Friday, October 09, 2015

Friday cat blogging

Morty performs his best (and only) trick: being a handsome fellow.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Fifteen years of U.S. war in Afghanistan

We can call it fifteen years as of today, if we don't count arming Afghans and various foreign mujahadin against the Russians starting in 1979. Perhaps we do need to include that phase, since it produced Bin Laden and 9/11 ...

So this week we marked the war's anniversary with an apparent war crime. The medical aid folks, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), who saw their staff and patients incinerated have been wonderfully clear:

"Today the US government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing—from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government.

The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical."

C. Stokes, MSF, October 5, 2015

Accounts in U.S. media have been weaselly. Maybe there were Taliban in the building (though U.S. forces had every reason to know there were not.) Maybe this atrocity was a mistake ... The New York Times even tried to suggest that maybe the hospital bombing wasn't so bad because Russia commits similar crimes. What's this irrelevant snippet doing in a story on President Obama's apology to MSF?

On Wednesday, Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group, said it had confirmed that Russian airstrikes had damaged three medical facilities in Syria.
“With these actions, Russia is damaging hospitals, putting patients and medical staff at risk, and depriving civilians of lifesaving access to health care,” the group said in a statement.

Pathetic special pleading that tack: so American exceptionalism means someone else is always worse? Apparently.

The Afghanistan adventure has long shown the brutality and futility of our imperial project. Amy Davidson got to the crux:

Do we understand our own motives and priorities in Afghanistan? If not, fourteen years after invading, when will we?

No hope for that, that I can see. Bring 'em home, Obama!

Guns begone

Our one and only local gun store is closing for good. It's a few blocks from our house; it's been there longer than I've lived in the city, a long time.

The owners want us to believe that creeping over-regulation of firearms is killing the store. I doubt it.

More likely the business is in decline because, despite the awful gun massacres this country goes in for, gun ownership is in decline.

The [General Social Survey (GSS), which is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago] finds that the percentage of Americans who reported personally owning a gun dropped more than 26 percent from 1985 to 2014. In 1985, 30.5 percent of Americans said they personally owned a gun. The percentage is now down to 22.4 percent, or a little more than one in five.

Not surprisingly, most gun owners tend to be white men who live outside cities.

Drawing from data from 2010 to 2014, NORC found that 39 percent of white respondents said they lived in a household with a gun. During the same period, 18.1 percent of black respondents and 15.2 percent of Hispanic respondents said there was a gun in their household. NORC found that "households with firearms are concentrated in rural areas and in regions with more residents living in rural areas."

San Francisco is simply unpromising turf for a gun business.

The sort of people who insist that they must be allowed to threaten their neighbors anywhere and everywhere with their hardware are a dwindling minority. The tyranny of gun culture will be ended when the rest of us simply bring our numbers to bear on the problem. We are letting a small number of gun nuts wave their uninsured, over-powered, fetishized guns in our faces.

Through our sheer numbers, we can make these men earn their safety credentials, lock up their killing gear except when in use for sport or on a licensed range, carry insurance commensurate with the harm their killing tools can do, and, if necessary, replace a Supreme Court that misinterprets the Second Amendment as a personal entitlement to instruments of death.

But we do have to be a little bit brave, because we are dealing with scared bullies -- and we have to care enough to organize over time.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

California history: when we packed those people in trains

Last week, in a post surveying immigration history, I made a glancing reference to the practice in the U.S. southwest of "packing Mexican workers in trains and sending them home." I've since realized that this is not universally remembered history.

One of the many California bills Governor Jerry Brown has signed this year aims to change that. Here's how the law's legislative sponsor Assemblymember Christina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) explains her measure:

... Assembly Bill 146 encourages that the “Mexican Repatriation,” the unconstitutional deportation that occurred in California 1930’s, of over 1 million U.S. citizens and lawful residents of Mexican descent, be included in student history textbooks and courses of study. ...

“I firmly believe that this is a lesson worth teaching. In fact, a certain Republican Presidential frontrunner, should now see that his unworkable and reckless plan for mass deportation, will be a human disaster, just as it was so many years ago. He could learn a lesson from the minds and the hearts of our young school children,” Assemblymember Garcia commented.

Take that, Donald Trump.

Here's a video that tells the story of the Mexican expulsions. The picture is from the video.
'Tis the season when Gov. Jerry closets himself with all the bills (640 or so!) the two house of the California Legislature have laboriously passed through committees, procedural hurdles and final votes -- and decides which he'll sign. He has until October 11 to complete the process.

Brown can be infuriating. After all that, he's been known to kill off, without much warning, the carefully crafted products of years of agitation. And these rejected measures were usually brought by his own party. So it was with the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2012 -- Democratic legislators brought the requirement that employers pay overtime to these workers back in 2013 and Brown signed that bill into law.

With that history, waiting for the Governor to act is an annual pins-and-needles ritual for advocates.

He's signed a lot of what I consider good stuff this year: a bill requiring police departments to collect and report information, including race, on who they stop and who they shoot; a new requirement that schools teach an accurate sex education curriculum in middle and high school; and permission for physician-assisted suicide, explaining his affirmation in a thoughtful message.

Measures encouraging divestment by state pension funds from fossil fuels and suspending the high school exit exam await his consideration.

Brown can be thorough and thoughtful -- you'd think a bill prohibiting flying drones in such a way as to impede firefighters would be a no-brainer. But he has just vetoed such a measure. He held it would have just added to an already over-long criminal code. If people flying drones push their luck, this one might come back ...

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Serendipity in the 'hood

This amazing plant grows in our front yard. It blooms something like four times a year. Someone gave us a little bush -- and now it is 12 feet tall, at least.

I took the picture in order to test Google's tool for identifying the subject of photos. The tool flunked, unable to connect the picture, which looks pretty clear to me, with the name of the plant. Fortunately Erudite Partner got interested in the experiment and used her excellent Google-fu to figure out this was an Angel's Trumpet, scientifically, Brugmansia.

And from that Wikipedia entry, we learned:

All parts of Brugmansia are poisonous, with the seeds and leaves being especially dangerous.[19][23] Brugmansia are rich in Scopolamine (hyoscine), hyoscyamine, and several other tropane alkaloids.[24] Effects of ingestion can include paralysis of smooth muscles, confusion, tachycardia, dry mouth, diarrhea, migraine headaches, visual and auditory hallucinations, mydriasis, rapid onset cycloplegia, and death.[25][26][27]

The hallucinogenic effects of Brugmansia were described in the journal Pathology as "terrifying rather than pleasurable". ...

The next morning as we were coming out of the house, as often happens, passersby were looking into the yard.

A regular Mission homey asked: "What's that plant? I feel like it wants me to sniff it or something."

E.P.: "Probably shouldn't do that. It's called Angel's Trumpet and it's poisonous."

"Even to smell it?"

"They say 'yes.'"

"Okay, now I know ..."

I can't decide whether I feel I should be responsible for knowing the toxicity of what's in my yard or not. These plants are quite common around here.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Stop! Are you going to run me over?

My ten-day duration head cold just won't quit, so today I offer only this intriguing video of an effort to increase compliance with disabled parking regulations.
I think this would scare the bejesus out of a driver who tried to occupy the wrong space unaware. Nice to run across something in which Russians are, benignly, leap-frogging us in their use of technology.

What would you do, if this turned up in a mall near you?

H/t Time Goes By for this one.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Peace is too important to be left to politicians

Professor Stephen Walt, makes a prediction about the presidential horserace.

... there’s one important concept about which we won’t hear very much: peace.

He's right of course. As far as the GOP clowns are concerned, peace is about as popular as venereal disease; they seem to be competing over who can boast of the stiffest dick. (Yes, that includes Carly -- she's doing pretty well at it, actually.)

Among the Dems, there is something beyond silence. Bernie says the right things:

Senator Sanders believes that the test of a great and powerful nation is not how many wars it can engage in, but how it can resolve international conflicts in a peaceful manner.

He's proud of his vote against the Iraq war. He's got a good grip on the fact that wars starve and strangle domestic progress.

But the Dem frontrunner is another story. Hillary is an aggressive strength projection kind of woman. As Walt remarks,

... Has Hillary Clinton ever opposed a military operation or led a successful peace campaign?

She seems eager to plunge more deeply into Syria. I've always been afraid that the first woman to have a shot at occupying the Oval Office would have so honed her reputation for bellicosity that she made herself immune to attacks based in the sexist notion that "girls don't know how to fight." As a member of my generation of early contemporary feminists, Hillary seems to have done just that; perhaps a younger woman would have felt less need to prove herself in this particular fashion. (Or maybe not.)

And Hillary seems to have learned none of the lesson of last 75 years: no shooting war the U.S. has engaged in since World War II has left either the people directly in its path or the U.S. itself better off than before hostilities commenced. When all-out war came to mean annihilation in 1945, war ceased to be a viable instrument of even superpower policy. Sure, this turns historic human experience on its head, but it is true.
Once upon a time, aspiring presidents thought there were votes to be won by promising peace. Dwight Eisenhower's 1956 slogan was "Peace and Prosperity." I'd get behind a candidate who dared such an unfashionable suggestion for our national aims. Right now that means Bernie -- but I want such a candidate in November 2016. So if Bernie falters, we're shit out of luck.
The desire for peace is a baseline human trait. Even most citizens of this empire share it, except when riled up. So why is there no permanent constituency injecting peace into presidential campaigns?
  • In the last two administrations, our rulers have perfected the evil art of waging faraway wars without troubling most of us. When you are as rich and as safe as citizens of this country, so long as no one you know is doing the fighting, you don't worry much about the foreign millions whose lives are shattered by our imperial adventures. For ourselves, we have peace. It asks a level of imagination most people lack to get across that in so much of the world, we're the problem.
  • Because we are so safe from foreign threats (though perhaps not from homegrown gun cultists), we scare easy. This is particularly true when our pols hype the supposed threat. And, in turn, our politicians are afraid that if a critical mass of us get in a panic, they'll take the blame. We need a peace movement to have the back of any politician who offers us a realistic assessment of actual threats.
  • Collectively, this society has lost any awareness that peace is a positive good. We think of peace as absence of war, not the presence of security, justice, community, possibility, and love. Peace is the precondition of all those goods; we are unrealistic insofar as we struggle for any of them without the awareness that peace is needed for all of them.
This country still needs a permanent peace movement.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Saturday scenes and scenery: Dubrovnik, Croatia

This medieval city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Dubrovnik was the capital of the Republic of Ragusa, an eastern Mediterranean trading power of the day.

A small boat harbor still thrives.

This magnificent main street fills to overflowing as buses arrive during the day. Cars cannot enter the old city. I stayed within the walls, so got a chance to wander before the throngs arrived.

Residents and tourists alike need their hiking shoes to get around the old streets.

These are worth exploring, revealing curiosities. I think she long pre-dates the restaurant; and you sure wouldn't want to traverse these high streets in a storm! Click to enlarge.

From the city walls, it is possible to glimpse kitchen gardens between the stone buildings.

Today Dubrovnik is perfectly organized to intrigue, thrill, and milk stray dollars from tourists. Good for the Croatians for getting value from their asset.

But just 24 years ago, as the city guides who lead tours explain to all who will listen, this wonderfully preserved historic site was under siege during the wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia. This map is displayed at every entrance:
Fortunately, the Serb and Montenegrin attackers wanted to own it as much as to destroy it, but for six months they cut off water, power and supplies while lobbing shells at a population swollen with 30,000 refugees. UNESCO has invested millions of dollars in restoration and repair.

Even Elizabeth Blackwell's sympathetic volume, Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro, describes siege with horror:

[In the fall of 1991,] the Yugoslav Army attacked Dubrovnik from Montenegro. JNA soldiers, supported by Montenegrin irregulars, earned a name for lawlessness and rapacity, which prompted a torrent of international outrage and disapproval. Dubrovnik had no military strategic value and was barely defended by the Croats. Nor were there more than a few Serbs living there. Rather, the attack seemed to stem from pure vindictiveness or, according to some, from the Montenegrins' traditional appetite for plunder, and led to headlines in the Western press likening the Yugoslav army to barbarian hordes. Although Montenegro was officially detached from the war in Croatia and withdrew its reservists there in October 1991, Montenegrin soldiers from their positions on the hills about Dubrovnik destroyed hotels, yachts, and other signs of sophistication or civilization with a wantonness that caused more damage to Milosevic's interest and game plan than he could possibly anticipated.

... In the year 2000 [Montenegrin] President Djukanovic made an official apology to Croatia for Montenegro's part in the 1991 attack on the coastal area around Dubrovnik. Since then, two prominent Montenegrins have been sentenced by The Hague Tribunal for their part in the shelling of Dubrovnik -- Admiral Miodrag Jokic, who was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in March 2004 and Lieutenant General Pavle Strugar, who was sentenced to eight years in January 2005.

There is plenty of residual bitterness here, just under the sunny surface. Dubrovnik plays host to a revolving museum of international war photography which felt very appropriately located.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Friday cat blogging: Kotor and Budva

The Montenegrin town of Kotor sits on the Adriatic coast in a corner of what locals call Europe's southernmost fjord. The old town is a small, fully walled, medieval city, overshadowed by extensive, crumbling fortifications on the heights. From sea and land, invaders have coveted this secluded port. I was not surprised to note a handsome cat sitting sentry on the city wall.

At ground level, cats go about their business on the stone streets, apparently unconcerned by co-existing among hordes of tourists.

These kittens seemed to feel that the tables and chairs at a sidewalk cafe had been provided for their amusement.

The local dogs showed no interest.

Down the road in the even smaller walled town of Budva, the cats seemed a little more wary. They kept themselves out of reach of the tourists.

The tourists had their own delights.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Unthinkable thinking

Back in the day, 1969 in fact, I remember sitting up late one East Coast evening watching astronaut Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. As he set down a U.S. flag, I remember remarking to a friend: "Damn, the first thing we do when get there is litter!"

These days, humans have put up thousands of satellites orbiting the earth. These provide the backbone for our everyday communications, for our scientific understanding of the planet including tomorrow's weather, and even the GPS in our cellphones and my Garmin watch. Soon we'll need that mapping capacity to direct our self-driving cars. We count on all that stuff floating around up there without even thinking about it.

But apparently all that orbital clutter makes for an new threat, a consequence of our profligate habit of thinking that the universe is so big we can just leave stuff lying around. According to Charlie Stross,

Kessler Syndrome, or collisional cascading, is a nightmare scenario for space activity. Proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, it proposes that at a certain critical density, orbiting debris shed by satellites and launch vehicles will begin to impact on and shatter other satellites, producing a cascade of more debris, so that the probability of any given satellite being hit rises, leading to a chain reaction that effectively renders access to low earth orbit unacceptably hazardous.

This isn't just fantasy. There are an estimated 300,000 pieces of debris already in orbit; a satellite is destroyed every year by an impact event. Even a fleck of shed paint a tenth of a millimeter across carries as much kinetic energy as a rifle bullet when it's traveling at orbital velocity, and the majority of this crud is clustered in low orbit, with a secondary belt of bits in geosychronous orbit as well. The [International Space Station] carries patch kits in case of a micro-particle impact and periodically has to expend fuel to dodge dead satellites drifting into its orbit; on occasion the US space shuttles suffered windscreen impacts that necessitated ground repairs.

If a Kessler cascade erupts in low earth orbit, launching new satellites or manned spacecraft will become very hazardous, equivalent to running across a field under beaten fire from a machine gun with an infinite ammunition supply. Sooner or later you'll be hit. And the debris stays in orbit for a very long time, typically years to decades (centuries or millennia for the particles in higher orbits). ... And then there's the nightmare scenario: a Kessler cascade in geosynchronous orbit. The crud up there will take centuries to disperse, mostly due to radiation degradation and the solar wind gradually blowing it into higher orbits.

There's an interesting discussion at the blog where I found this about how immanent and how destructive this might be. Evaluating it goes way beyond my expertise though I found the conversation interesting.

Humans evolved to make more and more and more -- because more was good for survival. Having managed to make so much more we're screwing up the planet, apparently we've also spread the malady into near-space.

Maybe it's just my apparently endless head cold doing my thinking, but looking at us through this lens, it's hard not to conclude there's simply too much of us.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hang in there, Planned Parenthood!

Abortion is a subject on which I support women who get aggressive with people who want to dictate to them. The cruelty of the restrictionists to actual, living women and kids seems to know no bounds. Missed the pink protests yesterday with gungus still colonizing my head (go away rhinovirus!) but was more than there in spirit.

I thought Ann Friedman did a necessary job contextualizing this struggle:

Planned Parenthood is, paradoxically, both an easy target and an effective organization because it is a brand name. Every year, 2.7 million people visit Planned Parenthood’s 700 clinics. One in five women has sought health care there. Women know that, no matter where they are in the country and no matter how much money they have, if they can get themselves to a Planned Parenthood clinic, they can get the morning-after pill, a mammogram, a pelvic exam, an abortion, or a referral. Men know they can go there for an STD test or a cancer screening. They provide reproductive and health-care services to the trans community. Everyone knows these services will be safe and, just as importantly, judgment-free.

But it’s useful, especially with all the action on Planned Parenthood’s behalf today, to remember that we shouldn’t need a reproductive-care health-care brand. Contraception and STD testing and abortion should be things that you get from your regular doctor — and you should have a regular doctor even if you’re poor. Planned Parenthood exists because the services it provides are stigmatized and pushed out of the routine health-care framework, or are unaffordable within it. And its brand recognition is so important, in part, because the opponents of reproductive choice have gone out of their way to confuse women by establishing faux clinics that provide no health services at all, and to spread misinformation about the safety of contraception and abortion.  

It is interesting to reflect that this is the issue that would have driven my deceased Republican committee woman mother out of the GOP. She believed in Planned Parenthood.
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