Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Rich Trickle On Us

Everyone has their own way of relating how rich Bill Gates is. Bill Gates is so rich, he has half the money in Seattle. Bill Gates is so rich, he sleeps in a different room of his house every night of every decade. Bill Gates is so rich, when he wants something from the grocery store, he has it delivered. I mean, the store. Bill Gates is so rich he could buy most countries.

Bill Gates is so rich he won't buy a used country, preferring a new custom country built from scratch, somewhere between Lake Washington and Lanai. And, finally, Bill Gates is so rich that just his money alone would be all you'd need to end homelessness in America for what's left of the ten years before the great Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is finished and solves everything.

What would it look like if Bill Gates actually did use his wealth to relieve some homelessness around here, just in Seattle? We have fewer than 10,000 homeless people. Gates could get 10,000 cheap prefab homes. At wholesale prices they'd all put together cost him less than a billion. Another billion to buy the land to put them on, and Bill's ranking among the world's billionaires wouldn't slip by more than 1.

But all that assumes Bill would go about relieving homelessness the way ordinary humans would. It doesn't take into account the fact that, like all billionaires, Bill Gates is an alien from Horsehead Nebula.

To understand how Bill would try to relieve Seattle's homelessness, consider another billionaire, Genshiro Kawamoto, who is trying to relieve homelessness in Oahu.

Kawamoto, like Gates, likes to spend a lot of time in the Hawaiian Islands. In the 80s Kawamoto mixed business with pleasure and bought up a lot of property in Hawaii as investments, including a lot of mansions. Recently he got bit by the altruism bug and announced he was going to rent 8 of his pricey Kahala Avenue luxury homes to poor struggling Hawaiian native families, preferably homeless families, for $150 to $200 per month, utilities paid, for up to ten years.

Now that he's moving people in, he's saying he won't charge some of them rent at all. He's partially furnishing the places. To help you visualize the deal, we're talking about homes in the $2,000,000 to $10,000,000 range that either sit directly on a gorgeous tropical ocean beach or are at most a couple of hundred feet removed.

One of the recipients is a woman with five children who has been staying in a homeless shelter for the last four or five months. Her new home for the next ten years is worth $5,000,000. We can expect that altogether approximately 50 homeless or on-the-edge-of-homeless people will get luxury digs from Kawamoto, most of them children of single mothers. That's the bright side. Thank you, Genshiro K!

The dark side is that the sort of real estate speculation that made Genshiro Kawamoto rich enough to do all this is lies precisely at the root of nearly all the homelessness Hawaii and the rest of America has to bear. Kawamoto is infamous in Hawaii for evicting renters at short notice to make a quick profit, as well as buying properties and neglecting to rent them at all. In short, he's a slumlord to the rich. He may not create homelessness in the demographic he serves, but his practices reduce their housing options, which reduces the options of the next lower class, and the next. It's the real trickle-down. The end result is homelessness for a lot more than fifty people.

So, thank you also, Genshiro K, for being a prime example of how the rich and powerful screw us all and then do some token rescues to make up for it. Just like the government and the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, which is really only a plan to reduce a fraction of it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Can You Say, “Conservapedia”?

Saturday, the P-I made my day by telling me about Conservapedia, the Right-Wing Christian answer to the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia. I’ll make fun of Conservapedia momentarily, but first a few words on why it’s important to know things.

I have never contributed to Wikipedia because I don’t know anything more than, say, Socrates. Like Socrates, I know that Socrates knew nothing except that he knew nothing, and that Plato was his bitch. That would make a heck of a Wikipedia entry wouldn’t it?: “Socrates, circa 470-399 BC, self-acknowledged ignoramus. Everything Plato knew, he learned from Socrates.”

But don’t do as I do, do as I say: Know things.

Some say all you have to do is read the Bible, and then you’ll know everything you need to know. Since I’ve read it, that would make me cool, but I can shoot this notion down with just two words: April, fifteenth. Not in the Bible! But you need to know it! Joseph and Mary knew that taxes were due the same time she was. They wouldn’t have if they’d only gone by what was in the Bible in their day.

A woman I met was incensed when told to appear at a later hearing after pleading innocent to a minor charge. She said, “That’s not fair, I said I was innocent, why didn’t they believe me? Why are they making me do more stuff?” I guess it wasn’t enough that other people all around her have had this happen to them, throughout all of her life. It had to happen to her before it could get her attention. Don’t be that way. Pay attention to how others are being rooked, you’re in the same line.

One of the redeeming features of Conservapedia is its creators clearly agree on the point that I’ve been making, that it’s important to know stuff that isn’t in the Bible. That’s why they don’t only quote the Bible in their articles. Another redeeming feature is that it is still an open wiki, like Wikipedia. So anyone can edit it.

I am sorely tempted. Whenever I see a new encyclopedia I always check its math entries. So I looked up “Algebra” on Conservapedia to see algebra defined as arithmetic with letters used to stand for numbers. That’s like defining brain surgery as the rearrangement of brains with knives, as opposed to sledgehammers. There were no footnotes or references to direct the reader to more information. All that hard work, all those centuries, reduced to “algebra uses letters that stand for numbers.”

I’m also tempted to delete thousands of excess uses of the word “great.” Plutarch “wrote Plutarch’s Lives and many great essays.” “Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, a great satirical novel.” The United States “is widely considered one of the greatest and most powerful nations on Earth.” It recalls the old Chris Farley Show on SNL. Farley to Paul McCartney: “…you remember when you were with The Beatles?” McCartney: “Yeah, sure.” Farley: “That was awesome!”

Anitra found this bit concerning George Washington: “Washington is perhaps the only person other than Jesus who declined enormous worldly power... “ That should be amended to “Washington is perhaps the only slave owner who ever declined other enormous worldly power.”

My favorite article on Conservapedia is the “Greek empire” entry under “Ancient Terms G.” Except for the initial definition (the Greek empire was the land controlled by Ancient Greece) the entire article consists of answers from contributors to the question “For what would you thank the Ancient Greek Civilization?”

Answers include such gems as “the insightful literature of Plato and Aristotle, especially The Republic, which I have read several times,” “I would like to thank the classical Greek civilization for the catapult,” and, best of all, “I would like to thank classical Greek civilization for the invention of man-boy love affairs.”

That’s some damn fine stupid writing!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hmm. Is Alberto Gonzales Funny?

I like to set challenges for myself like that. In the past I have tried to find funny things to say about such ordinarily non-funny subjects as agony, Beacon Hill, bumvertising, and contusions, to name a few. People wonder why I push myself so hard to find humor where it doesn't stick. I point to Catch-22's Orr.

Yossarian, the main character of Catch-22, says of bomber-pilot Orr that he hasn't got brains enough to be unhappy. Orr's planes get shot down more than any other pilot's, but he never minds and greets each new assignment with cheerful enthusiasm. Why? He must be crazy! Doesn't he know he's going to die?

Well, it turns out, he was practicing, so he could get himself shot down in the Baltic Sea close enough to swim to Sweden. Likewise I'm practicing so when the Grim Reaper comes to get me I can laugh at his ass and go out giggling. Alberto Gonzales is just a stand-in for Death.

Here's something funny-ironic. Gonzales grew up in Humble, Texas! Ha! I guess he's trying to get as far from his roots as he possibly can.

In 1996, Alberto Gonzales helped get the Governor of Texas George W. Bush out of jury duty in a drunk-driving case. Among other things he said Bush couldn't serve on the case because he might later be called upon to pardon the accused. An argument so broad it would pretty much excuse all governors and presidents from all jury duty, even where there's no exemption in law. An argument that neglected to mention that Bush had been convicted of drunk-driving. The defense attorney in the case called Gonzales' arguments "laughable!" So we're on the right track! We need to find more stuff Gonzales has done for W!

Speaking of Death, Gonzales was in charge of reviewing death row cases subject to clemency by Governor Bush. Thanks in part to his diligent disregard of most of those cases, the Bush & Gonzales term in Texas is credited with overseeing more executions than in any state ever, in any equal period of time. That's a record you can go to the White House on. I do think, though, they should have taken more care not to execute so many of the feeble of mind, because that could come back to haunt them later.

I'm specifically thinking of Alberto's prize observations this January on the legal theory and practice concerning the writ of habeas corpus. He said, to Congress, that "there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution. There is [only] a prohibition against taking it away." Now, I don't really believe that Gonzales is so feeble-minded. I think he was just dishing out scraps of offal to our Representatives just to watch them have to eat it. But not everyone would give him the benefit of the doubt as I would. They might think, "Alberto Gonzales isn't shining us on; that would mean he was showing contempt for Congress; that cannot be. Therefore he must be dumb as a rock."

Now Gonzales has exploited a recent amendment to the PATRIOT Act to fire a bunch of US attorneys, more and more of whom we are finding out happened to have resisted Republican pressures to prosecute Democrats. This is funnier than it first appears. It's like when some character in a farce methodically places a banana peel on the floor in the middle of the stage just before another character is due to make his entry. This is called comedic irony, wherein the audience knows someone is going to slip and fall and gets to tittering over the comedic suspense. It's really hilarious when it's the jerk who set the banana peel who finally slips on it.

Of course the fall shouldn't happen too soon, you want to draw it out. Bush & Gonzales should work on their timing.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Plato Was Right, Too

As I’ve often said, if you want to write stuff but you’re too drunk, or hung-over, or you don’t have any ideas, write about whatever it is that’s keeping you from writing. Today, for me, as I will explain shortly, that would be history.

History. It's like belly button lint. It happens when you aren't looking. One day you find a bush baby nesting in your tummy dock. You had previously forgot you had a tummy dock. Next, a strange glib man you've never met before is an expert on your belly button lint and he's teaching a course on it at the U. You audit his course without notifying the bursar and find out your lint was originally funded by the CIA as part of Operation BAJAX, aimed at world dominance, one belly at a time. Knowing this, or thinking you know it, never seems to make any difference to your life.

And yet, history, whether it's true or not, does affect you even when you can't use it to your own purposes. That's because history is about more than the truth of what really happened. It's about myth. Myth is a living agent. You don't use it; it uses you.

Myth comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “story telling,” but connoting “horse hockey.” Poets, like Homer, often tell historic myth. Seattle poet and editorial committee colleague Stan “Rail-rider” Burriss frequently illustrates his points at the committee table by reciting a history of Real Change. “It's like a dozen years ago when Tim Harris rode the rails into town with nothing but the shoes on his back, a song in his pocket, a computer strapped to his head, and 10 hungry kids tied to his toes. But Tim had a vision. Writing on the backs of unpaid bills in a cold wet cellar, and using his computer in some magical way none of us will ever understand, he pasted together the first Real Change, which he sold out of a friend's garage in downtown Seattle.” These tales usually introduce a motion to use the word “human” in a sentence. They also provide Stan with an opportunity to say “speaks to all of us,” again.

Pretty soon, though, people catch on to what the poets are up to, and they start to employ all the poets at writing satires and sit-coms, precisely to keep them from telling histories, because they only make crap up. People begin listening to the survivors of the history rather than the rhymers of it. Since the survivors are usually identical to the winners, this accounts for the saying, “History is told by the winners.” The correct saying should be, “History is told by the still breathing.”

Even though the survivors tell a truer story than the poets, the resulting history is still myth. Contrary to popular myth, myth is not less myth because it's true. In fact the most powerful myths are the ones that are unassailable fact. In the phrase, “Tell it like it is,” the truth part is the “like it is” part of the phrase. The myth part is the beginning, the “tell it” part. The “tell it” part is an essential component.

“So, Wes, What are you trying to tell us?” I'm trying to tell you I didn't accumulate the usual pile of news stories to comment on this morning because I spent all last night jerking around with the Real Change History page, a work in progress begun by Tim Harris on the new Real Change Wiki. There was a lot of stuff in there that spoke to me, stuff wrapped up with Real Change like homelessness in Seattle, homeless activists, and advocates. I was moved to speak back, because it was the human thing to do.

That's how it is with myth. It draws you into itself. As always, Stan is right, on the other side of my morning coffee.