Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: current events (page 1 of 18)

Bike-share systems and the poor

This morning there was a story on NPR about bike sharing, specifically how it doesn’t do a good job of serving the poor. There are basically three reasons for this:

  1. The bike stations are not located in areas most useful to poor people;
  2. You need a debit card or credit card to use the system;
  3. Bike-share programs are expensive.

The story got me thinking about all the ways it’s expensive to be poor, and they’re certainly illustrated in this example.

To get a debit card, you need a bank account. To get a bank account, you usually need to scrape together $100 for an opening balance. This is not a huge hurdle to overcome, but if you never have $100 left at the end of your pay period, it’s going to take planning, and if life throws you a curveball before you’ve got that $100 saved up, you’re back to square one.

I looked at the prices for bike-share programs. Chicago’s Divvy has two price structures: yearly memberships and day rates. $70/year or $7/day, plus usage: in both cases you get 30-minute trips for free, but if you’ve got a longer bike trip than that, you get dinged $1.50 or $2.00 per 30 minutes. Austin’s nascent bike-share system has a similar breakdown, but is slightly more expensive.

So if you’re poor, the annual plans are probably out just because of the upfront costs, even though on a per-day basis, they’re a much better deal. If anything, you’re on the daily plan (Austin also has a weekly plan), although again, this presupposes you’ve got a bank account.

What about getting your own bike? You can get a beater bike on Craigslist. There are bikes listed there right now in the $20–50 range, so if you’re poor, the break-even point for rent vs own comes quickly—within one pay period. If you could afford the daily bike rental, you could afford to buy a bike. If you’re going to use a bike for commuting to and from work, it would be a no-brainer. It would also be a no-brainer for someone with more discretionary income who wants to commute by bike.

So given that anybody with even marginal math skills could figure out that ownership beats rental for routine, day-to-day bike usage, what’s the use-case for rental? It’s for when you’re out of your routine. Non-routine uses are hard to predict—it seems redundant to point that out. That makes the best placement of bike stations problematic.

Another obvious use case is tourism, and from what I’ve seen in Chicago and San Antonio, the placement of bike stations clearly targets tourists.

I don’t think it would be a bad idea for bike-sharing systems to be more accessible to the poor, but as long as those systems are run by private companies trying to turn a profit, it’s going to be difficult to balance that equation. Organizations like the Yellow Bike Project can do more to improve bike mobility for the poor right now, by providing them with their own bikes, teaching them how to maintain bikes, and giving them access to shop space.

Shooting the moon

This article on the junior senator from Texas got me thinking.

Specifically, this quote, from Cruz himself:

“I do think the impact of a handful of principled leaders who are fearless in the Senate is significant, and I think it’s significant even going from two to three. If you have three, you pretty quickly get to five or six. Five or six is over 10 percent of the Republican conference, and that’s enough to move a conference and move the Senate.”

Paired with this observation from a GOP aide:

Some Republicans are so spooked about drawing a conservative primary challenger in next year’s midterms—or, as it’s now called in Texas circles, “being Ted Cruzed”—that they’ve moved even farther to the right, paralyzing the Senate’s GOP leadership. Exhibit A: John Cornyn, Cruz’s fellow senator from Texas. “He has Cornyn just frozen on everything,” one senior Senate Republican aide grumbled to me. “A member of our leadership just kind of takes his marching orders from this guy who’s been here for a day!”

I remember playing a game of Hearts1 on an airplane ride once. One of the players was an idiot. One of the players was really good: every hand, no matter what he had, he’d try to shoot the moon. Just to stop him, I had to draw a few points myself, and I always wound up losing.

Ted Cruz is shooting the moon.


  1. Hearts is a card game where you deal out all the cards to the players; players each throw down one card, and the high card takes the “trick.” Then you repeat. Hearts are worth one point each, and the queen of spades is worth 13. The goal is to get the lowest score, but drawing in all the points in the deck is called “shooting the moon”: the person who does this successfully gets 0 points, and everyone else is set with 26 points. 

Guns

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about guns lately. No surprise. I’m going to round up some of the more interesting stuff I’ve read and look for some common threads.

The Constitution

First is this detailed analysis of the Second Amendment by Gary Wills. He digs deep into the language, history, and politics prevailing at the time it was written. He also demolishes the modern interpretation that it is saying anything at all about gun ownership by individuals, or that it is meant to create an armed populace to guard against tyranny. What it is nominally about is state militia in distinction to a standing army; England didn’t even have a standing army at the time, instead raising an army when the king wanted to start a new military adventure. So the conflict between armies and militias represented the tension between the king, and his ability to tax, and the aristocracy, and their desire not to support a standing army (this also plays into the third amendment). The U.S. Constitution in its body (not the amendments) clearly established both a standing army and militia, and Wills argues that Madison wrote the Second Amendment mostly to placate political opponents, since it doesn’t create, allow, or disallow anything not already in the Constitution. Anyhow, don’t take my word for it. It’s long but worth reading.

The idea that the Second Amendment originally was intended to show support for state militias is echoed in this much shorter article, which makes the point that our modern interpretation that it ensures individual gun ownership stems from the Reconstruction period, when Republicans were suspicious of local militias in the south, and wanted to de-emphasize their rights.

I’m not a constitutional originalist (though I suspect many gun-rights supporters would say that they are). I think the Constitution needs to be interpreted both in the spirit it was intended and against the circumstances of the day. What we’re seeing here is not a reinterpretation, it’s a reinvention.

The gun life

This essay by someone who got a concealed-carry permit was an eye-opener for me. I was already familiar with the argument that gun ownership was patriotic in that it kept the federal government in line. I don’t buy this a bit—I think of this as the “Wolverines Fantasy,” and I don’t believe those fantasists would stand a chance in a fight against the U.S. military.

What I wasn’t familiar with was the notion that carrying a gun around was somehow civic-minded, because you were always on guard and ready to help out your fellow man against bad guys. As the author describes it, being in this on-guard state—”condition yellow” he calls it—seems exhausting and ultimately feeds into a view of humanity too dismal even for a cynic like myself.

This message makes another point: that the nature of gun ownership has changed in the writer’s lifetime. Guns were once mostly for hunting or sport. Now they’re overwhelmingly for “personal protection.” This is corroborated by Nate Silver’s observation that the demographics of gun ownership have changed: 40 years ago, Republicans were a little more likely than Democrats to own guns, but not by a lot. Today, the difference is so great that it’s a more reliable indicator of party identity than just about anything else.

The changes in the nature of gun ownership, and in who owns guns, go hand in hand. As TNH writes:

Americans love owning guns because it lets them pretend their safety isn’t a function of our shared society. They should grow up.

This fits perfectly with Reagan’s aphorism that “government is the problem.”

More guns

Jenny has said that “The solution to free speech [ie, speech you disagree with] is more free speech [ie, you speaking your piece].” And I agree with that.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, a number of people are arguing essentially that “the solution to guns [ie, in the hands of Adam Lanza. Or James Holmes. Or Jared Loughner. You get the idea] is more guns [ie, in the hands of schoolteachers. Or innocent bystanders.].”

I reject that argument.

Arizona has lax gun laws. If you’re in Arizona and you want to carry a gun, the state isn’t going to do much to get in your way. That didn’t help Gabby Giffords or the 17 other people around her who were shot by Jared Loughner. As I understand it, the one person on the scene who did have a concealed-weapon license almost shot a cop instead.

This is generally the case in the USA: there’s only one state, Illinois, that won’t issue any kind of concealed-hangun permit at all. And there’s approximately one gun for every man, woman, and child in the country. In short, if you want a gun, you can have one. Short of mandating gun ownership (which I hope would offend the libertarian sensitivities of many gun-rights advocates), we can’t make them much more accessible. And yet, the rate of gun ownership in this country has generally been declining, even though support for restricting gun rights has also been declining.

Of course, there are some places where you can’t have guns. Like schools. Which is why some people are advocating that we should remove restrictions on where guns can be carried. Again, I reject that argument. Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood—a military base—and killed 13 people. This is a place filled with people who are trained in using guns, are comfortable around guns, and are in possession of guns. But in fact, only MPs are allowed to carry guns around on base. Let’s set aside the caustic effect that an environment with armed teachers might have on schoolchildren. It is ludicrous to suggest that an organization focused on educating children should have looser restrictions on guns within its own facilities than one focused on making war.

More guns didn’t help Nancy Lanza, Adam’s mother, who had a collection and reportedly was an avid shooter.

I would like to think that a concealed-carry permit brought with it certain responsibilities and would require some training not only in responsible gun ownership but also in conflict de-escalation, that sort of thing. Not in Florida, where, as far as I can tell, there are almost no requirements. If you’re not a felon, the police will issue you a permit, no special training required (then again, judging by the Atlantic article I linked to earlier, what training there is seems to consist mostly of cheerleading for carrying a gun). Which might explain why Michael Dunn, who was carrying with a permit, shot and killed Jordan Davis for playing the radio in his car too loudly. Firing 8 or 9 shots at point-blank range and hitting his target with 2. Not only a completely irresponsible use of a gun, but a lousy shot. This is not the kind of guy I want around doing his “civic duty” to protect me from bad guys. This is just one anecdote, but it serves to illustrate a larger trend: more guns, more violence.

Facts are stupid things

Two recent events that are very much of a piece.

First, the recent publication of the book “The Lifespan of a Fact”, reviewed in the NYTimes. This documents the years-long fight between the author of a supposedly non-fiction article and his fact-checker, the fact-checker’s reverence for factual accuracy, and the author’s disdain for it when mere facts get in the way of Truth.

Second, the kerfuffle over This American Life running a version of Mike Daisey’s performance piece, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which turns out to be a fabrication. Mike Daisey more or less admits to his own fabrications, but defends them because he’s not a journalist.

These cases seem to go beyond those of Stephen Glass or Jayson Blaire: at some level, I think those guys knew they were in the wrong. These guys see nothing wrong with making shit up and passing it off as fact. I thought Stephen Colbert dismantled this idea years ago when he coined the word “truthiness.” Apparently not.

Inconceivable

It’s not bad enough that abortion rights are under attack in much of the USA, conservatives are going after contraception now too. This has become a hot issue because of three things:

First: Rick Santorum, who has emerged as the Not-Romney candidate du jour, said the following to a right-wing Christian blog:

One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.’ It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also [inaudible], but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation, that’s not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can’t you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure. And that’s certainly a part of it—and it’s an important part of it, don’t get me wrong—but there’s a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special.

Again, I know most presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things, but I think it’s important that you are who you are. I’m not running for preacher. I’m not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues. These have profound impact on the health of our society.

Second: Santorum’s patron Foster Friess recently said “Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.” Classy.

Third: the Obama administration angers the Catholic hierarchy and gives the GOP something to bash him over by insisting that even Church-affiliated institutions must cover birth control in their health-care plans. For the Catholic church, their opposition is presumably sincere. For the GOP, it’s tactical.

All of this contributes to a climate of demonizing sex and treating women as either sluts who deserve to get pregnant for their wantonness, or baby-making machinery with no say in the matter.

That is, by far, the worst part of it. But any self-respecting man who doesn’t want to have as many kids as Santorum (seven) should be angry as well as women, and not just from a sense of solidarity with women (although that too). It’s a ridiculous state of affairs that we have three kinds of boner pills on the market, but the only forms of male birth control are mechanical or surgical. I took the surgical option years before I ever met Gwen, and I’m happy with that decision. Santorum is telling me that our marriage is as invalid as he considers a gay marriage to be (another can of worms for another time).

Ultimately, this is just another facet of the right wing’s war on anyone who’s having more fun than they are.

Three things

Three things I have read in the past few days:

From Innovation Starvation, by Neil Stephenson

My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 crystallized my feeling that we have lost our ability to get important things done.

From The Onion, Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies

Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56.

From An Investment Manager’s View on the Top 1%

The picture is clear; entry into the top 0.5% and, particularly, the top 0.1% is usually the result of some association with the financial industry and its creations. I find it questionable as to whether the majority in this group actually adds value or simply diverts value from the US economy and business into its pockets and the pockets of the uber-wealthy who hire them.

These all seem related.

The universal design critic

In just the past half day, a lot has been said about Steve Jobs. I’m not sure I have anything unique to add, but I’ve been using Macs continuously since the first one I owned, which was one of the original 128K models, so I can’t let his passing go without comment.

Many of the people praising Steve Jobs have focused on the way that he and Apple have provided them with the tools to do their job, the way they have demystified technology and made it elegant and fun. And I agree with all that. But Steve Jobs and Apple have had a more subtle and deeper effect on us than that.

One of Jobs’ greatest talents was as a critic, particularly of design. He didn’t design Apple’s hardware or software, but he had strong, detailed opinions on all of it, which he would forcefully deliver when anything failed to live up to his very high expectations. So it’s no surprise that Apple has delivered consistently well-designed products, but they’ve also delivered design-oriented products. The very first Mac had multiple fonts and typographic controls, could mix pictures with text. Even the screen resolution of 72 dpi was chosen to parallel the point-size system.

We take these sorts of thing for granted today. They would have happened eventually, but they happened when they did because of Steve Jobs and Apple.

Today, we know what a font is, and many of us have opinions on which ones are better than others. We look more critically at industrial design and engineering. There are even movies and shorts about fonts and industrial design. By putting exemplars of good design into the marketplace and making them accessible to regular people, and by giving his competition a higher mark to aim for, Steve Jobs has transmitted some small part of his critical acuity and insistence on quality to the rest of us.

When Jobs resigned as CEO about 6 weeks ago, John Gruber wrote

The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth. Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like…Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

Zoom out farther.

Page One

Gwen and I recently saw Page One, the documentary about the New York Times.

It was a sort of mile-high survey of the problems that most American newspapers are facing today. It was interesting watching it while the scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids is at its peak—Murdoch had nothing to do with the movie except extolling the iPad as the potential savior of the newspaper industry. The issues that the movie touched on—and there were so many that it didn’t really have much time to do more than touch on them—are all familiar to anyone paying attention to the news about newspapers—declining ad revenue, competition from online sources, the chummy, codependent relationship with power that leads to horrors like Judy Miller—but it was still very interesting seeing these discussed by the people directly affected by them.

Just as the movie hopscotched from issue to issue, it never quite developed a central thesis. But if a documentary can have a hero, this one definitely did in the person of David Carr. And if it can have one defining moment, this one’s came when he was on a panel talking about the future of journalism or something like that, clearly representing the old guard. At one point, Michael Wolff stands up and talks about how the world would manage without the New York Times. Then Carr gets up, shows a printout of the Newser.com (Michael Wolff’s project) front page; then shows the printout with all the stories sourced from old media ripped out, leaving nothing but a rough paper sieve.

There was talk about the role of the professional journalist vs citizen-journalists, of whether the civic function of newspapers actually makes business sense. There was a lot of talk about Twitter. Interestingly, not a lot about Facebook. The talk about blogs was mostly in the context of tabloid-grade professional blogs like Nick Denton’s properties—at one point, Denton is interviewed, and we see his “leaderboard”—the most popular current stories—on a big TV. None of the stories are news. They’re gossip.

For a brief moment, when blogs were new to most people, some people suggested that in the future everyone would have a blog and we’d get our news through legions of citizen-journalists, with some editorial control or artificial intelligence or something to make sure we as readers got the stuff that was of highest quality and greatest relevance to our interests. Technically, that’s possible. My friend Chip long ago set up the website Austin Bloggers, where anyone with a blog can post a link to their Austin-related postings. There’s definitely some good stuff there that’s too finely focused for traditional media.

But the idea that citizen journalists could replace professional journalists entirely was naive from the start, and since then, we’ve learned that most people, even if they are interested in sharing stuff online (and lots of people are), are not very interested in blogging per se.

I think there are two reasons for this: the effort and the reward. While it is possible to dash off a simple blog post, blogging software has not really encouraged this. The writing interface for this blog looks like this:

Admittedly, there are blogging systems that are simpler than this, but this is the system I’m using, and it’s a mainstream one. Contrast that with the posting interface for Twitter:

Even once you’ve got a blog set up, there’s just a lot more cognitive load in getting a post up.

And then there’s the payoff. With Twitter or Facebook, your friends are probably going to see what you write and can easily comment on it; if you’re writing something personal, it’s relatively easy to make it so that only your friends see it. There’s more of a message-in-a-bottle quality to a blog post. Friends are less likely to comment (partly because even the commenting interface is more complicated, thanks in part to comment spam in blogs), and making a blog post visible only to friends involves considerably more administrative overhead for the writer and readers. Live Journal, as easy as it is to ridicule as the repository for bad poetry by teenagers, got this right by providing a blogging platform with social-networking features built in.

And unfortunately, while Facebook and Twitter have displaced what might have otherwise been a lot of blogging, they have not adequately replaced blogging. They’re fine for ephemeral, off-the-cuff communication—better than a blog, I’d say. A friend’s Twitter or Facebook postings are like a running stream that I can dip into when I feel like it, but they don’t work as a repository for sustained writing—one the writing side, because Twitter and Facebook are designed for off-the-cuff and short writing, and on the reading side, because it’s relatively difficult to backtrack and look at previous postings. As a medium for citizen journalism, this means that Twitter can be useful as a channel for minute-by-minute breaking news (Facebook less so, because posts are more often hidden from those you don’t know even if they are on Facebook, and Facebook in general is walled off from the rest of the Internet), but worthless for anything longer than that—especially with Facebook, where it seems almost impossible to dig up an old post. The same is true for discussions on posts, so while Facebook is great for getting people talking, it’s lousy for looking back at what people were talking about. For superficial gossip-grade conversations, this is fine. For more substantial discussions that one might want to look back on, it’s a problem.

Google Plus is too new to have been discussed in the movie. It allows for longer-form writing than Twitter or Facebook. The fact that Google is behind it suggests that maybe old posts would be searchable (though right now, they aren’t). And Google already owns a blogging platform, Blogger. I’ll be interested in seeing how they play out.

The new GOP playbook

Republicans are philosophically opposed to the idea that government can play a useful role in the lives of citizens, or as Reagan put it, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” During his administration, George II tried to prove time and again that government cannot be helpful, by appointing Michael “heckuva job” Brown to run FEMA or by appointing Young Republicans whose prior work experience amounted to working in ice-cream trucks as administrators overseeing large parts of Iraq’s economy.

Republicans do not currently have that appointive power at the national level, but in any case, they seem to have shifted strategies. Their current approach is fiscal. First, starve the government of funds by passing tax cuts (preferably one that disproportionately benefits their wealthy patrons). Then, discover a budgetary crisis that requires “hard choices” and cuts on the kinds of programs that benefit most people. Eventually, make the government small enough “to drown in a bathtub,” as Grover Norquist puts it, or “Texas is going to shrink government until it fits into a woman’s uterus,” as State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte put it.

We’ve been seeing it in action at the national level, and at the state level, here in Texas and more prominently in Wisconsin.

At the federal level, this graphic has been making the rounds lately, showing how tax breaks for the wealthy come very close to being balanced out by proposed cuts to job training, educational programs, etc.

Texas, which was previously praised for staying solvent in the face of the Great Recession, is now facing a $27 billion shortfall. The seeds of this shortfall were planted in 2006, with a change in tax rates that was known at the time to be problematic. But, as Forrest Wilder puts it, the budget shortfall is not the cause of pain. It’s the justification.

And then there’s Wisconsin, where Scott Walker claimed that he needed both budget austerity and union-busting (and then decided he could make do with just union-busting), despite the state’s Fiscal Bureau having concluded just a month before that that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.

I’m sure some variation on this theme is happening in Michigan and elsewhere.

Are your papers in order?

The Arizona Governor recently signed a bill into law that will give law-enforcement officers in that state the authority to stop anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to demand proof of citizenship or legal residence.

How do I prove I’m a U.S. citizen to a cop if he pulls me over? I plan on passing through Arizona later this year, so aside from the obvious outrage, this law is of practical concern to me.

I haven’t read the full text of the bill, but it includes the following passage:

A PERSON IS PRESUMED TO NOT BE AN ALIEN WHO IS UNLAWFULLY PRESENT IN THE UNITED STATES IF THE PERSON PROVIDES TO THE LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER OR AGENCY ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:
1. A VALID ARIZONA DRIVER LICENSE.
2. A VALID ARIZONA NONOPERATING IDENTIFICATION LICENSE.
3. A VALID TRIBAL ENROLLMENT CARD OR OTHER FORM OF TRIBAL IDENTIFICATION.
4. IF THE ENTITY REQUIRES PROOF OF LEGAL PRESENCE IN THE UNITED STATES BEFORE ISSUANCE, ANY VALID UNITED STATES FEDERAL, STATE OR LOCAL GOVERNMENT ISSUED IDENTIFICATION.

I do carry a Texas driver’s license, but I don’t recall whether Texas required “proof of legal presence,” and even if it did, how will an Arizona cop know that? Will cops be issued cheat-sheets showing what IDs are acceptable?

I wanted to cover my bases and know what documents would be sure to satisfy a cop that I’m a U.S. citizen, so I started calling around.

I called the Arizona Office of Tourism, figuring they’d want to make life easier for tourists. The people who answer the phone there are not equipped to do more than mail brochures, so that was not a productive avenue of inquiry.

I next called the Arizona Attorney General’s office. I spoke with a woman who was smart and informed, but was unwilling to give me an answer, as that would constitute giving a legal opinion, which I guess is something she can’t do. She recommended that I call the state’s law library and speak to someone there.

So I did. I got someone who was not especially fazed by my questions, but hadn’t read the bill and wasn’t able to offer any specific guidance. He suggested that I call the primary sponsor of the bill, State Senator Russell Pierce, and gave me his number (602-926-5760).

I called that number and got the senator’s voicemail. I left a brief message and am awaiting a response. I’m not holding my breath.

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