Thursday, August 30, 2018

Blog sporadicus ...

Today (August 1) we fly away from a month and posts here will be sporadic at most. Some of time, we will not only be off the internet, but for about 10 days in Western Australia, we won't even have electricity. In the Kimberleys, we look forward seeing stars as modern people seldom do. When possible, there may be photos here. Or not. Perhaps I'll write up some of my reading. Or not.

Enjoy August if you can.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Kangaroos, koalas and kritters galore

What to do when being a tourist in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia? Visit the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. And then practice with a new camera.
Note the youngster riding on her back.

Let's try a little nap while all those people point at me.

Here, we can hide among the leaves.

This is a barking owl. Yes, they do bark.

Barn owls, on the other hand, are silent mouse predators.

Kangaroos seem tolerant of their visitors,

though some prefer lounging in the dust to interacting.

These kritters are so tame they'll eat out of your hand.

Nearby, the lorikeets enjoy breakfast.

And a monitor lizard basks in the sun.

Bill Bryson describes Australia as a continent where everything is trying to kill you -- not so at this Peaceable Kingdom.

Friday, August 03, 2018

This flying around the world thing ...

The strange, and slightly mad, ways of (relatively) "economy" class air travel routed us through Beijing Airport where we were greeted by this. Modern Chinese culture seems relentlessly cheerful.

Here's our present location: Brisbane skyline at night.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

This war we do not see or understand

We in the United States and Europe are at war with a foreign attacker, whether we have noticed or not. According to Timothy Snyder, historian and author of that masterful account of Central and East Europe's mid-20th century carnage Bloodlands, Putin's Russia is in full attack mode -- and winning. Seems a radical suggestion: there are no snipers on the roofs or goose stepping troops or tanks in the streets. But after all, if we but dare to look, this accords with the evidence which our more serious journalists have revealed and with what the Mueller investigation is diligently assembling. We can see this war, if we choose.

Snyder calls out Russian rulers' war on hope, justice, and potentiality at home and abroad in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

Not so long ago, Soviet Russia was an empire that militarily competed with "the West." After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, what is left is a broken, disillusioned and weak kleptocracy ruled by corrupt oligarchs. Russians are a brave and hardy people, very poorly served by a series of deceitful thugs. The economy of this continent-spanning land is about the size of that of Italy. Though the state ostensibly has institutions of law and justice, in fact elections are meaningless and commerce is subject to the whim of those with connections. The current autocrat Vladimir Putin controls almost all media and uses state power to hold on to power. Russia's rulers have adopted a complex theo-fascist nationalist ideology; Snyder explicates this ideology at length, but I will not describe it here. Bullshit remains bullshit, even when it has academic and powerful elaborators and exponents. (Yes, we too in "the West" have our share of bullshit in our culture, but at least ours offers better ideals to aspire too ...)

Because this sad Russia is weak, yet convinced it has a calling to project power, it makes war on perceived enemies not with its missiles and nukes, but though lies and treachery. Snyder describes in detail how, since 2013, Russia has experimented with these weapons in its attempt to peel its Ukrainian neighbor state away from Europe. Here's a summary:

Throughout the war in Ukraine, the Russian leadership engaged in implausible deniability, telling obvious lies and then daring the Western media to seek the facts. [Its soldiers invaded and conquered Crimea; shot down a civilian jet; instigated and carried out war on eastern cities; and all along pretended to its own population that none of this happened and that the Ukrainian government were Nazis. All this intervention goes on till today.] ...factuality was the enemy.

... The underlying logic of the Russian war against Ukraine, Europe and America was strategic relativism. Given native kleptocracy and dependence on commodity exports, Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe or America. Relative power could however be achieved by weakening others: by invading Ukraine to keep it away from Europe, for example. The concurrent information war was meant to weaken the EU and the United States. What Europeans and Americans had that Russians lacked were integrated trade zones and predictable politics with respected principles of succession. If these could be damaged, Russian losses would be acceptable since enemy losses would be still greater. In strategic relativism, the point is to transform international politics into a negative-sum game, where a skillful player will lose less than everyone else.

In some respects, Russia did lose its war in Ukraine... the frozen conflict was a far cry from the "disintegration" of Ukraine discussed in Russian policy papers .... Ukrainian society was consolidated by the Russian invasion. ...for the first time in Ukrainian history, public opinion became anti-Russian. ...By invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and shooting down MH17, Russia forced the European Union and the United States to respond. ... [Western sanctions] did isolate Russia from its major partners and deepen Russia's economic crisis. Putin pretended that China was an alternative; Beijing exposed Russia's weakness by paying less for Russian hydrocarbons. ... Almost everyone lost in the Russo-Ukrainian war: Russia, the EU, the United States. The only winner was China.

According to Snyder, the war on Ukraine emboldened Putin to intervene more directly against what he sees as the true enemy, the United States. What makes the U.S. such a threat is its semi-functional democracy: if legal regime change can successfully, even if haltingly, carry a society forward under law, it becomes all too evident that Putin's Russian-model plutocracy is doomed to recurrent collapse and failure. And so, Russia's intervention in the 2016 election.

There is nothing inherently Russian about political fiction. ... Other societies can yield to the same form of politics after a shock and a scandal as in Poland, or as a result of inequality and Russian intervention, as in Great Britain and the United States. ...When a presidential candidate from a fictional world appeared in the United States, Ukrainians and Russians noted the familiar pattern, but few on the American Right or the American Left listened. When Moscow brought to bear in the United States the same techniques used in Ukraine, few on the American Right or the American Left noticed. And so the United States was defeated, Trump was elected, the Republican Party was blinded, and the Democratic Party was shocked. Russians supplied the political fiction, but Americans were asking for it.

... Trump's advance to the Oval Office had three stages, each of which depended on American vulnerability and required American cooperation. First, Russians had to transform a failed real estate developer into a recipient of their capital. Second, this failed real estate developer had to portray on American television, a successful businessman. Finally, Russia intervened with purpose and success to support the fictional character "Donald Trump, successful businessman" in the 2017 presidential election. ... From a Russian perspective, Trump was a failure who was rescued and an asset to be used to wreak havoc in American reality. ... Trump the winner was a fiction that would make his country lose.

Snyder knows what happened in 2016 was not solely foreign intervention. If U.S. democracy had not been weakened by our racism, our own economic inequality and our (often justified) cynicism, cyber war and the Republican Trump-bot could not have triumphed. Trump's election was facilitated by Russia, but ultimately our failures are our own. Snyder concludes:

Moscow won a negative-sum game in international politics by helping to turn American domestic politics into a negative-sum game. ... Russian citizens trade the prospect of a better future for the vision of a valiant defense of Russian innocence. ... white Americans trade the prospect of a better future for the vision of a valiant defense of American innocence. Some Americans can be persuaded to live shorter and worse lives, provided they are under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that blacks (or perhaps immigrants or Muslims) suffer still more. ...

...To break the spell, ...we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others. ... we must address our own particular problems, beginning with inequality, with timely public policy. To make of American politics an eternity of racial conflict is to allow economic inequality to worsen. To address widening disparities of opportunity, to restore a possibility of social advance and thus a sense of the future, requires seeing Americans as citizenry rather than groups in conflict. America will have both forms of equality or it will have neither. If it has neither ...American democracy will come to a close.

This book is distressing because it rings true. Go there, if you dare. Choose factuality. Resist and protect much.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Uh-oh! Fires burning bright

Having driven yesterday adjacent to the Yosemite fire zone, I came away with a question.

I have no difficulty believing that California's extreme wildfire seasons are a consequence of, and exacerbated by, global climate change. (As are many fires elsewhere.) If year after year is very dry and very hot, there's a lot to burn in the forests. And so it has been. This sort of intuitive awareness of climate changing is not controversial, even among Republicans.

But is all this burning we're experiencing in itself a contributor to increasing CO2 levels? Are we caught in a dire climate feedback loop?

Chris Mooney is a responsible climate journalist and he answered this a couple of years ago.

Just as growing plant life pulls carbon out of the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis, so decomposing — or burning — plant life releases it back again. In the meantime, the carbon is stored in the plant, or in the case of forests, the trees.

In a climate in which wildfires are a steady, regular occurrence — but don’t change much in intensity or number from year to year — they will still release carbon, but the regrowth of forests and other plant life will also pull much of it back in again. “If climate and fire regimes equilibrate, then fire-induced atmospheric CO2 emissions are balanced by uptake from surviving vegetation or via regeneration,” noted a major 2009 study on the relationship between fires and the climate system.

But in a climate where there’s a change to the size, number, or intensity of wildfires, it’s possible that forests could burn and release carbon considerably faster than regrowth allows it to be replaced. Fire “has a substantial positive feedback on the climate system,” the 2009 study concluded.

As California works through public policy to reduce our CO2 emissions from controllable human activities, our warming ecosystem may increasingly be outrunning our efforts. This makes it all the more important to do what humans can do to reduce CO2.

Gym at Buena Vista/Horace Mann to be opened to some homeless families

The four women responsible for a pilot program to provide overnight sleeping space for some of the Mission District school's unhoused students and their parents explained the plan at a neighborhood meeting on Monday night. From the left, School Board President Hydra Mendoza, BVHM principal Claudia DeLarios Morán, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, and Emily Cohen from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Services.

DeLarios Moran explained that the idea arose when some of the children in need of housing asked if they couldn't just stay at the school. Plenty has happened since then. BVHM teachers and parents discussed the plan and agreed unanimously to ask the District for support. Teachers will not be asked to run the sleeping facility, but expect to see learning gains among their more rested students. The School District had to consider facility demands and liability concerns. Ronen went prospecting for city money, now included in the new budget. The city Department of Homelessness will be putting out a contract for bid by some the city's experienced service non-profits to run the planned overnight sleeping and feeding program for some 60 people.

Some of the 30 or so neighbors on hand complained they weren't cut in on the plan until very late in its evolution, but the majority were glad see our school try something new to support our homeless neighbors. As far as these innovators have discovered, no other public school in the country has decided to use its building to house some of its homeless students. BVHM is pioneering something new here.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Something happening here ...

Sunday afternoon we made the long, smoky drive past Tuolumne Meadows, north of the wildfire at the entrance to Yosemite Valley, and across the smog-hazed Central Valley. We stopped off for lunch at an unprepossessing roadside Mexican restaurant among the strip malls of Oakdale. Cocina Michoacana was friendly and the food tasty.

While we were eating, a woman came over to say how much she liked the text on my shirt (right). We explained we'd gotten it while protesting the Trump/Republican migrant family separation policy near the border in San Diego. We told her about chanting outside the prison, then keeping silent, and hearing women locked within shouting back to us. She told us the thought almost made her cry.

Then she told us how proud she'd been that, right there in the Valley community of Oakdale, they'd had their own protest about the child-snatching and refusal of asylum seekers. "It wasn't so big -- but it was right here in our little town."

"I keep telling everyone they have to vote in November. They all have to!"

She lives in California Congressional District 10 where the Republican incumbent is thought to be one of the most endangered in the nation. The aspiring Democrat is Josh Harder. She and her neighbors intend to put this Democrat in office and send a message to Washington. They just might do it.

As George Packer insists: "All That’s Left Is the Vote."

Sunday, July 29, 2018


Several weeks ago, former President Obama delivered a lecture memorializing one of the last centuries' true great men, South Africa's Nelson Mandela. Obama returned to his roots, eloquently defending Mandela's vision, and his own.

I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible, and that it can achieve more peace and more coöperation in pursuit of a common good. That’s what I believe.

I was struck reading the text (recommended) by what seemed almost a throwaway affirmation -- one of great significance for those of us lucky enough to live in a rich country, very much among the planet's winners. Since leaving office, Obama has clearly been able to ensure his family's position among our U.S. winners. They are not, perhaps, one percent level, but they are surely among the most comfortable of the comfortable. Nonetheless, he reminded us of what underlies a sustainable future for humankind:

There’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean … it’s enough! You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, “Well, let me help out. Let me look at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to eat or needs some school fees. Let me help him out. I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s O.K. I can afford it.” I mean, it shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more.

A hard truth where global capitalism thrives, but necessary for survival.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Saturday scenery: Eastern slope of Sierra vistas

Despite the heat and smoke haze, the mountains are lovely. Here one of the Virginia Lakes.

This valley acts as catchment for several small lakes.

Above stretch rugged rocks. It's a harsh land, prelude to miles of high desert.

Saturday scene: in Northern California fire season

The air is hazy, and when the wind blows a certain direction, slightly smoky, even though the fires are 40 miles away. In the little towns, residents and tourists are wary and grateful.

And is there still something that can be labeled the season of wild fires?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Friday cat blogging

Sometimes, cat or human, just rolling up in a ball is the only thing to do. Morty enacts this ... pretty much daily. Then he gets up and complains about the service around here.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

On the road; possibly off the grid for a few days

Not visiting Yosemite this year, rather the little town of Lee Vining, adjacent to Mono Lake. This is a 15 year old photo. Long a casualty of Los Angeles' urgent thirst, the partially restored saline basin is now much higher than shown here and is recovering its role as a migrating bird rest stop. It remains a haunting place.
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