Where Can Workers Live and How Will They Get to Work in Driver-less World?

New Orleans   Wow, there’s a lot of hype these days about the coming driver-less world of self-driving cars and trucks. Some say we’re not going to own cars at all. We’ll be sharing them or maybe co-owning them with neighbors or some random somebody.

I wonder who is going to be hailing such a ride, and where they are going to be living?

I guess first we should be clear that all of this must be mainly talking about urban areas, not the vast expanses of the United States. These sharing arrangements depend on having people ready and able to share, which requires density.

Does this spell the end of the suburban cul-de-sac? Is the old two-car garage out there going to be remodeled and rented out as small unit worker housing?

Soaring housing cost and rents in the urban center not just in Washington and New York City, but even in Detroit and New Orleans, mean that families living on service-worker wages are either living only a step above homelessness in crowded and dilapidated housing or are commuting long distances to work from the best available, affordable housing. Will these new forms of transportation be cheap enough to get people to work? Are we talking about robot-bus lanes and driver-less vehicle carpool lanes? Simply eliminating the wages and benefits for a frequently union driver is not going to lower the cost of bus transportation and related transportation that is already ridiculously expensive in many cities.

Are cities that can’t afford to pave streets now able to afford the transitional infrastructure costs? Will states and federal governments, dominated by more sparsely populated rural areas, be willing to finance these technical adaptations? How are two parallel systems of transportation going to work together during what could be a lengthy transition? Heck, cars and bicycles are having trouble living together without blood on the streets. What will road rage look like when a pickup delivering produce from the country gets a fender bender from a driver-less car? I already know what will happen to a robot driven vehicle is such a situation!

We have a society that can’t sort out homelessness or figure out a way to evacuate 50,000 lower income, transportation-less people when a hurricane is bearing down, but somehow our heads are spinning over a Jetsons’ style future knocking on our doors, when we are still working out the questions, much less having answers to them. So getting rid of sprawl and the suburbs sounds good, and stacking people up in cities might work, but people will still need a place to live and work with wages sufficient to make this all possible.

The techies and their promoters better sober up before they stumble in the streets, drunk from their own Kool-Aid, especially while many of us are still driving on them.

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These Behemoth Tech Monopolies are Starting to Own Everything!

New Orleans   When Amazon suddenly buys Whole Foods, and some hidden part of your psyche suddenly feels a pang of regret for Walmart, you know you’re in trouble and that something has gone awry in the world. Walmart was an easy target. They were everywhere. Amazon is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, but having them around the corner at a Whole Foods, even though I don’t shop there, makes me uneasy.

Are there any limits? Where are the boundaries?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Kindle. My neighborhood pet store is so haughty and off-putting that I get my dog food from Amazon as well and save money and time while doing so. I needed a cheap phone for international calls that Google offers, but they are out of them, but Amazon will come through for me.

But, Google is also scary. European regulators are about to levy a record fine on them for privileging their own advertisers in their search algorithms. They are in a blood fight over who will control self-driving vehicles with Uber in a battle of the tech titans, although other techies and even legacy car makers are in this race, too. I use Google. We have channels on YouTube. Their maps are a godsend to the lost wayfarer. But what do they know about cars?

Not that Uber gives any comfort. Their CEO and one of the founders was forced out of the company by his big time investors, largely because he was out of control, but, hey, Uber has been out of control and past the pale in its business practices and disregard for local and national laws and regulations since it began, and they seemed unworried until there were too many headlines.

Facebook and Google are somehow going to manage the news and police internet postings. Maybe we don’t want the government doing that, but are these folks qualified since their priorities are running ad engines. Recently I read a new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, and it’s a good one. The author made the point about the arbitrary and capricious rules of both that have endangered – and even jailed – organizers and human rights activists around the world. Their policies have both given voices and taken them away with equal impunity. All of this despite the fact that their business is communication. Did I mention the fact that the head of Amazon now also owns The Washington Post and produces TV and movies?

The disrupters become the establishment, too. AirBnb wants to be more like a hotel. Uber and Lyft want to replace car ownership, buses, and taxis. Amazon wants to automate the grocery business. Despite the branding hype and their own self promotion, all of this is not in the name of public service, but private profit. If you need any proof, look at the destructive impact these tech billionaires are having on public education, where they are clueless, yet leading the way in random directions.

Increasingly, we are finding out who is in charge, but nobody seems to be on watch and those that are seem to be sleeping at the switch.

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Exploiting Immigrants Old School in Arkansas-Mississippi Delta

Ottawa   Almost every month for the last 3 ½ years I’ve driven through the Lake Village area of southern Arkansas and more recently back and forth across the bridge to Greenville, one way or another, as well. Along the lakeside past the fishing docks, the boat launches, the catfish and barbecue places I’ve often done a double take when I see Regina’s Pasta Shop, heralding the “Italian Tradition” on the banks of Lake Chicot, and thought to myself, “what in the world is that doing here” in the middle of cotton and soybean country?

The mystery was both solved and deepened as the layers of the answer to that question were revealed in an uncharacteristically long piece in The Economist of all places. The eyebrow, headline and sub-head of the story tell a lot of the tale in a spoiler alert. The eyebrow said: “Immigration’s forgotten history.” The headline was “Moses in the Ozarks.” The subhead was: “The ordeal of Italian labourers is a parable of race and migration in the Deep South.” The dateline was both Lake Village in the south and Tontitown in Ozarks of Arkansas near Springdale, the city now famous as the worldwide headquarters of Walmart.

The story starts in 1861 at the Sunnyside plantation owned by Elisha Worthington who shocked the local community not by fathering two children by a slave, but by recognizing them. After the Civil War the plantation passed hands several times ending up with Austin Corbin, described by the business-conservative Economist as “a robber-baron financier and railroad speculator, who, as a founding member of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, barred them from the hotel he built on Coney Island.” He couldn’t find labor so he imported families from Genoa, Italy through New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Sunnyside on a land contract scam, where they bought acreage with sharecropping credit on future cotton crops. Many died. All of the Italians lived through terrible discrimination against them that was common at the time and well into the 1930s, highlighted by the infamous lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

The “Moses” of this story was a Jesuit priest from Italy sent as a missionary to Native Americans in Montana and later assigned to New York to “minister to put-upon Italians,” as they write. He bought land west of Springdale, Arkansas in the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Forty families ditched their land contracts and somehow traversed Arkansas in an arduous and lengthy journey. The pioneers founded Tontitown, named after Henri de Tonti, a 17th century Italian explorer. Despite the neighbors hostility, which included burning down the first Catholic church, Father Bandini was the “town’s teacher, band leader and first mayor, as well as its priest.” Grapes were imported and despite the poorer soil, the cooler temperatures led to a wine industry still present in the area.

As for the Sunnyside shame and scandal, the Justice Department sent an investigator down in 1917 who stopped the importation of Italian immigrants. Their footprints are deep though. There is a part of Greenville called Little Italy. Lake Village became home to many where churches and traditions survived. Discrimination also grew there from the Ku Klux Klan. On the receiving end of prejudice, as The Economist writes, “is a sort of shadow version of African-Americans’, the hardship milder and the ending sweeter.”

There are still modern lessons to be learned from the hidden history of places like these all around us.

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The Consequences and Prevention of Nuclear Power Accident Disasters for $29.41 per Person

New Orleans  If you live within 50-miles of a nuclear power plant, then count yourself part of the majority of the US population, since that’s the case for 65% of us. On the other hand, you may not want to hear all about this, but folks with the Union of Concerned Scientists and Princeton University wrote a piece in the recent issue of Scientific American that scared the stuffings out of me.

These scientists were looking at the risks posed by the handling of spent fuel and in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in the wake of the earthquake in March 2011, are now making the case that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) did not go nearly as far as needed to assure citizen protection for a potential US disaster. The NRC did a safety review and ordered some safety upgrades, but the scientists argue that they “rejected … a measure to end dense packing of 90 spent fuel pools, which we consider critical for avoiding a potential catastrophe much greater than Fukushima.” I visited the Fukushima area several years after the disaster to try and learn the lessons from that disaster and compare them to what New Orleanians had learned from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so I found all of this unsettling especially since it is six years after Fukushima and some families are only able to return now, and some will never be able to do so.

Here’s the deal. These spent rods are put in cooling ponds for a few years until they can be moved to dry storage casks safely. In the US, the NRC allows them to be kept in this way semi-indefinitely until a “geologic repository…becomes available.” The operators therefore pack the rods in the pools like sardines in order to keep their costs down, but of course that also increases the risks “about 50 times as much as the corresponding values for a fire in a low density pool,” in the NRC’s technical analysis. Yet, the NRC didn’t order a change, which ought to scare the fiery hell out of all of us.

From there it’s all a dogpile of problems. The NRC didn’t look at terrorism. Hey, what could happen? They didn’t look past 50 miles to the other 35% of the US-population that might be worried. They claimed that disaster areas would be repopulated within one-year, which doesn’t fit either the New Orleans or Fukushima experience. The NRC also “assumed radiation dose standards for population relocation that were much less restrictive than those recommended by the EPA.” The scientists estimate that if EPA standards were used “the average evacuated would increase about threefold.” Using the right figures, the NRC cost-benefit ratio would favor moving, which means making the industry pony up about $50 million per plant or $5 billion overall.

They go on and on from here, and, trust me, it only gets worse, and I think you get the message. It also helps to do the math here, since it’s not like nuclear power companies don’t pass the costs on to consumers. I stand second to no one in wanting to keep utility rates down, but when you divide $5 billion by 170 million people minimum that might be affected if the NRC’s pattycake with industry doesn’t play out in our favor, then the cost would be about $29 and change.

Come on, let’s get serious about this before it’s too late. Where can I send my check today?

***

Please enjoy Art Carter’s Mighty Mississippi. Thanks to KABF.

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How Does Anyone Protect themselves from Hacking

Little Rock   If we asked the question plainly: is there any way that we can be protected from hacking? The answer is likely either, “No,” or maybe more optimistically, “not completely.”

At some level this is a problem for everyone. Or at least everyone with access to the internet or perhaps a car or mobile phone or any number of other devices from household appliances to alarm systems to washing machines. Two consultants told a morbid joke among hackers that went like this: what is a self-driving car? Answer: a computer that can go 100 miles per hour. Working for various automobile companies they were fairly easily able to hack a car’s computer system and take over braking, steering and other functions.

The recent worldwide ransomware crisis that may have originated in North Korea, though no one seems positively sure, hit countries, businesses, and others, both high and low, for a potential take that, if fully paid, would have been close to half-a-billion dollars. The US and France have both identified hackers connected with Russia that have penetrated voting systems, though there is still no evidence that they actually tampered with voting. A brief period of inattention where you open a random email might introduce a virus that takes over your computer and compromises your email as we found in the trove of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign and then dumped into the middle of the political process.

Activists and organizers working in autocratic countries with fewer controls on the state are hugely at risk. In Egypt according to a report by The Economist, “nearly 100…hacking attempts” have been made “to gain information from some of the country’s most prominent NGOs and journalists.” There is a lucrative cottage industry of computer companies that sell spying and hacking services to Middle Eastern countries and others without robust local capacity. The Italian company, Hacking Team, was itself hacked in 2015, and it turned out they had contracts with Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. NGOs and others have tracked Fin-Fisher, a German outfit, to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Netsweeper, a Canadian company, won a $1.2 million contract from Bahrain that was disguised as a website solution contract, but seems to have been used to spy on dissidents. Citizen Lab, a renowned Canadian research institute that tracks these matters followed up on a UAE text message to a human-rights advocate there at his request and discovered the link was from NSO, an Israeli company in the spyware sales business with governments. Citizen Lab found software flaws that allowed NSO to turn an iPhone into a cyberweapon that may have cost as much as $1 million.

Meanwhile the ransomware crisis was the result of a hacked NSA tool, and NSA is now hoping for reauthorization of its phone spying, metadata operation in the USA. When the government is doing it, there’s no way to get governments to crackdown on the abuses. When techies are willing to sell back doors to anyone, locking the front door hardly matters.

For now, Moxie Marlinspike and face-to-face conversations seem like the only sure things out there, and the only one with a 100% guarantee is face-to-face. No sense in being paranoid, but you sure can’t be too careful. Oh, and speaking for the techno-peasants among us, do what I say, not what I do!

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New Orleans Monument Fight Triggers Newspaper Rich Spit Wars

Removable of Robert E Lee Statue at Lee Circle in New Orleans

New Orleans   One footnote of the fight to take down four racially divisive Civil War and segregation monuments in New Orleans, has been a seldom seen dogfight highlighting the divisions among the rich elites that are rarely publicly displayed in front of the city’s commoners. Locals might argue that too much has been said and written about the contrasts in leaders, ideology, and positions stated by the various sides publicly contending for prominence in the dispute. Most of that is just the usual bare knuckled grist for the mill of local issues and politics, but the “ad” war has brought a new dimension to this bizarre and overdue dismantling.

Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, has obviously been the man in the middle of the monument dispute every bit as much as he has been the public leader who invested the greatest political capital in getting the job done over the last several years. The Landrieu name owns a rich political legacy in the city. Maurice “Moon” Landrieu was a transitional mayor in what had seemed the permanent exchange of power from white to black political leadership finally recognizing the emerging demographic majority of African-Americans moderating the tensions of the civil rights struggle by diversifying public employment practices and modernizing the city’s position in the South, while later serving nationally as Secretary of HUD and then retiring as a Louisiana elected appeals court judge. Mary Landrieu his daughter of course, served several terms until recently in the US Senate as a moderate Democrat. Mitch Landrieu before winning two terms as the first white mayor in New Orleans after a generation and losing a previous contest, had been Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana for several terms.

Outsiders would have thought just a strong political blood line would make the family immune from personal attack even when there were political disagreements, especially in a city like New Orleans that likes to only reveal the comings and goings of the rich elite in the stagedpageantry of Mardi Gras. As the monuments came down, so did the darker “uptown” veil. Frank Stewart, the former kingpin of Stewart Enterprises, and its efforts to build a national network of funeral homes, until its sale, has always been a crotchety conservative voice in business circles, but suddenly he was signing one and two full page ads in both of the local newspapers regularly attacking the Mayor, derisively calling him “Mitch” in the ads with ad hominem slaps at his monument positions as being nothing but ambition and opportunism. His inner bad dog was off the chain. As one monument after another came down and his pro-monument position was rendered increasingly impotent, it seemed to mainly loosen his checkbook to pen even lengthier, largely incoherent “letters to Mitch.” And, that’s not all. Some side swipes he took at John Cummings, rich lawyer and owner of the Whitney Plantation, which has become a well-regarded destination for many to learn about the impact of slavery, prompted Cummings to also take out a full-pager to defend his operation and family from Stewart’s claims he was just money grubbing. Pres Kabacoff, a local developer in an after the fact “letter to the editor,” felt it necessary to weight in.

Wow! Rarely do New Orleanians ever get to witness such a bizarre public revealing of the fissures of the local ruling class. The last time may have been when former Councilwoman Dorthy Taylor led the fight to integrate the Mardi Gras clubs forcing the big whoops to come plead their case in open hearings in council chambers.

Sadly, this is still all about race, more than class, and the roots of these divisions are not as old as the Civil War, but are certainly embedded in the civil rights and desegregation fights. Any rudimentary scrutiny of voting records in the precincts of Uptown New Orleans over many decades bares the continued grievance that the Landrieus somehow “sold out” the white elite. From Moon to Mary to Mitch, their political lives have depended on strong black majorities. Often they have lost or only narrowly carried a majority of white votes.

Stewart and the circle of friends, associates, and others in his echo chamber may continue to egg him on, but he’s not fighting the last battle of the Civil War, but the ongoing struggle around civil rights and equality for African-Americans. He and the many like him will lose this fight, just as they have had to watch the monuments come down, and they can shout their rationalizations as often as they want to pay for the newspaper ads, but, tragically, this an is uncivil war that will continue for many years to come.

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