Tuesday, June 30, 2009

U.S. troops depart Iraqi cities (mostly)

On a day when some Iraqis are celebrating "National Sovereignty," the least antiwar folks in this country can do is wish them well -- and remain vigilant in combatting our empire builders' intent to hang on in that unfortunate country. I'm of the hopeful sort who thinks that U.S. exhaustion and over-extension promise that Iraqis can slough us off if they choose. But despite today's festivities, it's not going to be a simple road forward.

News from the no fly list front

The smiling gentleman pictured above is Abousfian Abdelrazik, a naturalized Canadian who has been stranded in his native Sudan since 2003. On a visit to his sick mother, the Montreal resident was twice imprisoned and tortured by the local government, according to him at the instance of Canadian and U.S. authorities who suspected him of ties to terrorism. The Canadians and Sudanese eventually cleared him, but then he found himself with an expired passport and placed on a United Nations no fly list. For the last 14 months, he slept on the floor of the Canadian embassy in Khartoum. Canadian activists helped him go to court to get their government to fly him home. Under court order, they finally did this last Saturday. No wonder he looks happy,

Despite being cleared by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (that's like being cleared by the FBI), Abdelrazik may not be done with his troubles.

Paul Champ, one of Abdelrazik's lawyers, said being on the UN no-fly list means more than travel restrictions.

"It's not simply a no-fly list. I guess you can call it a UN black list. That means an asset freeze," Champ told CBC News. "When he gets back to Canada, he's going to be subject to all kinds of conditions.

"He's unlikely to be able to open a bank account. He likely will not be able to have a job, because anyone paying him or giving him money in any way could be regarded as a crime. So he's going to be living with some severe restraints that we're going to be working very hard to lift by whatever means possible," he said.

This case isn't going away for Canadian civil libertarians.

Critics of U.S. government no fly lists and watch lists are on the way to picking up some not entirely comfortable bedfellows these days.

It seems that the gun lobby has succeeded in so restricting federal oversight of gun purchases, that individuals on the various government lists can't be impeded from buying weapons. According to the June 20 New York Times:

WASHINGTON — People on the government’s terrorist watch list tried to buy guns nearly 1,000 times in the last five years, and federal authorities cleared the purchases 9 times out of 10 because they had no legal way to stop them, according to a new government report.

In one case, a person on the list was able to buy more than 50 pounds of explosives.

Thanks to the efforts of the National Rifle Association, it's nearly impossible for the government to regulate guns, though they can ban your shampoo and toothpaste when you travel ... I don't quite get it.

Anyway, recognition of this odd legal anomaly has led some Congresscritters to try to deny guns to people on the watch lists. New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy and Congressman Steve Israel led off the push for a new law in May. After the report cited above came out, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg jumped into the project.

The NRA isn't about to let their pro-gun legal regime get infringed on by a little wimpy fear of purchases by bad guys. They are up in arms about the (well-documented) deficiencies of the lists.

However, the National Rifle Association said the terrorist watch list was too poorly maintained to justify preventing gun sales to people on it.

"The integrity of the terror watch list is poor," said Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist. "To deny law-abiding people due process and their Second Amendment rights based on a secret list is not how we do things in America."

Hmm ... wonder if Mr. Cox applies that standard Muslim-Americans?

I'd bet on the gun nuts in this one -- politicians are probably more scared of Mr. Cox than they are that a terrorist incident will happen "on their watch." It's all one more demonstration that this stuff is theater, not security.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Some were working

Yesterday was the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade and festival. The weather was unusually friendly: sunny but not sweltering. We often get fog and cold drizzle that astonishes tourists.

The crowd was huge and good natured. Most everyone seemed to be having a good time.

But not everyone was reveling. Some people were working. Two images from a set of photos I was capturing for another project:

This gentleman was collecting our recycling doggedly.

And this woman was toiling alongside younger family members at a Thai barbecue stand.

Let's hope their efforts were worthwhile for them in the midst of our play.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What we're seeing on TV isn't real?

Lee Stranahan made this and several more. His blog is here. He's "an uninsured father taking on the insurance industry."

This health reform stuff isn't really all that complicated, is it?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Religious campaign against torture

Activism against U.S. torture policies over the last few days didn't end with the demonstrators at the Ninth Circuit Court. The local members of National Religious Campaign Against Torture held a conference Friday evening and all day Saturday in Palo Alto.

The panelists on Friday evening, shown above included, from left to right: David DeCosse, a Santa Clara University ethicist; Dr. Jean Marie Arrigo, a social psychologist who is active in trying to turn the American Psychological Society against torture and whose research involves collecting the stories of U.S. personnel touched by U.S. torture policies; Terrence Karney, a former Army interrogator and instructor who served in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq and who repudiates torture as a tool of his trade; Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst, now working with Tell the Word, a project of the ecumenical Church of the Savior in DC; and Ben Daniel, a Presbyterian pastor in San Jose.

I can't say I learned huge amounts from this event -- except what activists always need to remember: it takes painstaking, ongoing, patient organizing to mobilize public opinion against injustice.

While we're on the torture campaigns, take a click over to SFMike's place -- he covered the same Bybee demonstraton I dropped in on.

Good cheer for a gay pride weekend

You couldn't show this on U.S. TV, but evidently it sells in France.

Shamelessly lifted from Time Goes By.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Torture Accountability in San Francisco

Yesterday, June 25, was Torture Accountability Day. President Obama may wish to look forward instead of back. But there are activists who don't believe vicious government sanctioned abuse of prisoners will be rooted out unless some of the authorities authorizing this illegal conduct suffer some consequences.

The home of the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is an imposing building, isn't it?

One of its judges is Jay Bybee, author of one of the nasty bureaucratic justifications of torture churned out by the Bush Department of Justice. Why is this guy still a federal judge?

Activists delivered petitions calling for Bybee to be disbarred for professional misconduct -- for making up excuses for patently illegal conduct.


We were also reminded of our other local torture enabler, Professor John Yoo. Why is that man still teaching at the University of California Law School at Boalt Hall?

Folks in attendance laid out some of the tools of activism: buttons to continually remind and raise the question; pens to pass the word along. Building a moral and political consensus that repudiates torture is not the work of a moment. It will take time and angst and devotion. Other societies have done this work; we can too, but it won't be easy.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

While the planet burns ...

On Friday, the Congress will vote on an "energy" bill, known usually by the names of its writers and House legislative managers, Waxman-Markey. It aims to reduce or at least cap carbon emissions, the driver of global warming. It's been negotiated near to death and many believe it's become close to useless, except symbolically. Here's a smorgasbord of opinions.

As with health care reform, I don't claim to understand all the policy minutiae embedded in these matters, but I am interested in the politics. Here's Matt Yglesias on why our Congresscritters can't see their way to even reduce climate change, much less combat it.

...there's really no getting around the fact that the best feasible legislative outcome isn't good enough according to the climate science. What we're left with is essentially the hope for an iterative process -- a flawed bill that makes progress helps spur a productive meeting in Copenhagen helps spur some kind of bilateral deal with China which helps create the conditions for further domestic legislation. I think this is the best idea anyone has, but it's a pretty dicey proposition. Bottom line is that to get a better bill you need a situation wherein a non-trivial number of Republicans are willing to contemplate emissions reductions. Faced with uniform Republican support for untrammeled pollution, the only viable legislative path involves buying off every Democrat.

In theory, we're this big-brained animal that has survived and thrived because it outwitted its potential competitors for the role of dominant species on the planet.

How come we're so dumb?
Via Andrew Leonard, I hear that Berkeley has ended its program to use biofuels in city vehicles as an anti-carbon pollution measure because growing all that corn makes for more CO2 releases than using everyday gas.

Not so dumb.
Via the Washington Post, I see that most of us think the government should step up to the task of controlling climate damage.

Three-quarters of Americans think the federal government should regulate the release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases from power plants, cars and factories to reduce global warming, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, with substantial majority support from Democrats, Republicans and independents.

This is beginning to look like the healthcare reform debate: three quarters of us want the government to do its job -- a few law makers just want to keep their contributions from the bad guys and perhaps serve their local interests at the expense of most people.

Meanwhile, where's Obama on all this? His people understand the science, even if Congress doesn't/won't.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Harvey Milk was a chair-moving guy

Today I did a pleasant little piece of "research" for the Gay and Gray columns I write for Time Goes By and got to hear an anecdote about the murdered San Francisco supervisor. A local senior center sponsored a showing of the Gus Van Sant film as their contribution to Gay Pride month. Their copy of the film had Spanish subtitles; the audience of some 30 elders seemed roughly to come in equal thirds from the Latino, Filipino and white communities.

After the movie, we were asked how many of us were living in the city during the dramatic events shown -- very few, as it turned out.

But there was one woman who piped up: "In those days my children were at school in the Mission at St. Peter's Catholic Church. One day I was setting up chairs in the auditorium and a man in a suit and tie came in. He looked at me and said 'what should I do?'

"I said 'take off that jacket and help me move tables.' So he did. I didn't even think to ask who he was. We got all set up and the priests came in.

"I realized I should ask my helper, 'who are you?'

"He said, 'Oh, I'm Supervisor Harvey Milk.' He was such a nice man, just like that."

Harvey, the New York Jewish queer, knew how to act in a Catholic school auditorium. It's easy to like politicians who come without fanfare and pitch in where they are needed.

Gone elsewhere

Today I have new posts at two other places on the tubes, so I'm not going to offer anything fresh here.

At Walking with Integrity, I posted a report on a forum in San Francisco about same-sex marriage held yesterday at Grace Cathedral.

Over at Time Goes By, my regular Gay and Gray column takes up thoughts from some of my friends who are on the brink of retiring -- or not. I'll add a direct link when the post is up. Here it is.

'Nuff for now ...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What health reform is up against

Enjoy. Then hammer your Senator. You may have it bad, but I have Diane Feinstein.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Some healthcare reform politics

Demonstrators calling for a single payer health care system greet Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius today in San Francisco.

So we are entering the time period when the national health care reform project will shake out. Or not. Congress is muttering -- louder. The President says we are going to do something. The citizens certainly hope so.

I'm not going to pretend I understand the minutiae of the various options. One of the ways that most of us are made to feel helpless by the current medical mess is that no one can understand all the profitable curlicues that the interested parties -- doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, drug companies, medical educators and researchers -- have built into the system. There seems to be something for everyone, except, too frequently, the patients.

But though I don't know all that much about healthcare reform, I do know something about politics. So, here are some political observations based on surveying the current landscape.

There is wide agreement that the existing "system" is completely broken, costs too much and will cost more, and is irrational. That's easy to point out. For example, today, in front of the American Association of Retired People, the President boasted that he was pushing for a remedy for the "doughnut hole." The "doughnut hole" is the name for the lunatic compromise in the Medicare prescription drug benefit which means that, annually, recipients don't pay for the first $2700 they lay out, then have to pay the next $3400, then can turn to Medicare after $6100 has gone to pharmaceutical companies. Obama's fix? The government will provide half-off vouchers to be used in the "doughnut hole." Helpful -- but doing away with the whole jerry-rigged concept seems obviously more efficient. I guess that answer is too simple. Just as simply taxing us all and having the government pay our medical bills (single payer) is too simple. Even though that's more or less what 75 percent of us want.

And then, whatever they come up with has get through Congress. And we've got a Constitution far more designed to prevent radical mistakes than to enable necessary reform. (Cynical description here.) A few Senators from tiny states can stop most anything. And all Senators need and value campaign contributions from the very companies that made the present mess and don't think there is anything to fix. Their bottom line is fine; who needs sick people?

So getting anything through Congress will be tough. When you think about it, only in two short bursts during the 20th century did really significant reforms come out of Washington. During the first phase of the New Deal, government took over making capitalism work which was radical indeed. What's forgotten is that civil society was so desperate amid bank failures and 25 percent unemployment, that there was serious talk in the mainstream media in 1933 about making the President a dictator. It required near complete systemic collapse to win the regulatory apparatus and safety net put in place back then.

The other radical episode was the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. That took the major unrest created by the civil rights movement coming together with an accidental President who was a legislative genius. The latter is not what our governmental system usually produces. The qualities that make a good candidate -- overweening ambition, an extremely thick skin, a willingness to project confidence that may not be warranted -- are not at all the skills that make for legislative success. Lyndon Johnson could probably never have been elected President in his own right, because his great (frightening) talent was the manipulation of people and interests that results in legislation, rather than broad leadership. But thrust into office by the Kennedy assassination, he was able to make the Congress respond to the demand for full legal civil rights for African Americans and other people of color as perhaps no one else would have been able to.

It's not at all clear that times are bad enough, or our present President deft enough, to bring true reform of anything so broken as the U.S. healthcare morass. But we are about to find out.

The political moment does ensure that we'll get something, though it may be mostly curlicues and not much fix. And we can be sure that the Democrats and our President will tell us that they won a great victory for us.

This is partially because we've elected a community organizer. Organizers know you always have to assert that any smidgen of progress is a victory. When I worked for the United Farm Workers Union, we'd stand around waiting for our lead organizer to get off the phone with California, ready to twit him: "what's the victory today?"

Since the problem is dire, let's hope whatever emerges actually does some good. Some smart economists, including Christina Romer, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, argue that controlling health care costs is the only route to a fiscally sustainable future for the country. Not to mention that people get sick and die because medical attention is unavailable to them. It's certainly worth using all available tools of citizenship to keep reminding our legislators that ultimately they work for us, not for the insurance companies.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bullies in Berkeley

Daily Planet cartoon

An anti-abortionist kills Dr. George Tiller in Wichita. A white supremacist murders a the security guard at the Holocaust Museum. Three people associated with the Minutemen execute two members of a family of undocumented Latinos, hoping to steal drugs, sell them, and keep the proceeds. Meanwhile sales of guns and ammunition have continued at a fever pitch since President Obama was elected. Meanwhile, though the government keeps what seems to be an ever-expanding and nonsensical "terrorist watch list," 963 people on that list turned up trying to buy guns between 2004 and February 2009 -- and 865 were allowed to make the purchases, according to a Government Accountability Office study.

In such a climate of rising politically inspired violence, instances of bullying that aim to suppress speech need to be taken especially seriously. Thanks to my friend Deeg writing in the latest issue of UltraViolet, I became aware of a local campaign to deter advertisers who use a local alternative paper. This attack on a little community paper is particularly distressing as we watch the big papers get thinner and more vapid. We need these kinds of alternative media -- they help us know what is going on in our communities.

The Berkeley Daily Planet, counter-intutively published weekly, covers very local developments; the current issue headlines a planning commission meeting, a School Board controversy about a community governance council, and the opening of a new animal shelter.

It also publishes op-eds and editorials. Berkeley is a very opinionated community. If the writer is local and the op-ed isn't obviously part of an astroturf campaign, the Daily Planet usually prints it, according an open letter from the editors.

For many years one of the subjects of contention within the community has been the injustice done by Israel to Palestinians. As long ago as 1984, its voters were faced with a ballot measure urging the U.S. to stop funding Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine (that one got buried in controversy and campaign cash.) The horrors of last winter's Israeli assault on Gaza brought out many fierce denunciations of Israel. The editors concede they publish very few commentaries lauding Israeli actions -- they say they don't get those. Instead they get a chorus of accusations of bad faith, bias, and "anti-Semitism."

Some supporters of Israeli actions are now trying to kill off the paper.

A few East Bay individuals are threatening to bankrupt the Berkeley Daily Planet unless it stops publishing criticisms of Israel's policies and actions—opinions and ideas they brand "anti-Semitic." ...

The expressed goal, in the words of an April 21 e-mail from one of them to the Planet's executive editor, is to make the Daily Planet "reform, or close, or bleed money until you are forced out of business or die broke."

Business owners who maintain their ads have reported intimidating visits and abusive calls, but the campaign has gone beyond targeting the newspaper’s revenue. ...

One elderly reader who wrote a commentary for the Planet's opinion pages critical of Israel made a police report about a threatening message delivered to her home after the op-ed was published.

Richard Brenneman,
Berkeley Daily Planet,
June 4, 2009

This article is worth reading in its entirety -- I'd call it journalism. The Daily Planet's choice to expose the bullies has also elicited some interesting reader response, such as this:

Once you let one faction leverage your content, it emboldens others to follow suit. Before you know it, you have a newspaper so watered down it appeals to no one.

Richard Fabry,
June 18. 2009

He seems to have been reading most of the mainstream media.

We all lose when bullying works. Best wishes to the Planet and its readers.

Seuss on the loose

Here in California, it sometimes seems that the good Doctor's imagination has come to life. These remarkable plants display themselves on a trail in the Marin Headlands.

These inhabit an ordinary street in San Francisco's Mission district.

Sam-I-Am and his ham showed up in the entrance to an "art gallery" in South Lake Tahoe.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tahoe textures

No, I'm not longer playing at the emerald lake, but the patterns float in my consciousness.

There's a lot of life there.

So very red.

Here's a strange homage to the surroundings -- a wall of Harrah's Tahoe on U.S. Route 50.

Health care: now or not in our lifetimes

Health Care for America Now is one of those grand liberal coalitions that will fill your email box if you let it. But you probably have to let it. We can't win even improvements in the existing for-profit, medicine-as-commodity for the wealthy, non-system without these great aggregating granfalloons. Together we can win; solidarity forever and all that.

So -- we need to pepper our Congresscritters with our demands and help this kind of outfit get on the air and stay there while our betters in Washington dither about whether we live or die.

That's our real world...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wars of empire

James Carroll writes in Constantine's Sword about the genesis of the terrible hatred between English and Irish in the last century.

The Irish war with England, begun in 1916, was extremely violent .... Part of England's "draconian reaction" was the unleashing on an unarmed population the criminal-terrorist Black and Tans and the post-1918 deployment of trench veteran tommies, who viewed the Irish war as an extension of the no-holds-barred war against the Hun and fought accordingly.

The Irish population, which in 1916 had been overwhelmingly inclined to favor London ... over the self-appointed, self-aggrandizing liberators of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, by 1920 thought of London as the devil's own. The fierce universal hatred of England, a twentieth century cliche, was in fact born in the twentieth century -- just then. Thus even [an imperial] diehard like Winston Churchill came to recognize that an English victory over this despicable [Irish] people, short of the outright elimination of the native population, was impossible.

Carroll approaches this story through his family history: his great grandfather was one of those Irishmen who had joined up with the English in the Great War and was killed fighting for the king in France. The discovery that survivors in his great grandfather's Irish village thought there was nothing traitorous or less than noble in Jim Morrissey's history put Carroll on to thinking about what makes for apparently ancient festering hatreds. Perhaps they derive from concrete crimes of imperial powers ...

And when I read this passage, I can't avoid thinking of what is now unfolding in the U.S. war/occupation in Afghanistan. If you are an Afghan, you very likely have to worry about being killed by both the U.S. and the Taliban. But it's the United States troops that have the most firepower and they are foreign occupiers. It wouldn't be surprising if you hated them.

Rethink Afghanistan filmed Afghans talking about what the war has done to them. This is not easy to watch.

The new U.S. proconsul, General McChrystal, says his forces will "win" the Afghans by avoiding civilian casualties. But how are they going to do that without getting our own grunts killed? And it has become politically untenable to get our own people killed in an imperial war with no discernible endpoint.
Of course one answer is contractors -- mercenaries -- and we've got lots of those. If you really want to encounter disillusionment, you can read their heartfelt accounts of the Afghan war. I don't think this guy and I share any political sympathies, but his account of moving around southern Afghanistan rings true to me.

...I do not really know what our mission in Afghanistan is. We are engaged in a counterinsurgency war but confine the troops to large FOB’s [fortified Forward Operating Bases] which directly contradicts our counterinsurgency doctrine. Our troops do not have sustained meaningful contact with local Afghans, cannot provide any real security to them, and due to Big Army casualty policies are forced to ride around in large multimillion dollar MRAP’s where they are subject to IED strikes which they cannot prevent because they do not control one meter of ground outside their FOBs.

We also do not have the cooperation of the government of Afghanistan. President Karzai has cobbled together a coalition of Afghan power brokers and will win the upcoming election. The UN and our Department of State can make all the noise they want about a "free and fair" election but they are irrelevant because they stay isolated and unengaged in their high speed compounds. The election was decided in Dubai last month as I reported earlier. Besides Afghans have no idea what a free and fair election is -- they are no more capable of conducting one than the state of Illinois. So we are fighting a counterinsurgency in support of a government who is actively hindering our efforts by not cooperating with our military, our hapless State Department, or any other organization trying to bring peace, hope, modernity and the rule of law to this once proud and beautiful country.

Free Range International
Scroll down for much more.

Read the whole thing for a sympathetic eyewitness account of traveling in that unhappy country.

What was this war for again, President Obama?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The hits keep on coming

Click on the image above to be taken to an animation by Ann Telnaes that says it all about President Obama's commitment to transparency.

Will the emerging cascade of lies and broken promises force us to hate that mesmerizing voice one day?

H/t Glenn Greenwald.

Change is tough

Kind of sad. The source of many of my clothes, Eddie Bauer has gone belly up. It now belongs to what seems to be a liquidator of distressed companies, something called CCMP that also owns 1-880-flowers.com and Quiznos Subs.

Will I have to shop? Horrors!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Window on Iran

Andrew Sullivan's breathless, exhaustive reports of events in Iran -- by way of Iranian twitterers, bloggers, phone calls from relatives, etc. -- is exciting and admirable. When human passions break out of conventional story lines, ordinary media are often incapacitated by their professional conventions. They don't know what is going on, so they either cautiously wait for clarification or try to continue to impose frames that have been smashed, resulting in either useless silence or authoritative sounding gibberish.

By throwing up the unedited raw materials of what seems to be, variously, an authoritarian coup/a protest against electoral fraud/an insurrection/a brutal repression, Sullivan is honoring our common humanity with Iranians in a moment of crisis, even if he cannot promise to extract lasting meaning from the available evidence.

Here's a sample of the video he is putting up. Warning: it shows a very brutal assault on an Iranian youth protesting the apparently fraudulent election results.

Much as I appreciate Sullivan's bringing the Iran news to his audience, there's a part of me that wonders, where's he been all these years? I'm terribly afraid that a videographer could have caught images not so very different from these in St. Paul last summer during the Republican convention. Police intended to break up most protests and they did.

I know for a fact that a bystander caught exactly this kind of video of Los Angeles police officers beating on Rodney King after a vehicle chase -- and that a Southern California jury acquitted those officers of any wrong doing, leading to days of destructive riots in 1992. Pretty universally, when the custodians of government force meet what they perceive as culpable insolence from people they expect to dominate, this is what they do. That goes double for poor peole of the "wrong" color. It doesn't take a right wing autocracy.

The Iranian images also just make me feel old. Having attended college in northern California in the late 1960s, I knew quite a few Iranians -- or Persians as they usually called themselves. They were young men who had been sent out of Iran by worried families because of fear they'd run afoul the ruling Shah's secret police. The brutality of that force, the SAVAK, was legendary. The Shah's monarchy was the Iranian regime the U.S. propped up to replace the popularly elected Prime Minister Mossadegh who the CIA overthrew in 1953. It was completely illegitimate in the eyes of these Iranian exiles.

In 1979, these exiles cheered the Iranian revolution -- how could they not? They weren't looking for rule by clerics, but they were looking for an end to repression, repression they blamed on the United States. I'm sure the emerging theocracy did not treat many of those who returned well at all. This was a less visual era, but what we saw then, surging crowds on wide boulevards, did not look that different from what we see now.

I am often critical of President Obama these days, but on Iran I think he is striking a very right note.

"It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be. We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran," Mr. Obama said.

Wall Street Journal

We, this meddling country, have participated in enough misery for Iran and the Iranians know it. At this time, we can only hope to serve as witnesses to whatever Iranians make of their situation.

Again -- I am grateful to Andrew Sullivan for providing a window on this so very human drama of hope and fear. Take a look.

Update: I no sooner put up this post than Sullivan reports this particular video dates from 2 years ago. I don't think that changes anything I've written, but it sure illustrates the problems of real-time reporting.

Update again: I have no intention of doing this often, but as I was catching up on newspapers online today, I ran across this from the UK Guardian. Remember those nice British bobbies from detective novels? Not always.

At least the offender didn't meet the fate of Oscar Grant.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What's wrong with the picture?

Display in a Starbucks in Northern California. "Every bottle makes a difference" according to the caption.

According to Starbucks:

Ethos Water is a brand with a social mission -- helping children around the world get clean water and raising awareness of the World Water Crisis.

Every time you purchase a bottle of Ethos™ water, Ethos Water will contribute US $0.05 (C$0.10 in Canada) toward our goal of raising at least US $10 million by 2010. Through The Starbucks Foundation, Ethos Water supports humanitarian water programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To date, Ethos Water grant commitments exceed $6.2 million. ...

Plueeze ... Here's a top of my head list of what I find wrong with this:
  • Plastic bottles are a plague. Recycling them uses less energy (oil) than making new ones, but not using them at all would help more.
  • Modern developed countries use taxpayer money to provide drinkable tap water. Just drink it. You don't need a plastic bottle from a water vendor. Bottled water is no better than tap water. Often it is tap water!
  • Want to help people in less developed countries have access to clean water? Send money! If you bought 365 bottles of Starbucks' designer water a year, you'd send $18.50 to the Starbucks Foundation. How about you just send $25 a year to a water development group, carry a bottle, and drink tap water? Blue Planet Run is a network of competent groups all over the world. I personally like to give to El Porvenir which works in Nicaragua. More here.
A friend of mine, a very smart woman, wrote a book, Wrestling with Starbucks, that argues that we can't simply dismiss the coffee giant as an evil empire. And I don't.

But Starbucks' water boondoggle seems awfully close to evil to me. Ethos, indeed!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

From the blues to the hills

Two thousand feet above Lake Tahoe at the Echo summit entrance to the Desolation Wilderness, the colors are more subtle. My hike past the Echo lakes was literally shrouded by looming clouds. Would I get out before hail and lightening struck? Yes -- just barely.

As always, the harsh beauty of the Sierra Nevada granite is breathtaking -- and a little frightening.

It's a wonderful place to go to allow the mind to wander while the legs plod on and the heart is calmed by impassive grandeur.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


I'm restoring my soul this weekend, hiking near Lake Tahoe. Here are a few blues...


Are they working so hard they don't quail at the immensity of the lake? I hiked alone along the shore for about 10 miles and saw one person. It was dawn when I started.


There are patches that really are that color.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The World Without Us

She looks harmless, doesn't she? Well, maybe a little wary. Alan Weisman would say we were wrong.

The Pampered Predator

...few will admit that about one-third of all households, nearly everywhere, harbor one or more serial killers. The villain is the purring mascot that lolled regally in Egyptian temples and does the same on our furniture, accepting our affection only when it pleases, exuding inscrutable calm whether awake or asleep (as it spends more than half its life), beguiling us to see to its care and feeding.

Once outside, however Felis silvestris catus drops its subspecies surname and starts stalking as it reverts to being F. silvestris -- wild cat -- genetically identical to small native wildcats.... Although cunningly adapted over a few thousand years to human comforts, ... domestic cats ... never lose their hunting instincts.

Possibly they sharpened them. When European colonists first brought them, American birds had never before seen this sort of silent, tree-scaling, pouncing predator ...

In the past half century as the world's human population doubled, the number of cats did so much faster. In U.S. Census Bureau pet figures, ...from merely 1970 to 1990, America's cat count rose from 30 million to 60 million. ...Various studies credit alley cats with up to 28 kills per year. Farm cats ... get many more than that. ... in rural Wisconsin, around 2 million free-ranging cats kill at minimum 7.8 million but probably upwards of 219 million, birds per year. ... Nationwide, the number likely approaches the billions. ...

Whatever the actual sum may be, cats will do very well in a world without the people who took them to all the continents and islands they didn't already inhabit, where they now outnumber and out-compete other predators their own size. Long after we're gone, songbirds must deal with the progeny of these opportunists that trained us to feed and harbor them, disdaining our hapless appeals to come when we call, bestowing just enough attention we feed them again.

The World Without Us

This excerpt is a good -- and relatively benign -- sample of Alan Weisman's extraordinary picture of how the world works, what the human species has done to very quickly change and unbalance it -- and what it would be like if we suddenly disappeared.

But of course we're not going to disappear. We're going to change the planet further while trying to deal with the processes we've set in motion.

And Weisman even offers a path that might enable our own predator species to live in some harmony with all the others. I'm not going to give it away: go read the book.

This is very much worth reading and pondering. Weisman contemplates human doom and life's relentless drive to spread itself in beautiful, understandable prose.

On this occasion, the object of her predation was a vase of tulips. But we still love her.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Scientific wisdom

Female baboons that form strong social bonds have longer-lived offspring. The need to maintain such relationships may be one of the factors that drove the evolution of bigger brains in humans.

U.K. Guardian,
June 10, 2009

Nice to see scientists catching up with what many women always knew.

I'm sick of stupid cowards

Only takes :36 show their stuff.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The making of an innocently generous philanthropist

The story of John Perkins is dispiriting. The story of Greg Mortenson, a mountaineering adventurer turned builder of schools in remote valleys of Pakistan and Afghanistan, is inspiring. One young American's resentments made him easily manipulable by people who wanted to exploit his talents for their profits; the other fellow turned an accident in the mountains into a respectful passion for helping people, while apparently retaining his modesty and ability to meet others with curiosity and authenticity.

Since Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Mortenson and David Oliver Relin has been a huge best seller, I don't feel the need to retell much of its story. Suffice to say , since 1996, under the nonprofit umbrella of the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson has been responsible for the building of 90 schools that provide education to over 34,000 children, including 24,000 girls.

Mortenson clearly got off to a good start for a person who would end up working with people from other cultures. He spent much of his boyhood in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania where his father worked to establish a hospital and his mother a school. In this book, Mortenson describes his father's pride that the institutions would soon be run by Tanzanians.

In 1993, having spontaneously promised the Pakistani villagers who took him in after a failed climb of K2 that he'd return and build a school, Mortenson lived as a San Francisco Bay Area drifter,working shifts as an ER nurse, living in his Buick on climbing weekends, and trying to learn how to raise money. He didn't have a clue how he was going to come up with the $12000 he needed. The story of his visiting a copy shop, getting upgraded from hunt and peck manual typing to a computer, and fruitlessly mailing off 580 begging letters should resonate with anyone who has ever tried to scrounge up the cash for a project she truly believes in. And, improbably, he did find a mountaineering benefactor who came up with the money.

And so he managed to return to Pakistan and keep his promise -- and more. And along he way, Mortenson learned from the recipients of his gift essential truths about how to live. Here's the incident that gave his book its title:

When the porcelain bowls of scalding butter tea steamed in their hands, Haji Ali spoke. "If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways," Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl. "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die," he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson's own. "Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time."

"That day Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I've ever learned in my life," Mortenson says. "We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly. We're the country of thrity-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills. Our leaders thought their 'shock and awe' campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started. Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could even hope to teach them."

Three Cups of Tea reminded me over and over of Jesus' injunction that those who would live in the Good need the mind and heart of a child. (Luke 18:17) For whatever reason, Greg Mortenson seems to have been able to bring a pure heart to his friends in the Himalayas. More of us should be so fortunate.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The making and unmaking of a modern monster

John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man interested me less for its revelations about how U.S. con artists ensnare the elites of developing countries in relationships and debts that tie them to empire, than for the picture the author paints of the kind of young man who was ripe to serve one as of these financial lowlifes.

No question that the story is fascinating. Working for a consulting firm, his job was to use any combination of tools -- "fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder" -- to ensure that U.S. companies like Bechtel and Kellogg, Brown and Root captured whatever wealth could be squeezed from Middle Eastern, South Asian and Latin American nations. He became good at it, a swashbuckling modern buccaneer piling up corporate treasure.

What kind of person takes on such a role? Perkins describes his young self in ways that are not flattering. The child of teachers working at an exclusive boy's prep school in New Hampshire, he grew up injured and envious at how his schoolmates treated him: to them, he was their servants' offspring admitted among them only thanks to the school's generosity. He hated that his parents, in order to bolster their own precarious social position, cut him off from the poor people of the town -- among whom were the only girls he might have met. He was taught those off-limits girls were "sluts."

By the time he escaped to college, he was one rebellious, ignorant and slightly twisted puppy. He found a similar male friend, drank a lot, and quit school. But it being the late 1960s at the height of the Vietnam war, he needed to avoid to avoid the draft, so he got a job in Boston and enrolled in business classes. He also quickly married his college girlfriend because it was the only way he could get her to sleep with him.

Facing graduation and the army, he gladly accepted his wife's uncle's suggestion that he take a battery of tests to see whether he might quality to join the National Security Agency. Since he readily admitted he hated the Southeast Asian war, to his surprise he aced his interviews.

...they focused on my upbringing, my attitudes toward my parents, the emotions generated by the fact I grew up as a poor puritan among so many wealthy, hedonistic preppies. They also explored my frustration about the lack of women, sex, and money in my life, and the fantasy world that had evolved as a result. ...

...Their assessment had less to do with issues of loyalty to my country than with the frustrations of my life. Anger at my parents, an obsession with women and my ambition to live the good life gave them a hook; I was seducible.

They were right. They sent Perkins and his wife off to Ecuador in the Peace Corps; he came back tired of living poor and tired of his marriage which quickly fell apart. He was inducted into the life of an "economic hit man" for a private "consulting" corporation by a mysterious temptress who called herself "Claudine" -- and who disappeared as if she'd never existed once she'd given him his lessons.

And for twenty years he created profitable economic projects for "the corporatocracy" in various developing nations. In Ecuador and Panama he met leaders who didn't want to be ensnared, who wanted development that would benefit their peoples, not just the rich -- and he saw these men he admired die in suspicious circumstances.

Eventually the contradictions of profiting from exploiting people for the empire sickened Perkins -- the "confessions" in the title is a moral self-assessment as well as a promise of revelations about a shady business.

In an epilogue, Perkins asks readers to make their own self-examination:

Ask yourself these questions. What do I need to confess? ...Why have I allowed myself to be sucked into a system that I know is unbalanced? ...How can I help our children understand that people who live gluttonous, unbalanced lives should be pitied but never emulated, even if those people present themselves through media they control...and try to convince us that penthouses and yachts bring happiness? ...What forums will I use to teach others and to learn more on my own?

Perkins' Confessions is melodramatic, overwrought and a little banal. There are far more systematic ways to understand the development of U.S. world dominance (and its current challenges), such as Chalmers Johnson's Sorrows of Empire.

But Perkins' insistance on the individual moral responsibility of people in the U.S. strikes a nerve. We're not the primary victims; in fact many of us benefit greatly from empire. But we are morally compromised. He stares very hard at that reality in his own life and asks other U.S. citizens to do the same.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Beware: burned!

Walking down Valencia Street the other day, I noticed a banner hanging above a storefront with papered over windows. Here's a close up of the sign:

Uh oh. Somebody is really mad at their insurance company.

I recognized the location as where the popular restaurant Limon used to be. It wasn't hard to find this item in the San Francisco Chronicle archives:

We've been wondering what's going on with Limon (524 Valencia St.), the groundbreaking Mission District Peruvian restaurant that has been closed for nearly a year due to a fire. Turns out the delay is due to a story we've heard before - struggles with the insurance company. It sounds like chef-owner Martin Castillo is just about at his wit's end, although he told Scoop he hopes to reopen in the next couple of months.

"It's been tough. We haven't received any (insurance payment) money since December," he says.

Looks like Mr. Castillo has decided to burn his insurance company's reputation in his 'hood.

Sunday Streets comes to the Mission

We got our very own version of this occasional street closure program today. From Dolores Park to Valencia by way of 19th Street, then east across 24th Street to York, turning south to Rolph Park, with a leg going south on Harrison to 26th streets became car free territory today from 10 am to 2 pm.

The event got off to a slow start. This is Valencia at 10 am. I could have told organizers it would look like this. Many Sundays I run along here in the bike lane at 8 am seeing almost no traffic -- that's why I'm there. (This is the only time of the week I'd do that.) And I often walk along here to church just a little later. This part of the Mission doesn't stir much before noon.

By 12:30, the bikes were out on Valencia ...

... also the dog walkers.

I didn't much like the feel on Valencia -- the wide street attracted fleets of bikes, enough of whose riders thought they could get up a head of steam to make walking feel a little dangerous.

But I had to be glad for the kids. I learned to ride a bike in the street in a slower place. Without this kind of special event, I doubt these ever get to get out in the road.

Groups walking on 24th Street felt more like the Mission I live in (because that is the area I live in.) I wouldn't be surprised if this family just came out of church, would you?

Perhaps because the street is narrow, folks on bikes slowed down on 24th Street. Walking felt comfortable, though you might risk being run into by barely upright roller skaters.

This guy demonstrated "roller soccer."

All too quickly, the street closure was over. I certainly enjoyed it, but I think the timing is all wrong. If it is to be limited to a 4 hour block, it should start at noon and run to 4 pm. Both the church goers and the hip party-goers would thank the organizers.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Confidence and con men

Today I've started reading Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed. This is an economic history of the great Western powers from 1914 to 1931. Its subjects are the bankers who rode out World War I, soared high in the 1920s, and whose very names were just about erased from common histories by the horrible collapse in the Great Depression. Ahamed worked as an economist for the World Bank, then spent twenty-five years as a professional investment manager in London and New York.

In the very first chapter, I was struck by this, written in October 2008:

Nothing brings home the fragility of the banking system or the potency of a financial crisis more vividly than writing about these issues from the eye of the storm. Watching the world's central bankers and finance officials grapping with the current situation -- trying one thing after another to restore confidence, throwing everything they can at the problem, coping daily with unexpected and startling shifts in market sentiment shift -- reinforces the lesson that there is no magic bullet or simple formula for dealing with financial panics. In trying to calm anxious investors and soothe skittish markets, central bankers are called upon to wrestle with some of the most elemental and unpredictable forces of mass psychology.

[My emphasis.] Financiers claim to be peddling arcane knowledge of economic trends based on ever more complex computer modeling -- but perhaps their expertise is just the guesses of persuasive salesmen, a few offering real value and others just snake oil.

This brought to mind James Surowiecki's observations about what is apparently a current Argentine coin crisis. Simply put, there's hardly any small change in Buenos Aires. Why? Because Argentines have been through repeated episodes of inflation, including a hyperinflation when money became almost worthless, and they take rational measures to ward off being wiped out again. People hoard coins because they think the metals in them are more likely to retain value than paper money -- and because they think other people must be hoarding coins.

Surowiecki generalizes about this behavior:

...the Argentine experience actually underscores the degree to which all modern financial systems depend on confidence, and the problems that erupt when that confidence disappears. In the U.S., after all, the chaos of last year both led to and has been exacerbated by a shortage of its own: credit. As people became worried about the health of the system, they took money out of any investment that smacked of risk and put it into cash (bank deposits have soared in the past six months) or government bonds. That, in turn, made others more anxious: less willing to lend and more interested in holding onto their money. Fear bred a credit crunch, which, in turn, bred more fear. And if fear has left the Argentines with too few coins, it has left us, paradoxically, with too much cash (and too little credit). This isn't to say that financial crises are all in our head; certainly our own was sparked by problems that were very real. But there is an irreducible psychological dimension to both crises and recoveries.

This bit of economic reporting seems far too sunny to me. Millions of us -- most of us -- have lost much in savings whether in home values or in securities. Maybe in time some of that wealth can be rebuilt, but, except for the very rich, our futures have been forever altered by the wipe out. Individually we don't have "too much cash," even if the financial system may be paralyzed by fear that is choking off credit.

Ahamed and Surowiecki are not original in pointing to "confidence" as the lubricant that could get the wheels of economic life turning again. Make your day by viewing this Depression era cartoon with the same message. I guarantee you'll smile. [7:42]

H/t Suburban Guerilla.

Friday caterpillar blogging

My partner has pets.

You see, she's in the process of churning out a doctoral dissertation (brilliant and meaningful actually, but not the subject here) and sometimes she gets restless.

When she gets restless, she gardens. Several weeks ago, out among the invasive fennel, she noticed what looked to me like ugly black smudges on the stems.

"No, they are caterpillars," she said. "They are going to be butterflies." Pretty soon we had a terrarium in the kitchen.

"You'll see," she insisted. And I am seeing.

The smudge grew a lot of legs almost overnight.

A week later, the black worm was almost entirely green.

And it got bigger really fast.

It's really chowing down on that fennel.

After about 3 weeks, these well fed critters are attaching themselves to sticks. The one on the left is already a chrysalis. The one on the right is still looking for the right spot.

According to this excellent website, if it stays sunny, we'll have swallowtail butterflies around here in a couple of weeks.

All photos courtesy of the pet keeper.