Thursday, September 29, 2011

Neutrinos faster than light? Maybe it wouldn't take 2 million years for email to get to Andromeda

People think "snail mail" is slow. Light is a real slowpoke when it comes to sending information across cosmic distances. Even just the hint that something might be able to go faster than light is quite exciting. Possibly a historic moment. Who knows what it could mean for civilization in another 50 years. Another 25 years? Providing we ever find other civilizations out in the cosmos, we might not have to wait thousands, or millions of years for the emails to get back and forth.

Particles faster than light, revolution or mistake?.

I learned about this about a day after it was announced, but didn't get around to writing this to my blog till today. At least I didn't wait 5,000 years. Imagine if the blog server was 5,000 light years away.

Andromeda Galaxy is said to be 2 million light years away; time it takes for light to travel there. Shorter distances within our Milky Way Galaxy are still mostly measured in thousands and thousands of years.

Turns out this result was based on a mistake in the measurement. Nothing yet found to be faster than the speed of light after all.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Open house for Bellingham Housing Authority's green retrofit

If nothing else, it's an opportunity to visit the roof of Lincoln Square high rise. Oh, what a view.

The view is interesting to me since downtown Bellingham is my neighborhood.

Reason for the visit was an open house to celebrate solar collectors on the roof and a green retrofit of the building.

In my book, a high rise is already green compared to low density housing that spreads out over the landscape. Easier to contain impact of 190 homes when they are studio apartments and all under one roof.

Stimulus money was available to make this even better. Solar collectors now provide part of the building's electricity.

Up on the roof, folks discussing the collectors. See if you can spot Mayor Dan Pike in the group.

Some might ask, why bother when Bellingham is so cloudy?

I learned that collectors often work better during overcast conditions. That's because diffuse light from bright clouds shines into collectors better than blue sky. Only when pointed right at the sun do collectors work best on a sunny day. Since the sun tracks across the sky, collectors spend most of their time looking at the blue sky; that is unless one has the type that rotate to follow the sun. For fixed collectors that don't move to follow the sun, bright clouds can scatter the light better than just looking at blue sky.

Of course in Bellingham, the clouds are often dark, but that's another story.

Looking across town, Washington Square has collectors also. One also sees Bellingham High School, Assumption Church and a bunch of other buildings.

Looking down to a green roof on top of a utility building. That's where the tour began.

Quite a bit was done besides just the solar collectors. Upgrades to air systems in the building can reduce stuffiness, but tenants have to be part of the solution as well. The place is now smoke free. Some might feel "big Brother" is taking over, but a smoke free environment is a big step toward a clean environment. One acquaintance of mine, who lives in BHA property, was anticipating the no smoking rule with both hope and trepidation. He hopes he can stop smoking, but fears he can't.

That sign in one tenant's window does say, "No More DADT." Remembering to celebrate the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, September 20 2011. Official day the military dropped that discriminatory policy.

Another part of the retrofit called for replacing 400 toilets. Several BHA buildings swapped out their old toilets with low flow toilets. I sometimes wonder if the low water flow toilets are really that much better, but that could be a whole topic in itself.

What does one do with 400 old toilets besides adding to the landfill?

Build a sidewalk. That's what they did. New sidewalk is between Whatcom Creek and Ohio Streets. Also serves as part of Bellingham's bike path system. Aggregate for concrete was made from 400 crushed toilets. Looks like just about any other concrete.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Non Sign II advertising nothing at Peace Arch Park

Rather than being bombarded with commercial messages, this sculpture, commissioned by the US government, basically encases fresh air. Was installed in 2011.

From Wikipedia: A large public art installation entitled "Non-Sign II" was erected near the crossing booths. The art piece is a 'blank space' in the shape of a billboard sign, surrounded by a mass of twisted metal rods. Click on photo to enlarge.

Viewed on my way back from Vancouver in the Nexus Lane. I have a Nexus card even though I'm bicycling and I don't even go up to Canada that often. It's a long story, but I can tell it here.

They now require enhanced Washington State (drivers or non drivers) ID, Nexus or passport to cross the border. I don't have a passport and the year that the enhanced ID requirement went into effect the Washington State Department of Motor Vehicles was a madhouse. In Bellingham, it was by appointment only and booked clear till after that summer. Summer of 2009, so I decided to get a Nexus instead. It costs a bit more, but lasts 5 years. Nexus is pre screened and usually just a hello at the border. Fewer questions.

Now the enhanced ID is easier to get as the crowds have subsided after the switch over, but I've already got my Nexus.

Whatcom Transit Authority bus took me to Blaine on this latest trip Sept 16 2011. Then I biked to the Skytrain station at King George Highway. Skytrain took me and my bike on into Vancouver where I went dancing, that evening and stayed in a hotel. Next day I rode around downtown on peripheral bike paths at Coal Harbor and False Creek. Then took Skytrain back out to King George Highway. From there I biked back to Bellingham, WTA service in Whatcom County is very limited on Saturday.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Trying to prop up middle class with tax breaks doesn't work especially when there are few middle class jobs

Ever increasing tax breaks for families eclipse benefits for special interests reads headline in Washington Post and as government revenues decline, more middle class jobs go on the chopping block.

I say maybe it's time to stop trying to prop up the middle class with tax breaks. The problem is, there aren't enough "family wage" jobs so the middle class is disappearing anyway. More tax breaks may just exacerbate this problem by robbing governments of needed revenue, thus causing said governments to eliminate more middle class jobs as well as the funding for needed infrastructure which helps the private sector create jobs.

The middle class is declining because there aren't enough jobs that pay a mid level "family wage." In the private sector, it seems like the bulk of the jobs are low wage while a few extremely high wage jobs reside at the top. This contributes to growth at bottom and top of wage scales, but not much in the middle class.

Government tends to be a "last bastion" of middle class jobs. The jobs that are reasonably well paid for teachers and so forth. Many of these jobs are on the chopping block.

How can we bring back the middle class? That's a puzzle for sure. Put on your thinking cap.

Taxing the rich and redistributing that wealth to lower income people might get us part way there, but i doubt this solution would get us that far.

Another way to bring back the middle class might be to "grow the economy." Yes, rev up the economy. In an economic boom, wages eventually go up. One hears that a rising tide floats all boats.

This is a popular solution, but it's problematic as well.

Does the rising economy also push up prices? Does the gap between rich and poor just get wider and life becomes even more unaffordable for those close to the bottom?

Also one has to look at the environmental ramifications of a booming economy.

I'm not necessarily against increasing prosperity if changes in technology can provide this without destroying the environment. It's a solution we have to be careful with however.

Another solution might be to make living at low wage jobs more dignified. Maybe low wages are here to stay, so how can one still live, and even thrive, in spite of not being middle class?

Learning to live without the automobile, for instance. Can save lots of money.

Also healthier lifestyles. Living healthier so there can be less need for costly medical care.

Living in smaller, more dense residential settings is another part of this solution.

A lot of creative planning can go into what people call "downshifting."

All these solutions have some pluses and minuses, but at least we're using our thinking caps.

Tax breaks for the middle class are popular, but probably not such a good idea. For instance, the interest deduction on home mortgages is designed to, supposedly, make home ownership more affordable. Problem is, it may just toss money into the market, thus inflating the cost of houses. Government looses the tax revenue while house prices inflate. Home ownership is not necessarily any more affordable.

I hear that the mortgage deduction does not exist in Canada yet the percent of population being able to own a home is still comparable to USA.

Another problem with this deduction is that the high end houses get more. It tends to support McMansions for the wealthy as well as houses for the average person.

There are proposals to phase out the home mortgage deduction, or at least make it less available to "high end" homes. For instance as recommended by the Bowles-Simpson Commission.

Many of the tax breaks, designed for the middle class, end up doing more to help the wealthy in the long run as inflation and bracket creep take place.

Of course we should discuss more taxes on the wealthy, but as some Republicans point out, this might not net that much total revenue. How much total revenue can we squeeze out of just 1 percent of the population?

I'm for taxing the rich, but I realize it may not be a panacea in terms of revenue. Taxing the rich is very important, symbolically however. If the rich get off with low taxes, others become cynical.

If nothing else, taxing the rich creates the feeling of a more level playing field. That could do wonders for people's attitude and sense of fairness, if nothing else.

Still, the middle class (especially the upper middle class) is where a large chunk of the money still resides. We may have to look here if we want to increase revenue.

The main thing that would help the middle class is not more tax breaks, but an economy that creates more middle class jobs. Figuring out how to do that is the real challenge.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The skids to default are greased

Quite a coincidence that the nation now likely to skid into default which has people worried about the contagion affect is Greece. The skids to default for many nations are being "greased," or actually Greeced. A new slang term in economics? One of my brainstorms.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Short video of Sahalie Falls

On the McKenzie River northeast of Eugene, Oregon. Taken on my 2011 bicycle tour.

Photo of falls.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Feeling of abundance and generosity creates wealth, not the Tea Party slogan of "hang onto your money"

We're in a retrenchment mood, especially with the Tea Party Republicans.

Can't afford this, can't afford that.

The wealthy have lots of money, but most of them seem to be too uptight to invest it in much, except treasury bonds. It doesn't create a lot of jobs to manufacture a treasury bond. Treasuries just fund the government which really should be funded by collecting enough taxes. The catch with funding government through treasuries is that these instruments, supposedly, need to be paid back.

The rich are afraid and uptight about other private investments since they could loose money. There's less middle class buying power to create markets for investments in companies that sell products and services. It's a vicious cycle. A mood of retrenchment.

If society wants to go down this road, at least we could learn to better deal with less. Downsize and live with less affluence.

I don't see people adapting to this easily even though there are many notable "downshifting" movements. Most folks are still under pressure to be prosperous every time the rent is due. Costs of living are still high. Many of the products and services that people make are inexpensive, but other costs such as housing, health care, education and corporate executive salaries are still unsustainable.

As the uptight money interests; the corporations and Tea Party lead governments, want to cut back, the whole thing goes down into depression. Maybe everything will be brought down. Ruled by fear and holding onto your treasury bonds. Eventually treasuries may go belly up also.

We need to get past this uptight period and recreate the spirit of generosity. Possibly spending more, instead of less. Even if it means printing money, if we want prosperity. Scientific research is one avenue toward new wealth. I listened to a real interesting segment (around 20 minutes) on NPR Science Friday. It's about how basic research is needed for new kinds of wealth in the future. There are worries that the current mood of retrenchment may bring down the hope we've had for a long time that life keeps getting better for us and future generations.

I take a 2 pronged approach to economics. Learn to live and even thrive with less, if that's what's being thrown at us by the environment and economic conditions. At the same time, maybe we can use science, planning and other things to get to even greater, or at least greener, wealth in the future.

The whole definition of what constitutes wealth is also important. Wealth in quality of life, or wealth in better products and services. Maybe we can learn to better enjoy what we've got, but at the same time do what it takes to bring the better products and services.

A more fair distribution of wealth needs to be part of the picture also. How can there be mass markets for businesses to serve if the middle class is disappearing?

I don't think the Tea Party is going to get us to any of these goals. It's just going to make us want more while having less. As the wealthy hold onto their wealth, the feeling of generosity vanishes. Generosity being replaced by a Tea Party mantra of "we're broke."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Decline of middle class. Sour grapes. Middle class was hard to enter in Bellingham anyway

Finding what people call a "real job" has not been easy for several decades here in Bellingham, WA. Perceived livability of this city means competition for "professional type" jobs has been fierce be it university faculty, or whatever. People with vast truckloads of credentials have eyed job openings for years ready to move into Bellingham from all over the world.

Now, many other parts of the country are joining Bellingham's tight market conditions for middle class jobs. It's kind of like the rest of the country can say, "we are Bellingham now."

Still, a lot of local people have survived and even thrived over the years with somewhat different expectations than the traditional "American dream." Innovations based on sustainable living and things like bicycle culture can keep expenses down while social connectedness is high. Some call Bellingham the last holdout of the hippies, but there are actually lots of counterculture currents in other parts of the country as well as the world.

On the surface, it looks like the middle class has been strong in Bellingham. With at least 3 major institutions of higher learning there has been a large percentage of the local workforce employed in state type jobs at places like Western Washington University. Also a lot of people choose to retire here, so they often still own homes and have incomes from employment in the other regions where they lived before retirement.

Our local private sector has not been as strong at creating family wage jobs as private sector employment has been in, say major metropolitan markets like Seattle. Still there is some mix of manufacturing, consulting and medical employment. As with a lot of places, Bellingham has lost several large manufacturing employers, such as Georgia Pacific Pulp and Paper mill. A few new manufacturing outfits have started up, but like in much of the country, those jobs are often outsourced or automated.

The rest of USA seems to be catching up with Bellingham's precarious middle class as economic conditions keep changing. It can be depressing, but it also means this country is going through a transition. We're in a paradigm shift that none of us really seem to understand that well.

Many forces are working against the statuesque of middle class America these days. Cuts in government spending are high on the list. Also the middle class is weakened by tax policies that have been tipping away from "sliding scale income tax." Tax policies are tipping more toward favoring the wealthy.

While these things seem more obvious as time goes on, people still tend to vote Republican much of the time. Hard to imagine, since Republicans are usually cold to the concept of "graduated income tax."

Still, there's more to this than just the politics. We are definitely in a transition that neither Republicans or Democrats can manage. Technology and automation creates some new opportunities, but it also eliminates the need for lots of formerly middle class jobs. For instance, people can now book travel online rather than using the services of a travel agent; thus meaning less jobs for travel agents. There are thousands of examples of this all across the economy.

Some folks might vote Republican as a case of "sour grapes." They say, "if we're struggling in the private sector, why do state employees still get such good benefits?"

Other factors hurting the middle class are environmental issues. People often don't like to see virgin lands bulldozed for new subdivisions of middle class homes, yet as population grows, new folks need places to live.

Automobiles are a great convenience, but global warming and peak oil has been lapping at car culture for years. I even remember a book that came out in the 1970s with the title "Death of the Automobile."

Middle class homes and cars are getting harder to come by.

No doubt we need to do things a lot differently as paradigm shifts continue into the future. While changes can be rough, there is a lot of innovation in lifestyles, business practices and government. There's lots of innovation here in Bellingham as well as in other places.

Many pioneers are finding ways to create sustainable culture and economics. Finding ways that sit well with the environment. Also finding ways to benefit from new technologies while still being able to pay the bills. It's all a challenge. A brighter, tho different, future is still possible.

Below posted in 2009.

700 applicants for a custodial position in Bellingham

Made the news in Ohio, but it's not unusual.

Much of the time, here in Bellingham, WA. it seems like custodial positions at the university or school district can draw a hundred applicants at least. Especially as they pay a bit more than most custodial positions in the private sector.

Benefits and health insurance also.

State jobs.

Custodial work is not bad work. Can be fairly hassle free and low stress. Of course depends on situation.

All through the 1980s and beyond, I remember years when custodial positions at Western Washington University would draw huge piles of applications.

The school district and city would be similar.

Much of our local economy is what they call a "service economy."

Retailing, restaurants, lawn mowing.

Lots of waiters, waitresses and store clerks. Many of the jobs have been part time and not paying much more than minimum wage.

Of course, if one has low overhead, life doesn't have to be so bad.

Good health, free time, flexibility and then people say they leave Bellingham when it's time to look for a "real job."

The places I have worked have only had a few full time jobs and large staffs of part time workers.

Much of the local work force is students who work their job schedule around class schedules. Classes come first. After one graduates, life comes first and the job comes second. There are not that many jobs which are super inspiring.

State jobs tend to be more likely to have benefits and full time hours.

Welcome to the new economy.

Bellingham has been there for a long time.

It pays to have "low overhead," but many of the houses in this area are quite large and expensive.

There's a disconnect.

Seems like many of the homeowners are retirees who got into owning in other areas and times.

Local workers are often renters.

Then there are the much sought after state jobs.

Our economy kind of revolves around education and retirement.

Some say it's the result of not being friendly to industry. Yes, much of the industrial base has deteriorated and gone overseas.

Volunteer sector is the most dynamic and exciting part of our city's economy. In spite of recession, one still finds vibrancy at various gathering spots. Political meetings, discussion groups, folk music, dancing, festivals.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

To folks who say, about 911, that US corporations and foreign policy had it coming, I say

Over 30,000 people die in the US each year in traffic accidents which could be seen as a byproduct of the corporate, oil economy. Still, I try to not be too bitter. There's both good and bad in pretty much all human activity including even our economy. Sometimes I feel like I'm caught between feuding fundamentalists of many fighting religions and belief systems just living on this planet. I hope I can stay out of their way and also hope I can try and not inadvertently join them.

Monday, September 12, 2011

20th anniversary of my first bike trip across America

Bandshell in Huron, SD. 1991.

20 years after my first cross USA bike trip, I biked in western Washington and Oregon.

Felt just as good as I did in 1991. No aces and pains to think of. Did I cover as many miles each day as 20 years ago?

Hard to say as I couldn't figure out how to set the trip miles on my new odometer. I wasn't even sure if it was reading kilometers or miles either. Sometimes it would just flash zeros at me indicating it wasn't picking up the passing magnate on the wheel. I didn't try to figure it out. Probably the daily total of miles was less, but "what you don't know can't hurt you." The trip was still enjoyable. In 1991, I also had an electronic odometer and carefully kept track of daily trip miles. Seemed like back then, the odometer functions were more intuitive.

In 1991 my total trip miles was much farther than in 2011, but that's because I invested over 2 months of travel time into the 1991 trip. In 2011 the trip was only about 3 weeks.

The odometer hasn't changed much in the years, but some other things I carry have. No longer riding with me is that antenna booster for AM Radio called the Select-A-Tenna. It wasn't that heavy, but many of the talk stations I listened to in the past on AM radio have gone "all sports talk." Boring. For instance KIRO AM 710 out of Seattle is now sports. It's political talk is now on FM which the Select-A-Tenna doesn't help. I've never had much desire to "keep score." Keeping track of daily milage is one thing, but most important is just having a good time.

Instead of that antenna, I have a netbook computer. I stopped at a lot of WIFI places along the way. That's why my daily milage may be in decline; Facebook.

Since the mid 1980s, I have gone on some sort of bike tour every summer. It's been a fairly mellow and enjoyable legacy. Keeps me in reasonable shape, at least along with other things like dancing that I enjoy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

World Trade Center memories from 40 years ago

Is it time for the media to move on from the horrible memories of ten years ago on 9/11?

I basically think yes. It should be remembered like we remember World War II. That was a tragedy also.  Doesn't have to be the focus of current news and mindsets, but it still comes up in documentaries and so forth.  Remembering to try and prevent another Hitler from happening.  Remembering the heroism of past service members and so forth, but not having the media dominated by it. The mood of the country can move on, for the most part. Look to the future. Yes, various police agencies still need to be vigilant to keep up the guard, but that's a separate issue from having the mood of our country be dominated by 9/11.

I considered not writing about it myself, but friends suggested my views needed to be heard along with all the expected ten year hype about this topic.

Then I thumbed through some of my 1971 mail.  Mail from 40 years ago when I was in high school and wrote to the World Trade Center for information.  They sent a bunch of clippings and brochures that I still have.

More pleasant memories than a tragedy, but how dated.  Space age communication with reel to reel tape and cameras as large as washing machines.  Computers with cathode ray tubes and even push button phones.

Cutting edge, for 1971.

Pictures from World Trade Center brochures and a New York Times advertising supplement.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Pristine school. Whatcom Middle School rebuild

I bike past Whatcom Middle School quite often and notice the progress on the rebuild after the fire of 2009. They basically rebuilt the whole school except for the gymnasium wing in back and two original entrances. It's now ready to open and all pristine before the first day of school.

At least humankind can build a new school with updated technology and make it look like the original building. I'm impressed as I bike by. schools aren't necessarily all crumbling, tho some could use more investment. Roads, on the other hand; many carry a lot more traffic than they were designed for.

See more images from some of my trips past the school.

Some earlier pictures below.

Steel frame going in fast. They say it may be ready for this fall, 1 year ahead of schedule. Being rebuilt after 2009 fire. New outside shell. All new construction except for 2 entryways. New shell designed to look like old building.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Labor Day goal, a 3 day weekend

Update Sept 9 2011. I just found this insightful article about Jobs going obsolete.

Less person hours are needed to run our economy and a lot of workers are idle. Maybe it's time to shorten the workweek again. How about a 32 hour workweek and a 3 day weekend?

The 40 hour workweek was seen as progress over longer workweeks in sweatshops of the past. That accomplishment is one of the things people celebrate on Labor Day, yet for many workers, even the 40 hour week is just a dream. Some are out of work, wishing they had a workweek. Others toil overtime in companies that have downsized and placed more of the burden on remaining workers who often toil beyond 40 hours. Still others work the 40 hours, but when one counts time spent on long distance commutes their day is almost shot. Little time for friends and family, let along sleep and exercise.

It's time to think about distributing work hours more evenly. Create jobs for some people who are currently out of work and maybe reduce the burden on many who are still working while feeling overworked and over stressed. Outcome could be a healthier balance for all and possibly less health care costs.

Rather than proposing legislation to reduce work time, I just propose discussion about the workweek, vacations and the overall economy. A shorter workweek isn't necessarily the solution for everyone, but it's something people can think about. Folks can work out answers for their own situations.

One thing that could help is lower cost of living. Some of the average living expenses seems unnecessary. For instance high rents and mortgages just to prop up inflated property values. Toiling to maintain national wealth is one thing, but toiling just to maintain a bubble seems like a waste of effort.

Technology is kind of a two edged sword. It can create a lot of new jobs and opportunities, thus lowering unemployment, but it also has the effect of reducing the amount of work needed for the same unit of productivity. When our economy is growing, the new opportunities from technology can out pace the tendency of technology reduce the need for work. At other times, especially when the economy isn't growing, technology's effect on reducing the need for labor is more evident. We are now in a real slow growth economy.

Better distribution of existing work burdens is in order.

Part of the reason why the economy is growing slowly is all the environmental restrictions and energy costs. Worries about global warming can put a damper on things. A shorter workweek, and reduced wealth expectations, can help us adjust to these environmental issues. Still, the type of wealth we consume can change so we don't necessarily have to just lower our expectations. New technology can create cleaner production. Still, the advent of cleaner production methods has trouble keeping pace with increasing demand for wealth.

Change in society, rather than just technology, can help us redefine what wealth truly means. More free time and less hassle for the average worker could be seen as a form of wealth. Something like the 3 day weekend could be seen as a form of progress for the economy, as the 40 hour week was once seen as progress.

I would guess that the super wealthy would not like the idea of a shorter work week. It would mean that the masses are not spending as much of their time playing the game that the wealthy tend to be "top dog" at.

What Am I doing indoors typing this essay? Glorious sunny day. I should ride my bike somewhere.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

My 2011 bicycle trip photos now on line

Images on Flickr. A quieter route under freeways in Tacoma.

Bellingham, WA. to Eugene, Oregon. Then east to McKenzie Valley and up to Portland, OR. Train back from Portland.

While US economy looked like it was crumbling, should I be going on vacation, or hunkering down and hoarding food?

Vacation wins. There's still plenty of food. Glad I do have a job. Not a real fancy job being a custodian, but it's a job. Offers month long vacation benefit. That can be worth more than higher pay.

Enjoy leisure while you can. Who knows what retirement will bring. Much of the current economic worry has to do with all the debt overhang. A lot of that debt is actually money people have "saved" (lent to the government) in hopes that the investments will still be whole, when time comes to cash in. A lot of folks are starting to cash in as post war baby boom reaches retirement. Hard to say if the economy will still be solvent enough, with governments and other entities paying back debts, to meet people's retirement expectations.

Might as well enjoy life now rather than storing too many of one's expectations for the future. Savings is a good idea, but balance is needed. Who wants to work too hard, now, just in hopes of being able to afford a great retirement. Much of that retirement can disappear given the condition of our economy. Also the condition of one's health. Don't work yourself to death.

No need to hoard food, yet, but good idea to hoard your health. Who knows what Medicare will be like in the next decades.