Thursday, October 8, 2009

If 'He Fails'...


By M. Martin

It is perhaps time to ask what, exactly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, et. al. are really hoping for when they advocate the failure of Barack Obama's presidency--particularly when their anti-advocacy has managed to gin up the most virulent right-wing paranoia and hysteria this country has seen since The Sixties. In less than six months, this country has gone from the transformative uplift of seeing our first African-American President take the oath of office to seeing that president virtually stalked by gun-toting vigilantes--and seeing the reform agenda that swept him into office stalled out and seemingly failed already.

Certainly, some measure of blame rests with the President and his advisers. Whatever platform they run on, all presidents hew to what they perceive as the county's political center once elected. In ordinary times, that's probably a good strategy for re-election (if not for governance). In Barack Obama's case the move was swift and--to many of his supporters-- disturbingly thorough. Many on the left had projected onto Obama their own political desires and felt a sense of betrayal when Obama turned out to be exactly what anyone who had looked past the speeches into his thin resume as a public servant would have seen: a slightly left of center pragmatist whose ideology has been every bit as fluid as his racial identity.

When Obama stocked his cabinet and staff with Clinton-era retreads and retained a small but significant number of Bush's economic and military advisers, it only surprised those who had not been paying attention--but given that the vast majority of U.S. voters do not "pay attention" to anything beyond the two or three issues they actually care about, the Obama team certainly should've foreseen that The President would lose support from his core electoral constituency. They probably did foresee it, and assumed they would make up for it with support from those who had not supported Obama in the election--the people to whom Obama promised in his inaugural address that he would "be your President as well." In other words, they expected to pick up support from the country's political center... just like every other newly-elected president. In that, they miscalculated--badly.

These are not ordinary times and Obama is not an ordinary president. The coalition that elected a relatively inexperienced man with a complicated racial heritage--in this perpetually race-complicated country-- could only have existed in the aftermath of the utter debacle that was the Bush Era. Obama's election did not so much represent a turning point in America's political maturity as it did the absolute moral and policy bankruptcy of every other leadership option being offered to the electorate. Being the least of all possible evils in the worst of times does not constitute a mandate, regardless the electoral map. Further setting these times apart from the past is that the political center that Team Obama hoped to turn to really no longer exists. It has been eroded away, just like the American middle-class has been eroded away by GOP economic policies, by a generation of Republican political operatives willing to exploit social and cultural differences for short-term gain. The only support Barack Obama can hope for are those worked to elect him. Virtually everyone else is in the camp of his implacable enemies.

Therein, that camp of implacable enemies, lies the other complication that makes the current era different and frightening. The speed with which the minority party has been able to build up opposition to what is, really, an extremely moderate agenda (Richard Nixon proposed more progressive Healthcare reforms than has Obama) is impressive. It's also scary. It's also irresponsible. The time-honor litmus test for the limits of protected speech has always been the common good. You don't have the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. I think that it's about time to apply that principle to the Becks, Limbaughs, Palins and other latter-day Father Coughlins--hopefully before someone (most likely The President) gets hurt. I think it's also way past time to ask these people what they really want--and if they've given any thought to the consequences of really getting it.

Let's take them at their words and at their deeds. Let's just suppose, for a moment, that what they really want is for Barack Obama to 'fail'--to be a one-term president who falls short of carrying out his agenda, possibly losing his life in the process to what will be described after the fact as a "lone gunman". OK, great. Obama 'fails'. What then?

Well, if one of these nutcases really does managed to shoot Obama, they either destroy their movement or save his presidency, depending on whether or not they manage to kill him. If the would-be assassin's aim is no better than John Hinckley's, Barack Obama's standing as the Democratic equivalent to Ronald Reagan would pretty well be cemented. It is safe to say that the country would come to it's senses, and the ensuing backlash might even put Fox News out of business. But as wonderful as that might be, I'm not about to ask Obama to take one for the team. Even though the people who show up at 'Tea Parties' don't seem to be any more firmly rooted in reality than the guy who wanted to date a barely-legal Jodie Foster, guns are what these nutcases obsess over. More likely than not, anyone who gets that far is probably going to succeed. If that happens, Barack Obama becomes the biggest political martyr in history and the Republican Party--thanks to their failure to distance themselves from gun-toting loonies--becomes permanently associated with crazy white people who solve problems with violence (OK, they already are that...). Fox News goes out of business, takes the GOP with them, and gives every argument against any progressive agenda for the rest of the century an irrefutable counter-argument... is that really what you want, Mr. Limbaugh?

Having gotten that out of my system, I'm going to take a deep breath and assume that the Secret Service operatives that have been protecting Obama since he declared his candidacy are actually good at their job --and that any would-be assassin is more likely to achieve martyrdom than The President. Let's just say that Barack Obama winds up being a replay of Jimmy Carter--a nice, well-meaning guy who's really too smart and decent to run a foul business like the U.S. Government. What happens then?

Well, for starters, all those first-time and returning voters who were energized by Obama's candidacy probably drop back out of politics and stay out, coming to the conclusion that it's a rigged game and they'd rather stay home with the x-box or PlayStation, where they at least get to win some of the time. This means that the Republican base, still energized by the desire to turn back the clock to either 1950 or 1850 (or maybe 1350...some of these people are pretty conservative), remains a dominant force in politics, which continues to be played by the Karl Rove playbook of scorched-earth tactics and razor-thin margins. In that scenario, the possibility of someone like Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin becoming President gets a lot more credible, and Mitt Romney's stock goes way the hell up.

At that point Obama's election becomes a fluke, and the country goes back to the status quo ante of corporatist elites bamboozling an increasingly uneducated permanent underclass into perpetually voting against their own interests and perpetually fighting and dying in wars that benefit no one without a portfolio of oil company stocks. None of the real concerns that Obama was elected to address are dealt with. An unregulated stock market manages to create yet another cataclysmic failure. Global climate change continues to ravage the planet and the country. People continue to be bankrupted and exploited for having the nerve to get sick and expect better treatment than a used-up plow horse. More and more people have less and less future... and they know it. What happens then?

I think that, at some point, it becomes obvious to anyone with even the cursory education most Republicans find adequate that this country no longer works... and no longer deserves their allegiance. I do not know if we will ever see the formal breakup of the United States envisioned by the various Separatist Movements in places like Texas and Alaska, but I think it highly possible that there will come a day when no one looks to the Federal Government of The United States for anything that is likely to improve upon or enrich their lives. When that day comes, it will not merely be right-wing nutjobs that refuse to pay their taxes. It will be a lot of people. It wasn't lead plumbing or barbarian hordes that really brought down The Roman Empire--it was the fact that it had gotten too big, unwieldy, and inefficient to either enforce obedience or earn loyalty. Anyone who thinks that lesson fails to apply to The United States is mistaken-- self-serving notions of American Exceptionalism notwithstanding.

For all his faults, Barack Obama was the best choice this country had in the last election and remains the best hope we have for anything approaching progressive reform. That statement comes with a lot of caveats, not least of which is that it's a pretty flawed political system that leaves us with such few and poor choices. But that fact does not exculpate Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann and all the other loudly self-professed 'patriots' from the fundamentally treasonous and hypocritical act of conspiring against a newly-elected president, fomenting what could yet evolve into armed insurrection, defending calls for the dismantlement of the Federal Union, and-- worse--serving as pitchmen for a corporatist feudal oligarchy that is already corroding the country from the inside out.

I don't know if the theater's really on fire, but that really is smoke I'm smelling...and it really is time for these clowns to shut the hell up.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pimp This Bum: It's not what you think


Tim Edwards works to bring more attention to PimpThisBum.com



How a local website has changed the face of the fight against homelessness

By Andrea Afra

"I'm back in the fight. I'm tired of laying down. I'm tired of giving up. This life, it's worth fighting for. It's worth fighting for."

After starting an internet marketing company, Ascendgence, Kevin and Sean Dolan, a father and son team, decided to prove their effectiveness by creating a campaign to show that they could successfully drive attention to wherever they targeted. Their new project: PimpThisBum.com. They knew the name would induce visions of bum fights or worse, and either piss people off or make them laugh, but either way, it would stay in their minds.

"We knew that the same campaign with a sincere appeal, and a website like 'helpthehomeless.com' would be ignored. We knew that if we insulted people’s sensitivity or appealed to their humor on a subject as sensitive as this, we would get their attention," says Kevin Dolan, the father portion of the team.

Growing up as an Eagle Scout, his son Sean had always been active in the charitable sense, and while they were initially going to use a local Katy business as their case study, Sean had a different idea. And within a few months it was a success with 2.5 million visitors to the site. Their first recruit was a man named Tim Edwards. I watched the documentary style video on the homepage and saw a man who was humorous yet poignant, with a full beard, kind eyes, and a soft matter of fact voice, who seemed to be wanting nothing more than a chance to change his circumstances. In a losing battle against depression and alcoholism, he had found himself homeless and begging for money, a life he had lived for five years before PimpThisBum.com found him. After gaining news coverage, both locally and nationally, Tim has a new lease on life. Through the site they soon raised over $50,000 and the Sunray Treatment Center in Washington allowed Tim to enter their recovery program free of charge.



Tim and his friend Bobby, also once homeless, have redefined 'success'


It's the night before he leaves for therapy. Tim is sitting on the bed of a motel room, looking into a red heart-shaped compact mirror while he shaves off his long overgrown beard. Over the buzz of the electric razor he says with determination, ""I'm back in the fight. I'm tired of laying down. I'm tired of giving up. This life, it's worth fighting for. It's worth fighting for."

After he is freshly shaved, head and all, the Dolans read a letter to Tim from a man who had seen the news coverage and thought he might be his long lost cousin. Tim's mother and father had split up when he was just a small boy and though he lived with his mother, they too found themselves homeless for some time. She passed away several years ago, before he became homeless, and with all of his family gone, there was no one left to let down. The letter said his father had passed away a few years back, but there was still a big family left in Missouri and Tennessee and they all missed him. There is footage of his reunion with his father's family, including an uncle and aunt and a brood of little cousins. He also met his father's best friend who gave him his father's old harmonica.

"Bandmaster De Luxe Chromatic," he says with a sad smile holding it up for the camera.

After six weeks in rehab he returned to Houston and started hosting a nightly live web chat show online and on his 38th birthday the PTB chatroom folks bought him a new laptop. There is footage of this too and it is by far one of the most touching moments hearing him say that it was his best birthday ever.

I spoke with Sean, who lives with Tim at an extended stay motel. Tim now has job working as a machinist and carpenter and recently completed a project building scale models for an oil industry trade show. He is receiving life coaching courtesy of Balance Health and Wellness Center and with help from the donations, one of Tim's homeless friends, Bobby, has also taken control of his own life and found a job as a barista at a local cafe. They are celebrating their first paychecks together with a party at Cafe Cafe on the west side.

The last shot in the video is of Tim sitting at his newly found cousin Deb's house in Nashville, where he stayed for three months after his stint in rehab. He is sitting on a bench outside of a garden home. It is a beautiful day with flowers in bloom and birds chirping noisily over his low voice.
He looks healthy and handsome, with a jaw that looks strong enough to crush rocks. Wearing a crisp button down and slacks, he is speaking directly to other homeless people like him, but his advice is sage enough for anyone to heed.

"Don't give up. God made the way, but I had to actually do the work. I had to get up and start walkin'. Now I get to walk into the sunset and face new challenges."
And he is no longer alone as he meets new challenges, as he now has a cheer section of millions of friends and fans across the nation.

Meet Tim and Sean live and join the conversation Monday-Friday at 8pm central and Saturdays at 12pm at www.PimpThisBum.com

For more information and how you can be a part of this success story please visit
visit PimpThisBum.com, a non-profit charity

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Electric Lazyland : Electric Cars in Houston and a response by Rick Ehrlich of Houston Electric Car


by Alex Wukman

Erik Ibarra walks into Coffee Groundz on a Saturday morning in his customary black polo embroidered with the Rev Houston logo and a ball cap. Ibarra and his brother, Justin Jones, started Rev Houston in April 2008--the same month that Ibarra and his brother Sean Ibarra accepted a settlement from Harris County.
In 2004 the brothers sued the county and the sheriff’s department, stating that their civil rights were violated when sheriff’s deputies stormed their home, arrested them and seized film after they photographed a deputy during a drug raid at a neighbor’s home. The suit was settled for $1.7 million.
Ibarra says that he was attending a sports event when he saw electric shuttles (they look like stretch golf carts) and became inspired, so he and Jones decided to start a company transporting people through downtown and midtown for tips. They went before Mayor Bill White and City Council to explain what they were doing.
“The mayor said ‘We look forward to permitting you. We think that plug in electric cars are the wave of the future,’” says Ibarra.
Six weeks after Rev Houston started, though, they received a ticket for operating a taxi without a license. Ibarra feels that the city has cowed to pressure from the taxi companies.
“Taxi companies feel that that we are such a threat that we have to be ticketed,” says Ibarra as he takes a sip from his coffee, “but the last thing we wanted to do when we started this company was compete with cabs.”
Raymond Turner, president of Yellow Cab Houston, states that he and his company have not put undue pressure on the city to ticket Ibarra.
“All we’ve done is ask the city to enforce existing ordinance, these vehicles are clearly vehicles for hire,” says Turner. Since Ibarra is running a company that hires out vehicles, he should be held to the same standard as any other taxi company. “The ordinance requires things like a sign on the top, a meter and doors,” says Turner.
None of Ibarra’s electric cars have signs marking them as taxis; nor do they have meters, or even doors. Ibarra feels that they don’t need meters because they don’t charge their riders a fare--they only accept tips. Not everybody agrees with him, though. Tina Paez, the city’s Deputy Director of Administration and Regulatory Affairs told the Houston Chronicle that since Rev Houston’s drivers accept tips, they are taxis and fall under the taxi ordinance.
The ordinance also requires that taxi cabs have fire extinguishers, something Ibarra finds ridiculous.
“We don’t even have any flammable fuel onboard,” says Ibarra.
Turner isn’t concerned with the fact that Ibarra’s drivers use electric cars, he just wants them to follow the rules.
“We’re not out trying to make life difficult for people, [but] the Rev Houston vehicles look like taxi cabs to us and to the city,” says Turner. Since the city has decided to regulate the taxi cab industry they need to regulate every taxi vehicle—electric or not. To Turner, the issue isn’t about the city favoring big businesses over small or not encouraging green vehicles; it’s about being equal under the law. “If the city is going to take this position that they are going to regulate this industry they have to regulate the entire industry.”
Ibarra counters that being equal under the law isn’t possible when the system is set against you. Ibarra stated that getting a taxi permit in Houston is difficult, because the permit price isn’t sent by the city, it is set by the cab companies. The barriers to entry are too high to start a cab company,.
Turner is unconvinced.
“Without a permit,” he says, “Rev Houston is flagrantly breaking the law without getting punished. It’s like not ticketing every third person that runs a red light, just because.”
The thing is, Rev Houston’s drivers are getting ticketed. Ibarra and his drivers have been ticketed over 15 times this year, with citations ranging from $150 to $200. Paez also told the Chronicle that the city’s regulatory investigators have been instructed to ticket Rev Houston’s vehicles on sight. An attempt was made to contact Paez, but she had not responded by press time.
For Rick Ehrlich and Dale Brooks of the Houston Electric Automobile Association (HEAA) the lack of interest from the city is nothing new. Ehrlich runs an electric car dealership a block behind Warehouse Live and has lobbied the city to embrace 100 percent electric vehicles for some time.
“Every city that’s worth a shit has some electric cars in their fleet,” said Ehrlich.
According to James Tillman, an employee in the city’s General Services Division, the city does have 550 gasoline electric hybrids in its fleet, which is the third largest hybrid fleet in the nation. A July 2008 press release from the mayor’s office stated that the city aims to have 1,500 hybrid vehicles in its fleet by 2010. While 550 hybrid vehicles in the city’s fleet is impressive, for Ehrlich it’s nothing to crow about.
The hesitation comes from the fact that there are over 12,000 vehicles in the city’s fleet, approximately 2,000 of which are passenger cars. According to Ehrlich, the city has a written policy to replace 10 to 15 percent of their passenger car fleet every year.
“They are supposed to get most economic car to operate, and for the past several years, the most economic car to operate have been hybrids,” Ehrlich wrote in an e-mail. He added that if the city had not bought hybrids, it “would have been a clear violation of long time policy.”
However, according to a description of a program posted by Tillman on the Project Get Ready website, the city is finally joining the electric car revolution. Tillman wrote that the City of Houston “will commit to purchasing over 300 all-electric vehicles for delivery in late 2010.”
Currently, the city has a pilot-program in partnership with Reliant Energy in which 15 Toyota hybrids will be converted to plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles. The converted vehicles will then be used as vehicles in the city’s fleet.
Project Get Ready is a different program, run by the Rocky Mountain Institute, that partners cities throughout the country with private companies to create the infrastructure needed for plug in electric vehicles. Tillman’s description states that while studying the converted Toyotas, the city will build “a 1:1 charging infrastructure for these vehicles and two home charging stations,” and that the vehicles will be equipped with monitoring devices and “multiple charge station vendors will contribute to city owned facilities.” Tillman goes on to state that after the initial roll out of the pilot program, the city will begin installation of 100 charging stations around the area, in city-owned facilities such as libraries and parks. The city’s plan also relies on persuading other governmental agencies and municipalities—as well as non-governmental organizations like the Greater Houston Partnership, private businesses, and real estate developer—to install charging stations and commit to purchasing electric vehicles.
“The city will also explore creating level-three charging station infrastructure on the interstate highways between major cities in Texas,” wrote Tillman. Tillman’s description stated that the City of Houston plans on working with major cities to ensure residents can “drive their electric vehicles from town to town and have places to charge.”
Tillman recognizes the inherent difficulty of convincing the population of the petrochemical capital of the country that electric cars are the way to go.
“The challenge of bringing electric vehicles to the city [of Houston] is more than just creating an infrastructure of charging stations,” he writes on the website, “it is overcoming a mindset.”
Unfortunately Tillman’s program description has no timetable for implementation or budget attached to it.


Response by Rick Ehrlich of Houston Electric Car

It is great whenever one of our Houston newspapers writes about electric car use in Houston, and we appreciate that Free Press Houston published such an article in September 2009.
At the same time, we do point out a few things seen differently in our perspective- re REV unofficial Taxi company--- the Yellow Cab CEO's statements seemed very disingenuous--- of course REV would put signs and meters on their taxis IF the City would allow them to be taxis, the real problem is the City doesn't allow it, and needs to change a half century old rather corrupt law still requiring internal combustion engines in Houston taxis, passed to keep the bike and horse-drawns out. And on the City government's progress with e-cars, really there isn't any. Many people confuse hybrids (such as the Toyota Prius) with all electric cars-- but they are very different, the hybrid guzzles gas at about half the rate of a good SUV, while the actual electric car NEVER uses gas, period. A chart in the FPH article made Houston appear to be USA's leader in electric cars, actually it is the leader in hybrids which is commendable, but Houston is tied for last place so far in electric cars, with zero. The August entry of Houston's city government into the "Project Get Ready" website sounds very promising, and we strongly hope it is more than a futuristic expression of something like a vacation on Venus. While the City's James Tillman sounds quite sincere saying they absolutely are buying 300 highway speed electric cars next year, readers should know: (a) there is no such highway speed e-car today except the prohibitive Tesla, (b) nobody really knows when they will exist, or be priced within reason, (c) ordinarily the City must get multiple bids before they can buy anything, (d) 300 cars would be an unusually huge order for the City for any kind of car, (e) none of the Mayoral candidates had heard of this development in recently conducted interviews by the HEAA, and (f) only within the last several months, Mayor White declined trying a pilot program for just a few electric cars in the fleet according to Councilman and Candidate Peter Brown, who is also head of the City's Sustainable Growth Committee. Speaking of the HEAA's interviews, your reporter was given the summary and detail of them maybe too late to include, but after fair and meticulous interviews of all Mayoral candidates, Annise Parker was endorsed by HEAA as by far the most knowledgeable and progressive candidate on renewable energy and e-cars, and she actually signed a pledge of action on this, as reported in the Houston Chronicle online 9/1/09. We do hope the City government will be a booster of the only clean cars that exist in reality or theory, the ones which make no exhaust pollution--- all-electric cars. They are clean, they are cheaper to operate, they help towards US' energy independence goal, they won't hurt the oil companies one bit, they are the future.

Very truly,

Rick Ehrlich, GM
Houston Electric Cars
www.houstonelectriccars.net

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

5 Things I Want From the Next Mayor of Houston


by Jay Crossley

1. Better transportation planning 2. Emphasis on sidewalks 3. Return general mobility funding to METRO 4. RSS feeds 5. The mayor needs to read the Free Press Houston

On November 3, 2009, you will vote for your pick for the next Mayor of Houston. This person will guide the city for the next two to six crucial years in our region’s development into a major global metropolitan region for the 21st Century. Because our city is so young, we have the opportunity to do many things right, to build a city of the future as we grow instead of retrofitting the city of the past. Also, as Dr. Stephen Klineberg at Rice University so eloquently says, we are a microcosm of what America will look like at the middle of the 21st Century, a racial and ethnic (and sexual and political) melting pot. He believes that how we learn to live together and to prosper from our diversity will be a test bed of how the nation changes over the coming decades.

Many are calling the national, global, and local crises we face today a perfect storm of economic collapse and rapid change, deteriorating climate, and radical demographic and political changes. It is the blessing of the millennial generation to be born into times of unthinkable challenges at every possible level of endeavor. We have no time to waste. Houston must come to terms with the long awaited free market reforms that will happen some time during the Obama administration to properly account for environmental damages within the market system. Houston must learn to flesh itself out in a world of declining dependence on fossil fuels and the end of the subsidized suburban home and commute.

The next Mayor of Houston must at least understand these changing forces and be excited about leading us – all the crazy different parts of us – into a greener, cleaner, and fairer future while working for a more accessible and robust economy at the same time. The next mayor must fix, defend, and empower METRO so that we can get on with it and build the nation’s most efficient light rail system, and then work with our neighbors on a regional transit system that makes sense. The next mayor must allow and encourage the development of dense urban areas that give the option of living a low-carbon lifestyle throughout the city while respecting existing neighborhoods and empowering communities to participate in guiding growth in their areas.

So, basically, whether its going to be Annise, Gene, Peter, Roy, or even the recently rumored to be joining the race, Sylvester, the next Mayor of Houston is going to have a tremendous amount on his or her plate at a pivotal time in the development of our young metropolis. And while they’re at it, they’re going to have to collaborate with the rest of the growing urban areas of Texas that are all part of the emerging global power, the Texas Triangle Megaregion, to build high speed rail to connect Houston to Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas, plan for water and agricultural resources to support the megaregion forever, and find more efficient ways to move stuff around from the Port of Houston.

To help the next Mayor of Houston out, the Houston Area Table (H.A.T.) – of which I am on the steering committee – will be hosting a mayoral forum in August and an event to precede this forum in July for progressives from all over the city to gather and talk about what we want the next mayor to do. To get things started, here’s a list of five things I want the next mayor to get going right away. I look forward to hearing your five requests and hope that together we can better inform this mayoral race of what Houstonians want for their future.

1. Better transportation planning. Currently, City of Houston transportation planning – the most significant planning for our future – is done by the Department of Public Works and Engineering and this isn’t right. PW&E employees do a terrific job of engineering, but they are not planners. Other cities across the country have realized this mistake and have moved the transportation, mobility, and access planning function back into their Planning Department, while leaving the solutions about how to get the job done up to the engineers, and that needs to be done here.

2. Emphasis on sidewalks. The City of Houston has done a poor job of establishing a safe pedestrian space throughout the city for all our citizens – notably for our elderly, children, and handicapped, but also for all Houstonians who need real walkable options just to not be so darned fat (myself included). While the City accepts its role in providing mobility to those choosing to drive, how can it deny such service to the 40% of Houstonians who don’t have a car? I don’t know what mechanisms will best begin to improve walkability, but the next mayor needs to make it a priority to figure it out.

3. Return general mobility funding to METRO. A majority of Houstonians, as shown in Dr. Klineberg’s Houston Area Survey (www.houstonareasurvey.org) believe that improving transit is the most important way to deal with our congestion problems and believe that rail is a key component of our future transit system. One-fourth of the money that Houston voters devoted to transit at the creation of METRO was taken away by Mayor Bob Lanier and every year is handed to the cities within METRO’s service area, to do with as they please. Minister Robert Muhammad has estimated that this transfer has cost the Houston region $5 billion worth of transit funding, more than the total estimated cost of the 2012 light rail system we are building right now. Whether or not METRO was a corrupt, wasteful agency at that time deserving of attack is a subject for the history buffs. Our growing metropolis cannot stand another year of the silly, outdated, abusive view of our transit agency, and step #1 is to return the missing 25 cents of our sales tax money to transit, instead of using it to plug holes in city budgets or reduce property taxes for some.

4. RSS feeds. The city has a huge website but none of it seems to have the power of RSS feeds. Suppose you are interested in reading the mayor’s press releases. Say you want to read the City Council agenda before the meeting. Or maybe you’re interested in the sustainable growth committee and want to know when they have a meeting and what’s on the agenda. All these things are added regularly to the website and they should all have RSS feeds. It should be easy for citizens to follow basic things happening with the city to effectively participate, and RSS is a simple, cheap step in that direction that allows citizens to follow those things they find important.

5. The mayor needs to read the Free Press Houston. And the River Oaks Examiner and houston.indymedia.org, bloghouston.net, swamplot.com, handsuphouston, houstontomorrow.org and whatever underground news source reflects the Vietnamese community? Or bike activists? Or the transgender community? Houston is a dynamically changing and growing city with many diverse subcultures and thriving youth cultures. The next mayor needs to meet these people and understand what they want from their city and what they plan to give of themselves for their city. Of course, by “the mayor needs to read,” I mean an intern needs to read these things.

Jay Blazek Crossley does program development and research at Houston Tomorrow, a charitable nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life in the Houston region. For more information and to sign up for our weekly email newsletter, please see www.houstontomorrow.org.

Please join us at Mango’s (403 Westheimer Rd) on Tuesday, July 14, 2009 from 6 to 9 pm for a progressive happy hour to discuss what you want from the next Mayor of Houston. Also, please add your list of 5 things you want from the next Mayor of Houston in the comments.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Uneasy Rider: Bicyclist Safety in Houston


By Shiraz Ahmed
Artwork by Michael C. Rodriguez

When I was a boy of eight, I jumped in the cage and joined the Ultimate Fighting Championship. At the age of 12, my parents had to call security because they discovered I had climbed into a pit with eight live tigers; by the time the guards got there only I was alive. I frequently enjoy the company of El Salvadorian MS-13. You could say I'm a bit of a thrill-seeker so much so that the lure of escaping Death's cold, bony hands gives me a rush drugs can't mimic. But recently I undertook a challenge that I'm afraid might be too much for even me to handle: I threw down for a bicycle and took it for a spin in our fair town. I've never really appreciated the value of life until I was run off the road by the SUV on my tail.
It's no secret that Houston is notorious for being a dangerous place for any vehicle not running on diesel. While cycling has been viewed by those whose eyes are hooked on their speedometers as a mere past time or pleasure, growing numbers of commuters and day-to-day cyclists have said "no!" to the gas pump and flooded the narrow bike lanes painted on the sides of streets. Now 1,200 cyclists commute to the Texas Medical Center everyday. Between 1998 and 2000, over a fourth of Texas's bicycle crashes occurred in and around Houston. Growing numbers of riders on two-wheels indicates a need for the right infrastructure to support them and the right legislation to protect them.
It took me a while to root out the problem, but I finally did it while buying my first ever bicycle from City Planner for the Energy Corridor and bike aficionado Clark Martinson. "The streets were designed to move cars, [the system's] autocentric," said Martinson, who in fact cycles the ten mile commute to work every day. Rather than undergo the entire revamping of the whole system, Martinson suggested a couple of baby steps. Driver's Education would be the first and most important step to make Houston safe for bicyclists. The hostile attitude that motorists show cyclists is caused by motor-vehicle drivers not knowing the extent of a cyclists' rights. Little known fact: Bicycles are regarded in the eyes of the law as any other vehicle on the road. Face it; my Schwinn equals your Hummer. Cyclists have a right to use the regular traffic lanes and are entitled to be treated as any auto-dwelling motorist as long as they signal appropriately and obey all lights and signs. "I'm a driver of a vehicle that behaves just like a car," said Martinson, and as such should be treated in the same regard.
Locally owned Blue Line Bike Lab is another supporter of "taking your lane." As stated on their website, "It’s not a privilege to ride your bike in the street, it’s your right. In fact, it’s the law. The area near the curb is where all of the water and road debris collects, and in many more progressive places it’s what is known as 'the gutter.'" So goes Houston's bike lanes on the sides of streets, a classic example of a solution being the cause of more problems. "I would clean the gutter," Martinson said as the first step for improving infrastructure, "so you have as much as that curb lane as possible."
I took a weekend visit to Washington D.C recently and witnessed a cyclist's wet dream. Full traffic lanes were dedicated to non-motor vehicles and some lengths were even protected from normal traffic by barriers. Movement towards this standard would end a great deal of the problems surrounding the issue, but in Houston it seems we value our traffic lanes as much as our first-born males. Until steps are taken to widen the bike lanes and make them safe for cyclists, there is no alternative but traffic lanes.
Recently two measures to help out all non-motor vehicles in Texas were passed in the last session of Congress, both authored by avid cyclist and Houston's own Senator Rodney Ellis. The first, which is crucial though, under-publicized, requires questions on the Texas Driver's License Test about motor vehicles' responsibilities in regards to cyclists. This is a great step in driver’s education and prevention of potential accidents and attitudes. The second bill, which gained much publicity with Senator Dan Patrick's (R-Houston) objection to it, is the infamous Safe Passing Bill. It required a minimum of three feet passing distance for any non-motor vehicle as well as penalties for throwing objects at them. Senator Patrick objected to two specifics of this bill which were ultimately removed to gain his vote:

1) The penalties for throwing objects at non-motor vehicles were removed because Senator Patrick felt it unnecessary, being covered by existing assault laws. All right, fair enough.

2) In the original wording of the bill it was made illegal to cut off non-motor vehicles forcing them to brake instantly or swerve right, commonly called a right hook and what Martinson refers to as "a real danger on our streets." Countless cyclists can attest to the dangers of being cut off by an object weighing 2000+ lbs more than them. While helmets and pads are useful protection in actual collisions, they do little to prevent the collision, which should be the main focus of our legislators.

In an interview with FPH, representatives of Senator Patrick stated, "The issue becomes a judgment issue. It's a problem with interpretation." When one person feels like as if he has been cut off, the other feels as if he were simply merging and the cyclist must not have been looking properly. Bickering ensues. Senator Patrick was advised by a council that this aspect of the bill would create what is known as a "cause of action," a reason that one person might sue another. "We don't want to create another cause of action, another reason to sue," said Senator Patrick's office. One might argue though, that the purpose of any traffic law is to prevent situations where accidents could occur. Since the nature of a right hook is harmful to a cyclist's safety, creating a cause of action might be necessary to discourage them. No one likes going to the courts, but it's necessary. I would speed all the time if I knew that the judicial branch would never bother to call me in and make me pay my ticket. I'll withhold complete contempt for Senator Patrick's positions regarding this bill though, for there are better reasons out there to dislike him.
The conspiracy isn't confined to our fair, polluted, majestic city. Just the other day Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) submitted a letter to President Barack Obama that proposed, among other things, ending all federal funding for bike projects. This would include the Transportation Enhancement Program, meant to grant funding to non-motorized transportation projects, and the Safe Routes to School Programs, which according to the website is "designed to decrease traffic and pollution and increase the health of children and the community." The idea is to redirect this funding to expansion of highways, although the programs were created because America put so much money in to creating highways. I commend Representatives Boehner and Cantor in wanting to cut these programs, because what America needs now is more highways, higher pollution, and fatter children.
I won't pretend that I'm any experienced cyclist. I really rode a bike for the first time a year ago, and didn't buy a bike of my own until a week ago. Yet in my short time cycling, I have nearly been run down on the street once, and I have run out of sidewalk forcing me to ride into a ditch. I have seen a sobbing woman pray for my friend whom she nearly ran over while about to make a right turn. Everyone present shared a group hug. And even so, it's bad, but it's not unbearable. Houston's a great town to bike in. There's so much to explore, so many streets to venture. Even in the hottest parts of the day it's nice. "It's better than it ever was before," said Martinson, a cyclist in Houston since the 80s who has frequently lobbied for safer regulations and a better infrastructure.
I'll end this with a vision of the future. The wide lanes for cyclists weren't all that were available in D.C. The city has the nation's first public bike rental system, SmartBikeDC; and they poured $600,000 in to a radio and transit ad campaign aimed to educate the population on cyclists. This and more designated D.C. as a Bronze Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists, not the highest qualification but still a reasonable goal for the future. Houston does not have to create an entire separate system for cyclists. A small change in the attitude with which people look at cyclists is all that is required, and although we have a long way to go, we're making slow and steady progress. The Houston Bikeways Program, headed by the first Houston Bicycle Pedestrian Coordinator Dan Raine, is aimed at increasing ridership and more off-the-road bikeways. As of now the step that everyone can take to improve Houston as a biking community is to simply break out the old bicycle and go for a roll, or buy a bicycle if your old one isn't suitable. Soon we'll all have bicycles and we'll overtake the streets! Bicycles aren't a cure all for the problems of congestion, pollution, obesity, and high traffic accident numbers. But they can't hurt. 


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Despite Israel’s efforts, Palestinian festival celebrates world-class literature


By Sousan Hammad; Free Press contributor currently in West Bank town of Ramallah

For many Palestinians, the month of May is associated with the commemoration of the Nakba. But with the increasing popularity of the arts in Palestine, the second annual Palestine Festival of Literature harmoniously unfolded to the final days of spring, a time also for lavender and lilies.
Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian-born novelist, along with Brigid Keenan, a travel writer, and Victoria Brittain, a former editor of The Guardian, came up with the idea of having a world-class literature festival in Palestine.
“Last year we brought a festival to Palestine, and Palestine taught us so much in return. Palestinian cities – even under siege and a cruel military occupation – manage to produce brilliant art and top class education. PalFest aims to contribute to that rich cultural life,” Soueif said.
Of the festival’s 21 featured writers were Michael Palin, a travel writer and actor from the Monty Python series; Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian poet and actress from Brooklyn; Suad Amiry, a Palestinian architect and memoirist; and Henning Mankell, an international best-selling crime novelist and playwright, among many more.
“We chose people who wanted to know more about Palestine. This is a way for them to get in and see it, and hopefully, go home and write about it,” PalFest producer Omar Hamilton said.
The featured writers traveled throughout the West Bank to conduct workshops and discuss their literary work in panel discussions and seminars. In between, participants toured various refugee camps and centers in Jenin, Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah.
Because the writers were aware of Israel’s unjust treatment toward Palestinians, organizers agreed that to get a legitimate feel of Palestine they would travel as ‘Palestinians.’ This meant the caravan of writers dealt with the cattle-trade of checkpoints, interrogations, and more.
“We wanted the writers to travel how Palestinians travel. We didn’t want them to have special treatment,” Hamilton said.
On a Saturday, at the courtyard of the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, the festival began like a huge family wedding. Piles of food and flowers stretched along a table. Writers greeted fans and weary travelers as stories of the previous day’s arduous border crossing, from Jordan to Jerusalem, were exchanged. The evening had been set to begin at 6:30 and writers Carmen Callil, Henning Mankell and Claire Messud were to start the first panel titled, “Choosing Departure – a Different Perspective?”
But the law-making chimeras of Israel, it turns out, were not amused, and writers witnessed – on a scale unprecedented to what Palestinians face every day – Israel’s draconian measures.
Minutes prior to the festival’s start, armed Israeli police barricaded the National Theatre with a court order to shut the literature festival down. In badly written Arabic, the court order posted on the theater’s door declared the festival illegal, according to Article 3A of a 1994 Interim Agreement, which determines the Palestinian Authority cannot open or operate a representative mission in the area considered to be the State of Israel without written permission by Israel.
Despite the festival having no connection to the PA, the theater’s doors were locked and festival organizers, participants and attendees hastily relocated to a different venue where everyone helped set up chairs in the garden of the French Cultural Centre.
“Today, we saw the clearest example of our mission: to confront the culture of power with the power of culture,” Ahdaf Soueif wrote on PalFest’s blog.
The next day the festival went to Ramallah. In the garden of the Sakakani Center, a crowd of people, mostly internationals who work with NGO’s in the West Bank, sat underneath the suspended arches of a fig tree.
First up was a panel titled, “Family: Separated by Life, Rejoined by Literature,” with writers Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press; Jamal Mahjoub, author of Traveling with Djinns; and Jeremy Harding, a nonfiction writer and editor at The London Review of Books.
Harding is the author of Mother Country, a literary memoir on adoption and the need to belong. He talked to the crowd about his thoughts on family, or what he called an immense comic confusion. “What I wanted to do is write a comedy about the misunderstandings of adoption, the things that children, or I at any rate, failed to grasp when I was told I was adopted,” he said.
The following panel featured two of the four Palestinian writers who were participants of the festival: Raja Shehadah, who wrote the magnificent Palestinian Walks, and Suad Amiry, author of Sharon and my Mother-in-Law. Along with Michael Palin, they discussed the literary theme of changes in landscape and architecture.
Each writer read an excerpt from their book.
Amiry, who said she became a writer by pure accident, delivered an elaborate, satirical tale from her forthcoming book, Murad Murad, a story of the humiliations of a Palestinian worker named Murad who dresses into the ‘garb’ of an Israeli – spiky, gelled hair, outlandish sunglasses and cropped shorts – to find work in Israel.
She then spoke to the audience about the concept of time and space in a changing Palestine. “When (Palestinians) were under curfew for 42 days, it really felt like 42 years. I had my mother-in-law in my house and the Israelis in my garden, so I had two occupations: one inside and one outside,” she said.
The crowd laughed.
On day three of the six-day festival, the caravan of writers split up: some journeyed over to Jenin refugee camp where Michael Palin and Henning Mankell conducted a workshop with the young actors from the Freedom Theatre, while others went to Bir Zeit University for a workshop with the University’s literature students.
Standing on the small stage of the theatre, a mood of hilarity had set in as Palin spoke of his encounters as a travel writer: meeting new people in a new land, and relating it to how actors could benefit from humor to unsettle people. “The best way to create communication and break down barriers is by using humor. It’s about being able to laugh at ourselves and sometimes see our situation, wherever it is, as part of the general absurdity of the world we live in,” he said.
The young actors, all residents from the camp, enthusiastically performed a scene from a forthcoming play. Mankell and Palin then critiqued the play, offering basic advice.
Last up that evening was Suheir Hammad. Back at the Sakakini center in Ramallah, a full crowd sat under clouds of cigarette smoke as Hammad recited poems about Gaza, her mother and Darwish. Dressed in a purple chiffon dress, curls wild as ever, the crowd listened with frozen smiles – some even wiping away tears – to her elegies of Gaza.
Day four, in Bethlehem, the caravan of writers passed the graffitied apartheid wall beneath the watchtowers with pillbox windows, and drove into the besieged birthplace of Jesus.
After spending the day touring Azzeh camp, one of the smallest refugee camps in Palestine, and meeting with community leaders from Aida refugee camp, the busload of writers began the evening with a panel discussion titled, “Literary Representations of Migration and Travel.”
Writers Robin Yassin-Kassab, Claire Messud and Michael Palin chatted on stage with Jamal Mahjoub about their travel writings.
“We all have the complexity of departure and travel,” Messud said, referring to the essence of Britain’s past, its changing landscape, and relating it to contemporary life in the West Bank.
Palin held command of the discussion, however, looking directly at the audience while he spoke about his inspirations. “I grew up reading Hemingway’s adventure series…my imagination was greatly stimulated by stories of travel,” he said.
The discussion, as all others, was in English, but headphones were available for those needing translation.
Sari Freitekh, a Palestinian who spent much of his time in the U.S., said, “I was kind of surprised that (the festival) was all in English. You would assume that as an event taking place in Palestine, part of it would be in Arabic. But the idea is coming here, and I think it’s good that they came.”
The next day the festival went to Hebron where the writers visited the Old City, a place now draped, literally, beneath a suspended fishnet positioned to prevent garbage strewn by Israeli settlers from above.
Rumors telephoned around that Israeli officials would again shut down the festival on the closing night. In a symbolic act of defiance, however, everyone optimistically gathered at the Palesitnian National Theatre.
But in a familiar and somewhat acquiescence tone that Thursday evening, the festival’s closing night began with a horde of people walking from the National Theatre to yet another venue designated at last minute. This time, the British Council. Again, everyone rushed to set up chairs as Jerusalem, the supposed Arab Cultural Capital of 2009, was a temporary home to a literature festival twice shut down by Israel.
In yet another beautiful garden, some people stood, while others sat on the white plastic chairs spotted on the grass to hear the festival’s writers read inspirational words not of their own writing.
Jeremy Harding read an excerpt from a novel by S. Yizhar titled, Khirbet Khizeh, a book about the violent expulsion of Palestinian villagers by the Israeli army in 1948, while novelist M.G. Vassanji read an excerpt from Odyssey, when Homer comes back to Ithaca and finds it occupied.
Palestinian poet, Nathalie Handal, said the words that inspired her most were the silent words of the land: the scent of jasmine, the words from Darwish’s spirt. “Silence has taken our voices,” she said.
After six days, a lesson was learned: Palestine is not just a place that will prevail from its proud resistance alone, it needs the popularity of art, whether the literature festival, or the many film festivals and exhibitions around the world, art is a passionate way to affirm the commitment of the Palestinian motif.
“To use the words of Aime Cesaire,” Robin Yassin-Kassab said on the closing night, “There is room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.”
This article was originally published on ElectronicIntifada.net
Sousan Hammad is a journalist based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. She can be reached at sousan.hammad@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why it's OK to steal from Central Market and Whole Foods


by Belligerent Me

" We throw away an obscene amount of food every day" says the adamantly unnamed employeee at Central Market. " They watch us like hawks when we dispose of food and it is a very regimented process." Despite their friendly facades of 'organic foods' , earth conciousness, and vegetarian friendly items, grocers like Whole Foods and Central Market make a large part of their revenue by serving prepared foods in a deli style atmosphere. From fresh veggies to cooked meats, they serve as both restaraunts and supermarkets. But the beauty of accidental conservation at most conventional restaurants is the fact that food is made to order as opposed to stockpiled in coolers. Both Whole Foods and Central Market cook massive quantities of both pre-fab boxed meals and dishes to be sold by the pound. Everything from high-end cuts of meat to quick snacks like egg rolls are available. These 'fresh' foods like any are subject to going bad in shorts amount of time as they can not be frozen and retain their taste and texture. Dishes like Wilted Spinach and Prime Rib have very short shelf lives and excess must be thrown away for both aesthetic and health concerns. One would think that the logical solution would be to donate these left overs to food kitchens and feeding agencies just prior to expiration. The companies cite liability issues for not dispersing the leftovers to the hungry and homeless. One Whole Foods employee told me that the "food they throw away in a day could probably feed the neighborhood homeless for more than a week. So considering the fact that they give little to no discount to their employees, there is basically no destination but the dumpster. Imagine 25 pounds of seared tuna saturated in yesterday's Chili with Pinto Beans. Nestled just below are several pounds of asparagus, mash potatoes, and of course, Sushi. As we know, sushi goes bad quickly. And this is why I have no moral compunction with eating exorbitant amounts of top shelf foods while I walk the deftly calculated aisles of these stores. The 2 markets hire the best of the best to deipher how they can get us walk their trail like rats to buy the most food for the most money. So instead of buying, I just eat. I am rather good at eating. In my last culinary retreat to Whole Foods, I managed to put away:

1 plate of Green Chile Chicken
1 cup of Butternut Squash Crab Bisque
1 cup of Spinach and Lentil Soup
2 pieces of Fried Chicken
5 -10 Black Olives
Baracho Beans
Celebration Veggie Roast
1 bottle of Electrolyte Enhanced Water ( I splurged and paid for this.)
1 Chocolate Croissant
Half a cup or Coffee

(this does not include free samples)

Now also consider, these massive food retailers have the kind of bulk buying power that your average restaurant does not. Their profit margins on the $8 Smoked Turkey Sandwich you buy are often more than 800 percent. Central Market, part of the leviathan of HEB Grocers, is a massive food retailer that manufactures much of the food it sells. Now, they look at throwing away that sandwich as merely a 30 cent loss as they likely owned or had a stake in the factory farm that bred the turkey and baked the bread themselves. Yet food to much of the world is more than a loss colomn on a year ends earnings spread sheet. Food is substinence and in my case food is, right or wrong, a joyful experience. It is plain obscene there are folks going hungry in this city when so much is being thrown away. So, when I take a trip to Central Market, I often order a sandwich, leave without paying, and offer it to a homeless person. This homeless person is often a FPH employee. I love the soups at Central Market and always have several cups of their Gumbo. If you scoop down to the bottom you can find the big shrimp. Otherwise, they may end up in the garbage.

Editors Note: We do not advocate breaking any laws. We do not advocate wasting food either.