Monday, March 8, 2010

Democracy Corps runs a survey and finds that they are shocked at the results.

So what was the survey, you ask? Democracy Corp ran a survey asking Americans how they felt about American leadership with regard to National Security and world respect for the identity of the United States of America. What they found is that the majority of Americans feel that the world sees us worse today as compared to two years ago and that Republicans are awarded higher credit for National Security than both Obama and Democrats in Congress.

The devil is in the details. 51% of Americans surveyed said that “American standing” has dropped during the first 13 months of President Obama's administration. That is compared to 41% of Americans who say the opposite.

So who is Democracy Corps and are they promoting a particular political agenda? Wait for it.

According to the Washington Times reporting on the survey results, 50% of likely voters feel that Republicans would likely do a better job of providing National Security. Only 33% favored Democrats in the pole.

Nearly one year ago (May of 2009) just after the Presidential transition, the same poll showed that the American people felt Democrats were equally as capable as Republicans with regard to national defense. When asking questions like “Keeping American Safe” or “Ensuring a strong military” or “Making America Safer from nuclear threats” Democrats now trail Republicans at 13%, 31% and 11% respectively.

So now, you are thinking that numbers can be made to look favorable to whomever is pimping them, right? I would agree with you. What is interesting is that Democracy Corps was founded in 1999 as the result of a few people feeling outraged at the political partisanship of Congress when they impeached President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In 2000, Democracy Corp rallied the proverbial troops of voters when their preferred candidate, Al Gore, didn't get elected the next President of the United States. Said another way, this group isn't about to win any political conservatism awards.

And now they are reporting that America is disappointed in the Presidency of Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats. Why would that be? Well, it appears that today, the Democracy Corps is dedicated to what they would call “making the government of the United States more responsive to the American people.” They clearly take issue with the fact that the government doesn't appear to be listening to the people.

All of the poll on health care demonstrate the same exact outcome. The trend as it were, exclaims loudly that the American public don't feel the current administration nor Congress is listening, and they are being vocal.

There is plenty of advice the group gives to Democrats in Congress and the White House. They label that advise “Analysis.” But regardless of their politically aligned advice, the bottom line is: American's feel that we are less safe and the world has a lower opinion of America now than it did the day this administration took over Washington, DC.

Feel free to read more straight from the horses mouth:

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Foot Full Of Mistletoe

The trees in DC are leaveless but there is still no snow on the ground. For a very short bit it snowed last weekend but this week it has been pretty dry. This weekend it is supposed to snow again but who knows if it will stick. Some people love the changing of the seasons and some folks have such a dislike for winter (I fall into this category in many ways) that they would prefer if it didn't exist at all. But nature has a way of making us familiar with the seasons whether we prefer them or not. The tell-tales are there, whether they represent our favorite season or not.

This winter I have been around or a part of a new Christmas tradition. It was not started by me and I won't likely be the one to end it, but I find it fascinating nonetheless. Two different groups of people I know have initiated conversations about “not offending anyone who doesn't share your religious holiday celebration.” This is the “new tradition” that now seems to happen each year following Thanksgiving and just before Christmas. The fundamental question goes like this:

“Is it wrong / inappropriate / unthoughtful to publicly celebrate a holiday using religious overtones when people around you might not be a part of your religious affiliation?”

For one Christian friend, within the context of a larger conversation, he felt it was more respectful to honor the paradigm of other people who don't share your views by specifically not wishing people a “Merry Christmas.” In exchange he offered “Happy Holidays” as a generic alternative and was fine with joining ranks with the people who would rather do away with “Merry Christmas” and it's obvious religious affiliation.

After much discussion, he felt that it was safer to not offend, say, an observant Jew by wishing them a “Merry Christmas.”

A few days later (and with zero prompting whatsoever) I received an email from another friend. I am going to share just a small portion of that email:

I have to say that even as a non-christian, I still love the part of a Charlie brown Christmas where Linus stands on stage and tells what Christmas is all about. And I pity da fool who organizes some “high standards” group and tries to get that taken off the air, cause I’ll be kickin some butt with a foot full of missile toes.

Now this was the beginning of the email and 2/3rds of it, after which he celebrated one of his favorite TV Shows letting me (and other friends / email recipients) know that the cast of Scrubs did their own version of the Charlie Brown special. Very funny I might add.

I went on to ask him “I was curious, from a non-christian (and specifically Jewish) perspective, does the presence of iconography and terminology (“Merry Christmas”) offend you?” I found his response to be very interesting.

He told me that someone he knew ask him about what he was doing for Christmas and then the friend got all flustered and said “I mean, Chanukah! I'm sorry.” His response was that nobody needs to apologize for asking him about Christmas, or saying the word Merry, or wishing him a merry Christmas. In his reasonable mind he feels that “merry Christmas” doesn't mean “I am forcing my beliefs upon you, so why not convert already?” I can honestly say I have never said “merry Christmas” and meant it in such a manner, so I would be willing to agree that for most people, that is a pretty reasonable expectation of understanding.

As for iconography, he said he could respect the fact that Christmas trees are “pretty” but we both agreed that the Christmas tree tradition, while adopted by Christians, is really pagan and not Christian almost at all!

This prompted me to ask a specific set of questions about what, of the following list, feels imposing or insensitive. This is an excerpt from my email in reply:

Is there a difference between... celebrating some element of who you are (via iconography or conversation) and... imposing your beliefs, and what might be a good example of either? How would you qualify these items / activities:

1. A Christmas wreath on a door.

2. An old lady wearing a pin on her coat that says “Merry Christmas.”

3. A menorah or a Christmas tree in a window.

4. Someone singing Christmas carols.

5. Strangers talking about their holiday traditions (religious or otherwise) while in line at a grocery store.

6. A game of dradle being played on a piece of cardboard in an alley with people standing around it with cash in their hands.

7. A pamphlet handed to you by a “Jew for Jesus” explaining the Christian message about Jesus as it pertains to thankfulness while in New York City watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

8. A stranger asking you “Isn’t that a beautiful nativity scene over there?” and points to some display setup in the lawn outside a city hall building next to a life-sized depiction of a “Chanukah-remembrance of the Maccabean Revolt” and a sign staked down by a local agnostic fellowship that reads “There is no God and religion enslaves people.”

9. Someone forcing you to bow down at a nativity scene.

For my friend, the only offensive bit was option 10. But he also admits he feels a bit progressive in terms of both being able to “get over” being hung up on something someone said and fundamentally not preferring all-things-Jewish over, say, a good looking blonde who just walked into the room regardless of religious / cultural identification. I digress.

In conclusion I think that both friends have great hearts when it comes to wanting to treat people well. In both cases, I would likewise not want to offend anyone or adopt feeling offended unnecessarily. That would definitely be the upside to both of their personalities and thoughts. I would also add that I am not in favor of hedging all imagined bets to avoid offending everyone. The fact is that the potential to call so many things I don't agree with “offensive” but I have to choose to not be “offended” and coerce everyone around me into my beliefs.

Now, don't get me wrong. I would love for everyone to share my beliefs. That would make my life a whole lot easier. But forcing compliance with what I believe would simply make for a planet full of hypocrites. I do make an exception for common laws that do stuff like defend life or encourage safety or protect children. And many of my beliefs about the harmful nature of pornography or social appropriateness of entertainment media would also likely make the world a better place, but I would rather people come to an agreement with me rather than force their compliance (and I am willing in the mean time to advocate for the idea that people should agree with me and maybe somedays my reasonable thoughts will become laws agreed to be a good thing... but I will waitto write more on that until I decide to run for U.S. Senate.)

But I love the idea that my Jewish friend here is willing to kick someone's butt with a foot full of mistletoe if someone decided that celebrating Christmas were suddenly socially inappropriate!

(worthy of note: The friend who's emails from which I've been directly quoting has granted me permission to share his thoughts. Out of respect to him, his perspective is not a license to attempt to offend people with your word choice under the guise of "celebration" but rather just his reasoned perspective with regard to the freedom to celebrate in a way that is not actually imposing but that doesn't require completely hiding oneself from the public eye for fear of offending someone.

Might someone be offended by your word choice, even though you are being kind and not intending on offending or verbally confront people who wouldn't otherwise agree with you? Sure they might. But I feel that this is there problem to wrestle with and not your problem in this case.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

New Website In Production

In my last blog entry I wrote about learning Drupal (the web-content management system tool) and that I am rebuilding my website in it. Right now it only lives on my iMac at home but soon I will be relaunching and moving my blog over to that site. In the mean time, I am fairly happy with what I am able to do to build a very stylized gallery in Drupal.

These sample images show what the basic site will look like but I want to focus on the gallery.

Intuitive URLs

First, replace "localhost:8888/ep" right now (in your mind) with "" and check out the address to get to the gallery on my site:
The nice thing about clean URLs is that it makes content on your site quite memorable and less cryptic, which I prefer. So, once I go live, if a person wanted to check out all of the images in my gallery they would type in:

Here is a screen grab of the gallery page on the site will all five images I have uploaded (click the image to view a larger version.) I designed it to make each image look a bit like an old photo. No more than six images to a page and if there are more than six images then at the bottom of the images you get a "pager" which uses Ajax to move you through the images in groups of no more than six at a time.

Instant Sub Galleries Via Tagging (Taxonomy)

Next up, I like to take a lot of photos and currently I use flickr to manage all of that, but I am only allowed so many uploads per month. So, since I manage my own site (as well as pay for the space and bandwidth) I am going to start moving all of my images over to my new gallery. No more being spread across flickr and blogspot and for me. I will be all in one site.

The next important task in creating my image gallery is being able to easily tag the images and then find them again by searching through those tags (if you are not familiar with tagging, it is like labeling or indexing your images based on ad-hock categories. Said another way, imagine that you took a picture of a friend during Thanksgiving. Well, you might want to tag that picture of "frank" with the terms "Frank" and "Thanksgiving." Later you will want to search for and see all of you shots where you tagged "Thanksgiving" you should be able to pull up that image.)

Now, check out this URL. It is the same as above with the addition of "/scottish"

The idea here is that I can pull back only the images where I have tagged them with "scottish." In this case I tagged only 4 of the 5 images I uploaded (for testing) using that tag. So only those images come back!

Make note that the gallery title says "Gallery: (Scottish)" this time and not "Gallery: (All)" like it did in the earlier image (click the image above to view a larger version.) I am doing a couple of tricks. First, this is the same exact gallery page in Drupal. In fact it is the same basic core page for my entire web site but I have themed just the output of the images here so that they look like old photos. Second, Drupal is reading the URL to figure out if it needs to filter the results based on the tag term I put on the URL. When I themed the image content coming back I just did a little trick to be sure it capitalized "Scottish" even though it isn't capitalized in the URL. This way everything looks nice and consistent and professional.

Larger Image Versions Using Lightbox

Finally, just as I have been asking you to click these images to view a larger version, I wanted that same feature in my web site. I have noticed that people are using a technique these days which opens a larger version of the picture on top of the existing page rather than opening a different window, and I think that looks great. It is really the new standard for how site galleries operate so I went looking to see how that was done.

In the end I was able to pull this off quite easily in Drupal. In addition to that I was able to setup an image processing module that would take the huge images I was uploading and it created thumbnails and standardized large view sizes to make the gallery images incredibly consistent!

Notice in this image that you can also download the original image in it's even larger size once you have clicked to view the larger version. Beautiful! I also made it so that when you click one image to make it larger, it automagically starts a slideshow of any remaining images in the group. You can stop the slideshow at any time or manually advance the slideshow as well.

Drupal sure makes this stuff easy. If I had to do this sort of thing from scratch I don't have a clue how long it would take me to build out all of this functionality. In addition, the site design is completely mine (so one wouldn't necessarily assume this was a Drupal website by looking at it.) Beyond that the time I save now by allowing drupal to create thumbnail and standard larger views of my images more than makes up for the time it has taken me to learn how to do this stuff!

Very exciting geekery!

The Difference Between My Brain And A Web-CMS

That title is a joke. I am nothing like a web-content management system and so comparing my brain to the purpose of one is ridiculous. But I have been bashing my brain against one particular web-cms for a while now and while my head hurts from the steady rate of growth and discovery, I can say that the experience has been, well, glorious compare to the learning curve of other kinds of technology. I am talking about the web-cms Drupal.

I have learned a number of other languages over the years: Visual Basic, Cobal, Powerbuilder, Foxpro, C, Objective C, C#, .NET framework, Cold Fusion, PHP, ActionScript, JavaScript, Smalltalk and a few others (fhew!) The thing about most programming languages: it is a lot like riding a bike. There are many kinds of bikes out there, single gears, multiple gears, road bikes, trail bikes, and while they all ride differently, once you learn one the others implement the same basic expected functions (pedals, breaks, gear switching, turning, etc.) just not in the same way (rod-based gear changing, twist / crank gear changing, breaks on the handlebars, breaks on the pedals, etc.) With most languages the purpose remains the same, the tools to get you there are what change a bit.

Diving over into a web-cms is like tweaking a bike for a particular purpose. The seat, the handlebar grips, the shoes, did I mention the seat? A web-cms can implement many different approaches based on the technology (or programming language) beneath it. This means you need to know a bit about the programming language it is written in, but then you need to know how they used that language to put the whole thing together so you could snap it together in a custom manner: enter headache.

Drupal, the web-cms of my choosing, is really built on the best of the best. Allow me to throw out a few buzzwords: apache, MySQL, PHP, jQuery and Ajax. And Drupal sites tend to look amazing in old browsers as well as new browsers, index really well on sites like Google (sidenote: it is funny to think of a monolithic entity like Google as fundamentally a site) and plays really well with other technology. If Drupal were your kid, it would never disobey, would be infinitely creative and filled with potential, and you would never have to tell it to clean it's room.

Drupal is clearly the premier poster-child for Open-Source-Gone-Well. It nearly defines the phrase. Drupal is open source in that Drupal version 6 (the current version) included the participation of over 700 developers world-wide devoted to making this community product better.

And the magic of Drupal is in the contributed modules. These are little optional pieces of downloadable functionality, all open source, available for the purpose of adding functionality to the core web-cms that is Drupal. Do you want a site to run your personal blog? Core Drupal does that. Do you want to setup a community calendar and a photo gallery and manage document libraries with sign-in & sign-out capabilities? Go visit and you will find all of the Contrib. Modules you need to pull that off.

Learning Drupal is, however, just a bit sketchy, but not in the way you are anticipating. It isn't that Drupal information is difficult to find. On the contrary. There is too much information out there. And self-published experts range from goofy to golden-nuggets. The trick is getting good references from community members to find the right best sources of knowledge. In a sea of Drupal there are a few amazing stand-out sources that every wanna be Drupal user needs to find... but I am going to hord those references so you all don't benefit!!

That is joke. The first amazing source is IRC. That's right! I said it! Remember back in the day when AOL first came out and how cool it was to chat with people over the internet? Well, long before AOL pretended to BE the web, IRC was! IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, are these communities of like-minded folks who are chatting it up on various topics. In the Drupal IRC world, and #DRUPAL-SUPPORT are your bread and butter. I have received tips from everything from (1) great hosting services, to (2) how to enable features in my custom theme configuration, or (3) great book recommendations.

All in all, my career has taken a completely reborn turn in the last 3 years. I was completely invested in Microsoft a few years ago. If I were to explain my career in terms of technology I would have said: SharePoint, VB and C#, Ajax, CSS and SQL Server. These days, without a doubt I would now say: PhotoShop, Dreamweaver, Flash, ActionScript 3, Drupal, PHP, CSS, xHTML, XML and Design. In the world of tech, that is like agreeing to fight with the English and just before impaling William Wallace on your sword, shaking his hand and joining his team along with the other defecting Irish (not that I am Irish... I am Scottish!)

So I am geeked about the future of my career. I am 36 years young and feel like I am just getting started.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Scottish Christmas Parade

I am about to snuggle down and watch a Clint Eastwood movie with my brie and crackers with rosemary chicken and wild rice while I watch the first snowfall of the season out the living room window, but first I wanted to share just a couple photos from my morning in Alexandria.

These police on bikes lead the parade. It was cold and the rain just turned to snow.

This man walking away is wearing the tartan of Clan Donald (my Scottish heritage.) My photos really turned out great. Now I just need to take the time to go through them and post them. Be sure to click on the images to see the larger versions.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Letter From VA Congressman On Health Care Reform

First, here is the letter I just received in my email inbox (following this is my email reply):

Dear Mr. McDonald,

Thank you for contacting me with respect to the Affordable Health Care for America Act (H.R. 3962). I appreciate the opportunity to hear your views on this important legislation.

My approach to dealing with the issue of health care reform has been to listen to you, my constituents. Through town hall meetings, telephone town halls, e-mails, letters, phone calls, and even over lunch at neighborhood diners, I have heard from thousands of constituents. >From that interaction, I learned that Northern Virginia families and businesses want health care reform that lowers costs, increases choice, improves quality of care, and provides peace of mind.

H.R. 3962, while far from perfect, ultimately met those tests and that is why I supported it. Below, I have laid out some of its provisions.

Lower Costs

o Eliminates co-pays and deductibles for preventive care.

o Strengthens Medicare by closing the prescription drug donut hole for seniors.

o Provides tax credits to help small businesses provide insurance.

o Reduces the federal deficit by more than $100 billion.

Increased Choice

o If you like your current doctor, and your current insurance plan, you can keep them.

o A National Health Insurance Exchange, allowing you to choose from a menu of different private plans, with a public plan as one option.

Higher Quality

o You and your doctor make your health care choices - not insurance companies or the government.

o More doctors and nurses in the workforce to care for you.

Peace of Mind

o Caps catastrophic costs so families aren't forced to declare bankruptcy because of health care costs.

o No more insurance company coverage denials because of pre-existing conditions.

o No need to worry about changing jobs based on health care coverage.

You should also be aware of the impacts this bill would have on the 11th Congressional District specifically. It would provide tax credits to make insurance more affordable for 87,000 households, close the prescription drug donut hole for 3,800 seniors, allow 19,000 small businesses to offer health insurance for the first time, and protect up to 1,400 families from bankruptcy due to health care costs.

In particular, our seniors will benefit tremendously from the provisions of H.R. 3962. In addition to closing the prescription drug donut hole, saving thousands of dollars a year for affected seniors, it will eliminate all Medicare co-payments for preventive services like checkups. Furthermore, it will strengthen the solvency of Medicare, ensuring that this critical program is in place for years to come.

Finally, I was able to secure substantial changes in the final version of the bill that protect nearly all Northern Virginia families and small businesses from paying higher taxes to finance the plan.

As Congress continues to work on health care reform, I look forward to hearing your views. Once again, thank you for contacting me on this important issue. I encourage you to visit my website at to read H.R. 3962 and view numerous videos where I explain my position on health care reform in detail.


Gerald E. Connolly
Member of Congress
11th District, Virginia

And here is my reply:

Thank you for you email ((you spammed me about your support of H.R. 3962.)

Please endure my thoughts for a moment as I analyze what you have said here

Provides tax credits:
This is fundamentally raising the cost and not saving the cost. We all know what a tax credit is and how you pay for it.

Eliminates co-pays and deductibles for preventative care:
I have that today. You efforts have accomplished nothing if you are pretending to give that to me. The market already manages well the competitiveness of these health related components.

Lowers Cost:
The Congressional Business Office disagrees with your analysis (and they are more qualified than you to analyze cost) so you need to be honest about this. If the CEO of a Health Insurance Company misrepresented the financial state of their entity in such a way as to ignore what that companies accountants were saying, that CEO would be crucified both socially and legally by investors. As a tax-payer I am your investor. As a Congress-person you would be an officer of the public health option included in this plan. Any inaccurate representation of the financial analysis and budget of this plan would constitute a breach of trust and you are now culpable in your dissemination of misinformation. Expect that the federal government will be rightly sued by any and all tax-payers as the officers of a public health insurance company would if you continue to misrepresent the reasonable analysis.

Let's talk about a few additional areas of concern which bring into question the current state of your “analysis” of H.R. 3962:

You and your doctor make your health care choices:
My doctor and I make those decisions today. You are inferring that the restrictive control of coverage by insurance companies will be tamped down by this bill, implying that my doctor and I can make decisions about my health care that we can't make today. This is completely deceptive. While you are taking the power of some “coverage” decisions away from insurance companies, you aren't handing that power to me and my doctor. The bill hands the lion's share of that power to the new “Health Choices Commissioner” essentially now putting me and my doctor in bed with both the insurance company as well as the federal government. Applying simple math you have essentially complicated who will be involved in choosing my coverage, and not simplified it to me and my doctor.

Protecting us from higher taxes:
Independent analysis of H.R.3962 has proven that there are many new taxation opportunities created if this bill passes. Maybe you are hiding behind the idea that you will not directly tax us at the federal or state level, but we are all paying attention. From new device and service taxes to small business taxes, to tax penalties if we prefer to not participate in purchasing insurance, you are raising our taxes. Your letter is intentionally worded to deceive.

In addition to these specific rebuttals, you are also proposing changes to medicare and medicaid which are both analyzed as either not helpful or specifically harmful. Now, I realize that an element of reform may mean that any programs numbers will change, but in the case of medicare you are making decisions with which America is not comfortable.

If I were to give you a letter grade with regard to your analysis, you get a “D” at best. More importantly you appear to have spent more time word-smithing the grammar and word selection in your sentences with a desire to deceive people about these various talking points, as opposed to just analyzing the bill. I recommend you go back and study it again.

So far Congress and the current presidential administration have done an absolutely horrible job at estimating, anticipating and analyzing our troubled economy. Independent news outlets like MSNBC have called your optimistic analysis of the economy flawed due to real-world outcomes in comparison to specific estimates. Now we are to believe in your analysis of the cost and value of H.R. 3962 over the analysis of the Congressional Budget Office or other independent analysis? Not unlike the Congressional arrogance in imagining that the 111
th Congress can solve or better manage a health care company, you have made the blunder again in imagining we will trust your defiantly optimistic analysis despite the real numbers.

In conclusion, if a public option continues to get pork-barreled onto health care reform legislation and you continue to support it, I along with a number of other Americans will do whatever I can in my circles of influence to remain vocal about ensuring that you do not remain in your Congressional seat.

If you really want to listen to the American people, then stop the spending spree and do a better job.

Steve McDonald

P.S. I will be posting your letter and my response to my blog so other people can independently review the quality of your work. If you decide to recant and reconsider your analysis and go back to work for the American people, feel free to send me an email in reply and I will update the blog entry with your responsible political adjustments.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My First Comic In 20 Years!

I have truly been slacking. When I was a kid I used to draw all of the time. And while I do creative artistic work with regularity, i don't really spend any time drawing comics, at least not to any level of completion.

Well tonight as I was headed home I had this thought that I needed to put down on paper. A couple hours later after digitally coloring it and adding captions, here it is! (Clicking the comic will open a larger version)

Feel free to leave me your thoughts in the form of comments!