Saturday, February 26, 2011

Reaping the Consequences of Poor

About a week before writing this, I was feeling more impoverished than usual. You know how it is: when you can’t pay your bills, your shoes have holes in them, and your credit card company tells you that if you keep paying off your balance at the current rate, it’ll be all paid off by yesterday -- meaning, after forever ends and time starts over again, and gets back to then. Roughly 50-85 billion years, or never, depending on how much dark matter there is in the universe.

“So,” I thought, “let’s get us some of that household energy assistance!”

That led to about 3 hours of me and Anitra “Other Household Member” Freeman studying the application process for federal LIHEAP energy assistance funds. Our conclusion at the end of those 3 hours was that the government doesn’t think we’re poor enough.

While that was disappointing to us, it provided us with new respect for the people who do qualify for LIHEAP funds, and how truly needy they must be. Whoa, that is some amazing poverty, people! Way to go!

The very next day, Obama announced his budget proposal that would cut funding to LIHEAP programs by over 2.5 billion dollars. Millions of households in America, representing approximately 3 per cent of the population, that are currently eligible to receive energy assistance, would be cut loose.

You can’t manage the political will to bring about an end to George Bush’s gift of tax breaks for the richest Americans, so they can keep the yacht industry afloat, but you can slash funds needed to help the poorest Americans have heat? OK, I see how you are, Obama.

No, wait, that’s not fair, is it? We bought health care reform by giving the opponents an extension to Bush’s tax cuts. Yay, we got watered down health care reform! But, you know what? The Republicans didn’t shake hands with us on the purchase, so they plan on taking the goods back, and keeping the extension.

That was muddled of me. Let’s look at the stupidity of these cuts from a different angle.

Consider those Predator Drones you keep hearing about. Like the one that wiped out an Afghan wedding party in 2007. Recently, the Air Force decided they weren’t deadly enough, so they would replace all their Predator Drones with newer Reaper Drones. (The old Predators will be sold at a discount to the Italians, to take out Berlusconi.) Each Reaper, at 10.5 million, costs more than twice what a Predator cost, and they want to buy over 250 of them over the next couple of years.

Our own people can go without heat next winter so that Air Force crews trained on arcade games, sitting in comfort in Florida, can kill more Afghans with the click of a mouse. Have you seen the ads? “It’s not science fiction.” All the excitement of war, and you get to go home to your wife and kids at the end of each shift, 1.4 miles away!

Oh, I get. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. So it’s all one big war, then, isn’t it?

Other ways it doesn’t pay to be poor:
That Ian Birk will not be charged for murder or manslaughter comes down to this 1986 footnote to the law "The legislature recognizes that RCW 9A.16.040 establishes a dual standard with respect to the use of deadly force by peace officers and private citizens... " stating that the lawmakers “really meant it” when they said police should be allowed to get off for murder almost all the time.

So any police officer can kill anyone so long as it can’t be proved to have been done out of malice. For example, let’s say you’re a cop, and you see a poor person wasting space. So long as it isn’t personal (you don’t have anything against that particular poor person, just poor people in general) you can fire away.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Exhibitionist Heaven

A couple of weeks ago some of us at Real Change were talking about how the rise of internet background-check services has hurt poor people. Years ago it was a pain to run background checks. If someone wanted to rent an apartment from you, you had to take their application materials to an agency run out of a trailer and hand it over to a guy named Rocky. You didn’t do it because Rocky smelled like cigarettes, stale peanuts, and three day old fish, and he charged too much.

But now, Rocky has a website so you don’t have to smell him, and his work is automated and uses semi-public internet resources, so the price is down around $30. The way the poor would-be renter gets screwed is that, with the background check affordable at all, it’s the renter who’s made to pay!

Good news! This intolerable situation will only last a few more years! Thanks to improving technology, the price of background checks will plummet so far, they’ll be given away free to anyone who has a computer and knows how to use Google!

“But Wes, how is that possible?” my detractors ask. Sneaky detractors always questioning me. Well, I’ll tell you. It’ll all be done with cameras, wires, connections, and computers, with some math thrown in.

By the time this column is printed, you’ll have had an opportunity to watch a massively parallel IBM computer named Watson play Jeopardy. I don’t know how well Watson will do, but I know he’ll outdo grandpa’s computer. He may not win against the human contestants, but he’s going to do better than a lot of people watching at home could do. Yet, Watson is self-contained. He’s not hooked up to an internet.

Meanwhile, the European Union, the United States of Europe, is funding a project to create a “robot” internet. I put the word robot in quotes because Watson is defined as a robot for the sake of this thing, called the RoboEarth project. Computers all over the world who are equipped to learn from experiences, like Watson, will be able to link up and share their growing knowledge about the world, and the humans in it, on their very own internet geared to their special interests and needs.

Meanwhile, face identification software is improving. It will soon be possible to upload a picture of someone, and tell your favorite search engine to retrieve all pictures that feature only that person and people who look just like them.

Finally, more and more cameras are being installed in public places, Several states are setting up their linked networks of surveillance cameras. But there’s nothing in the law preventing businesses and private citizens from connecting their own surveillance cameras to each other on the net, and every reason for companies that would like to track us all to support them doing so. So, got a surveillance camera? Earn some money just for leaving it on 24/7!

Put it all together, and you realize that it’s inevitable. The cost of the systems that track you will be paid by advertisers wanting to tailor ads to you.

Unless there are major legal barriers put in place (a constitutional amendment guaranteeing privacy would be a start in this country) you can expect as early as ten years from now that if you don’t remember where you were a week ago last Thursday at 3 PM, you’ll be able to able to find out by googling yourself. Switch to image search, and see what you were wearing. Modify the subject, and find out where the spouse was.

Computers will track you from one camera to the next. If you try to trick the computers by ducking into a port-a-potty and switch into a disguise, it won’t work, Superman, computers can count. “Duh-uh, where’d da other human go? Someone’s trying to trick me. Alert, alert! Oh there he is, with the red pantsies.”

And the good news is, it will all be free!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tweet Like an Egyptian

Above: A 1919 Egyptian uprising had a flag that clearly acknowledged the revolutionaries' debt to computers.
Like everyone else in the world I’ve been watching the events unfolding in Egypt with great concern. How can people be so cruel to one another? I’m referring, of course, to the shutdown of the internet and Twitter. It’s insidious.

We all know why it was done. The authorities felt besieged by revolutionaries. Naturally, they (the authorities) sought to deprive the revolutionaries of their power, so they unplugged them. I’m sure I would have done the same, if I were a dictatorial regime propped up by a rich foreign power, because I am also a walking moral vacuum, abhorred by nature.

That got me thinking, though. How would the history of the world been different if this sort of cruel drastic measure had been resorted to in the past?

For example, we’ve all heard of the American Revolution, and how, because of it, we live in George Washington State, instead of George William Frederick State, and we call ourselves Americans, after the continent, instead of British, after the fraction of the island. These are good things. But what would have happened had King George III done what Mubarak did, and cut off the colonists’ internet and Twitter?

One good thing: I’m sure that if they were cut off early enough the Boston Tea Party couldn’t have happened. They could never have pulled off that kind of organization without the aid of selectively distributed electronic communication. Consequently there would be no Tea Bagger Party today, which would be a relief. On the other hand, we wouldn’t know they could have existed, so we wouldn’t feel the relief, so we’d just complain about some other yahoos. Probably the Australians.

Then there’s the Declaration of Independence, which I learned in school was actually finished on MySpace, a sucky 18th Century predecessor of Facebook, on July 2, 1776, and only tweeted two days later. The British people were having their own problems and King George had already (this is real history!) shut down Twitter on their island. That’s why the British, including King George himself, didn’t know about the Declaration of Independence tweet until weeks later, when the ban was lifted and someone did a #revolution search.

That was what did happen. But if King George had shut down the internet and Twitter in the colonies that summer, the American colonists wouldn’t have been able to declare independence, so they wouldn’t know they were really having a revolution. No one would ever know they could pursue happiness, so we’d all be couch potatoes today.

No one would know what a “John Hancock” was. If you said to someone “put your John Hancock there,” they’d think you meant something dirty.

That’s just one minor revolution, hardly even the most serious one! What about the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution of 1911, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the Velvet Revolution, the Velcro Revolution?

As we know now, without the internet and Twitter, none of those revolutions could have happened. Now I’m sure that some of you would say, good riddance to bad history. But you aren’t thinking how cool it was that all that went down. Just the French Revolution, for example, got us “Let them eat cake” and guillotines. Come on! That’s some cool s#*t!

Further hypotheticals to learn by:

It’s long been said that if the internet had never existed, children wouldn’t have learned violence from internet games. Discuss how the absence of violent tendencies among children would have affected history. First, pay attention to the Childrens’ Crusades, the development of the Mother Goose rhyming industry, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and the world-wide stick and rock trade. Then, look away.

It’s also long been an established truism that without internet porn, men would never view women as sex objects. What would they have viewed as sex objects instead? List five possibilities and their relative likelihoods. Take into account the prevailing forms of agribusiness in ancient times and more recently, the rise of little tiny battery powered thingies.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Future Snark

Whenever there are great occasions of public oration, I miss them. They always happen in prime-time, and I’m accustomed to averting my eyes during prime-time. In fact, I always arrange to sleep through prime-time.

Missing the oration means I don’t know everything that everyone else does. I know the words because they’re in the New York Times the next day, if the oration is anything to sneeze at. But I miss the nuanced delivery, the dramatic pauses, the turned up eyes, everything you need to really be fully informed in a country informed by appearances.

But we must do what we can. I shall now attempt to read Obama’s State of the Union address, as it appeared in last Wednesday’s New York Times. [Pause for slow reader.]

OK, let’s see, distinguished guests, fellow Americans, Boehner, rancor, shooting, contentious democracy, we’re great, yadda, yadda, we’re set apart as a nation (as opposed to what? -- as a broccoli?), we will move together because we must, but we have to do more, China, India, yadda.

Alright, here’s something. He says our country is built on an idea and that’s why our kids don’t just memorize equations, they answer questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I never put those things together before. So, it was our founding as a free republic that’s responsible for gnarly uncles asking endless stupid questions. Yeah, I can see that. It sure explains Uncle Ned. He never should have been free.

Next Obama’s telling us we have to win the future. Whenever someone points to something, I make a habit of glancing over my shoulder at what he’s pointing me away from. I guess it’s acceptable to lose the past if the future is still there to be won. I can switch to door number three.

Now here’s something else I did not know! I did not know this was a Sputnik moment! How did the new Sputnik get by me?

If I could see the Sputnik overhead maybe I could figure out how Obama gets from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to “I want be one of the 80% of Americans riding in high-speed trains powered by 80% clean energy.” I don’t see that as much of a career, but then, maybe I just don’t know what the word “career” means. Is it like “careen?” What’s this 80% fetish?

What about my dream, that 80% of America be underwater, so I can get there by stolen rowboat?

Speaking of knowing things, we come to Obama’s first immediate concrete proposal, to continue income tax credits we already have for paying tuition. So that the people who can now afford to go to college can continue to afford to, until tuitions are raised again. A bold proposal.

After three decades of cuts in support for higher education, no change is progress we should all applaud.

He talks about bringing high-speed wireless to 98% of all Americans in 5 years, so that, among other things, students can take classes with a digital textbook. How about using that to crank the tuition down? Is that too much to ask?

How about a future in which 80% of adults have college educations that are fully paid off, so we don’t have a country of debtors?

Questions to propel further snark

Could the author of this column be any snarkier? Suggestion: come up with a snarky over-all assessment of the State of the Union Address that the author could have whipped out. Then, raise the snark level with a counter-snark of your own.

Reading comprehension: Is the author really snarking at Obama, or is he snarking at Americans for setting themselves up for these kinds of addresses, by their absurd expectations. Should every presidential address be a callback to Kennedy’s “Man on the Moon” address?

Obama said that at the time Sputnik was launched the science didn’t exist yet to go to the moon. Hello? Newton’s Laws?