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Saturday, December 24, 2005

"No contract, no work." Not this time.

Apparently the answer to my semi-rhetorical question in the title of my last blog post is, "No." In what seemed like a stunning course reversal, transit workers returned to the job just three days into the strike, with the question of the two-tier pension unanswered. The New York Times reports today that a deal may be in the offing next week.

But what has been gained by the short strike, which seemed so promising just a few days ago? Many of the rank and file seem confused by union president Toussaint's return to work order.
"He should have stayed out for as long as it took to get what we wanted," said Douglas Weiss, 45, a bus driver. "Toussaint should have stuck with it and kept on fighting, but he showed weakness. I feel disappointed, absolutely; my leader let me down. Now we're back at work with much lower morale than we had before we walked out."
Nathaniel Brisbane, 46, a train operator, said, "I would not re-elect him. We went on strike and came out with nothing because Roger Toussaint was afraid to fight. His decision left us looking like fools. Our failure in this strike is his fault."

In the end, Toussaint's reputation will likely hinge on what concessions he extracts from transit bosses. If he can protect the pension system without giving up much else, his decision to pull back from the illegal strike will look a lot better than it does right now, with transit workers laboring for the first time ever without a contract - a major break from the union's "no contract no work" tradition.

For some useful analysis of the strike from the inside, check out the Revolutionary Transit Worker (thanks to Sphinx for the tip). RTW reminds us that no amnesty has so far been negotiated for striking workers, who now face two days pay in fines for every day they were out on strike.

In other news, New Scientist reports that new software will make it possible to identify people in pictures taken from cell phones.
The phone will allow the growing number of camera phone users to organise their digital photo albums by automatically identifying and labelling the people and places within each snap, as they are taken.

The concept, being developed by Marc Davis of Yahoo's Berkeley research lab in California, is based on a central server that registers details sent by the phone when the photo is taken. These include the nearest cellphone mast, the strength of the call signal and the time the photo was taken.

The system also identifies the other Bluetooth-enabled cellphones within range of the photographer and combines this with the time and place information to create a shortlist of people who might be in the picture. This can then be combined with facial-recognition algorithms to identify the subjects from the shortlist.
Facial recognition software, according to the story, can only identify people 43 percent of the time. However, "by combining it with context information the system could correctly identify people 60 per cent of the time." The software can also be used to identify places.

Along the same lines, PC Magazine is reporting on the increasing spread of GPS technology, which now no longer requires GPS devices in all cases. Some of the emerging technology can function on other platforms, such as Pocket PCs, PDAs and certain cell phones. Thanks to new developments, people can now tag locations with notes and reminders (which other people can view), as well as receive location specific advertising. And, of course, the boss has a use for it as well:
"If you're running a courier service, Navizon will let you find out where your delivery guys are and if they can be at the next job on time," [Cyril Houri, founder and CEO of Mexens Technology] said. "A company like Zagat could also add this positioning feature to the PDA version of their guide, so users can find the best place to have dinner, but also the closest one."
And with that a little more autonomy on the job disappears in the name of efficiency and higher profits for the boss.

Wired Magazine reports that Americans are more addicted than ever to their electronics. According to the article, "[t]he bill for being thoroughly plugged in to entertainment and communications runs more than $200 a month for a third of the households in this country. Four in 10 spend between $100 and $150 a month, according to the poll of 1,006 adults taken Dec. 13-15."

Further,
[a]lmost half of personal computer owners say they can't imagine life without their computers. About as many cell phone owners say the same thing about their portable phones.

The intense loyalty to high-speed Internet is a sign that people are getting hooked on newer technology. Almost four in 10 people with high-speed internet say they consider it essential. About two in 10 feel that way about their DVD players, digital cable and CD players.
"Our culture is about distraction, numbing oneself," said David Greenfield, a Connecticut psychologist who specializes in high-tech issues. "There is no self-reflection, no sitting still. It's absolutely exhausting."

On a slightly different note, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Concerns of Police Survivors declared that 153 police officers died on the job last year. Of those, the largest number were killed in traffic accidents, leaving only 60 to be killed in shootings of various kinds, including training. This marks the continuation of a thirty-year downward trend.
"The increased use of body armor, better training and, more recently, the advent of less-lethal weaponry have all played a role in bringing these numbers down," said National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Chairman Craig W. Floyd.
This is an interesting point, because we essentially have a law enforcement booster admitting the role that less-lethal technology plays not in saving civilian lives, but rather in protecting police.

To my knowledge, no similar database exists to tabulate all those killed by police in the US, but it's worth looking back to a Bureau of Labor Statistics list of the ten most dangerous jobs in America. Cop isn't on there, seriously undermining the myth, most often trotted out after police shootings, that policing is a very dangerous job.

The government's case against the ELF continues to evolve. The tragic and suspicious death in custody of suspected Vail arsonist Bill Rodgers is one of the latest developments. A couple days back the Rocky Mountain News ran an interesting - though it's hard to know how accurate - article depicting an inside view of one ELF cell's activities, allegedly provided by an informant. Ominously, the cops promise further arrests in the next six months. The Denver Post ran a condescending and one-sided column denouncing eco-terror around the same time.
So if you're part of the Earth Liberation Front or any other self-professed radical environmental organization, you can skip all the Woodstock nicknames. You can also disabuse yourself of the notion that you're saving the planet. The people who burned Two Elk lodge hurt themselves and everyone else who cares about preserving public lands.

"Eco-terrorism has been used by opponents of the environmental movement to generalize about the extremism of all conservation efforts," [executive director of Colorado Wild Ryan] Bidwell, said.
Unfortunately, Bidwell has his timeline backwards. The extremist characterization came first, and, if anything, moderates like Bidwell benefit from the pragmatic way their approach looks in the context of environmental direct action like that practiced by ELF. The article does show just how afraid moderates and establishment types are of direct action. Direct action repudiates the mythology of the liberal state - that the system is responsive to democratic pressures.

"The way to show people the value of public lands and threats to public lands is to get the word out," said [director of the Western Mining Action Project Roger] Flynn.

No one makes the argument that getting information out isn't an important part of any campaign, environmental or not. And the most radical action is not always the best action to take. But the repudiation of direct action in general shows a serious failure in analysis.

Finally, in the looming apocalypse category, the US Department of Energy revealed on Wednesday that US greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, reaching in 2004 the highest levels ever recorded. The report seems to cast some doubt on the government's claim two weeks ago that its voluntary measures to cut global warming-related gases were working.

One last note: As many have probably already heard, NORAD this year celebrates its 50th year tracking the generally peaceful Santa Claus with their weapons systems. Compare these two sites:

NORAD Tracks Santa (the phone number is hilarious)
NORAD.mil (make sure to check out the kids page)

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