From Darkness to Light

You know, after writing my post from earlier today on my lunch break, I was in a foul mood and a dark, dark place.

Naturally.

I’m human, and the level of greed and corruption I wrote about is truly inhumane, and so it seems to me that a combination of sadness and outrage are the only acceptable emotional responses to such gross inhumanity.

But then, after lunch, I left the dining hall, and much to my surprise, relief, and delight, after a wet and cool morning, I was greeted, embraced really, by a glorious sunny day, with hopeful signs of springtime all around me, and it was as if I was cleansed of the ugliness I’d just read and written about.

And as I looked around me, while making my way back to my office, I spotted my beloved magnolia tree, the one I am blessed to see from my office window, the magnolia I lovingly and appreciatively wrote about last year, except that the flowers are still just buds right now, like in the photo above, and I felt like the cleansing power I’d experienced walking out into the sunshine from that dark place, well it was stored right there inside those magnolia buds, and in the cherry blossoms on another tree nearby, and in the adorable squirrels scampering about, and in the bright blue sky and in all those students walking by, full of promise and possibilities, ideas and passions and dreams, and like those magnolia buds, just about ready to explode with life.

Needless to say, I feel much better now.

GE & The U.S.: Disgusting & Criminal

I’m very likely the last blogger in the country, possibly on the planet, to chime in on this, but the recent news that General Electric (GE) — whose CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, was handpicked by President Obama to chair his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness – payed NO U.S. federal income taxes on their $14.2 billion in 2010 profits, and worse, actually earned $3.2 billion in tax benefits for the same year, well, it’s just too outrageous to stay quiet about.

All the more painful is that this news comes as I’m working on my own 2010 tax return, scraping around for every receipt I can find, double checking my figures in fear that I could get audited if I make a mistake, all the time knowing that I typically owe thousands of dollars each April 15th and haven’t seen a tax refund since I was fresh out of college.

This is beyond outrageous. It should be illegal and there should be severe consequences.

If my wife and I don’t pay any federal taxes at all (which is impossible, because, at the very least, I have federal tax automatically withheld from my pay as I earn it), we’re talking about a loss to the federal government measured in four digits. In other words, our hypothetical tax evasion wouldn’t, on its own, make much of a dent in the federal budget, but it would still be illegal and would carry penalties with it.

If GE doesn’t pay any federal income tax, it’s a different picture entirely:

GE’s federal tax rate: 35%

35% of GE’s $14.2 billion in profit: $4,970,000,000

For those counting at home, that’s 10 digits to my four, and currently it’s considered legal.

To put things into perspective, per the 2010 federal budget, that’s nearly the entire budget for the Corps of Engineers, and 50% of the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.

And, GE isn’t alone in exploiting the same loopholes, particularly those involving offshore tax shelters. According to The New York Times, wealthy individuals and corporations are evading paying taxes on $100 billion per year in this manner.

35% of $100 billion: $35,000,000,000

That’s more than the entire budget, respectively, for the Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy.

Just imagine how many hungry people that could feed, how many homeless that could house, how many people could get adequate health care, how many veterans could get the care they need, how many retirees who paid their taxes all their lives could live comfortably with that kind of money.

Meanwhile, as GE was earning their $14.2 billion profit, though the dust is still settling from the Great Recession and there’s evidence that we are heading into a double-dip recession, Jeffrey Immelt’s compensation nearly tripled; from $5.6 million in 2009 to $15.2 million in 2010.

While I don’t agree with Jon Stewart, that this is reason to say I give up, I certainly empathize with his outrage.

It’s a disgrace, and I’d even argue, immoral. How Obama could keep Immelt as chair of his council, is beyond me, and I implore anyone who reads this to sign the petition calling for his dismissal from that position.

Bellingham Snubbed by Google

Just over a year ago, I wrote about Bellingham’s incredibly well-done bid to be chosen by Google as a pilot location for their Fiber for Communities initiative, whereby Google would award the winning community the gift of an ultra-fast 1 gigabit per second fiber optic network.

Well, Google has finally announced the winner, and you’d think, since they obviously deliberated for a long time, that they must have certainly made the excellent decision to choose Bellingham.

Alas, this was not the case, and the winner is…

Kansas City, Kansas

Now, I mean no offense at all to the fine people of Kansas City. It’s just disappointing, that’s all.

In the meantime, when Google announced the Fiber for Communities initiative, they said that they planned to choose one or more trial locations across the country, so I suppose there’s still hope that Bellingham could be chosen in the future. (Although, with over a thousand communities having applied, the odds are still pretty steep.)

Anyway, it was fun to revisit that year-old post, and I took the time to re-watch the beautiful video that Bellingham submitted, and I so enjoyed it, feeling it really captures a lot of the wonderful things about this place that I love so much, I thought I’d repost it here.

Google, we’re still waiting!

Celebrating Eco-Progress: Reconsidering Plastic


 
As Bellingham considers following in the footsteps of the City of Edmonds, WA, to become the second municipality in the state to ban the retail use of plastic bags, it’s interesting timing to come across an article in one of my favorite publications, Ode Magazine, that challenges the knee jerk environmentalist abhorrence of plastic.

It’s a great read that does a really good job of balancing caution and Celebrating Progress.

Celebrating Progress

[Mike Biddle, president and co-founder of MBA Polymers] is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs that reject the current environmental orthodoxy that “plastic is evil” and should be phased out. Eliminating plastic altogether, they argue, isn’t only unrealistic but undesirable. Without plastic, there would be no laptops, cell phones, refrigerators, toothbrushes, traffic lights or countless other products on which we depend. Plastic is, in fact, one of the most valuable materials around. It’s durable, lightweight, adaptable to a dizzying array of applications, and—with the right mix of responsible re-use and non-petroleum-based alternatives—ecologically friendly.

“We should be celebrating plastic,” says Anthony Zolezzi, co-founder of Greenopolis and the GreenOps Recycling System, an interactive approach to giving “trash” a second life. “It’s how we abuse it and don’t re-use it that’s a problem. [Plastic is] an amazing ingredient that we should look at as a precious material, no different than we look at gold.”

Biddle’s company has developed a technology that can more efficiently separate various types of salvaged used plastic — from discarded products that normally go to a landfill — and processes it into a reusable raw plastic material.

Caution

Proponents like Biddle and Zolezzi aren’t blind to the dangers plastic poses. Additives leach into the environment, disrupting the hormonal balances of marine life. Plastic bags flap in the wind like prayer flags at the edges of many towns in the Sahara. Research by Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, suggests that, at its densest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains about 3 million pieces of plastic per square mile, a million per square kilometer…

E-waste (from computers, phones and other information technologies) and automotive shredder residue (of the kind that MBA Polymers recycles) are some of the biggest and least visible parts of today’s plastic recycling challenge. But what about the stuff we’re asked to dispose of on a daily basis: the plastic wrapping on a new dress, the bubble wrap in a UPS box, plastic wine corks or those little bits of hard-shell plastic you can’t even identify?

Celebrating Progress

Peter Lewis, founder of Byfusion in Dunedin, New Zealand, found himself motivated by this very ­challenge. “Only about 20 percent of plastic in the whole waste stream is identifiable,” Lewis says. “That other 80 percent is the real problem. More often than not, it quietly slides into the landfill or slides somewhere else we don’t hear about.”

Lewis developed a machine designed to deal with that other 80 percent. The machine accepts any type of plastic, no matter its type or grade, shreds it, sterilizes it and spits it out in the form of a plastic block with an interlocking design, like a Lego brick. The blocks can be assembled into garden walls, erosion barriers on the banks of rivers or noise and safety barriers along the collars of highways. In preliminary studies, the plastic blocks have proven excellent at absorbing the impact from automobiles, making them ideal fender material. “We can make products out of any type of plastic,” Lewis boasts.

Caution

Not all plastic is difficult to identify…Unfortunately, ease of identification often doesn’t translate to recycling success. Current estimates suggest only half of U.S. households have access to curbside recycling, and only half of those with access use it.

Celebrating Progress

To boost these numbers, companies have come up with rewards-based communities.

RecycleBank, based out of New York City, partners with municipalities in the U.S. and the U.K. to increase landfill diversion and bolster revenue from recycled plastic and aluminum. Participating households are rewarded with coupons ­redeemable at participating local businesses. Statistics show that the recovery of recyclables often doubles with the RecycleBank system in place.

Caution

But no matter how thorough our efforts, recycling alone won’t change the fact that the techniques by which we source and ­recycle plastics remain problematic. Nearly all virgin plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas, both of which are non-renewable resources.

Celebrating Progress

Plastic therefore needs to be re-invented as well as recycled.

NatureWorks, founded in 2003, has created a “bioplastic” sourced entirely from plant sugar. The plastic, named Ingeo, can be safely composted in 60 days, so food waste from restaurants and fast food chains (which is typically contaminated with non-compostable cups, forks and spoons) can go to composters rather than landfills. Better yet, if separated properly, Ingeo can be melted down to its virgin form and reprocessed with close to 100 percent efficiency.

Stuff We Need: Leaf Power!

This is SO cool!

Via PCMag:

Artificial Leaf Turns Water into Energy for Cheap

Researchers at MIT have created an artificial leaf that they say can generate energy 10 times more efficiently than actual plants. The tiny solar cell is also said to be made out of inexpensive materials and, with sufficient water, could power an entire house.

Dr. Daniel Nocera led a team of chemists to create a tiny solar cell that mimics and improves upon regular photosynthesis. The “leaf,” which is about the size of a credit card (and looks nothing like a leaf, apparently), takes water and separates it into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used as an energy source.

“A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades,” Nocera says in a press release. “We believe we have done it.”

Brilliantly simple idea. I’m ready to buy one right now!

And you know, when you think about it, it just makes so much sense. After all, leaves, up close, as in the photo I’ve included here, with their grid-like cell structure, even look a little like solar panels.

Eyecatchers: Up & Over It

Ok, so this video, at this writing, has been viewed 7,037,432 times on YouTube and I’m only now discovering it, but that does not diminish the impact it had on me.

I LOVE the sheer silly playfulness of the piece — the foot-tapping joy of the song We No Speak Americano, the wonderful visuals of the set and the videography of Jonny Reed, and of course the deadpan synchronicity of the performers Up & Over It (aka Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding).

If this video doesn’t make you smile, you might need to check your pulse.

Apple: Testing my Non-Attachment

I mentioned at the beginning of this month, in a post about the iPad 2, that while I am not interested in the Apple tablet, I am pining for an iPhone.

Now, I’d been leaning toward waiting for the next iteration of the phone, the iPhone 5, since new iPhones are typically rolled out in June of each year. However, as if to test my efforts toward Buddhist Non-Attachment, there’s news today that the iPhone 5 may very well not be available until September.

Via Engadget:

By now you’ve seen the announcement for WWDC 2011 (coming June 6th), but what you may not have heard yet is that this one is going to be a little different than some of the dev cons from years past. Namely, unlike the events in 2008 through 2010, you won’t see the announcement of a new iPhone (or iPad… or anything else hardware related)…

Of course if that pans out, all eyes are going to be on the company’s Fall event, which seems like an increasingly likely place to launch a new phone…

Bummer!

Speculation suggests that the iPhone 5 will have a few nice improvements over the iPhone 4, not the least of which include a faster processor and a larger display, and probably most important, a resolution of the antennae problem that some users experienced with the design of the iPhone 4.

It’s a classic technology dilemma, given that tech advances happen so regularly, almost always resulting in the next greatest thing becoming obsolete within a few months of a new purchase.

At the same time, it’s also a spiritual dilemma. For me to be as disappointed as I am at today’s news is humbling, a sign that I have a lot of work to do concerning my attachment to material objects.

Hmmmmmm.

Wait! I’ve got it!

If I cave in and just buy the iPhone 4 now, I’m making progress on my non-attachment by letting go of the obsession with obtaining the next greatest thing!

;-)

Update: A Gizmodo contributor has a different take on today’s Apple news, suggesting that there’s no inherent conflict between a WWDC focused on iOS and Mac OS X and an iPhone 5 rollout. So much for my plan.

Bicycles Redux

Apropos my post from Friday, a friend responded on Facebook to the videos I posted by sharing a link to an outrageously fun video produced by MojoMedia, a group who staged the following flashmob in the Brussels’ Central Station, a fully choreographed musical number set to the same Queen song, Bicycle Race, that I included in my post.

 

Video Fridays: Get on your bikes and ride!

It’s probably obvious that I have quite an affection for bicycles, from the inclusion of the word in this blog’s title, to the bicycle the fish is riding in the header art (courtesy of Holly Berry, who I haven’t thanked in a while for letting me use her work), and some posts I’ve published specifically on the subject (Pedal Power, Learn To Speak Bicycle, Goin’ Calorie Neutral).

Well, just in time for spring, my spine is finally allowing me to get back on my bicycle after a painfully long abstinence, and I can’t say enough about how much it improves my mood. Getting around town under my own power, adding no more carbon to the atmosphere than the carbon dioxide I exhale, feeling the wind in my face as I speed down a hill and the satisfaction of making it to the top of another, well, I just love it.

So, for today’s edition of Video Fridays, in celebration of my beloved bicycle, I’m including two videos. The first, courtesy of a friend who posted it on Facebook, is a brilliantly concise explanation of the value of dedicated bicycle lanes, and, on the lighter side, the second is a NSFW video of an old and relevant Queen song.

Happy Friday, everyone!

Metaphorically Challenged

Listen, I don’t really want to be a literary snob about this.

Despite my degree in English Literature from Rutgers University, I’ll never forget struggling in my Late Romantic Poets class, trying to make sense of Byron, Keats, and Shelley, until one day, during office hours, my professor said to me, “You’re reading everything literally. Do you have any idea what a metaphor is?”

It was, I believe, a condescending and unhelpful overstatement, and yet the poetry from that period in England was incredibly dense with figurative language and references quite foreign to a male teenager in the late 1980s, and I actually did get better at recognizing and appreciating metaphorical imagery from that point forward.

So, what excuse does a Salon staff writer and contributor to wide variety of other publications, a self-proclaimed consumer and producer of pop culture, have for an apparently appalling inability to understand painfully obvious figurative imagery in a 1990s music video?

What’s worse, she’s posted a piece today, praising a silly internet meme that abandons untolled millions to suffer from the same preventable literary disability that she does.

Drew Grant writes:

You ever wonder who the hell decides on the concepts for music videos? Half the time they have nothing to do with the song and have a totally different narrative going on than the lyrics. That’s why we’re lucky to have “literal video,” a meme where people redub songs to explain what’s happening in the video.

And you know, I don’t think I’d be as bothered by this if the meaning of the music video Grant posted wasn’t so painfully easy to understand, rendering the so-called literal video an exercise in utter stupidity.

I mean, is it really too hard to understand these lyrics from the Smashing Pumpkins song Today, on which the video she posted is based?

Today is the greatest
Day I’ve ever known
Can’t live for tomorrow,
Tomorrow’s much too long
I’ll burn my eyes out
Before I get out

Truly, is it really that hard to understand that the song is meant to be ironic, that even though Billy Corgan says he’s having the greatest day (as a pretty, melodic electric guitar arpeggio plays), something’s not quite right if he’s having thoughts of burning his eyes out (enter ultra distorted guitars and power drums), and that the video is a visual representation of that irony, starting out with idyllic images of happy things like lovers and a refreshing ice cream truck in an otherwise desolate desert landscape (today is the greatest!), transitioning to the juxtaposition of increasingly frenzied lovers and the desecration of the ice cream truck, and ending with Corgan standing in the middle of a desert highway, looking around at the lovers all scattering in conflict, the spell broken, as he walks away alone, off, perhaps, to burn his eyes out?

Really?! Too complicated?! Even Wikipedia could have helped!

Anyway, you could say that my posting the literal video here gives it more attention that it deserves, but I think it’s important for it to be seen for what it is, a symptom of an utter inability to notice the most obvious symbolism.

Too compensate, here’s the original: