Friday, February 25, 2011

Winter's grip

For Central Oregon newcomers, the first six weeks of 2011 belied the belief that we have tough winters here.

Old-timers, those here longer than 20 years, knew better.

Sure enough, on Feb. 15, we were socked with a heavy snowfall, that broke tree branches and closed schools all over the region. (In the photo, behind the squirrel, we lost a huge juniper branch, with the resulting space allowing us to peer into our neighbor's back yard.)

And, as I write this entry 10 days later, my computer says it's 13 degrees outside at 1:30 p.m. I know it's warmer than that, because our indoor/outdoor wireless thermometer says it's actually 16 degrees.

The forecasters say it could get down to minus 2 degrees tonight. That's nothing, though. In December 2009, it got down to 17 degrees below zero.

With such nasty weather, you wouldn't think that Deschutes County (home to Bend, Redmond, Sisters and La Pine) would be the fastest growing county in the state this past decade.

But, it's true.

The 2010 Census shows that Deschutes grew by 37 percent. Redmond nearly doubled in size with a 94 percent growth rate. Bend just increased by 47 percent to 76,639 residents. Sisters more than doubled in size, but that's only from 959 to 2,038.

With that ridiculous growth rate, overbuilding became the norm as infrastructure decayed.

Now, we have empty, foreclosed homes throughout Central Oregon and no way to pay for desperately needed infrastructure repairs and upgrades.

But, snowfall is the great equalizer. It covers potholes in the streets, and makes abandoned homes look as fine as those well-kept mansions in the gated communities.

It appears that winter is here for awhile. At least skiers and snowboarders are rejoicing.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Workers on the run

With the stock market reaching new highs and unemployment still hanging around 10 percent, it's not lost on the workers in Wisconsin that this "class warfare" is a complete mismatch.

That is why 40,000 descended on the capital in Madison on Friday for that city's Cairo moment.

Union workers are not only going to lose pay and benefits, but also the ability to even bargain for these things. In essence, this could put the nail in the coffin for the less than 12 percent of American workers who still belong to unions.

Amazingly, polls show that Americans have slightly more negative feelings towards unions than corporations.

This is in spite of the fact that since the dawn of the industrial age more than 150 years ago -- along with the end of slavery -- corporations and large companies have done everything they could to reduce the number of workers in their employ. Their goal is to have no employees, at least here in America.

Escalating profits give corporations more money to wage war on workers, mainly union, but all workers nonetheless. Corporations have momentum on their side in Wisconsin and soon in Ohio and Indiana.

This Great Recession is provoking middle class and lower class workers to fight among themselves for the scraps thrown their way by the rich. With corporate media playing the violins, workers clash among themselves as if it's all just a game to the powers that be.

Republicans are making good on their promises, not to the teabaggers, but to their corporate bosses to emasculate the American worker.

John Boehner, the "weeper of the House," even said that if GOP cuts mean a million government workers lose their jobs, "so be it."

For delusional Republicans, a job lost in the public sector automatically means a job gained in the private sector. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

The private sector in this country is almost totally dependent on the pubic coffers. Government, at all levels, continues to outsource government functions to the private sector.

We see corporations running schools paid for with public money and corporations even run some prisons with our tax dollars. We outsource much of our fighting forces to private contractors.

Why would corporations partner with government that they disdain? Because that's where the money is. Afterall, Dick Cheney spent much of his working life rummaging through the deep pockets of Uncle Sam on behalf of himself and Halliburton, which of course has offshore headquarters to avoid paying U.S. taxes.

Dick Cheney is rich, while your average union worker is not.

Soon, if Wisconsin radical Republicans prevail, workers won't even have a union to ensure a living wage. They'll be wandering the aisles of Walmart, looking for the latest bargain made in China.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ban the bag in Oregon

Just like the bottle bill that passed 40 years ago, Oregon is poised again to be the first in the nation to take another important step for our environment: banning most single-use plastic bans at retail stores.

Oregonians use roughly 1 billion plastic bags a year, most of which are stashed away, thrown away or are blown across our beautiful landscape, harming wildlife in the process.

These plastic bags are not biodegradable and you can't put them in the recycling can.

Oil is needed to produce them.

In other words, these things represent a dreadful legacy to future generations.

Cities elsewhere are banning these bags, but no state has yet made this bold move because the plastic bag industry has bought off lawmakers, most notably in California last year.

And, they're throwing cash at Oregon lawmakers too, but they may not win this time around.

The plastic bag bill surprisingly has bipartisan support in Oregon. You'd expect Democrats to be co-sponsors of this bill, but not Republicans. But there they are.

Republicans back the bill because they believe a revival of paper bags will help our beleaguered timber industry. Mostly, though, they favor the bill because they looked out for one of their big donors: the grocery store industry.

The Oregon bill not only bans plastic bags, but it also imposes a charge of 5 cents per paper bag.

Naturally, the anti-tax fanatics are screaming that this is a TAX! A TAX!

Not so. The 5 cents goes directly to the grocery store, not the government.

Also, no one is forcing anyone to pay 5 cents per paper bag. Join the 21st Century and bring your own bag. Oh yeah, there is another bogus argument out there that some reusable bags contain lead and can harbor bacteria, which Consumer Reports dismissed as completely overblown.

More and more, Oregonians are bringing their own bags to the store. If you see them in Bend, you can be sure you can see them in Eugene and Portland.

By and large, Oregonians have moved past plastic bags. We know that we only have one environment, and if we screw it up, we can't get another one.

In 1971, the bottle bill was slammed by many who thought it would lead to the end of Western civilization as we know it. Quite the opposite. In a small way, it helped save Western civilization.

Banning plastic bags is just another small step toward restoring a semblance of respect for the world in which we live.

Happy Birthday, Oregon. On Feb. 14, 1859, you became a state. Show your love and ban the bags.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt lost Egypt eons ago

On one hand, it was great to see a malevolent despot forced from office today by a mostly-peaceful demonstration of common Egyptians.

On the other hand, who knows what we'll get in the chasm left by Hosni Mubarak.

The galvanizing issue in the Arab world is the overwhelming disdain for Israel. It unites them like no other issue.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is intricately tied up in the affairs of Israel. The Arab street hatred of America stems from our unequivocal support for Israel.

But, the Arab countries have oil, while Israel does not.

Oil trumps religion, or at least it should.

What the Middle East has demonstrated over the past few decades is that countries ruled by theocracy, be it Islam, Judaism or Christianity, are doomed to catastrophic failure. Yes, that means Israel, too.

The last thing we need is theocratic rule in Egypt. Of course, it would be Islamic, which is great if you're a man, but dreadful if you're a woman. Therein lies the main problem with Islam: It relegates more than half of its population to second-class status or worse. For this reason alone, Islam will have a tough time surviving this century. Blessed be.

Ironically, we have the Constitutionally-challenged Christianists in this country who believe that America is a Christian nation and should be ruled by Christians. That's the last thing we need, for Christ's sake.

But, as always, there is talk of "who lost Egypt."

I say the Egyptians lost their way decades and decades ago.

Egypt is a mess of a country and it has itself to blame. Not us and not Israel.

Here's hoping that Egypt becomes a free and democratic state without the shackles of Islam wrapped around its ankles.

Only then will it rise from its pathetic past into a nation of progress.

Bend road bond a tough sell

The city of Bend has three options for partially fixing some of the city's roads.

Too bad there isn't a fourth option, one that includes only those projects worth doing during these dire economic times.

The three options include projects from all over town so that each section of town thinks they're getting something in the deal.

Well, they're not.

The city doesn't really care about any of the road problems in Bend. City officials only care about their pet project: Juniper Ridge, the mixed-use mess on Bend's north end.

The city spent all of its recent road capital funds on roads in and around Juniper Ridge. There's a multi-lane roundabout up there, a re-arranged street and new avenues through the project.

Millions have been spent on Juniper Ridge. Millions more need to be spent to make it a viable project.

Trouble is, Juniper Ridge will never be viable, at least for city taxpayers. It's just another way for companies and corporations to rummage through the deep pockets of government for their own financial benefit.

Juniper Ridge is designed to redistribute tax revenue upwards to the powers that be, or powers that would be with a little help from taxpayers. Much of the private sector wouldn't exist at all if not for the public sector, that is, the taxpayer.

Anyway, the three road options for the bond all list a project, a multi-lane roundabout near Juniper Ridge, as the No. 1 priority.

Fortunately, the city is asking citizens to rank the road priorities. I'm certain that the roundabout the city wants so bad at 18th and Empire ranks near the bottom of priorities for the citizens of Bend.

But, it's clear that the city wants to build this roundabout near Juniper Ridge because the state said that if it did, the city could expand it's land giveaway program at Juniper Ridge.

Expansion of Juniper Ridge will mean increased traffic in an area that can't really accommodate any new traffic. Of course, the area in question is Highway 97, which is now a parking lot during the morning and evening commute times. A roundabout a quarter of a mile away from Hwy. 97 will have no impact on the gridlock on Hwy. 97.

So, the city is asking for nearly $30 million from property taxpayers that does absolutely nothing to improve traffic flows on Hwy. 97 near Juniper Ridge.

Here's some suggestions for city staffers:

1) Forget the roundabout at 18th and Empire.
2) Do what you said would do for Reed Market five years ago. Make Reed Market three lanes wide with sidewalks and roundabouts, between Third and 27th streets. It still won't be a passable roadway, though, without a bridge over the railroad tracks or the Murphy Road corridor project.
4) Extend Murphy Road over the railroad tracks all the way to 15th street. This is critical because east-west connectors in Bend are almost non-existent.
4) If you care about public safety, put a roundabout at Powers and Brookswood.
5) Speaking of more public safety, a roundabout is urgently needed at 15th and Wilson.
7) Connect Empire between 18th and 27th streets.

And, we need at least three interchanges on the Parkway, but that won't happen for at least 50 years.

The city's short list of 15 road projects would cost $70.9 million. The list described above would cost less than $50 million, but would go a long way to improving the standard of living in Bend, not to mention public safety through efficient, safe roadways. But, any new taxes during these high unemployment times will only remind taxpayers how much they're subsidizing developers.

The city's preferred bond of $29.8 million would fix some side roads near Juniper Ridge. There won't be a lot of money left over to do much of anything anywhere else in Bend except fix potholes by re-paving a handful of roads.

The city has to realize that its citizens don't care about Juniper Ridge. We do care about improving our roads throughout the rest of Bend.

Until the city hears this message, the bond measure deserves a big "NO" vote in May.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Walmart bad for economy, report concludes

Good thing Walmart never got to build its super center on Bend's north end.

Walmart will expand its store on Bend's south end and will add groceries to their mix of stuff made in China. But, that expansion will likely put the Albertsons supermarket across the street out of business.

New York is still trying to fight off Walmart, but with a traditional pro-business mayor, those days of Walmart-free Big Apple may be coming to an end.

A New York report, based on 50 other studies, shows how bad Walmart is for any local economy.

"The overwhelming weight of the independent research on the impact of Walmart stores ... shows that Walmart depresses area wages and labor benefits ... pushes out more retail jobs than it creates, and results in more retail vacancies," the study concludes.

Of course, the casual traveler can see that for themselves when they roam around this country and cruise through the smaller towns which reveal boarded-up downtowns with a thriving Walmart on the edge of town.

Bend's downtown survived Walmart because it re-invented itself as a boutique and higher-end dining spot after two malls opened on the north side of the city in the early 1980s. But, other retail stores on Bend's south end have suffered greatly from Walmart's presence, including the outlet mall which is about 50 percent vacant now. Oh, and our county' jobless rate is about 15 percent.

Here's hoping that New York can weather the Walmart storm and keep them out.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fox News crushes cable competition

In case the winter weather isn't getting you down, check out this link to put you in a real funk: Fox News had the top 11 rated cable "news" shows in January.

Of course, this is cable TV and the numbers, while impressive, are rather minuscule when you consider the non-cable universe.

For example, "The Oh Really Factor" starring Bill O'Reilly is No. 1 with a bullet. It attracted 2.973 million viewers in January.

By contrast, NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" easily inform more than 10 million listeners each on a daily basis. Even Colin Powell is opposed to de-funding NPR and PBS for the sake of reducing our deficit. Clearly, more Americans value NPR over the entire Fox News lineup.

The Fox News crew is filled with opinion-mongers who do their best to avoid facts, misinform viewers and reduce all the world's troubles into a simple credo: "Whatever it is, it's Obama's fault. And, if not Obama, then Pelosi and the Democrats."

For further proof of their total bias, check out this link on Media Matters, the premier Fox News watchdog website.

Still, you have to wonder about the ignorant viewers who eat up every morsel of garbage offered up by O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and the rest.

The problem with our uncivil discourse over the past 15 years, is that Fox News intentionally inflames, and misinforms, viewers for the sake of ratings. The teabaggers and other conservatives love Fox News because it tells them what they want to hear. The rabid Fox News watcher pays no attention to other media unless it is described to them by Fox News.

No wonder we can't have civility these days. The Fox News megaphone drowns out other voices.

Not to despair, though, it's Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil saw no shadow, meaning an early spring.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

All 'The King's Speech' and more

It's rare that a movie makes you feel sympathy for a king, especially a king of England.

But, hat's off to "The King's Speech," for doing exactly that.

The British film is reeling in most of the awards and deservedly so.

It was an absolute joy to see a movie without violence and noisy special effects.

Rather, it was brilliant acting, writing, directing, editing and cinematography that won the day.

How rare is that in this era of video game movies and blood-splattered films.

Some will say that it was just Masterpiece Theatre on the big screen with a dash of salty language. Well, so be it.

You won't find finer performances than those by Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth.

Two men, king and commoner, verbally spar with great dialog. They owned the screen and commanded my attention until the very end.

The supporting cast is excellent as well.

There were no gimmicks, no sleight of hand, just timeless craftsmanship.

It would be a relief to see "The King's Speech" take home the Oscar for Best Picture because, since 2002 when "Chicago" won, the Academy Awards have been dominated by violent, bleak films.

Yes, the final installment of "Lord of the Rings" won Best Picture in 2003, but it was largely a violent trilogy with video game imagery.

"The King's Speech" represents a new civility in filmmaking, one that respects its audience.

Another Oscar-nominated film that respects the viewer with honest acting is "Winter's Bone," which I saw on DVD.

Yes, a sense of dread pervades the movie like like a February fog, but it never descends into gratuitous violence. The no-name actors simply convey what no handgun could do. They make you feel the bleakness of the drug-addled Ozarks.

I have not seen "The Social Network," about the origins of Facebook, but I want to, because the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, and director, David Fincher, do quality work. I just haven't made the effort to see it because, quite frankly, Facebook is so narcissistic that watching pure narcissism on the big screen doesn't thrill me.

I'll admit, I do have a Facebook page, but I have no idea what to do with it and it lies empty.

As for the other nominees, I did see "Inception" and enjoyed its multi-layer approach to the secrets of the subconscious mind. Still, never-ending chase scenes and pointless shoot-em-ups tarnished the film a bit.

"Toy Story 3" was fun, as usual, but it covered terrain that the second installment already explored. It's good to see it nominated, though.

As for "Black Swan," see my previous post.

As for the other nominated films, I haven't seen them and will likely wait until Netflix delivers them.

They include:

"The Fighter": Probably a fine film, but it's another boxing picture.
"127 Hours": Don't think I want to watch a man cut off his arm.
"True Grit": Most likely another quality Coen brothers' product, but it is a remake.
"The Kids Are All Right": About a real modern family that promises good acting, but definitely a small screen film.

In this crowded field, "The King's Speech" stands above the rest.