Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Prosecutorial discretion: cheer, but also watch closely

Robert Mueller is giving the nation a tutorial in how a smart prosecutor builds a case, pulling out threads and putting pressure on associated players in order to entrap the biggest offenders. "Go Mueller!" cheer those of us who, appropriately, want the truth about what the Cheato and his cast of sleazy grifters did and are still doing to our country.

But we shouldn't forget that prosecutorial discretion -- the power to decide who is charged and how people are funneled through the courts -- is at the core of how people of color and all poor people lose the theoretical protections which the constitutional legal system claims to provide. The "presumption of innocence" doesn't mean much up against an elected prosecutor who wants to prove how "tough on crime" he can be.

Angela J. Davis (another younger Davis if the name sets off a bell) is the editor of Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution and Imprisonment. She lays out the reality for most people caught up in the "justice" system.

... what goes on in the criminal justice system every day with black and brown people is police officers' incredible power and discretion on the streets to stop people, to search them, et cetera. But police officers can only bring people to the courthouse door.

It is the prosecutor who decides whether they may remain entrenched there. ... Prosecutors can decide to charge a person or not. ... that charging power, which belongs solely to the prosecutor, combined with the plea bargaining power, which also totally belongs to prosecutors, really allows them to control the criminal justice system.

Especially when you think about the fact that 95% of all cases are resolved by way of a guilty plea, right? ... the prosecutor holds all the cards. They decide whether there's gonna be a plea offer, what the plea offer's going to be, and those two powers together really give them control of this criminal justice system. ... And they make those decisions behind closed doors with absolutely no transparency. We don't know how they're making the decisions.

Those of us in San Francisco who have been seeking justice for recent victims of some of our police officers' trigger-happy habits are all too well aware that our elected prosecutor holds all the cards. George Gascon has refused to charge the police killers of Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Luis Gongora Pat, Mario Woods or Jessica Williams. His office is therefore the sole judge and jury for whether those deaths were justified; the prosecutor's version of the "facts" becomes the unquestionable truth, however implausible it may seem to the community.

So -- let's cheer Robert Mueller. May he bring these corrupt conmen who've occupied the heights of power to justice. He might preserve our democratic chance to fight another day. But also, let's remember that from the streets, prosecutors need to be watched closely. Unlike in the federal system, many local prosecutors are elected officials. Putting them on notice that they are watched can be a significant move in the long struggle for more justice in communities without privilege.

Halloween horrors

In San Francisco, decorations for this day seem to vacillate between the notion this is a some kind of harvest festival -- or a commercial holiday for distributing candy.

Or, very occasionally, something scary ...

or creative ...

or just charming.

All out-takes from Walking San Francisco.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Yet another reason to despise this administration

If you are hoping to enjoy this view (from Olmstead Point on California Rte. 120 looking toward Half Dome in Yosemite), Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants it to cost you more than twice as much next summer, $70 instead of $30 to drive a vehicle into the park.

The man who is working to open public lands to oil and mineral extraction thinks parks should pay more for their upkeep. Congress has been underfunding the National Park Service for years; the parks have a $12 billion maintenance backlog -- broken bathrooms, aging campgrounds, and roads pitted with potholes. The Trump budget proposal aims for a $300 million cut in their operating budget.

So the administration is proposing "surge pricing" -- jacking up the prices at the 17 most popular NPS destinations during their high seasons, mostly from May through October. You know, let's run our parks like Uber, squeezing the highest dollar out of "customers."

But park users are not "customers". We, collectively, are owners. There are many who protest the Zinke plan:

“For some Americans to be priced out of our national parks, I don’t think that’s the right message,” said David Lamfrom, a Barstow resident and staff member at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “We need to make sure that these places that are owned by all Americans are accessible to all Americans.”

The Mercury News (San Jose) denounces the new charges and promotes an alternative:

Leave it to the Trump administration to come up with the worst possible remedy for a system Wallace Stegner famously called America’s best idea....[This] could be America’s worst idea. It will make the parks unaffordable to low-income Americans who already struggle to save money to visit our coveted national treasures. It could even give some middle income Americans pause.

Even while gouging visitors, the plan would only raise around $70 million, far less than the deferred maintenance and backlog requires.

A bipartisan bill introduced in March by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, offers a far better solution. The senators report that congressional financial support for national park maintenance has decreased by 40 percent over the past decade — a national embarrassment. They propose that $500 million a year be allocated to the National Park Service from “existing revenues the government receives for oil and natural gas royalties every year, until 2047.” ...

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “There is nothing so American as our national parks. … The fundamental idea behind the parks … is that the country belongs to the people.”

Don’t raise entrance fees and make America’s national parks only accessible for the richest of us to enjoy.

Fossil fuels should stay in the ground if we want any hope of mitigating climate change. But at the very least, the current government take from mining and drilling could be used for the benefit of us all.

The National Park Service has opened up a website for citizen comments on the park price increases which will remain open until November 23.
And for citizens and residents over 62, the Interagency Senior Pass (Lifetime) at $80 is still a very good deal!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

People must demand prevention of nuclear war, again

Erudite Partner writes about growing up under the threat of the bomb -- and how, despite the terror, we must do everything we can to make sure our nightmares never become reality.

Our fingers are far removed from the levers of power, while the tiny digits of the man occupying the “adult day care center” we call the White House hover dangerously close to what people my age used to call “the Button.” Nevertheless, I think there may still be time to put our collective foot on the brakes ...

Read it all at The Nation.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

When nations come apart ...

Despite having traveled for a month in Spain this fall, I don't have any very clear idea what I think about Catalan independence.

My friends in Spain, good lefties who live in Madrid and despise the corrupt right-wing government of premier Mariano Rajoy, nonetheless dismiss Catalan separatism as petulant and unrealistic. What do I know? I've learned to look at the English version of El Pais, a social-democratic paper that is the country's top selling daily. El Pais tilts hard against Catalan secession, treating the effort as anti-democratic and nativist.

With this background, I found Washington Post correspondent Ishaan Tharoor making points that seem highly relevant:

Catalan aspirations are deep-seated, anchored in the region's distinct history and cultural identity. But the momentum for independence catalyzed only in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as Catalans saw their robust region being dragged down by a cratering Spanish economy. Catalan officials say the region still pays about $12 billion more in taxes each year to Madrid than it gets back.

These frustrations are not exclusive to Catalonia. A number of fledgling secessionist or autonomy movements in other parts of Europe, from Lombardy in Italy to Flanders in Belgium to Scotland or even London in Britain, are grounded in the belief that their regional interests are not being served by the national politicians who call the shots. Over the past year, we've tended to think of nationalism in the West in the context of angry, right-wing populist movements, fueled by disaffection with elites and hostility to immigrants.

But another trend to watch ought to be the impatient regionalism of more metropolitan parts of Europe, frustrated by the backward politics of their nation-states.

Tharoor points to a Guardian column by Paul Mason which makes a thought-provoking argument:

... the positive factor driving progressive nationalisms, from Scotland to Catalonia, is technological change. Information-rich societies reward the development of human capital; so the ability to study in your first language, to participate in a rich national culture, to create unique local selling points for incoming foreign investment is more important than ever. If the regions, peoples and nations currently demanding more freedom seem to be driven by “cultural nationalism”, that in turn is driven by technological change plus global competition.

The second impact of these forces is the emergence of successful big cities and devastated small towns. In large cities with dense networks of information and culture, you can survive globalisation. In small towns it is harder. So the logical economic strategy is to create a “region” or small nation focused on one big city, and develop the suburban and rural economy in synergy with that city, not the bigger unitary state. If Barcelona were not a massive global success story, the impetus behind Catalan nationalism would be smaller.

This should not seem foreign to us in the United States. One of the most mind-boggling aspects of last year's presidential election, according to Mark Muro and Sifan Liu was that:

The less-than-500 counties that Hillary Clinton carried nationwide encompassed a massive 64 percent of America’s economic activity as measured by total output in 2015. By contrast, the more-than-2,600 counties that Donald Trump won generated just 36 percent of the country’s output—just a little more than one-third of the nation’s economic activity.

... with the exceptions of the Phoenix and Fort Worth areas and a big chunk of Long Island, Clinton won every large-sized county economy in the country.

Another way of saying this is that California (Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas), New York (the city and environs), and Illinois (Chicago metro area) are thriving; meanwhile vast areas of the United States are accumulating grievances that Republicans exploit. Historically, more prosperous regions have been the tail that wagged the dog. It seems unlikely that the converse will endure for long.

Technology, globalization and cosmopolitanism, and mass migration aren't going to stop (however much the Trumpies want to stop the world so they can jump off). These forces are re-making our society; rote application of leftwing dichotomies derived from a different economy don't adequately capture contemporary conflicts. Eugene Robinson tries to name what this means for Democrats trying to assemble a majority:

Today’s key fault lines may be between metropolitan areas and the exurbs and small towns strung along the interstates; between those who have gone to college and those who have not; between families who have benefited from the globalized economy and those who have not; and between an anxious, shrinking white majority and the minority groups that within a couple of decades will constitute more than half the population.

He thinks Democrats need to convincingly project themselves as the "opportunity" party. That's sounds a bit over-technocratic to me; wasn't that what Hillary Clinton was offering? Winning Democrats will inspire hope that all of us, together, can enjoy the better future that prosperous areas glimpse even now.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Congress: "a breeding ground for a hostile work environment"

Congresswoman Jackie Speier has proved herself to be a good one since that long ago day when, accompanying her boss Rep. Leo Ryan, she was shot on a runway by cult members from Jim Jones' Jonestown. She joined the hazardous trip which left Ryan and four others dead because:

“Back in 1978, there were not many women in high-ranking positions in Congress," said Speier, who was legislative counsel for Ryan at the time. "I felt if I didn’t go, it would be a step back for women holding these high positions. I thought, 'I can’t not go.'”

The book tour impressed me more than the book

Last spring, journalist and national security blogger at Foreign Policy Thomas Ricks went on tour to promote his latest book, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. I've read Ricks' posts regularly for years. Suddenly I had a repeated chance to listen to him discuss current events with a series of radio and podcast hosts. Ricks is widely read and deeply knowledgeable about our past and current wars, the strengths and weakness of the U.S. military, and the decaying U.S. imperial position in the world. He knows the empire and armed forces without being a cheerleader for dumb wars or dumb nationalism. When he gave a book talk nearby, I attended. And I bought and read the book.

I so wish I had found the book as interesting as I found Ricks' cogent observations on the pickle our nation and world is in.

Ricks' two biographical subjects, British Conservative WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the socialist-inclined writer George Orwell, are joined for him because, in the desperate era (roughly 1930-1948) when fascism or totalitarian communism seemed European humanity's only choices ...

neither man ever lost sight of of the value of the individual in the world and all that means: the right to dissent from the majority, the right even to be persistently wrong, the right to distrust the power of the majority, and the need to assert that high officials are in error -- most especially when those in power strongly believe they are not. As Orwell once wrote 'if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear' -- most especially, for him, facts they did not want to acknowledge. ...

Churchill helped give us the liberty we enjoy now. Orwell's writing about liberty affects how we think about it now. ...

If you are unacquainted with the history of Europe in the inter-world war years, this is a good introduction to figures whose intellectual courage grasped that civilization's predicaments with a clarity not shared by their fellows.

One reason [Orwell] did not appear in accounts by contemporaries is that he understood their era better than they did.

His writings -- Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984 -- still raise vital ethical questions for people committed to active work for liberation today.

Meanwhile Churchill's exhortations and energy led Britain to stand alone against Hitler until the United States and Russia came in to win World War II, setting the stage for the world order we have known until recently.

Neither man seems particularly likable to me. Churchill took advantage of his social position to demand space for himself which no accomplishments prior to 1939 seemed to justify. He was often a blowhard and a bit of a drunk.

Debating Churchill was 'like arguing with a brass band,' a member of the British Cabinet once grumbled.

Orwell became something of a disappointed recluse toward the end of his life (he died in 1950, before achieving literary fame.) I find it easier to have empathetic feelings toward him than toward Churchill; he fought and almost died for his socialist hopes in the Spanish Civil War -- and was then nearly killed by Soviet Communism's betrayal of those dreams in that same war. The courage that carried him to the battlefield was turned to telling the truth as he saw it about totalitarianisms of both the right and left. Orwell chose a lonely, friendless ground to stand on; that's hard.

If this intrigues, read the book. Or google "thomas ricks radio" for a bonanza of recent discussions with this fascinating author. Ricks follows his subjects' example by refusing to sugarcoat the extremity of our own terrible time while also pointing to values worth fighting for.

UPDATE: For a smidgen of Ricks, see this biting blog entry from today.

Friday cat blogging

Morty has lately discovered the television. So far he hasn't chased those phantom figures. Perhaps he'll do that next?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Trump picks at historic racial wounds

First the Cheato sent one of his generals to defend his lack of empathy for military widow Myeshia Johnson. That didn't work out so well; General Kelly demeaned himself by making a completely false charge against Johnson's Congresswoman -- like Johnson, a tough black woman.

So the Cheato sent his tame black dimwit, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, along to channel his opinion of Johnson:

Asked about Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s family, who criticized Trump’s remarks, Carson said, “I think there were people who were just looking for something to complain about.”

Jamelle Bouie outlines the painful history of African Americans with the U.S. military:

That Sgt. Johnson was black, and Myeshia Johnson is black, are not incidental details in this story. They are the context which gives this confrontation particular resonance in American history, and makes it so fraught with meaning. From its inception, this country has had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of black military service, to say nothing of individual black soldiers and their families.

The 1775 Continental Congress didn’t exclude black Americans when it created an army for the fledgling American independence movement, but it wasn’t eager to arm them either. ... Ultimately 5,000 black Americans served in the Continental Army, establishing a tradition of black military service that persists to the present. But while blacks have fought in each of the country’s wars and conflicts, it’s not been until recently that their participation was welcome.

... Even before integrated units, the mere fact of black soldiers challenged ideals of American manhood and citizenship that were built on whiteness. To take up arms in defense of the nation was both an obligation of citizenship and a privilege rightfully reserved for white men. ... [During the Civil War], military necessity would again force the issue. First came the Emancipation Proclamation, then an active effort to recruit and organize black soldiers. Nearly 180,000 freemen and freedmen would serve in the Union Army, bolstering the force as it fought a brutal war of attrition against the Confederacy. They would do so facing discrimination, inferior pay, and a leadership that didn’t quite trust their abilities: Black regiments were led by white officers.

... Not even the fight against Nazism was enough to compel the United States to accept black enlistees on equal terms with their white counterparts. Blacks again fought in segregated units and again faced racism from white officers and enlisted men. Nalty notes that “Many white officers did not credit blacks with intelligence, let alone hopes or ambitions or indeed feelings of any sort.” ... Full integration wouldn’t come until after the Second World War, with an executive order from President Harry Truman. And that was only inside the military: In the civilian world, Jim Crow would hold sway for another 20 years.

... There’s little chance that Donald Trump knows this history of hostility and disrespect, even as he evokes it with his conduct toward Myeshia Johnson. The dynamic seems to capture Trump’s broader relationship to history. He is untethered from any knowledge of America’s past, from any grappling with the pain and injustice that shapes and defines much of this country’s history.

But he sure knows how, instinctively, to pick away at racial scabs.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A mother trapped in the immigration meat grinder

Tuesday morning family and friends of Floricel Liborio Ramos made their voices heard outside the federal immigration court in downtown San Francisco.

Inside, Floricel, who has been held since March at the Mesa Verde immigrant detention center near Bakersfield, was supposed to get a long delayed, though constitutionally required, hearing on whether she could be released on bond. She didn't get her chance. Immigration judge Valerie Burch couldn't get through the many other cases on her docket, so Floricel and her family will have to wait until at least November 8 to find out whether they can be reunited.

Floricel's story is like that of too many other immigrants caught up our xenophobic panic over newcomers we see as Other (information from family, assembled by Faith in Action Bay Area.)

One Sunday in March of this year, Floricel treated her three children--Jennifer, 17, Michael, 12, and Daisy, 11--to a Sunday breakfast at IHOP in Lodi. As the family was just about to pull out of the parking lot to attend church, ICE officers surrounded the vehicle and took Floricel away, leaving Jennifer distraught and her two younger siblings crying in the back seat.

Prior to her detention, Floricel was both the emotional pillar and sole breadwinner of the family, ever since her husband and the father of her children was deported in 2012. She held multiple jobs to support her children, working in the fields and cleaning hotels. At one point, overworked and exhausted from worry, Floricel started to use alcohol, and in 2016 was arrested and convicted for driving under the influence. After her arrest, Floricel was sentenced to a rehabilitation program, and when she completed it, her teachers called her a model student and example for her peers. ...

Floricel's story is not unique. ICE will indiscriminately arrest and detain the heads of "mixed status" households, in which parents are undocumented and the children are U.S. citizens. ...Immigrant parents like Floricel are often punished twice for even [small] offenses -- once when they complete their sentence, and again when they are detained while in deportation proceedings. ...

Floricel has advantages that many detained immigrants lack: devoted children who are U.S. citizens, a supportive community, and assistance from Pangea Legal Services. Not surprisingly, she doesn't have a lot of money to give the government if the immigration court should allow bail. Her family have set up a fundraiser page.

You can follow Floricel's struggle to remain with her family on Facebook.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

On ageism in the Trump era

I see (and hear on podcasts) more and more assertions like this one about our impetuous, ignorant president.

No one should expect him to grow in office. He’s 71. At that age, either you have compassion, self-knowledge and a conscience, or you don’t.

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post columnist

I appreciate Robinson's writings. And I certainly not an admirer of the Orange Cheato. But Robinson's formulation makes me uneasy. The trouble with Trump is not (just) that he is an old guy with out-of-date habits and biases who shows no capacity to learn anything new or novel. He's not an asshole because he is 71; he's an asshole because he is an unrepentant asshole. Robinson will turn 65 in a couple of years; maybe that will jar his consciousness. Conclusion: this formulation is ageist.
So how about this:

Democrats Should Not Consider a Presidential Nominee Who’s Older Than Trump
... On election day in 2020, Bernie Sanders will be 79 years old, and Joe Biden will be a couple of weeks from turning 78. These happen to be the early front-runners for the Democratic nomination, according to initial polls. ... Neither has announced a 2020 candidacy, but both have conspicuously refused to rule it out. ...

Biden 2020 or Sanders 2020 is a really bad idea, for reasons that go beyond the anomaly that either would make the oldest man ever elected president the youth candidate in his reelection bid. ...

... Setting some “cap” on the age of presidential candidates is inherently an arbitrary exercise. But in terms of 2020, the logical rule would be that Democrats should not consider as nominees anyone older than Trump himself, who will turn 74 during the general-election campaign. Democrats should let him be the one to parry questions and concerns about age and health. ...

Democratic analyst Ed Kilgore

Kilgore's case hinges on the fact that men in their mid-70s statistically have a rapidly rising probability of dying, 22 percent over the next six years in stats he presents.

I'm willing to give the hint of age stereotyping in this a pass. It's the business of political activists and political pundits to think strategically. That's what Kilgore is doing here. I like his strategic thinking.

Democrats need to acknowledge and put forward leaders whose very being screams "we are the party of a new and better future." If we're ever to get out of our current anti-democratic (small "d") morass, young people are going to have to be engaged and lead. It is not ageism to insist that Democrats have to find leaders among up and coming age cohorts. It's simply fact.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Fear itself

If blogging has seemed rather light in this space of late, I agree. After a month in Spain, mostly walking on pilgrimage, and a quick week in rural Nicaragua meeting hopeful people working with El Porvenir to bring clean water to their communities, I'm having trouble re-acclimatizing myself to the shit-show that is the Trump/GOP United States.

That's not surprising. When people ask me what I learned while walking, the first thing I mention is that I realized I hadn't had a restful night's sleep since a year ago November 8. I am sure I am not alone in this. Rage at my fellow citizens for trashing the country's hope and heritage, shame that hope and heritage proved such a feeble bulwark against hate and authoritarianism, and terror of hate compounding into war at home and abroad -- all these unquiet emotions preclude tranquil dreams.

I wouldn't have enjoyed or trusted a Democratic presidency, but I wouldn't have had to worry about active government enthusiasm for polluting air and water, about seeing Puerto Rico strangled by willful neglect after the storm, or, probably, about nuclear war.

But here we are. And I am not alone. Rage and fear are rational responses to escalating cruelty and insanity. Researchers have been asking a broad sample of us the question "what keeps you up at night?" They have created a fascinating snapshot of our current anxieties as reported at Smithsonian.com. We used to worry about (largely over-hyped) crime and terrorism; at this moment, we seem more frightened by corruption in government, environmental degradation, and economic unease often related to health care.
I suspect that "corruption" is a kind of stand in for a general sense that the government is not doing its job, as well as a call out of theft by political leaders, though the article does not explore this. The researchers do warn that their findings tend to mirror what's prominent in the news -- if they had run the survey soon after the Las Vegas massacre, they'd have expected fear of mass shooting to rank highly.

They will continue to have plenty to study. If there is anything the regime of the Orange Cheato reliably offers, it is unceasing alarms about the dangers of the day.

As usual, the only remedy I know for fear and impotent rage is action. Resistance keeps us human and as sane as we can be in a world gone mad. Resist and protect much.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A suspicion confirmed

In Santiago de Compostela we marked completing our pilgrimage by taking a tour of the roof of the Cathedral of St. James. We noticed that several of the towers looked like this one, a 15th century improvement on a Romanesque original. This did not seem to accord with the usual architectural style of the period; where might the Spanish architect have gotten his inspiration? Our guide suggested he might have been influenced by Spain's new world conquests in Mesoamerica.

At the Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire exposition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, we encountered this artifact. The similarity of decorative form leaps out to me.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Man-made hazards

Before wildfires slip down the memory hole among those lucky enough not to have suffered direct losses ...
This story from Grist contextualizes what those of us who live in drought prone areas are facing.

Portugal’s wildfires this year have brought sharp focus on the escalating risk of these blazes — and what little officials have done to prevent them. Popular backlash prompted the resignation of a senior government minister and a formal request for a vote of no confidence in the ruling party. But they have also brought a lesson for the rest of the world: As climate change escalates, wildfires are a problem without an easy solution. (Just ask California.)

In a struggling post-recession Portugal, suppliers to its huge paper industry have accelerated a switchover from native species to faster-growing eucalyptus. Since trees consumed by fire can now be replaced more quickly, fire prevention — simple actions like trimming branches and clearing underbrush that could greatly reduce the country’s fire risk — has fallen by the wayside due to cost cutting. Add to that, more and more people are fleeing Portugal’s rural areas — leaving an aging population behind — it’s not clear who will be able to do that work even if resources were available to fund it.

“It really is a textbook example of wildfire as a socio-natural hazard,” José Miguel Pereira, a forest ecologist at the University of Lisbon tells Grist via email. Or to put it another way, human activity is making wildfires worse. These infernos are a product of our disregard for the fact that nature is now almost entirely something we’ve created — these disasters aren’t natural.

And as you know, our influence goes beyond simply neglecting tree management. There’s a growing consensus that the most important reason behind the recent surge in megafires is weather. September was the driest month in Portugal for at least 87 years, and this summer was among the hottest ever measured. All that’s led to a wildfire season that’s 525 percent worse than normal.

Climate models show that a warmer world will mean a drier southern Europe, and increasing ocean temperatures will likely bring more hurricanes further northward. That combination will boost the frequency of massive wildfires in Europe, especially in places like Portugal. On our current warming track, recent research shows the Mediterranean will cross a threshold into megadrought in the next few decades. Many of the trees in the region will likely go up in flames before next century.

What we can make, we can work to prevent.

Resist and protect much.

On freedom from unwarranted search and seizure while traveling

Back in the dim, distant days when I started this blog (2005!) I wrote a lot about the TSA and government watch lists. (After all, the E.P. and I were told we were on the no fly list for awhile, enough to offer a chance for the ACLU to try to find out what the government was up to.) This topic has been less a priority lately, but given everything else, it is not too surprising that it seems once again current.

We've all learned a lot since those days; there's an excellent, thorough, book on the history of the U.S. government using our desire to travel to constrain and control citizens they take to be troublemakers. (The picture is of Mrs. Ruth Shipley who did the dirty work for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and FBI chief J.Edgar Hoover in the 1950s.)

Once again, the ACLU has taken up a "freedom to travel" case, this one of what seems a novel sort because it involves involuntary (short) detention of people who have not only passed through all the security theater that dominates our airports, but also have already completed their journey.

On February 22, 2017, Delta Airlines Flight 1583 departed San Francisco and headed for John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. As the plane was landing, passengers heard a strange announcement.

Speaking over the intercom, a flight attendant announced that everyone would have to show their documents in order to get off the plane. After passengers expressed their consternation, the flight attendant repeated her announcement, stating that officers would be meeting the plane and every passenger would have to show government-issued ID to deplane.

... the government does not have this authority. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires government agents to have individualized suspicion to conduct even a brief investigatory stop. Despite this, two Customs and Border Protection agents met Flight 1583 and stood immediately outside the aircraft door, blocking the exit into the jetway. The officers wore uniforms emblazoned with the words, “POLICE/CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION,” and carried guns visible in their holsters.

Passengers were naturally intimidated; some interactions with these apparent Homeland Security spooks seemed racially tinged to some passengers.

The ACLU's filing contains other notable details:

Despite the focus on the identification documents, DOE 1 and DOE 2 [officers] carried no clipboard, photograph, or list of names and did not appear to check the passengers’ identification against any list.

.... Plaintiffs did not consent to any search or seizure as they were attempting to deplane Flight 1583. Instead, they understood from the circumstances, as set forth above, that the stop and search was mandatory and that they were not free to deplane without submitting to the officers. The coercive circumstances included the announcements made by the flight crew at CBP’s direction, the presence of two large armed CBP officers obstructing the only means of egress from the plane, and the words and actions of those officers, as described above.

I recognize that last condition. When we were stopped at the San Francisco airport in 2002, we were surrounded by three urgently summoned police officers who told us that, "no" -- we might not go get a drink of water until they figured out what to do with us.

Liberty survives when people speak up against government infringements on our freedoms. It will likely be a long haul, but props to these plaintiffs for stepping up to the fight.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Justice exercises

If Ruth Bader Ginsburg can do this stuff, so can I. After a lovely September on pilgrimage when all I had to do was get up in the morning and walk 15 to 27 kilometers, getting back in the exercise groove is a stiff and sore business.

But we all need our strength for the journey ...

H/t Time Goes By.

Friday cat blogging: street cat

This wary critter lives on the streets of San Francisco. Here, he's waiting alongside his person's possessions while his human gets a cup of coffee. He showed no interest in a dog that walked by (on a leash.) But he did carefully follow the movements of a pigeon which intelligently stayed well away.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Seasonal obligation to the herd: get your flu shot

Yesterday I presented my arm and came away with a button and a band-aid.

Why suggest that this is not just to protect my personal aging body from the flu, that getting the shot also had a community benefit? If we are able to get the shot, we contribute to "herd immunity."

... vaccinating yourself vastly increases the odds that you won't get sick with flu this season, but it also protects everyone you come into contact with: your parents, your sister's new baby, the stranger on the bus who can't get vaccinated because of an egg allergy, and everyone who isn't able to weather an infection as well as you.

The idea of herd immunity is like a moat around a castle or the natural behavior of herd animals when threatened by a predator. The strong surround the weak to protect them from attack; in this case the vaccinated protect those who can't be vaccinated or those with low immunity from contact with the flu by halting the spread of the virus.

Cleveland Plain Dealer

At the risk of reading like an ad for the Kaiser Permanente system, I also have to say the HMO makes the annual flu vaccination incredibly smooth. They situate ranks of nursing students in the lobby who check your age and whether you've had past bad reactions and then give you a quick stick. This takes less than 3 minutes. So much personal and community benefit for so little time and angst ...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Rage in two kinds

It's not hard to find descriptions of the rage of Donald Trump's "base" -- those white, often rural, older, and predominantly male citizens whose disaffection stuck the rest of us with this vicious, blustering idiot. Here's an articulate sample from the National Review (via Kevin Drum):

Trump is stoking a particularly destructive form of rage — and his followers don’t just allow themselves to be stoked, they attack Trump’s targets with glee. Contrary to the stereotype of journalists who live in the Beltway and spend their nights at those allegedly omnipresent “cocktail parties,” I live in rural Tennessee, deep in the heart of Trump country. My travels mainly take me to other parts of Trump country, where I engage with Trump voters all the time.

If I live in a bubble, it’s the Trump bubble. I know it intimately. And I have never in my adult life seen such anger. There is a near-universal hatred of the media. There is a near-universal hatred of the so-called “elite.” If a person finds out that I didn’t support Trump, I’ll often watch their face transform into a mask of rage. Partisans are so primed to fight — and they so clearly define whom they’re fighting against — that they often don’t care whom or what they’re fighting for. It’s as if millions of Christians have forgotten a basic biblical admonition: “Be angry and do not sin.” ...

The Harvey Weinstein story ("revelations" only to those not placed to look or to see) is a unleashing a righteous rage just as deep, more wide, though not nearly so empowered. Here's Lindy West:

When [Woody] Allen and other men warn of “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere” what they mean is an atmosphere in which they’re expected to comport themselves with the care, consideration and fear of consequences that the rest of us call basic professionalism and respect for shared humanity. On some level, to some men — and you can call me a hysteric but I am done mincing words on this — there is no injustice quite so unnaturally, viscerally grotesque as a white man being fired.

Donald Trump, our predator in chief, seems to view the election of Barack Obama as a white man being fired. He and his supporters are willing to burn the world in revenge. This whole catastrophic cultural moment was born of that same entitlement, of Trump’s paws and Weinstein’s unbelted bathrobe, of the ancient cycles of abuse that ghostwrote the Trump campaign’s real slogan: If I can’t have you, no one will.

Setting aside the gendered power differential inherent in real historical witch hunts (pretty sure it wasn’t all the rape victims in Salem getting together to burn the mayor), and the pathetic gall of men feeling hunted after millenniums of treating women like prey, I will let you guys have this one. Sure, if you insist, it’s a witch hunt. I’m a witch, and I’m hunting you. ...

West is certainly not alone; anyone who has looked at a Facebook feed full of "me too" over the last few days knows that.

The moment feels much akin to the heady times in the 1960s and 70s when 20th century U.S. feminism lurched awkwardly out of the lineage of previous freedom struggles. Only this time, the witches may indeed represent a broader swath of humanity (one that even includes a lot of well-raised men!) Time will tell; we women are good at endurance. The slogan from the South African freedom struggle seems on point.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dangerous trees

Northern California isn't the only region experiencing perilous wildfires in this season of weather disasters. Four people have died in scattered forest fires in Galicia and Asturias in Spain in the last few days. (That's where we walked on pilgrimage during September.) Thirty-five more people are reported killed further south in Portugal. Persistent drought fueled the outbreak. Politicians want to blame arsonists. But might there be an additional factor?

While walking through this region we made a surprising observation: where farmers had until recently grown pines in wood lots meant for paper and pulp production, they are now planting eucalyptus trees. They explained that these exotics would mature in 25 years while pines required 50.

Importing eucalyptus was evidently controversial. The Australian native species can be a hazard waiting to ignite as Californians have discovered.

... eucalyptus trees can exacerbate deadly fires. Their sap is flammable, and so is their bark, which flies off when burned, igniting new fires up to 100 yards away.

L.A. Times

In Spain we saw signs of vocal opposition to imports:
These trees may be more a part of the problem than part of a solution to rural areas' economic stagnation.

Monday, October 16, 2017

We must learn to hold more than one idea at a time

What kind of world are we living in? I mean, here's the New York Times passing along strategic advice that speaks to what has all my life seemed the necessary but impossible condition for successful left projects. David Leonhardt writing about defending gains in health care access from the Trump bulldozer:

Just as Trump has both short-term and long-term goals, so should his opponents. For now, the priority is minimizing coverage losses, through outreach, lawsuits and lobbying. Doing so will also help the larger priority: preventing repeal, which would cause far more people to lose insurance than Trump can on his own.

“This stuff is really bad,” the health care expert Aviva Aron-Dine said, referring to last week’s announcements, “but it’s not nearly as bad as repeal. People should be able to hold both of those ideas in their head at the same time. Nobody should despair.”

This is in support of Get America Covered, an activist effort to mobilize people to do the job that the GOPer government refuses to do: get eligible people enrolled in subsided insurance plans. Trump can make it hard to get in and more expensive to the government, but the law continues to require subsidies that make insurance relatively affordable to many people.

Read about Get America Covered, and pass the word on.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Over 26 years ago ... she spoke out

As women today, AGAIN, struggle to demand that powerful male sexual predators JUST STOP, watch the courageous woman who forced this near-universal female experience out into the light.

Anita Hill deserves credit for putting truth before the world.

Elders amid the California fires

My friend Ronni Bennett at Time Goes By highlighted the particular sufferings of Puerto Rican old people in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Even if their houses survived, elders are particularly vulnerable in a prolonged period without electricity, or easy access to clean water, and to stocked food stores. The weak response from the Trump administration and from too many mainlanders has made a perilous situation worse.

Bennett's post led me to take a particular look at how Northern California media is covering the plight of elders in our current siege of firestorms around Santa Rosa, Calistoga, Napa, Sonoma, and surroundings. There seem to be two notable themes.

Elders are particularly at risk when electricity and modern means of communication fail. This is not just about elders being not perhaps so decisive or fast moving in an emergency as younger people. According to an account in the Mercury News:

For the hundreds who remain missing, their families are holding out hope that their loved ones are also safe but simply unable to communicate.

That turned out to be the happy case for Nanette Williams, whose 96-year-old aunt Nora Hennings was found alive by sheriff’s deputies in her Santa Rosa home just feet from fire-scorched earth. With no cellphone, no computer, no email and no car, she’d had no way to get in touch but had come through the fire relatively unscathed. ...

[Carmen] McReynolds, like Hennings and a number of people her age, doesn’t have a cellphone, computer or email address. The telephone at her home isn’t working, and authorities won’t let the family friends who have volunteered to drive by her house close enough to investigate.

Volunteers with the Timber Cove Fire Department stopped by McReynolds’ cabin near the Russian River on Friday afternoon. Family hoped she had fled to the cabin, which she’s owned since the 1960s. But she wasn’t there. A neighbor in Santa Rosa told the family that police and firefighters had been in the area when the fire broke out, urging residents to evacuate. “We hope she got rounded up,” said Coke. “But there’s no sign of her.” ...

To be old in a rapidly changing world can amount to falling out of connection in times of extreme societal stress. There may be few practical remedies beyond applied neighborliness, but that seems a scary truth.

The other theme in coverage of elders' vulnerability is the casualty report as tear-jerker. Perhaps I'm being unfair to reporters here. In the midst of a vast, terrifying, ongoing disaster, pulling out human interest stories from the chaos seems an obvious journalistic device. And stunned, grieving relatives make appealing sources. Still these accounts feel over-saccharin and a little too canned. Two specimens of the genre from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Charles and Sara Rippey were the first casualties to be identified. They were also the oldest — he was 100 and she was 98. They had been married for 75 years and they died together during the first night of the fires as flames engulfed their condominium at Napa’s Silverado Country Club. They met in grade school in Wisconsin and married on March 20, 1942. They were so well known in the Napa community that the Napa County Register carried an announcement of their diamond wedding anniversary this past spring. ... Mark Rippey, one of their sons, was interviewed on KPIX television and said Charles died trying to save his wife. “From where they found his body, he was trying to get from his room to her room,” he said. “He never made it.”

... Carmen [Berriz] met Armando in Cuba, when they were 12 years old. They both left Cuba after Castro came to power and met again in Florida. They were married in Miami in 1962 and moved to Southern California the next day.

After 55 years of marriage, she died in his arms. Mrs. Berriz was 75. When the fire came, the Berrizes were unable to escape, so they held hands and jumped into the swimming pool of their rented house. They hoped to outlast the fire. He held onto her, but she died. He was badly injured.

All the deaths (and injuries) in the fires are tragedies. But all deserve to have their stories recounted with as few maudlin cliches as possible. And elder deaths are particularly subject to the temptation among overwhelmed journalists to have recourse to vapid banalities.
Meanwhile, my bank is urging me to contribute to the Red Cross. Before I took off for Nicaragua last week, the message was about Hurricane Irma. This week it is fires. I'm skeptical. Journalist Jonathan Katz makes the case that earnest Red Cross appeals may even do more harm than good.

The problem, as Katz sees it, is that the Red Cross is a dysfunctional organization that excels at raising money but has shown little evidence of its ability to spend that money wisely or meaningfully. The Red Cross takes in close to 3 billion annually, refuses to open its books to the public, and, according to Katz, has consistently failed to produce a useful breakdown of its spending after major disaster efforts.

... Red Cross perpetuates a tendency we all have to see disasters as opportunities for charity. As a result, we spend far less time thinking about how to prevent disasters in the first place. “It’s always about relief, always about helping people after it’s too late,” Katz said.

“No one makes the world a worse place when they donate to the Red Cross,” Katz told me, “but if they do donate and assume that’s enough, we’ll keep repeating this cycle over and over again.”

Obviously people need immediate help: shelter, food, clothes and the like. And perhaps the Red Cross is good at this sort of aid. But these horrible fires should also be forcing us to think about patterns of urban/rural development and land use, all in the context of a radically warming climate.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

They know

In Waslala, Nicaragua, on the edge of what we might call civilization, they know. Climate is changing and how humans live in the only world we've got has to change. This sign hangs in the office of El Porvenir in the town. This non-governmental organization, on whose board I have the honor and responsibility to serve, collaborates with rural communities to build water and sanitation facilities while protecting and preserving the health of forests, watersheds, and the land itself. In the Anthropocene age, we're all responsible, for worse and possibly for better.

How's this for a lovely site for a water tank, 1.5 kilometers from most of the clump of 65 families this little system serves -- and another several kilometers from the spring water source on the hill in the distance?

Intrepid members of the board had to scramble down muddy roads and ford a flooding stream on local horses. I'm sure our kindly Nicaraguan hosts thought many of us pretty inept!

Here's a San Francisco-based engineer from the board mugging with the Nicaraguan engineer who is supervising this project. There is joy in this work.

Of course the real payoff will be when the system is hooked up and taps like this one begin to provide water to each household.

Water does not remain clean and available without our cooperation; that's a message for our time. The good people touched by El Porvenir remind themselves and their communities of this every day. There are no days-off. But there is much we can do, together.

Friday, October 13, 2017

From Siberia with love

Back in the USofA; my home turf is on fire; and Trump and the GOPers continue to try to destroy everything decent, generous or responsible about this cantankerous democratic republic. So time for some (moderated) escapism.

For the last six weeks in spare moments and on airplanes, I've been delighting in the more than 400 pages of Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia. After all the dispiriting reading about Russia I've indulged in lately (see this and that) this gentle, humorous, thoughtful book was a pleasant reminder of other facets of that huge opaque country.

The inescapable theme of Frazier's five journeys through Siberia is the incomprehensible extent of Russia's massive stepchild region. Stretching over nine times zones, comprising nine percent of the earth's land area, and home to only 40 million people, this is truly the "back of beyond." Terrible sub-zero cold dominates the usual image of the place, but Frazier's summer drive across the region was hot, dusty and mosquito-plagued, quite a different set of hardships. Tzars and commissars dispatched their enemies to Siberia to die; contemporary oligarchs treat the land and its people as a great open pit mine for oil, gas and minerals. And yet some of the least disturbed land on the planet remains in the harsh environs north of the Arctic circle. Frazier is a beautiful narrator of both horrors and delights, such as this description of a night camping by Lake Baikal:

When a wave rolls in on Baikal, and it curls to break, you can see stones on the bottom refracted in the vertical face of the wave. This glimpse, offered for just a moment in the wave’s motion, is like seeing into the window of an apartment as you go by it on an elevated train. The moon happened to be full that night, and after it rose, the stones on the bottom of the lake lay spookily illuminated in the moonlight. The glitter of the moon on the surface of the lake—the “moon road,” Sergei called it—fluctuated constantly in its individual points of sparkling, with a much higher definition than any murky water could achieve. Light glitters differently on water this clear. I understood that I had never really seen the moon reflected on water …

Frazier's one-over-lightly survey of Russian history aims to capture what made the nation seem so unlike either Europe or its Asian neighbors. Until modern times, Russia was subject to a series of invasions from fierce tribes from the remote steppe, repeated waves of murder and pillage. He suggests:

[I] actually can’t help returning to [the question]: namely, how Russia can be so great and so horrible simultaneously. I think one answer is that when other countries were in their beginnings, developing institutions of government and markets and a middle class and so on, Russia was beset with Mongols. That is, Russia can be thought of as an abused country; one has to make allowances for her because she was badly mistreated in her childhood by the Mongols.

Among historical Russians, he holds up the aristocratic insurrectionists, the Decembrists, who tried to overthrow the tzar and bring Russia into Europe in 1825; those who survived the failure of their coup were exiled to Siberia. He ponders what their story can suggest to people in the US.

With the Decembrists as a point of comparison, I have increased my respect for America’s Founding Fathers and the men they led, who seem to have believed even in their unconscious that King George III of England really was no better than they were. They were fortunate, perhaps, that to them King George was kind of a theoretical idea, being so distant from them physically.

True equality is a difficult concept to hold in the mind. I believe we Americans have lost our grip on it today. I know that in my case, I can tell myself that I’m just as good as a billionaire and even believe that it is true. But when I’m in the actual presence of a powerful person, my own concept of equality gets blurry, and I have a regrettable tendency to truckle, if only to be polite.

I don't think that goes for all of us, but perhaps it is true for too many. The Cheato is probably curing many of any respect they may have had for wisdom signaled by possession of great wealth.

Frazier's opus is a worthy "long read". Siberia (and Russia in general) is too large for facile description or certainly facile conclusions. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Nicaragua, Nicaraguita"

Another pretty picture of tropical paradise, in no way representative of our strenuous trips to El Porvenir water projects, but a nice memory to share while stuck in Houston waiting to see whether/when we can fly into San Francisco despite smoke delays. 

More normal blogging soon enough. 

On the road again

Watershed improvements in progress.
For the next week, I'll be in Nicaragua attending the board meeting of El Porvenir. This non-profit project
partners with the people of Nicaragua so that they can build a future for themselves. Clean drinking water is at the core of El Porvenir; sanitation is necessary to ensure that the water is clean. In addition to sustainable water and sanitation projects, we work with communities on health and hygiene education and reforestation.
We'll be visiting sites where work in ongoing and helping staff evaluate how we're doing on our tiny piece of meeting the United Nations' Water and Sanitation Sustainability Goal. (Yes, there is such a thing. North Americans blithely ignore the UN, but in much of the world UN standards are assisting development for better lives.)

I don't know how much connectivity I'll have in Nicaragua, so for the next week blogging will be sporadic or perhaps just photos.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Lake at the coffee plantation at Selva Negra

In fact most of this trip has involved swollen rivers and mud flows that knocked out bridges. Hurricane Nate didn't hit Nicaragua directly, but the storm and torrential rains have caused deaths and left major damage. And meanwhile the staff and board of El Porvenir conferred usefully. 

But for a minute late this afternoon the sun came out. 

Friday, October 06, 2017

Friday cat blogging

Never fear. Morty is not alone with America to keep him company. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Some Spanish windmills

As we walked the Camino de Santiago in Asturias and Galicia, we often found ourselves repeating a line we'd read in somebody's blog: "More windmills? Guess that means we have to climb another big hill ..."

Indeed there are a lot of windmills in Spain, especially in this part of Spain. In 2015, Spain was the fifth largest generator of wind power in the world. On a few blustery days, wind power makes up more than 50 percent of the power the country uses. Wind power even enables the province of Galicia to produce more renewable energy than its own power needs demand. Spain has promised the European Union to achieve 20 percent of all its energy needs by 2020.

The country seemed well on the way to this target a decade ago, through a combination of wind, solar and hydroelectric production. However, since the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party took power in 2011, green power production has plateaued. Subsidies for clean energy were cut; the government introduced a "sun tax" which penalizes individual private installations of solar panels which might reduce demand for the output sold by commercial power companies.

Under the new rules, these self-reliant consumers will not be able to use products such as the Powerwall battery recently launched by American automotive and energy-storage company Tesla, and will additionally be penalized for the storage systems that come included with the latest generation of solar panels.

... The Spanish government’s attitude is in contrast to other countries, such as Germany, which is encouraging the use of solar panels with batteries.

Government solicitude for the stranded costs of legacy power companies acts as an impediment to clean energy all over the world. David Roberts has recently explored why cheaper batteries are going to blow away the old monopoly electric company profit model despite their political power in the U.S. -- and as soon as 2020.

Rooftop solar can be staved off temporarily with fees and rate tweaks, but as batteries get cheaper, those strategies will stop working. More and customers are going to generate, store, and manage more and more of their own power.

Utilities have got to find other ways to make money, other services to provide, other roles to play in the power system of the future. They have no other choice.

Yet another hill to climb ...
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