Friday, May 25, 2018

Insurgent judicial hopefuls

We've got a novelty on the San Francisco June primary ballot: four experienced public defenders trying to unseat four incumbent Superior Court Judges. This doesn't happen often. The resurrected Bay Guardian endorsements explains why:
Under the state Constitution, Superior Court judges are elected officials, but the law has a loophole: If a judge steps down in the middle of their term, the governor appoints the replacement. And unless someone comes forward to challenge that incumbent, the race never even appears on the ballot. The vast majority of judges in the state who retire or otherwise leave the bench do so in the middle of their terms. So it’s rare that an open seat comes up.
Obviously this system ensures that political insiders, the sort of lawyers who know governors for example, have the inside track on being appointed. There's nothing underhanded about this, but it does tend to mean that governors of both parties appoint people who aren't boat-rockers. And mostly the voters never get any say.

Like most people who think about judicial elections, the idea makes me a little queasy. I don't want judges signaling their political opinions on the campaign trail or, especially, raising campaign money from the kind of people who give to obscure candidates -- rich people with controversial interests. I want judges doing their honest best to apply the law, not looking over their shoulders for fear of an electoral challenge.

The Trump era has reminded me that there can be social value in institutionalism -- that adhering to regular order can be a bulwark against demands from a demagogue who incites and claims his legitimacy from popular excitement.

But the regular order in the local legal system and the courts has not been good, or fair, or honest to a lot of people. Just today, the regular legal order that protects cops who shoot irresponsibly absolved the killers of two local citizens.

And the judicial insurgents -- Phoenix Streets, Maria Evangelista, Kwixuan Maloof, and Niki Solis -- have put in the time in the San Francisco Public Defender Office to know all too much about what the justice system looks like to folks who are in trouble, poor, mostly of color, mostly without powerful, "respectable" advocates. Our PD office is an extraordinarily well run branch of the city government. Judges with their experience would genuinely diversify the local bench.

The challengers are running a campaign that highlights that they are Democrats and that the judges they are challenging were appointed by Republican governors. This is not so surprising; we used to have Republican governors. But the judges they are challenging seem to be registered Democrats, just like the challengers. That is, they are San Franciscans. We pretty much don't do Republicans around here, even at the exalted reaches of society.

I wish the challengers had skipped the partisan appeal which is a bit of a red herring and stuck to promoting the diverse experience they would bring to the local bench. They are experienced, well-qualified attorneys who would bring something new to the courts. We need that. I will be voting for them.

Friday cat blogging

Let's give Morty pride of place today. Here he considers whether the out of doors might be more interesting than frightening. He is easily shooed back inside any open door; in truth, he's a bit of a wuss, a fine survival attribute in a housecat.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Sign of a toxic brand


I know Republicans aren't popular around here, but apparently across the state, the GOP is dying. According to the centrist "nonpartisan, nonprofit" newsletter CALmatters:

Out of 2.6 million Californians who have registered to vote since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, [political consultant Mike Madrid] told me a mere 3.1 percent were Latinos who registered Republican. The stat shows how the largest segment of California’s population has turned against the GOP.

It surely does.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Google as "digital truth serum"

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is forthright about the point of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are:

... social science is a real science. And this new, real, science is poised to improve our lives.

Count me as mildly skeptical, for reasons I'll outline below. Nonetheless, this book is fun, easy to read, and full of suggestions for more exploration.

He's a good explainer: he introduces the concept of data by pointing out that his grandmother's life experience watching family relationships has likely made her the one of his relatives with the most sophisticated view of what he should be looking for in a potential wife. Good catch, that.

But the data that Stephens-Davidowitz wants us to appreciate, as he does, is the tracks left by of our digital explorations, Google searches, and choices on the site PornHub. We are (usually) individually anonymous as we move about the net, but the aggregate of our web behavior tells an awful lot about us as a society.

The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.

In 2015, when Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik shot up his office party killing fourteen people in San Bernardino, then-President Obama went on the air urging us all to reject painting any community with a broad brush.

That evening, literally minutes after the media first reported one of the shooters' Muslim-sounding name, a disturbing number of Californians had decided what they wanted to do with Muslims: kill them. The top Google search with the word "Muslims" in it at that time was "kill Muslims." ... While hate searches were approximately20 percent of all searches about Muslims before the attack, more than half of all search volume about Muslims became hateful in the hours that followed it.

...Obama asked Americans to "not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear." Yet searches for "kill Muslims" tripled during his speech.

The PornHub searches Stephens-Davidowitz examines actually seem somewhat comforting in comparison to the hate searches. Sure, people look for some pretty weird sex stuff. But overall

... there's something out there for everyone. Women, not surprisingly, often search for "tall" guys, "dark" guys, and "handsome" guys. But they also sometimes search for "short" guys, "pale" guys, and "ugly" guys. ...Men frequently search for "thin" women, women with "big tits," and women with "blonde" hair. But they also sometimes search for "fat" women, women with "tiny tits," and women with "green" hair.

And yes, he uses search data to conclude that about 5 percent of men are gay, though in most of the country, half of those are still in the closet. He admits to being unable to use any of the varieties of web data to figure out how many lesbians are out there.

And so the book goes on, disgorging fascinating data-derived observations, some of which seem more plausible than others, but all of which seem at least suggestive of potential for future study.

Yet I did not come away convinced that I was being introduced to a new triumph of social science. I've lived at the intersection of data and purposeful activity for years. That is, I have at lot of experience with some of the largest data sets anyone worked with before they had access to Google: election participation statistics and results. When working on a campaign, I've often found myself trying to calm someone waving a new poll: "Hold on! We already know where that district leans because we have the much larger polls which were the past elections." Sometimes results can change, but the underlying data set from which to work has been complied over the years by election authorities.

(By the way, the flap over Cambridge Analytica was an example of confusion over the utility of data. That kind of data-based profiling of voters is always very tempting to some, but apparently as is usually the case, the election pros who got the stuff from Cambridge Analytica found it useless. Voters chose Trump; the election was not manipulated by a sneaky data company.)

What we can do with that big data comes down, in large part, to how imaginatively we can query and reinterpret what we already know. I don't think what we do with search data is any different. What we learn from it will be largely determined by the rigor and creatively with which we choose to question it. And that's not science, as science is often understood using the natural sciences as the frame of reference. Social science remains more a mix of art and science -- modern cosmologists might agree.

For all my skepticism, Stephens-Davidowitz's little book is great fun for anyone who cares about data's possibilities.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

What are they hiding?

The Trump/Russia scandal/investigation/perversion of legal norms keeps growing new branches. Its complexities are more than anyone living a normal life has time to sort out.
This Center for American Progress video from their Moscow Project does a pretty good job of connecting some of the people and high points in the convoluted story.

For myself, I scarcely need the Mueller investigation to convince me that Trump was begging for illegal Russian help: I saw him live on TV asking the Russians to hack his opponent (who I didn't like much either). Everything else is just elaboration on the obvious.

Smart reporters are beginning to bring the threads together based on the most plausible motives for the ongoing crimes: the Trump crew is putting up the country for sale to whoever will pay them personally the biggest bribe. See for example: Oh, not all of them are solely about taking all they can from the candy store -- some are about hating on Black and brown people and polluting the land as much as fossil fuel barons want. But even those are corrupt.

Are we going to put up with this? Resist and protect much.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Never again

The California Museum in Sacramento includes a powerful permanent exhibit -- UPROOTED: Japanese Americans during WWII. Seventy-six years ago, Japanese Americans in California were swept up and sent away to internment camps. Old people recount their memories of childhoods ripped apart.

"My grandmother was looking at her roses and she said 'I don't think I'm ever going to see this again.'"

These people were no threat to this country as cooler heads understood even then. But fear and racial panic overwhelmed common sense and human decency. Somebody had to suffer for the Japanese empire's attack on Pearl Harbor. (Ironically, Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not locked away. The U.S. Army welcomed their labor for the war effort.)

The actor George Takei of Star Trek fame was one of those children sent to the camps. He explains in a looping video at the entrance to the exhibit how travesty came to pass.

Here's more from Takei on the internment from a PBS documentary.
Finding this exhibit in a state facility just a block from the capitol building reminds me how glad I am to be a Californian. We are far from perfect, but we still think we can make our state kinder, smarter, and better.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Stacey Abrams is making history

Stacey Abrams is all over these days. This highly qualified Black woman aims to become Governor of Georgia by turning out to vote an emerging majority consisting of people of color and young folks of all races. She has been the subject of a comment in the New Yorker and of speculation in the New York Times, just to mention a few of her appearances on the national scene. Her primary is Tuesday -- she's expected to win this round and become the Democratic standard bearer in this rapidly changing state.

But she's my favorite candidate of the season because she's the only one I know who tells her life story in a comic book. Learn more.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Nicaragua: some volcanic eruptions give little warning

Down with lies! 64 people killed in Nicaragua -- Long live socialism! Freedom for the heroes!

Echoes of the popular uprising in Nicaragua demanding the resignation of President Daniel Ortega have come to light poles in San Francisco's Mission District.

Even with the current rapid gentrification, the Mission remains very close to Nicaragua and that Central American country's ups and downs erupt in our streets too. In 1978, during the insurrection against the dictator Somoza, the initials of the insurgent "FSLN" predominated in the local graffiti. Today the posters set a heavily armed pig figure labeled "SFPD" alongside "La Chayo" -- a reference to Ortega's wife and omnipresent Vice President Rosario Murillo, also as a heavily armed pig figure. (As usual, click on image to enlarge.)

The digital magazine Envio, a publication of the Jesuit Universidad Centroamericana – UCA, reports from Managua in sorrow and hope. Some excerpts:

No one expected such a flare-up, but it was ignited by innumerable pent-up grievances. It started when pensioners protested social security reforms. Once the student-supported protest was met by violence, it was surprisingly joined by even more, not fewer people. Rural areas have lived with terror and deaths for years while Managua just seemed to slumber through it all. But once awake, the entire country came together. This spontaneous and unexpected explosion wasn’t the product of an outside conspiracy, but the eruption of pent-up grievances. Volcanoes don’t forewarn. ...

Two Nicaraguas now stand opposed to each other to a degree unimaginable only a month ago.

One continues to support the Ortega-Murillo government despite everything. The reasons include common economic interests on the one hand, and an impenetrable ideology on the other. Those in that Nicaragua believe the government, which still holds all the levers of power, will be able to recover its hegemony by force and reglue its alliance with big business, thus recovering the stability shattered in April. ...

The other one, the Nicaragua of the insurrection of consciousness, can’t forget or forgive the spilling of so much unnecessary blood or the continuation of a regime that went way beyond the nation’s patience and tolerance. That other Nicaragua is demanding not only justice but a change of government. Some, particularly students, intellectuals, peasants, owners of various-sized business and much of the population in general want that change now. Others, above all the powerful economic groups, want a smooth and ordered change, step by step, even if it takes until 2021, very likely because they have a clearer idea of what it would cost to unseat this government, and prefer to protect their interests. Whatever the timeline, those who want a real change are inspired by that insurrection of consciousness, one that is still growing.

There are also two Nicaraguas in a chronological sense, with a clear dividing line between them: the Nicaragua of before those unexpected days of rebellion and the Nicaragua of today. There’s no way to know yet how or when the new country born of that insurrection will take shape, but virtually no one believes anything will remain as it was before. ...

I can only report all this with almost immeasurable sadness. Nicaraguans have been through so much in the last 50 years; they apparently will have to go through more to determine the direction of their country in the days ahead. They are smart, enduring, and believe in their country's resilience.

Meanwhile, I continue to support the work of El Porvenir, helping Nicaraguan communities at the end of rutted dirt roads to enjoy clean water and healthy sanitation facilities. Director Rob Bell writes:

After a brief interruption, our Managua and field staff are back to developing projects and working side by side with communities who desperately need water and sanitation services. Our work is more important than ever as the Nicaraguan economy will suffer from reduced tourism; economists are predicting at least a 100 million dollar decrease.

... we are preparing for lower income and working to raise the funds for the projects that were to be built with income from the canceled [visiting work] groups. We urge you to make a special donation today at elporvenir.org /donate so that we can continue to partner with rural Nicaraguans on much needed water, sanitation, and watershed projects. In 2017 alone, El Porvenir worked with 20,271 rural Nicaraguans to build 24 water projects, 6 school handwashing facilities, 405 latrines , and 81 fuel-efficient stoves. Additionally, community members planted 102,840 trees throughout their watersheds.

We plan to work with even more people this year, but we need your help to be able to do that.

We hope for peaceful and just resolution in Nicaragua.

Friday, May 18, 2018

“Dear Racism in School, your time is over!”

Students, parents, and friends from the statewide community organization, Californians for Justice, rallied on the steps of the capital in Sacramento yesterday calling for an end to racial injustice in the schools.

Sixty-four years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education called for desegregation in our schools, the California school system is still separate and still unequal.

Students of color face systemic racial injustice and nearly 40% of Black and Brown students in the state attend predominantly (90-100%) student of color campuses. These facilities are underfunded and resourced compared to predominantly white campuses.

Their new report, Why Race and Relationships Matter, is available for download at the link. It excels at sharing the feelings of the next generation of Californians.

School climate is a critical factor in behavioral, academic, and mental health outcomes, yet students of color experience a far less supportive school environment than their white peers.

  • In California, Black students are twice as likely as white peers to feel unsafe or very unsafe at school
  • More than half of Latinx students in California report feeling disconnected from school, and less than half report that they are treated fairly
  • In California, Asian students were among the least likely to believe their schools had caring adult relationships (30% of respondents, compared to 39% of white students
  • Black girls are suspended six times as often as their white peers, and Black and Latinx students are more likely to be referred for discipline violations and then suspended or expelled than white students

Trinity Harper, an Oakland student leader, had a message for Racism:

You have overstayed your welcome. You have negatively impacted the development of too many of our students, especially youth of color. You give us the illusion that we are incompetent which is something we are anything but… While you have been deeply ingrained into our schools and institutions it is now time we part. You will be replaced with solidarity, love, and constant evolution.

Let's hear it for the young people!

Friday cat blogging

This one seems suspicious.

While this one surveyed its domain confidently.

Encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

This too is what resistance looks like


Sometimes the proliferating puzzle pieces that are the Trump/Russia/Michael Cohen influence peddling/porn star payoff scandals seem more than any normal person can untangle. It probably isn't necessary to track every detail. Who can? That's what prosecutors and lawyers are for. But a pattern of corrupt dealings continues to leak out.

New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow, who broke the Harvey Weinstein woman-abuse story, got the accounts that knocked off Eric Schneidermann, and improbably also has a new book on U.S. diplomacy, is sure on a roll these days.

Now he's leaped into the all-consuming Trump scandal vortex. We've been hearing for a few days that someone leaked the government banking reports that showed that Michael Cohen had been selling (possibly fraudulently) consulting about Trump to credulous corporations. Farrow put out the story of the information's origins today.

In the era of Trump, apparently what motivates a leaker to release government banking documents can be fear that somehow proper legal bureaucratic process is being undermined. Whoever put out the bank reports was willing to risk going to jail lest truth was being concealed.

...disclosing a SAR is a federal offense, carrying penalties including fines of up to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and imprisonment for up to five years. The official who released the suspicious-activity reports was aware of the risks, but said fears that the missing reports might be suppressed compelled the disclosure.

“We’ve accepted this as normal, and this is not normal,” the official said. “Things that stand out as abnormal, like documents being removed from a system, are of grave concern to me.” Of the potential for legal consequences, the official said, “To say that I am terrified right now would be an understatement.” But, referring to the released report, as well as the potential contents of the missing reports, the official also added, “This is a terrifying time to be an American, to be in this situation, and to watch all of this unfold.”

This person may well be exposed. But the leaker grasps what is at stake.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Calling out evil

Yesterday San Franciscans rallied outside the Israeli consulate, refusing to be silent about our government's complicity in massacre and expropriation.



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In case anyone missed it, here's Dana Milbank's catalogue of foul creatures who the US invited to the opening of our new embassy on stolen land in Jerusalem.
Robert Jeffress, the pastor who gave the opening prayer, who has said that both Islam and Mormonism are “heresy from the pit of hell” — and that Jews are bound for that same destination. “You can’t be saved being a Jew,” he said in a 2010 interview.

John Hagee, an evangelical Christian leader who gave a closing prayer, who is known for, among other things, once saying God allowed the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed, to happen “because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was standing at Trump’s side last year when the president said there were “very fine people” among neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville and later defended Trump’s handling of the situation.

And Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who spoke at a reception for the U.S. delegation, after which Kushner and Ivanka Trump asked for Yosef’s blessing. The rabbi made waves recently for comparing black people to monkeys and proposed blessing only “a person with a white father and mother.”

Given the lineup, this was less a diplomatic ceremony than a campaign event. David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, praised “the vision, the courage and the moral clarity of one person to whom we owe an enormous and eternal debt of gratitude, President Donald J. Trump.”

Moral clarity! And that’s not all: “I think President Lincoln is smiling today as another great Republican, Donald J. Trump, opens our embassy.”

... what’s clear today is that Israel now resembles one of those ancient kingdoms that God rained down his wrath upon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Earth acting up

We had a little earthquake last night, shaking us just enough to remind that the earth can move.

This prompted me to check in on the ongoing volcanic eruption underway on the Big Island of Hawaii. This video provides the most vital footage I could find, from the exhausted-appearing scientist offering the US Geological Survey report and warnings, through the local guys in the National Guard doing their best to assist in a community disaster, through the extraordinary closing close ups of an inexorable lava flow. Somebody wanted us to see what it's like to have the earth's molten core crawling toward us.

With this going on not far from Hilo, I miss my friend Hattie, recently deceased, who would have provided a realistic local picture.

I do have another friend on the Big Island who is experiencing the volcano's awakening from a different vantage point. Andrew is a technician/engineer caring for the Keck telescopes located on the top of Mauna Kea. He begins his description of the mountain's recent stirrings like this:

The ground beneath us is one constant in life you just expect to never change. Solid and unyielding, we build our lives upon the firm foundations of the Earth. When this constant betrays us it is truly disconcerting. The world loses some of its comforting stability.

Last Friday was a day when our islands were reminded of the instability of our world in a rather abrupt fashion.

It was clear weeks ago that the volcano was restless. volcanophiles like myself found ourselves checking the reports and charts daily. ...

A Darker View

Then came the 6.9 earthquake last Friday. Read it all at the link. Andrew is not eager to experience anything like it again.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Dangerous clowns

Vegas Tenold, born in Norway, now living in Brooklyn, responded to Anders Behring Breivik's white-nationalist-inspired 2011 massacre of seventy-seven Norwegians, mostly young people, by wanting to understand the hard right in his new country. He describes himself as a balding white European, the perfect appearance for hanging out among our white nationalist fringe, despite always having voted socialist in Norway. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, he went about his project responsibly: "The reporting for this book always took place with the full knowledge and consent of my subjects. I never concealed who I was or presented myself as anything but a journalist." For five years, he embedded himself among Nazis, violent skin heads, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, and white pride nationalists. He spent election night in November 2016 drinking with several guys from a white nationalist mini-formation that called itself the Traditionalist Workers Party.

The ominous title for his resulting book, Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America repeats the tweet the TWP's leader sent him at 3 AM that morning.

The far right had their president, and all I had was a splitting hangover and five years worth of notes I hoped would help me figure out how they'd managed to pull it off.

Tenold's story leads through scenes that are scary and repulsive. But though I found it gripping, it inspired in me more curiosity than terror. These men (Tenold's subjects are nearly all men) are clowns, sad ones at that. The narrative follows around an inept aspiring Fuhrer, Matthew Heimbach of the TWP, as he visited rallies and encampments of all the varieties of the white extremist fringe. Pre-Trump (and pre-Richard Spencer of alt-right notoriety who Heimbach thought a lightweight), the TWP hoped to unify the hard right into a serious political movement. But however dangerous they might be to a person of color who unwarily encountered them, most of them couldn't organize themselves out of a paper bag. These were radicals who might have forgotten to bring matches to a cross-burning. Most preferred drinking and fighting among themselves to any political project. Fortunately.

Tenold has concluded

if six years spent with the radical right taught me anything about the underlying reason for white nationalism, it is this: 'We are not them, and they are not us.'

The Trump election glow among the hard right faded quite quickly. Establishment Republicans didn't need these angry, unsophisticated men; they had power now and the poor slobs should crawl back in their holes. And the violent Charlottesville marches and rally proved the hard right's undoing. Heimbach received some laudatory "Heil Heimbach" salutes from the Nazis in attendance, but most of the country recoiled from visible hatred and bigotry, from the beating of DeAndre Harris and the murder of Heather Heyer. Under pressure from civil society if not their President, all the old splits and jealousies reappeared.

The bickering, disavowals, and counter-disavowals in the wake of Charlottesville are a reminder that, for all the attention it received and hysteria it created, the far right movement in America still had no idea what it was doing. That isn't to say that the groups and their members, on their own and together, aren't capable of violence, harassment, and even acts of terror, merely that corralling their efforts into a focused political movement would be akin to herding a flock of particularly hateful and racist cats.

... Ultimately, I believe the far right in America, at least in the incarnation I spent years covering, is destined to fail. Not because America is inherently good and that the forces of justice and progress are always stronger than those of intolerance and hatred, but because white supremacy is doing just fine without the far right.

The country has spent decades perfecting an ostensibly nonracial form of white supremacy, and it is serving with remarkable efficiency. Private prisons, mandatory sentencing, seemingly unchecked police power, gerrymandering, increasingly limited access to healthcare and abortion -- these are all tendrils in an ingenious web designed to keep people poor and powerless. ... I believe Matthew [Heimbach] was right when he said that the elites and politicians hate his people, but they don't hate them because they are white; they hate them because they are poor.

Aspiring Fuhrer Heimbach is last seen launching a miserable sort of back-to-the-land commune for worn out bigots.
***
I'd describe this book as a workman-like effort, not for everyone, but if you want or need a glimpse into the world of the US hard right, an approachable introduction. This bunch hasn't produced a Timothy McVeigh, but it certainly could.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Remembering my mother

Here she is with her squirmy toddler, circa 1948.

I feel a bit discordant posting this as she despised Mother's Day: "it's just something invented by the florists!"

I was very lucky in my relationship with my mother; few of my peers seem to have had it so easy. She simply unequivocally supported and loved me, even when I evolved into someone whose life and beliefs were unexpected. I loved her.

I think she would have said that raising me was her most significant accomplishment. Knowing that makes me a little wistful -- she was smart, competent, informed. In a time with different opportunities for women, she might well have had other, or additional, achievements.

I think too, if someone had asked her what else she was proud of in her life, she might have answered having been an active citizen of a country that defeated Hitler. (She wouldn't have instinctively given the Russian people the credit for this that I do, though I remember her explaining to me that she first had hope during World War II when the Nazis made the mistake of invading the USSR.) Most everyone of her generation felt they'd made a contribution to the war effort; she participated in aircraft monitoring in fields around Western New York. Though a person of the conventional right and no admirer of FDR, she left notebooks from the 1930s full of horror at what was rising up in Germany. She knew personally refugees from fascism. She had no truck with the America Firsters -- the domestic faction soft on fascism in her day -- who wanted to let Hitler conquer all of Europe rather than go to war.

She believed in engaged citizenship. I do too.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

An artist fights complacency

The Trump regime intentionally makes it easy to become numb to ongoing assaults on decency, rule of law, and truth itself.

Artist/Activist Michael D’Antuono put a show on trucks and offered it to tourists in the nation's capital. Then he interviewed them.

The video is a little long, but worth watching.

Saturday scenery: Year of the Dog

The grand civic festival we call Chinese New Year falls in February, complete with parading dancing dragons and fireworks. But the ancient lunar year runs, naturally, for a full year.

This year, we're in the time of the eleventh zodiac animal, the dog.

Honest and loyal, Dogs are the truest friends and most reliable partner.

Perhaps also dogs bring good luck in the lottery?

Households throughout San Francisco quite commonly display the animal on their doors.

"Chinese New Year" is also the "Spring Festival." This may explain why some canine representations are so perky.

All encountered over the last few months while Walking San Francisco.

Friday, May 11, 2018

"The arc of climate awareness curves toward reality" ...


The assertion in the post title comes by way of an article in Grist. This reports on polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University that shows that Republicans are somewhat less inclined than they were a year ago to deny climate change.

As to why Republican opinion is bouncing back now, the Yale program’s director Anthony Leiserowitz has an idea: Republican leaders have just been talking about climate change, and climate denial, less often lately.

Past research has shown that public opinion is strongly shaped by “elite cues” — basically, what high-profile politicians and celebrities say and do and how often the media covers it. Last year, the focus on President Donald Trump’s announcement about pulling the country from the Paris Agreement was one factor that could partly explain the sharp downturn in Republican opinion on climate change, Leiserowitz says.

The less Republican leaders talk about climate change, he says, the more their constituents’ opinion “rebounds to where Republicans would be normally if they weren’t hearing a bunch of climate denial from their leadership.”

Most Democrats aren't making climate a big issue either, though for getting out our base, climate concern is a strong spur to action.

In general, except when climate change feels very immediate -- close by, painful -- all of us default to more immediate fears. Those fears are too often defined by by elite cues. I'm supposed to be afraid of Iran and homeless people this week, not rising seas and carbon pollution. Climate communicators haven't figured out how to keep our minds on threats with a longer time frame. Reality will eventually kick us in the teeth, dramatically raising awareness, but it's worth doing all we can to avert worse.

Friday cat blogging

She wasn't sure about the passerby. Was I a danger? I can fairly confidently refer to this one as "she," since 80 percent of orange cats are female.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The good solider Haspel testified

Gina Haspel had her public confirmation hearing for the position of CIA Director before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday. She's a career professional officer who headed up a torture site in Thailand during the GW Bush era and later had a leading role in ordering the destruction of the videotapes that showed what her agency did to detainees.

One of the oddest things about her nomination to such a public role is that the CIA refuses to declassify most details of her career (claiming agents/assets might be outed). So we are left without any real information about what she's done/her qualifications. The CIA says she's great. It seems to me that in a democracy citizens who are not Senators deserve to know more than that her agency likes her -- a lot more.

Erudite Partner did commentary during the hearing for Pacifica station KPFA; after all, torture is her subject. Here's the audio.

The following reflections are mine, not the resident expert's.
  • The Democratic Senators' questions seemed sharper than they often have been in such settings. New Mexico's Martin Heinrich nailed the key issue, to my way of thinking:

    “I know you believed it was legal... ... I want to trust that you have the moral compass you said you have. You're giving very legalistic answers to very moral questions.”

  • Nothing I heard suggests Haspel has real qualms about the torture program. She's not prepared to say torture didn't serve the project of defeating terrorist enemies -- though the 6000 page classified Senate Intelligence Committee report apparently came to that conclusion.

    “We got valuable information from debriefing of al-Qaeda detainees,” she told Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). “I don’t think it’s knowable whether interrogation techniques played a role in that.”

  • She said she wouldn't restart the torture program. It was hard to tell whether she was promising to stand up to the bully in the White House. (Trump thinks we didn't torture enough.) She seemed to equivocate.

    “No one should get credit for simply agreeing to follow the law. That’s the least we should expect from any nominee and certainly the director of the CIA,” [Senator Mark] Warner told Haspel ...

  • Perhaps inevitably since we're not allowed to know anything about her accomplishments, she heavily emphasized her identification with the Agency.

    Haspel cited her support from the rank and file in the agency, noting that “they know that I don’t need time to learn the business of what CIA does. ... I know CIA like the back of my hand,” she said. “I know them, I know the threats we face, and I know what we need to be successful in our mission.”

She's such an unfamiliar, opaque figure that I am allowing myself luxury of trying to form a picture of what sort of person she revealed herself to be. (Usually one has more to go on than one hearing, but that's the situation in which we find ourselves.)

I think she's one smart, tough woman who came up wanting to be a warrior, a hero. There's weren't a huge number of venues for a woman with such an ambition when she joined the CIA in 1985. In the Agency, she found her tribe, her vocation where she could fulfill her ambition. She was very good at whatever they threw at her. She seems to equate loyalty to the Agency with loyalty the people of the United States -- without any inkling that there might be any daylight between those two goods. Perhaps that's inevitable in someone whose life has cloistered her within a dangerous, secret, social niche. It hardly seems good preparation to be anything more than a good soldier. But the job of CIA Director necessarily requires some understanding of a messy civilian society -- a society whose preservation is ultimately the only reason that her warrior caste is privileged to exist.

I don't know if she'll be confirmed; the White House apparently had to persuade her not to back out of the confirmation process last week.

The hearing didn't win any trust from me (not that this was ever likely.) A good soldier is a dangerous weapon when the Commander in Chief cares not a fig for law, decency, or morals.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

On affordable housing

Yesterday turned out to be a day for me to think about housing. As most observers and all residents of the Bay Area know, we've got too much money, primarily from the tech economy, chasing too little housing. This is an atractive place to live if you've got money and folks just keep on coming. The consequence is that many (even most) low- and many middle-income people are under threat of being forced out of their homes and will not be able to find affordable alternatives.

Three vignettes from my day:

Subsidized housing: I spent the morning with a disabled friend who is one of the lucky ones. For two decades, she's lived in a rent-subsidized apartment in a building managed by a non-profit. Because she'd been hospitalized last year, the non-profit had never completed the HUD paper work that certifies her eligibility for 2017 or for this year. It's absence was a crisis. She's healthier now, so we sat with a social worker while she slogged through it. Beyond establishing that she still can't work and lives on Social Security, the paper work consisted of a reams of forms to sign asserting she'd been told she had various rights that she most likely would never dare assert. She was in a cooperative frame of mind -- and has no choice -- so she signed and helped the agency clean up its work product. The social worker wanted to help my friend, but she too lives within a paper maze with an eye over her shoulder toward an unsympathetic housing bureaucracy in Washington. Nobody gets to keep their dignity -- but my friend still has her apartment!

Cities and contemporary urbanism: The environmental/sustainability writer whose work I most appreciate is David Roberts at Vox. I spent part of the afternoon reading and pondering three articles he's recently written from interviews with urbanist Brent Toderian who led city planning for Vancouver, BC (a very pleasant city from what I've seen of it). If you care about how we can have more sustainable, livable cities, you might like these articles: I can't say that I'm completely convinced by "new urbanism"; the lived reality of a changing city feels messier and far less just than planners seem willing to contemplate. But thinking is happening here.

Upzoning and equity: An organization that calls itself YAH! (Yes to Affordable Housing -- they are going to have to work on that name unless they have a hell of a marketing budget) sponsored a panel of progressive housing policy wonks in the evening. YAH! -- and its panelists -- think better city and regional policies really can improve equitable provision of home places for individuals and communities. YAH!'s statement of organizational aspirations is impressive. They've come up with a list I can live with.

Video of event is here.

Nothing is going to happen without citizen pressure; the power of rapacious wealth drives cities in less humane directions. But you start by getting some people up to speed, thinking, and talking about solutions -- enough little meetings can have big impacts. If people who care about affordable housing organize ... who knows. There's the energy of necessity in this movement.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Voting advice sought

My ballot for the June 5 California primary has arrived. No applause here. I am not excited about my choices in the statewide offices, to say the least.

Gavin Newsom seems to have an insurmountable lead in the race to replace termed out Gov. Jerry Brown. Gavin was a lousy mayor of San Francisco: all symbolic theater, no progressive policy or governing competence. (In this, the opposite of the retiring Brown.) Oh yeah, he was also a big player of our favorite game of Hate the Homeless. I guess he's good looking, if you like tall straight blondes who wear expensive suits. He's led all the polls, mostly by substantial margins.

In the crazy top-two open primary system we've afflicted the state with, the only question in June is who wins a chance to spend millions of dollars running against Gavin in the November election. The two candidates who get the most votes in June get to play out the string. Party affiliation doesn't matter. If the top-two are both Democrats, that's who gets to advance.

The most likely Democrat to come in second would be Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles. When he was coming up in politics, he seemed a plausible guy to give California its first modern Latinx governor. People of various Latin ancestries are the largest ethnic group of California. It's time. But Villaraigosa's career has taken a sad political trajectory. In pursuit of the big time, he's made himself the conservative alternative. The cops and the charter school entrepreneurs are his big funders and supporters. These are not people I want a governor listening to. Apparently he hopes he can put together conservative Dems and GOPers who have no choice from their own party to make a run at Gavin in the fall.

California being California, where Trump is an abomination and the Republican Party close to vestigial, Newsom would much prefer to run in the fall against a Republican than against Villaraigosa, even though he likely defeats either opponent. So he's running attack ads now highlighting Republican John Cox's endorsement from Trump and the NRA -- he's trying to raise the guy's profile among Republicans and lift him above Villaraigosa. For Gavin's purposes, running against a weak Republican would be a gift.

The thing is -- in the fall, having two Democrats running against each other for Governor (and two Democrats running for Senator as well, a near certainty) would help create an environment that will be all the better for flipping many of the 14 California Congressional seats held currently held by Republicans. With no candidates at the top of the ticket, we can hope that many GOPers just will stay home, while Democratic enthusiasm for capturing Congress still is running sky-high.

This background leads to my voting advice query: is this the year for tactical voting?

Since Gavin is sure to get the most votes in June (and almost certainly in November), should I vote for Antonio Villaraigosa even though I loath the idea of electing him, because this might help the more significant project of winning a Democratic Congress?

Or should I vote for the best of the also-rans running for Governor, candidates who can't possibly break through like Delaine Eastin?

Comments welcome and urged!

Monday, May 07, 2018

What follows exploded ideals and lost empire

The other day, along with the news that internal scandals and squabbles had deterred the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature from picking a winner this year, commentators explained that the groups' founding charge was to choose the finest literary oeuvre of “an idealistic tendency” anywhere in the world. (The description of the committee's work at the link is quite interesting.)

I hadn't known their charge. In fact, I hadn't much thought about why they choose the authors they have named.

But then, when they chose the Belarussian/Russian writer Svetlana Alexievich in 2015, like most English speakers, I'd never heard of her either. Reviewers in the US refer to her as an analogue to Studs Terkel, a careful listener who shapes interviews with multiple subjects to construct a panorama of life in post-Soviet Russia and its borderlands. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, the final text of a five volume series, consists of vignettes from the Gorbachov, Yeltsin, and early Putin eras (1985-2010). From her introduction:

Communism had an insane plan: to "remake the old breed of man, ancient Adam. And it really worked. ... Perhaps it was communism's only achievement. Seventy plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new man: Homo sovieticus. ... I feel like I know this person; we're very familiar, we've lived side by side for a long time. I am this person. And so are my acquaintances, my closest friends, my parents. ...We're easy to spot! People who've come out of socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity -- we have our own lexicon, our own conceptions of good and evil, our heroes, our martyrs. ... Back then, we didn't talk about it very much. ... I'm piecing together the history of "domestic," "interior" socialism. As it existed in a person's soul. ... It's where everything really happens.

In this book there are the harrowing stories of people who came back from Stalin's murderous Siberian labor camps; and of traumatized guards who moved west or lived on out on the vacant steppe. There is much from survivors of the Great Patriotic War (World War II for us), the deep well of Russian national pride derived from surviving and defeating Hitler. The thaws and perestroika of late Soviet time are captured as eras of remembered kitchen table discussions of literature and philosophy. In Moscow, such discussants thrilled to protect Yeltsin from a Communist Party counter-coup which might have overthrown Russia's emerging "democracy," only to discover all they've got out of capitalism and imitating the West was stores full of cold cuts and vodka, and always, blue jeans. Alexievich writes of hunger and murders, of suicides and marriages, and of refugees from parts of the old Soviet Union whose birthplaces are now new countries which have spit them out to live as undocumented refugees in today's Russia. These are not easy stories; the implosion of a state is a miserable thing for people involuntarily living through it.

I asked everyone what "freedom" meant. Fathers and children had very different answers. Those who were born in the USSR and those born after its collapse do not share a common experience -- it's like they're from different planets.

For the fathers, freedom is the absence of fear; the three days in August when we defeated the putsch. A man with the choice of one hundred kinds of salami is freer than the one who has only ten to choose from. Freedom is never being flogged, although no generation of Russians has yet avoided a flogging. Russians don't understand freedom; they need the Cossack and the whip.

For the children: Freedom is love; inner freedom is an absolute value. Freedom is when you are not afraid of your own desires; having lots of money so that you'll have everything; it's when you can live without having to think about freedom. Freedom is normal.

... In the nineties ... yes, we were ecstatic; there's no way back to that naïveté. ...

I recently saw some young men in T-shirts with hammers and sickles and portraits of Lenin on them. Do they know what communism is?

I would not describe this volume as having "an idealistic tendency" according to the Nobel committee's injunction. Do truly great writers ever let their readers off so easily? While we're once again being encouraged to suspect and even hate Russia (most likely with cause), I particularly recommend Secondhand Time. Russians are people, survivors of a painful, complex, sometimes idealistic, sometimes brutal, history. We're better people when we open ourselves to what understanding we can of different histories and lives. Alexievich offers us a window.
***
As is often the case, I read this massive book by ear (22 hours worth!). I would highly recommend absorbing it in that way; the audiobook is a performance in many men's and women's voices, increasing the immediacy of the individual narrators. Another reviewer had a different plausible suggestion: just open this enormous volume anywhere and read a few pages at a time. It's not really chronological; I can imagine it holding a honored place in a bathroom reading rack.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

California universities getting the job done

I often complain here that media centered on the East Coast miss that some very good things are happening in California. Sure, we've got horrible problems, but a culture and institutions that might get us through this sad period in the country's history IS being built here.

And I often joke that I ended up in California 50 years ago (from the frozen east) because the state was practicing brain drain: making available a public university system unequaled anywhere.

And we're still doing it -- though we could always do better. The prosaic chart above, from the Atlantic, tells a story: low income students (Pell grant recipients) enroll in the campuses of the California system at a high rate -- and actually graduate at high rates. The UC system could function better (it could pay its faculty better and its administrators less) but it is still serving as the engine of the state.

And at a time when the right devalues education generally, that's worth celebrating.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Oddments from the 'hood

Somebody had an idea to highlight.

In the Mission, a goodly fraction of stores simply closed down in celebration of International Workers Day.

We don't like ICE.

We also protest gentrification.

It's not just the Mission where people have something to say; this strong statement hangs out opposite Ocean Beach.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Resistance: ethical standards matter, even if this clown forgot


It's easy to take recent episodes involving the president's long haired former doctor as comic relief amid the swirling morass of Trump scandals. Sure, the doc looks like he escaped from some back-to-the-land commune. And Dr. Harold Bornstein's purported assessment of Trump's health in 2015 -- "astonishingly excellent," “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency” -- never seemed that plausible. Now we learn that after the inauguration, Trump muscle men (some in U.S. government employ) raided Bornstein's office and made off with the originals of Trump's health records. Those records both belonged to the doctor and were searched out from among other confidential records. Oops. Then Bornstein passes on that he allowed Trump to write his own 2015 "health assessment." It certainly reads like everything we expect from the Tweeter-in-Chief.

But medical ethicists point out, in depth, that, in the service of Donald J.Trump, Dr. Bornstein has been breaking the rules of his profession.

If Trump did dictate the letter to Bornstein, Bornstein’s license to practice medicine should be revoked, said Jonathan D. Moreno, an ethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“He has said that he lied, that he signed something under duress. Well, that’s tough,” Moreno said. “As a doctor, your obligation is to the well-being of the patient, which includes the ongoing care of the patient. And if he felt he couldn’t go along with it, he didn’t need to sign it.”

... when their patients are celebrities or people who wield enormous power, some doctors can lose their way. Several experts noted pop star Michael Jackson’s ability to get his doctor to prescribe the powerful sedative propofol.

 With “athletes, movie stars or the president, sometimes the balance gets tipped,” said Chris Winter, a neurologist at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia and author of “The Sleep Solution.”

Said [Robert D. Truog, director of the Harvard Center for Bioethics]: “I believe, in working with celebrities or politically powerful people, it can be very difficult to hold that line. But it’s critical that we do hold that line because the trust of the public is at stake.”

As Trump's next doctor, Admiral Ronny Jackson, found out, getting involved with Trump can leave once honorable figures hung out to dry.

Once again, I'm reminded of one of Yale historian Timothy J. Snyder's list of impediments to destruction of democratic government in On Tyranny:

Professions can create forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government. If members of professions think of themselves as groups with common interests, with norms and rules that oblige them at all times, then they can gain confidence and indeed a certain kind of power. Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as “just following orders.” If members of the professions confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, however, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might previously have thought unimaginable.

In the Trump era, it's often been lawyers who've been called to choose between professional ethics and advantage or advancement. Diplomatic corps professionals who adhered to their own standards and therefore opposed this president's election have been blackballed from the State Department. Professional ethics can undergird resistance to a culture of lying and abuse of power in many arenas of public service.

The Australian military has passed about a demanding maxim which seems peculiarly suitable to rising above our aspiring authoritarian president's ethical swamp:

The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept

There are standards far more important than loyalty to Dear Leader.

Friday cat blogging

It's not uncommon that I observe a perky critter while Walking San Francisco.

What appears to be sibling rivalry makes a nice bonus.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

For the record: episodes in game of "Hate the Homeless"

For decades, San Francisco has been a city without enough affordable housing for its low income residents. Too much money has been chasing too little supply since the 1980s, a crisis only made more drastic by our current tech prosperity.

But hey, we're liberals here! We like to feel good about ourselves.

But hey, we also don't want to step over the people and their belongings that end up on city streets.

Smart politicians exploit our ambivalence by initiating round after round of "Hate the Homeless" in which we get to complain about how unhoused people damage the city we are so proud of -- and often to vote to make these people disappear, magically -- without providing the expensive and difficult solution they need: affordable housing.

Acting Mayor Farrell is running another round of "Hate the Homeless," probably as a trial balloon for a run in 2019 against whoever is elected mayor on this upcoming June 5.

So let's look at the record:
  • In November 1992, we passed a law aiming to outlaw "aggressive panhandling" -- though courts said people retained a free speech right to beg.
  • In 2003, a rare outbreak of realism, then-State Senator John Burton called out the home truth:
    "What bothers me is that politicians and political consultants are going after the poor for political gain," Burton said. "I just find it offensive. Last I checked, it's not a crime to be poor."
  • On April Fools day in 2005, Mayor Newsom was saying
    "Homeless woes can be solved."
It's probably only fair to San Francisco to mention that twice in the last thirty years we've rejected "Hate the Homeless" measures at the ballot box -- each time because civic leaders thought that impressing us with their compassionate liberalism was more advantageous than punching down on the already beaten down.

We can do better. Unhoused people demand of us who live inside that we do better; they have every moral authority to condemn us. We need political leadership that isn't playing games. Based on past history and likely electoral outcomes, we can't expect anything from a Governor Newsom; he's been one of Hate the Homeless' more enthusiastic promoters. But local mayoral aspirants should be pressed on their housing policies. That doesn't stop after we select the next one. It took decades for the city's human crisis to become as bad as it is and it will take time to dig out of the mess the more fortunate among us have imposed on the unfortunate.
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