#SU4T – Why we need to fund transportation.


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by avantard

Today, April 9 2105, Stand Up 4 Transportation and let congress know that we need to fund our transportation system for the long term. You might have seen something about it on Twitter under the hashtag #SU4T. There are press conferences and rallies all around the U.S.A. today spearheaded by the transit community to ask congress to pass the Grow America Act as the next transportation authorization bill. One of the big (sadly audacious) features of Grow America is that it’s for 6 years of funding. This is a departure from the sadly shortsighted cycle we’ve been stuck in for two long of 1-2 year funding cycles. We’re at a critical point (again) as the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money May 31. People have been campaigning to fix the trust fund, but congress won’t move and our infrastructure continues to crumble. John Oliver addressed this on his program recently – “infrastructure is important, but not sexy.” It’s not but we need it to function and we need to pay for it.

The how is a big question is how will we fund it. The federal gas tax has not kept up with inflation and congress refuses to raise it even though think tanks from both parties agree it should be raised. The main proposed funding mechanism are user fees in the vein of gas taxes or road tolls. This reflects how local governments have moved to try and fill their funding needs through raising the gas tax in their states or through more public-private-partnerships on toll roads. (I’m not even touching VMT taxes at this time, but they’re going to be a part of the solution.) User-fees for transportation funding makes so much sense that the Reason foundation is dismayed about the backlash against tolls.

So why I am blogging about this on my library blog? I’ve written before about the need to fund transportation research and this is pretty much the same thing. I think it’s also important to remember how much these huge, national programs depend on federal funding from congress. The issue isn’t just our anemic transit systems or overbuilt, crumbling highway system. It’s also the lack of a coherent plan (and the ability to execute the plan) that these short term funding cycles is really hurting the whole system. Long term research projects to help move our nation’s transportation system into the next era are being hindered by the uncertainty of our current situation, where considerable time is spent applying for funding for the next couple years, rather than the next decade or so. (Of course some of this is done for accountability, but that’s an excuse of poor management.)

So stand up for transportation, fund our system, and let’s plan for the future.

Be radical in your actions, not just your words.

This week I had a long discussion at KALX about how meaningless the term hipster is. Basically the trend setters are out there doing things, expressing themselves, and living their culture. They are too busy making it happen for themselves to call themselves a hipster, in fact they will tell you they aren’t if you call them one. The people who call themselves hipsters, aren’t really because they are in the middle or end of the trend tail.  Of course this is also a big part of youth culture, and as you age you get moved out of the cycle.  (This is why I hate people calling my record shopping hipsterish because I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and will be doing it for the rest of my life. It’s not a fad.)

This also reflect something we tell our DJs all the time – let your music do the talking. Don’t tell the listeners how good something is, the songs will communicate that on their own so just play good songs. It kind of reminds me of a common argument I have were people tell me The Clash are the most punk band ever, but of course it’s actually Crass (pictured). The only thing the argument achieves is that I think the other person has a skewed (read: commercial and superficial) view of punk, and they think I’m just trying to be obscure.

Last night when I got home from the radio station, I saw some people talking about R. David Lankes’ talk at the University of Toronto – “Radical Librarians”. Actually, I first saw people talking about how the term “radical” had been diluted and is meaningless. In the library world, this doesn’t surprise me. Very much like hipster and punk. People who call themselves radicals, want to set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd but that’s not actually radical action. No, the real radical librarians are out there doing shit, changing and breaking things, and probably on the fringes of some professional discourse because they don’t have time for our navel gazing.

So a lot of librarians I really respect and admire were crying foul of Lankes’ lecture last night. The main issue is that Lankes crossed a picket line. I guess that’s radical in a bad way.

Lankes’ response shows the security he has as an established, white, male LIS faculty member. The sort of statement I’ve only heard from other “thought leaders” who seem to work in a rarified world.

I admire his surety in himself, but really it strikes me that Lankes probably doesn’t see how his actions reflect his intent. He wanted to bring the good word about libraries, to librarians, but it also means crossing a picket line. Something a lot of people, particularly radicals who care about equality, would not consider. Another way to show the value of libraries is to advocate for our colleagues, and protect access to education and knowledge for our whole community. That would be radical.

Then Jacob Berg highlighted Lankes’ abstract on Twitter:

Look at the Twitter discussion. People rightfully roll their eyes at Lankes’ referencing the protests in Ferguson and the Arab Spring. I just listened to the talk, and I would say there’s really not much of a connection to those uprisings. There’s actually not much radical in the content. Lots of self-effacing jokes and personal anecdotes, regular trotting out the “Canadians are nice” joke, a call to librarians to look beyond our closets of books and see our value to our community as services, and encouraging our profession to think about really how to be open promoting knowledge in our communities. Tara Robertson, a librarian who I respect a whole hell of a lot posed this question to Lankes:

You should go read the exchange. Lankes responds and it’s overall respectul. If anything it seems that he didn’t realize that people would react to his crossing the picket line.

The reason I’m blogging about this incident is that it just highlights a kind of tone deaf obliviousness that I’m just tired of in the profession. It also touches on something that came up in a recent blog post by Andromeda Yelton on the future of libraries and how they need to look beyond panels of regular (mostly white, mostly male) suspects. One of the many reasons I respect Yelton is because she does hold herself accountable, responds to critics, and does work to bring about the change she (and many others) want to see.

I personally am tired of being told what the future of my profession is going to be like when I’m trying to make it happen myself. I am tired of the “sage on the stage” being a white guy who seems to know how everything is, but their version of the state of things doesn’t really reflect mine or many of my colleagues.

And I’m tired of people proclaiming we’re a cutting edge, radical, progressive group. We’re not. We have our moments, but really it’s hard for us to get out of our bubbles and our comfort zones and really take a stand on things like equality, access, and diversity. If we really were? Our conferences on the future of the profession would be way more diverse – diverse in gender, ethnicity, race, background, everything. Instead, they tend to be established “thought leaders” who are entrenched in the current way of doing things (or jumping for shiny corporate speak). One reason I became a librarian was for the democratization of information, that’s my story, and these echo chambers aren’t helping that.

So I want to thank Lankes for responding to his critics. I want to thank Librarian Twitter for the very thoughtful conversation. I also want library leaders, particularly white men, to listen and give space to other voices. I learn best about these sorts of things when I listen to the people actually affected. We could also probably use something like Cecily Walker’s idea of diversity training for the profession. We need it.

And really – stop talking about how radical, progressive, punk, whatever you are and just be it. Make shit happen, listen to your conscience, and listen to others because that’s really how we’re all going to move forward.

How can you innovate without research?

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Yesterday I went down to Google HQ to see Secretary Foxx hold a fireside chat with Erich Schmidt to discuss DOT’s new 30-year plan Beyond Traffic.  I’ve never been to an event like this before, and it seemed the audience was industry more than the usual transportation wonks (though we were there).  There was a very active back channel on #BeyondTraffic on Twitter, connecting people in the room to those watching it online.

Foxx discussed the funding issues, MAP-21 won’t lasts much longer and in the last 6 years Congress has passed 32 short-term measures to extend funding because they can’t actually pass long-term funding.  Yesterday Foxx announced the White House’s ambitious $94.7 billion transportation investment plan.  I’m not holding my breath.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we get back down to the wire in May when the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money. That’s politics. (This is also something I know the general public, like Eric Schmidt, doesn’t know a whole lot about but it’s vital.)

The whole Beyond Traffic blue paper is also politics: bold proclamations, neat infographics, but light on the details. Foxx hit most of the high points that appealed to the Silicon Valley crowd – UAVs and connected/autonomous vehicles, and regulations for them. I did appreciate that Foxx said that promoting multimodal transportation system is about providing choices for people. He also stressed the important of land-use on transportation, which is hugely important in sustainability. (Which also lead to Schmidt extolling the success of Google buses, ignoring their role in perpetuating terrible land-use patterns in the Bay Area.) Bike/ped stuff was largely absent from the discussion.

Also largely absent was talking about research.

Research is inherent to all of these innovations. How do you improve and develop new practices without it? The problem is that funding allocated to research keeps dwindling. Politicians want to fund highways, (and maybe) rail, self-driving cars, but not the research and required research infrastructure to get there. Which is why we have to constantly advocate for communicating the value of research when it should be self evident.

So I asked Foxx about this, about funding research and the required data and IT infrastructure to facilitate collaboration across modes. He replied like a true politician, that DOT is “bullish” about research despite funding cuts, and it’s still a priority. Not really an answer but as much as he could give. I mostly asked the question because I wanted to make sure it got on record that people do care about research funding (namely people working for research bodies) and to make sure there was at least some women represented in the question queue. (Two out of ten or so? That’s pretty shabby, but also another blog post.) Judging from the response of many of my colleagues on Twitter, they appreciated having the issue elevated.

Transportation has some unique funding issues, such as the failure and inability to raise the gas tax to sustainable funding levels, but this issue of funding research is happening across disciplines. Money talks and subject that can garner private sector investment, such as self-driving cars (hey Uber and CMU!), but what about topics that aren’t financially lucrative but no less important, such as rural transit? And what about paying for the infrastructure to conduct research, such as data centers and libraries? We have to constantly advocate and push for our cause even though the immediate ROI might not be evident. This new funding model and philosophy is very pragmatic, but also pretty short sighted. Which is why I’m worried about these long range 30-year plans. Research programs and libraries have helped have that long view and memory to make sure we progress effectively and don’t duplicate efforts, but nobody wants to pay for it. I don’t think Beyond Traffic alone is going to change that.

All slow pop songs sound the same? On Fair Use and some such.

Have you heard Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”? You must have. It’s all over the place. Everybody loves it. (Even if you can’t really dance to it.) Some people pointed out the chorus sounds a lot like another ubiquitous pop song of yesteryear – Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”. Not sure? check this out:

Now you might say, “Oh, there’s nothing new under the sun! Chords are chords! Any similarity is incidental!” And you might be right. Smith was born three years after Petty’s song was all over radio, so he has some plausible deniability, maybe.

But this week it emerged that the two settled out of court in October and that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne would receive song writing credits and royalties. If the song wins a Grammy this year, does this mean Petty and Lynne are included? We’ll see.

These sorts of lawsuits are fairly common, though Robin Thicke’s pre-emptive lawsuit against the estate of Marvin Gaye was a new twist. The remix of the two songs is pretty good, and really with enough drugs is everything a remix? In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, one of the most well known lawsuits of this kind is Bright Tunes Music vs. Harrisongs because George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” sounds an awful lot like The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”. What do you think? Harrison (as seen in the video) sang and played guitar on Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”.

Fair Use with music is interesting because of the laws on what can and cannot be covered by copyright and the artistic intent. A counter example I’ve been obsessing over is the song “Respect”. The original 1965 version by Otis Redding is a stomper, driven by Al Jackson’s drumming and peppered with the Memphis Horns. It’s so clearly a Stax song. Of course the 1967 cover by Aretha Franklin is iconic – an anthem for women all over. It’s also a very different song, so different I think it’s foolish to compare the two. (I tried for most of 2014.) The words and the basic melodies are the same, but the arrangements made them stand apart. Check out the Ike & Tina Turner cover which is a pretty perfect combination of the two.

Lots of covers differ much from the original that they could be considered completely different songs, but as long as the melody or the lyrics are used, then they need permission. The words are obvious – as evident from “Respect” even though the music doesn’t fully match up. In the Smith/Petty case, it’s a little bit more uncertain but there’s enough there. What’s this mean for librarians? Nothing new really, but it’s interesting when the lines are less blurred. (Pun intended.) Of course, there could be a whole follow up on sampling.