Thursday, December 31, 2009

Patagonia reading

Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia was the book I should have read before traveling to the hinterland of South America. I didn't, so I'm glad I found the 1977 classic there and consumed it on the way home. If you have any interest in this still-exotic place, I would urge you to do likewise.

According to the forward by Nicolas Shakespeare, Chatwin was annoyed that his story was marketed as "Travel." I understand that: I'd call this a collection of vignettes that shape a picaresque quest whose truth is more that of marvelous realism than reportage.

If I'd read Chatwin, I'd instantly have been able to place the 10 foot high statue we encountered while walking into Puerto Natales (Chile). It's a kitschy rendering of the town's famous extinct mascot -- the Mylodon, a giant ground sloth -- whose mysterious history shapes Chatwin's wanderings by bus, on horseback and on foot south through the Argentinian back country to the Chilean lands on Straits of Magellan.

Though apparently this Brit's Spanish was rudimentary, the Argentinian frontier in the mid-twentieth century was still so full of odd wanderers, failures, dreamers and exiles from many lands that this was little barrier. He's an economical storyteller, able to convey character with few words. Consider these hotel keepers:

The hotel in Rio Pico was painted a pale turquoise and run by a Jewish family who lacked even the most elementary notions of profit. ...

In the morning, I had a tremendous row about the bill.

"How much was the room?

"Nothing, if you hadn't slept in it, nobody else would."

"How much was dinner?"

"Nothing. How could we know you were coming? We cooked for ourselves." ...

"What can I pay for then? There's only bread and coffee left."

"I can't charge you for bread, but cafe au lait is a gringo drink and I shall make you pay."

Another encounter in the same tiny town, with a very old, very lonely former cabaret singer:

At some negative turning point she had married a moon-faced Swede. They joined two failures into one and drifted together to the end of the world. ...The Swede died fifteen years ago and she had never left ...

Christian missionaries pushed into the area, some of them apparently more interested in anthropological speculation, archeological digs and exploration than spreading the Gospel.

The Salesian, Father Alberto María D´Agostini (d. 1960), is remembered as a mountain climber in a statue in El Calafate. Chatwin shares an encounter with another Catholic priest out in the boonies:

"Tell me, brother, which religion are you?"


"Different road," he sighed. "Same Divinity. Adios, Hermano."

Frontier life may have precluded a more narrow Christianity.

Not all of Chatwin's vignettes from the road are of helpless castaways. There are plenty of dynamic actors, including the famous North American outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; European, Chilean and Argentinian scientists, colonizers and swashbucklers -- including Charles Darwin -- whose activities resulted in extermination of the indigenous population; and the prisoners who survived Chile's 1973 military coup, jailed away on remote Dawson Island.

And then there were the "revolutionaries of 1920-1." A leader, Antonio Soto, is memorialized on Calafate's main street. These were laborers, many Chilean, who worked on the great sheep farming estates. When the world wool trade took a dive after the First World War, land owners tried to cut wages; the men had absorbed some socialist and anarchist ideas and they organized. So the land owners called in the Argentinian army who promised freedom to strikers who gave up their weapons and then massacred them. Chatwin quotes a British settler about these events.

I asked Archie Tuffnell about it and he scowled.

"Bad business. Bunch of Bolshie agitators came down and stirred up trouble. That was one thing. Then the Army came down and shot good, honest, reliable men. They even shot my friends. It was a filthy business from start to finish."

Soto survived and escaped to Chile, never again to raise rabble. But other anarchists did kill the Army general who ordered the massacre and tit-for-tat killings went on for some years.

It was interesting to see how much public remembrance there still is of these events in the otherwise resolutely commercial, bustling tourist town of El Calafate. I had to wonder whether talk of 1921 was substituting for talk of the much more immediate sufferings of Argentinians under the repressive army regime of the late '70s and early '80s.

If you have the slightest interest in Patagonia, do what I didn't do and read Bruce Chatwin's tale before you go.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Patagonia impressions

Back in town today from almost two weeks in the far south of Latin America -- a few days in Chile and more in Argentina -- I've got oceans of work clutter to clear away, so this blog gets only a few oddments about the trip for now. More later.

It would be mad for me to claim to know anything about the countries whose mountains, parks and hospitality I've been enjoying. The appropriate analogy for what I convey here might be impressions of the United States garnered by a non-English-speaking tourist dropped into South Lake Tahoe who then visited Yosemite Valley. Not deep or necessarily meaningful. But here goes.

The world watches and waits on Obama, anxiously.

Headline from the English language Buenos Aires Herald on the day we arrived.

The old maxim, "when the U.S. sneezes, Latin America catches pneumonia" still holds, or at least people fear that it does.

Knowing that politics in other people's countries is not our business, we engaged in only one substantive political conversation. This was with an Argentinian who had lived in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980's, in exile from the rightwing military's (and CIA's) Dirty War of torture and "disappearance" against leftists and students. He volunteered that when Obama was elected, people had had great hopes that the United States had changed. But he fears that the new administration's support for the anti-democratic coup in Honduras in June and the sham elections there in November has emboldened right wing elements throughout the continent.

Our new friend, on learning that my partner is a student of the implications of the U.S. adopting torture as policy under the Bush regime, spoke proudly of Argentinians' twenty year effort to prosecute their own torturing generals. "It took a long time, but the result is worth it."

Badly behaved tourists.

Somewhat to my surprise, there is a set of tourists much more resented in Chile and Argentina than the relatively few oblivious North Americans. People from both countries volunteered their disgust with the behavior of back-packing Israelis. "They are not well-brought up; they leave garbage all over."

Hence the sign at left from an Argentinian park.

I have no idea whether this sentiment contains elements of European anti-Semitism, stems from repulsion against Israel's treatment of Palestinians, or simply reflects that traveling Israelis actually do act boorishly when wandering the world. This was something I had not encountered previously.

Argentinians and Chileans don't much like each other

However little Patagonians may like various foreigners who descend on their countries, they save their real distrust and dislike for each other.

Once upon a time this Chilean sheep farm on Last Chance Fiord was a grand estancia, though land reform and the contemporary economy has reduced its owners to welcoming tourists for magnificent lamb barbecues.

But the current Senor Eberhard proudly recounts that when Argentinians tried to move in during the last century, his grandfather continued to fly the Chilean flag, defending the land.

Chileans we met seemed to feel that neighboring Argentina was "the boondocks." Their border crossing bureaucrats were strict and thorough, a little reminiscent of the paranoid U.S. TSA, in fact. Argentina seemed "laid back" in comparison.

A bronzed figure of Francisco "Perito" Moreno sits behind a desk in an information center of Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park.

Meanwhile, Argentinians described Chile as aggressively grasping. Mr. Moreno, pictured above, is a hero for having surveyed the Patagonian hinterland in late 19th century and successfully staking out Argentina's claim to the peaks that became this most astonishing park.

In contemporary El Calafate, the tourist town that serves as Argentina's gateway to its Patagonian wonders, people had very immediate concerns. Chileans, enjoying a stronger economy, are "buying up all the land." Don't know if this is true, but I have enough experience of urban gentrification to know what ugly feelings arise when property becomes unaffordable to its present residents ...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winter on the Bay Bridge

Heading east from San Francisco on the Bay's unglamorous span to Oakland involves driving through what feels like a dark tunnel. The top deck, running into San Francisco, has all the views. The under side, the lower deck, is enclosed, cave-like.

Winter means rain, sometimes dense rain.

Under the joints of the upper sections, water cascades on cars below. It can be hard to see.

The center of the bridge is an actual tunnel through Yerba Buena Island, a large rock that was there long before the bridge. There's less rain in the tunnel, but distorting light, even at midday.
Since I was driving, I didn't take these shots. But I think my lovely assistant did darn well with an iPhone, don't you?

Monday, December 28, 2009

How I learned to love the public library


Yesterday I posted about how I've greatly reduced my newspaper reading since I wrote on the Media Consumption Diet meme two years ago. I've also completely changed my relationship to books.

Once upon a time, I bought books, usually new, occasionally used. was my friend. The books would pile up on the "to be read" shelf and I'd gradually work my way through them.

That is no longer the way it works around here. Partly this is because we've run out of bookshelf space. Partly this is because I've become a more intentional reader; I became concerned that I was reading so much in short online tidbits that I was missing the depth that only a longer treatment can offer. But even more, this is because my partner persuaded me (with a gift) that audiobooks are a great way to read. Since I also exercise a lot, I do both at the same time. Visualize if you can "reading" Too Big to Fail while running over the Marin Headlands. Works for me. I've read dozens of books in spoken form in the last two years.

But often, when I read a book, I want to write something about it here. How to do that when my access to the book is by ear? Easy: now when I start an audiobook, I use the San Francisco Public Library web catalog to order up the volume. When it becomes available, they deliver to my nearby branch for me to pick up.

And having discovered the ease of getting books held for pick up by the library, now I find myself getting almost all of what I am currently reading through that channel.

A few books that I've read by ear, I still decide to buy for future reference. These tend to be older and the copies I acquire tend to be used.

All this is somewhat cheaper for me than my previous buying habits, though I still purchase a goodly number of books to read by ear. If library audiobooks worked on an iPod I'd borrow them, but so far they do not.

Living with an author, I'm well aware that no part of this way of acquiring reading materials that I've described above gets an author paid (except maybe a few royalties through I have no easy answers.

I am however attracted by David Rothman's idea of a national digital library system using e-readers such as the Kindle. Think of the access that such a system could provide to people who aren't able to get out or need to use the font enlarging technology to make books accessible.

No, I don't know how writers get paid in that system either.

Do you read books? How do you get the ones you read?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I've stopped reading newspapers and it's Barack Obama's fault

About two years ago I posted in response to a media consumption diet meme that was floating around the blogosphere. Here's what I said about my daily news sources:

Every day I skim through the e-newsletters of a mix of newspapers. The obvious ones of course -- NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times -- but also I try for some smaller regional outlets. Right now I'm enjoying the Boston Globe. ... At the moment I am reading the London Independent and Der Spiegel (English edition).

...I also subscribe to a number of slightly less obvious news sources, including Alertnet from Reuters and IRIN from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Those two guarantee a steady diet of highly authentic and usually quite dismal news from various NGOs dealing with crisis around the world. Lately I've been getting a daily update from Madrid 11 which gives an internationalist look at global security and democracy issues.

Another really interesting newsletter for world hot spots comes from the International Crisis Group, though it is worth remembering the source -- the international "realist" establishment.

Most of these still populate my email inbox daily (though I dropped the Washington Post in disgust at the drivel on its editorial page). And I've added the McClatchy afternoon summary,, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and Salon among others. But truth be told I sometimes go for days without looking at these "publications."

You see, the reason I read the news has changed with the new administration. Under Bush, keeping informed was essentially defensive: I wanted to know what corrupt or vicious shenanigans they were up to. These people were about looting and imposing their vision of the world by force, nothing much more complicated. Scanning some major news sources offered up a far too copious menu of abuses. On slightly more esoteric subjects of particular interest to me, like for example my old friend "the no fly list," a few Google alerts meant I saw any major developments.

Under Obama, I want to know what the administration and Democrats are doing because they came in claiming they are working for fixes on issues I care about: our unsustainable casino-capitalism, health care reform, climate change, restoration of the rule of law, and even our endless wars on other peoples' countries. If I want to understand what movement (if any) is going on in those arenas, a daily play-by-play as provided by newspapers doesn't help much and may even obscure reality.

Example: President says: "no more torture." So far so good. But administration confirms that persons captured anywhere in the world still may be held indefinitely without legal recourse in U.S.-military-run prisons in Afghanistan. Not so good. But the newspapers only get to the contradiction days after more deeply involved writers point them out. So I don't much look to newspapers on these subjects.

These days I have to dig into the policy weeds on matters I care about. This is harder than just reading the paper, but it goes with the political circumstances. And, just as with the newspapers, it doesn't mean I fully believe or trust all the sources I read faithfully.

How I approach keeping track depends on my underlying knowledge of the subject. On casino capitalism, I've never been very informed: I find the games of the very wealthy pretty boring though their real world repercussions are obviously of vital interest. So on this front, I'm reading books; readers will have seen the results on this blog. I also check out a few blogs, especially Paul Krugman and Baseline Scenario.

I promised myself I wouldn't get lost in health care reform details, but the protracted, super-heated politics around it captured me sometime in the summer. These days, I check in faithfully with Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn.

Climate change understanding is about the same age as the internet, so it is no surprise that the best sources are online: I use Grist and Real Climate. Again, because my underlying knowledge base is relatively low, I also try to read and write about books on these issues.

On the legal stuff, I'm heavily reliant on Glenn Greenwald, the ACLU, and Andy Worthington.

As for the wars, I've known for decades that U.S. newspapers, though they sometimes try, are not the best sources about the realities of our empire's foreign adventures. Since I'm actively involved with organizing in opposition to the empire's permanent wars, I am fortunate to be plugged into a several email lists that share useful sources. I can relatively easily sort through these sources because this is something I know something about. Juan Cole's Informed Comment is still a must read.

In addition I do try to pick up on headline news of the day; I visit sites that aggregate themes that interest me, such as Talking Points Memo. That one has a bit too heavy mix of scandal and silliness for my taste, but it's AP feed picks up many basic stories. I also find The Washington Independent and The Plum Line useful. For newspaper columnists, I pick up quite enough from the DailyKos "Your Abbreviated Pundit Round-up" posts. And for the state of political agitation, nothing beats Firedoglake; if we get a health care reform that does anything for ordinary people (seems unlikely as I post this on 12/15), they get major credit.

And then I have niche interests: having worked in the politics of the Episcopal Church recently, I follow The Lead, Susan Russell's blog and Walking with Integrity. For aging, life and community, I participate at Time Goes By. And for 49er football, I check in at the San Francisco Chronicle's coverage.

Another media consumption novelty I want to mention is Twitter. I've figured out what Twitter is for, at least for me. I'm frequently asked, "what can you say in 140 characters?" Well, some people do quite interesting posts in that limited framework, but I don't use Twitter for content so much as to "follow" other people whose extended work interests me. Where once I might have put a Google alert on the name of a reporter whose writing interested me, now I follow tweets (when I have time). Current favorites include Adam Server who is thoughtful about race at The American Prospect's blog and Daphne Eviatar on legal issues.

Anyone want to pick up this meme? Just write out how you keep up with news -- and especially if your sources have changed over the last few years. I was stunned to realize how differently I'm choosing to stay informed these days than I did even a very few years ago. How about you?

Saturday, December 26, 2009


This [2:55] is more aspirational than real, but where would we be without aspirations to do better? Enjoy the fantasy; make the reality.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas/Feliz Navidad

While we probably can't count on this postcard weather, this is what we hope to be looking at on Christmas in El Chalten, Argentina.

When we get back, I'll put up a few of my photos.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas horror story

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. ... Luke 2:8

We had heard a strange buzzing. Where was that sound coming from? One cold night Uncle Youseff came to visit. He was trekking to the city with his new wife. As they got into the back of the pick up truck to continue their journey, there was a flash of light and a blast knocked over family members waving goodbye . When the smoke cleared, the truck was a burning twisted hulk. There wasn't much left of Uncle, or the girl, or the driver.

"It created havoc," he said. "There was smoke and dust everywhere. Injured people were crying and asking for help." Then a third missile hit. "I fell to the ground," he said.

People who have seen an air strike live on a monitor described it as both awe-inspiring and horrifying. "You could see these little figures scurrying, and the explosion going off, and when the smoke cleared there was just rubble and charred stuff," a former C.I.A. officer who was based in Afghanistan after September 11th says of one attack. (He watched the carnage on a small monitor in the field.) Human beings running for cover are such a common sight that they have inspired a slang term: "squirters."


We didn't know why someone was shooting at us. We scattered away into the hills with the flocks, because we were afraid soldiers might come.

We sent a boy to ask the elders in town what was going on.. He came back with a strange tale: the local governor was afraid someone might try to overthrow him. He was very proud of holding his office and besides, it made him very rich. So he had begged the Empire to kill his enemies. Maybe the Empire was shooting at us?

...the U.S. government keeps broadening the definition of acceptable high-value targets. Last March, the Obama Administration made an unannounced decision to win support for the drone program inside Pakistan by giving President Asif Ali Zardari more control over whom to target. "A lot of the targets are nominated by the Pakistanis -- it's part of the bargain of getting Pakistani cooperation," says Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer who has served as an adviser to the Obama Administration on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If it is true that the district governor brought this down on us, he should rot in hell and we will slit the throats of his children. We will blow up his palaces and dance on the rubble.

David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency warfare expert who has advised General David Petraeus in Iraq, ... argues, "Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased."

It's hard to know what will happen now, but I am afraid.

And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.
Luke 21:25-6
(All quotations not from the Bible (KJV) are from Jane Mayer's New Yorker article, The Predator War. As I hope is obvious, the words of the imagined narrator are mine.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Letter from Jesus about Christmas

(This has been all over the internet, but it bears repeating.)

Dear Children,

It has come to my attention that many of you are upset that folks are taking My name out of the season. Maybe you've forgotten that I wasn't actually born during this time of the year. It was some of your predecessors who decided to celebrate My birthday on what was actually a time of pagan festival, although I do appreciate being remembered anytime. How I personally feel about this celebration can probably be most easily understood by those of you who have been blessed with children and grandchildren of your own. I don't care what you call the day.

If you want to celebrate My birth, just GET ALONG AND LOVE ONE ANOTHER. .Now, having said that...let Me go on... If it bothers you that the town in which you live doesn't allow a scene depicting My birth, then just get rid of a couple of Santas and snowmen, and put in a small Nativity scene on your own front lawn. If all My followers did that, there wouldn't be any need for such a scene on the town square because there would be many of them all around town.

Stop worrying about the fact that people are calling the tree a holiday tree instead of a Christmas tree. It was I who made all trees; you can remember Me anytime you see any tree. Decorate a grape vine if you wish...

If you want to give Me a present in remembrance of My birth, here is my wish list; choose something from it:

1. Visit someone in a nursing home, not just during Christmas time, but all through the year. You don't have to know them personally. They just need to know that someone cares about them.

2. Instead of writing protest letters objecting to the way My birthday is being celebrated, write letters of love and hope to soldiers away from home. They are terribly afraid and lonely this time of year. I know because they tell Me all the time.

3. Instead of giving your children a lot of gifts you can't afford and they don't need, spend time with them. Tell them the story of My birth and why I came to live with you down here. Hold them in your arms and remind them that I love them.

4. Pick someone that has hurt you in the past... ...and forgive him or her.

5. Did you know that someone in your town will attempt to take their own life this season because they feel so alone and hopeless? Since you don't know who that person is, try giving everyone you meet a warm smile; it could make the difference.

6. Instead of "nit-picking" about what the retailer in your town calls the holiday, be patient with the people who work there. Give them a warm smile and a kind word. Even if they aren't allowed to wish you a "Merry Christmas" ,that doesn't keep you from wishing them one.

8. Here's a good one. There are individuals and whole families in your town who not only will have no "Christmas" tree, but neither will they have any presents to give or receive. If you don't know them, buy some food and a few gifts giving them to some charity.

10. Finally, if you want to make a statement about your belief in and loyalty to Me, then behave like a Christian. Don't do things in secret that you wouldn't do in My presence. Let people know by your actions and words that you are one of mine. Don't forget; I am God and can take care of Myself. Just love Me and do what I have told you to do. I'll take care of all the rest.

Check out the list above and get to work. I'll help you, but the ball is now in your court. And do have a most blessed Christmas with all those whom you love...and remember... ...I LOVE YOU!


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"All the problems they saved themselves from, they created"*

In David Wessel's In Fed We Trust, Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner and the regulators are the central figures in the Great Panic. (Yesterday's post was about that one.) In Too Big to Fail, Wall Street moguls -- Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan, Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, and Robert Willumstad of AIG, etc. -- are The Men, along with Treasury Secretary (ex-Goldman CEO) Hank Paulson. Author Andrew Ross Sorkin is the New York Times's chief mergers and acquisitions reporter in the Business section. That is, these guys are his beat.

Sorkin makes it pretty clear that he thinks his topic amounted to a near fatal crisis of the financial system brought on by bankers competitively piling risk on top of risk while regulators might as well have been napping. But evaluating is much less important to Sorkin than telling a story -- this reads like a thriller: will the next meeting or the next call lead to bankruptcy or salvation? On this level it certainly works.

But like all "first draft of history" books (think Bob Woodward as an exemplar), it also leaves the reader wondering: did he really have sources for all these details and direct quotations? Sorkin says yes.

The conversations recounted are based on hundreds of hours of interviews with dozens of participants, many of whom agreed to speak on the condition that they not be identified as sources.

Must we believe that at one point in the rapidly unfolding mess, Fuld of Lehman really did say "I feel like I'm playing Whack-a-Mole"? Or that as Geithner attempted to getting failing investment companies to merge, his aides began referring to him as "E-Harmony"? I guess we must. What world that is!

As I have from all these books presenting amusing, gossipy accounts of the 2008 financial crisis, I come away from Sorkin's effort feeling that we haven't got to the basic question. Can a country's economy long be so dominated by a casino-like financial sector without eventually being eclipsed by others that are producing good and services that have value for ordinary human life? The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are going to put the United States to that test. I am not sanguine about the outcome.

* Sorkin in an interview with Charlie Rose.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In Federal Reserve We Trust -- too much?

David Wessel had a ring side seat on the credit and housing boom and the subsequent financial bust while working as a reporter and economics editor for the Wall Street Journal. He's got a book length account of it all out as In Fed We Trust. The subtitles tell more about the volume: "Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic" and "How the Federal Reserve Became the Fourth Branch of Government."

Like the other journalistic books on the crash that I've been reading (links at end of post), Wessel makes intrinsically drab subjects like balance sheet acrobatics into gripping stories by treating the individuals involved as complex characters, sometimes myopic, sometimes heroic. In this one, the scholarly Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, is The Man, doing "whatever it takes" to save the financial system from its own excesses. All the leading figures, Bernanke, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, and New York Federal Reserve President Tim Geithner come off as hard working, well-meaning public servants. (This is true of most books in this genre; come on writers, there must have been some stupid ones and some grasping ones.)

Sometimes Wessel's metaphors that make the subject approachable verge on too cute. Here's a sample:

The Federal Open Market Commission had a passing resemblance to high school. There were the cool guys, the jocks and the geeks. Bernanke, Don Kohn, Tim Geithner, and Kevin Warsh fell into the first category, the cool ones. The jocks were regional Fed bank presidents determined to show their manhood by talking tough about inflation and economic rectitude... . The geeks included monetary policy scholars who shared Bernanke's view of the world. ... And then there were the wannabes ...

Perhaps I recoil from this style of description because I might stumble into it myself on a bad day. I guess I should again credit Wessel for making these men whose work is so remote from what most of us do a little more human.

But however human they are, something awful happened under their tutelage of the economy. I find it notable that Wessel's language for his overarching subject is "Great Panic" -- not Great Recession or Depression 2.0 as some have suggested. Because his subject is the Fed, Wessel's subjects seem far too oblivious to the fact that a failing Lehman Brothers investment operation mattered a heck of a lot more to the 401k investor who lost a nest egg than to the millionaires who ran the company -- and who are the social counterparts of Wessel's characters. In recent months, the same figures seem to being trying to tell the country that the crisis (a panic?) is over, while for most of us, the worst is actually right now with over 10 percent unemployment and no real vision of how an economy that works poorly for the majority can start humming again.

Wessel knows his picture is missing something. He concludes with this take on the contradiction:

Fed officials and sympathetic academics frame the question reasonably but narrowly: How well did Bernanke and his fellow Musketeers do, given the information and authority they had at the time? To nearly everyone else, outcomes matter, not intentions. It may be said with substantial accuracy, that after some initial hesitation, Ben Bernanke and his team did all they could to defeat the Great Panic. But if the ultimate result is years of painfully slow economic growth and widespread unemployment, they will be judged by many Americans to have failed. Earning an A for effort is not enough.

There's one of those high school metaphors again.

This is a good book, an accessible account of events that most of us figure we can't understand. I'd rank it less enlightening than Gillian Tett's Fools Gold, but easier to read. Right now I'm ripping through Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail, so readers here can expect more commentary on the financial-follies-journalism genre.

Previous posts in this series examine Justin Fox's Myth of the Rational Market, and Liaquat Ahamad's history, Lords of Finance.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Not clear on the concept ...

... this requires reading the fine print at the bottom of the poster. Click on the picture to enlarge. You can get back here by using the back button on your browser.

This remarkable item turned up at scour's weblog among other goodies.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Favorite book of 2009:
When conflicting worlds meet

Tamim Ansary's descriptions in Destiny Disrupted of the very early days of Islam when the religion was being revealed by Mohammed and just afterward help me understand what seems very foreign to a member of a pluralistic secular polity such as ours. As the story goes, the Prophet's revelations created an equitable community that approximated the hopes of its members and brought a degree of peace very new among the tribes of the Arabian peninsula. But after his death, local leaders thought they, personally, ought to be able to replace the Prophet as the source of moral authority. Ansary explains:

They claimed they were receiving revelations and had permission to issue divinely authorized laws. These upstarts thought to use the model pioneered by Mohammed to forge sovereign "sacred" communities in competition with the Umma [the Muslim community].

Had Abu Bakr [Mohammed's successor as leader of the Umma] allowed these departures, Islam would surely have gone in a very different direction. It might have evolved into a set of practices and beliefs that people embraced individually.

But Abu Bakr responded to the crisis by declaring succession to be treason. The Prophet had said, "No compulsion in religion," and Abu Bakr did not deny that principle. People were free to accept or reject Islam as they pleased; but once they were in, he asserted, they were in for good.

In response to a political crisis, Abu Bakr established a religious principle that haunts Islam to this day -- the equation of apostasy with treason. Braided into this policy was the theological concept that the singleness of God must be reflected in the indissoluble singleness of the Umma. With this decision, Abu Bakr even more definitively confirmed Islam as a social project and not just a belief system. A Muslim community was not just a kind of community, of which there could be any number, but a particular community, of which there could be only one.

It's worth thinking about the contrast with Western Christianity. For the Jesus movement's first couple of hundred years, it was a blasphemous
Jewish cult (on account of denying the Emperor's divinity) that attracted subversive outsiders in the Roman world. When the apostle Paul called the Christian community "one body" in Christ, he was exhorting, not laying down the law because he had no power except persuasion. No Christian leader had state power behind his dictates until the emperor Constantine (306 CE) converted; the early ethos involved individuals turning away (repenting) to form an outlaw community among the Roman empire's many niche groups. Until Constantine and his successors began enforcing credal orthodoxy, probably every bishopric and local group had their own emphases among the traditions.

The era of Christendom (324-1521 CE) did try to mandate a universally authoritative Christian community that enforced peace and justice in addition to providing a path for individual salvation. But the Reformers, beginning with Luther, Zwingli, Calvin -- and abetted by rulers chafing under a declining Papal claim to state authority -- blew the unity of that Christian community to bits. The bits claimed and delved into their particular ways of knowing God in Jesus, but universal Christianity became impossible to imagine (though popes and some bishops still try, anachronistically).

According to Ansary, Muslims not only can imagine a universal community sharing belief and law, but consider the existence of such a community necessary and normative. The Umma community is the embodiment of God's will for humanity.

Modern Westerners simply cannot find mental houseroom for such a conviction. We expect to find our truths individually -- and to maintain whatever social cohesion we value by tolerating the individual beliefs of others. In the realm of religion, we have little room for imposed orthodoxies. In the realm of law, we place our hope in socially negotiated group consensus arrived at more or less democratically.
Ansary concludes that real differences been the European world and the Muslim world have been so exacerbated by Western domination and contempt that we talk past each other.

One side charges, "You are decadent." The other side retorts, "We are free." These are not opposing contentions; they are nonsequiturs. Each side identifies the other as a character in its own narrative.

... The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a "clash of civilizations," if that proposition means we're-different-so-we-must-fight-until-there-is-only-one-of-us. It's better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting. Muslims were a crowd of people going somewhere. Europeans and their offshoots were a crowd of people going somewhere. We the two crowds crossed paths, much bumping and crashing resulted, and the crashing is still going on.

...Islam is not the opposite of Christianity, nor of Judaism. Taken strictly as a system of religious beliefs, it has more areas of agreement than argument... It is, however, programmatically misleading to think of Islam as one item in a class whose other items are Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Not inaccurate, of course: Islam is a religion, like those others, a distinct set of beliefs and practices related to ethics, morals, God, the cosmos, and mortality.

But Islam might just as validly be considered as one item in a class whose other items include communism, parliamentary democracy, fascism, and the like, because Islam is a social project like those others, an idea for how politics and the economy ought to be managed, a complete system of civil and criminal law.

This is a challenging thought within our Western civilization that assumes that our material mastery proves we've got the only way.

Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes was the most interesting book I read during 2009. What's your nominee for that position from your reading?

(Photo is of Ansary speaking at a peace vigil in San Francisco. This is the third of three consecutive posts about this fascinating book.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Favorite book of 2009:
Crusaders impinge (a little); Mongols much more

Ruins of Crusader castle, Byblos, modern Lebanon

For the last ten years of her life, my mother had sitting on her reading table a little book entitled The Crusades through Arab Eyes. I don't know if she ever read it, though she might have. It simply sat there for years; I too thought I might get around to it, but I didn't. When I cleaned out her place, I let it go along with hundreds of other books. I somewhat regret that now.

In Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Tamim Ansary explains just what a minor episode the Crusades were for contemporaries in the Middle World who didn't have the misfortune to encounter the Crusaders. After all, the Mediterranean coast was just the far western fringe, a troubled frontier area. He reports on contemporary accounts.

No one seemed to cast the wars as an epic struggle between Islam and Christendom -- that was the story line the Crusaders saw. Instead of a clash between two civilizations, Muslims saw simply a calamity falling upon ... civilization [itself]. For one thing, when they looked at the Franj [Franks, modern French], they saw no evidence of civilization. An Arab prince named Usamah ibn Munqidh described the Franks as being like 'beasts, superior in courage and fighting ardor, but nothing else ..."

...In areas under attack, Muslims did, of course, feel threatened by the Franj, even horrified by them [Crusaders really did boil and eat captives!], but they didn't see in these attacks any intellectual challenge to their ideas and beliefs. ...

What's more, the Crusades stimulated no particular curiosity in the Muslim world about Western Europe ...the Crusades brought virtually no European cultural viruses into the Islamic world.

From the point of view of the Middle World, the real horror of the period was the Mongol invasion from the Central Asian plains. Military chieftains known in the West as Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane swept through the community's heartland, butchering and destroying rather than holding and exploiting. Ansary dates the development of a strain of Islam that demands aggressive purity from the religion's adherents and endorses jihad against other Muslims with whom one has doctrinal disagreements to the Mongol invasion crisis. Religious scholars of that time, trying to explain how barbarians could conquer the land of the faithful even if only briefly, were the intellectual ancestors of today's Saudi Wahabism and al Qaeda terrorists.

Then as now, an aggressive fundamentalism developed as a response to fear of annihilation. That's worth contemplating in all contemporary worlds -- European, Middle and Asian -- in these times of loose nukes, rapid cultural commodification, and impending climate catastrophe. Can we buck that human response to kill one another when facing real, legitimate fears?

This is the second of three consecutive posts about my favorite read of 2009.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Favorite book of 2009:
A glimpse into the Middle World

The enduring lesson I'll take from Afghan-San Franciscan Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes is his geographical terminology. What should we call the region where Islam was born and still rules, the region that stretches from modern Afghanistan to the Mediterranean sea?

People of European origin usually refer vaguely to "the Middle East," a locution that assumes we are looking east from Europe -- and does not usually apply to the further eastern parts of an area that nonetheless forms a distinct historical-cultural unit. Ansary names the Euro-Asian Islamic world "the Middle World," referring to the lands located between European, Chinese, and much of Indian civilization.

From anywhere near the Mediterranean coast, it was easier to get to some other place near the Mediterranean coast than to Persepolis or the Indus River. Similarly, caravans on the overland routes crisscrossing the Middle World in ancient times could strike off in any direction at any intersection -- there were many such intersections ...Gossip, stories, jokes, rumors, historical impressions, religious mythologies, products, and other detritus of culture flow along with traders, travelers and conquerors. Trade and travel routes thus function like capillaries, carrying civilizatonal blood. Societies permeated by a network of such capillaries are apt to become characters in one another's narratives, even if they disagree about who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Thus it was that the Mediterranean and Middle worlds developed somewhat different narratives of world history. People living around the Mediterranean had good reason to think of themselves at the center of human history, but people living in the Middle World had equally good reason to think they were situated at the heart of it all.

It is the history of civilization from a Middle World stance that Ansary shares in this book.

One more passage from Ansary's account of pre-Islamic times gives you the flavor of his delicate tweaking of conventional sensibilities:

In the late days of the empire [around 490 BCE], the Persians broke into the Mediterranean world and made a brief, big splash in Western world history.

Persian emperor Darius sailed west to punish the Greeks. I say "punish," not "invade" or "conquer," because from the Persian point of view the so-called Persian Wars were not some seminal clash between two civilizations. The Persians saw the Greeks as the the primitive inhabitants of some small cities on the far western edges of the civilized world, cities that implicitly belonged to the Persians, even though they were too far away to rule directly. Emperor Darius wanted the Greeks merely to confirm that they were his subjects by sending him a jar of water and a box of soil in symbolic tribute. The Greeks refused.

Darius collected an army to go teach the Greeks a lesson they would never forget, but the very size of his army was as much a liability as an asset: How did you direct so many men at such a distance? How do you keep them supplied? Darius had ignored the first principle of military strategy: never fight a land war in Europe. ...

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes is simply my favorite of all the books I've read this year. I'll continue discussing it in two further, consecutive, posts.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Off for now

As of noon today, I'll be completely off the grid, away from email, phones and all the paraphernalia of my daily life. For the next two weeks, we are off to trek in Patagonia amid more light, mountains, fjords, maybe some of the guanacos pictured above, and even perhaps some sun. I'm sure there will be internet cafes, but I'll be staying away.

While we are gone, the Democrats will or will not pass their convoluted health care reform out of the Senate. U.S. spooks will or will not try to kill Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the Pakistani city of Quetta (a place the size of San Francisco) as they are threatening. The Copenhagen conference will or will not make progress toward averting catastrophic, anthropogenic climate change. And I'll blog about those things when I get back.

And I've already posted for all the days I'll be away. Never fear, there'll be content here. (Maybe I'm nuts!)

Meanwhile, my partner and I are celebrating our 30th anniversary together and the birth of the child whose meaning is Love.

Backson, in the immortal phrase from Winnie the Pooh.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

General announces Afghanistan war is unnecessary

Troops in Kandahar City, Afghanistan, Photo by Pierre Gazzola (CC)

KABUL -- The full complement of American forces deploying to Afghanistan under President Obama’s new strategy will not arrive until November, a top commander here said.

The new, more gradual timeline means it will take longer for Mr. Obama’s surge of forces to arrive, thus potentially blunting their impact in the surge’s initial phases and leading to a slower drawdown of forces after July 2011. It comes as the military confronts the realities of deploying such a large force into a landlocked country with little in the way of infrastructure.

Originally, the Obama administration had hoped to accelerate the deployment of the 30,000 additional forces in its get-in-and-get-out approach. The idea was to deploy new forces quickly and then begin a gradual withdrawal in July 2011. Senior administration officials said Dec. 1, the day Obama announced his new strategy, that it would take six months for all 30,000 troops to arrive.

Christian Science Monitor,
December 14,2009

Plueezze -- don't ask me to believe that this little imperial adventure is vital to national security but you can't move 30,000 guys there in a year! I mean if that place is so threatening to our national survival, can't you do a little better than that?

U.S. airlines move 2.3 MILLION people over the Thanksgiving weekend. Now flying people to Afghanistan to kill people is a little further and a little more complicated, but we pay for the largest and most expensive military in the world. It spends $1 million a year for each soldier it puts in Afghanistan. For that kind of money you could rent a fleet of corporate jets and get 30,000 troops over there in a couple of months.

Obviously, Afghanistan is a war of choice, a full employment project for the military officer corps and their corporate cronies getting fat on the contracting dole. Heaven help the grunts who have to get killed to keep it going. And obviously military brass intend to delay any withdrawal date as long as possible to keep their gravy train going.

Can't say it won't work if it has not been tried ...

and certainly we ALL need solutions.

H/t Cogitamus. Much more here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Health care reform shorts:
Who is naughty? Who is nice?

Clergy lead procession in San Francisco calling for health care reform.

Over at Time Goes By, this morning Ronni Bennett pointed her community of elderbloggers to Atul Gawande's current New Yorker article on the cost control experimentation embedded in the health care reform bill. It's a very hopeful take on possibilities we might have missed. Do take a look.

What struck me immediately was that Gawande assumes that most physicians (and by extension others in the health professions)

want to provide good care ..."

I believe this is true. Oh, there are some specialists -- cosmetic surgeons come to mind -- who just want to take advantage of people's desperation for their own enrichment. But before they drowned in school debts, went through the professional hazing that is the residency system, and learned to think they deserved an inflated lifestyle, most doctors had in mind that they were going to do well by human beings.

The health care debate is about who lives and who dies and more and more doctors are among the good guys. You can find some of them at Physicians for a National Health Program.
So who's naughty? Today, it looks like Senator Joe Lieberman. He doesn't care who dies so he can feel important. Matt Yglesias describes the situation succinctly:

The leverage that Lieberman and other “centrists” have obtained on this issue (and on climate change) stems from a demonstrated willingness to embrace sociopathic indifference to the human cost of their actions.

The next few months and years will test whether the institutions of this country can overcome the sociopaths who inhabit choke points on progress and maybe even survival.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Can't we stop it with the phone books?

Yesterday we hunkered down inside against the driving rain, glad to be warm and dry. Eventually I had to pick up some groceries -- and was disgusted to nearly stumble over this:

I don't even remember the last time I used a phone book. But once a year, one or two or sometimes three of these things appear on our doorstep. This morning, between episodes of drizzle, I jogged through the Mission, passing hundreds of yellow and orange lumps.

Okay, I know that some people make a living assembling, printing and distributing these vast hunks of newsprint. And perhaps a very few people still use them. But can't we make them an opt-in item rather than unwelcome litter?

Apparently a couple of state legislators have been trying, at least in regard the White Pages. Their proposed law prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to collect the numbers on the problem:

  • 147 million directories distributed each year in the United States.
  • 5 million trees destroyed.
  • $17 million in recycling costs.
  • 16 percent of White Pages recycled each year.
  • 660,000 tons in the waste stream.
One action we can all take is to sign the Ban the Phone Book petition which calls for an all opt-in distribution system for this instant recycling.

Why Copenhagen matters

In December of 2007, NASA's James Hansen presented his conclusions. According to climate activist Bill McKibben, Hansen has given a simple measure of what is happening to the planet.

...above 350 [ppm of atmospheric carbon] you couldn't have a planet "similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted."

It's as if we suddenly discovered what normal body temperature was, so we'd be able to tell when we were running a fever. In that sense, it came as a great relief.

But in every other sense, it was a pretty devastating number. For one thing, we're already past it, at 390 ppm and rising two ppm annually--that's why the Arctic is melting. For another thing, it means the work nations and individuals must do to reduce their carbon footprints is much larger, and must happen much more swiftly, than we'd believed...

Are Hansen and McKibben right? Most of us aren't equipped to know. Those of us not on coal company payrolls or angrily dismissive of "smarty pants" opinion have to believe the scientific consensus that human-caused activity is driving global warming.

Are we, collectively, going to do anything about it? It feels insane to even be asking that question.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Looking for immortality?

Your prayers have been answered. Just get on as many charity mailing lists as you can and you can count on living as long as there is snail mail.

My mother died over 10 years ago, but every year in "the season of giving" she gets a deluge of what she called "the begging letters." There seems no end of it. Occasionally my father gets one. He died in 1991.

Friday, December 11, 2009

President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize oration

Listening to Obama, the gentlemen pictured above would have had a right to scream "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" at this line:

"America has never fought a war against a democracy ..."

No, the U.S. empire doesn't go to war with democracies. But if it doesn't like the leaders the people put in office, it just gets rid of them.

Clockwise, from the upper left:
  • Mohammad Mosaddeq: was elected to Iran's parliament in 1944 and became Prime Minister in 1951. His platform was expanding democracy and using Iran's oil resources for the benefit of the people. To achieve the later, he nationalized oil facilities that have been held by British companies. He was overthrown by a CIA-organized coup in 1953. Afterwards Iran was under the autocratic rule of the Shah, a brutal U.S, puppet king, until he was ousted by the also-brutal Islamic revolution that remains in power today.
  • Jacobo Arbenz: Was elected president of Guatemala in 1951 in the first peaceful transfer of power in the country's history. He followed his predecessor by opening up voting rights and breaking up underutilized foreign-owned plantations to give land to landless peasants. The U.S.-company United Fruit didn't like that policy. The U.S. government falsely labeled Arbenz a Communist and overthrew him in a CIA coup in 1954.
  • Salvador Allende: He was elected president of Chile in 1970 culminating a long socialist/reformist political career. U.S. mining companies and other corporations considered Allende a "communist" who would interfere with their uncontrolled profits. The Nixon administration in the U.S. authorized the CIA to destabilize Chile, at that time Latin America's proudest democracy. U.S.-supported army offices rose up against the civilian government on September 11, 1973. Allende died during the coup, possibly murdered; Chile was ruled by a military dictatorship for the next eight years, not fully returning to democracy until the 1990s.
  • Manuel Zelaya: served as elected President of Honduras from January 27, 2006 to June 28, 2009 when he was removed by the military and less populist politicians were installed. The United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the European Union condemned the coup. The Obama administration, however, was lukewarm in its opposition. The rest of world continues not recognize November 29 elections held by the coup regime, while the U.S. acts content with the overthrow of constitutional government in Honduras.
Lsten up President Obama: Liar, liar, pants on fire indeed!

Friday critter blogging

Sometimes maintaining the peaceable kingdom is a stretch.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

International Human Rights Day in the Mission District


Women from the organization Mujeres Unidas y Activas gathered to speak up for themselves. They may be shivering -- in was a dank 45 F -- but they were determined and cheerful, even if English spelling is not their thing.

The Human Rights Day honors the United Nations General Assembly's adoption and proclamation, on 10 December 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now as ever we need reminders.

Entitlement commission neutered

On a day when Markos Moulitos, proprietor of Daily Kos and loyal Democrat, calls the emerging health bill "a turd of a 'reform' package," here's some good news for a change. A couple of Senators, Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, have been fronting for the idea of an "entitlement" commission to "reduce the deficit." This is not going to happen -- at least for now.

The idea is the brain child of Wall Street robber baron Peter G. Peterson; he figures too much taxpayer money is going into the general welfare functions of government like Social Security and Medicare. He wants to cut those programs to "reduce the deficit" -- to pay for endless non-essential wars and military outposts and for the refusal of rich people to pay taxes.

That would be hard for politicians to do directly -- if people could see what their elected officials were doing, they not only would throw the bums out, they might also pelt them with eggs and tomatoes. So the idea is appoint an commission to recommend cutting safety net programs to pay bondholders and make the recommendations something Congress would have to vote on without amendments or filibusters. We can't have health care by majority vote -- oh no, that would violate sacred traditions of the Senate. But we can make the old folks eat cat food by majority vote; that would be wise solons at their work.

For awhile, it looked like Conrad and Gregg were making some headway, but today there are reports here and here, that the terrible twosome have built such a ridiculous contraption as to render it harmless for the moment. Apparently their commission proposal would require super majorities in both the House and Senate to enact anything it comes up with -- not likely.

Still, this is a threat that deserves vigilance. Bad ideas that enable politicians to do bad things without public notice have a way of recurring. Ronni Bennett at Time Goes By has an excellent overview of the issues with many links to relevant articles.

But isn't it true that we have to do something to reduce the federal deficit? Well, maybe in the long term. In the short term as the President is now saying loudly, the best way to reduce federal borrowing is to get the economy moving again so people can work and pay taxes. But also, in the longer term, there are lots of good ideas for reducing the deficit. Jeffrey Frankels from the Kennedy School at Harvard has made ten suggestions. Underlying the best ones are the two principles I've been enumerating over the last few days:
  • We need to tax people more who have more money than they need.
  • We need to stop paying for a bloated military, especially for non-essential wars and bases in other peoples' countries.
That's all too "radical" for anyone in Congress, but those are principles that could begin to restore community in this country.