Response from the Postcards to the Legislators

It's been almost exactly a year since I posted about sending postcards to the legislators. To briefly recap, I sent a postcard to every member of the House of Representatives, the Senate, to the President, Vice President, Governor of New York, and to my New York Assemblymember and Senator that said simply, "Killing people is always wrong."

Well in that time I got exactly one response: from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He responded to my letter "regarding intervention by the United States in conflicts across the globe." He goes on to write about what I interpret as a largely isolationist policy. You can read the whole thing here. I'm mixed on my agreement with his policies: I agree with him in his strong belief in personal freedom and liberty, but I disagree with his fierce belief in the dog-eat-dog Capitalism.

My opposition to killing led me to attend a War Tax Resistance Workshop at the Flying Squirrel on February 7. There is a National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC) which advises four methods of war tax resistance: file and refuse to pay your taxes, don't file your taxes, earn less than taxable income, or resist the local telephone excise tax. All the methods advised are forms of civil disobedience in that they are all illegal. While I support those methods entirely, at this time, I didn't feel willing to put everything at risk.

So as a workaround, I decided to donate the percentage of my income for active war—27%—to organizations that accept tax-deductible donations (The War Resisters League cites that 27% of taxes collected go to active wars and another 20% goes to pay for past wars). I mentioned this to my accountant who found it legal (some deductible donations are limited to 30% of income, and most are limited to 50%).

One of the ways war tax resisters use their civil disobedience is by keeping all their actions public. To reflect that, I'll try to make updates throughout the year, and certainly do at least one summary each year.

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The 2013 Burning Man Report

I left this post for quite some time, but after a New Year's Blog-Off Challenge on Facebook, I thought I'd wrap it up and post it. It's about how back in August 2013, Jenn and I headed to Burning Man.

We left on August 23 and got to Chicago on the 24th. We met with a friend of Jenn's and did a bit of a tour of Chicago before getting back on and—in a roomette sleeper—finished the journey to Reno. We met some nice people along the way, particularly at meals when we were seated with two strangers.

The train ran pretty much on-time and we arrived in Reno around 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Monday the 26th. There were quite a few other people heading to Burning Man on the train and most of them headed off quickly. We chatted with a couple stragglers and one of the guys had a friend in Reno who was going to pick him up. We asked if we could hitch a ride with him if he had space. He arrived with a gigantic van and transported Forrest, Jenn, and myself to the Save-Mart where we hung out for some time.

We bought provisions and met other people going to Burning Man—many from the U.S., but a small group from Italy. We dawdled around a bit and had pretty okay pizza from Pizza Baron before getting a cab ride to the airport—somewhat ironically to the airport "exit" and baggage claim area where the Burner Express bus was to pick us up. The process was relatively smooth and quick: we checked in, got tags for our wrists and for our bags, waited a bit, put our bags on a trailer, and boarded a bus.

The air conditioning wasn't working so well and I felt a bit frustrated at the slow rate we made it to Gerlach. A couple times the traffic stopped completely and we got out of the bus. When we arrived at Gerlach, things were a bit less organized. The gist was that everyone on the bus was to exit, then Burning Man staff would check that we had proof of tickets (and they could confirm will-call and provide a hard ticket right there) before boarding the bus to Black Rock City. One person said we'd have time to buy a bit of water, but as we walked over, someone called out to get on the bus. We got on then had to get off again because it was not our bus. Eventually things got straightened out and we got on the same bus we arrived by (our bus was one of a few that had the ability to close the air-conditioning intake vents on the bottom of the bus; otherwise we'd be on a school bus.)

The great feature of the Burner Express bus was revealed when we turned away from the gate line into a special lane, passing several miles of cars 10 lanes wide. Random (the greeter) checked our tickets and we were on our way into the city. We arrived just before sunset and, oddly enough, the very same bus was our shuttle. We got our stuff loaded back onto it and headed down GDP street toward the 10:00 crossroad. The driver was willing to stop at each 0:15 street, so we got off at 7:45, walked 30 yards and arrived at our camp: Mama Kabuke's Big Tent at It Still Stings Camp at 7:45 and Holy.

It was great to see my friends from last year—Mama Kabuke, Jordi, Devon, Uncle Brett, and T who primarily set up the camp along with a bunch of fellow campers from last year. Jenn (now Vadra) and I (now Zhust) got the tent set up quick before it got too dark and started unpacking. We didn't stay up too late—we hadn't acclimated much from Eastern time, so by 10 p.m. we were experiencing 1 a.m. tiredness and went to bed.

We got up and had some breakfast and got settled in with the camp. This year two of our fellow campers were getting married on Thursday, and they brought a fair number of people for that but only one of them really liked being at Burning Man. We also had an inordinate number of freeloaders making for a stressful time trying to keep up with their consumption and messiness. We also had a genuine "sparkle pony"—a girl who brought only her physical beauty, nary lifting a finger to perform any tasks and frequently leaving half-eaten food and drink.

Vadra and I got out over the week to see the art and visit some random camps. For the most part, I felt like it was a year of "duties and obligations": I was tasked with setting up the lights on Connie the Baby Blue Whale (the camp's art car) we had as well as to install and test the blowhole device I made for her. I felt pretty spent by Thursday and really wanted to take a day off by then but couldn't and had a rough day.

Vadra was selected to participate in Spencer Tunick's photograph at dawn, so we got up around 4:15 a.m. and biked out into the cold early morning. We arrived at the staging area by the temple but all the slots had been filled. She was quite disappointed, having missed a previous opportunity in Buffalo a few years back.

But we made the best of it and got a chance to visit The Man. They were only letting 50 or so people into the UFO base at a time so there was a line, but it moved quickly. There were zoetrope inside that were beautifully designed but the animations were rather bland black-and-white line-art. Dawn was upon us, so we left and watched the sunrise through the hazy smoke from the forest fires in California.

Vadra surprised me for my birthday: she secretly made Instax pictures of a bunch of people in camp holding a whiteboard to spell out "Happy Birthday". It was very sweet of her and I was quite moved by it, especially after spending days feeling under-appreciated.

After the wedding, many members of the wedding party left, relieving some of the burden (although there were still a lot of freeloaders.)

It was an interesting experiment, really. We brought a camp that provided abundant resources. But in trying to embrace the principles of Burning Man, "radical inclusion" led us to attract consumers of our abundance. It gets to be an interesting puzzle, really: if you offer abundance, you'll attract people who will consume, but if you hoard, you'll expend much more energy doing so than if you simply shared.

I have been wrestling with capitalism versus communism for quite some time. Communism fails by people offering less than "their ability" and claiming more than "their needs". The way we are seeing capitalism fail is in failing to find a balance in moderation: either you are earning too little and constantly toiling, or you are earning too much and have no means to share your wealth. On the train, we met a woman named Amber who said she saw something about bacteria being freeloaders: in some colonies, they need to produce a particular protein to float, but some bacteria figure out they don't need to expend the energy; eventually the whole colony collapses.

But I recently read a blog post by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey that talks about commerce and community. I think it helps define when commerce (née capitalism) is most effective and when community (née communism) is most effective. In the article, Harvey quotes an article written by Zay Thompson, the Burning Man regional contact in Kansas. Thompson brilliantly lays out an analogy in the form of his large extended family getting together to compete in a soccer game:

If my Dad stumbles and falls, I don’t run over him in my rush to score on his team. My love for him and the value of human life causes me to suspend the game, help him up, and check to see if he’s alright. Likewise, I don’t continue to view my family as mere competition after the game is over.

In the case of our camp, it seems the balance between commerce and community was skewed. It felt like the desire to achieve enrichment by helping out was somehow suppressed. When a task needed doing, I felt an urge to not help because I felt that was the spirit of our community. It wasn't until these months later that I can even begin to articulate that, but I do recall that experience: when something needed doing, it was defiant to stand up and act rather than it being common and beneficial.

On Sunday we had a most unusual bit of excitement. Chris returned with a report of a DPW official stating that a huge thunderstorm cell was headed for Black Rock City and would arrive shortly before noon on Monday and the city would be shut down to all traffic. The report also recommended that anyone able to leave should do so before Monday. (By the way, the DPW is the "Department of Public Works", a not-governmentally-affiliated group who maintain the Burning Man infrastructure.)

I suspected it was an incorrect report—ordinarily this happens from "telephone game" failures, but this was unique in that it was reported nearly intact to the radio station. And again, Burning Man is susceptible to urban legends, but I thought immune to mass-media misinformation until now.

Many of our campmates were concerned. A couple new friends from Canada had an early flight on Tuesday and opted to leave on Sunday afternoon. Vadra was very concerned but I had instinctive confidence in the inaccuracy of the report. To calm her fears, we walked to the Emergency Services tent that were a mere 30 yards down the road. They had heard nothing of such a storm but cautiously refused to deny the report outright. Rivka pulled out her iPad and checked the weather on their private wireless Internet: partly cloudy with a chance of 0.01 inches of precipitation for Monday. Vadra was not entirely reassured but I persevered, gambling I was correct.

I know that humans are susceptible to visceral dangers more than statistically likely dangers. Even I was not brimming with confidence save for my tenacious rational side.

We stayed—and continued embellishing the tales. By Monday morning, we were expecting the caldera that formed nearby to erupt by noon, and that a raging storm would pin people down and lightning-rape everyone. I advised others that it was likely an attempt by DPW to hurry exodus, and I encouraged other camps to hurry along the freeloaders in their own camps.

Monday came and a front was indeed approaching, cooling the air and changing the wind direction slightly. I held fast, though, and we left by the Burner Express bus at 11:45 with no issues. During the morning, two drops of rain hit me, and none even left evidence on the parched lakebed. It took us 90 minutes or so to get to Gerlach and no rain arrived. I saw nothing on the weather radar once we got Internet back at the hotel room. (The Burner Express bus, by the way, dropped us off at the airport around 3 p.m. and we got to the hotel before dinner.)

Later, I contacted Jordi and Mama about the storm but none materialized. I started a thread on ePlaya that sparked some interesting theories: indeed, nearby areas received some downpours that, had such a downpour arrived at Burning Man, it would have shut down the event for 24 hours or so—and with no proper sanitation either. I suspect the nearby mountains cause vast changes in weather over just a few miles, and I believe that is what "protects" the Black Rock Desert. (For another example of localized weather, see "lake-effect snow".) But I could have been mistaken and we may have been stuck for 24 hours or longer. Who knows.

We stayed overnight in Reno then got on the Amtrak and headed back to Chicago to visit Jenn's friend there for a couple days. It was nice to visit the city more in-depth. We returned to the Amtrak for our overnight trip back to Rochester, arriving pretty much on-time on September 8.

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Let the Fire Burn

I got to see Let the Fire Burn at the Little on November 12. It's been a while, but I did want to give it a bit of a review.

It's an impressive document of the misguided actions of the Philadelphia government and police against the MOVE organization that led to them bombing and burning a house in 1985 containing 13 members, eleven of whom perished. In a way, it's a microcosm of war: both are avoidable, expensive, and deadly acts.

The most unique feature of the documentary is the exclusive use of found-footage which was limited to video (with a little 16mm film from an older documentary about MOVE.) Because of this limited perspective, there is very little information available about either MOVE and its purpose and actions, or about the police department and administration. Each side taken in isolation—MOVE changing from a radical urban alternative group to an antagonistic aggressor, and the government of the city of Philadelphia playing by-the-book as a racist regime—provides inadequate information to predict why things happened, but taken as interacting entities, it is more clear. Another way of saying that mouthful of marbles is that neither side was at fault as much as pitting them against one another was.

Director Jason Osder was available through SKYPE to discuss the film and revealed that the decision to go with found footage was partly pragmatic: our eye becomes accustomed to the poor quality of NTSC video unless we get a chance to compare it to modern high definition video. As a result, there are no talking heads to guide our reaction or provide possible answers. Ordinarily, we turn to some kind of expert to offer a possible explanation, but Let the Fire Burn gives no answers. It is the raw autopsy of a terrible moment in history left for us to examine.

And I think because of the lack of opinions, we gravitate toward our own biases. I was kind of surprised that one questioner presupposed it was centrally about racism. I thought it had more to do with the nature of a radical ideology that its ideas could not be articulated in a consumerist vocabulary. Neither interpretation is wrong, but it's interesting how our biases creep in.

Let me go back, now, and ruin the beauty of the movie by giving my own talking-head "expert" explanation.

I found the MOVE organization to be strictly following what we'd call urban gardening, veganism, anarchism, and acquiring goods locally. Rather than struggle in the capitalist/consumerist system that is rigged against both poor people and non-white people, MOVE opted instead to define their own rules. But the capitalist system—well, any social or economic (or socio-economic) system—is poorly suited to accommodating a sub-community whose internal rules are in defiance of the system's fundamental tenets.

This happens all the time with anarchist groups within the industrialized capitalism: anarchism defies the very nature of hierarchical, authoritative rule. The trouble is, most people do not like to admit that hierarchical, authoritative rules is a fundamental requirement of industrialized capitalism, so it's not codified in any laws: no law says you must pay for your own life. But for industrialized capitalism to work, it needs workers who are replaceable so they are valued low enough so the end product's price has a built-in profit—it needs for people to have to pay to exist.

If you think that's unfair, and maybe you could make a better go of it just living off the land and taking your changes, well, you're out of luck. The system goes a little nuts. The police will arrest you for no reason, but because no crime is committed, nobody gets charged with anything. But if you continue with that out-of-bounds behavior, you'll eventually be framed for a real crime. And then if you continue, you'll eventually be killed.

And that's what happened with MOVE. When they were harassed for non-crimes, they persisted. Then they were framed for a crime (specifically: nine people are still in prison, for the murder of one police officer—an impossibility since only one person can murder one other person.) And they persisted, and then were eventually killed. What they were "supposed to do" was to give up on the radical philosophies and get jobs like normal people.

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On Corporate Personhood (Finally)

On September 12 I headed over to Goergen Hall on the University of Rochester Campus for a panel discussion titled "Block that Metaphor? Corporate Personhood Before and After Citizens United". The panel consisted of Lynn Stout from Cornell Law School, Greg Urban of the University of Pennsylvania, and Elana Shever from Colgate University. It was moderated by Robert Foster at the University of Rochester.

Lynn Stout studies corporations from a legal perspective. She started off by emphasizing that corporations are real, not a metaphor. The term "personhood" refers to a set of legal rights that allow a corporation to, for instance, have the right to own property in its own name. She's enamored of the idea of corporations which give people the ability to perform long term projects that human beings would never do.

The key to this is the ability to lock up capital assets — the ability to hold money indefinitely, and prevent any stakeholder from reclaiming any part of jeir investment. As such, they need some first amendment rights to protect their property from expropriation. But, she added, corporations should never have the right to vote, for instance, and should not have a right to privacy.

As such, it is not simply an association of people: it is a separate kind of entity. And being a unique kind of entity, it does not have the same rights as an association of people.

Greg Urban brought an anthropologist's view of corporations. To him, they are cultural constructions that look like tribes or social groups and act as powerful agents or actors. They are part of a broader human tendency to form groups such a guilds, universities, and towns. He agrees, therefore, that a corporation has a right to exist as an entity unto itself.

Historically, corporations were once chartered which required political clout. And like other kinds of human groupings, they have rituals — business meetings, for instance.

Viewed from the outside, social groups appear as agents: things which exist in perpetuity. This is similar to things like family groups (i.e. family names) or clans which are comprised of — but separate from — their constituent human beings. Precedent exists for treating a group in place of the actions of an individual, for when a group acts, we do not look to the individuals in that group. They are agents with practical efficacy. And for any of these groups to move, it must be done so by discourse and agreement.

Economics had a hard time dealing with corporations what with being a new and separate agent, and in finance they are commodities with assignable values. In neither model are corporations considered persons. The concept of personhood is only in the popular culture and in the legal culture. And the corporate metaphor is dangerous when it is comprised of a single person rather than an aggregate for how would such a corporation exist separate from its sole constituent?

Elana Shever began by noting Michael Polan's work on examining himself as a group of organisms rather than a single entity, coining the term "first person plural". For what is an individual? Theoretically it is that part that remains constant in an ever-changing group. Thus, we can think of both humans and corporations as "ecologies" that contain organisms as well as goods and byproducts. As such, it's a false belief that shareholders define corporate action. Stout responded favorably to the "super-organism" model, adding that it is damaging to think of corporations as the property of shareholders.

Urban spoke of the Shell corporation in Argentina. Internal to Shell's management, there is a belief they are doing good, but many layers away, the people who operate the plants see the external populace as a nuisance. There are actually a series of separations — divisions between managers and workers — that cause this. It is an efficiency in the system that makes good business sense but it is not allowing Shell to work towards a unified goal.

Activists opposing Shell were often strongly reinforcing the idea of it as an individual citizen, and this popular idea is influential in increasing corporate power. So to take a different tack, could it be politically beneficial to rethink "personhood" as it relates to humans?

He said that there must be some kind of communication and common goals within the "divided corporation" model, adding that corporations should benefit society.

People from the audience had a chance to ask questions. Would more regulations be helpful? It seems that corporations are like a "monster that will devour the planet": do we have a super organism that can combat it?

Stout responded, noting that it's common to blame problems on the misbehavior of human beings, but we behave differently inside a group, and institutional environments create bad decisions. Government is probably more broken because lobbying can buy a corporation new rights yet the government needs to be a check on power.

The event organizers began taking questions three at a time (which I thought to be a mistake). I asked, given the way people's behavior changes inside a group, is there a way to make better members of corporations? Another person asked about ontology: if a person is an actor, then what about thinking of functional assemblages, since the parts may change but the unit endures. It seems transparency is key, but giving free speech rights to groups inexorably creates obfuscation. And finally, another person noted that it's less about rights than about responsibilities: how far does responsibility go?

Stout noted that sometimes an individual commits a crime as part of a group, but often it is the organizational design that causes an undesirable behavior. We need to view them as assemblages. How do we keep the useful ones? Should we have a corporate death penalty? Currently, if you want to sell stock, you need to disclose certain financial information, but we should add a requirement to have political disclosure as well.

Urban responded that he is not so excited about laws. For instance, rating agencies (forged organically) work well, but once the quality of the ratings become law, the goals change and the ratings companies just sell good scores.

Shever added that thinking of corporations as "assemblages" means it can easily become disassembled which is dangerous.

The final question that because of discussion of corporate personhood, are people are starting to think of themselves as little corporations? Urban noted that medieval Italy saw families this way. Stout noted that any thing before the law is some kind of person, and a corporation's property and the human agents that represent it are not invisible.

This discussion certainly offered some new information, but I found it lacking.

Stout expressed a belief that corporations let us make great things like railroads and bridges — things that would be impossible if it were attempted by human beings. I was skeptical that the corporate landscape is dominated by such beneficial behavior. And even when something is a benefit overall, it still has numerous negative repercussions.

In an ideal world, when a corporation is founded, it would have a specific benefit to society that serves as its operating goal — and "to make a profit" is not a concept that should be part of that goal. Making a profit should simply be a side-effect of providing a benefit, or a means to an end where providing the beneficial behavior necessitates continued existence.

Also, it seems to me that the only way to circumvent poor behavior of groups is to have a very shallow hierarchy. It seems necessary to have a small group of people whose sole function is to disseminate and clarify the goals of the corporation. The minimal case beyond that would be an anarchistic group that would organically form around tasks to achieve those goals. As layers of management are added, the communication of the goals is necessarily muddied.

Afterward, Stout encouraged us to look into the American Anti-Corruption Act. Echoing Stouts explanation, I'll quote the website:

The Act was crafted by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter in consultation with dozens of strategists, democracy reform leaders and constitutional attorneys from across the political spectrum.

The Act would transform how elections are financed, how lobbyists influence politics, and how political money is disclosed. It’s a sweeping proposal that would reshape the rules of American politics, and restore ordinary Americans as the most important stakeholders instead of major donors. The Act enjoys support from progressives and conservatives alike.

It is an impressive list of ideas that appears to have been vetted by legal experts to ensure it can be passed. If all the line items are passed, it would indeed mean a tremendous positive shift in the way elections are held and how the country is run.

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Tales of Subsidized CoffeeCare

So I saw that Bob Martin—someone I don't personally know—posted a note from Dana Puopolo—a person neither of us knows—which he in-turn copied from Brian Krewson's status. I thought it was pretty good, but I changed it from a soda machine to coffee to try and make it just a little more relevant. I rewrote the story a bit, but it's largely Krewson's work.

So imagine you are working for a company that doesn't have coffee on the premises. Instead, there are vendors outside that sell coffee and, if you want it, you get your coffee from one of them.

Jane posts a suggestion: all the other companies give their employees coffee so why can't we? Management asks people and nearly all your colleagues say they want coffee inside, but some don't want it for free because some people drink more than others and they would rather have higher pay than to have it free for everybody. Also, the coffee vendors get wind of this idea so they go to management and suggest they sell coffee inside instead of on the street.

Management likes this suggestion. To appeal to supporters of Jane's original suggestion, they add that the lowest-paid employees will get reimbursed 80% for one cup a day of the cheapest coffee, and everybody else will need to buy their own. (And, since coffee makes everybody more productive, people who don't want any coffee will have to pay a fee for their lower productivity.)

Once again, they put it to a vote, and when the poll came back, the majority of your colleagues said "yes": this was an acceptable compromise. So management sets up a department to handle the coffee vendors, and within a few weeks, there's coffee for sale in the break room.

Among the people who said "no" was Bill in accounting. He felt that this went too far: offering coffee inside was a waste of company resources, and worse, giving a discount to low-pay employees discouraged them from working harder. He campaigns throughout the office to get the coffee vendors kicked out.

Well, management decides "OK, we'll ask again" and again, the majority of people say "yes, lets keep the coffee for sale inside just as we agreed." Bill continues to campaign, and management continues to ask the employees, and every time, the answer is in favor of the coffee. This happens, lets say… over 40 times. Eventually, Bill says "OK, I'M NOT PROCESSING PAYROLL ANYMORE UNTIL THE COFFEE IS REMOVED", so nobody will get paid unless management removes the coffee vendors.

What should we do?

Answer: Fire Bill and get someone who will do the fucking job.

Bonus: Bill tells everyone that he was willing to "negotiate", to come to a solution where everyone got their payroll checks, but only so long as that negotiation capitulated to his demand to remove the coffee vendors. Bill is clearly an asshole.

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Police Chief Sheppard Takes Tiny Steps to Improve Cycling in Rochester

After running some errands, I biked over to the Rundel Building of the Rochester Public Library and headed to the Kate Gleason Auditorium to hear what Police Chief James M. Sheppard had to say about what the police can do to support bicycling in Rochester. I arrived with a bias that police care nothing for cyclists and treat them as nothing more than a recreational nuisance. I had hoped to be surprised with progress.

The event was sponsored by the Rochester Cycling Alliance. Alliance Vice President Bill Collins gave a quick introduction, saying the meeting would mostly involve the audience asking questions of Chief Sheppard. He said there was a similar meeting about a year ago, and there have been a lot of changes, particularly involving infrastructure. He introduced Erik Frisch, who identified himself as the Transportation Coordinator of the City of Rochester.

Frisch gave us some stats: last year there were 16 bicycle lane-miles, and there will be 45 lane-miles at the end of the construction season this year; the city plans to add at least 10 lane-miles per year. At this point they have "Bronze" status as a bicycling-friendly city, awarded by the League of American Bicyclists in 2012. He went on to say they will be adding green "Bike Boxes" at selected intersections: at an intersection, the stop line is moved back, and the space created is for exclusive use by bicycles. He also noted the addition of a contra-flow bike lane on Troup Street, and that part of the federal funding surrounding closing the inner loop from Charlotte to Monroe is the addition of a physically-separated bike lane. A few other notes: the addition of a two-lane cycle track near UofR, several one-way cycle tracks downtown, and they are targeting 100 lane-miles by 2018.

Chief Sheppard was introduced, praised the bicycling community for its strong advocacy for safety, and set to answering questions. Here are some highlights.

Karen asked about what the Rochester Police Department (RPD) is doing with the Rochester City School District (RCSD) "Safe Routes to School" program [perhaps referring to this mini-grant program]. Chief Sheppard said nothing is being done. He said he met with School #2 and planned with elaborate program, but the principal was moved to another district so the program was canceled. At present, there are only crossing guards.

Theresa Bowick of the Conkey Cruisers said her group wanted police traffic-maintenance support for where the El Camino Trail crosses Avenue A through Avenue D. Chief Sheppard said nothing further could be done. "Police resources are like gold," he said, adding that some officers on bicycles will occasionally give support.

Scott Wagner said he was following up on a letter he sent on September 17 concerning bicycle theft, and Chief Sheppard was probably anticipating the question. In the past year, he felt there had not been any improvement in the situation of bicycle theft. Reports of theft are disregarded by 911 and viewed as an annoyance by the police. Since he's a bicycle commuter, his bike is just as important as a car (which clearly would be treated more seriously by the police). He asked how can the Police Chief, the RPD, and the community improve this situation? He went on to relay an anecdote about a bicycle thief who was caught by citizens, admitted the theft, and had the tools on him, the police ignored the situation. [The description matched pretty close with this one which I heard about.]

Chief Sheppard joked that he hadn't anticipated the question. He said that there were several things that could have been done. First, if there was an issue with the service, call 911 and ask to speak to a supervisor. Second, in the case of bicycle theft, the RPD will not send an officer. Rather, one should call 311 and get the theft documented. He added that one suggestion from the community has been to go back to registering bikes, despite that nearly all bicycles already have a serial number.

He did not say the RPD would change anything.

Jon Schull followed up on the "Safe Routes to School" program. He asked if there were any concrete goals at this point — anything specific? He added that kids ride all over the place, violating the rules of the road, because they don't have a good route to school. Can the officers assigned to each school offer assistance?

Chief Sheppard said there are 12 officers in the secondary schools, and they won't likely handle those additional roles. He pointed out that things like "Bicycle Rodeos" help students, but suggested that the bicycling community make a safety video and share it on YouTube since young people of today would watch a video but would not read a pamphlet.

Another cyclist said that enforcement and safety is not just for children. One of the biggest risks to bicycle safety is the cyclists own behavior, noting that particularly downtown, people ride on the sidewalk and engage in other illegal behaviors, yet the rules should be enforced. [Note: the NYS DMV does not forbid riding on sidewalks, per the NYS Drivers' Manual, Chapter 11, only to say it may be prohibited locally. City Code §34-6 states, "All persons over 12 years of age may ride bicycles upon any sidewalk except in the Central Traffic District". The Central Traffic District is "the area bounded by the Inner Loop".]

Chief Sheppard said that officers change their focus seasonally, and they do occasionally stop bicyclists.

Harvey Botzman of the Rochester Cycling Alliance said the RPD does very little to train officers in bicycle laws, how to ticket, or how to advise cyclists — is there any officer training? Chief Sheppard said there was one officer who did train other officers, but did not commit to making any changes.

Scott MacRae of the Rochester Cycling Alliance noted that when he lived in Portland, Oregon, enforcement is becoming more important: the police organize "sting" operations for providing information to people (both cyclists or pedestrians) who break the law — particularly when public safety is a concern. Chief Sheppard didn't commit to creating such a program, noting that pedestrians are not required to obey the rules of the road and often surprise drivers. Even new crosswalks mid-block are troubling to drivers, despite signage that New York State law requires them to stop for pedestrians in any crosswalk.

I asked a question about the occasional egregious driver — one who endangers the safety of a cyclist. I had hoped for better enforcement, but Chief Sheppard instead suggested the cyclists organize a ride with a police officer included who can presumably issue tickets.

Jon Schull said that at last year's meeting, Chief Sheppard said we'd have a police liaison — formerly, Officer Dave Smith. Chief Sheppard said he would definitely find a new officer to fill that role.

Richard Reed noted his own experience with problems with the infrastructure (drainage grates, potholes, etc.), preventing cyclists from riding in the appropriate area of the road. Eric Frisch answered, suggesting that anytime we find a problem on the road, call 311 or go to the city website. He added that if it's reported by the public, it'll be fixed in 48 hours. You'll need the specific street address or, if that is not available, the light-pole numbers.

Jack Spula, a "daily bicyclist and city resident" asked about enforcement concerning commercial traffic. He said that large commercial vehicles on residential streets are traveling too fast: can we get more enforcement on commercial traffic? Chief Sheppard didn't commit to making any changes to such enforcement.

Harvey Botzman noted that on streets with many walk-in establishments (like Park Avenue), double-parking of taxis is substantially dangerous, especially to cyclist. Ticketing or providing information to taxi operators may help. Chief Sheppard said the taxis get their permits through the RPD, so this is possible.

In all, I was surprised that cyclists tended to prefer stronger enforcement of cycling laws over stronger enforcement of motorized-vehicle laws. In all, about 15 people showed up, so it is by no means a thorough cross-section of all cyclists.

Chief Sheppard concluded by stating his action items from the meeting: replace police liaison Officer Dave Smith, explore the possibility of bike registration, and get better data to track thefts of bicycles.

I approached Chief Sheppard afterward to mention my Bike Info Card project from a few years ago as a way to avoid the hassle of creating a formal bike registration. He very much preferred the idea of registration as it would ensure officers responding could get necessary information with as minimal an interaction as possible. He took down Officer Brian Bannerman's name who I had worked with a little bit, but excused himself for a phone call and left the library.

It appeared to me that Chief Sheppard charmed the audience and promised to do nothing. It largely affirmed the bias I entered with: that the police consider cyclists nothing more than a nuisance that should be ignored.

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Postcards for the Legislators

After the previous fiasco with trying to slow the juggernaut of war, I decided to go with a simpler message. A much simpler message.

I decided I'd simply say, "killing people is always wrong."

And then I decided I'd put the message on postcards to every member of the House of Representatives, the Senate, to the President, Vice President, Governor of New York, and to my New York Assemblymember and Senator.

So I went to the Post Office website and found four-up sheets of postcards preprinted with "Forever" postage — pretty much the cheapest option for a physical letter with each postcard costing barely more than postage. I figured fourteen 10-packs would be enough to have a few spare after printing up all 540 I'd need. I set up a mail-merge in OpenOffice (which is annoyingly difficult but I did get it to work.) (I made the template 4x normal size then printed it four-up to fit the postcard pages.) I collected the names and addresses from various government websites and made a spreadsheet (here's a tab-separated file that includes the vacancies in the House notated pretty well). Then I made a PDF and went back several times to fix errors before performing the final four-up output.

Then the fun began. It took a couple hours to split the sheets into individual postcards, and then another hour to sign each one in a 5-inch-tall stack. I did find two errors that I had to correct.

I could have simply sent a mass e-mail, but in the end I found it rather rewarding to read every person's name. Just people … like a graduation roster or a phone book … and me sending a thought to each one of them.

I don't know if my message will be read as I intend it, but I know for sure that by doing nothing and saying nothing, that nothing will change.

(If you want to follow progress of this, I set up a tag that's an acronym for the central message: KPiAW which I'll tag on any posts detailing any response I get.)

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"Fair Trade" Chocolate or "Child Slavery Free" Chocolate?

In researching fluoride, I stumbled into a blog and had to read the article titled As A Mother, I Refuse To Buy Child Slave Chocolate This Holiday Season. And she's right.

I am reasonably certain that chocolate that is certified "fair trade" does not touch the hands of child slave labor. But the rest of it: maybe, and maybe not. I don't know what the ratio is, but given the propensity to select the cheapest source to maximize profits, I am suspicious of the cheap stuff, and, well, basically everything that does not carry the "fair trade" label.

And looking in to that "fair trade" label, the Fair Trade USA website has no mention that they actually do any kind of certification. You can download the print-ready logos right from the site. It's really a service to help manufacturers decide to select fair-traded sources. But there's no evidence that any company can't just download the logos and slap them on the side of their products. But, I guess, it's mostly better, maybe? It's all I have to go on, so I'll take it.

So I've decided to stop buying non-fair-trade chocolate. It's like my decision to not buy meat unless I can get reasonable assurance it was from animals raised on a farm in decent conditions (e.g. able to roam a close-to-natural-sized habitat).

But damn it's hard! I want to have my Raisinets with a movie, or buy a brownie from the bakery. I'm really a junkie for this stuff. I did even cave and buy a cookie that had M&M eyes, savoring every slave-picked bite.

In all honesty, this is harder to quit than alcohol. It's really quite unnerving, especially since I can get fair-trade chocolate quite readily. It's just the innumerable habits I have of buying it spontaneously.

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A Picture from Gaza

Children killed by bombing in Gaza.

I have been haunted by this image of dead children. It appeared on Facebook on November 19. This site identifies them all as members of the Dalou family, killed in Gaza by Israeli bombs. Maybe the man to the left is their father. But whether these specific facts are absolutely true is not as important as believing that bombs kill people, and sometimes children.

What can an attacker say to that? "Oops"? This is not a natural disaster. It is not an accident. It is a direct action of human beings. People make guns and bombs to kill other people. People organize wars. People pull triggers. People kill people.

This is direct, purposeful action, and that makes me sick.

People working for peace are often accused of being foolishly idealistic. But isn't it more foolish to think that killing people is a step toward a greater good? Whether a child is killed or an adult man is killed doesn't matter: killing is wrong. Whether it's people flying a plane into a building or shooting a man and dumping him in the sea: killing is wrong.

Period.

The image also gave me perspective. I got to see what it looks like for a country to attack another country and kill people. This is what it looks like to others when America does that. And we do it often. Far too often.

But what to do about it? I pay taxes which predominantly fund military spending which cause the killing. It overwhelmingly pains my heart to be party to it, and someday I'll have the courage to not pay taxes because of that.

Until that day, I was going to try and get the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and all laws like it repealed, but after a discussion with a friend, I realize that's not the problem for it formalizes limits on Presidential power to run the military. United States military action has been a disaster worldwide with the virtually unchecked use of American killing power.

War is morally bankrupt, violently socially divisive, ecological disastrous, and economically destructive. We need to stop our country from engaging in this any longer.

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Is President Obama Responsible?

I read that David Siegel wrote a letter to his employees telling them if Obama is elected, there will be layoffs. At first I was a bit shocked — I mean here is someone with wealth (and by extension power) who is shamelessly attempting to sway an election. I know a little about him — in large part from the documentary, The Queen of Versailles which outlines the rise of his timeshare empire (Westgate) and its near-collapse after the industry-orchestrated real-estate disaster in the late 00's.

His argument is that higher taxes under Obama will cripple big business and force a loss of jobs. But scratching a little deeper, and you'll see that his fortunes were through his hard work and diligence in exploiting the absurdly under regulated real-estate market. The concept of fractionally selling a luxury apartment in a major city — timeshares — was a novel and lucrative endeavor. I applaud his resourcefulness in doing so and have no issue with money he earned that way. But his largest gains were achieved by borrowed money against inadequate collateral.

He was able to mortgage over-valued properties and take that money to build more properties. For instance, in the film, he has mortgaged his partially-built second-home "Versailles". How was that even possible? The place has no value until it's built, yet he was able to mortgage it anyway?

It was slack regulations from (at least as far back as) Clinton's presidency that allowed this all to happen. And who gets stuck with the bill? Well, a foreclosure goes to the mortgaging bank, and then into this nebulous network of sold, bundled, overvalued mortgages, and ultimately right to people who are paying mortgages on jeir primary properties — their first and only homes.

So while building an empire — and creating jobs — based on creating value by offering a desirable service at a price that affords a window of substantial profit is a noble one, building an empire on the backs of hardworking Americans is a fraud.

And the bulk of Siegel's wealth is just that: fraud. Even the seemingly legitimate sales of timeshares is based on a foundation of fraudulent lending. Now, to his credit, Siegel is playing the game well and is legally in the clear. Nonetheless, this is how the rich get rich: not through hard work in the sense of producing a desirable, quality product, but through exploiting legal loopholes.

So these are the 1%ers who are so hell bent on getting rid of Obama. Why? Apparently Obama's policies have forced them to actually create a desirable, quality product. The loopholes are being closed, and the gravy-train of free money for the rich is no longer stopping in their towns.

Maybe Obama has actually done some progressive good in the world. As someone who makes a desirable, quality product myself, I've seen no change in my own financial burdens. But if the rich slackers are crying out in financial pain, good!

Now if only we can get pro-life people to realize that even the lackluster "Obamacare" will reduce the number of unborn babies killed by 75% (with non-abortion contraception, preventing unwanted pregnancies), maybe we can make everyone happy.

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