Saturday, January 19, 2008

For want of a parking pass

"For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for the want of a horse the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for the want of care about a horseshoe nail." Attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

I teach at Portland Community College and there’s a lot to love about the place. Mostly the students and a hearty crew of dedicated teachers.

But I also have a lover’s quarrel with PCC when it comes to how it is run.

Somebody isn’t taking care of business — little, nail-small business that can add up to big business.

Two pieces of information, taken together, give an inkling of the problem. Both crossed my path within minutes of each other early Friday morning,

The first was a front page Oregonian story about PCC’s plans to put a $374 million bond measure before the voters in the fall. That's big business. The money would be for new buildings and improvements to old ones.

The proposal, which has yet to be approved by the PCC board, is ballsy. PCC’s enrollment is declining, the taxpayers are still paying off an earlier $144 million PCC bond measure approved in 2000, and Portland Public School likely will be asking for more taxpayer money on the same ballot.

But, hey, I love PCC, right? A big part of loving is listening, so I’m open to hearing the arguments for the big bucks.

So I fold up The Oregonian and open my e-mail to be greeted by a student’s explanation for why she missed my class Thursday. The problem was the machine that dispenses those little parking passes you place on the dash. Parking is at a premium on the PCC Sylvania campus and it is enforced with vengeance.

The parking pass dispensers are a salvation until they don't work, which is often.

I’ll let my student explain:

I arrived on campus at 9:00 a.m. yesterday and attempted to purchase a one-day parking pass. After putting $3 into the machine, nothing came out. Then I attempted to use my debit card to purchase a pass...still nothing. So, after driving clear around to the other side of the campus to purchase a 10-week pass, then walking yet farther to the far end of campus to collect my refund of $3, which they refused to give me, I had missed an hour of class, and didn't want to walk in one hour late and disrupt class. Needless to say, by this time I was very upset and not at my best! Mr. Seifert, could you kindly let me know of any assignments that I've missed so that I can do them over the weekend? I will be sure to be in class on Tuesday. Thank you very much.

This is no “the-dog-ate-my-homework” story. I gave up on these parking pass dispensers a long time ago. If this seems like a crank's complaint, consider:

• This student paid for a class she wasn’t able to attend because of a neglected, malfunctioning parking pass dispenser.

• I have spent an extra half-hour e-mailing her the assignment. (I have also written the higher powers about this, but I won’t log that time. Call it therapy.)

• This story, and no doubt hundreds like it, will make the rounds.

• How many other students Thursday had the same frustrating experience, which cost them and their instructors time and money?

Finally, “frustration” is not a word to be taken lightly, as I pointed out to the campus parking czar via e-mail (copied to my dean, who also gave up on the machines after her credit card didn’t work, then did, resulting in her being charged twice. Wait until my student gets her card statement next month. Want to bet whether there's a $3 PCC parking charge on it?).

Guess what? I’m not inclined to be so open about PCC’s ballot request for money any more — at least until the folks running the show take care of business.

They should start in the parking lot.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Why are these moist people smiling?

In the movies they call this a "trailer," for reasons I've never been able to figure out. On TV it's a "teaser." No explanation needed.

Whatever you call this group portrait with its headline, you can find out more about the whole scene on Saturday when I post the next issue of the Hillsdale News. If you want the issue sent to you via e-mail, sign up on the site under "join."

I should come as no surprise that the location of this "shoot" is Portland. The group was pausing in the course of an event that, as far as I know, could only happen here.

Intrigued? Sign up for the e-newsletter to find out more.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cry, the beloved country

The words above are the title of a powerful, poetic book Alan Paton wrote about South Africa. I’ve thought of that title many times in recent days as I’ve read the news from Kenya.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya from 1965 to 1967. In that time I considered this Texas-sized state my beloved country, second only to America in my allegiance.

Its stunning diversity, from the powdery white sands of Mombasa and Malindi beaches, to majestic Mount Kenya, to the breathtaking escarpments of the Great Rift Valley, to the luxuriant highlands, on westward to the glistening, vast Lake Victoria, known to Kenyans as “Nyaza.”

To the graceful, proud people with their passion to learn and eagerness to share.

To the plains and the wilds, home to beasts — wildebeest, zebra, elephant, giraffe, lions, impala, hyena. To the shimmering, singing birds in the thorn trees and jacaranda.

To the distant drums in the equatorial, alpine night.

I taught in a secondary school in western Kenya. Kisumu, in chaos today, was the regional capital. My students came from three tribes, but most were Luo, an ebony black Nilotic people, the nation’s second largest. Their language, their customs and their features and coal-black skin made them starkly different from the Kenyan majority of Bantu-speaking tribes. Still, the young country under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta forged “Umoja, “ oneness, unity.

Kenyans took the nation’s exclamatory motto, Harambee! to heart. It meant “pull together,” and they did. For those three years, I pulled along side them. Harambee!

The recent tumultuous election has swept all that aside. Tribal politics has unleashed suspicion, division and prejudice. The horror of it makes me wonder whether Kenya ever was a country. Was it merely, as skeptics said, a colonial concoction, its borders drawn, as they were, in Europe?

Was it a pseudo-nation built of slogans and cobbled tribal coalitions?

Or can it be again the beloved country I knew? Can it bind its wounds, wipe away its tears, heal and be whole?

I have mentioned before that Quakers have an image for silent, healing prayer. We hold those in need in the Light.

In silence, across time and space, I hold beloved Kenya in the Light.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Five bucks for Sho

Yesterday on the Sylvania campus I ran into my PCC teaching colleague Robert Dozono, an artist and art teacher. Seeing him, I was reminded that his brother, Sho, wants to be Portland’s next mayor. Sho is trying to rustle up the 1500 signatures (and $5 bills) needed to qualify for public campaign financing. Time runs out on the signature gathering at the end of the month.

Robert just happened to have the necessary signature forms so I handed him $5 and filled out my form, attesting to my Portland residency and registered voter status. I didn’t have to give my blood type or submit a DNA sample.

So I’m helping Sho out. Why you may ask?

I’m not even sure I’ll vote for Sho although several folks I respect think highly of him. No, I forked over my $5 because I believe in publicly financed campaigns. I also believe in competition.

If he manages to get on the ballot, Sho will make the race for mayor interesting and competitive. Until Sho declared his intentions, City Commissioner Sam Adams was considered a shoo-in.

No question Adams is bright, energetic and experienced. He’s also hyper-ambitious.

All things considered, I'd pony up $5 to publicly finance Adams' campaign, but Adams isn't seeking public money. I wish he would. Public financing puts politics beyond the reach of big money private interests and firmly in the hands of the people.

I haven’t had much experience with Sam in my wanderings, but two incidents stand out in my mind.

A year ago, without informing the neighborhood, the Adams-led city Department of Transportation allowed two utility poles to be planted in our new sidewalk on Bertha Court. We made a stink about the intrusion. The press got wind of it (thanks, Mike Donahue of KOIN, who happens to live in the neighborhood). Adams came out for an on-camera inspection. With KOIN taking it all in (there's noting more graphic than two utility poles planted in a sidewalk), Adams promised to do something about the poles.

Nothing happened except that his office asked me, of all people, to approach the owner of property adjacent to the sidewalk about agreeing to accept the poles on his lot. The property owner refused.

On reflection I should never have been asked to do the city’s bidding, and I should have turned down the request. As our elected representative and as the head of the department with responsibility for the pole problem, Adams himself should have made the call.

After the owner nixed my request, Adams never followed up. Today the poles remain in the sidewalks.

The other incident, a small one to be sure, stems from his city council campaign against Nick Fish. It was 2004 and our voter registration group, Hillsdale Votes, decided to conduct a straw poll in the Hillsdale Farmers market, mostly as a curiosity.

Fish had outpolled Adams in the first-round election but failed to get a needed majority for an outright win. That created the two-candidate race in the fall with Adams perceived as the underdog.

When Adams got wind of our little straw poll, to my surprise, he tracked me down to get the results. They showed that among a couple hundred market “voters” a large number were undecided. The results were significant — if Hillsdale mirrors the city, which it doesn't.

“Then we have a chance!” Adams exclaimed.

I don’t know what my response would have been. For starters, I doubt I would have even tried to find out the results of the little poll. Hearing the results, I might have muttered something banal like “that’s interesting.”

For Adams, the news from Hillsdale seemed a god-send.

Conclusion: I want the next mayor to care as much about intrusive utility poles as he does about political straw polls. The wish is worth $5

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Feeding your car; starving your family

In the news this morning, three stories passed like the proverbial ships in the night.

They shouldn’t have.

Story #1, on the front of the Oregonian’s Metro section, was about how Oregon law now requires gasoline stations in this part of the state to pump fuel with 10 percent ethanol. The reason, according to the story, is that we are trying to wean ourselves from reliance on Middle Eastern oil and to cut down on carbon emissions.

So far so good.

The story is mostly about how the ethanol gets to the pump and what the change will mean to the performance of our vehicles. Not until the story's last two paragraphs do we learn about the environmental costs of this supposedly environmentally friendly fuel. “Recent academic, economic and environmental reports have criticized corn-based ethanol because energy-intensive methods are used to grow the crop and because increased demand for the fuel can push up prices for food with corn ingredients.”

That journalistic after-thought takes us to two stories on the business page of today’s New York Times, one above the other on the section’s front page.

The top story has the headline “Amid doubts, Europe may ban some biofuels.” So the buried information in The Oregonian makes the headlines in the New York Times story. The Europeans are ahead of our oh-so-green state when it comes to skepticism about biofuel. But then Europe doesn’t have a politically-powerful, well-greased, on-the-dole farm lobby like ours. The Times story reports that studies are showing that “growing the crops and turning them into fuel can result in considerable environmental harm.”

The fertilizer used to grow corn is made with petroleum-based produces. Those tractors used to till the increased corn acreage burn oil etc. The “Corn Rush” is also chewing up grasslands and forests.

And then there is the problem that feeding the population explosion of cars (here, and increasingly in China and India) is driving up the price of food. That’s the second story on the Times’ business page. Headline: “Commodities Relentless Surge — Chinese and U.S. demand push food and minerals steeply higher.”

And all this just in time for a recession. We are looking at a perfect economic storm.

Take meat prices, which are soaring. That’s because the price of the corn used to feed cattle is skyrocketing as it is being used as car fuel, not human fuel, In other words, corn is ending up in our cars’ tanks and not in our stomachs.

And the price jump doesn't stop with corn. As the Times story notes, “The prices of other grains are going up as their acreage is supplanted by corn.” Hops and barley, for instance. Check out the price of a pint of IPA at the corner pub.

As one commodities researcher put it, “You are trying too feed people, cattle and cars, so you have this global fight between food and energy.”

Meanwhile, back in Oregon our lawmakers, urban and rural alike and uncharacteristically in league, are steering us to fill up with ethanol-laced gas.

How long will it take them and us to figure out it’s a bad idea?

The hope is that a plug-in electric vehicle (Toyota and GM plan to start selling them in two years) will ride to the rescue, using power provided by sun, wind and, yes, Oregon coastal waves.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

You are what you eat

I wanted to share this remarkable series of photos and statistics with you. Thanks to my friend Sara Levette for alerting me to them.

The saying, "Live simply that others can simply live" came to me while I was viewing them.

A related site is this one. Have fun and do good! Someone other than you can "eat" your words.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Costa Rica II: Free of military costs, threatened by economic pressures

Costa Rica has no army, navy or air force. Strange, I felt perfectly secure during a week’s tour there that spanned the old and new year.

No one I met in the defenseless country seemed particularly nervous about invasion. Nor about a military coup for that matter. It’s no coincidence that without a military, Costa Rica is one of the most politically stable countries in Latin America.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t violence. Costa Rica’s gun laws are lax, and drug-related murders are common, some would say rampant. Between Christmas and New Years there were five, and that’s normal.

Last year, Costa Rica, with a population of 4.25 million, had 311 reported murders. The general director of the National Police calls them “Colombia-style crime,” often stemming from drug deal debts.

For comparison, Oregon, with 3.8 million residents, had 86 murders in 2006.

So while Costa Rica has no army, the government wants to increase the size of the police force by 4,000 to 11,000. It’s still a lot cheaper than having an armed-to-the-teeth military on land, air and sea.

With the money Costa Rica saves, it has universal health insurance for its citizens and a conspicuous lack of insurance company lobbyists. With education available to all, its literacy rate is 96 percent.

The greatest threat of ”invasion” is economic, stemming from the so-called “free trade” of the proposed Central American Free-Trade Agreement. CAFTA is attracting strong opposition in Costa Rica. Many fear that heavily government-subsidized US crops will flood the Costa Rican market, destroying local agriculture, as has happened in other poor countries. Critics also worry that nationalized utilities will be forced to privatize by foreigners.

And then there is the matter of environmental “black mail” of the kind the Ethyl Corporation perpetrated on Canada over for the nation’s ban on an Ethyl produced fuel additive.

Such threats aren’t idle speculation in Costa Rica. For three years Costa Rica has lived with the threat of a $57 billion (that’s right, billion, with a “B”) international lawsuit brought against it by George W. Bush’s old oil-patch company, Harken Energy. Harken claims Costa Rica reneged on its off-shore oil drilling rights in the Caribbean. The suit stemmed from a Costa Rican national board’s ruling that Harken’s drilling plans violated Costa Rica’s environmental laws.

To put the size of the suit in perspective, in 2006 Costa Rica’s annual Gross Domestic Product was $51 billion. In short, George Bush and Dick Cheney’s buddies are willing to bankrupt an entire country for the right to put the fragile Costa Rican Caribbean coast at environmental risk.

Five hundred years ago, Columbus dubbed this same coast, “Costa Rica,” a place of riches. Its treasures remain, and new ones such as the country’s rich biodiversity, have been discovered. Now new “discoverers” threaten to exploit Costa Rica’s energy riches at the expense of its irreplaceable environmental ones.

Certainly the people of Costa Rica must decide how their nation’s riches are used or preserved.

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