Friday, April 29, 2011

So I saw Sicko (June 30, 2007)

Current mood: enraged

I saw the movie "Sicko" by Michael Moore last night, possibly the first time ever I saw one on its opening night. Quick take: Jaw-dropping.

Moore's style is at times funny, at times shocking, frequently tongue-in-cheek, but he never lets you miss the point. The point here is that we are arguably the richest country of the world, but even third-world countries have better health care than we do. About 1/6 of the U.S. population has no insurance at all for their health care needs, and 5/6 cannot rely on it truly working for them when they most need it.

Just about anywhere else in the developed world (Canada, U.K., and France are explored in depth), you can walk into any hospital or medical center, get seen by a doctor right away, get your concern taken care of, be treated properly, and not pay a cent for the service. If medicines are involved, they too are provided, either for free or only a small cost.

We do not do that here, and one need not travel far to see its effects.
* I myself was paying $320/month for a set of medicines up to a year ago. I decided to stop taking them, not because of the money, but because at best they were not worth the cost, and at worst were doing more harm than good.
* Three times in the past year, my family has been saddled with one-time costs well into the hundreds of dollars, for procedures that could not be avoided, and costs which could not be negotiated. And that was for family members who did have insurance!
* Just in the last month, a neighbor's first great-grandchild did not live three weeks. This is not a rare case. Our nation's infant mortality rate trails all developed countries, and many undeveloped countries.

Some jaw-dropping scenes:
* The 22-year-old woman from Michigan who, upon a diagnosis of cervical cancer, was denied treatment because her carrier decided that 22-year-old women are not supposed to get cervical cancer. Moore shows all relevant documentation for each of these cases. She drove across the bridge to Windsor (Ontario, Canada), passing herself off as the common-law wife of a Canadian citizen, so she could get treatment to avoid dying.
* The mother who worked for a big HMO in California, who called 9-1-1 when her 18-month daughter ran a 104+ fever. Taken right away to a hospital, but refused treatment because it was an out-of-network hospital. By the time a second ambulance could take her across town to the in-network hospital, the girl died.
* A British drug store. Ceiling to floor, front to back, are pharmaceuticals. Not a candy bar or greeting card in sight, not even toothpaste, and everything is the same price (about $10), even for different quantities of the same drug.
* U.S. expatriates in France, describing their individual experiences with French health care. One guy who was born in France, but schooled and went to college in the U.S., got a brain tumor as a young adult. Denied treatment here, he went back to France, where he not only received the treatment he needed, but got a three-month fully-paid recuperation period, before returning to work. A young housewife related her experience with a government-paid nanny who comes to the house twice a week to help with the kids and household chores, even laundry and cooking.
* The hospital security camera shots of a taxicab dumping a woman at curbside, barefoot and in a hospital gown. The previous hospital did not want to incur the continued cost of treating her. This is a constant occurrence in that area.
* The sick individuals Moore interviewed earlier in the movie, piling onto boats to go to Cuba, where they received first-rate health care -- for free -- and since some of them were firefighters and aid workers at Ground Zero following the World Trade Center bombing, were given a heroes' welcome.

What does this mean? It means our health care system does not work. In Canada, France and the U.K., the health care is simply there, and you do not pay a cent. What you need, you get, and that's that.

Moore takes aim at the relationship between politicians, insurance providers, and pharmaceutical companies. They haven't been in bed with one another so much as been in a 30-year orgy, replete with plastic sheets and vegetable oil. What has resulted is worse than a mess, it's a shambles and a disgrace, and everyone is culpable.

What to do next? The tendency is to say "can the whole lot". Replacing politicians would be a good start, but if history is any guide, ex-politicians become either lobbyists or executives in the business. No, we need something deeper.

The goal must be single-payer universal health care. It cannot cost anything more than what it's costing us now, in lives lost, in good years lost to illness, in undiagnosed catastrophes, in stupid red tape, and in putting people in poverty for want of even rudimentary care. Even Cuba gives its people better health care than we do.

This movie must be seen. Not seen to be believed, but seen to understand the seriousness of the reality we all face.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Loving Conference, 6/13/1992, a brief remembrance (June 12, 2007)

Current mood: contemplative contemplative

The Loving Conference, held June 13, 1992, commemorated the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia, which struck down 17 state laws forbidding or restricting marriages based on race. Today marks the 40th annversary of the decision and the 15th anniversary of the conference.

I was involved, in a small but very visible part, with the 1992 conference in the National 4H Center in Chevy Chase, MD. My good friends Edwin and Lori Darden helped stage the event, and asked me to make the banner that stretched across the stage. I also made a mix tape that was played on someone's boom box during part of the event.

Ed and Lori knew me in college, and we were in each other's weddings. Somewhere, I still have that banner, which as I recall was 38 feet long and 3 feet tall. (If I can find a photo, I will include it here later, but don't have one handy.) (2011 update: I still have it!)

The one thing that really made the conference hit home for me occurred when I was actually putting up the banner. I got there a bit late, past 8 a.m. as I recall, and a couple dozen people were already seated, with more filing in each minute. Turning from my labors for a second, I looked out into the auditorium to face a small sea of couples, and I could not tell who was whose! Anyplace else, I was accustomed to seeing like pairs. The very sight of it was liberating, driving the point home in one quick glance better than any amount of reading or interviewing or participating in a protest march could ever do.

I still think about that event, and am glad that I could participate and assist what I had always felt was a good and just cause.

* * * End of original post * * *
* * * Comment of my own on the original post * * *

[A follow-up: Back in June 2007, I sent a brief email to about this post to a few friends. Here is the relevant text of that email.]

In 1958, a multi-race woman and a Caucasian man dared to marry in the state of Virginia, against state law. They were arrested, and forced out of the state.

However, they ultimately took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they won, in so doing overturning similar laws in 16 other states. Since the family's name was Loving -- Richard Perry Loving, to be exact -- the court case was Loving vs. Virginia, and the conference held in 1992 to commemorate a quarter century of having the freedom to marry anyone you want, was called The Loving Conference.

Think about that: In America, you can marry anyone you want.

But think about that: Until 1967, you couldn't, in 17 states.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Random birds seen here recently (May 28, 2007)

Current mood: relaxed relaxed

I've never considered myself to be an ornithologist, but I've begun to realize that I'm very much in tune with recognizing birds. As I type, I've just come in from an evening walk around the house where I recognized several. To wit:

* Robins, as usual, probably three or four different ones. One was upset about something, another had two, three, maybe five words of a sentence, never seeming to quite complete it. Do robins get Attention Deficit Disorder? A third voiced a complete thought, over and over.

* A ruby-throated hummingbird has been a frequent visitor to the rhododendron in front of the house.

* A cardinal, in a tree a couple houses away.

* Friday morning's rare visitor, a pileated woodpecker. No, not a flicker, which is robin size. No, not a red-headed woodpecker, which is a bit bigger. This was a very large bird, standing well over a foot high. Woody Woodpecker is a pileated. This bird had a loud cluck, somewhere in the vicinity of the C# above a concert "A", and flew very close to the ground, maybe five feet up. It flew from tree to tree in the yard across the street, and made no attempt to hide itself. Had a cat tried to threaten it, the cat would have had a difficult time of it.

* A wren of some sort makes a seemingly continuous call all morning and afternoon, though it is silent now that it is evening. It's a tiny bird, roughly the color of a house sparrow. It gets right up on the porch, or sits in a low branch. I'm not sure if it's trying to attract a mate (not likely this late in the season, unless it's for a second brood), or just staking out territory. But its high, descending "b-r-r-r-r-rrr, b-r-r-r-rrr, b-r-r-r-rrr", for hours on end, is hard not to notice.

* On other occasions, I've written about the eagle, owls, and hawks. One quick hawk story: I was walking down Perrymont from the bus one afternoon, and saw a red-tail on a pole just a bit in front of me. As I approached, it sailed down to the next pole -- again, until I got close. This was repeated on every pole on Perrymont. I'm not sure if it was watching me, or was just looking for mice, but it was interesting that it and I were in such close synchronization.

And finally, we have the usual assemblage of house sparrows, crows, grackles, starlings, and a dozen other species I don't know the name of, or can't identify the calls. It's not high on my list of things to do in life, but I do pay attention, and file the information away as I run into it. Again, being a bus rider, I'm outside a lot, and so have the opportunity to notice these things.

Seeing that woodpecker was a real eye- (and ear-) opener. I had no idea we had such birds around here. I wonder how many an experienced bird-watcher might identify right here.

Pittsburgh's Critical Mass ride, 5-25-2007 (May 25, 2007)

Current mood: accomplished accomplished

Finally! After a year of trying and failing for one reason or another, I finally got to go on a Critical Mass ride. For those in the dark, the point of Critical Mass is to get as many bicyclists as possible to ride down a succession of city streets all at once. It's not just a Pittsburgh thing, they're everywhere. Pittsburgh's contingent meets by Dippy, the huge dinosaur in front of Carnegie Library in Oakland, usually on the last Friday of a month.

I had hoped to catch a bus into Downtown, but I missed the 4:28 trip, and being that it was an 11C, there was no guarantee it would have had a bike rack anyway. That decided, I chose to take much the same path into Oakland as I did two weeks ago. The trip was fairly uneventful, and exactly 60 minutes after leaving the house, I was standing next to a life-size apatosaurus.

At precisely 5:30, there were maybe 15 cyclists there, but they streamed in in ones and twos for the next half hour. By 6 sharp, we had 76 there, by my unofficial count. Most were twentysomething, though there were maybe 10 men and one woman in their 40s or older. By gender, of the younger set, I'd guess maybe three women to seven men. No young teens, so far as I could tell. In terms of equipment, my early-1970s Raleigh Record was probably the oldest bike there, but I'm a poor judge. Let's just say mine had the most rust.

With a shout and a holler, off we went! With a right onto Forbes, we clearly filled the street, both outbound lanes, from Dithridge to Craig. A left on Craig stretched us out a bit, as it's only one lane northbound. A left onto Fifth, then we really strung out, almost from Craig to Bellefield, scattered across both inbound lanes. We continued on Fifth through Oakland, then a left onto Meyran (not sure), and again left onto Forbes to go past where we began.

Note that this is 6:00 and it's still pretty busy, car-wise. Automotive traffic pretty much came to a halt as we went by, which as far as I can tell, is partly by design. The message is: "We're here, dammit, and we matter. If you don't like it, then join us." So, lots of cars got to wait 40 to 60 seconds longer than usual to get through a light, poor babies.

We got pretty spread out as we climbed Craig Street from Centre Avenue to the Bloomfield Bridge. It's not that steep a hill, but not everyone is in the same physical condition. FWIW, I found myself about five to ten bikes behind the leader. I had no problem whatsoever keeping up, in fact I didn't even feel that I was working very hard (not like on the trip there), so I must be in OK condition.

Crossing the Bloomfield Bridge, we were moving along quickly, so got even more stretched out. As we rounded onto Liberty outbound, we asked the front riders to hold up, as our length was becoming a problem -- i.e., our mass was no longer critical, and also, we can self-correct. Once back together as a single group, we turned left onto Gross St, then left onto Friendship, and another left onto Penn, heading for Downtown via the Strip District. At 26th, we made a leftright onto inbound Liberty. Here, we were quite bunched, now fully occupying both lanes on inbound Liberty. I couldn't count people anymore, but I suspect we were down to about 40 to 50 riders, as several split off while we rolled through Friendship and Lawrenceville. At someone's suggestion, we stuck to just the right inbound lane to let some cars by -- again, self-correcting as soon as we made our point.

At one point, I thought we had decided to ride through the Armstrong Tunnel to the Sahside, but we ended up aiming straight for Downtown and the North Shore. These rides are apparently not choreographed very tightly. For all I know, a bunch of them did go that way. As I said, I tended to be toward the front, and may not have noticed a group splinter off.

Fun memory: Everyone whooping and whistling as we rode under the railroad bridge on Liberty Avenue at the edge of Downtown. I think this was also where the one flat tire occurred (not me). From Liberty to Grant Street, then right onto Fifth Avenue. Somewhere in here a Pittsburgh police car appeared, though it seemed its occupants were more helpful than disturbing. (At the March 2006 ride, one cop gave the group a decidedly difficult time, and I don't know if it ever got properly resolved.) Again, being toward the front, I didn't see anything that may have happened. In any event, I've seen buses routinely take longer to get through Downtown intersections than the bunch of us were taking.

From Grant to inbound Fifth, left onto Cherry Way, right onto Forbes, then left onto Wood because of a police barricade. Apparently a TV show, The Kill Point, is being filmed in our fair city, so parts of Downtown have been roped off. Anyway, we rolled down Third Ave, and crossed into the fountain area by the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler. I don't know if anyone actually rode through the fountain, but a couple got close enough to get a splash or two. Then over to Market Square, where the actual movie set was. There was apparently a break in the action, since we were allowed to proceed past the black S.W.A.T. truck and the Channel 5 News van (there is no Channel 5 in Pittsburgh) over to Forbes. I guess I'll have to watch the show to find out what all this was about.

We left town via Stanwix, Fort Duquesne Blvd and the Sixth Street Bridge, where we got the most angry honks. I guess Downtown drivers are far less patient at 6:45 with 40 riders than Oakland drivers are at 6:00 with almost twice that. Once across the river, with a hook turn we aimed for the river itself, then headed downstream. An orange plastic fence slowed us a bit -- it took a bit to heft a couple dozen bikes and riders across -- then we ended the ride down by the Korean War Memorial.

Splitting up, a few went to a fundraiser at a watering hole off of East Ohio Street, while a few others, myself included, bought some snacks at the Cedar Avenue Giant Eagle, then headed down by the riverside to have a small picnic -- talking bikes, birds and general BS. It was a relaxing little get-together at the end of a very pleasant ride.

Towards dark, I thought I'd better get home while I could, so stood at the corner of East Commons and East Ohio Street, looking for any of a 1D Mount Royal, a 12A North Hills Shopper, an 11D Perrysville or a 500 Highland Park-West View. Any of these could get me close enough to ride the rest of the way home, but none were guaranteed a bike rack. Whichever one was so equipped would be the one I'd run to catch. I wasn't at a bus stop, just where I could see all four routes approach. The winner was an 11-year-old Novabus, 2744, running an 11D. I mounted it in less than 15 seconds, then off we went. In West View, I think I might have set a personal record, unmounting it and storing the rack, in under 10 seconds. From there, it was a 20-minute ride up Perry Highway, but I was home by about 10. With a quick shower, I was soon in bed, asleep.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Another long bike ride, not by choice (May 22, 2007)

Monday morning I had to get to a meeting at one of the nearby schools. Unfortunately, the car had to go into the shop that morning, too. Bad alternator. But hey, at least I got a bus ride -- in the homeward direction, no less -- by 7:30 in the morning. (Doesn't everyone have an auto mechanic on the same bus route they live on?)

Also unfortunately, there was no getting to this school by public transportation. The closest stop on any route was over a mile away, and service up in Marshall Township is next to non-existent. Nobody I knew planned on attending, so there was no way to get there other than under my own power. Grabbing helmet, riding gloves and orange vest, then, I mounted the bike and off I went.

The trip was about nine miles each way, not quite as far as my trip to Oakland just over a week earlier, but it took almost exactly as long, 48 minutes. (They don't call this area The North Hills because it resembles Kansas, I tell ya!)

Marshall Elementary School is a newish building, barely 15 years old, and like just about everything else in Sprawlville, there is not a single place designed to hold a bicycle. I considered hooking it to the No Parking signpost, but thought that would be just a tad ostentatious, so opted for a small tree.

I got more than a couple of odd looks from parents bringing late kids into school, but I shrugged them off. If they thought I was some sort of messenger, fine, but I was running late, and didn't care to get into any philosophical discussions, at least not until on the way out. That I was likely the only person all week to arrive at school on bicycle, whether student, staff or a visitor such as me, was likely lost on everyone.

In any event, the meeting attendees recognized me as a regular, and figured out that I must be some strange bird indeed to bicycle there at all. It's a big district, and nobody -- nobody -- lives close enough to walk or bike to that place.

On the way home, as before on the Oakland trip, I think I was slower than on the trip there. It was pretty warm by then, past noon. At least it was nice.

Traffic really wasn't that big of a pain. There are no ridable shoulders anywhere, but there's enough space to get by a bike and neither run me off the road nor worry about head-ons. Parked cars were non-existent. Perry Highway is always busy, but at least that one road is very wide and also has a wide shoulder. As usual, the biggest problem is in convincing anyone that I'm for real.

Afterthoughts? Well, I must be getting in pretty good shape. My bike is geared for speed, not hills. Any substantive elevation change has me downshifting to the lowest gear ratio, and lugging it, barely above a stall. Nevertheless, I rarely need to stop, though I do when it's called for. I just chug slowly along, and eventually I get there.

I do plan to do a lot more cycling, though. I'd like to participate in Critical Mass, a ride in which we try to get as many bicycles as possible to travel through the city as a group. I'd like to adapt the bike so I can attach a bucket or basket for carrying items.

The main thing is, though, to just be out there, cycling everywhere for basic transportation. There's a touch of defiance in there, too, a feeling of "you damn well can, too, get there by bike, because I did it".

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Problem with electronic voting: Disenfranchised by the clock (May 16, 2007)

Current mood: aggravated aggravated

[This is the text of an email I sent just after that night's election to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and several voters' rights groups, with only trivial edits to make it appropriate for my blog.]

It is my understanding that, in Pennsylvania, if you are physically in the polling place prior to closure, you should be allowed to vote.

We knew we were cutting it close, but my wife was physically inside the polling place at 7:58 p.m.; polls close at 8. (I waited in the car just outside the door, having voted earlier.) There was the requisite filling out of polling slips and registries, and at 7:59 I could see her walking to the voting machines. She had her ticket stub in hand, and the other half of the stub was deposited in the envelope on the side of the voting machine by the precinct worker. She said the worker placed the electronic card in the slot on the machine, and BEEP! Time's up, polls are closed. The machine would not let her start, thus she did not get to vote, even though she had her ticket stub in hand, indicating that she supposedly had voted.

This is not right.

Somewhat related side note: For what it's worth, she works a 10-hour night shift and is asleep from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. By the time she gets up and eats, there is precious little time to do things like vote. It would really help if PA's polls would stay open until 9:00 p.m., and/or open at 6:00 a.m. I now work out of my home, but when I commuted to a day job, I had 10 minutes of time between 7:00 and 7:10 a.m. (in order to get to work by 8), or that last half hour in the evening, during which I could feasibly vote. Pennsylvania makes it extremely difficult for people to vote, with only a 13-hour window.

* * * End of original post * * *

* * * Follow-up comment from 2007 * * *

Yay! I was right! What's more, I now have it in writing! Here is an excerpt from a letter to me from Mark Wolosik, Division Manager, Department of Administrative Services, Elections Division, Allegheny County (PA):

"The Pennsylvania Elections Code requires that any voter waiting in line by the 8:00 p.m. poll closing time be permitted to vote, if found qualified. An election official can override the 'Close Option Menu' that appears when a PEB is installed after 8:00 p.m. by selecting the 'Exit This Menu' option to activate a ballot."

He went on to say that the Judge of Election would receive a copy of my letter and his response, so, at least in my precinct, this should not happen again.

So there!

[A "PEB" is the electronic doohickey the voting booth staff use in Allegheny County to turn on the machine so you can vote.]

Friday, April 22, 2011

25-mile bike ride (May 11, 2007)

Current mood: energetic

I had to make a trip to Oakland this morning, but wasn't anywhere near ready to leave when it was time to catch my preferred bus, so I decided to go there by bicycle. For those reading this who are not familiar with the Pittsburgh landscape, Oakland is the city's "second Downtown", a huge, traffic filled area which just happens to be the third-largest urban area in Pennsylvania, with only downtown Philly and Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle (i.e., primary downtown) rated larger.

Meanwhile I am fully two townships north of the city limits, which limit goes way, way out, something like four miles by air, in my direction. My house is exactly 10 miles from The Point, where the rivers come together. Getting to Oakland would mean covering both the 10-mile north-south distance and about four miles of east-west distance. Nevertheless, I decided to go for it.

Donning my helmet and orange vest, I tried to figure out how to carry the small package I needed to take to Oakland. It fit in a lunch bag, along with lunch, but the larger question was how to carry a lunch bag, not having a decent backpack. I'd had experience with stuff dangling off of one arm; it was neither pleasant nor safe. The solution was to put it in a standard plastic grocery bag, stretch it a bit, then stick an arm through each handle. It wasn't real comfortable, but it did work, and as it turned out, held together very nicely all the way there, and back.

To get there, I chose Babcock Boulevard, a wide two-laner that follows a stream, and so is fairly level as well as relatively traffic free. Decades ago, parts of this road were the bed of an electric interurban railroad, and anytime you can find that combination, you can expect to have almost ideal bicycling. I was not disappointed. (Side note: I only wish there was a decent trail extending north from the corner of Babcock Blvd. and Three Degree Road, following the old rail line. It would cross Perrymont very near my house.)

I saw two 1F Millvale buses laying over in the Millvale Loop, and as one of the buses had a bike rack, I actually considered taking the bus into the Golden Triangle. However, the bus that pulled out to make the inbound run was the one without the rack, so I continued under my own power.

The only serious traffic problem I encountered was getting to the 40th Street Bridge. This spot is not friendly toward bicycle or pedestrian; it's not much of a picnic for cars and trucks, either: Two lanes of main drag, with two single-lane on ramps, all forced to merge into two lanes just prior to the traffic light for the bridge. It's always a mess. Traffic was essentially stopped, which made it relatively simple to wiggle over to the side of the road -- which happens to be a jersey barrier -- no shoulder at all -- and I waited for a chance to get across Rt 28. Eventually enough cars stopped while a tractor-trailer began to lumber its way into the intersection. I was not a hazard to traffic, but what I essentially had to do was dart across 10 lanes of potential movement with two of them actually moving, and make for the sidewalk. This was about 10 a.m., beyond the bulk of rush hour, but still very, very busy.

Finally success, but then at what cost? There was so much glass on the bridge sidewalk, I wondered if I would make it across with either tire intact. All I could do was choose the best path, steer and pray. (Side note: When I worked at Panasas, near the West End Bridge, I kept an old broom in the weeds near the bridge so I could sweep the glass and the dog-do off the part of the beaten path that I had to traverse daily.)

OK, now I'm literally in the city -- Lawrenceville, to be precise -- and there ain't much space for bicycles. Now the big question: Street or sidewalk? If street, do I squeeze between cars and curb, or duke it out with the traffic itself? As it was, traffic wasn't moving to speak of, so I tried to slither between car and curb. This really didn't work, either -- mirrors, gravel, glass, and huge holes. I opted for the sidewalk, at least up to Butler Street. Once I cleared Butler and started up the hill, I kept to the street, but that wasn't too bad. Most cars were parked, and there was nominally enough room to ride. Not a lot of space, but serviceable.

When I got to the Bloomfield Bridge, I found myself on the sidewalk more or less by accident. Somehow another bicyclist ended up in the traffic lane, which didn't look so bad, but I don't know how he got there. At the other end of the bridge, a pedestrian just about to cross via the sidewalk, saw me and waited. I guess I really shouldn't've been there, but once I got there I didn't see what else I could have done. There was no feasible way of jumping the barrier.

Anyway, I made it to my destination on Fifth Avenue, distance 11.5 miles, and did it in about 60 minutes. Had I driven, it would've taken 42. That's not that bad, considering.

While there, I looked for the building's bike rack, but couldn't find it. With the security guard's assistance, I found it. It can only handle four bicycles for a building population that numbers well into the hundreds. Even at that, it appears that someone had driven a car into it, since I could not use two of its slots due to its being so bent.

For the return trip, I opted for Fifth Avenue into Downtown, then Sixth Street Bridge, Federal Street and Perrysville Avenue to Perry Highway, to get home. Dealing with Fifth Avenue in Oakland was a bit of an adventure. It's four lanes across, inbound, and bicycles use all of them. The contra-flow bus lane is not really an issue unless you happen to veer into it. I didn't, but I did have an errand to attend to which required that I cross it. This wasn't difficult. I just needed to ensure that I wasn't going to be hit by a bus.

Fifth Avenue the rest of the way wasn't so bad. I was making at least as good a time as the buses were, and a couple of times found myself between two buses, or a bus and a big truck. I had no trouble keeping up with traffic, and a couple of times needed to slow down. Twice I passed buses, who later leapfrogged me.

Heading out of town, Federal Street and Perrysville Ave are humungo hills, but I am proud of the fact that I did not get off to walk the bike. I did, however, stop to rest a couple of times, and in fact stopped at a small grocery store in the 2100 block, well up on the hill, where I got something to eat and drink. The last thing I needed to do was get dehydrated, and in the now noon-day sun (it was about 11:30, maybe 11:45), I was getting hot.

Once back underway, the rest of the trip was unadventurous, just plugging along, staying as far right as I dared. My hands were starting to get sore, so I stopped at Scholl's Bicycle Shop in West View and bought a pair of riding gloves.

I got back around 1 p.m. The return trip was 13.1 miles, for a total of 24.6 miles, pretty close to 25 miles. Now home, I do not feel either winded or sore, just in need of a good shower.

I did this to prove a point, as well as to prove to myself that I was up to a 25-mile ride on a warm day. I gotta wonder, though -- how many other people would spend a gallon or more of gasoline, and maybe $5 in parking, just to deliver a fist-sized package?

Anyway, I gotta do this again sometime!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

smoking vs. other methods of ingesting tobacco (May 10, 2007)

Let's get a little terminology straight. First, we have cigarette smoking. It's the act of placing a lit tobacco cigarette in one's mouth and inhaling, then exhaling. Second, we have nicotine addiction, the situation of one's body being or becoming addicted to nicotine, commonly found in tobacco products. Third, we have dosing, the act or process of ingesting a dose of nicotine into one's body to satisfy the craving for nicotine once one is addicted to it.

They are three separate things, and although they are considered one and the same by nearly everyone, they are distinctly different actions, independent concepts. It is not absolutely essential that one get a nicotine dose via smoking a cigarette. Absent the addiction, there would be far less smoking activity. Absent the nicotine in cigarettes, there would be a lot more people who would successfully quit. Given the nicotine dose in a form such as a patch, it is far easier not to smoke.

So what's the point? That smokers recognize this distinction, and try to get their nicotine dose via a means other than a cigarette.

The act of smoking has several downsides, most notably the spewing into the air of hundreds of poisonous and cancer-causing chemicals, which must then be inhaled by everyone around them. It smells bad, both up close and far away, and the activity is increasingly deemed socially unacceptable. Because of this, many governments as well as property owners independent of governments are banning smoking.

The fast solution is for smok^H^H^H^H people addicted to nicotine to obtain their dose, their "hit", via some other means which does not inflict their dosing activity upon everyone around them. How this is done is of little concern to me. Several alternatives already exist (chew, snuff, smokeless), but a new type not yet available in the USA on a large scale, called snus (rhymes with "news"), may offer as unobtrusive and low cost an alternative as exists today. The product is best known in Sweden, where it has been in widespread use for years.

The best attribute about snus is that using it greatly reduced the chance that one will get cancer from tobacco use. Long-term studies have indicated a nearly 90% reduction in deaths from lung cancer among those whose primary dosing mechanism changed to snus from cigarettes. No cancer is good, nor is any amount truly acceptable, but these are real numbers, real big numbers here in the USA.

More on this later.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Listening to robins (May 6, 2007)

One of my favorite things to do when I just want to lie back and relax is to listen to the sounds of robins. They don't sing; they talk.

I've been listening to them for years. There is unquestionably an intelligent language going on amidst all that apparent twitter. There are individual letters, individual words, sets of words in phrases, longer structures analogous to sentences, and beyond that, sets of sentences analogous to paragraphs.

Being able to understand all these sounds is not my goal. I doubt I will ever compile a glossary of robin vocabulary, nor write the Warriner's handbook or a Noam Chomsky dissertation on grammar and the deep structure of their language, though I did study transformational grammar in college. No, I am simply content to listen, and know that some sort of communication is going on.

What made me listen to birds, and this particular species? It was a warm summer evening, and a robin was on the wire going to the pole in front of the house. I noted that it uttered an introductory sound, followed by eleven short, identical chirps. This was immediately followed by the same introductory sound, followed by ten short, identical chirps. This in turn was followed by the same sequence, but with nine. Then again with eight. Then seven. Then six. Then five. Then it flew to a nearby tree and began all over again with eleven. When again it had wound down to five, it flew to a different part of the yard and started all over again with eleven.

Clearly this was not random. There was purpose in it, a plan, a pattern. I have also seen and heard it done in other yards. Surely all other species do something similar, but the robin has such an immediately recognizable, and wholly distinguishable, set of sound patterns, it is difficult not to notice it when present. Its noises in the evening are often similar, but altogether different from those around sunrise, and again different from those at high noon, all of which tend to be quite predictable, or at least in context. I rarely hear a robin's sunrise song at sunset.

In this regard they are like people. A lot of human speech is predictable, or at least predictable at certain times of day. You don't say "Good night" to someone at 10:30 in the morning, nor "What's on your agenda for the day?" at 3:45 in the afternoon at the office.

I do wonder what they talk about, though I stopped wondering what it must feel like to be a bird when I was still very much a child. I liken some of the discussion to listening to a short-wave radio tuned to a foreign station with a language I do not understand. Listening long enough, I hear patterns, and can guess what the top-of-the-hour newscast might be about, but really make no sense of it all. Still, it's intriguing to know there's a rhythm and a rule set at work with each, and that it makes sense to somebody. I never aspired to be a cryptographer, but the idea is not beyond my ability to comprehend.

It would be helpful to know what some of this non-random noise is. The sounds robins make when a cat can be seen skulking through the yard has a specific sequence, not altogether different from what is heard when a storm is imminent, and again not altogether different from being disturbed by a branch breaking. All are similar, but differ in some aspects. Knowing what those sounds are can make being outside a little more familiar to us building dwellers.

I ride a lot of buses, and consequently spend a lot of time either walking along the road, or waiting at a bus stop. It is natural to notice a lot more of nature than the average car-entrapped suburbanite. Although I am no expert, I can recognize several species of birds on sight.

So why do this? It's just one of those nice little aspects of life that make me appreciate nature, and life in general, from the point of view of a mere earthen creature, not as a human, nor a citizen, nor any human concept. I'm just here, and one of them, as are we all.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Three short essays I wrote just after 9/11/2001 (April 27, 2007)

I wish I'd known about MySpace back in late 2001. These short pieces were all written in one sitting, long-hand, on a long commute home one day on a bus, no later than 9/24/2001. W's "with us" quote occurred on 9/20.


Essay 1.

President Bush has placed me, a patriotic, tax-paying, law-abiding, registered voter, in the uncomfortable position of being either "with us or with them". I wonder if maybe there's a third option.

Now that we're going on two weeks into this mess, the flag waving and sabre rattling and ultimatums are making me more than a little uneasy. Doesn't anyone else understand what we're getting into?

If we do attack Afghanistan, who can blame them if they have someone retaliate from within our own borders? We go "bang bang you're dead" there, they go b.b.y.d here. All those terrorists were already here. How many more are awaiting their turn to act?

We learned in kindergarten that when a bully punches you, you don't punch back or you'll get punched back back even harder, or worse yet, yanked off to the principal's office just as culpable as the one who threw the first punch. So why are we gearing for war? That's exactly the wrong thing to do. Has nobody tried to get to the bottom of their reasons for acting?

Instead we should be determining why it seemed necessary for them to attack us, and resolve it at that level. What I am saying is simple: We should not retaliate.

No war. No violence. Peace.

Essay 2.

Maybe I didn't say it clearly enough in my first missive, so I'll say it again. Mr Bush, you cannot be against abortion on the grounds that it is murder, and then plan to go overseas and wage war. That's murder, too. There can be no distinction, given the rules you yourself laid down, that taking a human life is taking a human life, no matter what you call it, or under what circumstances.

So, Mr. Bush, if you are still bound and determined to go to war, does that then mean you are adopting your predecessor's abortion policies? If your abortion policies remain intact, then call back the armed forces. You cannot have it both ways.

Essay 3.

Let's say an official government force enters into a neighborhood, sets fire to an occupied building on official orders, and kills dozens of people inside. What does that make that government force, or the government behind it? Corrupt? Warlike? Criminal?

This is pretty much what happened on May 13, 1985, in Philadelphia, when several occupied townhouses were bombed and left to burn by city police and firefighters. This was done, it was said, for political purposes; the occupants had a political agenda which ticked off city authorities. An entire city block was destroyed, and while the city did pay the property owners, no police or fire authorities were found culpable for their handling of the destruction.

Similarly, consider what happened to the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993. They too were an organized group with a political agenda that ticked off the authorities. The B.A.T.F. gave them an ultimatum, which they refused. In the ensuing battle, hundreds died, including children. Nothing, essentially, was done to the federal officials who brought this to bear, whoever set the fire, or how.

It was this inaction, this perceived injustice, which caused one terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building, the B.A.T.F.'s headquarters, two years to the day after Waco. Perception is everything. Whether there was an injustice or not, someone thought enough that there was that he decided a large-scale terrorist act was called for.

What we are planning for Osama bin Laden and his ilk is nothing more than another M.O.V.E., another Waco, but on a larger scale.

OK, they attacked us first. Or did they? Yes, they hit us first. But to stand in the shoes of some over there, we struck first. What did we do? We exist, that's what. We're evil in their eyes. Granted, the extremists did the act, but we have a couple of extremists ourselves, incluing the current occupants of the White House.

It is wrong to strike back. That will show that we're evil, in case anyone over there doubted it.


Back to 2007. I find it difficult to believe that my words weren't prophetic here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My father was a Fuckemallist (April 8, 2007)

Yesterday marked the 12th anniversary of my father's passing. I miss him dearly, and think about him daily. One frequent recollection concerns his frequent tirades against organized religion. From as far back as I can remember, he railed against every sect, every belief system, and everyone who took his or her religion just too seriously in his view.

To most people, he was an atheist, but he didn't care for that label. Instead, the term he used derived from his general derision of all things religious: "Fuck 'em all!" he would yell to anyone whose ears were in the same house or just outside, nearby. Hence, he was a Fuckemallist.

Get this one point straight, reader: He was not really an atheist. I do not refer to his frequent cursing, which invoked some god's (God's?) name numerous times in the span of a project, but rather some sort of spirituality that defied being named. Or, at least, no commonly accepted term could be readily interpreted by the uninformed listener as a terse summary of his beliefs.

In the same manner, neither do I consider myself a Christian. To call oneself Christian conveys a boxcarload of attributes and pre-conceived notions, not all of which can be true for all people, all the time. Nevertheless, a whole lot of people call themselves Christians. It's a safe thing to do, a popular thing to do. Get just about anyone talking, though, and you'll rapidly find that they don't uphold a good many facets of Christ's teaching. Maybe in some future blog I'll develop a good list with which to take someone apart, but not here, not now. All that matters here is that I employ no label. To do so is to employ some level of pretense, and if there's one thing I don't do well, it's to pretend.

Am I a Fuckemallist? I'm not sure; I certainly did not agree with my father's approach to things. What he did do for me, though, was to keep me and organized religion at two arms' length until I was off to college, whereupon I was exposed to all manner of different systems of beliefs. By 18, I'd made up my mind not to make up my mind for a while. Now at 48, my mind is still malleable, and is still keeping organized belief systems at bay.

Am I worried about going to Heaven or Hell? Um, shouldn't the answer to that be easily deduced? And also irrelevant? Mostly what you need to know is that it ain't any of your damn business what I should be worried about concerning my destiny beyond my death.

I am, however, much impressed by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. To live as he would have us live -- isn't that important? In that regard, it is very much your business how I go about living my life, at least as affects you, whether directly or indirectly -- and vice versa. We're all in this world together, and somehow we have to get along. To follow the teachings of Jesus, we would all get along a whole lot better, and in so doing the world would be a better place.

That's how I feel about it. That's very close to how my father felt about it, too.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Someday, lots more people will do this regularly (April 6, 2007)

Current mood: chipper

I had to run a couple of errands a while ago. Amy's bicycle needed a tune-up at the bike shop in West View (about 3 miles distant), I needed to pick up some mangoes and other produce, and I needed to stop at the bank for some hard cash for the kids' allowances.

Most people would just hop in the car and drive. Someday, though, gasoline is going to be SO expensive, one will just not do that. I predicted about 10 years ago when gasoline was less than 1/2 its current price that we would be paying close to $3 and not caring -- and except for when we first got to $3, I am right. Now I'm saying almost the same for $8, but adding that it won't be so easy to buy at that price.

To that end, I do not just hop in the car and drive. If the trip can be done without the car, I will at least try. Someday, lots more people will do this, too.

The weather was quite nice at around 10:30 a.m., so I grabbed her bike and headed up the hill to the bus stop. The bike is somewhat usable, but has bad brakes -- not a big problem if I'm mainly going uphill, as I was, but not really usable for routine riding.

OK, fine, I get to the bus stop, and fortunately the bus that happens along has a bike rack mounted in the front, not a guarantee for the 11C Perry Highway. (Some routes are advertised as always having bike racks; not the 11C.) It took maybe 15 to 20 seconds to pull down the rack and secure the bike, then I hopped on and off we went. A lady standing in the front remarked that she'd never seen that done before. When we got to West View, I demonstrated that getting the bike out similarly requires maybe 15 seconds. Both loading and unloading the bike can actually be done faster, with practice, but 15 seconds is an acceptable dwell time. Someday, lots more people will be doing this, too.

A couple minutes later, the bike was in the shop, and a couple minutes after that, I was headed back up the street. Before I left the house, I'd checked to see how long a wait existed between inbound and outbound trips. It was long -- I should've made the trip a couple hours before, when the wait in West View was only about 15 minutes. Since I figured I'd be waiting a real long time, I'd just walk or jog back home -- three miles.

Think about that: Who would walk three miles when there's a perfectly good car sitting in the driveway? Well, I would, and I strongly suggest that everyone else start thinking about that, too. And doing that, too. Even in bad weather. Yeah, I'm serious.

Not only did I hike back, I actually ran most of it. I didn't sprint, but kept up a steady jog, all the way from Perry and Center in West View up into the hamlet of Perrysville, easily 1.5 miles, pausing only once to re-tie a sneaker. I didn't time myself, but I think I held to at least a 10-minute mile.

My next stop was the India Grocery. I figured out a back way into the place using a residential street and a short path through the woods, thus avoiding having to walk on a sidewalk-less major artery. If necessary, this could almost be bicycled.

I shopped briefly at the India Grocery, but decided I should do my banking first. Here, I tried the one truly insane thing I did all day: I crossed Three Degree Road and then scaled a 30-foot embankment into a quiet residential neighborhood. This cannot be done by the average person, so I will not suggest anyone else try this. However, a few months ago, I had hiked along the shoulder of Three Degree and found it far from pleasant, so wanted to tackle at least one alternative.

From the top of the embankment, it was a short hike to the back of Pines Plaza, easily accessed by cutting through about 20 feet of one yard. Technically I was trespassing over that snippet of a yard, but I simply do not care. Usually, I pick up any litter I find along the way, in case anyone complains. In any event, nobody complained, and after tromping through all the stuff dumped by the No Dumping sign at the back of the plaza, I made my banking transaction and retraced my steps to the India Grocery, including going down the 30-foot embankment.

I ended up buying a large amount of produce there, far more than I could carry by myself, so I paid for the order and decided to go back for the car anyway. I jogged back up the hill, and as luck would have it, along came the outbound 11C bus just as I reached Perry Highway -- the same coach and driver as on the inbound trip. Five minutes later, I was in my car. Five minutes after that, I had the groceries loaded, and shortly I was home.

All told, I rode two buses, used one bicycle, walked or jogged close to three miles, and only drove the car two miles for what in total was a seven-mile trip. Thus, for five miles, my car was not adding to congestion, I was not adding to our foreign oil purchase, I did not pollute the air, and the cost of operating the car those five miles was an expense I did not incur. OTOH, I ensured that I could indeed run 1.5 miles without stopping, and I learned that I could make that India Grocery trip -- less side trips to the bank and to West View -- easily by bus, and take my time, provided of course that I limit my purchase to what I can carry. Someday, a lot more people will do this regularly, too.

Of course, I know that a lot of people already do this because they have no choice. Either they have no car or cannot drive, and so must walk and/or take public transit to do their grocery shopping. Someday, though, it's just going to have to happen that we will all have to figure out how to do all that without the help of automobiles. Just how this will be done, and still keep small children in tow, I do not know. Answers do exist, though, because as I said, a lot of people manage this all the time right now. Too bad for the rest of us, then, I guess.

One additional element: Time. Yep, it took a lot longer to actually do all those things. I left the house at 10:40 and didn't get entirely done until 12:45. However, in that time, not only did I accomplish all three errands, I got easily an hour of vigorous exercise, too. I did not have to drive someplace so I could get that exercise. It was just an added benefit.

I hate to sound haughty, as I'm sure I do, but I'm just being real. This is going to happen, someday, maybe sooner (2009?), maybe later, maybe as soon as some big bruhaha in Iran or thereabouts takes place. But it will happen.

What's the moral of the story? Simple: Get used to walking, America. Everyone not afflicted with a palsy or dystrophy ought to be able to run one mile or walk three. If you cannot do that now, start trying. If you can do that, start remembering to.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

People who are against power lines (Apr. 3, 2007)

One of today's local headlines concerns a proposed power line to be built through about 35 miles of Washington and Greene Counties in Western Pennsylvania. This story is not anything new; it pops up from time to time and from place to place, whenever a power company wants to build a new power line.

As usual, the primary objections are concerns about personal health (in particular, cancers and leukemia), misunderstandings about its purpose, dropping property values, and standard-issue NIMBY (not in my back yard). One concern I did not hear was deforestation and effects on wildlife.

I take all this with a grain of salt. Here's my two cents:
* Cancers. Anyone objecting to this project, who has a pack of smokes in his/her pocket, immediately loses all credibility. While there is no established link between power lines and cancer, the words of choice linking cancer and tobacco include the likes of "eventual", "unavoidable", "frequent" and "early".

* Purpose. The power companies in question state that the line will bring power into the area, not take power generated here and pipe it elsewhere. That's believable. But if this is a concern of those who oppose it, then walk your talk, that is to say, prove them wrong. That line is being put there to meet demand from housing and population growth, which usually means central air conditioning in all that new housing. So unless you're willing to switch off the circuit breaker to the A/C unit from April to October, and get everyone you know to do likewise, shut up.

I have a couple of choice words to the power companies, though, too. OK, so you have $1.3 Billion to do something with power generation. Whatever happened to the idea of conservation? How about the notion of spending $1.3B on helping individual households reduce their power needs? Careful planting of shade trees, along with attic fans and vents, make houses cooler in the summer. Installation of proper roof and ceiling insulation, and windows that seal the indoors from the outdoors will make houses much more livable, not only in the summer but also the winter, and save piles of money in the process.

Oh but there's no money in that! Sure, not in generation! But, alas, that's the business they're in.

Somehow I made do without A/C until 2003, and even at that, it doesn't get used much. After I bought the house, I insulated not only the attic but the walls, too. I've resisted the temptation to cut down a couple of immense trees just upwind of the house. Sure, a huge storm could put them right through the center of the house, but I'm really not concerned. Meanwhile, between their shade from noon to sunset, and careful opening and closing of windows at precise times of day, with a couple of simple box fans cooling the house overnight, I can have a 75 to 78 degree house well into late afternoons of most July and August days. This allows me to avoid most use of the A/C, and so have a power bill that rarely calls for more than 900 kilowatt-hours in summer months for a 1,700-sq.ft. detached, single-family house.

In fact, here is my power usage for about the past year. As you can see, the forced-air (gas-fired) furnace gets more use than the central air does, and they use the same fan!


How does this compare with anyone else out there? If you reply with numbers, be sure to indicate what sort of living quarters you have, including square-footage. (Separately, the heating bill runs about $90/month after balancing winter and summer usage.)

In summary, do as I say AND do as I do, and there won't be any NEED for new power lines!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fifteen years of falling sky (Mar. 31, 2007)

This much is certain: Port Authority of Allegheny County will cut 15% of its service June 17, and if several other things do not happen, an additional 10% will be cut in September.

Translation: The sky fell. I told you so, too. Boy, did I. Here's the story behind the story.

Part One: Fifteen years of falling sky.

I am damn tired of saying to fellow riders "The sky is falling" concerning transit cuts. I've been saying it for far too long to too many fellow riders, and pleading with elected leaders to fund transit properly, and to transit officials to do something differently. How long? 15 years. Fifteen years!

Chronology: In September 1992, I testified at public hearings Port Authority held prior to the November 1992 and March 1993 service cuts. This led directly to my joining the Allegheny County Transit Council, the area's citizens' board. In May 1993, I was hand picked by Port Authority top brass to assist in resolving another funding crisis. By the end of 1994 I was ACTC president, at which time I learned a lot of the political side of the annual funding crisis. In early 1995, my home phone number, among others, was printed on tens of thousands of fliers distributed to bus riders to get them fired up about that year's funding crisis.

In 1997 through 2001, ACTC members lobbied Harrisburg annually to resolve funding shortages caused by underperformance of the PURTA tax, passed in 1991 to assist public transit. In 2001, ACTC's patience was tested again when a fare increase was necessary to close a budget gap. In 2002, when it took another fare hike and a hiring freeze to do the same, Save Our Transit was formed, and I was part of it from the first meeting.

I've since been on six of S.O.T.'s 12 trips to Harrisburg, driving the van myself a couple of those times. I've carried picket signs in downpours, windstorms, and near-zero temperatures. I've lobbied Governors Casey, Singel (acting), Ridge, Schweiker and Rendell; Senators Wofford, Specter, and Santorum; and many, many state senators and representatives, and congressmen and women, or their aides, from both my own district and others -- even a few candidates. I've spoken to community groups. I've built websites. I've worked phone chains. I've pounded pavement and ridden thousands of buses, talking to people.

Other people have done more or done it louder than me at various points, but I don't know anyone who's been at it every one of 15 consecutive years. I am damn tired of sounding like Chicken Little and Johnny One-Note, and of being viewed as "Everyone's out of step but Johnny". Well, dammit, Johnny is right, and has been all along.

Part Two: What really needs to be done

There are only three ways out of this dilemma.

Spend more, that is to say, TAX our way out. This isn't going to happen any more in 2007 than it did any of the last 15 years. We can't change the minds of 300 legislators in Harrisburg, especially not if Port Authority itself is giving itself up for dead. We've been clamoring for a dedicated funding source, which would certainly help, but as the events following the 1991 "fix" showed, things change and the source can dry up, so even that is not a sure-fire answer.

CUT our way out? Politicians love to say they created jobs. Well, what good is a job if you can't get to it? Cutting our way out is the way Port Authority is going to go, but it is not the right thing to do.

In addition, a large anti-transit crowd out there is also fond of saying Port Authority is mismanaged and the whole crew should be scrapped. I know better, and know that even if you did that, the new crew would face the same funding issues and alternatives. Also, just so you know, privatizing, partitioning and out-sourcing (i.e., "private-public partnerships") are the same thing as cuts.

No, the only viable, sustainable way out of this mess is to GROW our way out. We need 50,000 more warm bodies to start paying fare regularly who are not now doing that.

To get those people on, we need better rider information technology. It has to be easier to figure out how to use the bus system. There need to be ways to place riding instructions in people's laps, in wholesale quantities, and involuntarily, maybe even unwelcome if need be. Anyone looking for a precedent need only envision a detour sign on a highway. Are they welcome? Never. Are they necessary? Always. Do they work? They'd better. Well, the same needs to happen with transit information. It is simply not being done now, and needs to be. Waiting for people to ask for it is only going to continue the status quo of watching the system shrink.

Helping it shrink is going to make it even harder to sell the idea of transit as a viable option.

I've raised hell enough. It's now time to raise the sky.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A look back at why I entered grad school (written 11/1995)

The following diary entry from November 30, 1995, on the eve of my formally initiating the process to enter Pitt's Master of Information Science and Technology program, still provides a useful summary of where I intend my life to be going today.

At the time, while home PCs were common, the Internet was only beginning to be put to commercial use. Search engines like Google existed, but there wasn't all that much to search. Personally, I was only about five months into a new job, and though happy to be working and liked the work, I did not feel that it fulfilled my idea of what my life's work was to be.

I've edited out several paragraphs of historical perspective, picking up just as I'm defining to myself what I think my life's work really is.


[...] The 1980s flew by without my being involved in [the development of search engines, research databases and computing technology in general], and only vaguely aware of developments. The first half of the 1990s flew by with me being painfully aware of how little I knew and how little I could know. Even a technologist like Roger [co-worker at my previous job] spent all of his time just keeping up with trends. I can't do that; at least I can't see myself doing that. What's the point? I want to use technology, put it to use to help them live their lives better.

[In other words, I did not see it as necessary to spend time understanding each new whiz-bang development.]

Yeah, that's the ticket. If my view of life is valid, then we're here to do useful things with the time we are given. We can acquire lots of material goods (or bads, depending on viewpoint) prior to taking up space under a slab of marble, but it's what we do with our lives that's important. I can't see myself merely helping other people buy stuff [a vague reference to what my employer's purpose was]. That's crap. The only way I'll be remembered on this earth -- the only way any of us will be remembered -- is to make the living of life better.

Just last week were the obits of two inventors who made life better -- one developed the pocket calculator, the other the process for rolling aluminum foil. They were each mostly remembered for that one thing, but in each case, their whole lives were devoted to making life easier or better. Teaching. Nurturing. Mentoring. They didn't just invent one cool widget then sit back and collect the royalty checks. I aspire to do what they did, in my own way. [Nor is it necessary that their names be remembered; it is sufficient to know that the invention had a positive influence.]

As I enter my later 30s, I find myself, as ever, very aware of my "ecological footprint" -- the sum of all the impacts upon this planet that my existence causes. I am, in essence, renting space here from Mother Nature, as we all are, whether we care to admit (or even realize) it or not. And, as any landlady will point out, the place had better be in as good a shape when I leave it as it was when I got here. Taking that one further, one Boy Scout rule is to leave the camp in better shape than how I found it.

This does have application to career plans. I see it as my role in life to instruct others in this point of view: "Yes, people, live your lives, live them happily and comfortably, but remember that you don't own a damn thing, you just rent it, you just get to keep it for a while, then somebody else gets it -- and eventually the ultimate somebody gets it back."

I want to apply my knowledge to help humanity live within its means. I want to be in a situation where I can carry out this vision. I want to have the capacity to devise something that would reduce everyone's ecological footprint, the equal of aluminum foil or the pocket calculator.

Mankind now thrives on information. Actually, what mankind thrives on is two things: information, and raping Mother Nature by consuming all manner of irreplaceable resources to make toys we'll trash today, maybe tomorrow. The specifics vary, and I can't really change the latter, but I can do something about the former. With better information, our lives would be as fulfilling as they are today, without so much need to RMN.

Thus, a personal goal: Get my mind such that it can tackle great information problems. If I can do this, the rest -- position, offers, pay, prestige, ability to influence -- will follow.

Could I or anyone profit from my vision? Hard to say. I do have this scheme for helping people identify transit as a viable option for meeting everyday transportation needs. It's a writable program. If I can envision it, it can be done. Port Authority of Allegheny County needs it. Every metropolitan transit system in the world needs it. But here in Western Pennsylvania, the need is especially important, so much RMN occurs, because of an ingrained lack of the sort of information such a program would provide.

I cannot hope to put an end to suburban sprawl by writing a computer program that would make bus riding easier. However, if I was in the right place, and if the right things were said to the right people at the right time in the right way, there might be a lesser need for sprawl.

Similarly, I cannot hope to put an end to strip-mining Appalachian coal. But I wonder how much less RMN would be necessary if there was a 40-fold increase in recycling of steel and aluminum cans, glass and paper? Less mining, less smelting, less pollution, less landfill space, etc.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Why I, an anti-smoker, am against the US Senate tobacco control proposal (Feb. 27, 2007)

Current mood: worried

This week the U.S. Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions holds hearings on S. 625, "The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act", which authorizes Food and Drug Administration control over tobacco products. A good thing? No, it isn't. Here's why.

You've all heard the saying about "a fox in the henhouse"? With S. 625, the foxes designed the henhouse. That's right; S. 625 was co-written by representatives of the tobacco industry, Altria Group (a.k.a. Philip Morris USA) in particular.

The long version is far too long for a blog. The short version is this:
- It discourages methods known to be effective for smoking reduction.
- It discourages use of less dangerous tobacco products.
- It protects market share for the largest company (Altria) and most established brand (Marlboro).
- It encourages the current myth that smokeless tobacco products are every bit as deadly as cigarettes.
- It would effectively prevent development of any new nicotine delivery products that might be safer for both users and those around them.

Of course, no tobacco product is safe to use, but smokeless kills only the user, not everyone else nearby. Relatively speaking, smokeless is far safer, with only 1 in 100 of its users being killed (eventually) by resultant cancers and such, whereas for cigarettes the figure is one in two; at the same time, no people nearby are harmed by smokeless products. S. 625 would, though, strengthen warnings on smokeless products.

The "saying" I've been saying for 20 years is just as true on this one as on any other tobacco issue I've run across in that time: "Anything the tobacco industry is for is bad for everyone else." That's not to say that there is nothing good to be found in S. 625 -- there is -- but to dwell on that is to praise the color of paint on the fox-designed henhouse.