The QGIS GIS: A Steal at Twice the Price

Published at 20:18 on 18 February 2015

I wanted to create a track to follow for my GPS based on property lines which are part of the public record. A little searching revealed that most GIS software can do this these days.

Years ago, I supported an installation of the GRASS GIS at the University of Washington. It was notoriously difficult to install and configure. About three years ago, I played with installing GRASS on my home computer, and discovered that it’s approximately as difficult to learn to use as it is to install. A pity, as it is free and by all accounts very powerful.

So I did more searching to see if someone had come up with an easier-to-use open-source GIS. Indeed they had, and it’s called QGIS. Actually, that’s only about half-true; from what I’ve been able to gather, QGIS is mostly a user-friendly front-end for GRASS.

And user-friendly it is. In an evening, I managed to import a bunch of GIS data available for free from my county of residence and use the resulting GIS project to draw and export the desired track to my GPS. It took a fair amount of web searches and searching through the documentation, I never did figure out how to import the road and place labels, and the process of exporting the GPS track was more than a little bit fiddly.

But no matter. In an evening, I managed to do what I had set out to do. That’s far more than I ever accomplished trying to bend plain old GRASS to my will.

No doubt a professional-grade GIS like ArcGIS would likely have been even more smoothly designed and documented. No matter. Professional GIS software doubtless costs thousands of dollars, an expense that cannot be justified just to occasionally create a GPS track.

Having something affordable (better yet, free!) which is usable by mere mortals is a major win.

Lavishing Subsidies on the Affluent, Neglecting the Needy

Published at 11:38 on 18 February 2015

That basically describes US housing policy in a nutshell.

What prompted me to write this was receiving a letter from Freddie Mac (a government-sponsored enterprise) last month. They’re buying my mortgage so that US Bank (the original lender) can be freed up to make more home loans to other people. That’s in addition to the subsidy from the government I get by paying my interest on that loan with pre-tax dollars.

Both forms of government intervention in my favor came about simply because I decided to purchase a home. I didn’t have to spend years on a waiting list or enter a lottery to receive the largesse. It just flowed to me. Such it has long been for homeowners.

Meanwhile, the working poor (who cannot afford home ownership) do have to enter lotteries (where like all lotteries, the odds of “winning” are slim) and sit on waiting lists, often for years, to become eligible for Section 8 vouchers or public housing apartments. And rents, unlike mortgage interest, receive no income tax deductions. Again, such it has long been.

Why is the government giving subsidies to upper middle class software engineers to purchase homes in upscale suburbs while mostly ignoring those who truly need help with their housing situations? Because we’re a class society, that’s why. The higher you are on the class hierarchy, the more your life matters.

Keep that in mind some affluent right-winger (no doubt a recipient of the same sort of largesse I am receiving) starts getting all sanctimonious about the baleful effects of the “culture of dependency” on the less-well-off.

For more of the ugly details, go here.

A Group Dedicated to Housing Sanity in San Francisco?

Published at 08:57 on 16 February 2015

While this group does actually get it that restrictions on adding supply (in the face of a robust local economy that is adding jobs lie crazy) is at the root of the problem, and that’s  refreshing change, they are also quite ideologically biased in ways I disagree with.

Just look a the first link on their site, and how their “forum” was basically a discussion between different sides of the development industry. At least one of their speakers was pretty open about wanting to get rid of zoning entirely.

I’ll agree that present-day zoning codes have a lot of problems and do make housing needlessly more expensive as well as mandating ecological irresponsibility.

But zoning exists for a reason; there really are such a thing as incompatible land uses. One of my memories of living in Oakland was running into a mostly residential neighborhood where there was an elementary school and a factory on the same block. The factory was served by a rail spur that ran down the middle of the (otherwise residential) street right in front of the school. If I had children, I would not want them walking to school or playing in a neighborhood where multi-ton trains regularly come trundling down the street. I wouldn’t want to live right in the shadow of a noisy, polluting industrial facility, either.

I believe there is a valid public purpose in stopping more such things from happening. I also believe it’s possible to do so without going to the extremes that most zoning codes go to. One doesn’t need to put that factory many miles away from housing; on the other side of a wide arterial with a buffer a couple blocks of commercial and light industrial uses would suffice very nicely. The residential area could have a mix of single-family homes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings (with corner markets here and there) instead of being mandated by law to be nothing but single-family detached homes.

Said arterial could have bus or light rail service which would serve all of the residential, commercial, and industrial uses nearby. The factory workers who wouldn’t be walking to work could take transit there.

There is a place for zoning, and it is promoting general health and safety. Where zoning goes wrong is when it is used to promote elitism (“I am superior and do not want to live anywhere near those blue-collar renters”) and micromanagement of others’ lives (“How dare Emma build a cottage in her back yard, move into it, and have her adult daughter, his husband, and child move into the main house; I like my large home and backyard and Emma should be forced to live as I prefer.”)

And there’s also a great deal of property rights and capitalism fetishism going on in that group. It’s founder is largely pissed that she is missing out on the ability to speculate in real estate and profit from unearned income. The whole problem how it is precisely home ownership coupled with this desire which creates perverse incentives for existing residents to support overly-restrictive zoning codes (because it increases the value of their home) is ignored.

So, no, it’s not sanity, not overall. But it may still play a part in more sane policies being adopted by helping to undermine some of the supply restrictions.

The Great Inversion: Ehrenhalt Gets It Backwards

Published at 20:15 on 9 February 2015

What’s happening with the ongoing gentrification of the inner cities is the end of the real great inversion: those decades following World War II when the cities were abandoned pretty much wholesale throughout the USA as desirable places to live.

The inner city basically hit rock bottom in the 1970s, after several decades of accelerating decline. That was the decade when large areas of the Bronx burned and New York City almost went bankrupt. By the end of the 1980s, historic preservation was starting to make people appreciate those older urban core areas and they began a gradual, ongoing process of revival.

Those postwar decades of urban decline are an anomaly in an overall historical record in which cities have traditionally been seen as the most prestigious places to live. That those same decades encompass most of the lifespan of the Baby Boomer generation does not make it any less an anomaly.

The Left Wins the Debate on Health Care in the US

Published at 08:23 on 4 February 2015

The latest Republican effort to repeal it proves my point. It contains a provision to work on coming up with something to replace it. From that article:

Unlike previous GOP bills to repeal the health care law, this version did instruct key House committees to report back within six months with new legislation that would provide health care coverage without increased costs.

The debate on whether there should be some social responsibility for health care (as opposed to it merely being each to his own in a capitalist market) is therefore over. Both sides now agree that health care should be more than just an individual responsibility. The debate is now moving on to how exactly to define that social responsibility and its relationship to individual responsibility.

The latter, of course, will always be a big part of the equation, as it must in any free society. It would take an Orwellian world of total surveillance and total lack of personal privacy for it to be otherwise.

Even in the UK, which probably has the most socialized medical system in the First World, there’s still a lot of individual responsibility: choosing which risky behaviors to engage in (or avoid), adopting good hygiene habits, reporting symptoms to one’s doctor, choosing which doctor to have as one’s primary care practitioner, etc.

But I digress. Back to the emerging consensus as to the coming parameters of the debate: It is precisely why the Right fought any sort of health-care reform so tenaciously. They knew it would come to this; they knew it would be a Social Security moment, a time when a move to a more collective responsibility for something (then: retirement, now: health care) would become widely accepted by society.

That’s true despite any of the very real flaws in Obamacare (it’s basically a welfare program for the wasteful and inefficient private insurance industry), or no doubt in any of the GOP proposals that emerge to change or replace it. The basic parameters of the debate have now shifted.

Why the Islamic State is Doomed

Published at 21:04 on 3 February 2015

Basically, they are dead set on pissing as many people as possible off, and their ideology prevents them from being able to acknowledge this. So they’re doomed to gather increasing numbers of enemies, and increasingly provoke said enemies, until those same enemies feel compelled to crush the Islamic State. It’s precisely the same reason why Hitler was doomed to fail.

A look at their English-language magazine should be enough to convince one of that. It’s packed with rhetoric about how what they’re doing is God’s will. So any criticism of their aggressive expansionist doctrine amounts (in their eyes) to criticizing the Almighty, which is of course a capital offense according to their ideology.

And, unlike with Al Qaeda (a non-state actor), war will be possible to wage against the Islamic State. It’s an actual nation-state (albeit not an internationally recognized one). It has an identifiable territory which can be attacked, invaded, and conquered. The well-understood concept of war can be easily applied.

And what sort of state is it? A landlocked one, in control of a badly conflict-scarred infrastructure, surrounded by nations which hate it. And which it is fated to provoke even more.

It’s doomed.

A Great Sunday

Published at 16:02 on 3 February 2015

I’m not much of a sports fan, so when it became evident that the forecast storm on Sunday was instead breaking up as it hit the Olympics, I decided to load my fat-tired bike in my truck and ride the logging roads near Port Gamble. Part of the motivation was that it’s one of the last good chances to go off-island (for outdoorsy stuff) in the next month, as the Agate Pass Bridge is scheduled to have maintenance done on it, which means huge backups for anyone using it. That leaves the ferry, which does not head to a convenient destination if easy access to outdoor recreation is one’s goal.

So, anyhow, after lunch I hit the trails. Well, the roads. But many of them in the northeast part of the Port Gamble tree farm are more like trails, because they are so overgrown they might as well be mostly fictional (if you can even find them in the first place). That made for some unplanned adventures and detours.

Overall, though, it ended up being a day of hitting an aggressive stride and trying to go as fast as possible down those old roads. I had them pretty much to myself, because the masses were at home transfixed by their electronic screens. It was a wonderful afternoon of feeling great to be alive, and great to be an animal on a living planet.

I have yet to visit the southeast part of the tree farm. It was on the route plan for Sunday, but the unplanned detours due to the differences between the map and reality put me behind schedule as the afternoon light was starting to wane. If the map was correct, I’d have enough time to take a route through the southeast quadrant, but I had just learned that said map cannot be completely trusted as to its accuracy.

So I played it safe and took the way back I was already familiar with. The southeast quadrant will probably have to wait until March.