Saturday, March 31, 2018

In commemoration of the Passover

Encountered outside ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) where migrants our hateful rulers are trying to expel have their bail hearings. I know nothing of the gentleman's organization, but the sentiment seems right.

Friday, March 30, 2018

On Good Friday: listen to a martyr for hope and justice


Next Wednesday will be the 50th anniversary of the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.was killed by a racist white sniper in Memphis.

Ten years ago, for the 40th anniversary, Michael Eric Dyson offered a little book: April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How it Changed America. On this Good Friday, when Christians remember innocent death applauded by crowds and inflicted by imperial power, when we live under a regime that incites cruelty and hate all around, much of Dyson's meditation on King's death seems on point.

You cannot hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr., and not think of death. You might hear the words "I have a dream," but they will doubtlessly only serve to underscore an image of a simple motel balcony, a large man made small, a pool of blood. For as famous as he may have been in life it is, and was, death that ultimately defined him. Born into a people whose main solace was Christianity's Promised Land awaiting them after the sufferings of this world, King took on the power of his race's presumed destiny and found in himself the defiance necessary to spark change. He ate, drank, and slept death. He danced with it, he preached it, he feared it, and he stared it down. He looked for ways to lay it aside, this burden of his own mortality, but ultimately knew that his unwavering insistence on a nonviolent end to the mistreatment of his people could only end violently.

... King struggled constantly between bravery and the specter of breakdown. His public proclamations of fearlessness were both truthful and strategic. They were aimed at reinforcing troops in the racial trenches. But in private, blue moods sometimes sucked his spirit dry. There were times when King was undaunted by the prospect of death, addressing it with fairly objective calculation. At other times he was ambushed by the fear and world-weariness known only to those who've been fiendishly chased by government officials, fellow citizens, and hate groups. ...

... it is nearly miraculous that King managed to keep death in a philosophical headlock as often as he did. Sure, he sometimes cried uncle in private and was bulldozed by impenetrable despondency. But King rallied to declare in public what he knew to be true, both despite and because of his suffering. King's plight made this clear: if sleep is the cousin of death, then depression is its little brother. His depressions often felt like death only slightly delayed. ...

... King's hope flashed even as he said that the nation's political drift led to spiritual death. If he had given up on the American dream he would have stopped being disappointed in white America. King's bitter indictment of the country's unconscious racism grew from his lover's quarrel with America. ... white privilege had to die for black equality to be born ...

Dyson's strange and wonderful book is not to be missed, only slightly dated because many the statistics he cites describing the black condition in this country have only grown more unequal over the last ten years. His meandering assessments of black leaders after King remain insightful, especially his thoughts on the merits and demerits of the charismatic style in figures including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama. He concludes with an imaginary interview with King on his 80th birthday in which King tries to shatter taboos on (black) leaders seeking professional help with their inevitable personal anxieties and depressions.

Best of all, this book is available as an audiobook, read by the author. Dyson is gifted mimic; his recitation of King's own words come across as the preacher himself. We've heard that tenor and cadence in recordings; listen to it again from Dyson.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

What's a Maundy?


As any properly media-trained speaker might reply, "I'm glad you asked that question." Fortunately, there's Mr. Google.

Maundy comes from an Anglo-French word derived from the Latin “mandatum,” which means “commandment.” It refers to Jesus' injunction at the Last Supper: "love one another as I have loved you ..." Because we need reminding, we take the opportunity to wash each other's feet on Maundy Thursday, as he did for his foot-sore disciples that evening.

If you are the sort of person who worries about this sort of thing, you just hope only a minimum number of pitchers are overturned on the church floor. But even for the persnickety, it can be moving.

Maundy Thursday is the first event of the three-day climax of the Christian Holy Week, the most significant celebrations of the year (yes, bigger than Christmas). Good Friday marks the Crucifixion; the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday night celebrates the Jesus' triumph over death.

Then everybody who can comes to church on Sunday and celebrates Life.

And then all those who make the observances happen take weary naps!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Dystopian prediction re driverless cars

Having expressed my enthusiasm for driverless cars, I figure I ought to pass along some of David Roberts thoughts on why these vehicles might make cities, and society, less livable than we currently envision. Roberts is one of the most informed, thoughtful commentators I know of about the intersection between science and society. He's not a technophobe -- quite the contrary. If he's worried, I'm ready to listen.

What concerns Roberts is that self-driving cars could easily lend themselves to a development path rather like what we've experienced with the internet. When the technology has been perfected, and vehicles have largely switched to ever cheaper electric power derived from solar and other sustainable sources (which he predicts), the costs for companies providing urban rides will become lower and lower. Once they've bought a fleet of cars, not a huge cost in a developed industry, successful companies might compete for customers through a price war, driving the share paid by customers down to nearly $0. Sounds great, doesn't it? We'll get around our cities free!

Except that any business has to make money somehow. Most likely, fleet companies will turn to advertising within the cars. And, for the cheaper rides, most likely we'll put up with this.

But then the war for market share will make it the necessary business model for fleets to encourage us to run about in their cars more and more so they can sell more and more advertising. The end result:

There are reasons to believe that any private autonomous vehicle industry will not just increase Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), but will pursue more VMT aggressively. ... If shared fleets of autonomous vehicles come to be funded primarily by advertising, we will end up with an auto industry even more committed to auto supremacy than the current one — at best a reluctant partner in any effort to make cities denser and more livable, at worst a committed foe.

... Hitching ad revenue to VMT would put the industry squarely in opposition to other, non-car modes of transit and make it an enemy of good urban planning. It would strengthen short-term gratification and weaken long-term foresight — and foresight is already difficult enough to come by in transportation planning.

Yet more reasons to struggle for strong public transportation!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The great flu pandemic of 1918

There's a vague awareness this year that we're living in the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War -- World War I -- or what I would call the introductory episode in the Wars of European Barbarism that afflicted all humanity in the first half of the 20th century.

But we're also living in the 100th anniversary of what came to be called the "Spanish" disease. In one devastating year, this world wide influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people (and arguably 100 million), at very least nearly one third more than the estimated 37 million military and civilian casualties of the four year war. British science journalist Laura Spinney's Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World is a fascinating account of this health catastrophe.

Because it came on so fast and swept onward so rapidly -- the acute phase causing the most infections and deaths usually lasted only about 3 months in any one location -- it is hard to give a general picture. Moreover the consequences of flu's arrival in any one place were radically different. In general, most developed locales has less deaths; perhaps half of one percent of the population died in the US and northern Europe. Meanwhile the flu took a ferocious toll in regions with less developed health facilities such as British India where 18 million are thought to have died. The highest known percentage toll in a subgroup was among Alaskan natives where in some villages 40 percent succumbed.

Spinney deals with the wide diffusion, differences in impact, and cultural and social variations in the responses by telling the story as a series of vignettes in widely separated locations. She has adopted a consciously unorthodox narrative technique:

The African historian Terence Ranger pointed out in the early 2000s that such a condensed event requires a different storytelling approach. A linear narrative won't do; what's needed is something closer to the way women in southern Africa discuss an important event in the life of their community. "They describe it and then circle around it," Ranger wrote, "constantly returning to it, widening it out and bringing into it past memories and future anticipations."

On the one hand, this serves her narrative well for this reader -- I found myself pulling out particular anecdotes and musing over them, glad for her inclusive survey. At the same time, I've not at all sure Spinney succeeded in painting a connected big picture. Perhaps an historian with such a diffuse subject can't. Each episodic anecdote could be its own historical narrative and probably has been or will be.

To demonstrate Spinney's technique, here are some fascinating, accessible, tidbits from her description of how the flu hit what she calls the "Imperial Metropolis," New York City.

New York in 1918 was many worlds within one world. It was therefore a thoroughly modern challenge that faced the city's health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland ... to elicit a collective response from a jumble of different communities who, while they overlapped in space, often had no common language and little shared identity. ...

Copeland was an eye surgeon and a homeopath ... he seemed a practical man who got things done, yet that summer and early autumn, he dragged his feet. [President Wilson insisted that troop shipments to the European war must not be interrupted.] ... By the time he officially acknowledge the epidemic, on October 4, infected troop ships .. had long been ploughing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, distributing their deadly cargo. ...

Initially he intended to close all public schools, as had happened in the neighbouring states of Massachusetts and New Jersey. But the pioneering head of the health department's child hygiene division, Josephine Baker, persuaded him not to. She argued that the children would be easier to survey in school, and to treat should they show signs. They could be fed properly, which wasn't always the case at home, and used to transmit important public health information back to their families. ... [Copeland tried her approach] and in doing so he brought bitter recriminations down on his head, including from the Red Cross and former health commissioners. But he and Baker would be vindicated; the flu was practically absent from school age children that fall. ...

In Copeland's favour, however, New York was practiced the art of public health campaigns, having declared war on TB -- and particularly on the habit of spitting in public -- twenty years earlier. By the end of September, the city was papered in advice on how to prevent and treat influenza. But the advice was printed in English and it was only in the latter half of October, when the worst was already over, that boy scouts were sent scurrying through the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side to distribute pamphlets in other languages. ...

The main Italian-language daily newspaper in New York at that time was Il Progresso Italo-Americano. It sold close to 100,000 copies a day ... The writers of Il Progresso knew that their readers bound potato slices to their wrists to reduce fever, and kept their windows closed a night against evil spirits ... Il Progresso was one of the few to voice approval when Copeland announced his decision to keep the schools open. Italian families tended to keep their children close -- bringing them home for lunch, for example -- but as the paper pointed out that children liberated from the classroom often went unsupervised in the streets, while in school teachers watched over them and could spot the first signs. ...

[A] feared backlash against the Italians never came and no other immigrant group was blamed for the flu either. ...It probably worked in the Italians favor that the military had been badly affected (the US Army lost more men to flu than to combat, partly due to those deadly transports), and that many of the soldiers who died were of foreign birth. ... The flu also brought the Italians a new and powerful champion in Copeland. He now lent his support to reforms ... declaring war on slum landlords and campaigning for better public housing ....

Spinney's account of the scientists' subsequent search for and recreation of the flu virus -- H1N1 -- is narrated in a more linear manner than the picture of the epidemic itself and quite fascinating. This is basic health science which we would all do well to have more awareness of. Her attempt to describe the economic and cultural aftermath of the great pandemic is more suggestive than conclusive; that field of investigation should be rich for other writers. The books title is derived from the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, as well as from one of the flu's literary offspring: Katharine Ann Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

Readers who liked Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee's Emperor of All Maladies about our increasing understanding of cancer, and other medical histories, will like this book as well. It was good reading while I sat out a case of flu this winter.

Opening day for Giants fan

Not my sport, but a time of big hopes for my baseball fan neighbors.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The other video that made me cry this weekend

Emma Gonzalez' evocation of her fallen friends was not the only message that had me in tears this weekend. This, from basketball team owner Vivek Ranadive speaking after protests against the police shooting of Stephon Clark had delayed a scheduled game for 19 minutes, also reduced me to tears.
Those old Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, held that a good polity was only possible when citizens practiced "civic virtue." In this country, the founders thought that such good character -- balancing individual freedom with responsibility to community -- would be the foundation for their novel republic without a king. Under late capitalism, it is vanishingly rare to see a rich businessman display civic virtue, but Mr. Ranadive has it down here.

The team members are impressive too.
When civic virtue at the top is so obviously lacking as in the current White House and Republican Congress, citizens must look to other role models. Fortunately, these arise again and again from the people of this vast, complicated country.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

From the March for Our Lives

I didn't go to Civic Center to commit photography. I wanted to feel inside what was happening here -- the grief, the rage, the fear, the determination.

But having taken along my better camera, I ended up doing what comes naturally to me: recording the passion of the day on marchers' homemade signs.

Even when rallying against death, protesters often delight in each other's company.

There were some bold repudiations of the toxic aspects of masculinity. That's not unusual for San Francisco (the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were present of course) but great to see this young man's sign. In general, it was great to see so many young men -- I'm used to seeing more young women than their peers at protest events.

Perhaps this was a first rally?

On the other hand, I bet she's an old hand at protest, even if still in high school.

They know what they want and they want it now! Those of us who can vote have our instructions.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Brits strike back against Russian disinformation

Last year around this time, I posted a guide to how to spot "fake news" -- disinformation in the service of authoritarianism emerging from our demagogic president and his GOP enablers. It holds up pretty well.

The Brits are being subjected to a barrage of Russian-origin fake news denying Russian responsibility for the poisoning with a military grade nerve agent of a former spy and his daughter. This propaganda is not so much designed to change minds about "who done it" as to make people feel they cannot possibly know what is true. This is a signature tactic of modern dictatorships -- people get worn out amid the chaos and look away. This is not the same thing as responding to citizens' honest desire for evidence, either. It's noise to drown out understanding.

So the British Foreign Office has struck back not with refutations but with mockery. Enjoy.
And remember this tactic. We need it.

H/t Anne Applebaum.

'Nuff said


Friday, March 23, 2018

Dire times

The difference between John Bolton and most of the rest of the cast of characters around our ignorant, fearful, impulsive president is that he actually believes that war can accomplish something in the interests of the United States. Even most of the generals don't believe that after nearly two decades of murderous futility. Bolton is a true believer in forever war. The POTUS is a small man facing escalating threats in a big job.

Expect war before the midterm elections ...

The March for Our Lives is on Saturday ...

and the local sundry shop is offering sign-making tools front and center. Let's answer the call from students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and turn out against gun violence.

National information is here.

Just about every Bay Area town has its own march or rally. List of events here.

Local organizers are newbies to rallying and seem to be doing a decent job of learning the nuts and bolts of big coalition events.

Come Saturday, the event itself will keep young people “front and center,” [organizer Shoshana] Ungerleider said. Although adults are helping to organize the event, the grown-ups will be limited to supporting roles, she added.

“Every adult onstage is there to introduce a student,” Ungerleider said.

Those adults include a survivor of the 1999 Columbine school massacre and the father of one of the six people shot to death near UC Santa Barbara in 2014.

Let's hope there's also recognition that for too many black and brown young people, the gun violence danger comes from the cops as the Sacramento shooting of unarmed 22-year-old Stephon Clark demonstrates, yet again.

Friday cat blogging

Am I encountering disapproval or merely wariness? In any case, a magnificent animal.

Met while Walking San Francisco.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hacks got to hack, part 2


It's just as bad as it seems -- and not nearly so bad at all. That's how I respond to the news that the Mercer-funded, Bannon-led data manipulation/psychographic profiling company Cambridge Analytica used 50 million scraped Facebook profiles in the service of the Trump campaign. This sort of thing is not new. This particular bunch may be vile actors, but we're kidding ourselves if we see evil geniuses lurking here. Cambridge Analytica and their sponsors participated in a win; it's in their interest to claim all the credit they can seize. But nothing in the story I've seen comes close to proving this fraction of the Trump campaign put their guy over the top. In an election this close, it is probably impossible to tease out any simple variable that did the job. Everybody in the Trump menagerie can and will take credit.

Yes, Facebook enabled this. Selling us -- our interests, our concerns, our enthusiasms -- to businesses that want to sell us their thing (be that a commodity or an ideology) is what Facebook dines on. We're all hooked on having our lives integrated into the internet; if it weren't Facebook, it would be some other tech behemoth.

In campaigns, what consultants (hacks) sell to politicians is the promise that they know what messages should be delivered to which people in order to assemble that oh-so-elusive 50 percent plus one on election day. Elections seen from within campaigns are a tough and often nasty business. Voters can be motivated by hope -- or voters can be motivated by fear. Both approaches work although the latter is often easier to evoke.

Political consultants are utilitarians, drawn to whatever they think will work. They may have some limits, some scruples, about what urges they are willing to weaponize. But in the heat of the campaign, those can become strained. Whether the campaign draws any ethical lines in choosing a route to victory is usually a matter of laws and of decisions among top management -- or limits from the candidate. Ah ... we can begin to see where there might be a problem here ...

I've been there, up close. When I was working on an initiative in 2012, a vendor offered us a phone calling program that would enable us to make calls to Facebook friends of people from a dataset we had selected based on the usual sorts of variables like location, age, race, and voting history. This included a flashy presentation of technology which we were assured would be the next great new thing!

I thought then and think now that demographic profiling for commercial purposes makes variants of this inevitable. If we want to participate in online social media as it currently exists, this is the cost in privacy we pay. It's not just Cambridge Analytica, it's the web business model. How else to monetize us?

(In that particular campaign, the tech was attractive, but we decided not to go there, not out of privacy concerns, but out of a rational calculation that this approach wouldn't render a more well-targeted effort on the scale we could afford than much cheaper database management tools. It would have been a fun experiment.)

Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post offers the most interesting observation on Facebook/Cambridge Analytica that I've read:

It is far from clear whether Cambridge Analytica delivered any real results for Trump or whether it merely hyped what it could achieve with all this information. My hunch is the latter. But in some respects, this scheme represents the crowning touch for what has become a fetishization of data in politics — the idea that if you can just identify the right niches, and microtarget those people with a diet rich in what they already think, you win.

... Voters are sought based on what they watch, and what they click, and whether they get their caffeine from Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks. Push the right button and deliver to them the correct message — whether it is true or false, rational or unhinged — and they are yours. ...What’s lost when data starts driving politics is not only privacy — including that of 50 million Facebook users — but also an opportunity to make our politics more than the sum of its factions.

Read it all.

The headline to this post is a take on a previous post on a Democratic postmortem.

On informing citizens

Linda Greenhouse, the long-serving New York Times Supreme Court reporter who has been contributing sporadic opinion columns since retirement in 2008, has turned several lectures she gave at Harvard into a pleasant little book: Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between.

In her view, journalistic professionalism has, in the craft's most exalted reaches such as the paper she worked for, been interpreted to require the muzzling of the reporter as a citizen. Anyone who read her reporting would know that Greenhouse believes women should have a legal right to abortion and that torture inherently violates national and international law. Yet when she said as much aloud, casually, in speeches on other topics, she met with intense criticism from media critics. Being a tough woman, she simply pushed on and did her job as she understood it. She was good enough at it that she got away with this uncompromising steadfastness.

The crisis of journalism's business model and the Trump ascendency have forced elite institutions to reexamine their goals and standards. We're in a new day when the "paper of record" announces forthrightly that the President is a liar. "Objectivity" -- he said, she said reporting -- has been fully unmasked as "a management tool to control the behavior of the newspaper's employees." Careful balancing of unequal "facts" both fails the reader and won't deflect criticism anyway. Unexamined stenography of the emissions of those with the most potent microphones serves no one (except maybe the loudmouths). She envisions more fruitful use of journalistic energy.

Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, publisher of the Times from 1935 to 1961 captured the newspaper's credo of impartiality with a saying: "We tell the public which way the cat is jumping. The public will take care of the cat." Maybe that attitude was adequate in Sulzberger's day. Maybe it still is for sophisticated New York Times readers who take the time to sort through the cacophony of media voices retailing mutually exclusive versions of the truth. But surely we know now, in what has come to be called the post-truth age, that simply reporting which way the cat is jumping falls short if the goal of journalism is to empower readers to sort through the noise and come to their own informed conclusions. For that, they need context: not just what happened a minute ago, but what led up to that minute, why it happened, and what might come next.

That sounds obvious enough, but I was well into my three decades of covering the Supreme Court before I thought consciously of this kind of reader empowerment as a goal -- in fact the highest goal -- of journalism. ...

Today the internet provides access to raw information to anyone who will do the digging; the best of reporting, fair and accurate but without false "objectivity," can help us understand what to make of it all.

This graceful short book is well worth a couple of hours to read and ponder.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

This is an unsolicted plug for a browser add on

Several weeks ago, I got tired of being chased around the web by a pair of wool leggings. Yes, I'd briefly looked at some on an e-commerce site. But that shouldn't allow merchants to dump pictures and links on every site I visited. Or so I thought ...

So, I installed Privacy Badger on my main web browser. The simple gizmo is offered free from the Electronic Frontier Foundation which fights for civil liberties in the digital world.

No more leggings or many other small ads not already caught by AdBlock! There have been no problems with web sites loading, though some may be a hair slow.

I get that much of what we enjoy on the web has no business model except to sell us to advertisers. But unless advertisers can figure out how to make their offerings attractive instead of mind numbing, we'll keep on trying to block.

Monday, March 19, 2018

She's probably the only scientist they'll ever encounter

Who better to tell the story?
Amber Sullins is the chief meteorologist at ABC15 News in Phoenix. She apparently doesn't care who tells her to shut up about the region's rapidly rising temperatures.

According to Grist:

In Arizona, Amber Sullins, five-time Emmy Award WinningABC15chief meteorologist, builds her climate change stories and information with her key demographic in mind: women aged 25 to 54. “I leave out things people can’t connect with like sea ice,” she says. “Instead, I focus on what my viewers care about: their children, their finances.”

Sullins also incorporates past data on frequency of fires or heatwaves into her daily forecast. “It helps to provide perspective,” she says. “ I also talk about projections so people know where we are going.”

Climate Matters is an initiative of the science communication orgnization Climate Central which provides TV meteorologists with usable information on the relationship between weather and climate. The program has grown to include more than 300 local TV meteorologists who reach millions of viewers.

Given that local TV news is too often just a junk pile of violent crime and trivialities, yet also where more than 50% of us look for information, this is a powerful campaign.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

How to respond to a vile crime

As every news consumer has heard, on March 4 somebody tried to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. Prime Minister Teresa May, leader of the Conservative Party, announced that the weapon was a nerve agent only made in Russia. Members of her government have pointed directly at Vladimir Putin. European nations and, more grudgingly, the United States, have denounced the chemical attack. Britain and Russia have carried out tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats. This is a substantial diplomatic crisis.

Over here on this side of the ocean, we haven't heard much about the response from the Labour Party, the official opposition. That should matter; Labour is nearly as strong with British voters as May's Tories. So what is Labour saying? Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, laid out his response in the Guardian.

First and foremost, he reassures that his party understands that something very wrong has taken place. And they want it investigated properly.

There can be no one in Britain who is not outraged by the appalling attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury last week. The use of military nerve agents on the streets of Britain is barbaric and beyond reckless. This horrific event demands first of all the most thorough and painstaking criminal investigation, conducted by our police and security services. They have a right to expect full support in their work, just as the public should also be able to expect calm heads and a measured response from their political leaders. To rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police, in a fevered parliamentary atmosphere, serves neither justice nor our national security.

Since Labour is always tarred (mostly inaccurately) by its rightwing opponents with coming from a pinkish, commie-sympathizing, pro-Soviet history, Corbyn bluntly denounces the Russia that is.

... Labour is of course no supporter of the Putin regime, its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption. And we pay tribute to Russia’s many campaigners for social justice and human rights, including for LGBT rights. However, that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a “new cold war” of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent. ...

But he points out that Labour does have a policy idea that would seriously punish Russia for its international misdeeds: stop allowing the London real estate and financial markets to act as a haven for Russian billionaires.

... our capacity to deal with outrages from Russia is compromised by the tidal wave of ill-gotten cash that Russian oligarchs – both allied with and opposed to the Russian government – have laundered through London over the past two decades. We must stop servicing Russian crony capitalism in Britain, and the corrupt billionaires who use London to protect their wealth.

Labour voters remain suspicious of the government in this crisis; they and Corbyn remember that a previous government took them to war in Iraq on the basis of intelligence lies. They want the evidence out before the public -- and if the evidence is good, Labour does have a prescription about what the nation ought to do.

I can't help wondering whether our Democratic leaders would be so relatively capable of responding thoughtfully when/if this country confronts a similar crisis. After all, a majority of us believe, with plenty of evidence, that Russia helped give us an unfit president. We don't react well to Ruskies. And our crony capitalist sector is also awash in corrupt Russian money -- just look at who buys those gold-plated Trump Organization digs.

Our Democratic politicians too often stampede easily when told national security is at stake. I find this even more worth thinking through as the Russia investigation pushes closer and closer to Donald Trump. This president would have no scruples against ginning up a security crisis if he thought it might save his hide. We'll be darn lucky if we don't see this, especially before the midterm elections. Democratic leaders better thing ahead about how to calm and critique (and if need be resist), if push comes to shove.

Ditto the last paragraph if Trump tries to quash the Russia investigation. ...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturday scenery: Hills Brothers -- a real San Francisco treat

If I weren't Walking San Francisco, I might never have known of the decorative flourishes on the imposing brick facade of the converted coffee warehouse on the Embarcadero. The couple pictured above clasp happily in front of the Palace of Fine Arts, the city's relic from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.

The coffee merchants (there really were two Hills brothers) invented vacuum packing and modern coffee tins, enabling them to expand their business from a portside coffee stand into a block long Mediterranean Romanesque edifice in the mid-1920s.

In the same era, the company adopted "The Taster" as the product's signature trademark, a fanciful allusion to the San Franciscans' imaginings of their coffee's Arabian and Eritrean origin.

Apparently they wanted to show off the leisure activities of their customers, as with these swimmers who look to be enjoying Sutro Baths.

Proud Californians, they included a gold miner on the facade ...

as well as local baseball team, the Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

These visitors (tourists perhaps?) stand in front of Ferry Building just down the street.

The old building is currently occupied by some apartments and many offices, mostly used by Google and Mozilla.

Friday, March 16, 2018

This passes for ethical analysis?

Reihan Salam, the executive editor of the old line conservative magazine National Review, writing at the Atlantic, is distressed about remarks Hillary Clinton (remember her?) made in Mumbai this week:

“I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward, and his [Trump's] whole campaign, Make America Great Again, was looking backwards.”

Salam is not the only one; the rightwing echo chamber (Fox News, Breitbart, etc.) seems to agree with him that Clinton has somehow in these words made a "moral" critique" of those who didn't vote for her.

Dude -- she's just stating facts. The only adjective here that might be construed as having a "moral" content is "optimistic". If you think optimism (or pessimism) constitutes innate character, just maybe there's some sense in this. I don't think that way nor I expect do most people. I think of either quality as mostly a responses to real surrounding conditions, usually a fairly accurate reading.

I asked E.P., my resident local ethicist, what she thinks is going on in this sentence. She suspects that Clinton's rightwing hearers believe that somehow she's accused them of being racists. I guess they may be hearing Clinton that way, though it seems absent from these words, only present in their prickly (guilty?) psyches.

Salam goes on to draw a picture of a country with two parallel societies, Clinton's "Trickle Down America" and Trump's "Stagnant America." He indicts prosperous cities with being run for the benefit of ripoff capitalists (true), while exploiting low wage workers, often people of color and/or undocumented immigrants (true). He then has the decency to point out that the policies Clinton campaigned on would have moderated these ills.

He doesn't describe how he thinks "Stagnant America" is doing. Not so well, judging by his own label. Hopelessness and poverty aren't usually good for people. Clinton's policies might have done some good there too, though he neglects to mention this.

I grew up in "Stagnant America" even before the label "Rust Belt" had begun to be applied to aging industrial centers. The downward trajectory could be felt even when steel and auto were still huge. Salam is right; when economies pass their peak and contract, the folks who live amidst the dislocation and pain get hurt. How about we try to help them, rather than exploit their pain to mobilize resentment?

In case you are wondering, the photo is of Chicago from Evanston.

Friday cat blogging

These two saw a stranger go by.

Those cat trees are a boon to a wandering photographer.

Via Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We like to think this can't happen ...

but a death penalty case not getting the wide attention it deserves shows it still can.

Vicente Benavides Figueroa, a 68 year old former farmworker, has been warehoused on California's death row for 24 years. He was convicted in Kern County in 1993 of sodomizing and murdering a 21-month old child when his girl friend left him in charge of the little girl. The California Supreme Court just ruled that the evidence that that child had been molested was simply not true.

"The evidence now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive and impactful," Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.

The jury in the case was told that the child's body showed damage to her anus.

Medical experts now attribute her injuries to repeated and failed efforts to insert an adult-sized catheter into her, rectal temperature taking, a paralytic medication and physical examination.

Nurse Anita Caraan Wafford, who helped treat Consuelo at the first hospital, declared that no one there noted any anal or vaginal trauma.

Dr. William A. Kennedy II, an expert in pediatric urology, said he believed "to a high degree of medical certainty" that Consuelo had not suffered anal or vaginal penetration.

The court could have reduced Benavides' conviction to second degree murder -- something killed the child on his watch -- but instead sent him back to Kern County for retrial.

Just in case we'd forgotten

H/t @AmericanIndian8.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Outside our windows, the young people march for all our lives

Middle schoolers chanted "No More Guns."

From the City College campus down the block, students and teachers carried the message.

War criminal named to head the CIA

You don't have to take my word for label in the headline. The NY Times reports Gina Haspel

played a direct role in the C.I.A.’s “extraordinary rendition program,” under which captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.

The C.I.A.’s first overseas detention site was in Thailand. It was run by Ms. Haspel, who oversaw the brutal interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Mr. Zubaydah alone was waterboarded 83 times in a single month, had his head repeatedly slammed into walls and endured other harsh methods before interrogators decided he had no useful information to provide.

Former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper says this record shouldn't worry us.

“I think Gina will be excellent as director, as long as she is ready to be fired at a moment’s notice,” Clapper said in remarks posted to the Cipher Brief news site.

I am not reassured. Haspel already showed she rolls over and plays dead when higher authorities want wrongdoing hidden:

Haspel later served as chief of staff to the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, when he ordered the destruction of dozens of videotapes made at the Thailand site.

Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that Haspel “drafted a cable” ordering the tapes’ destruction in 2005 as the program came under mounting public scrutiny and that he then “took a deep breath of weary satisfaction and hit Send.”

Those wusses Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham have made clucking noises about appointing a known torturer. Will they voter to confirm one?

Meanwhile California Senator Diane Feinstein, who as the lead promoter of the Congressional Torture Report which the Obama administration and the CIA tried to kill, seems to have gone squishy on the perpetrators of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., signaled that she might be open to supporting Haspel's confirmation, despite her work on the black sites.

"It's no secret I've had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this," Feinstein said in a statement. "To the best of my knowledge she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again."

We continue to be shamed by the legacy of the Bush Administration's embrace of what Dick Cheney called "the dark side."

UPDATE: Now Senator Feinstein has gone squishy on being squishy. It's hard to pin that one down.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On enduring civic art

The NY Times reports that Latinx politicians in Los Angeles are celebrating the prospect of erecting a 19 foot high statue commemorating the contributions of braceros to our state and country. And well that contribution should be celebrated!

But I do wonder, if Latinas don't manage to influence the design, whether sometime in the future this figure may seem as embarrassing -- even offensive -- as this San Francisco 19th century erection seems to us today.

Trump not welcome here

Obviously he's not coming to San Francisco. Even as a stage set for a display of phony bravado, it's probably not worth his effort. And he doesn't own a hotel here where he could trust the gold plumbing fixtures.

Messages like this abound here. This respectable one is from the Sierra Club.

Our Congresswoman is trying to get folks to slow down on this demand until the investigation is finished and we win some more elections. I think she's right; a majority of everyone, not just Californians, has to be ready to give the guy the boot. But around here, we're more than ready.

This sentiment keeps turning up on lamp posts ...

and on balconies in sedate neighborhoods.

We've got plenty of our own local political squabbles, but we're pretty united when it comes to Mr. 45.

All photos taken in 2018 while Walking San Francisco.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Driverless cars can't arrive too soon for me


We humans are just not good enough at driving to be trusted with cars. And even if we are pretty good drivers, our human operating systems can go very wrong, very suddenly.
  • New York is buzzing about the city's failure to file charges against a woman whose car killed two children and injured their mother in a crosswalk. Police say she may have had a stroke and simply isn't chargeable under current vehicular laws.
  • An 88 year old friend of mine who was driving alone recently found herself (and her car) in a snowbank, smack up against a sign post. She couldn't say what had happened.
  • At 89, my own mother had some sort of TIA (transient ischemic attack) while backing her car up in a parking lot, hit the gas instead of the brake, killed one woman, injured another, and hit three parked cars. She had no memory of the event, mercifully, and, of course, never drove again. There were no charges.
This sort of thing is simply going to happen more and more frequently as the proportion of the U.S. population that is older and thus more vulnerable to sudden health failures increases. According to the Census, there will be close to three times as many people over 85 by mid-century as there are today. If we remain a society as car dependent as we are today, lots of us will be driving until we either die or have a disastrous accident. There'll be no other way to take care of ourselves. We've made driving a vital marker of independence. Many of us will have the good sense to stop before we have an accident, but these events can happen without warning -- and we may feel we can't live satisfying elder lives without driving.

There are plenty of skeptics about the potential of self-driving cars; maybe this technology is a pipe dream or a scam. But I doubt it; there's money to be made by reducing the amount of human driver-labor (trucks, passenger rides) that has to be paid for. If the technology proves also a boon to old people, that's just a by-product.

Autonomous cars are now legally out and about in California. Yes, there still must be a human driver aboard in case of crisis and any accident, ever the most minor fender-bender, must be reported to the DMV. (I snapped the photo above on Potrero Hill while Walking San Francisco; there seem to be a lot of them up there.) It will take lots of miles of service for the technology to become more certain.

I'm ready for true self-driving cars to arrive! On this subject, I'm believing the hype.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Exodus, exile, and yearning for a ground to rest in

The ascendancy of Donald Trump is fraught for Christian evangelicals of color; after all, most of their white co-religionists embraced an unapologetic racist. New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson became aware that many black evangelicals seemed to be drifting away from largely white evangelical churches since the 2016 election. He reported sensitively on the trend, passing along this poignant quote:

“It said, to me, that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church,” said Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta. Early last year, Professor Walker-Barnes left the white-majority church where she had been on staff. Like an untold number of black Christians around the country, many of whom had left behind black-majority churches, she is not sure where she belongs anymore.

“We were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people,” she said. “That didn’t work.”

Some U.S. evangelicals of color have long been striving to live their faith without feeling they had to take on a white Christianity that erased their roots, their families, their cultures. In January, Religion Dispatches published an interview with sociologist Russell Jeung under the pugnacious headline “I Think the White Evangelical Church is Dead”: on ‘Guilt’ vs. ‘Shame’ and Decolonizing Asian-American Christianity. The professor told correspondent Deborah Jian Lee how he sees Asian evangelicals adapting:

The American sense of doing justice is that things are unfair and so, you’d have to make things more fair. It’s a very individualistic, process-oriented sense of justice. I argue that the Asian’s sense of justice isn’t about fairness. It’s about right relationships and corporate responsibility.

It’s not about you individually losing your rights; it’s about people not being responsible for other people. Injustice occurs when people aren’t taking care of others. It’s when the government isn’t being responsible for the people. It’s when families don’t take care of each other. Justice is when people take corporate responsibility for each other. It shifts the sense of justice from being an individualized thing to a corporate thing and from a thing that’s rights-oriented to something that’s responsibility-oriented.

... Since the racial reconciliation movement, people of color have been going to these justice conferences and spoken to young white audiences about these issues. The white vote just disheartened me… all this effort, all these conversations and conferences… they haven’t made a dent. ...

Dr. Jeung, a long time resident of a tough Oakland Asian-immigrant neighborhood, has elaborated in a memoir on how his own life led him to a Christian faith inflected by his Chinese ancestral culture. At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus among My Ancestors and Refugee Neighbors is about Jeung learning who he is, and who his neighbors are. After graduating from San Francisco's Lowell High School and Stanford, he moved by choice and in faith into a decaying rental building populated by very poor Cambodian refugees, in a neighborhood of Mexican and Guatemalan undocumented laborers. What did he do there? Live and learn among his neighbors.

As I read the Bible at Oak Park, I realized that many of God's words, though offered to all, were directed to the poor and for the poor. .. When I was a stranger and new to Oakland, children and grandmothers invited me in. When I was hungry, they fed me bagel dogs. When I was thirsty, they offer me drink. For twenty years, this community of refugees took this privileged, wandering guy into their family and embraced me.

In Oakland, he reflected on what he had learned from his Chinese roots. His people who immigrated to California were Hakkas, an underclass minority in China who were landless, "guest people." His great grandmother was a tough character, fishing abalone in Monterey Bay until white merchants burned out the little Chinese settlement and the family ended up in San Francisco Chinatown. His father served in World War II, took advantage of the G.I. bill to complete college, and by the time Russell was growing up, had joined the Chinese middle class. Living in Oakland, Jeung came to name his identity:

I am a Hakka, a guest person. My identity derives from a simple, agrarian people who lived on the hillsides that no one wanted, dressed in black, and wore hats with curtains. And ate food that looked like crap.

My family in the United States were working class, people of color. They were victims of institutional discrimination, forcible removal, segregation, stereotyping, and underemployment.

I am grateful that God redeems this history. Yet, along with this redemption, I am reclaiming this history and my identity as a Chinese Hakka.

After many years, Jeung eventually helped his neighbors win a legal fight to have their building restored to habitability. In that context he discovered that, though living standards were improved, other qualities of his community that he valued were lost. Many of his neighbors

adopted American suburban lifestyles: privatized and nuclear family centered. ... Today, a decade later, I feel like I've lost the community that gave me so much joy, meaning, and friendship. I once again feel like a Hakka, in exile from home and community, Was justice won? This question haunts me. As an American Christian, I expect -- and even feel entitled to justice and happy endings. Some of us are optimistic and hopeful that we can effect social change ...

... Settling down, building family ties, and taking on mutual responsibility for one another is the first step in doing God's justice. Righteousness, and then peace, emerge when we are rooted and invested in each other's lives and take responsibility for each other. In the United States, we tend to believe that justice is an individual right that we need to defend. For [his Cambodian elder neighbor] Bech Chuom, justice required assuming one's corporate responsibility: we are obligated to take care of one another, and reciprocate the care we have received. In this sense, injustice occurs when we do not take care of one another, whether on an individual or systemic level.

Dr. Jeung's faith culture is not mine, but I can easily join with Dr. Jeung in affirming that all healthy cultures hold in high esteem both service to others from individuals and collective social responsibility, truths undervalued by our polity and society.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Saturday scenery: Alemany Boulevard mural project

This wide roadway in the far southern reaches of San Francisco, almost to Daly City, is not a swank or distinguished location. Like much of our working class outskirts, it is not the San Francisco tourists flock to. But there are hidden gems and this is one.

Where there was once a quarter mile of undistinguished wood plank fence, spray can artists have painted a rogues' gallery of characters.

Can't say I can identify this monster, but I don't want to meet it.

Now this guy is more familiar.

The artists brought their political opinions as well as their talents.

All encountered while Walking San Francisco.
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