...Recessions cause enormous hardship and misery to real families. I know most of us have less wealth than we did a year ago, since two major sources of household wealth - stocks and housing - have fallen steeply in value this year. But even if you don’t feel like you can afford to donate as much as usual to charities, there is still something you can do.
Most middle- and upper-income American households have lots of stuff. Many of us, particularly adults, have lots of clothes and other things we rarely or no longer use. You can think of this either as a behavioral phenomenon (people don’t like to get rid of things, even if they cause more disutility by taking up closet space than any utility they will ever provide) or as a market failure (it’s too much of a hassle to get rid of things, so we keep them). But if you just take a day, identify the things you will never use again, put them in bags, and drive them to a local shelter, you can help allocate those goods to the people who value them most. Or, as non-economists put it, you can help people. And, of course, you can get a tax deduction (the shelter in my town recommends using the Salvation Army valuation guidelines), which is itself probably worth more to you than those clothes you will never wear again.
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Me? I fall for stories. Tell me a tale about some guy climbing Mount Everest, and in my head, I'm with him — grabbing at the ice, slipping, breathing the thin air. I'm there. I've always hitchhiked by reading or listening to other people's yarns. But that's only one way to fall in love with the world. Another way, says Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT (whew!) is to play with things.
Turkle thinks that when you get your first microscope, or your first set of Legos, or take apart your first broken radio, you become an explorer. She says that for some kids, the thrill of touching, fastening, examining, rebuilding and unbuilding is life changing, mind changing and never goes away.
She recently published a book, Falling For Science, that collects essays written by senior scientists (artificial intelligence pioneer Seymour Papert, MIT president and neuroanatomist Susan Hockfield, and architect Moshe Safdie, for example) and by students who passed through her classes at MIT over the past 25 years. They were all asked the same question: "Was there an object you met during childhood or adolescence that had an influence on your path into science?"
And after a tidal wave of Legos (7 different essays), computer games and broken radios, I found a few wonderful surprises. One MIT student reported how she couldn't stop braiding her My Little Pony's tail, weaving the hairs into endlessly repeating patterns (a clue, perhaps, to her fascination with mathematics). But this one … this one is a gem.
It tells the story of a little boy (now a software designer) and a stop sign. Excerpt: 'Falling For Science': 'Stop Signs'
NPR.org, December 3, 2008 · By the age of two, I could recognize certain shapes as letters and identify them by name. Not long after I read the letters on the red sign at the end of my block: STOP. When I asked my parents about the sign, they told me it was a stop sign and that people had to stop for it. They pointed to a moving car and told me to watch the car's actions. The car came to the sign, slowed to a halt, and then turned the corner. My parents had told the truth. I fell in love with the stop sign. Every time we passed one on foot I would stop for a few seconds. I would point them out in the car and was delighted when we stopped, respecting the sign's wishes. I owned a picture book and I would always turn to the page with the stop sign and cry, "Stop!" Noticing my fascination with the sign, my parents bought me a stop sign piggy bank. My aunt knitted me a stop sign rug and my father eventually gave me a real stop sign that had fallen off its pole after a car accident.
After the stop sign taught me to read, I discovered letters and words everywhere. But signs had words that commanded people.
I couldn't understand why anyone would ever purposely disobey signs, although I saw that my fellow children sometimes pretended to fool signs by pretending not to see them. As for me, for a while I was obsessed with following the rules. Once when my family went to a local restaurant I noticed a sign in an ominous red font: OCCUPANCY OF THIS ESTABLISHMENT BY MORE THAN 232 PERSONS IS DANGEROUS AND UNLAWFUL.
"Mommy," I asked, "what's 'occupancy'?" She told me, and I immediately began to count all the people in the restaurant. I was plagued by the thought that my family's arrival would doom us all to an awful punishment.
Now I hardly think of stop signs, but something about my childhood fascination has stayed with me. In signs I saw the natural laws of my environment. A world of fixed and simple principles appealed to me. When the rules of the stop sign and its cousins lost their infallible status, others took their place. My favorite subjects are physics and mathematics. I still feel satisfaction when I behold the universe obeying its own "signs," such as: Speed Limit—671 Million MPH, Entropy—One Way, and Quantum Leaps—Exact Change Only. These universal signs give commands that cannot be broken by careless children or reckless drivers; they are unwavering principles. I tend to see our existence governed by some simple rules written on signs posted in the very fabric of space.
When I encounter a confusing situation or a seemingly impossible task I break it down and make a mental sign with instructions for its completion. I know my method has its drawbacks. It lets me enjoy physics because of rules, but I quickly became intolerant of biology, which starts with the final products of unknown rules. I view the world in narrow pieces—a way of thinking that I know can be arbitrary and inaccurate. In the real world, everything is firmly attached to everything else. My method of rules would tell me now that I need to go beyond it to have the fullest appreciation of the world. I should probably throw away the big red sign hanging in my dorm room. Life isn't that simple.
Joseph Calzaretta received an SB and SM from MIT in Mechanical Engineering and now works in Information Services and Technology at MIT as a software developer.
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Pianist, composer and world-class entertainer Ethan Bortnick has appeared on Oprah, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Good Morning America, and Martha Stewart. He's shared a stage with Beyonce, Josh Groban, Santana, Natalie Cole, Nelly Furtado, Wyclef Jean, Smokey Robinson, Gloria Gaynor, Patti LaBelle, and The Pointer Sisters. He can play more than 200 songs from memory, has composed more than 30 pieces of music that are being published, and has raised record amounts for children's charities.
His accomplishments are comparable to those of well-known established musicians and entertainers, and he's only 7 years old.
When he was 3, Ethan asked his parents for piano lessons. "They're like, 'You know what, I don't think you can have piano lessons, because you're still in diapers.' So I listened to every note of Mozart's 'Alla Turca,' and I started playing, and they're like, 'Wait, the audio's not on, so who is it? Oh man.' They thought it was a ghost or something playing." When they found out who was really playing, Ethan was allowed to take piano lessons.
At 7, Ethan has already started writing his own pieces. One song he wrote, "Arctic Jazz," is about, "a manatee who went all the way from Florida to Antarctica to play a jazz party."
Despite his early accomplishments, Ethan doesn't plan on being a professional pianist as an adult. "I'm going to be a zookeeper," he says. "I love animals. That's why I write every song about animals."
June 19, 2006—It looks like a rainbow that's been set on fire, but this phenomenon is as cold as ice.
Known in the weather world as a circumhorizontal arc, this rare sight was caught on film on June 3 as it hung over northern Idaho near the Washington State border (map of Idaho).
The arc isn't a rainbow in the traditional sense—it is caused by light passing through wispy, high-altitude cirrus clouds. The sight occurs only when the sun is very high in the sky (more than 58° above the horizon). What's more, the hexagonal ice crystals that make up cirrus clouds must be shaped like thick plates with their faces parallel to the ground.
When light enters through a vertical side face of such an ice crystal and leaves from the bottom face, it refracts, or bends, in the same way that light passes through a prism. If a cirrus's crystals are aligned just right, the whole cloud lights up in a spectrum of colors.
This particular arc spanned several hundred square miles of sky and lasted for about an hour, according to the London Daily Mail.
It’s time to celebrate happiness. The chemistry of positive, joyful human interaction. Physical spaces that help lighten lives. Seriously? What’s to be celebrated in a Christmas week that finds Americans wincing in the face of corporate collapses and the deep job losses of a roaring recession?
My answer: check some pretty amazing countervailing positives.
For example, election night in Chicago’s Grant Park. The jumbo screen suddenly confirms Barack Obama’s election as president. The surge of jubilation, of shared cheers and tears and wonderment of the thousands gathered, marks more than a simple political victory. It signals a rekindling of hope in the American nation, and what it might again be. The elation ricochets in seconds across a nation–and the world.
Another shift in 2008 could have lasting consequences for a happier society. Put briefly, it’s a new premium on quality spaces. It’s the death of our decades-old notion that all a city needs to do is offer developers and businesses cheap land and a complacent labor force, and that fresh investments and “success” will follow.
Today there’s palpable hunger for more liveliness and connectedness than isolated shopping malls, subdivisions or office parks typically offer. It’s for upbeat gathering spots, coffee shops, people-filled parks, in-town concert halls, outdoor art exhibits, farmers’ and Christmas markets. It’s the spark of a shared civic realm that such non-profits as Partners for Livable Communities and the Project for Public Spaces have been advocating for years–their message newly popular as an entertainment-jaded nation starts to wake up what links us, not what separates us.
All that was underway 2008. But the year delivered two developments that should doom the old order. First, last spring and summer’s soaring oil prices and the unfolding national mortgage foreclosure mess. Suddenly the unsustainability of America’s suburban growth model came into focus. “Drive ’til you qualify” became a dangerous way to pick a house. And now, even as the recession has pushed oil prices back down sharply, surging public transit use isn’t tapering off–it’s actually intensifying. And the latest Brookings Institution report shows the country’s total vehicle miles traveled, which actually began to start decline in 2007, are continuing a downward course.
Some of us may even be modifying our lifestyles–deliberately reducing local auto trips, making fewer vacation flights, for example–because we take seriously global climate and the shadow it throws over our childrens’ and grandchildrens’ lives. Just maybe, we’re starting to grasp the stakes of a global citizenship.
With hard-squeezed municipal budgets, this won’t be an easy time for towns and cities. But the “winners” among them will be those that raise the money (and/or volunteer help) to offer attractive city streets, well-kept parks, convenient libraries, events and festivals celebrating their diverse local cultures.
We’ll need, in short, to improve our shared space–our local “commons” –the theme of a new website, www.onthecommons.org. “Happiness itself is a commons to which everyone should have equal access,” writer Jay Walljasper contends there.
The most prominent global spokesperson for the theme of happiness in urban spaces is Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia. For the first 5,500 years of recognizable cities on earth, Penalosa notes, the streets were built chiefly for pedestrians. People of all classes accessed roadways essentially as equals.
That changed in the 20th century, as automobiles and trucks preempted public space, forcing pedestrians to street edges and in some developments eliminating sidewalks altogether. The problem is even more egregious in developing countries. The carnage is appalling: globally, roadway accidents kill roughly 1.2 million people each year, and millions more are grievously wounded.
Penalosa would have the urban space for automobiles strictly restrained. He’d place buses on exclusive lanes–like the TransMilenio system he created in Bogota–so that cities can be “the protective, beautiful, inclusive, stimulating places” they ought to be. His goal is a far call from classic civic boosterism; instead he talks of sharing the public realm as issues of safety, dignity, and respect, so that “more people around the world can live happier lives.”
In 2008 I heard more U.S. urban planners headed in the same direction, considering return of high-speed one-way city streets to calmer two-way traffic, or creating boulevards that include exclusive, safe lanes for pedestrians and bicycles.
Now the happiness cause has academic champions–James Fowler of the University of California-San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of the Harvard Medical School. Using data from a 20-year study of 4,739 people, they identified a contagious power of happiness in social networks. And they found distance matters–the closer people live together, the more the happiness of some spreads to others.
“Happiness,” Fowler claims, “spreads more robustly than unhappiness.” Happy people tend to be more creative, productive, and healthier. And, Fowler adds, happiness seems to have a greater effect than money.
Police, social workers and anti-poverty activists disagree on a lot when it comes to the city's battle to end homelessness. But they form a hallelujah chorus on one matter:
Do not, do not, do not give to panhandlers.
At least, don't give them cash.
» Listen to Anna Griffin discuss panhandling at the Today in Oregon podcast.
This is the season when downtown Portland teems with commuters, Tuba Christmas-loving tourists and shoppers who may or may not have gotten lost on their way to Bridgeport Village. Like poor moths to an affluent flame, the increased population draws beggars to crowded corners near such shopping hot spots as Powell's, Macy's and Pioneer Place. Some of them are clever, such as the kid with the "Will work for verbal abuse" sign near Pioneer Courthouse Square. Some are heart-wrenching, such as the grandmotherly type spotted this week outside the Benson Hotel.
Please note, however: Many of them are not homeless. And most who are will not be using your hard-earned cash to get indoors.
"They're using it for alcohol and drugs," says Portland police Cmdr. Mike Reese, whose Central Precinct officers are quite familiar with most panhandlers. "I don't like to generalize, but ..."
It is in our nature here in Oregon to want to help. A charitable spirit, you might call it. Or maybe just liberal guilt.
We don't like to see people in need. We believe the world's problems really can be solved.
But the struggles that force people onto the streets -- poverty, addiction and mental illness -- aren't going to get fixed by a dime or a dollar tossed at somebody on a street corner.
The people who truly need our assistance are the ones who cannot muster the mental health or the energy to ask for cash, the ones who spend their days recoiling from passers-by, not soliciting them. Many panhandlers, police and social workers agree, approach collecting change as full-time work. They have regular spots and finely honed sales pitches.
That "Need money for food" sign? False advertising, given that there are several dozen agencies offering warm, free meals on a regular basis.
"There is no excuse for anyone to go hungry in this town," says Bill Miller, a Portland Rescue Mission spokesman. "Shelter is the real issue, and change can't buy that."
There are ways to help that go deeper than your own immediate emotional gratification.
Sisters of the Road, the Old Town cafeteria and community center, sells meal vouchers you can hand out instead of coins. Portland Rescue Mission workers recommend giving granola bars, preferably along with a copy of their free-on-the-Internet resource guide for people in need.
Or you might start collecting that spare change in a coffee can or a shoe box to donate to a nonprofit. Get the kids involved in decorating a charity box -- known as a Tzedakah box in Jewish homes, where they're common -- and you've done a good deed and taught the next generation a lesson about giving.
Here's something else you shouldn't do: Ignore panhandlers.
Oregonians are almost as conflict-averse as they are compassionate. Many of us don't like saying no, so we cross to the other side of the street or, at least, refuse eye contact.
But police say very few of the people you encounter downtown pose a danger. And anti-poverty advocates say treating homeless people like fellow human beings can help them find the self-esteem to start rebuilding their life.
So feel free to say a firm but polite "no." Then go home and, if you can afford it, find a way to really help.
Email from St. Louis: "We have had an epidemic of birds flying into our windows in the last two weeks. This photo of our bedroom window shows a full splat including wings, body and head. We found no dead or injured bird below so we assume the bird just had a bad day. "
About 10 years ago we went with my sister-in-law and her husband to Tulelake, CA just south of Klamath Falls, OR where she had been interned soon after Pearl Harbor. She was born in Portland. She and her family and other Japanese families in the NW were sent to Tule Lake. About all we could find of the camp was the landscape shown in the photo below and a small plaque along the roadside.
"The purpose of the monument is to remind generations of Americans of the sacrifices that Americans made to protect our country. But there's a broader purpose as well and that is to remind generations of Americans about the transformative effect of freedom," Bush said in brief remarks in the Oval Office.