Wednesday, February 27, 2008

From Pigs To Pi

Sometimes I think the very ancients were way smarter than we are. Sure, they had their faults, what with the infanticide and the lead plumbing and not knowing their times-four tables, but they would make up for it with bursts of sheer genius.

I'm thinking of the fact that the really, really, ancient Romans dispensed with months during winter. The months of the year began with their first month, March, and ended with their tenth month, December. Then there was winter, which was monthless.

It wasn't until the late date of 713 BC that the Romans fell stupid and invented januaries and februaries. At least they still had the sense, for another half millennium and some, to continue to start each new year on March 1st. March was the best month to start a year. In those days March 1 was the first day of Spring. Also it came after leap days, so calendar makers only had to design seven versions of calendars instead of our 14. Also, March was named for the god of war, and Romans liked to start everything (tea parties, dog shows, gardening, sunbathing, everything) with a war first.

I pine for those old days of Rome, and every year, as March approaches, I wish it were the start of my year and that January and February hadn't ever happened. Let's try to think of it that way and look ahead to the new month as an adventurous new beginning!

Our first adventure: Now that March 1st is no longer the first day of Spring, it has turned into National Pig Day. This Saturday, kiss a pig. If you have a pig to spare, put a pig in the pile. If you need a pig, take a pig from the pile.

Coincidentally, March 1st is also King County's Piggy Metro Stick-It-To-The-Disabled Day. On this March 1 all non-peak Metro fares go up a quarter. So regular fares increase 20%, but discounted fares of the disabled and seniors (who are mostly on fixed incomes) increase 100%.

I guess lately a lot of old people have been abusing the discounted fares to ride buses to and from hospitals, taking away from needed ambulance revenues, and cluttering the buses up with their ugly oldness. So it makes good sense to double the fares on them, to teach them a lesson. But I don't know why you'd double the fares on disabled people, unless you thought that would discourage disabled-ness, which is just plain silly.

March 2 is Texas Independence Day, the day we celebrate the right of immigrants to come in to a country and take it over, so long as they're our immigrants, and it's someone else's country. [Insert pig remark.]

On a brighter note, on March 6, The Stranger is presenting eight up-and-coming bands at two venues, Neumo's and Sole Repair, as a benefit for Real Change. Billed as a "cheap night of music," I doubt that more than one or two pigs will be admitted on a first-come first-served basis, so you should not rely on that, but get your pig a sitter in advance.

After a week, when we've had plenty of time to sober and find our homes, there will be a camp-out at City Hall on the night of March 13 to protest the city's policy of demolishing homeless encampments. I will be there. We want to see at least a couple of hundred of you there. Again, sadly, there will be a limit on the number of pigs allowed. Let's face it, they don't know how to use Porta-Potties. They eat all the truffles and don't leave any for us. They can do tricks, but who wants to see a pig roll over, climb a ladder, or leap through a ring of fire?

The morning after the camp-out begins Albert Einstein's Birthday (he would have been 129), National Pi Day, and the Ides of March Eve. Celebrate genius, circumference, and political change, as you again reunite with your pig.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Brave New World

So. A scientific study, by a UW human, has confirmed what chimps knew 15 years ago, namely, a) housing regulations add to the cost of housing, and b) Seattle has housing regulations up the kazoo. Now watch developers try to blur the distinction between housing regulations and general building regulations.

What can we learn from this study? In order to answer this important question in a way that will burn up my week's allotment of 666 words, I'm going to belabor an analogy: Suppose books were supplied in a new world the way housing is supplied in ours, and you wanted one.

You might think, "I'll just go to a library and see the book for free." But in this new world, libraries are to books what shelters are to homes. In our world, when you ask for a bed, you get a mat -- the bare minimum. So, in our imaginary world, if you want a book you get one with a front cover, a title page, a reverse to the title page with the copyright date and ISBN number, and a back cover. If you complain, the library kicks you out for being a troublemaker.

So then you figure you should go to a bookstore. This world has book agents, instead. The book agent will take you out to look at books in the market. You'll see a lot of books that aren't really what you were looking for. All the books your book agent takes you to see will be too expensive. They'll cost about 10 to 20 times what you thought a book should cost. You'll want to know why.

A professor at the UW will do a study. He'll learn that books are so expensive because there are so many book authoring regulations.

For example, all authors have to apply for a permit to write a book. The permit won't be approved for a year or two, while regulators verify that the book will not violate any paper-use regulations. Of course there will be a synopsis, but that will have to run by the general public for comments. If any comments are received the comment period may be extended. If no comments are received in the time provided, the comment period may be extended.

The proposed book must comply with the state's Book Writing Management Act of 1990. During the comment period anyone may file a Petition for Review of the synopsis with the Hearing Board established by the act. The Hearing Board will study the proposal for the new book and determine how it fits among existing books.

Too many books on the same topic would be prohibited, as violating density provisions. In our world, lists over 9,000 murder mysteries. In the new world that would be trimmed down to a manageable 90. Books on altogether new topics may be prohibited because those topics have been designated as critical areas needing to be conserved for future generations of writers and readers.

Low supply will drive up prices. Readers will be forced to rent rather than buy. But the book writing regulations will also limit the availability of books to rent and drive the cost of renting up. Rich people will mitigate the high cost of renting books by joining together in condobiblia associations to purchase rental books. The rest of us will have to settle for renting cut-up pieces of used books. For what in our world you would pay for a brand new copy of War and Peace, in the new world you could afford to rent a chapter per month of a used copy. You'll finish the second epilogue in 2028.

You might decide you'd rather confine yourself to alternative street papers sold by homeless people. But in the new world vendors will be forced to apply for permits, increasing the cost of your weekly from $1 to out-of-reach, and the street paper will not exist.

In other words, the new world will look like Tacoma.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Unstimulated

Everybody get ready, we're all about to be economically stimulated!

The Dems and Reps finally agreed on an economic stimulus package. Barring a Bush signing statement that says something like, "Thanks loads; I'll give all the money out to my rich friends," this means most of us will get lump sums of money to stimulate the economy.

Being poor, I was interested, I would even say stimulated, by this news. I wanted to know what the actual law said so I could see if I was going to get some, and how much. This meant going to the federal government website and guessing the magic combination that would unlock the bill's text. I won't bother you with the details of that quest, it's enough to say, "many Bothans died to bring us this information." What I learned after reading the text of the law (HR 1540.ENR) plus supporting law (the Social Security Act, and relevant IRS code) is that if the chicken's innards fall eastward when the moon is high in the west, then I will in fact get a check for $300 by the end of the bureaucratic summer. This is because when I put my income sources together my total income exceeds the lower cutoff of $3000.

Oh, I might have to file an income tax form this year (I don't, usually, because I don't ever come close to owing taxes) but that's OK, because I never owe taxes, because I'm too poor.

But then I thought, "Whoa, what if I was so poor that my income for all of 2007 was less than $3000?" In that case Congress has seen to it that I wouldn't get a dime. It's times like this I wish Congress got a signing statement of its own. They could use it to tell us What They Were Thinking. Since there is no such thing, it falls to me to tell you What They Might Have Been Thinking, if they indeed were. Several possibilities occur.

1. If we're going to stimulate the economy, we need to give money to people who know how to spend it. Would someone who makes less than $3000 a year know how to spend money? Obviously not! Not enough experience!

2. Triage. There's no point in trying to stimulate a sector of the economy that's going to die no matter what we're willing to do to revive it.

3. They'd only spend the money on food and rent. No money would go to the major corporations that have done massive out-sourcing. When we talk about "the American economy," what else did you think we meant? Did you think we meant Willamette Valley cranberry farmers? Get real.

4. You stimulate the economy you have, not the economy you wish you had.

5. You know what happens when a poor person wins $30,000,000 in the lottery? How they end up as poor as ever within a year, and worse off than ever, because they're all Jerry Springer fodder? It would be like that if we gave them $300. Only 1/100,000ths as much.

6. This is a great land of opportunity, so if anybody is that poor they must be lazy. They're SO lazy that if we give them $300 they won't get off their butts to spend it, and it won't stimulate any economy.

7. This is a great land of opportunity, so if anybody is that poor they must be criminally stupid. They're SO stupid that if we gave them checks for $300 they would eat them, and that wouldn't stimulate the economy.

8. Less for the poor means more for the rest of us, and our children. (The law provides $300 for every child of middle class parents.)

9. Poor people don't vote for any of the politicians who passed this law, because you don't vote for the people who regularly rape you.

10. We have to save some money out to pay the high cost of killing people in other countries.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sloppy Justice

Let's get serious about justice!

Ha, ha! No, seriously, we'll talk.

First of all, why am I interested in justice? Well, I have a big disclaimer to make here: I want some. So I may be seen to have a conflict of interest. Or you might say, "He hasn't had any justice so what would he know about it?" On the other hand, wanting some makes you attentive. It makes you look up "justice" and justice-related words in dictionaries and beg other people to tell you what they've heard about it. Eventually you get to know as much about it as anyone else who hasn't had it. I want to share some of what I have learned.

The first thing I learned was that as justice is about fairness, and as fairness concerns mutuality, therefore justice is actually a verb that describes a social behavior rather than a state of being. In other words , you can't really HAVE justice, you can only do it, with other people. I learned that in a nursery, during a fight over a thingy with different colored wheels that spun around.

The second thing I have learned about it is that the mutuality part has to be consensual for it to be really good justice. The best justice is not enforced fairness but fairness that comes about willingly. You learn that by watching cops from a safe distance, and seeing people go in and out of jails.

The third and most important thing I have learned about justice is that imaginative people do it better. This works in two ways. If you're imaginative you can put yourself in the minds of your partners. You can understand how their situation looks to them and can therefore better know their needs and wants. Also, imaginative people are better at coming up with excellent ways to meet their partners' needs and wants, without neglecting their own. Technique matters!

That last discovery is best illustrated in the negative. Just look at the lousy justice boring, unimaginative, people give, and you'll see what I mean!

For example, Mayor Nickels and his administration have lately been trying to do justice with people in and around homeless people's encampments. How boring and unimaginative are Mayor Nickels et al? Well, they are dealing with homeless people who have no place to go but where they are, and they tell them to go there! Hello? There's no "there" there! Wake up!

An unimaginative person can't see how someone standing around at the scene of an altercation with what is, or even what just looks like, a weapon, might be innocent, and not deserve to be riddled with bullets. So when off duty Mt Vernon, NY, police officer Christopher Ridley [pictured left] wrestled his own gun away from an assault suspect he had been trying to arrest in White Plains, NY, recently, and just then four White Plains officers appeared, someone said "drop the gun or we'll shoot" and when Ridley didn't drop his gun in the customary allotment of one-twentieth of a second (one-half normal reaction time), they shot him dead. They are now saying, "We didn't know he was a fellow police officer," which is believable, since Mt Vernon is a good ten miles from White Plains, so they'd likely never met. And if you don't have any imagination, what is true for you is only what you know is true.

The recent Post-Intelligencer "Victory and Ruins" series exposing how authorities put justice on hold for the benefit of a few of the UW Huskies during that team's 2000 run for the Rose Bowl provides a beautiful example of the need for good technique in justice-making. Timing is essential. It's extremely important to know when to turn on the lights. You have to have respect for all of your partners, not just ones who are doing you supremely enjoyable favors at the moment.

Otherwise you could be regretting your behavior six years later, once the glow has worn off.