Vietnam, but only a small percentage appear to have gotten sick. It would be very interesting to check both populations (human and poultry) for avian flu antibodies in an attempt to answer some very basic questions: Are only a few poultry infected, or have most poultry been exposed? Are birds that are kept in less stressful conditions more likely to resist infection? Are people simply not getting infected or are they having very mild symptoms? If they aren't getting infected, why not? Is the virus just not good at infecting humans, or have the humans gotten an immunity from somewhere?
One of the researchers in the Nature article noted that most of the people who died from avian flu were young. He wondered if the elders had acquired immunity from some previous wave of poultry flu. I read accounts of the Spanish flu epidemic that my grandparents lived through, and once again, it was the young people in the prime of life that seemed most susceptible. The theory is that the disease killed by overactivating the immune system, thus people with the most healthy immune systems were the most vulnerable. Yet, the similarities between the two situations are interesting. Humpoultry pountry have been living in close contact for so long (yes, evolving together) that it is inevitable that the two species would occasionally swap viruses. Will it turn out that contact with poultry results in a immunity (or even a partial immunity)against the next wave of flu virus?
In the last few days, President Bush has announced a new avian flu initiative. The epidemiologists at Effect Measure are glad to see avian flu getting attention and funding, but they note that the US has been systematically dismantling our public health infrastructure since the Reagan administration. The worry that, even if we can catch up from years of failing to fund basic research, we may lack the networks that will be needed to distribute vaccine or flu drugs, or even to effectively monitor the progress of an epidemic. In the end, any funding of public health initiatives is an improvement over the "less government is always better" philosophy.
So what does this mean to those of us who keep backyard poultry? The CDC's one-syllable answer, top of this page, to the only reporter who thought to ask the question, seems comical at best. Most of the information on poultry disease is aimed at farms with large indoor flocks. I found little information appropriate to a home flock situation; APHIS Tips on Biosecurity came as close as anything. They advocate housing birds away from foot traffic, quarantining new birds, disinfecting food and water equipment.
I will never be able to keep my chickens away from all contact with wild birds, but it seems that the wild birds I really have to worry about are ducks, geese, wild turkeys, and seagulls. It makes sense to dedicate a pair of boots for working around the chickens, and then avoid wearing that footwear to the piers, beaches, or golf courses where there is likely to be wild bird poop. My dirt floor barn, although it is great for keeping birds warm in winter and protected from predators, cannot be thoroughly disinfected. I may keep a much smaller flock next summer and house them in a structure that can either be cleaned or burned. I anticipate that at some point we will no longer be able to ship live poultry though the mail, so I am thinking about how to get along with that nasty rooster of mine, and how to encourage my hens to brood eggs next spring. I am culling hens this fall, keeping a handful of Partridge Rocks and Black Australorps as they have always been sturdy and healthy breeds. I need to make my whole setup leaner and more flexible, so I can change my methods as the situation unfolds.
The situation will unfold, as real science does, as a series of observations, guesses, experiments, and then more observations and guesses. All backyard poultry farmers are hands-on scientists, watching our birds, trying new methods, discarding what flops and refining what works, but always observing. We need to extend that home-grown pragmatism and demand that our tax dollars be spent on real science, where the theories spring from the observations, instead of visa versa.
The image at the top of the page is from The Red Jungle Fowl, posted by HS Wong of Kuala Lumpur. The Red Jungle Fowl (gallus gallus) is the original chicken, from which all domestic chicken breeds are descended.
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
It was a beautiful night, about 50 degrees and still. Anna was dressed as an "Adorable Witch", a store bought costume that seemed to answer her need to be a not-very-ugly, not-very-scary witch. (Her first choice was to be a teenager, but I told her to pick something else, as we certainly had enough of those around already.) She came home from the school dressup party with a monstous amount of makeup on. I snapped this picture to show her how silly she looked, but seeing the picture only made her love the makeup more.
I was reminded of how, before I had teenagers, I used to think that middle school kids had stopped putting energy into dressing up for Halloween and were only out for candy. When I actually had kids that age, I found that they put enormous amounts of energy into their costumes. But their energy was spent on making sure that they wouldn't look silly, or uncool, or draw undue attention to themselves -- kind of the opposite of what the rest of the world thinks of Halloween. In the end, when Shelagh and Liz were middleschoolers, every girl tried to look like Britney and ended up looking slutty. I'm not sure what the boys were trying to do, but they ended up looking like muggers.
This year Liz and her friends went trick-or treating, even though they are seniors, with their friends in Suttons Bay. Liz was a fireman, Mary was a ninja, and Ellen was a gorilla. They no longer worry about looking foolish or transforming themselves into whatever their psyches need; they just grab whatever costume is available and go.I had dressed as the chessboard's Black Queen for Friday's Halloween concert and Saturday's Halloween party at the casino. After 10 hours being the Queen on her feet I was ready to go trick or treating as Mom.
There were plenty of other participating adults. Some came to the door in costume, some walked the streets with their kids. We went to Lake Leelanau first. It was quiet there, with groups of people making their way through the unraked leaves. Richard and I move in different circles, but between the two of us we know almost everyone. I would say hi to one group of people, and he would turn out to be best buddies with the next guy.
Later we met up with some of Anna's friend in Leland. She was much happier to be trick-or-treating with friends, but Richard and I kept stopping to talk with people and falling behind. I accepted a beer from one house and then walked with it concealed in my coat, stopping to sip in the dark spots between streetlights. Some streets were lit up with lots of people hosting trick or treaters. Some were nearly dark, with only a house or two. Down one dark cul-de-sac was a lone house with a long sidewalk lined with juniper bushes. As the kids walked up to the house, people hidden in the bushes grabbed at their feet. When we left the house, in the dark, it took some time to notice the black-clad figure pacing to steps behind us, eavesdropping. As soon as we saw it, the person took off and faded into the dark.
Richard had been giving me a running commentary on the recent construction in the village, who had built what and which places he had worked on. On a whim, we walked up to Telgard's, a house he had worked on a few years ago, but had never seen finished. They were happy to give an impromtu house tour. It was built around the same time as ours, but is a large "town home" as opposed to our smaller and more utilitarian farm house. They didn't just remodel, they restored it as much as possible and it looks nice.
This image (courtesy of the Leland Report) shows the last stop of the night's trick or treating venture. Lori has hosted a Halloween party every year since Shelagh and Liz were toddlers. Some years it is the warming-up stop, where we can thaw out our fingers in front of her fire. We ate sloppy joes and cookies while the kids compared candy bags.
On the way to Lori's we passed the "All Saints Party" at the Old Art Building. A few years ago the Art Building hung Halloween decorations including a witch from a tree out by Main Street. The Lutherans lodged a protest, saying that this was promoting evil. This year they rented the building and hosted an alternative to trick-or-treating. Many kids just double dipped, first trick-or-treating then attending the party. As we walked by, it looked too well lit. The rented blow-up trampoline full of balls looked sad and boring, compared to the wonder of wandering the night and seeing dark shapes that turned out to be friends.
There were a few kids who didn't attend the school Halloween concert, either, because their parents think that Halloween is the work of the devil. I liked the article in Christianity Today, Hallowing Halloween. The author promotes Halloween as a time to mock the devil:
The one thing Satan cannot bear is to be a source of laughter. His pride is undermined by his own knowledge that his infernal rebellion against God is in reality an absurd farce. Hating laughter, he demands to be taken seriously. Indeed, I would say that those Christians who spend the night of October 31 filled with concern over what evils might be (and sometimes are) taking place are doing the very thing Lucifer wants them to do. By giving him this respect, such believers are giving his authority credence.My kids have always loved trick-or-treating because, as Liz said: "You get to walk around in the dark with Dad." I didn't see any evil, or even any mischief, except for myself and my hidden beer bottle. It is easy, this time of year, to forsake the outdoors and cozy up with the TV, where there is plenty of stuff to scare you.