Justice Stevens tells the truth

“While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

From http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-205.pdf

Via http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/26/us/26bar.html?hp

And a huge amount of sorrow, cynicism and distrust. No outcry at activist judges. No spotlight on corporate self-interest versus the citizenry.

2010, you sadden me.

Another winter

In San Francisco, it rains. His friends are happy, are ill, are new to town, exuberant, exhausted, and at work. They buy bicycles, have lunches, look for work, travel, drink, play ultimate, talk, speculate and hope. To see each other they take the cable car, in the rain. They wait for busses together, and trains, they bicycle and walk. Very rarely, they drive.

It is two thousand ten, and the car seems inconvenient, expensive, restrictive. Parking is costly and traffic bad, especially in the rain. Yet in the rain they value the car too. After ultimate they are glad of its four wheels four doors and an engine that makes heat. Buying bicycles and furniture they are glad of its trunk. Commuting in it they are glad of the ability to take jobs where public transit does not run, and yet distraught at the hours spent to do so.

In the first month of what might be a new decade his friends also plan, and hold meetings. They direct, act, celebrate and rehearse. He attends, happy to be again in the dark of a theater, in the shelter of strange buildings in SoMa or the Tenderloin.

On public holidays they walk together to the ocean and watch dogs run in the chill water of the Pacific. They watch a lone kite surfer, bold, skim the chop at ridiculous speed. And then they walk home, in the rain, wet and content, to do laundry and clean.

It is January 2010, and in his country politics are a disaster and the news often sad. He thinks briefly of leaving, as he did in 2000, in 2004. His friends are here though, doing so much in to San Francisco, and he resolves to stay, to learn, and to enjoy. New places beckon, both across the street and around the globe, but he is not leaving. Not yet. Instead he builds a new desk, places it at the window, and watches the weather.

In San Francisco, in January, it rains.

Just plain

Living in China he became inured to the pleas of the homeless, crippled, and burned. Embarrassed by his riches, even in the earliest days of part-time jobs teaching his native tongue to children for the barest of stipends, he gave coins as they came to him. A few in the morning, to the boy with but one arm in the Hengshan Lu subway station. They were the same age, he and the boy, or close.  One of them was surviving in a foreign land on the gifts of his birthplace, the other in a city far from his home on the gifts of those who pitied his loss of limb and with it the ability to work the land he had come from. A five on occasion to the old man who tottered in front of the Lawson convenience store on Gao An Lu, a bamboo stick for his cane, Mao-era blues padded underneath with layers and layers of clothing to blunt the wind. Most of the time this old man waited with his eyes closed, though he was not blind, arising with his cup only when alerted by the sensor at the Lawson’s door of a customer’s exit. The creative use of this annoying ding dong amused the boy from America and he did what he could.

But in time the numbers overwhelmed his ability to care, and aside from those he already recognized he gave sparingly. Cripples on carts dragging themselves down Shanxi Nan Lu elicited no sympathy. Neither did women holding hungry children they may or may not have borne. The enterprise that it had become, that it perhaps had always been, was too obvious, and the women who banged at his arms as he exited the subway were too brusque. Only music still made him search out spare change, flute players and trumpeters, the old man with an erhu and others with instruments whose names he did not know. This, he reckoned, was not charity at all, but payment for joy, for the echoes in the subway and the kind welcome home after a long day’s journey.

With this mentality he moved back to the country of his native tongue. The number of potentially self-maimed youths lying on the sidewalk was comfortingly less, and yet the total numbers didn’t seem to change.

In San Francisco though they are not burn victims or legless farmers, they are not his age, and their injuries are invisible. Some, when approached inadvertently, scream, or curse his presence. There are those who simply ask for money, and those with clever signs that read “It’s morning I need coffee,” and on the reverse “No lie I want to buy wine.” The startling part, to this boy grown accustomed to China’s injured masses, is not the wit but the vehemence, the random verbal assaults. One day as he exits the bus he comes face to face with the neighborhood woman. He has no other term for her, but she can always be found somewhere on the two blocks to either side of his apartment. Often she hides behind the tree next to the gas station. He flinches at her presence, drawing back because of their most recent encounter, him biking home one evening and her standing in the middle of an intersection cursing at him as he passed. He braces for the yelling, for the strangely strung together assault, and when she speaks calmly, a quiet “could I have two dollars” he is uncertain. The other passengers push at his back, and he slinks away, sad and confused.

And still he gives money to those who make music.

Invent better

This post by Marco suggests that there is nowhere to place blame for the current retail practice of destroying/returning unsold merchandise.

Stating that something is an industry-wide practice does not mean that it is acceptable, or excusable, or even understandable.  Manufacturers are not pushing “risky” products on retailers, especially not at the Wal*Mart size, who then require a return policy to safeguard their profitablity.  Far from it.  Major retailers assist in the design, down to color coordination across product lines, of the products they carry.  They demand pricing, guaranteed margins, and a wide variety of discounts.  They *then* demand return policies on unsold goods.

This is a way of maintaining their margins.  It is not compensation for “trying” new products on the store.  Rather it leads to extensive sales, because they can return what does not sell for guaranteed margin dollars, thus forcing the manufacturer to pay for retailers discounts.

While the practice is industry-wide, and in fact spans almost every kind of retail, it is not available to smaller stores in the same way as it is to big box stores like Wal*Mart.  Therefore Marco is wrong, and Wal*Mart is a fair target of the original NYT piece, because they are responsible (both through sheer volume and through relative influence with suppliers) for a disproportionate amount of the destruction of un-used, un-sold, un-flawed merchandise.  While they may not like it, being the biggest will always lead journalists to use Wal*Mart as an example.  Simply saying that “other retailers do it too” is not a solution.

What is a solution?  Better inventory and customer interest models?  A return policy that does not re-imburse 100% and so encourages retailers to order only what they can sell, or to sell what they order, and thus puts a price on destruction?  Smaller stores?  More regionalization of products so that they are more likely to appeal to the customer?  I do not know for sure, but certainly there is a solution.

The idea that problems are everyone’s fault, and thus no one’s, is precisely wrong. When there is no current solution it is time not to shrug and move on but to invent one.

Places I slept, 2009

Houston, TX

Lansing, NY

Ithaca, NY

Baton Rouge, LA

Austin, TX

Big Bend, TX

Los Angeles, CA

Cincinnati, OH

San Francisco, CA

Portland, OR

Sacramento, CA

Fort Collins, CO

Near Gould, CO

Incline Village, NV

Shanghai, China

Shaoxing, China

The wonderful thing is not the number of places, but that they were seen multiple times, and involved so many friends.  May 2010 bring still more.