Thursday, February 15, 2018

BREAK THE HOLD OF THE NRA

I don't need to go into detail about the strangle hold the National Rifle Association has on the U.S. Congress and President. The NRA spent an unprecedented amount of money on the 2016 election, and was a major factor in the wins by Donald Trump, Senate candidates in key states, and other down-ticket victories in the gun belt.

And deaths by gun continue in this country on a daily basis, including school shootings. If you want the chilling facts, do an internet search, this is well covered by the media and non-profit organizations such as Gun Violence Archive (gunviolencearchive.org).

Many elected politicians take money from the NRA, and to be fair, a small percentage of them favor some level of gun control law. But for the most part, the NRA-supported politicians don't talk about gun control. They “don't want to politicize”mass shootings when people are grieving, they can only say the standard catch phrases that have tried and true terms such as “thoughts and prayers” and “we have to deal with mental illness.” This is all a cruel insult to everyone, most particularly the families and friends of shooting victims, and the victims who survive.

The number of deaths and injuries by gun keep increasing in the U. S., and the amount of time spent by the media on the larger mass shootings (more than 4 victims) continues to decline. Gun violence has become normal, and only the most egregious and shocking incidents hold our attention for very long.

U.S. society is crazy, and getting crazier. We have become, by so many metrics, a true “shithole” country, and one that is shot full of holes.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

BICYCLE ELITISM

I pedal around Portland a lot, and more and more I am running into elitism and discrimination by the transportation bureau in Portland. I try to ignore it, and I always break the rules (perhaps even break the law?).

I took this photo today to illustrate the situation.

As you can clearly see, there are signs that prohibit vehicles other than bicycles from using certain streets. Signs reading “Do Not Enter except bicycles,” or “Bicycles Only” are everywhere around Portland. This excludes me because, as you can see in the photo, I ride a tricycle! Think about those people in town who ride unicycles! What about skateboarders? They, too, are victims of this elitism and discrimination.

Portland prides itself as a great bicycling city; well, it would be a great tricycling city too, if it removed those discriminatory signs and allowed all human-powered vehicles to go wherever bicycles are allowed. What do I have to do, start a class action suit?

So far I have avoided being ticketed or arrested for ignoring these ubiquitous signs and going where bicycles are allowed to go. But I secretly hope I get busted by the bike cops so I can fight City Hall!

Resist bicycle elitism; ride a trike!!

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Monday, February 05, 2018

A FEW FACTS ABOUT FACEBOOK

Facts, just the facts.

For 2017:

  • Facebook had revenues of $41 billion
  • Facebook net income was $16 billion
  • Facebook has approximately 2 billion users world-wide
  • Therefore, Facebook brought in $20 of revenue per user in 2017, and had a net income of $8 per user.

Now you have an idea of what a Facebook user is worth to Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg has a net worth of $76.7 billion

Facts, just the facts. 

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HOMELESS CAMPERS AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Like so many American cities, Portland, Oregon has thousands of homeless persons living outdoors, and solutions are elusive. A recent event highlighted the issue of people camping in "the woods" and raised questions about the pros and cons of these situations. 

Kaia Sand, the executive director of Street Roots in Portland, wrote an interesting opinion piece suggesting that when the city cleared out this camp it might have been a lost opportunity. In Kaia's words: "Rather than continuously throwing public funds at moving our homeless neighbors out of public parks and other natural areas, why not involve them in the ecological care of the land on which they camp?" It's a good question, and one that deserves discussion. (Note: there are a number of issues involved in this story related to homelessness, police sweeps of camps, displacement of people, and others that I cannot cover in this focused post. I suggest reading Ms. Sand's editorial, linked above.) 

I agree in principle with Kaia's thoughts, and the actions of various advocates around this question. In my work as an ecologist and consultant, I have had some experiences in which people living outside near one of my projects have wanted to know what we were doing, and how they could assist. In a couple of instances, we asked these folks to keep an eye on things for us and do some easy maintenance of fencing or signage. Although they didn't ask for anything in return, we always brought them things we thought they could use, including gift cards for the local market. Some of these people were very interested in being good stewards of the environment (and we were careful not to use them as unpaid labor).

On the other hand, I have also had some not very pleasant experiences on project sites. At a recent large project site, campers pulled up newly planted trees and shrubs on the restored riverbank and excavated soil to make flat areas for their tents. We found piles of garbage and broken glass strewn around, and also hypodermic needles. These folks weren't being good stewards of the environment. 

There are larger issues here that need to be part of the conversation. In her editorial, Ms. Sand asks why we need to move people out of our "public parks and other natural areas." Part of the answer is contained in her question; these are parks and natural areas, not campgrounds. As a consulting ecologist, I have spent a career looking at environmental impacts from a science-based view. If we want to allow people to live outdoors, for whatever reasons they have, we need to be thoughtful about where we allow them to camp. No matter how careful people are (in the example of the camp in question, the campers tried to have a light ecological footprint), there are always unintentional ecological impacts. 

I support allowing people to establish camping areas if they have no other options, but only in locations that have been designated for this activity after careful analysis of environmental and social impacts associated with the camping. Allowing camping in a location designated and managed as a natural area is not a good idea, no matter how careful the campers are. In fact, allowing people to camp wherever they want is not a good idea, either. Some examples. On one of my projects, I found about a dozen people camping on the private property. They had dug into the ground to make flat areas for tents and shallow pits for fires. The property, however, was contaminated, and by excavating the soil, these folks were at risk of being exposed to contaminants that could affect their health (there were warning signs posted around the property). On another project years ago (along the Columbia Slough) I saw people using the slough water for cooking; this was a water body that had raw sewage flowing into it. At other locations, campers were using shallow pits as toilets, and the seasonally high water table created a pathway for fecal bacteria to contaminate the adjacent stream. 

I am of the opinion that the city, county and state should designate locations, and develop them as campgrounds, where people can have temporary shelter, including needed facilities. As a society we should not hide people "in the woods" but rather, designate public spaces within our neighborhoods where people can find secure shelter outdoors until they can be helped into permanent housing. These camping areas should have drinking water, toilet and shower facilities, garbage and recycling facilities, and secure lockers for personal belongings. There should also be rules of behavior, and a method to enforce them. Finally, social services should be available for people who want assistance. These locations need not be out "in the woods," but would be better within the urban setting, maybe on vacant properties that could be leased or owned by government entities or NGOs for this temporary use.

There is a lot of talk lately about including the homeless in our concept of "neighbors," and I agree that anyone who lives in the neighborhood is part of the community. I would like to find ways to involve our homeless neighbors in the social fabric; however, our tendency is to not want to really see them, let alone interact with them. If we allowed people to set up temporary housing (tents) in a designated location in the neighborhood (even part of a city park) in a very structured way, there would be more opportunities for two-way social interactions. Importantly, the housed and unhoused neighbors would all have to agree to being socially responsible; in other words, good neighbors.

I have to add that the above might sound very altruistic to those of us, myself included, who have been struggling for years with very serious issues involving what we call "street people behaving badly" in our neighborhood. Whether or not these people have housing, they engage in inappropriate and often unlawful behaviors that have had serious negative impacts on merchants and residents, and have reduced the livability of the neighborhood for everyone. Unlike some of the homeless people we know in the neighborhood, these people have no interest in being good neighbors, and these are not the folks I would want to see in a neighborhood campground. 

Finally, I have to say that designated camping locations is not a solution to the homeless issues in our society. At best it is a bandage that can provide some benefits until we implement permanent measures to house people who are without it. 

Thanks for the thought-provoking opinion piece, Kaia. 

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Sunday, February 04, 2018

MY PRIVACY MATTERS

We have all freely given up a lot of our privacy in the Digital Age. We use web sites knowing that each site collects data about us. We put things online, in public, that tell many things about who we are, where we are, who we are with, what we are feeling, what consumer habits we have, what we "like," and so much more. We use email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Spotify, Pandora, Google, Yahoo and so much more. Amazon - not just a bookseller anymore - has become a larger and larger part of our lives for so many of us.

For many of us, this is fine; we have nothing to hide, we get a lot of access and services for free or for a relatively small cost.  But for me, and some people I know, there is a dark side that has become less and less acceptable. I have read numerous articles and analyses about the dark side of the internet. I'm not talking here about the hacking, criminal side of the internet, but rather the companies, known to me and unknown to me, that see me as a revenue source, a container of data waiting to be harvested and sold. This has always bothered me, and it has finally come to dominate my view of the internet and how I use it.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has vowed to change Facebook in 2018 as a response to the role it played in the Russian hacking of the US elections. The problem Zuck has is that Facebook is a public company with shareholders, and anything he does that reduces profits will not be taken lightly by the shareholders.

Facebook isn't the problem; the problem is a set of concepts that include "social media," "sharing economy" and similar. These all sound terrific in an abstract sense; however, everything has a price or a cost, and every internet venture has to be funded somehow. For those of us who were around before the internet, its coming was heralded with unbounded idealism about how it would change the world in so many good ways; it would be free, open to everyone, safe, a glorious "information highway" in the clouds. Well, yes, some of this is certainly real, but so much more has been co-opted by capitalism and criminality.

And so... I am taking steps to protect my privacy on the internet. This will affect some of the ways I communicate with friends and family. It will also, hopefully, reduce the harvesting of my data.

Initial steps:

  1. I will stop using Facebook, with the goal of closing my Facebook account. Facebook has some benefits, but I find that the down side outweighs the up side for me. I will post to Facebook the message that my Facebook friends can get my email address and phone number by sending me a message (a Facebook message if they don't have my other contact info).
  2. I will transfer my email from Google gmail to Proton Mail. Proton Mail is a fully encrypted service (end-to-end if both users use it) based in Switzerland (including their servers), which has much more strict regulations of the internet than the USA. 
  3. Google - this is a tough one. I am looking into the privacy policies for this blog platform that is a Google product. I do use a number of Google products all the time, so I will start by enabling as many of the Google privacy tools as are available. I already use Duck Duck Go as the browser when I am on Safari (the Apple browser). Our mobile phone provider, Project Fi, and our mobile phones (Nexus) are Google products. So yes, I/we are tied closely to Google, and I'm working on that.
  4. Amazon - another tough one. I use Amazon for a lot of my shopping, and we subscribe to Amazon Prime for streaming video and other uses.  I'm studying this one, too.
  5. VPN - virtual private network - I use a VPN on all of my devices. This hides the identity and location of my computer, and is a layer of protection from hackers. Some web sites will not allow me to connect if my VPN is on, so this can sometimes be an issue. It is invaluable when traveling and using a wi-fi mobile phone or computer to be on the internet. 
If you have any interest in discussing this topic of internet privacy, let me know; if we live in the same area we can get a cuppa and talk. Or we can use the telephone (what a novel idea!). 

I do hope to stay in touch with all of you. 
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Saturday, February 03, 2018

HOW THE GOP IS SCREWING THE HOMELESS

If you are a regular reader, you know how much I like numbers (facts, not fake news). So I'll start this post with a list of the 15 cities in the world (a) that have the largest populations of homeless persons (in decreasing order):

  1. Manila, Philippines
  2. New York, USA
  3. Los Angeles, USA
  4. Moscow, Russia
  5. Mexico City, Mexico
  6. Jakarta, Indonesia
  7. Mumbai, India
  8. Buenos Aires, Argentina
  9.  Budapest, Hungary
  10. Sao Paulo, Brazil
  11. Boston, USA
  12. Washington D. C., USA
  13. San Francisco, USA
  14. Phoenix, USA
  15. Athens, Greece
Surprised? Of the top 15 homeless city populations in the world, 6 are in the United States of America, and 2 of these are ranked 2nd and 3rd. The U.S. economy remains the largest in the world in terms of nominal GDP. The $19.42 trillion U. S. economy is 25% of the gross world product. (b)

Homelessness in the U.S.A. increased during 2017 for the first time since 2010. It is estimated that there are 554,000 homeless people in our country; that's about 0.2% of our population of 327 million.

More than 42 million people in the U.S.A., including 1 in 6 children, struggle to put food on the table (2015 data). That is 13% of our population.

More than 43 million people in the U.S.A. live below the poverty line. The poverty line is an annual income less that $24,250 for a family of 4. (Think about that number for a moment!) 

The latest count in Multnomah County, Oregon, that includes the City of Portland, found 4,177 people experiencing homelessness (or houselessness) out of a population of 735,344. This number was a 10% increase over the 2015 count. Of the homeless persons, 76% were white, and 10% Hispanic/Latino.

American cities are struggling to address the crisis of homelessness, trying desperately to find solutions to house people and provide the services they need, including employment for those who can work. 

The response to the homeless crisis by the Trump Administration has been mixed, based on somewhat cursory research I have done. They recently announced a $2 billion grant program to help cities build affordable housing; on the other hand, they have made drastic cuts to the HUD and other budgets, and have tried to end some important federal programs designed to work towards an end to homelessness. 

But just looking at budget numbers for homelessness programs ignores the bigger picture. If we look at what the Congressional Republicans are doing, we see that the crisis might get worse. 

The GOP and the Trumpsters have been whittling away at the Affordable Care Act (or ACA, what they gleefully call "Obamacare."). Making health insurance less available and more expensive will harm many Americans, especially the poor. The result will be an increase in the number of people using hospital emergency rooms for their health issues, and also the number of people who simply don't get health care.

The major "victory" claimed by the GOP for 2017 was passage of a tax reduction bill that will put huge amounts of money in the pockets and coffers of wealthy Americans and corporations, have modest reductions in taxes for middle class working Americans, and have no benefit for the unemployed, the poor and the homeless. 

Notice that the tax reduction bill did nothing to increase the minimum wage in this country, leaving a huge number of Americans struggling to make a living wage (remember the $24,500 poverty line?). Sure, some corporations might bump wages up a bit as their profits increase because of lower taxes, but I predict this will be for workers already making larger salaries, not the minimum wage earners. 

And the tax reduction bill also ended the ACA mandate that people need to have health insurance, which will result in higher insurance premiums for the people who buy it. How much of the corporate tax savings will be plowed into health care for workers? I remain cynical. 

Major stated goals of the Trumpsters and the Congressional Republicans are to reduce the size of government, eliminate regulations, and make major cuts to "entitlement" programs - you know, the programs that help people. Budgets are being slashed across the board in the federal government, with the exception of the military. So what will that all look like for people experiencing homelessness? That's right - they get screwed. 

Talk about a "shithole country!" 

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Sources:
a. https://www.therichest.com/rich-list/poorest-list/the-15-most-homeless-cities-in-the-world/
b. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/022415/worlds-top-10-economies.asp

Sunday, January 21, 2018

MAYBE KIDS WOULD BE BETTER AT GOVERNING

Let's face it, listening to members of the US Congress and spokespersons for the President - and the President himself - leading up to and after the government shutdown, is like listening to kids in a school yard. There is a lot of name calling, and a lot of blaming, and a lot of blustering, and a lot of not backing down.

The difference between Congress and a school yard full of kids is that the kids will argue and fight for awhile, and then they will get back to the business of playing, which is usually characterized by cooperation, inclusiveness, and friendship. (Yes, there are bullies, and this is where Congress, the present Whitehouse and school yards are most similar.)

So maybe we should fire the members of Congress and replace them with kids. Then the remaining problem we will have is what to do with the 6-year old in the Whitehouse!

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

IT WAS A SCARY NIGHT AFTER THE SHUTDOWN



The spotlight today shines on Whitehouse Press Secretary Scary Huckleberry Sandbagger (1), who is attributed with the schoolyard taunt issued moments after the government shutdown began. This is Trump politics at its finest. The puerility of the statement is staggering, as is the sophomorishness.
In case you missed it, here is the statement issued by the office of the President of the United States of America. (We should all be totally embarassed.)

“Senate Democrats own the Schumer Shutdown. Tonight, they put politics above our national security, military families, vulnerable children, and our country’s ability to serve all Americans. We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands. This is the behavior of obstructionist losers, not legislators. When Democrats start paying our armed forces and first responders we will reopen negotiations on immigration reform. During this politically manufactured Schumer Shutdown, the President and his Administration will fight for and protect the American people.”


(1) Sandbagger: someone who deliberately misleads you to get what they want.
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