December 31, 2006

Artificial light in the night sky

The last couple of nights the sky has been pretty bright, in an eerie or mystical sort of way. It has been cloudy, and the moon has been waxing, so I think a lot of it is moonlight. But I can't figure out how much might be artificial light reflecting back from the cloudy sky. We are close to shopping centers and a highway, so there is always some noticeable light in the sky when it is cloudy at night.

I was growing up when I first paid attention to light pollution in the night sky. We were close to the small town of Gray and a bit farther from the medium-sized city of Macon. I could see a little bit of pink haze around the horizon in the direction of each place. Either the light around Macon 15 miles away made a wider patch of light or I imagined it did since it was a bigger town.

Today whenever I visit some place situated outside of a town at night I'm surprised to see the clarity of the stars and the darkness of the sky, the way I grew up seeing it. That house was in an area so dark that when our neighbors across the street had a security light installed it changed everything at night. Even though their house was far away, it then stood out like a lighthouse at sea. Their light began to invade our house at night and distracted from any stargazing. It was no longer possible to see a sunrise in the same way.

I don't hate city lights, of course. My current house has a street light in the front, and we can see lights scattered all around from the neighborhood, an apartment complex, a shopping center, and an office park. Each fall I've noticed more lights are visible when the leaves are gone. But it is important to remember the natural state of affairs under nothing but starlight.

When we lived in Commerce we thought it was funny that Bill Anderson wrote "City Lights" there. The Commerce we knew was deserted at night with only enough street lights to see your way around. Maybe he embellished his inspiration by making "city light" plural.

December 28, 2006

Christmas notes

We had a fun Christmas. We got to see many of our family members in Toccoa and Danville. Both our mamas said they didn't do as much in preparing food this year, but we pigged out and didn't notice. There were distractions again this year with medical and family events concerning different people, but as long as we are thankful to be together and realize that life changes, it can still "feel like Christmas."

Nature gave us a Christmas present in the form of a lower power bill by having weeks of warm weather before Christmas.

I noticed again how there has been talk in the news about the propriety of using the phrases "happy holidays" or "merry Christmas" in public. Judging by letters to the editor of our local newspaper, some people seem to think there is a culture war going on, a war on Christmas. Well, it is helpful to remember that Christmas is not the only religious holiday in December, and a lot of December traditions are not even religious to begin with. I sure hope no one was offended by our "Happy Holidays" cards that we mailed. It would have been awkward to send a Christmas-only card to our Jewish acquaintances, you know, and even more awkward to ask everyone about their religion before sending them a card.

The holidays are too short. I'm trying to get some reading done, but I'm not motivated to read so quickly and carefully, so I don't know if I'm going to finish. Maybe I should just relax anyway.

I'm going to try not to think about New Year's superstitions this year. We'd be screwed for life if it was bad luck for a blond-haired man to be the first person to enter the house in the new year, and Amy won't let me cook collards in the house. (Maybe I can cook some in a Crock pot in the garage.) Besides, the new year is an arbitrary time marked by the calendar and not an astronomical event. I should go ahead and start writing "2007" in my checkbook because you know how that goes.

Amy took down our Christmas tree yesterday. Yes, she puts it up early and takes it down early, but I guess she is just choosing convenient times to do all that. It's not like I have an opinion anyway, except I do like the little fiber optic tree that went upstairs this year.

December 21, 2006

Employment

Next month I will become employed part time, and it will be my first job in the legal profession. It also marks the end of a long series of rejections that I've experienced in law school, so that sure makes me happy. I will be a law clerk at Fortson, Bentley and Griffin, P.A., and it will become full time for the summer.

This will be a new experience, so I am nervous about meeting expectations. Law school is just tough, so I don't really know my range of competencies yet. This is very exciting, though, because I will start getting some serious experience with research and writing in a practice setting, and working for a sophisticated firm will be a crucial part of my education. I also look forward to meeting new people and establishing relationships for the future.

Fortunately, I have a sense of transition that should help me. I took the public interest practicum course this past semester, so now I have an initial experience working for a lawyer and serving clients. I should post my learning assessment from that course on this blog.

December 17, 2006

Land use

It is generally understood that there is an environmental need to stop or slow down the development of land. A way to avoid this is to redevelop land already built on with more density. But how do we reconcile this with the common human desire for space and lawns? Sprawling development has hurt our environment, and we could halt that with denser infill development. Our society would have to continue becoming more and more urban, but how can more people be convinced to live in tight clusters of houses or apartment buildings when they don't already have a reason, such as a job downtown in a large city? Is it even natural to live in such close quarters? Supposedly human nature looks for the sort of environment found in a savanna.

Here in Athens, the local government is struggling to figure out how to implement a policy of preserving a region of agricultural land and forests dubbed the "greenbelt." Ideally, sprawl will be controlled and population will grow in the city center rather than the fringes. A few years ago a new zoning law was passed to require ten acres per house in the agricultural zone, but the immediate problem is that those landowners cannot sell land for subdivisions or development the way owners in other zones may be able to. It is understood that this is not fair.

The next step in the county's plan is to start a program of transferrable development rights (TDRs). Instead of selling off land, agricultural owners could sell development rights to be used in another area of town where they will allow a property to be built or rebuilt more densely. That means instead of an in-town property owner asking to be given a rezoning for free, they could buy the right to build more densely. Unfortunately, the first problem is that the sending and receiving zones have to be determined, and such a plan may become controversial due to the NIMBY effect in the receiving zones. The second problem is that the whole idea creates a logistical nightmare in setting up the market.

TDRs are nothing new, but a news article today points out that the challenge is to tailor a plan that will work in Athens. New York City started using TDRs in the 1970s, and they were basically purchased to build an extra tall building in one location in exchange for limiting the building height on another property. In southern New Jersey and on New York's Long Island, TDR programs were set up to preserve pine barrens. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a program was set up to preserve working farms.

It is interesting to note that farms are often an environmentally damaging use of land, even though they are counted as "greenspace." Athens wants to preserve its greenspace, and I am not sure if the government is making a distinction between farms and forests. It is also interesting to note that Georgia has more land covered by forests now than it did 100 years ago because more farmland going out of use got covered with trees than with building or roads, despite all the growth since then. Finally, it is noteworthy that the Athens greenbelt is more of an ideal than a reality since the outlying areas have had sporadic development eat holes in the green, and that is why the county commission felt the urgency to pass restrictive zoning even before a TDR program was ready.

Anyway, over the holidays I hope to read Land Use Planning and Development Regulation Law. It is a hornbook that covers many land use, planning, and zoning topics. I need to understand the nuts and bolts of zoning and other kinds of law before I can enter this debate as more than a layman.

December 16, 2006

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens

Starting this summer I've tried to learn about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens. A lot of people are skeptical of UU congregations, and I found that many (though of course not all) of the concerns are unfounded.

First of all, why am I interested in the place? Amy and I have never joined a church, so I have wondered if I can make some of the normal sorts of community connections that many people have. Next I have seen that my wider social circle already has connections there, and members of the congregation are active and involved with charities, causes, and politics. I've met a professor, an elected official, and a political candidate who were members.

The Unitarian Universalist history is complex. The current system was a recent merger of two systems of liberal religion, and some of the traditional doctrine goes back many centuries. The Unitarians and Universalists were Christians, but the current system embraces all kinds of religious thought. Of course, that is the main objection to the UUs held by many people, that Christianity is not central. To that I can only say that you might respect the beliefs of others as you want yours to be respected. The UUs do not have a creed, but their official principles reflect positive values, including spiritual growth, equality, justice, peace, and respect for the environment.

It is true that they do not hold the Bible as their central text. Rather than being a "people of the book," they see themselves as a "people of the library." However, tradition is still important, and UUs have rituals and rites like anyone else. UUs are known for having less formality, but the minister in Athens is a former Methodist minister and says she appreciates the "bells and smells" of more formal church traditions. Each congregation designs its own services because they are supposed to be independent and democratic (a congregational polity), so I guess there are no generalizations to be made about services and traditions.

I have heard the Unitarian Universalist system called a "cult." That really doesn't make any sense when you consider that the common elements of what you normally call a cult involve a set of dogmatic beliefs, a charismatic leader who controls those beliefs, and a zealous devotion that puts the organization above all other priorities in life and requires an unreasonable sacrifice of independence and resources. Could the UUs really be hiding dogmatic thinking behind a facade of open-mindedness?

No. I have seen no cult-like elements in the very least. There is no creed, so that makes most any other religious organization closer to the definition of a cult. There is no singular way of thinking that is imposed; in fact, one Sunday service that we visited had debate break out during a talkback session after a lay-led service. There is no pressure to give a particular amount of money or type of support. I think the "cult" label gets applied by devout Christians who truly believe that the choice to not affirm a Christian creed after being exposed to the Gospel is a moral failing made even worse by the further choice to continue talking about religion. Again, not everyone shares the same beliefs, and some people respect the reasoned choices by others to believe different things. To call something a cult when it is the antithesis of a cult is just misleading and unfair.

I was a bit worried about the politics of the fellowship in Athens after we visited a few services because I got a sense that the political thought was extremely liberal. Politically, I see myself as a centrist, and I don't think that the polar way of analyzing values and ideas is very useful, though clearly I agree with a number of so-called liberal ideas as a matter of preference rather than a matter of preaching. Anyway, after more inspection, the liberal atmosphere there seems to be more an aggregation and not a unified way of thinking. Apparently many members of the congregation disagree with each other on political issues. There are many members involved with the Democratic party or in favor of that party, and there are some Republicans (blending conservative politics with liberal religion), but the congregation has formally chosen to prohibit discussion of partisan politics inside the sanctuary. So there is no actual creed for political thought, but UUs are known for supporting civil rights and social justice, and I am quite comfortable with that. There are churches out there that do preach politics in a big way, but this is not one of them.

This, then, is what I have learned about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens. I am slow to get involved with anything "churchy," but I may visit more often.

Drive-throughs are now an option

In my car the driver side window switch had been broken for a long time. That made it really embarassing to use a fast food drive-through because I had to open my door and reach backwards. The next thing to have a problem was the blower fan for the defroster and air conditioner. These problems were on top of a hazard light switched that messed up my turn signals. I finally got some of these things taken care of yesterday at Commerce Tire, but I need to go back Monday for one more part. Yes, I went all the way to Commerce because Precision Tune's prices were excessive and I just didn't know where else to go in Athens. I got some other maintenance done, and they just charged a little over an hour for labor for five items. After the one last part it will almost be like having a new car.

Yes, I can go through drive-throughs again. I will be able to use drive-up ATMs and swipe my parking pass at school without opening the door. By the way, it seems wacky that I use three electronic items, including that parking pass, to open gates and doors for my car. Any more would be confusing.

Yesterday I went to meet some folks at the Globe on Lumpkin Street to talk about local politics and such. Topics included the sewer system, sewer and water rates, lane configuration of local streets, the financial troubles for the Chamber of Commerce, the recent campaigns for mayoral candidates, the effects of tort reform, and using duels to settle disputes.

December 13, 2006

Mysteries of the Pritchett House



There was a mysterious Indiana Jones moment in the house this morning. I walked up the stairs and found myself blinded by the sun through the bedroom window! This never happens. This must be a special moment of the year when the sun reaches the proper position to send a beam through the bedroom door that magically aligns with the opening to the stairway.

December 10, 2006

Election day



Last Tuesday was runoff election day in Athens. I volunteered to make some get-out-the-vote phone calls for Kelly Girtz who was running for county commission superdistrict nine, but the calls were made in a joint effort with Heidi Davison's reelection campaign for mayor, and I ended up just making some calls for Heidi. They both won, so I was happy about that. I'm not in Kelly's superdistrict, but I have talked with him extensively, and I am sure he will be a great member of the commission. Here are some photos, including the office where we made phone calls and then the bar where Heidi and Kelly made their speeches after seeing the election results.



Ann Hodges, Al Davison, and Heidi Davison Mike and Dan Johnathan, Julie, Nicole Heidi Davison Kelly Girtz Kelly Girtz and Adrian Pritchett

December 04, 2006

The Christmas List

Make a quick comment here if you actually read my blog. You don't even have to use your real name; just write something to let me know anyone is looking at this more than once. If I get like just two comments this month, then I'll just close the blog and send you email from now on.

My Aunt Janice sent a Christmas with this poem. Maybe it is common, but I had not read it before. What is sad is the way people don't tend to their lists, either for Christmas cards or just for life. You know I frequently complain about people falling out of touch, but I'm still getting used to the idea because it has gone from people just communicating less down to relatives not even giving us their address when they move. I can complain here because I'm pretty sure those people aren't even reading my blog.

In other news, I sort of got rear-ended in my car today. I was surprised to not find any damage on my car or the other driver's, though. She let me copy information from her insurance card and driver's license just in case, and I gave her my card, and that was it.