Genetic Algorithms: Still Valid?

gaor 3 1/2 billion years, nature has used a nifty trick to improve itself: Subtly mutating the genes in organisms, letting the strong attributes survive and the weak ones perish.

These days computer programmers are embracing the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest theory. Software incorporating genetic algorithms mimics evolution: Lines of computer code act like living organisms, continually interacting with each other and mutating. So the software evolves, rearranging itself to achieve the optimal solution to a complex problem.

GAs are being used to manage financial portfolios, design communication networks and improve manufacturing schedules.

* Denver-based Advanced Geophysical Co. includes a GA optimization technique in its software package to interpret seismic data.

* LBS Capital Management System, Clearwater, Fla., picks stocks for pension managers with the aid of GAs.

* Moody’s Investors Services, a bond-rating agency, uses internally developed GAs to schedule hundreds of jobs to support 1,000 PCs spread throughout its New York facility.

* Texas Instruments Inc., Dallas, used GAs to design a computer chip that required 18% less space than the best design that human minds could conceive.

GA applications grow

While the concept is as old as nature, the business marketplace for GA technology is embryonic but growing.

“In the past five years, we’ve gone from maybe a dozen GA applications to hundreds of applications today,” said Lawrence Davis, president of Tica Technologies Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consultancy that specializes in GAs.

John Holland, a professor at the University of Michigan, received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for inventing GAs in the 1960s. He saw a striking similarity between the ones and zeros strung along a computer code to the way genes line up on a chromosome.

In evolution, organisms pass on mutant genes to their offspring and those offspring that are improved by the new genes tend to survive. The same technique can be applied to computer code by rearranging the ones and zeros.

For more than a decade, though, GAs remained hidden in universities and research centers. That began changing when new techniques and programming languages, like Windows and Visual Basic, made GAs easier to incorporate. That promise could be enhanced by Sun Microsystem Inc.’s Java programming language, which allows high-powered computing projects like GAs to run quicker. On top of that, some recent GA applications require no programming ability.

GAs help other software perform better. When a computer is unused, a GA will automatically and transparently try different scenarios, calculating and crunching data to find more efficient solutions.

“GAs should only be a small cog in a big machine that makes the machine run better,” said David Orvosh, a Tica programmer. “The trick is figuring out what products you can create to make the genetic algorithm a market-differentiating feature. It has to have a big payoff.”

U S West saves millions

A GA could be used to optimize the physical layout of a plant and manufacturing processes, allowing three or more products per hour to be produced. But that might not be worth the trouble of repositioning and purchasing equipment. For high tech design projects, like designing fiber-optic networks, the savings can be enough to warrant using a GA.

In the past, U S West Inc., a Baby Bell that’s a Tica client, let human designers lay out huge networks of fiber-optic cable using their instinct and experience. But using Tica- and in-house designed GAs, U S West sharply cut development time.

Tony Cox, senior director-business and engineering modeling for U S West, figures GAs find solutions that are 10% to 25% better than those human minds can provide. GAs have guided U S West to design networks more efficiently and using less equipment, saving an average of $4 million to $6 million per project. In all, Mr. Cox said GAs have saved U S West more than $100 million.

GAs also have benefitted U S West in smaller ways. For example, to bid on providing networks for banks, U S West’s computers might need two days to crunch all the numbers. But using a GA, it took just 1 second to make the calculations. “Our customer service reps could give the bank a bid instantly, instead of having to call them back in two days,” Mr. Cox said.

One of the hottest areas for GAs now is the financial industry, where even small improvements can translate into enough dollars to encourage experimenting with new technology.

Marketing a tough sell

As a marketing peg, GAs tend to be very industry-specific. Glance in the back of financial technology magazines, and most ads for financial prediction software stress GAs or neural networks, which are software that mimics the way the human mind works.

“Wall Street and London have decided that GA is the next thing in trading, so you see them highlighted with stars next to them,” said Tica’s Mr. Davis. That’s also beginning to happen with tools for manufacturing scheduling. “In other industries, such as telecommunication network design, people aren’t as familiar with GA, so putting the name out there could scare them away.”

“The hardest part is getting them past the name,” said Mr. Orvosh. “People think it’s a biotechnical kind of thing, but GA is not a very complex theory – the computer generates a bunch of solutions and combines them to get better solutions.”

At the very least, a GA is, as one marketer put it, “an additional check box to differentiate a product from the competition.” The most advanced GA- based product is probably Evolver, an add-on to the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Made by Seattle-based Axcelis Inc., Evolver allows the user to specify a problem to have the computer look for better solutions, such as how to best sort physical components that make up a local area network into groups of roughly equal size and weight for shipping.

Steven Wu, a marketing manager at Axcelis, described GAs using the oxymoron “broad niche market.” In his view, GAs are a tool that appeals to a specific personality type – early technology adopters who have a vested interest in optimizing how a system works. That could include manufacturing, engineering, financial, distribution, budgeting, resource allocation or scheduling.

New tacks taken

Because its product is so versatile, Axcelis can’t really tell customers how to use it. “Good marketing is supposed to hit the customer over the head on how we can solve a problem they have,” said Mr. Wu. “Instead our direct mail packages ask them to take a few minutes to think about their jobs and how GA might apply.”

The in-house produced direct mail pieces show six or seven examples and a spreadsheet with numbers dancing around trying to solve a problem. Readers, Axcelis hopes, will extrapolate this to their own situations. “That’s one thing that limits the market – GA has to be sold to people who are motivated to try and improve something that is working OK right now but could work a whole lot better,” Mr. Wu said.

For this reason, a key Axcelis marketing tactic is teaching students in top business schools about GAs. The company hopes as these people understand GAs’ benefits and rise in the Fortune 500 ranks, they’ll spread the gospel until GAs become another standard programming tool.

“A lot of our marketing effort goes into educating users how to represent a problem in a way the technology can [analyze],” Mr. Wu said. “We have to show them how they can turn a word problem into a model in a spreadsheet that looks at different scenarios.”

If a user doesn’t grasp the benefits of GAs, it can be a hard sell. For instance, Mr. Wu’s product costs $349 – more than triple the cost of the Excel spreadsheet that Evolver is intended to enhance. “That gets confusing.”

Nonetheless, Axcelis has been trying new marketing approaches. For instance, Evolver now comes with a developer’s tool kit, which used to cost extra, that allows incorporation of a GA at no extra cost. “We are encouraging people to adopt the technology and embed it in their projects,” Mr. Wu said.

In addition, Axcelis is in the process of setting up a Web site (http://www.axcelis.com) that would contain information and even chat rooms about all GA software, not just its offerings.

Industry evolving

Other products are positioned squarely at techies who immediately grasp their value.

Krishan Kumar, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama, exemplifies how one part of the GA industry is evolving. Mr. Kumar was tinkering to find a way to improve Matlab, a neural-network product used for computation and analysis in the financial industry and in designing signal processing control systems – say a temperature sensor at a chemical factory.

Mr. Kumar came up with a GA to enhance Matlab. Thinking of potential commercial applications, he started Flexible Intelligence Group LLC, Tuscaloosa, Ala., as a small side business. Mr. Kumar has placed a few in- house created ads in engineering publications like Control Systems, but has mainly pushed FlexTool at engineering conferences and in postings on Internet user groups frequented by engineers.

GAs are often compared with neural networks, though they perform their tasks differently and often are used together. Neural networks, which try to replicate the way the brain works, have been embraced by many of the same industries as GAs. Companies that market both can try to sell tool kits, training and books. But ultimately, industry watchers said, dollars will flow to companies that figure how to apply GAs to specific problems and embed them in other products.

“In the long run, the guys who make money are not going to be core GA vendors but the ones who figure out the right applications for this technology,” said Eric Brown, an analyst with Forrester Research, a consultancy in Cambridge, Mass. “There is certainly more money in using GAs to predict the future of the Dow [Jones average] accurately than in selling the core genetic algorithm technology itself.”

Tica, which has spent the last five years specializing in GA consulting, knows that. The problem is that GA projects tend to take less time and generate fewer hours billed than other optimization projects. So Tica, like other consultancies, is looking at commercializing some designs and putting out products, such as financial prediction and manufacturing scheduling offerings.

Unlike neural networks, a high-profile GA tool has not yet been produced. “We don’t have a general, well-known, industrial-strength, radiation-hardened, mill-spec software for GA,” said Mr. Davis, which means a breakthrough product. “There are plenty of those systems in various degrees of development.”

Jane Klimasauskas, an editor at NeuralWare Inc., a Pittsburgh neural- network software provider, said use of GAs is not yet common enough to warrant comparisons with the neural network industry. “This could be due to the stage of growth of genetic algorithms or the [lack of] acceptance in the engineering community at this point.”

Scientists are fuzzy about what problems GAs can work on and which ones they can’t. Another difficulty in commercializing GA products is making the specific broad: A GA customized for a specific project is almost by definition the most efficient design. Mathematicians are unclear about how to design a generic GA that can handle diverse tasks.

GAs are moving in the same direction as neural networks and fuzzy logic, where they will be hidden in the background of other applications.

“The user doesn’t care if a program has a genetic algorithm,” Mr. Davis said. “What they’d like is a big black button they can click with their mouse that says, ‘It will take a while, but you will get a better result.’ That’s what GAs do.”

June 27, 2014 | Leave a Comment  | Tags: , ,

Will Congress Make The Environment A Priority Like They Once Did?

dfmotcDuring first months of the 104th Congress, activists have watched much of the environmental progress of the last three decades unravel with lightning speed as members of the House of Representatives push through the “Contract with America.” The Contract consists of ten separate bills dealing with a wide range of issues, from crime and government procedure to social security reform and regulatory overhaul. None explicitly mentions the environment, yet if Americans read the fine print buried within the Contract, few would be eager to sign on the dotted line.

The Contract requires federal government agencies to use cost-benefit analysis to set health and environmental standards, regardless of the absurdity of measuring the value of a wild and scenic river or the cost of the pain and suffering cancer and environmental illnesses. Legislation that passed the House in February would subject regulations to a Byzantine review process that assesses relative risks and costs. Economic factors rather than health concerns would become the driving force behind such laws as the Clean Air Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Contract also places a six-month moratorium on new regulations.

Calling the Risk Assessment and Cost-Benefit Act a “full frontal assault on protecting public health and the environment,” EPA Administrator Carol Browner, says “Protecting the health of the American people cannot be reduced to a game of numbers. …This legislation would undermine virtually every health protection that the American people depend on.”

Gregory Wetstone, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says regulatory reform won’t streamline government. “What this is, is more government bureaucracy, a variety of hoops, clearly a formula for gridlock. It will roll back programs that have worked, programs that were necessary because efforts to get state and local government to do them on their own in the 60s and 70s didn’t work.”

The House also approved a bill that gives property holders expansive rights to get compensation from the federal government when enforcement of environmental laws reduces the value of even a small portion of their property by 20 percent or more. This “takings” provision turns the polluter pays concept on its head, essentially forcing taxpayers to pay for pollution in their neighborhoods. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit calls it “a thinly disguised attack on America’s great natural resources.”

Both houses of Congress also passed bills slashing so-called unfunded mandates. Under the bills, any legislation that would require state or local governments to pay more than $50 Million must include the money to pay for the mandate. Legislation imposing mandates of more than $200 million on industry would have to carry a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate.

The Contract also calls for the “loser” to pay for legal costs in federal court actions and limits corporate liability from punitive damages. Although the Contract purports to limit frivolous lawsuits, in effect it scares average citizens from challenging corporate polluters.

What You Can Do

Despite the tidal wave of bad news, there’s still time to make a difference. At press time in early March, the Senate had yet to act on many of the pieces of the Contract that would affect the environment; environmentalists hope the Senate will be somewhat more moderate in its approach to Contract provisions.

Sen. John Chafee (R-RI), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, says the House’s version of regulatory reform, H.R. 9, goes too far. “I’m worried how many laws will remain intact once the dust has settled” he says. “Some environmental rules, especially those intended to protect wildlife and other environmental values, have such a broad scope that it would take endless hours or a government agency to carefully catalogue all the benefits and costs. And even if that part of the job could be done, H.R. 9 would subject the cost-benefit studies and risk assessments to months, perhaps years, of litigation.”

But bills introduced by Senators Robert Dole (R-KS), S. 343, and Frank Murkowski (R-AK), S. 333, may be even worse than the bill approved by the House. They more explicitly dismantle the risk assessment process as its currently practiced and would force new regulations through an even lengthier approval process.

One of the laws Congress is considering drastically changing or even repealing a vital law that protects consumers and the environment from abuses of electric utility monopolies, the Public Utility Holding Company Act, or PUHCA. In many states, utilities are cutting costs for their large customers, forcing small, residential customers to subsidize big business. Meanwhile, utilities continue to build large polluting power plants that destroy the environment while largely shutting out the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy. EAF has been working to strengthen PUHCA’s consumer and environmental protections for 25 years.

Write or call your senators today. Tell them that federal environmental laws passed since 1970,have slowed the flood of sewage and toxic chemicals into waterways, greatly reduced lead in the air and in children’s blood and brought the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction. Dismantling laws like PUHCA today, will only force all Americans to pay a far higher price in the future. Tell them the takings bill amounts to a new federal entitlement program for wealthy land owners and developers at the expense of taxpayers.

In addition, participate in a special call-in day to the Senate on April 26,when thousands of environmentalists from around the country will flood phone lines on Capitol Hill to tell their senators to reject the regressive provisions of the Contract. If you do not know your senator’s office number, call the main Capitol switch board at (202) 224-3121.

Also, tell President Clinton that majority of voters who put him in office two years ago refuse watch the dismantling of environmental safeguards. Let him know expect him to veto any final legislation that weaken’s. health and safety standards.

June 27, 2014 | Leave a Comment  | Tags: , ,

Gifts, Taxes And Weirdness

tawnRecently someone told me the following story. I have changed some details to protect my sources.

A marcomm manager (we’ll call her Jane) at a major high tech company recently got a new boss. Before the boss (whom we’ll call Karen) had been on the job for very long, a publication representative invited her (and her husband) on an expensive trip.

Karen told Jane the offer offended her.

“I think such things are simply bribery, and I will not participate in them. How can we make objective decisions about a publication after we’ve just accepted thousands of dollars of their money?”

The reaction shocked Jane, who had been in marcomm for years and never was told such gifts presented a problem. Not wishing to have a confrontation with her boss, Jane decided not to argue with Karen’s position. She also decided not to mention that she took a similar trip with the same publication representative the year before.

Jane asked Karen if she thought lunches were OK; Karen said she had no objection to lunches – or even small gifts. “But when it gets into the hundreds – or thousands – of dollars,” Karen said, “I draw the line. And I don’t think our agency should be taking such gifts, either.”

Jane made a mental list of things she would and would not be able to do while Karen was her boss, and was glad, at least, that she could still have lunch – or maybe even dinner – with reps. She then called the rep involved and asked him not to talk about the earlier trip in front of Karen.

Two weeks later, Karen and Jane made a visit to their ad agency. As they walked into their account executive’s office, Jane noticed a picture of herself from the previous year’s trip, standing under palm trees with the account executive and the rep.

She panicked.

Maybe if she had mentioned the trip, it might have been all right. But she hadn’t. She managed to get Karen out of the office and into a conference room before Karen could notice the photo. While “going to the bathroom,” she got someone at the agency to remove the picture and hide it before they returned to the office.

We’ve all been there.

I think this might have happened to any of us in marketing communications. The fact is Karen’s standards are very unusual. The dirty little secret of the marcomm business is that nearly all of us take money from our vendors in the form of lunches, gifts, golf outings, trips, etc. It’s the norm. Very few of us ever say anything about it.

In some professions, such behavior could get a person thrown into jail. Government employees and elected officials, for example, cannot (legally) accept the kind of gifts we get all the time. Most of us support laws that forbid such behavior because we don’t want our politicians being bribed. We know that causes them to make poor decisions.

Why then, do we allow our employees to be bribed? Why do our bosses allow us to take bribes? Most of the marcomm people I ask about this bristle when I use the word. They say they don’t take bribes and they wouldn’t let their staff do it either.

The standard is twisted. This position doesn’t make sense.

No one I know in this business would say it’s OK for someone in a decisionmaking position to accept cash from a vendor, even if it were a small amount. But very few marcomm people I talk to object to taking gifts or trips that might be worth a lot of money.

Really, though, what’s the difference?

I am no better than the rest. I have accepted my share of gifts, dinners and trips. I have observed my own limits on such gifts (as many of us do) but that has, for the most part, been my own choice.

I am reluctant to make such gifts illegal, partly because I hate to pass unenforceable laws. It’s fine for individual companies to forbid marcomm employees from accepting meals or gifts of any kind, but employees can usually find a way around such rules.

Here’s my suggestion: Make all such gifts taxable income to the employee receiving them. They are at least partially deductible for the company giving the gift, meal or trip; why shouldn’t they be taxable income to the recipient? At the end of every year, all marcomm employees would receive 1099 forms from every vendor who had spent more than $100 on them, and they would simply add this amount to their taxable income. Employers would get copies.

This would accomplish a couple of things. First, it would give a company a clear picture of the situation. If you were a CEO, wouldn’t you like to know how much the publications in which you advertise were spending on your marcomm employees? If it were under $1,000, you might not care. If it were $10,000 or more, you might get concerned. The second would be to make employees a lot more careful about what they accept, knowing they would have to pay taxes on it.

Wouldn’t you love to see the annual total on these expenditures? I bet it would be enlightening.

June 11, 2014 | Leave a Comment  | Tags: , ,

Activists Go Online For Real Action

agofrIn 1992, doctors discovered a tumor in Stan and Sherri Loscko’s young son’s arm after it literally snapped while he was swinging at a softball. He suffered from persistent respiratory problems and fatigue. Then he developed a skin tumor. Soon after, doctors found a tumor in the Loscko’s daughter as well and the family started to look for a link. It didn’t take long.

Just down the road from their Columbus, Ohio home, a trash incinerator was spewing forth more dioxin per year than all the hazardous waste incinerators in the country combined, according to the U.S. EPA. Despite the fact that up to one-ninth of all the dioxin emissions in the United States were coming from the plant and community health problems continued to grow, incinerator officials hung up on the Losckos when they called, the EPA ignored them, and the Columbus Dispatch published a story acknowledging the startlingly high level of dioxin, but had the audacity to ask, “So what?”

Not knowing where else to turn, the Losckos logged onto their computer. Trolling through the environmental bulletin boards of the commercial online service Prodigy, they found other frustrated citizens looking for answers – and a wealth of medical and toxic-oriented information. A grassroots leader instrumental in the shutdown of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado gave them advice and eventually moved to Columbus to help fight the incinerator.

“Without making that connection over the computer, I’m not sure where we’d be today. We were on the computer around the clock. It’s a really serious resource for people who need help,” Sherri Loscko says.

The Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio voted to shut the incinerator down last November, due to a combination of citizen pressure and the high costs of operating the plant. Never active in environmental issues before, the Losckos continue to network with activists around the world on online services such as America Online and CompuServe.

“Online networking gave us the information to be brave enough to stand up to local politicians,” Stan Loscko says. “Otherwise we would have been ruled out as too emotional. It empowered me as a mad dad who didn’t want to see his boy get sicker to confront what was going on.”

The Losckos are part of a growing movement of environmentalists who are turning from leafleting and phonebanking to cyberspace as an efficient, economical way to network with activists and to access information, which might previously have taken weeks to unearth, with the click of a mouse.

“Electronic communication technology has given power back into the hands of people by letting them get their own voices out on the information highway. Until now that voice has been mediated by lobbying groups and special interests,” says Stanton McCandlish, manager of online services for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which studies computer access and civil liberties issues. “Before, you had to have contacts and a lot of money to spread your voice. Money and contacts are becoming less important.”

The University Conversion Project proved McCandlish right in March by organizing a 100-campus protest of the Contract with America exclusively via the Internet. With an online e-mail list of more than 700 campus activists across the country, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based group distributed information about the protest that schools used to plan their own rallies, hunger strikes and leafleting. Wellesley students circulated an “Unpetition of the Contract With America” via the Internet that students downloaded, printed and distributed at their own schools. The petition opposed environmental, educational and social proposals in the Contract.

“Without electronic communications, we’d be spending a good part of our time trying to find activists,” says Rich Cowan, director of the University Conversion Project.

Numerous environmental groups offer nearly daily issue updates and action alerts through bulletin boards and e-mail lists. The Sierra Club, for example, began with 20 subscribers for its list server (messages that are e-mailed directly to subscribers, rather than posted in a conference) in March. Today it has 1,300 subscribers.

“The response has been incredible,” says Steven Krefting, Sierra Club’s deputy political director, who also coordinates the group’s online work. “According to a survey [sent via e-mail], 70 percent of the mailing list subscribers had corresponded with members of Congress just from the computer alerts alone.” In fact, Krefting got about a quarter of the surveys back within 24 hours, a feat he attributes to the ease and immediacy of responding via computer, rather than hunting down pen, paper and stamp to send it back via the traditional “snail mail.”

The Nuclear Information and Research Service (NIRS) scored a victory last year when Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) tried to railroad through a proposal to transfer land for a low-level nuclear waste dump in California’s Ward Valley. Though environmentalists and Native American activists had tried to prevent the Mojave Desert facility for several years, Johnston attempted to site the dump without hearings or further studies.

Through an urgent plea to its online activist list and activists on services such as Econet and America Online, Johnston “got enough letters to kill the idea within a week,” says Michael Marriotte, executive director at NIRS. “We never even used a piece of paper. This was a case when using the postal system would have just been far too slow. Electronic communication works, it definitely works.”

The Environmental Background Information Center researches companies proposing landfills, manufacturing plants and other projects for grassroots activists. Through the news and legal database Lexis-Nexis, researcher Brian Lipsett says he’s uncovered a wealth of information. Tapping into the RTK (Right to Know) Net, he can also find out about the toxic releases that companies have reported to the EPA.

“The information available electronically has a direct and important impact on grassroots efforts to hold corporations accountable,” Lipsett says.

For example, Lipsett researched a company that proposed siting a medical waste disposal facility in a Pennsylvania community. The project was backed by a prominent local lawyer and local legislators, but Lipsett uncovered a string of lawsuits and non-payment of court judgments against the company. Consideration of the company was eventually dropped. The state government of Kentucky called on the center to find out more about a company that wanted to build a landfill in a coal pit. Lipsett discovered a history of organized crime ties and an incinerator project that went broke after tax-free bonds had been issued. Again, the company was rejected.

But despite the obvious potential of cyber-activism, some are discovering the much-hyped information superhighway has its downside.

Rather than succumbing to the lure of the new technology, people need to interact face-to-face in real communities instead of virtual ones, writes Frank Saige in the magazine Plain, about simple living. Computers and other high-tech inventions “take away our freedom by narrowing our options to a set of pre-programmed choices. It removes the sensory complexity that is the most obvious characteristic of the lived world,” he says.

Many compare the state of the Internet to the early days of TV or to the vapid volume of choices on 500-channel cable TV.

“This stage of the evolution of the World Wide Web is similar to the very early stages of TV, with the proliferation of Web sites and people throwing anything at all on just to fill up space. Still, unlike, TV, the Internet has to remain somewhat democratic and accessible,” says Krefting.

The increase in companies advertising on the Web – more than 12,000 in June – leads some to worry that commercialization will overwhelm the Internet, leading merely to consumption of products rather than readily available information for activists and researchers.

For Austin Nichols, who works to maintain some of the Econet conferences and also trouble-shoots computer problems at Greenpeace, navigating through the dreck and drivel to find the information environmentalists need has become increasingly difficult. Because many environmentalists tend to be techno-phobes to begin with, they don’t have the patience to map out the routes to the sites that interest them, he says.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Stanton McCandlish notes that, “The Net is currently almost devoid of editorial services, filtration, and intelligent agents.” But he points out that, “In a year or less, it won’t be. There are services forming as we speak, and some of them already available, to do this kind of work, to mediate the firehose of information for you, to help you find what you need, to prevent garbage from getting to you, and to hunt down and draw your attention to material you tell it to watch for.”

McCandlish says that part of the information overload problem is self-caused. He says he now gets about 100 e-mail messages a day, down from a high of 300. “One has to learn to refrain from subscribing to every mailing list, newsgroup and service that sounds potentially interesting, or one will be overwhelmed,” he says.

Greenpeace international toxics campaign organizer Connie Murtagh worries that her recent posting may have gotten lost in the electronic shuffle. A week after she posted a plea to Econet users to sign onto the Time-Warner World Wide Web site to protest the company’s use of chlorine-bleached paper, only one activist had done so. Deflated by the less-than-rousing response to her first online action, Murtagh says she’s still working to find the right posting areas and message to hook activists.

Others lack access both to computers and the training necessary to find postings such as Murtagh’s. (See “Access Denied,” page 18).

Susana Almanza, co-chair of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER) says Internet access would greatly enhance the group’s ability to research polluting companies in their predominantly African American and Latino community in East Austin, Texas. The small group just doubled the number of office computers – now they have two – but funding for and education about using the new technology has been slow in coming, she says.

“We feel left out, definitely,” Almanza says. “It’s hard when people say they found this or that out from the Internet. We’re feeling like we’re way up there just because we now have computers and a fax machine.” Still, Almanza notes, “You can still be pretty effective with just a typewriter.”

And organizations that are already speeding down the information highway can leave their non-computer-equipped members in the dust.

“You have to be careful. It’s easy to rush off into the cyber age and forget a lot of people need our regular publications and mail alerts,” notes the Sierra Club’s Krefting.

NIRS’s Marriotte acknowledges that, “In the past couple years, we’ve sent out very few mail action alerts. It’s not only postage – a couple thousand dollars – but that the alert gets there too late to be useful. We now do about three mailings a year. We used to do six or 10. Sure we’ve had complaints.”

But as the on-ramps to the information superhighway burgeon and the twinkling lights of cyber communities beckon, very few feel that its shortcomings outweigh its possibilities.

“We shouldn’t over-glorify what technology can do because it’s only as good as the humans who are connected to it. If you’ve got apathetic people on the Net, it won’t go very far in creating social change,” says James Hung, whose Harvard University graduate school thesis focused on how the Internet shapes Generation X activism. “But for someone with a latent interest in an issue or someone who just didn’t know where to go before to meet others active in their causes, the technology allows people to find each other, to coalesce to become more involved.”

Mountains Of Change

mocYou hear the truck long before you see it. The low-pitched roar of the engine starts to rise, the sound of the gearbox becomes a whine and your body tenses as you feel the truck strain. Finally you see it. A dump truck appears around a bend in the road, grinding its way slowly up the concrete mountain.

From the street below, it almost looks like a big toy. Enormous pieces of concrete pillars are piled on it, as though a giant hand had snapped them off a crushed freeway and dropped them into the trucks bed. Forty feet above the Southeast Los Angeles street, as the truck reaches the summit, its huge tires leave a trail of dust in the air, a cloud that floats and slowly dissipates down the crushed concrete slope.

Rounding a bend in the powdery road at the top, the truck disappears. Then you hear a rumble and crash, as it adds its load to the hundreds or thousands that must have come before. They begin arriving at 6 a.m. Throughout the day, one after another, the enormous trucks whine and rumble up the slope and dump their loads.

On Cottage Street, which runs behind the concrete mountain, Linda Marquez, her brother Ignacio and his wife Lilia rise to the din. The roar accompanies their breakfast, and sends families in the neighborhood off to work. It threatens to drown the Spanish soaps on TV in the afternoon. Children and young people learn to drive it out of their heads as they do homework after school. At dinner, the rumble is an uninvited guest. Finally, at 7 p.m., it stops. A Los Angeles street has never seemed so quiet.

“It used to go on all night,” Linda Marquez remembers. “But the worst part is the dust. I call it a phantom dust. You wipe off your furniture, and an hour later it feels gritty again. It’s a taste in your mouth that’s very flat and terrible. You always want to clear your throat, and after you rinse your mouth, it comes right back. I used to have a garden, but the two trees in front of my house are half dead now.”

At first glance she looks thin. Like many older people, the lack of calcium in her bones has made them fragile and easily broken. But her eyes belie any impression of weakness, and her voice is determined and strong. “It used to be quiet here,” she remembers. “Now I feel as though being in my house is like being in prison.”

Over the last year, resentment has been growing in the formerly quiet Huntington Park neighborhood as the mountain has slowly risen on what used to be the site of a storage yard for used tires. While residents are angry about the noise and the nuisance, they also fear dust in the air may exacerbate respiratory ailments.

The confrontation between Marquez and her neighbors and the mountain of concret, is a paradigm for the changing communities of Southeast Los Angeles. The present overlays the past here in odd juxtaposition. The issues of toxic contamination from a heavy industrial heritage, immigration and changing demographics, and their implications for political change, all revolve around each other.

Over the past 20 years, most of the big, heavy industrial plants of Southeast L.A. have closed. The Ford assembly plant in Pico Rivera and the GM plant in Southgate closed years ago, putting thousands of people in the street. Bethlehem Steel, which spread out along Alameda Boulevard for half a mile, has been just a memory in the minds of its workers for a decade. Firestone Tires is gone. The list goes on.

And as they’ve closed, cities such as Huntington Park lost their tax bases. Many of the workers in the Alameda corridor who lost their jobs moved away, eroding support for businesses in the community and for taxes for municipal services. As the tax base for city governments and schools was decimated, the smell of desperation filled the corridors of the city halls of the Southeast.

Hoping to revitalize the city’s business base, Huntington Parles government welcomed Aggregate Recycling Systems into the neighborhood last year, despite the obvious price that neighbors in the surrounding blocks would pay. The decision reflected the changing demographic makeup of the area as well. Most residents are immigrants now, arriving in the neighborhood in the last decade. They are young families. Along the long block behind the mountain, children chatter in Spanish, running through the street and the yards after school. Banda music plays on the radios on Cottage Street.

Pacific Avenue, the downtown business district of Huntington Park, retains the eerie familiarity of a small downtown from the 1950s. There’s a Woolworths, an old brick S.H. Kress building, and other architectural relics from the years when businesses lavished money and time on their buildings. But now new businesses have sprouted in the old shells. Botanicas, immigration legal services and clinicas announce their services in neon and bold letters. Three old-fashioned neighborhood movie theaters are still very much alive in an era when most others have folded in the face of the cineplexes and the malls. But on Pacific Avenue, Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption play with Spanish subtitles.

Alameda Boulevard also passes through Huntington Park as it runs 21 miles from downtown L.A. to Long Beach. It goes through three cities created just for industry. One of them, Vernon, has 192 residents – of whom 90 are registered voters – at night, and a daytime population over 50,000. Another five cities along the boulevard are ones much of the blue collar workforce of L.A. calls home. Two of them, Bell and Cudahy, have household incomes that rank among the five poorest cities in the United States. Of the 400,000 people that live in these eight cities, 92 percent of them are Latino.

In Cudahy, young mothers line their toddlers up in single file before the gate leading into the schoolyard at Park Avenue Elementary, chatting in Spanish in easy conversation. Through the fence they gaze at the odd green surface of the playground, and behind it, the cinderblock wall separating the school from the concrete Los Angeles River channel. The greentop covers an old toxic waste dump from the period after World War II, when the military used the land. After caustic oil and tar bubbled up through cracks in the playground in 1991, the school district closed the school for a year, scraped away much of the contamination, and gave the yard a new, supposedly impermeable, surface. ifs the only green schoolyard without grass in Los Angeles.

Aggregate Recycling Systems is not the only focus for community opposition to to toxic contamination in the Alameda corridor. A rising tide of activism, springing up from neighborhoods and grassroots activists, is challenging the philosophy of jobs at any price that has guided industrial development in L.A. since its inception.

In this swirl of activity, among the newcomers and older residents who survived the earthquake of deindustrialization, one of the city’s most respected, urban-based environmental movements is reinventing itself.

Concrete dust and noise are not as toxic as some of the other pollutants coming from the factories of the Alameda corridor. But their visibility to the residents of the neighborhood, and the misery they cause, makes the issue important for LA CAUSA, Los Angeles Comunidades Assembladas y Unidas para un Sostenable Ambiente (Los Angeles Communities Assembled in Unity for a Sustainable Environment), a new community-organizing arm of Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE).

CBE is one of Calfornia’s most aggressive environmental organizations, with a long history of suing and fighting corporations over toxic contamination. Unlike some other environmental advocates, it has good relations with unions and a record of balancing concern over jobs and the health of workers with cleaning up pollution.

A year ago, CBE moved its L.A. office out of suburban Venice and into the old Standard Oil Building downtown. Then it hired Carlos Porras as CBE’s southern California director, to organize the barrios along the Alameda corridor against some of the highest levels of toxic pollution in the country.

It was a wrenching change in some ways. Huntington Park Mayor Rick Loya, who was on the CBE board at the time, says that “for some in the environmental community, fish come first. But CBE has expertise that minority communities need, especially small cities and communities who don’t have a lot of resources of their own.” Porras calls it “a conscious decision to get grounded as an organization in communities which have become L.A.’s toxic hotspots.”

Last November, the neighbors on Cottage Street and the area behind the mountain of concrete, went to the city’s planning commission to contest an extension of the facility’s use permit. Because of the potential for contamination problems from the materials they process, recycling businesses, a growing industry in Southeast, can only receive conditional use permits, which put restrictions on their operations. LA CAUSA arranged to have an air dispersion study made by a lab. The results showed levels of airborne particulates – dust particles too small to be seen, but that can wreak the most damage to the lungs – that exceeded California air quality standards. The planning commission received the study, but refused to accept its conclusions, or to conduct an environmental impact review of its own.

In December, LA CAUSA and the neighbors went to the city council to demand an official study of the dust and to challenge Aggregate’s permit. At the meeting, every seat in the Huntington Park City Council chambers was filled, and people stood shoulder to shoulder around the walls. They were joined by the parishioners of St. Mathias Church, mobilized by its priest and by one of East Los Angeles’ oldest, and most respected, community organizations, the United Neighborhood Organization.

Mayor Loya, a city high school teacher, gave each of the neighbors who wanted to speak three minutes. Ruby Hernandez, a seven-year-old girl who lives on Cottage Street, her voice breaking, told the council, “I don’t want to die from something there that we don’t even know what it is.” Other residents spoke of asthmatic children and family members, and the increase in respiratory illness since the mountain began to rise.

Dust is one ingredient in the brew of microscopic particulates that make up pollutant PM-10, particulate matter smaller than 10 microns, or one-fifth the width of a human hair. Studies have linked PM-10 to respiratory disease, heart attacks, asthma and pneumonia. A study released in March by the the American Cancer Society, the Harvard School of Public Health and other universities found that people in the nation’s most polluted cities, including L.A., are 15 to 17 percent more likely to die prematurely, primarily due to pollution from fine particulate matter.

But while Loya was sympathetic, other council members weren’t. Council member Rosario Marin made a point of challenging the statements from almost every resident and attempted to discredit the LA CAUSA study results. Despite the fact that it uses methodology mandated by the state government, and that the issues it raises are a proper part of the permit process, Marin told CBE staff attorney Michelle Sypert that the study was simply based on “a mathematical formula,” rather than community conditions.

In the end, the council voted to test the dust from all the businesses on Aggregate’s block of Alameda Boulevard. But by early March, no testing had yet begun, and citizens and city administrators were still arguing over who should do the study and the methodology to be used. Although citizens attempted to meet with the city council again, their request was denied.

Porras questions why the city council chose the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the regional air quality monitoring agency, for the study without considering other consultants that might be able to do the job more inexpensively or that have better equipment. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends using computer modeling to evaluate the air, AQMD will only be monitoring the air through samples. In addition, two 30-day monitoring periods are planned, one in April and the other in October, and Porras is concerned that the plant will continue operating for more than six months without any definitive results from the tests.

The issue has also revealed a rift in Southeast Los Angeles’ Latino community. Ignacio Marquez, 70 years old, told Marin that he felt hostility from her, unlike the feelings she tried to inspire when she campaigned for votes in the city’s last election. “I grew up in Huntington Park,” he told her, “and I was proud. But now, there are a lot of us here who come from somewhere else, and you don’t even see us. I’m not against industry. Hell, we live in an industrial area. I’m against the health hazards we’re suffering

“There’s a lot of political turmoil; in Southeast LA, which has given us some new Latino faces in city governments here, which before were almost exclusively white,” Porras says. “But often we’ve replaced the white defenders of industry with Latino defenders of industry.”

For Loya, the problem is the age-old one of balancing jobs and economic development with the concerns of residents about their environment. “Face it, the mountain’s hideous,” he says. “But ugly’s not enough. The question is really the fine particulate matter, whether its dangerous to the residents’ health.” In the eyes of many residents, Loya is a hero. He went to the mountain, and he listened to the people. “When I go to the store, I hear about it, or when I talk to parents. I can’t just say I don’t care about jobs either.”

Although Huntington Park residents have been frustrated over the issue, Porras says, the process has been an invaluable lesson in pulling the neighborhood together. “Whatever happens, we’re going to end up with some win here,” he says. “Even if we don’t end up with what we want from the city council, we have educated the community on the politics that go into environmental decision making. The community can take that knowledge and put it to work in terms of the electoral process so that down the road the government will be more responsive to the community.”