Monday, October 31, 2005

San Gabriel Peak Geocaching

On Saturday, I took some friends from work out for their first geocaching expedition. I'm happy to report that the first geocaching expedition of "Team Compass" was a success. Our team hiked 5.36 miles (terrain distance) in 5.26 hours, scaled three peaks in the San Gabriel front range (2948 vertical feet climbed), and found three geocaches, one on each peak. The peaks are arranged such that each one looks like the highest one around as you ascend it, until you see the next peak, which is just a bit higher. Hence their names: Mt. Deception, Mt. Disappointment, and finally San Gabriel Peak.

Our intrepid team met on a cool sunny Saturday morning at Red Box Station on Angeles Crest. We started off inauspiciously, with a search for a supposedly easy geocache right there at Red Box, but came up empty, so we decided to just get moving. After dropping cars at Eaton Saddle, we started off at 4301' altitude, following a private paved road winding up through pine trees to a saddle (5500') where we took a single-track spur trail to our first peak, Mount Deception (5783'). The trail was pretty steep at first, but then turned to gentle ups and downs through beautiful high chaparral of manzanita and some huge yucca skeletons (some of them nearly 30' tall). We had breathtaking views of the whole San Gabriel range, and although the LA basin was covered in a layer of white, we could clearly see the upper reaches of Catalina Island peeking out above the white. At the summit, while I was focused on my GPS, Katy spotted a rock cairn that hid the Sierra Club summit log, so we stopped to sign. And a little further when we zeroed in on the first cache, Katy was the first to spot it. A small 5x3x2 container had some prizes in it. We all signed the log, and Katy took a geocoin trading it for an outrigger race medallion. I left a scorched geocoin that I had retrieved from a melted cache after the fires in the Simi hills last year.

We then dropped back down to the saddle and hiked around to Mount Disappointment (5948'), which has a flattened top with a bunch of comms antennas on it. Just beyond the summit was a pile of boulders which we scrambled around for a while, searching all the crevices for the cache. Just when we were about to give up, I found the small cylinder hidden under a large boulder and concealed by another rock. It was about noon, and it was a nice spot to enjoy our lunch. From there, we could look down on Mt. Deception where we'd been, up to San Gabriel Peak where we were headed next, and across to Mt. Lowe and Mt. Markham, which we'll hit another time.

Back down to the next saddle (5704') and then up a winding single track trail to San Gabriel Peak (6137'), which I believe is among the highest in the front range. That was another tricky cache, which turned out to be a fake rock hide-a-key, hidden amongst other rocks, but with persistence we eventually prevailed. After resting and enjoying more views, we headed back down, taking a different path off the shoulder to hook up with the Eaton Saddle fire road (5270'), through a tunnel, and back to the cars at 5108'.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Prop 74: Important Problem, Incomplete Solution

Proposition 74 claims to be "real education reform" by making it easier to get rid of under-performing teachers, currently protected by a tenure system. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that there are such teachers protected by the current system, and that it is very difficult and costly to get rid of them. But according to the California Policy Institute, we simply don't have any data one way or the other to tell us the actual extent of this problem, or of the expected efficacy of changing the tenure system in the ways proposed. In other words, we don't really know how big a problem this is, nor whether this measure does anything to solve it. Given that the benefit of the doubt on any Proposition should always be given toward voting NO, that's one strike against this measure.

On philosophical grounds, I'm generally opposed to tenure as a concept, except in special cases. In general, people should be entitled to keep their job so long as they are performing productively in a valuable capacity, but when they cease to perform well (or their services otherwise cease to be valuable), it's unreasonable to artificially constraint the termination of the employment relationship. That's the way it works for most of us in the "real world", and I see no philosophical reason teachers should be any different. I mentioned that there are certain cases where tenure is justified: a Supreme Court Justice is one example, where the lifetime appointment is important to preserving independence from political pressures. And in university academics, I can see the case for it, where research should be kept free from intimidation against unpopular inquiries. But I don't see any case to be made for public school teachers needing tenure any more than waiters, actors, salesmen or accountants need tenure.

That being said, I think there is a current pragmatic (non-philosophical) justification for public school teachers to have tenure, and that is because tenure as a benefit is a modest form of non-cash compensation to help make up for the fact that teachers are paid less than they ought to be. I would love to see tenure tossed on the scrapheap, and merit pay introduced instead of a rigid seniority system, but coupled with a substantive overall increase in pay across the board. I get this idea from Matt Miller, who has written extensively on this, and has run some numbers and some political surveys to show that this really could work. I highly recommend his book "The 2% Solution: Solving America's Problems in Ways Both Liberals and Conservatives Can Love". You can also find a synopsis of his win-win education reform proposal in this article.

Education reform is desperately needed, and if a more credible and comprehensive solution were put on the ballot, I'd happily vote for it. In the meantime, while I support what they're trying to get at with Prop 74, I don't think I can support this "half measure", which is all stick and no carrot.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

So What Does She Talk About Anyway?

While it is not entirely surprising that Harriet Miers has (or was) withdrawn, I gasped with incredulity when I heard on the radio that Miers and Bush had "never before discussed the option of withdrawal". This woman is amazing. She spends an entire career in the practice of law, has close friends who are judges, was involved in politics, and yet if we are to take her at face value, she had never once had a discussion with anyone about Roe v. Wade, nor apparently discussed or formed opinions about any Supreme Court decisions. Practically every Joe and Jane with a blog has an opinion about some Supreme Court decision, but Harriet Miers has never even discussed it. And now, with the drums beating for weeks for her withdrawal, we are told that she and President Bush had never discussed the option. So the burning question on my mind: just what does this woman talk about with her friends? The Houston Astros? Desperate Housewives and America's Next Top Model?

As to what happens next, I think Kip's read is as good as any. Edith Clement has the New Orleans angle, she's got the experience, the conservatives are confortable with her (I think?), and yet she doesn't seem quite the fire-breathing ideologue of say a Janice Rogers Brown. Stay tuned.

YES on 76: Let's Live Within Our Means

Prop 76 (state funding and school spending limits, a.k.a. the "Live Within Our Means Act") is a big, messy, complex proposition. The official summary alone is eight text-packed pages in the ballot pamphlet. With anything this complex, it is a practical certainty that there will be good parts and bad parts, and pieces you'd prefer to have a different way. That makes the decision tougher, in that even after digesting the big hairball, a clear-cut "yes" or "no" is improbable. More likely, you just need to weigh the benefits against the flaws and decide whether it's worth writing into the state Constitution. True to expectation, I found things in here that I liked, and other things that left me a bit queasy. But overall, I'm inclining to support this measure.

As background, it's important to understand that California has been in a down-spiraling fiscal mess ever since the Internet boom caused state revenues to boom as if the state had won some lottery. The state government increased spending commensurately, like those lottery winners you always hear about who blow it all and end up broke. Sure enough, after the Internet bubble burst, California has been piling debt upon debt ever since. This is compounded by the operation of a 17-year-old measure (Prop 98) that guarantees a minimum spend on education, based on formulas that increase over the previous year, such that windfall spending in one year raises the bar that much higher forever more.

Although there already exist current spending limits and balanced budget requirements, analysis shows that these are not sufficient to avoid similar messes in the future. Research indicates that only a rigorous requirement to balance actual spending to revenue (not just the budget as forecast) is effective in avoiding mounting deficits. The current requirements insure only that a balanced budget is passed at the start of a fiscal year, but do not protect against that budget falling out of balance when actual revenues fall short of what was estimated. Proposition 76 would provide two important protections: first, to limit spending to a measured growth (avoiding the drunken lottery winner syndrome), and second, to require budgets to STAY balanced. (The analysis of the California Policy Institute suggests that the spending limits would play an even greater role than the "anti-deficit" requirement.) Two independent studies have done a retrospective analysis on how California might have looked if had Prop 76 15 or 25 years ago, and it looks pretty reasonable. In short, Proposition 76 seems likely to be effectively beneficial for future fiscal sanity.

The Proposition also tweaks the old Prop 98 education funding guarantees (which had previously been tweaked by Prop 111). The changes are too technical to explain in this already long blog, but after studying them, they seem reasonable to me. There is a lot of heated rhetoric out there about $3.8 billion that the Governor "cut" from the education budget, and how this proposition will cause a reduction in funding. The reality is that that $3.8 billion was money the state never had in the first place, and only existed in the hypothetical budget requirements created by the perverse combination of Prop 98 mandates in the wake of the boom spending spree. ("Hypothetical" is a diplomatic description of that "budget". "Fantastic" might be more apt.)

Probably the most controversial aspects of the proposition concern the expanded powers given to the Governor. Under the new measure, if the budget falls out of balance, the Governor can declare a fiscal emergency and convene the Legislature to address it. The Legislature then has 45 days to enact correcting legislation, and if they fail to do so, the Governor has unilateral power to reduce State spending by making cuts at his discretion. While there is a definite shift in balance of power going on here, it is not quite as dire as the shrill warnings of the measure's opponents claim. "It places everything at the whim of the Governor!" they warn. Yes and no. For one thing, the Legislature always has the "right of first refusal" to, um, actually do their job and pass a budget. And even if the Legislature abdicates their responsibility in the first place, handing this new power to the Governor, the Legislature can always "get their act together" at a later time. In other words, if the Governor's cuts are not to their liking, they can always pass a new budget more to their liking, so long as it addresses the fiscal requirements. It should also be noted that the Governor already has a fair amount of power with the ability to reduce budget line items before signing a budget. All that being said, I do think that this goes too far. However, I think the benefits of the overall measure outweigh this queasy part. Also remember it's not uncommon for propositions to get tweaked by later propositions, and this seems to me the most likely part of this proposition (should it pass) to be tweaked in the future.

The other part of the proposition that I have some misgivings about is the automatic extension of the prior year's budget if the government can't get a new budget passed. It's a bit disconcerting nearly every year in June when the state government comes to a near-screeching halt when the budget expires and the Legislature hasn't pulled together the new one. But that screeching puts great pressure on them to finally get the job done. This auto-pilot budgeting makes the stakes too low for obstructionists in getting a new budget hammered out.

On the upside, other provisions tighten up the loopholes that have allowed all-too-frequent raids of "special funds" to keep the general fund afloat. When Californians voted for a gas tax that was to explicitly fund transportation projects, that's what we should get. Not a transportation fund full of IOUs from the general fund while the pot-holes go unfilled.

I glanced at the "pro" and "con" arguments in the ballot pamphlet, not that these are explicitly illuminating, but they are implicitly so. On the "rhetoric" meter, usually the sides are more balanced between reason and hysteria, but in this case the "con" arguments sounded much more hysterical to me, while the "pro" arguments sounded much more reasonable. Endorsers included the Governor, California's current Finance Director, a UCLA economics prof, the state Secretary of Education, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association president. Opponents included the teachers union, the nurses union, the firefighters union, and the law enforcement union. (Draw your own conclusions from that.)

In sum, while there are parts of this proposal that definitely make me a bit queasy, I think the overall package is needed, and the benefits outweigh the misgivings.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

End Gerrymandering: YES on 77

Even those outside of California may be aware that we have a rather contentious special election coming up in November. A colleague at work has asked me to comment on the 8 statewide propositions on our ballot, and I must confess I've only just started to delve into the 77 page voters pamphlet. However, one of the propositions ought to be a no-brainer. (I say "ought to be", because, sadly, a lot of people are being taken in by the opposition obfuscation.) Proposition 77, which would end gerrymandering in California, deserves a whole-hearted YES.

After the 2000 census, California's Democrats and Republicans, though extremely polarized in the legislature, struck an unholy alliance in which they colluded to preserve all incumbent parties by drawing a new district map that would make Elbridge Gerry blush. A simple glance at the Senate district map for the Los Angeles area (shown here) should make that perfectly clear. We live in Senate district 22 (shown in brown), in the narrow isthmus that inexplicably connects an amorphous swatch of downtown and east Los Angeles with a mickey-mouse cut-out of Pasadena. As strangely shaped as my Rorschach test of a district is, it is by no means atypical. In fact, when I looked up "gerrymander" in Wikipedia, I found a California congressional district as one of the casebook examples. (Unfortunately, California is not unique in this respect. Illinois and the Texas travesty provide other examples.)

Proposition 77 would take district-drawing out of the hands of the legislature and assign it to a panel of retired judges, chosen through a thoroughly fair and assiduously bipartisan process, and with final approval from the voters. So why would anyone oppose it? Ironically, neither of the major parties are happy about it, as it will likely undo the cozy "safe" districts they had carved out, and possibly create some real competition. What arguments do they put against it? They start with the general smear of trying to associate this initiative, along with most of the others, with Governor Schwarzenegger, whose popularity is sagging lately. One would hope that people would be smart enough to vote on each proposition on its merits, rather than take them all as a referendum on the Governor. Regretably, many people will do just that. There's also the more focused smear of accusing this proposition of trying to "do what they did in Texas", which is an ironic accusation. There is a superficial similarity in that Prop 77 would trigger a redistricting outside the customary decennial cycle, but there the similarity ends. Prop 77 will actually protect us against the blatant partisan redistricting that was done in Texas in 2004 (and in California in 2001). The sooner the better. They cry about "added costs" of "extra elections", but that's bogus. The process will require no extra elections, and is structured to cost half of the current process. They sound the alarm that "three unelected judges will decide everything" (I've spared you the all-caps and exclamation points used in the ballot pamphlet). Well, yes, that's the point: the current problem is that the elected officials have an inherent conflict of interest. And they appeal to partisan fears, warning that "it's a Republican power grab". Um, no, it's a power grab by the people away from the unholy alliance of incumbent partisans.

There is absolutely no good reason to vote against Prop 77 and every good reason to vote for it. Vote YES on 77.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Bernanke is No Miers

I can't honestly say that Ben Bernanke is a familiar name to me, but based on the initial reactions I've been reading and hearing, he seems like a top-notch candidate to succeed Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board (arguably one of the most powerful positions in the free world). He has impeccable academic credentials (Harvard summa cum laude; MIT doctorate; former chairman of the Economics department at Princeton; distinguished published works on inflation and monetary policy), experience in the Federal Reserve, and the recognition and endorsement of colleagues, economics experts, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and most importantly, Wall Street (which rose 170 points on the news). The only downside of the nomination of this imminently qualified candidate is that it makes the nomination of Harriet Miers (who is as unqualified and indistinguished as Bernanke is qualified and distinguished) look all the more ridiculous by comparison.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Alaskan Pork: The Other Red Meat

As the Senate fretted over how to finance the expenses of the post-Katrina/Rita recovery, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) issued a clarion call for reason over pork. He pointed out that the government could save nearly half a billion dollars just by cutting funding for two bridges in Alaska. Specifically, what Coburn proposed was to redirect $75 million of this money to rebuilding the Twin Spans Bridge across Lake Pontchartrain (a bridge damaged by the hurricane that serves literally tens of thousands times more people and commerce than the proposed Alaskan bridge). This imminently reasonable proposal was shot down by a vote of 82-15, but at least the junior Senator from Oklahoma scored a moral victory by making the Senators from Alaska look like the asses that they are on this issue. When Senator Coburn pointed out that one bridge, slated for $223 million dollars, would serve an island with a population of 12 people already served by a regular ferry service, the junior Senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski argued that the bridge was "essential" for "economonic development", and that even though only 12 people lived on the island, some 40 or 50 people worked on the island. Senator Coburn noted that for the cost of the bridge, we could just buy each of those 40 or 50 people their own private jet. Murkowski then pouted, saying "it is difficult to stand here as an Alaskan and not take this personally". Well guess what, Senator Murkowski? You're supporting an obscene waste of the American tax payers' money, and you should take it very personally. Meanwhile, the senior Senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens, went into complete histrionic overdrive. "It is an offense, a threat to every person in my state," he exclaimed, and proceeded to flout his seniority in the chamber, bluster, and threaten dire retaliation. "If you want to see wounded bull raging on the Senate floor. . ." he waxed dramatic, "I don't kid people, if the Senate decides . . . to take money from this state, I will resign from this body." (Um, was that last bit supposed to be a threat? Don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out, Senator.) Newsflash to Senator Stevens: the Senate does not take any money from Alaska. On the contrary, the Senate gives a ton of money to Alaska. (Nearly two dollars in appropriations come back to Alaska for every dollar they send in federal tax revenues.)

The 15 senators who voted for reason over "business as usual": Allard (R-CO), Allen (R-VA), Bayh (D-IN), Burr (R-NC), Coburn (R-OK), Conrad (D-ND), DeMint (R-SC), DeWine (R-OH), Feingold (D-WI), Graham (R-SC), Kyl (R-AZ), Landrieu (D-LA), Sessions (R-AL), Sununu (R-NH), Vitter (R-LA). Sadly, neither of my Senators are on this list. They'll be hearing from me.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


This evening begins the fourth day of the weeklong harvest festival of Succoth (pronounced "sue-COAT" or "sook-US", depending on where your grandparents are from). If I were an observant Jew, I'd be sleeping in my backyard this week in a temporary hut called a "succah" (often translated as "booth"). This is to remind us of the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness between being delivered from Egypt and brought to the Promised Land. Although I'm not sleeping in the backyard, the symbolism is appealing. Part of it is to keep us in touch with more humble times in our collective (and personal) past, when we didn't enjoy all the comforts we may take for granted most of the time. Another part is to celebrate that G-d has always been with us. Even when we were wandering in the desert and sleeping in "booths", we carried around a "tabernacle" so that G-d could dwell among us. And it's also a festival of the fall harvest. Part of the Succoth tradition is to decorate the succah with palm fronds, wheat stalks, and harvesty items like gourds. As with most of these traditions, there are all sorts of detailed rules about the construction of the succah, for example, it must be covered with something natural (like thatch) but not completely covered so that you should be able to see stars through the roof. (Of course, if George and I were sleeping in the backyard in a succah, George would have his new bb-gun rifle with him in case that skunk shows up who's been digging up our lawn. But that's another story...)

The harvest festival aspect of Succoth bears some similarity to our American holiday of Thanksgiving, and that similarity may go even deeper than it first appears. Some have speculated that the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims in the Massachusetts colony was actually Succoth. There are some historical reasons to support this idea. For one thing, the timing was right: the original Thanksgiving was probably around this time of year (it was only moved into November much later on here in the US; in Canada it is still celebrated now). For another, the Pilgrims were very Bible-oriented, and would not celebrate any holidays that were not in the Bible. For instance, they were firm Sabbath-keepers, but they did not celebrate Christmas or Easter. (One of the reasons they were persecuted in England was for not celebrating the Catholic holidays.) They certainly would have been aware of the Biblical commandment to celebrate a feast on the 15th day of the seventh month (which in the Hebrew calendar corresponds approximately to our September/October).

So, happy Thanksgiving to you, and take a moment to appreciate the comforts of our homes, which (hopefully) don't have holes in the roof to see the stars through.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Harriet Miers

If I were a Senator, I really don't know how I would vote on confirming Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Many people (such as KipEsquire) reject her nomination as patently unqualified for the job. No one disputes that she has no judicial experience, but then neither did Rehnquist, Warren, Frankfurter, or even John Marshall, among other notable Supreme Court justices. Worse, it seems that she has no particular experience, expertise, or even demonstrable interest in constitutional law. An interest would be demonstrated by forming (G-d forbid) an opinion, of which she apparently has none. The kabuki theatre of the confirmation hearings, in which Senators ask questions and the nominee evades answering, will provide no enlightenment, with the "I can't discuss matters that would violate my attorney-client privilege with the President" evasion available to this particular nominee to supplement the all-purpose "I'm not at liberty to pre-judge any matter than might come before the court" evasion. (Can you imagine someone at a job interview for a software engineering position, when asked how they would approach a hypothetical design problem, saying "It would be unethical for me to answer that, as I wouldn't want to prejudice any future tasks I might work on." Thank you for your time. . . NEXT!)

Strangely, the only attributes being put forward by her Advocate-in-Chief are these: (1) he (alone, apparently) knows her heart, (2) she's a good person, and (3) she's an evangelical Christian. While these may be commendable character attributes, they are Supremely irrelevant. The obvious word for this situation is "cronyism". (Attribute #1, after all, is simply a nice way of saying "she's my crony.") As KipEsquire and Andrew Sullivan among others have pointed out, the Founding Fathers had a word or two to say about this in Federalist No. 76, in which Hamilton wrote that the primary purpose of requiring Senate confirmation was to act as a "check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President" to prevent him from nominating "candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in one way other personally allied to him…" One can only be amazed at the prescience of Hamilton, who looked into the future and clearly saw Harriet Miers. Thus, considering only principle, a Senator ought to reject such a nominee.

But should a Senator consider only principle, when there are politics at play? It's credible to assert, as Andrew Sullivan has, that this nominee is probably the best we can hope to expect from this President, and that if she is not confirmed, what follows could be much worse. The blank (or rather, hidden) philosophy and likely mediocrity of a Justice Miers may well be preferable to a technically superior fire-breathing ideologue like so many right-wingers were hoping for. Tactically, while a Democratic filibuster of this candidate might conceivably carry (given the discord on the other side of the aisle), that would make it politically near-impossible to filibuster the next candidate, and that one could be much more deserving of a filibuster. Strategically, this nomination has opened up a huge wedge in the President's base, and the opposition party would be foolish not to drive the wedge by confirming her. (Senator Reid clearly gets this.)

What a conundrum for the Senators, and what a sorry state of affairs.

Monday, October 17, 2005

FILM: In Her Shoes

Last weekend, we saw In Her Shoes. I'd heard a very good review from Joe Morgenstern (KCRW / Wall Street Journal) who said that Cameron Diaz has gone to a whole new level of acting, and we would have to agree. This movie was excellent -- an original and engaging story, outstanding performances, and a very emotional ride. Bring your handkerchief. (It's definitely a "chick flick", meaning that it is a film for women and for sensitive men. But then the film is about relationships, sisters, and shoes. Need I say more?)

All three stars were superb -- Shirley Maclaine as the alienated grandmother with both hard and soft edges, Cameron Diaz as the blonde floozy who finally learns a few things, and Toni Collette as the plainer and more responsible sister who has her own issues to deal with. Many of the other roles were well-cast and memorably performed, including the "good" boyfriend, the hen-pecked father, the step-mother from hell, Mrs. Lefkowitz (the grandmother's feisty friend), and an old professor (a charming balance of gentle grandfather crossed with John Houseman from The Paper Chase). With some marvelous lessons about family and forgiveness, this was a perfect film for the Jewish high holy days season.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

FILM: Good Night, and Good Luck

We'd heard good things about Good Night, and Good Luck, which opened this weekend, and I have to say this film lived up to every good word I heard. Kudos to George Clooney for his outstanding job in co-writing and directing this (as well as acting in it). (This will be Oscar-worthy, though the Academy is generally unreceptive to actors-turned-directors.) The movie is incredibly tight, in its scope (it distills the gist of the Murrow vs McCarthy story into a few episodes, further distilled into just 93 minutes of film), in its shots (much of the camera work is very close up, and nearly all of the scenes are in the newsroom), and in its texture (done in black-and-white, with no musical score behind most of the scenes, but perfectly punctuated with Diana Reeves singing jazz numbers). At one point, Murrow delivers the news of a colleague's death, and ends it saying "that's not much of an obit, but it's just the facts, it was brief, and that's how he would have wanted it." This film was delivered with that same just-the-facts newsy efficiency that typified Murrow himself. Clooney does no preaching with the script, nor dramatization with the camerawork; rather, he lets the plain story speak for itself, knowing that the material itself will give a more powerful impact of itself than any cinematic contrivance could add to. In fact, the script in many places is drawn straight from actual historical transcript, and the film is seamlessly interwoven with period news footage. (McCarthy himself is not enacted, but is drawn entirely from period footage.) David Strathairn positively channels Edward R. Murrow (more Oscar material), and the rest of the cast, including Ray Wise, Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, and Clooney were all flawless as Murrow's newsroom colleagues.

I've heard a couple of reviewers use the word "caustrophobic" in describing the texture of this film, because of the tight shots and keeping the scenes nearly all in the newsroom. I think those techniques effectively heightened the palpable fear and pressure the characters felt, but I did not find it suffocating (in the way that other biopics can be -- Oliver Stone's Nixon or Bob Fosse's pseudo-autobiography All That Jazz come to mind). The style was spare, which I think actually gave the story room to breathe. The film was no more claustrophobic than is a newspaper story for being confined to the printed page. Good Night, and Good Luck deserves Best Director and Best Actor nominations.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

FILM: Dorian Blues

Based on some of the online reviews I had read of Dorian Blues, we were really looking forward to seeing it. It had played last year at a number of gay and lesbian film festivals, and people who had seen it there had written some enthusiastic reviews. Written and directed by Tennyson Bardwell (his first outing, pardon the pun), this is a coming-out story, and the reviews promised that it was very fresh (even though the genre is, shall we say, well trod). Well, now that we've seen the film ourselves, I have to wonder if those people who posted the great reviews were all just friends of the debutant director. Not that the movie was bad. It was okay. We were mildly amused and entertained, if not deeply moved or laughing volubly. It certainly had some good parts. Michael MacMillian, who plays the lead, is certainly a talented comic actor. (The physical comedy of Dorian at his therapist's office practicing coming out to his father using a mannequin was quite amusing.) And there was some potential in the material for some real exploration of family relationships, especially the unwitting influence of fathers and brothers. But we really only saw that in the last two minutes, which were very good, and maybe one or two other scattered glimpses. (Those last two minutes were bittersweet, in that they underscored what the film could have been.)

The film was just very uneven, and I think the fundamental problem is that the director couldn't make up his mind what sort of film he wanted to make. Sometimes it was a misty sepia-toned semi-nostalgic attitude (think The Wonder Years), while other times it was sardonic and not taking itself seriously (think That 70's Show). There were moments of real emotion, but just when the audience might get engaged with the characters, the film careens to a detached comic tone that pushes us away emotionally. In much of the story, the characters are just cartoons walking from one cliché into another. There is a funny (and well-executed) scene when Dorian tries to talk to his mother, who is practically oblivious to him while claiming to listen. With a more skillful director, this could have fit well as an exaggerated subjective impression, being both funny and poignant at the same time, but Bardwell doesn't pull it off. (It's a difficult balance, but it can certainly be done well. I think of Jeffrey as an example that was laugh-out loud funny, mostly sardonic and detached, charicaturish, and yet at times quite emotional and ultimately engaging.) There's some good raw material, and a few well-crafted scenes, but an inconsistent vision and attitude make the movie fall short of what it could have been.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Princeton Trivia

On last night's episode of Will and Grace, part of the plot line is the discovery that Will doesn't know how to swim, and Jack ends up helping him overcome his fear of the pool. I'm sure all Princeton alumni who saw this were smiling to themselves at the factual error. Will Truman, in the show, is supposed to be a Princeton grad. However, Princeton (like several other ivy league schools), actually requires its graduates to know how to swim! I'm sure most alums will remember the experience the first week of their freshman year, having to take a swimming test. If you couldn't stay afloat for 15 minutes without holding the side or touching the bottom (or if you opted not to even attempt it), you had to take swimming lessons for your PE class freshman year. (I know. My freshman roommate didn't know how to swim. But he learned.) Swimming is also a requirement at Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, and MIT. Thus, if Will were truly a Princeton man, he'd have known how to swim.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Planning for Philanthropy

For Yom Kippur, I'll close my little series on charities, not with a specific charity but with some tactics for planning your charitable giving. If you are very serious about making a regular practice of charitable giving, and if you would like to increase your own charitable capacity in the future, you should consider setting aside some amount of money every year to create an endowment for future giving. "Endowment" sounds like something only for millionaires, but really an endowment can be any size at all. It is merely the regular practice of setting money aside, where it can accummulate over time.

For one thing, it is much more prudent to take a disciplined approach to your charitable giving. Most of us are often confronted with telephone and mail solicitations asking us to donate to good causes. Much as it would be nice to give something to every worthwhile cause that comes knocking, that's not a practical approach. What works better is to save your money regularly, and then once or twice a year consider how much money you have for charitable giving, which good causes you've learned about, and decide how you'd like to divide the money you have among the possible causes. Hopefully you plan most of your finances with this kind of discipline, so you should apply the same kind of discipline to your philanthropy as well. (It also gives you a very reasonable thing to say to people who telephone you soliciting for good causes. You say, "Your cause sounds worthwhile, but I never give money or make commitments spontaneously on the phone like this. Please send me your info in the mail, I'll put it in my file, and give it consideration when I'm making my charitable decisions later in the year.")

If you have enough of an endowment, you should also consider a vehicle called a "donor-advised fund". You've probably heard of philanthropic foundations (you know, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, or the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, or all those other organizations that you hear as sponsors on NPR), but figured those are for millionaires, and for private foundations, that's close to true. However, for those of us "thousand-aires", with a minimum endowment of $10,000 (typically), you can establish what is called a "donor-advised fund" within a larger charitable organization. We set up one of these the year we got married, and ours is with the Schwab Charitable Foundation. The way it works is that technically, we made a donation to the Schwab Foundation (the charitable arm affiliated with the Charles Schwab brokerage firm). However, the amount that we donated is tracked separately, in a fund that we pretentiously got to name the George D. Scheideman III and Thomas R. Chatt Philanthropic Fund, and we are the "donor advisors" for that fund. Within the guidelines set up by Schwab Charitable, we can direct the investment of "our" fund, and we can recommend grants from our fund to any IRS-recognized charitable organization. (Also, we can add to the fund year after year. We also had donations to our fund as one of our wedding gift suggestions, and our friends and family were generous.) The money that we put into this fund is tax-deductible as a donation, and the investment earnings in the fund are tax-free. This vehicle enables us not only to make regular charitable giving, but also to look forward to philanthropy as one of our retirement pursuits. You can also name other donor-advisors, so that your fund can continue to be managed by your designees after you pass on. In our case, I'm thinking that when my godson is a bit older, it will be a great way to inculcate him in philanthropy, to include him in deliberations for our yearly giving, and to include him as an advisor to the fund.

For those just another bracket up (ten-thousand-aires?), I can also recommend the California Community Fund. This organization has a similar donor-advised fund concept, but also has a variety of other mechanisms scaling up, depending on how much involvement, flexibility, and/or help you want. A CalFund fund can be completely "self-serve" as with Schwab, or they can also provide support from their staff to assist in research and grant-making. (Their minimum "in" is also $10,000, however I found that their fee structure is somewhat disincentive for smaller funds, and doesn't really become beneficial unless you have about $40,000 or more. However, if you're in that league, they have a good investment team that gets great returns on their funds, and their scale-up levels of service will give you good room to grow.)

Regardless of your resources, consider putting aside what you can, however small, on a regular basis, and make your charitable donations in a methodical way, rather than just spontaneously. And if it is within your resources, you should consider a donor-advised fund, as a "gift that will keep on giving".

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Wonder of Reading

The final charity in my "charity of the day" series, one I strongly recommend, is a Los Angeles charity called the Wonder of Reading. This is a highly effective, highly efficient program that aims to inspire in children the love of reading, and focuses on children in the greater Los Angeles area elementary schools. They began from an observation of the state of elementary school libraries, many in neglected condition, and with an average copyright date of 1982. (They found schools with books that still said "Someday we will go to the moon.") From this, they formulated their "3R" strategy: renovate, restock, read. With each elementary school they add to the program, they start by renovating the library, making sure that it has adequate shelf space as well as tables, study carrels, and a read-aloud area. They then provide $10,000 worth of new books to substantially improve the stock on the shelves. Finally, they train local volunteers to be "reading partners" for children in the school, with partners committing to spend one hour a week with their assigned student.

The program has been implemented in nearly 150 schools, with over 20 being added each year, and over 400 reading partners being trained each year. They monitor their progress with surveys of teachers, principals, students, and volunteers, and have found consistently high rates of improved reading ability as well as improved confidence and self-esteem in the students. I know this not only from their reported statistics, but also from my own personal experience serving as a reading partner. A few years ago, I had been seeking a volunteer opportunity, but wondered how I could do anything significant with very limited time available. I was surprised and delighted to discover that just one hour a week can make a big difference for a young child. Over the course of a school year, I read with a 2nd grade boy and was able to see his skills and his interest improve, and even be a little bit of a big brother. It was great to see how excited he was to meet for reading each week. For various reasons, I was not able to continue the following year, but now that my job situation has settled down again, I may try to do this again. In the meantime, we will be happy to make a monetary contribution to this excellent organization.

Oh, and can't forget the numbers. The Wonder of Reading (as of their 2003 IRS 990) raised $1.657 million in direct public support with $1.669 million total revenue, supporting a $1.517 million budget. Of that budget, 93.6% went directly to program expense (the lion's share to library renovations and restocking), with a very modest 4% management and 2.2% fundraising. Their fundraising efficiency is 2 cents on the dollar. It doesn't get much better than that!

I hope you will consider making a donation to this very focused, efficient, effective, and worthwhile organization.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Equality California

Today being National Coming Out Day, it seems appropriate that the charity of the day be Equality California. Over the past few years, some amazing work has been taking place in California regarding equal treatment under the law for lesbians and gay men. The recent act of the California legislature to be the first in the nation to voluntarily enact same-sex marriage was due in large part to the work of Equality California (EQCA). They have worked closely with a number of key allies in the legislature, at the same time as "rallying the base", and forging key alliances with other groups. (Their work with the United Farm Workers secured some key endorsements for the same-sex marriage bill that may have made the difference in its passage.) Despite the veto by Governor Schwarzenegger of the same-sex marriage bill, there were a half-dozen other bills on EQCA's agenda, several of which were signed into law. These included the granting to domestic partners the same property tax exemption for transfer on the death of a partner, state pension coverage for domestic partners of state employees, and the addition of sexual orientation to the list of classes protected against non-discrimination in California's Unruh Act, the key non-discrimination protection statute.

EQCA has been skillful in lobbying and politicking, and creative in their actions. Their recent "twelve days of equality" last-ditch effort to get the Governor to change his mind about a veto featured a different strategy and constituency each day. One day, they highlighted lesbian and gay families, and delivered 40,000 postcards to the governor written by children of same-sex parents. Another day, they highlighted lesbian and gay veterans, with a letter campaign from those who have served in our nation's military. Yet another day, they highlighted the support of this bill from church leaders across the state. Although this particular effort did not succeed in its immediate goal, this activity and others like it have strengthened the foundation for the future by raising awareness and shifting opinion at large, and moving the goal posts of the debate. (Remember when a simple domestic partner registry was radical? Today it's the conservative option.)

In my book, EQCA gets an A+ for organizational effectiveness. I don't have numbers to offer on their efficiency and capacity at this time. Their website does not contain financial statements, and though I have found the IRS 990 for Equality California Institute, I believe that that represents only a portion of the overall organization. (I have requested this information by email, and will update based on what I receive.) EQCA itself is a 501(c)4 political organization, not a 501(c)3 charitable organization, so donations to it are not tax deductible. However, I consider the promotion of social justice through political means as a legitimate philanthropic purpose, and would thus consider contributions to organizations like EQCA to be an appropriate element in my family's own philanthropic program.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Operation USA

Especially given the earthquake in Asia has brought disaster relief to the forefront again (as if it had had much time to settle into the background), the charity of the day is Operation USA. This is a new charity to me, but some friends have highly recommended it. It was formed 25 years ago by people (including Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards) who were frustrated with the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of many large international aid organizations. According to their website, they handle disaster response by starting with a needs assessment, so they can send what is actually needed where it is needed. The organization has a network of relationships with local organizations around the world, and knows who they can work with to get things done effectively at a local level. They work from private donations entirely, and purposely avoid government grants, to avoid the political entanglements that go along with those. And they have independent evaluators determine the effectiveness of their operations. Among the organization's key assets are its warehouse facitilities in Los Angeles and San Francisco, enabling it to rapidly and efficiently move supplies internationally.

Operation USA seems very open with their information, with their annual report, financial reports, and IRS filings all available on their website. And it seems they have every reason to be open, as they are very efficient. With a whopping 97.3% of their budget going to direct programs, and only 2.1% in administration, 0.5% in fundraising, and a fundraising cost ratio of one penny on the dollar, they earn a four star rating from Charity Navigator. Their website also provides quite specific details on the past and current programs. I am quite impressed with what I've seen so far, and encourage you to take a look as well.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Dream Center

For Sunday, appropriately enough, my charity of the day is a local faith-based organization called The Dream Center. The group, affiliated with the Assemblies of God church, was established in 1996 when two pastors (a father and a son) purchased the abandoned Queen of Angels Hospital compound in a crime-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood. From an initial congregation of about a dozen, their ministry of service to addicts, immigrants, and the homeless began to attract attention, to where they now have a congregation in the thousands (now served at the historic Angelus Temple), host a couple hundred in a rehab center in the former hospital, host a couple hundred missionaries, operate numerous missions across the city, and have been credited by (former) Mayor Riordan of Los Angeles with a significant drop in violent crime in the LAPD Rampart Division where they are located. Their services include the rehab center, food trucks, homeless outreach, youth outreach (targeting potential gang members), and an "Adopt-a-Block" program, where the Center sends volunteers regularly to over 50 adopted blocks in the inner city to help - cleaning up, painting, babysitting, electrical and plumbing work, or whatever else is needed.

Their most recent service -- and their first to reach outside of Los Angeles -- was to host a couple hundred people who evacuated from New Orleans. The Dream Center has stepped up to hosting up to 300 hurricane evacuees with free room, board, clothing, $100/week in spending, and access to transportation, job fairs, computers, telephones, and entertainment events such as Dodger games. The Dream Center has become the unofficial headquarters for evacuees in LA, with government officials setting up tables to administer benefits and companies attending an onsite job fair. (It should be noted that there was some media attention on a few of the evacuees who were complaining about their treatment, but these complaints were investigated and found to be baseless. The complainers may have been acting out of trauma from their experience, or they may just be the sort who complain no matter what.)

Financial statements for the organization are not available on the web, but I will email them and see what I can find out. According to an LA Times story on the church, they had been struggling to make their operating budget prior to Katrina, and just "stepped out on faith" to extend help to the hurricane evacuees, praying that donations would follow. (This was the same strategy that worked for them when they first bought the abandoned hospital.) Their good works have caught a lot of attention, and they report that there has been a steady stream of people stopping by to donate money and goods. Some of the most extraordinary charitable efforts are initiated by stepping out on faith.

This seems like a great organization in general, and a good oppportunity for a donation, as well as volunteer opportunities. (The Dream Center's website says they can make use of volunteers even if you just have a few hours to spare.) I don't know quite enough about them yet to make a significant donation, but they look very promising and I intend to find out more. Participating in a volunteer activity of theirs would be one good way to get to know them better. If you live in the Los Angeles area, I'd invite you to consider looking into The Dream Center yourself.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Habitat for Humanity

Today, the charity of the day is Habitat for Humanity, which I expect needs no introduction to most people. I have been an admirer and occasional donor to this organization since President Jimmy Carter first brought them to my attention. The concept is excellent: help the working poor to achieve home ownership through "sweat equity" (helping to build their own home) and an interest-free mortgage. Homes are built by would-be owners together with volunteers, and the projects are financed through donations and the returns from mortgages on homes already built. As their motto goes, they offer "a hand up, not a hand-out."

I hadn't really done the diligence of looking into the finances of this organization, but it turns out that there is a "parent" organization, Habitat for Humanity International, and then there are hundreds of local organizations (kind of like franchises) that are independently incorporated. I was disappointed to learn that Habitat for Humanity International has a low rating (only 1 star from Charity Navigator), mostly on account of its high fundraising costs (it spends 21% of its $131M budget on fundraising, and 4% on management). This is still within the acceptable guidelines of AIP, though not enough to make a 'B' grade.

Fortunately, many of the local "franchises" are quite efficient. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles gets 4 stars across the board at Charity Navigator, with 91.3% of their budget going to program expenses. Their annual "Hollywood for Habitat for Humanity" event has drawn on the star-power of the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams to help increase the program's capacity in the greater LA area. This local organization has built 169 homes since 1990, and has land in development for over 35 homes presently.

On the other coast, Habitat for Humanity New York City has built over 150 homes, and is currently building at the rate of 25 homes/year. In 2004, fundraising took 12.5% of their budget, at the same time as they have been increasing their capacity substantially, with a 20% growth in revenues and 12.5% growth in expenses, and an equivalent increase in capacity to build new homes.

One of the great things about Habitat is that you can not only donate money, but you can donate time. While I have not yet volunteered for Habitat myself, I have several colleagues at work who have done it, and they have assured me that even if you only have a day to donate, and even if you don't have construction experience, that they can make use of you. They had a great experience, and have gone back several times. I need to try it myself someday. I invite you to consider donating money (LA, NY, search for your local affiliate) or your time (LA, NY) to this worthwhile cause.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Tonight, on the Sabbath of the high holy days, it seems appropriate that the "charity of the day" should be JewishGen. While the lion's share of our charitable giving goes toward "solving the world's problems", I think it's also important to give some amount to cultural organizations. My own interest in genealogy has significantly deepened in recent years, and in that process I've made use of a variety of services and resources, and joined a variety of historical and genealogical societies. Of the many resources and organizations I've encountered, one of the most impressive is JewishGen, which is indisputably the premier online resource for Jewish genealogy. Among their services:

  • several dozen mailing lists serving 25,000 subscribers posting tens of thousands of items each year
  • an information-rich website of over 20,000 pages handling millions of hits per month
  • the Jewishgen Family Finder, with hundreds of thousands of entries, helping people connect with distant cousins and other researchers with common interests
  • the ShtetLinks project, hosting hundreds of websites each devoted to a specific ancestral village
  • numerous specialized databases containing millions of records

And that's not nearly the whole megillah.

JewishGen's stated mission is to "gather, document, and preserve our research, and make it available to the Jewish community worldwide as a public service". In this I think they succeed admirably. But I think that beyond that, they foster a community and perpetuate a culture. Since subscribing to JewishGen over a year ago, I have learned so much, not only about the specifics of my own family tree, but about Jewish culture and history in general, from misty geographies of centuries past (featuring countries like Galicia, Bessarabia, and Bukovina) to the struggles of our grandparents as they migrated from place to place (through stories and photos shared by their grandchildren). I have become more aware of the Jewish calendar of holidays, and improved through practice my Hebrew "decoding" skills. In addition to a modest financial contribution each year, I have also been able to contribute both research and website development by writing an article on the genealogical value of a 19th-century book-publishing business model called "pre-subscription lists", and by adopting a "shtetl" (ancestral village) in present-day Ukraine called Makhnovka that may or may not be connected to my great-grandfather's still-obscure origins.

Unlike most genealogical and historical societies, which operate on annual membership dues, JewishGen offers all of its services without charge and operates entirely on donations. It's difficult to apply the usual financial assessments to an organization like this. An examination of IRS filings shows that JewishGen spends 47% of their budget on program expenses, with 51% going to management, and under 2% to fundraising. For a typical charitable organization, these would be pretty poor proportions, but in looking at the details of this case, it seems reasonable. Consider that the total budget is only a few hundred thousand (as compared to, say, the $100+ million budget of ADRA), so it's not unreasonable to expect that a quarter of that goes to the salaries of the 5 full-time employees, and another quarter goes to maintaining an office (including telephone and travel). The "hard" expenses of the program budget are mostly Internet access and computer server maintenance (which at the volume they're serving these days requires some real money). What's missed entirely in a superficial look at these numbers is that the office and handful of paid staffers are coordinating and enabling the efforts of over a thousand volunteers, and all of the time, research, information development, and intellectual property that is contributed. Were all of these "intangibles" somehow valued and included on the revenue and expense statement, the proportions would look quite different. Thus, I'm quite content with the organizational efficiency of this group. Likewise, an impressive track record demonstrating their organizational capacity can be seen in the growth in all dimensions of service provided.

If you have any Jewish roots, you really ought to check out this invaluable web resource. And if it helps you find a distant cousin, or locate or learn more about your great-grandmother's village in the "old country", or deepen your knowledge and appreciation of our cultural history, please consider making a donation to support them.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Adventist Development & Relief Agency

Third in my High Holy Days series on charities, I would like to recognize the Adventist Development & Relief Agency International (ADRA). When thinking about the problems of the world at large -- poverty, hunger, disease, lack of education, disaster relief -- it can seem overwhelming. And many nobly-intended organizations that try to take on the world's problems can indeed be overwhelmed, by beng spread to thin, or getting bogged down in inefficiency. One of the tangential benefits of "marrying into" the Adventist Church is that I became aware of ADRA, an organization that does an admirable job of "changing the world, one life at a time". Following the old saw about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish, ADRA invests heavily in the latter. They have five "core portfolios": food security, economic development, primary health, emergency management, and basic education. In the food security portfolio, ADRA provides a combination of immediate short-term food relief in stricken areas (such as western Africa), along with seeds, tools, and training in better farming techniques for longer-term benefit. In the area of economic development, ADRA has had great success with "micro-loan" programs, helping people throughout Asia and Africa lift themselves up from a hand-to-mouth subsistence to running self-supporting and growing businesses. In many of these places, a loan of as little as $50 can provide sufficient investment for one person to start his or her own business. In primary health, ADRA works through immunizations, clean water and sanitation programs, community-based health services and health education. In emergency management, ADRA is often already "on the ground" when disaster strikes. When the tsunami struck last year, ADRA already had people in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia through existing programs and was well-positioned to provide short- and long-term relief. In the area of basic education, ADRA works to build schools, provide supplies, and train teachers from Mongolia to Mali.

When we give our money to ADRA, we know that it will be well spent. As of their last annual report (2004), ADRA channeled 92.3% of their expenses to direct programs, with only 6.7% administration and 1% on fundraising. Their cost to raise funds is only 1 penny on the dollar! When the tsunami struck, ADRA was almost always near the top of lists of recommended charities. CharityNavigator gives them four stars for organizational efficiency.

A technical note on organizational capacity: CharityNavigator gives them three stars overall, and only two stars for organizational capacity. I think that lower score is a quirk of looking at the particular years 2000-2003 to calculate the score, where there were higher expenses in 2002, followed by a slight decrease in revenue in 2003. But even looking at those four years, one can see slow growth, as well as an organization that manages to its means. Their annual numbers look better to me than a "peer" charity that got a higher score using CN's formula. Moreover, the score should improve significantly when CN updates with the 2004 numbers, in which revenue grew from $74M to $104M. Looking at the overall picture, I see an organization that has grown significantly over the long term, is still growing, and manages its expenditures pretty closely to match its revenue.

If you wonder where to start solving the world's problems, think about giving a donation to ADRA.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

The second charity that I would like to highlight in my "days of awe" series is the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. This outstanding organization has a laser-sharp focus on their mission, which is neatly summed up in these six goals (quoted from their strategic plan):

1. LIFT THE BAN preventing gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly and honestly in the military.
2. PROVIDE FREE LEGAL SERVICES to service members harmed by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and related, discriminatory policies.
3. PROTECT SERVICE MEMBERS FROM HARASSMENT based on perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
4. ADVOCATE FOR POLICIES AND PRACTICES that improve the lives of service members.
5. SUPPORT SERVICE MEMBER AND VETERAN PRIDE as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender persons.
6. STRENGTHEN ORGANIZATIONAL CAPACITY to assure the freedom to serve in the most cost-effective, strategic fashion.
As a gay man, one of the injustices most personally perceived is the ongoing discrimination against lesbians and gay men, and there is hardly an instance more worthy of change than the infamous "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) policy of America's military services. Not only is the policy patently unjust, but it is harmful to our military's readiness in a critical time when recruitment and retainment is falling short. SLDN's vision is expressed in the simple phrase "freedom to serve", highlighting two bedrock American principles: freedom and service.

Working toward this charter, SLDN has been impressively effective. They have been a touchstone of informational resources for gay members of the military in understanding the risks of their situation. They have responded to over 1000 requests for legal assistance in the past year. They have successfully represented victims of DADT in many landmark court cases, and last year launched the case Cook v. Rumsfeld which will take on DADT directly to the Supreme Court. At the same time, they have lobbied Congress with a steady stream of military veterans articulately presenting their cause, and now we have a bill in Congress (the Military Readiness Enhancement Act) proposing to undo DADT. And they have done a phenomenal job with representing this cause to the public, including the publication of an annual report on the state of DADT that gets national press. They have kept this issue in the media, and I think the movement of American popular opinion (58% though gays should have the freedom to serve in a recent Pew poll, compared to 52% in 1994) is attributable in fair measure to SLDN.

Looking at the financials (as one should always do), their numbers are about as good as it gets. 87% of their expenses go directly to program, with only 5% for management and 8% for fundraising. Their cost of raising funds is 23 cents on the dollar for their events (which provide about 14% of their revenue), with an overall average of 12 cents on the dollar. Their revenue growth has been just over 9%, with expenses growth of 7.7%, with a working capital ratio of 0.66 years. I believe this would rate them an A on the AIP criteria, and CharityNavigator gives them three stars (out of four) for organizational efficiency, four stars for organizational capacity, and just a hair shy of four stars overall (58.46 points with 60 needed for four stars).

If you're not familiar with them, please take a look at their website and annual report. I heartily recommend this highly focused, extremely effective, very efficient organization fighting for the freedom to serve.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Seeds of Peace

During the "days of awe" (from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur), as I wrote yesterday, Jews focus on repentance (tshuvah), prayer (tefilah), and charity (tzedakah). I've decided to honor that tradition by blogging during this time about charity (as well as making actual donations). Through Yom Kippur, I'll hold back my comments about Harriet Miers, Tom DeLay, or Bill Frist, and instead leave those more worldly concerns aside for a time.

The first charity I'd like to write about, following on yesterday's note of hope for Israeli and Palestinian reconciliation, is a unique project called Seeds of Peace. This project was founded twelve years ago with the intent of taking a select group of talented young Israeli and Palestinian children, chosen for their academic strength and leadership potential, and bring them together for a summer camp in Maine, to foster greater understanding of one another before attitudes of enmity are permanently formed. As their motto goes, they are sowing the seeds of peace among the next generation of leaders. While still focusing on the Middle East, the project has expanded to include children from other areas of conflict, including South Asia, Cypress, and the Balkans. Over 2500 teenagers have now participated in their programs, including 400 this past year. During the program, the teens are taught communications, negotiations, and leadership skills. In a 2003 independent survey after their camp experience, 79% of Israelis and 63% of Palestinians said their views of the "other side" had improved, and 90% of Israelis and 78% of Palestinians viewed coexistence as possible.

One should always check up on a charity's efficiency. In the most recent annual report, 76% of their expenditures went directly to programs. The management plus fundraising took 24% of the budget. This was up from 20% the previous year, however, this also coincided with a significant increase in fundraising events, boosting their funds raised by 26%, an increase almost entirely due to the new events. By the American Institute of Philanthropy's stricter measures, they have 68% program expenses, which exceeds the guideline of 60%, and they have a $22 cost to raise $100, which is better than the $35 guideline. On CharityNavigator, Seeds of Peace rates three stars out of four for efficiency and four stars for organizational capacity.

This charity first came to my attention in the wake of 9/11. I was working at Sun Microsystems at the time, and a distinguished engineer was among those killed in the Twin Towers. An email went out announcing his death, and noting that the family requested donations be given to Seeds of Peace in lieu of flowers. I looked into this intriguing charity that I had not heard of before. We donated to them then and will do so again this year. Please give them your consideration.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A New Start?

This evening begins the Jewish holiday of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. The next ten days, culminating in Yom Kippur, are a time for repentance, prayer, and charity. Tradition holds that G-d opens the "book of life" during these days, inscribing who will live or die next year, who will have a good or bad year, according to their sins. Genuine shows of repentance during this time may inspire G-d to reconsider our fate before the book is finally sealed on Yom Kippur. This year the Muslim holy month of Ramadan nearly coincides with the Jewish month of Tishri, with the month of fasting beginning Wednesday (the second day of Rosh Hashanah). Ramadan is said to be the time that the Quran was sent down from Heaven. The whole month is a time of fasting and prayer, and on the 27th of the month, Laylat-al-Qadr commemorates the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. Laylat-al-Qadr is similar to Yom Kippur in that it is believed that Allah determines the fate of the world for the next year on that night.

I was encouraged to hear that Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas have announced intentions to meet and expressed determination to restart the Israeli-Palestinean peace process. It is a fitting time of year for two ancient peoples who share a common origin to express a new resolution to overcome generations of enmity. Obviously, there are those who do not want to have peace. (Two sad examples: the renegade Israeli soldier who started shooting Palestineans, and the Hamas operatives who were responsible for setting off explosives at their own rally in order to create an excuse to restart the violence.) And when peace finally comes, it will be the result of not only much blood and sweat, but more importantly faith and a willingness to recognize one's own faults and forgive those of others. With this coincidence of Tishri and Ramadan, may the repentence, prayer, and charity of us all inspire G-d to inscribe and seal the seeds of peace in the book of life this coming year.