May 2, 2017

Trying to get home

Not too long ago I was in the position of trying to figure out how to get my elderly parents from the Four Corners area of New Mexico to Oregon.
Other recent issues have come up that brought this back to mind, and I decided to do some comparison shopping.

The scenario I posed: Someone is sick or dying and you have to get home, tomorrow. You can't drive and must take public transit to get there. What does it cost and how long does it take?

First, I used major metropolitan cities because the sad fact is that if you live in a lot of the US, especially the western half you are just shit outta luck. There are no trains or buses, and there may or may not be a regional airport that can get you to a major airport to fly from. Generally for a significant cash outlay - because they are the only game in town. So if you happen to live where my parents did, you either find someone to drive you or pay for a 4 hour taxi ride to Albuquerque. There IS a private shuttle service that runs once a week to the airport, sometimes. And this is representative, not exceptional.

Next: My criteria was round trip tickets leaving May 3 and returning one week later on May 10. The exception here wound up being Amtrak, which has a mudslide on the tracks on the Seattle to LA run. So for Amtrak I moved the dates to June 7-14 for both routes to give a fair comparison.
Travel times listed are one-way but prices are for round trip.

The purpose here is to provide some concrete numbers to demonstrate the cost of travel for those with the fewest number of options.
Note here also that the bus option is Greyhound because they have a monopoly on national bus services in the US. The train service is Amtrak because they are the for-profit but tax supported monopoly holder on passenger train travel in the US.

Prices listed are all the lowest prices available and are generally restricted as far as baggage limits, non-refundable and cannot be changed. Accommodations are the cheapest the service offers - a seat.

First route: Seattle to Los Angeles

Greyhound         $164.00      avg 28 hours one-way

Amtrak               $121.00      35.5 hours one-way

Airline*              $143.04      2.5 - ? hours one-way

*This is a Travelocity 'secret fare' so no info on airline or transit time until ticket is booked, but in this scenario it would be the cheapest choice.

Second route: Dallas to Albuquerque

Greyhound         $118           13.5 -17.5 hours one-way

Amtrak              $132*          35 hours

Southwest         $670             2.5 hours

*This fare does not include the "self-transfer" required in El Paso - i.e. taxi fare or city bus from one station to another.

As for availability for everywhere else, here are some maps of the two monopolies - Amtrak and Greyhound. Yes, I am aware that Greyhound has competition in some very limited markets, mostly on the Eastern half of the US. But for the vast majority of places it is the ONLY bus service, if available at all.

Albuquerque Greyhound Depot

 Searching for photos of Los Angeles, Dallas and Seattle Greyhound stations points out another big problem with bus travel - the terminals tend to be in seedy, rundown and frankly frightening neighborhoods. In addition to the pure discomfort and inconvenience of hours upon hours in a bus, to arrive in a frightening, dark neighborhood where nothing is opened in a huge city in the middle of the night is going to be a huge issue for vulnerable people. Bus travel has always been marketed as cheap travel for poor folks or for minorities who were at risk traveling by car in much of the south. 

Greyhound route map of the US and Canada

Coast Starlight - hard to fault the view!
Southwest Limited in Albuquerque
Amtrak's advertising in the west has tended to center on a theme of "you could drive, but why?" Marketing to families, seniors, vacationers, etc. Their market has generally not been competing with bus travel, but with car travel. The selling points are the convenience of not having to drive and being able to take in the sights, as well as amenities accessible right there on the train without having to stop.

Amtrak route map of the US *

*Note here that the routes marked in green are connected by bus. So imagine trying to get to Salt Lake City from San Diego or Portland...

Something for comparison - and this map is on their website, not hidden in a pdf!

RailEurope Map

Air travel is the most popular way of getting from one place to the other in the US. Because again, US is BIG - and anything else takes a lot of time. And currently most airline travel in the US is comparable in comfort and amenities to a bus, rather than a train. The incentive is that you spend many fewer hours on the plane. Usually...

And again - the biggest issue here is that despite the fact that we have essentially nationalized rail travel, and have allowed a monopoly on bus travel, huge areas of the US are completely unserved by either. People who cannot drive are literally stranded where they are with no options.

I also find it fascinating how much art created in the past to show what life will be like in the far future of post 2000, how much prominently features some form of mass transit. *sigh*

February 8, 2017

The Future of Public Schooling(TI)

Travel with me now to the near future of Public Education!


Betsy DeVos Vocational and Technical High School

Here at BDVTech, we pride ourselves in a public school curriculum that is designed by experts – the BEST experts, everyone knows they are the best, experts in the career preparation that young people are going to need in the coming decades. Well, not ALL young people. But you know, THESE young people. The public school young people, some of whom I have met personally. Lovely people, they love me, you know? Anyway, welcome to all the incoming students.

Introduction to agriculture:
This is the first class in the agriculture track, that introduces students to the exciting opportunities available working as a seasonal farm laborer. An opportunity to work in the great outdoors and travel the country while contributing to the well-being of all those who depend on our great agricultural industry.

Introduction to Customer Service:
Learn about the exciting opportunities that exist in the customer service industry. Customer service skills can take you from the exciting world of retail fashion, to electronics sales, and even into online and telephone support! If you love working with the public, and remember to SMILE you will go far.

Introduction to Food Service (TI)
You have probably never noticed them, but when you go out to dinner somewhere...well maybe not YOU but when I go out to dinner somewhere there are a whole lot of people doing stuff, working hard to make sure that our food is what we asked for and is really good. If they want a damn tip they do, right? Anyway…
This class introduces students to the amazing world of food service. From the front of the house to the back of the house – and let's be honest, the back of the house is where most of you are gonna end up- you will learn the language, the rules, and how to survive in the world of food service.
**Please note** This is part of our 'tipped industries' (TI) program, with a focus on allowing students to learn to maximize their earnings without costing their employers any more money.

Introduction to Alcohol Service (TI)
This track is separated out from Food Service due to significant differences in the range of skills and variety of applications. Young women on either the Food Service(TI) or Adult Entertainment(TI) tracks are encouraged to take their electives in this track – these skills will help keep those tips up. They also give you a fallback once those looks start to fade. Currently we are discouraging males from Alcohol Service (TI) at the vocational level. Most Bartender jobs are currently being filled by Psych majors.

December 18, 2016

Happy Holidays!

 It is that wonderful time of year! A season of Peace, as season of Giving. And a season of kvetching about how commercial Christmas has become, yadda yadda yadda.

I don't need to point out that this year is pretty scary for lots of folks too. Seems like Peace on Earth is farther away than ever in some places.

So here's a thought to take with you as go through our varied winter holidays.

Santa Claus. That jolly old elf. You know the guy, the one who lives at the North Pole and spends all year making toys (or getting them on Amazon these days most likely!)
Once a year he gets in his sleigh and rides across the globe delivering gifts to all the (good) children of the world.

 Hrmph, you say? I outgrew that belief YEARS ago thankyouverymuch. Bunch of nonsense. Not possible. Ridiculous.
 So I say....AHA! But your argument is simply one of logistics. Nobody argues that the idea of someone DOING what Santa does is impossible or ridiculous. We have known of people in our lifetimes for whom doing good for as many as possible was simply a logistics problem.

Stop and think about that.

If the technology existed tomorrow to make Santa's Christmas Eve ride possible, would someone do it? Absolutely. People already do within the limits of their technology.

THAT is the world we live in. A world where Santa absolutely exists, many times over, generation to generation. And perhaps someday children will laugh at the silly people who believed that he wasn't real!


December 5, 2016

Pearl-clutching Primate Politics

By Harry R. Hopps, (1869-1937) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Just read yet another article busily deconstructing the methods that the liberal left is utilizing to communicate with 'middle america' and assessing the effectiveness of various strategies in convincing those poor deluded folk that they are WRONG. Hence the pearl-clutching reference...

To be crystal clear here - I am a spittle-flinging lefty socialist from way back. So I am just as appalled as everyone else by the direction our nation has seemingly suddenly rotated, and suffering the same amount of disorientation and grief.


I also have a very good understanding that we are all pretty much just primates with cars and designer clothes who are not that far removed from the campfires and caves of our evolutionarily recent ancestors.
And when you strip away all the loaded language and the rationalizations what you see is pretty simple and clear. Divide and conquer is a very old and effective strategy. And our primate brains are very, very susceptible to that sort of manipulation because it goes along with how we see and interact with the world.
Using phrases like 'how we are wired' causes pain to those whose jobs involve both neurophysics and anthropology, but it is an easy shorthand to discuss the ways we classify and learn about the world and our place in it, based on how our brains have evolved over time. And our cultures reflect both the ways we are wired to think, and the strategies we have come up with to overcome a lot of those instincts in order to make living in large and often congested groups possible.

Part of that wiring is differentiating 'self' from 'other'. Most of us of a certain age can still sing the song 'One of these things is not like the other'. We classify and name things reflexively. We draw maps so that we can create imaginary lines to separate 'mine' from 'theirs'.
Using that to solidify your own position at the top of the tree by getting those below you fighting with each other to maintain their current position rather than eyeballing yours is a pretty basic and simple strategy.
And getting primates focused on easily identified differences in appearance to facilitate that unrest is not exactly rocket science either.
Which also explains why folks are willing to vote against their own apparent best interest.
Because they can always see someone down below them who they are higher than on the tree. And it is pretty easy to convince people that kicking the folks below them down if they try to climb up will ensure their place in the pecking order. Because the alternative of offering a hand up to those below is seen as a threat to the place at the top.
So you convince white men that they are threatened by everyone 'below' them. You convince white women that they are threatened by people of colour.
You convince people of colour that they are threatened by 'illegals' who shouldn't even BE here - so long as those illegals are brown-skinned of course.
And you convince everyone that they are threatened by 'Muslim terrorists' identified most easily as women in head scarves...
Most importantly, you convince everyone that they are far better off keeping the guys below them off their current branches and fighting to maintain their current position so everybody doesn't suddenly realize how much nicer the view would be way up on top.
In essence, you get the primates so busy fighting with each other that they fail to notice you packing up the silver and looting the vault.

So rather than wringing our hands about how we convince the other guy that they are WRONG, SO WRONG - how about we just point out that we should all be watching both Trump's hands and counting the spoons? And if we give each other a hand up, we can ensure there will be enough for everyone and not just the fat orange primate decorating the top of the tree?

November 11, 2016

Exceptionalism vs Inclusiveness

Being exposed to some very racist family members from an early age, I have had the opportunity to observe this sort of thinking in its natural environment, surrounded by others who either explicitly or tacitly supported it. Fortunately my parents saw this as an opportunity for education and discussion with us about why it was wrong, and I am grateful.

It wasn't just racism either. It was a deep-seated fear and distrust of anyone who fit into that huge box marked 'other'. Hippies were another huge bugaboo.

What I observed was fascinating. Because they had friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and later family members who fell into groups that inhabited that box. But the dissonance was solved by making exceptions. And it is a pattern I have seen my whole life when exposed to people who have internalized stereotypes for those they see as 'other'.

"Well my friend Bill is black, but he is different because he...
...has a good job and works hard." from here and talks like educated people."
...has a white parent so he isn't REALLY black."
...isn't, you know, URBAN."
...wears khakis and oxford shirts."
...has a degree and owns his home." married and his kids go to school with my kids."

"My sister is on disability but she is REALLY sick and isn't just faking it so she doesn't have to work. I mean, she has diseases x, y and z. And the doctors even say it is so much worse with her than anyone they have seen before."

"My nephew is in rehab right now. He isn't a junkie or anything! He got addicted to prescription pills. We need to do something about pharmaceutical companies that make those things"

"Bob's son is schizophrenic and living in the park right now. It is absolutely criminal the way all that money is spent on lazy homeless people who won't work when there are people who really NEED help and can't get it!"

"She is a woman but she is REALLY good. Thinks just like a man!"

"Maria from work is different because she... Mexican but she was BORN here.
...isn't Mexican, she is from Central America. Or South America...anyway.
...was born in Mexico but she is actually here legally.
...speaks perfect English. You can't even tell she is Mexican! from Mexico or South America somewhere down there. But she has green eyes and blonde hair! She doesn't look Mexican at all. Mexican but she only has one kid. And her husband is Mexican and he has a really good job too. 

"My daughter's friend is Native American. But he doesn't drink alcohol at all."

"My friend Joe is gay. But you can't TELL. He doesn't act like a fairy or anything."

You have heard it. You have probably said something like it about someone, somewhere sometime. You have definitely done it about yourself. We do it to rationalize our own behaviour all the time.

The reverse of this is inclusiveness. The realization that if this is happening to me or mine, friends and family, acquaintances, people I know...then it is may very well apply to others in the same boat.
We see it when the vocal opponent of marriage rights does an about-face when their child comes out as gay. Or the person who never had an interest in social activism becomes radicalized by the personal experience of someone close to them, or a personal issue.

Being aware of things like confirmation bias is very helpful here too. Realize that we will always file away the rare validation of or our prejudices, even in the face of a really impressive amount of evidence to the contrary.

This line of thought can also be applied to those of us reeling from the recent elections. Statistically, a lot of us know people who voted for the winning side. And we made exceptions for them, rather than considering they might represent a much larger group. Because they did not fit our stereotype.

I'll leave you with some photos of kids on Spring Break:

October 28, 2016

An Internet Quiz for You!

An Internet Quiz

In the scenarios below, what is the FIRST intervention required?

A person tells you they are hungry and have no food.

a) Assess for qualification for agency assistance programs.
b) Determine causes of current crisis, and assess for probable compliance with available programs.
c) Assess for resources available to hungry person.
d) Feed the hungry person.
e) Determine if the person is a danger to the public.
f) Sign the hungry person up for fishing lessons.

A person tells you they are cold and have no shelter.

a) Assess for qualification for agency assistance programs.
b) Determine causes of current crisis, and assess for probable compliance with available programs.
c) Assess for resources available to homeless person.
d) Shelter the homeless person.
e) Determine if the person is a danger to the public.
f) Sign the homeless person up for fishing lessons.

A person is in pain and/or medical distress.

a) Assess for qualification for agency assistance programs.
b) Determine causes of current crisis, and assess for probable compliance with available programs.
c) Assess for resources available to ill person.
d) Provide medical assistance to the ill person.
e) Determine if the person is a danger to the public.
f) Sign the ill person up for fishing lessons.

It's getting cold outside. Make sure you have your priorities in the right order.

October 13, 2016

Are Dead-Tree Books once again a measure of wealth?

Just to be clear, NOT where I grew up.

I grew up in a house full of books.
As an avid reader, this just seemed like a reasonable thing to me. As I grew to adulthood, I occasionally encountered houses that had few books - both my grandparent's homes were like that. It seemed odd, but since I was rarely staying long and usually travelled with my own stash, the lack never really impacted me much.

Not here either!
My house has always been full of bookcases overflowing, books piled on tables, next to the bed, even stacked on the back of the toilet.

Fast forward to the present. Just moved my mom in with us after my dad died in early September. We were in process of moving them both when he passed away pretty suddenly. He and Momma had been in the process of trying to sort through a lifetime of books to decide what was moved and what was donated. I now have a bedroom in this house filled to the ceiling with boxes, and a good number of those boxes are full of books. We moved four bookcases as well. Looking at the number of books and bookcases I am struck by the staggering amount of square footage that is consumed by printed books. Even in tall bookcases, it requires yard after yard of wallspace. Creatively arranging furnishings away from the walls into islands in the middle of the room to allow access to all those books.

Most places I have lived in recent years were far from the top of the list in price per square foot for housing, but it certainly is not near the bottom. If you live in a place with a healthy economy, chances are good you are dedicating a significant percentage of your income to floorspace to house you and your stuff. If you are like me, and on a limited income, then that floorspace becomes even more dear since there is less of it.
Just substitute the kids for dogs...

The advent of e-books have been a huge boon to bibliophiles like myself, they tend to be cheaper than dead-tree versions and they take up no floorspace! They lack the tactile satisfaction of a physical tome, and are generally pretty problematic for sharing, but you can keep your entire library on a pocket computer (They really should not be called smart phones since their telephonic function is generally a poorly executed afterthought. They are better at taking photos than at voice transmission.)

I suspect we are entering a time very soon when once again the library full of physical books will be a conspicuous luxury reserved for the wealthy and/or the eccentric. In the meantime, you will be able to find me buried under boxes of books trying to figure out where the heck to put them all!

The good news here is that libraries become even more relevant as we transition from buildings full of books to electronic archives of knowledge that will need to be curated, sorted, and maintained. And having a central repository that can be accessed remotely without the need for filling one's own electronic floorspace will also be in demand. Having those sorts of repositories that are not privately owned will be essential to ensure the continued free access to knowledge for everyone. Would love to hear from my librarian friends on whether I am completely off the beam here or not.