Sunday, February 28, 2010

Let us reason together, part 2

San Francisco gardeners can be a reasonable and hopeful bunch. Sign observed on Bernal Hill.

I'm off to a photography class today, but I already know what is probably my most important lesson: the best camera is the one you have with you. In this case, I didn't hold the cell phone as steadily as I might have.

Part 1.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

I hope this fellow wins a big judgment from TSA:
Locked away for carrying Arabic flash cards

I've pretty much stopped chronicling abuses by our stupid security regime at airports though I still collect them; they go on and on and on... (Two more recent Philadelphia stories here and here.) You can't create a huge, bumbling and powerful bureaucracy with an expansive but ill-defined mission and expect anything else. TSA employees have excessive power over all of us when we travel and some will exercise their ignorance and prejudice.

But this one [only 3:16] is still significant. As the ACLU attorney says in the clip, it is more often in the process of air travel than at any other time that most (white) middle class people get a glimpse what abuse of power looks like. Are we so scared we don't care?

Saturday scenes and scenery: Mystery plant

In the spring (and it is spring here in San Francisco -- eat your hearts out, snow dwellers!), these things come out in our tiny garden. This post is a request to the blog's visitors: can anyone give me the name of this plant?

The flowers start out nestled among green leaves -- and mostly green themselves.

After a few days, the blooms push out into the light.

The white gauzy background is a flowering plum tree.

Here's the whole plant. We know this was put in by South African gardeners -- but we don't know it's name. Can anyone help?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Health care reform shorts:
Lessons from this round


Democrats either will or won't find their lost spines. Millions of people will or won't get access to doctors and the treatments they need. Thousands will or won't die annually for lack of medical access. And insurers will continue to profit, whichever way this turns out.

But even at this stage, there are beginning to be readily discernible lessons from the fight.
  • Republicans really do have a policy agenda for most of us: "hand over your money and your life to the rich and then go die." Nothing more complex is to be found in that quarter, though they will always have intellectual whores who work to dress up this posture as some kind of principle.
  • Democrats cannot be trusted to carry on a policy fight. In particular, the Obama administration bargains with itself and calls that "bipartisanship". Instead of asking the desirable and working down to the acceptable, it states its bottom line up front and let's that be chipped away.
  • The only exception to this conduct in the health care process has been over the "public option." The administration seems to have included this money-saving, popularity-enhancing provision in the mix as a sop to its base, confident that it could back away from it as a demonstration of what mature adults they really are, despite being Democrats. The truth hasn't come out yet, but I am willing to bet that the White House promised insurance companies that if they'd mute their opposition to reform, they guarantee the thing died. Apparently Obama and Co. had no idea that their own people wouldn't go quietly.
  • The health care reform struggle has been the arena in which progressives have retooled. We needed to. The netroots and on-the-ground capacity that progressives had built since 2000 was constructed entirely as a desperate defense against the worst of what Republicans were doing to the country. We've got to find a way for organized people to make themselves felt in new circumstances. This didn't look possible in 2002-3; it actually looks a little more possible today. As Chris Hayes put it in the Nation:

Much of the recent online-based progressive infrastructure was built during the Bush years and developed effective strategies for opposition. It's been a steep learning curve this past year as these groups wrestle with reinventing those techniques to push legislation, especially when it comes to finding allies in Congress and then working with them.

We're getting there. Just because we don't know right now everything about how to carry on the struggles we'll need to have for a more equal and humane society with our guy as the new impediment in the White House, that doesn't mean we can't learn.

No, electing Obama didn't mean we can rest. There's a great discussion in this archived Bill Moyers Journal that I recommend highly on that topic.

Friday cat blogging: Frisker does not approve

She has heard rumors of this sort thing [:26]:

She takes a dim view of any such behavior.

She's busy napping. She expects to be left alone.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Health care reform shorts:
Just get it done already!

I won't be watching the President's talkathon today. I have stuff to do. Oh, I know, I can't really escape it; I'm sure I'll read oceans of commentary afterward.

At this late stage, I'm more and more realizing why I have become so furious during this process.

It's not the bill's near complete capitulation to the demands of the medical-insurance industry that makes for the worst of my bile. I don't like it that the White House apparently promised hospitals, doctors, drug companies and insurers that they'd do "reform" without costing them their profits. The "public option" was a fig leaf thrown to distract those of us who think provision of health care to all is a moral imperative -- and so easily discarded.

But, in the end, I think demanding morality from government is the people's business and our failure if we don't get it.

What has made me furious about this process is that the politicians we worked so hard to elect have managed the politics so poorly. That's what they are supposed to be good at: telling a story, rounding up votes, balancing multiple local and self-seeking interests, synthesizing -- and getting it done. The White House and the Democrats in the Senate have been abject failures at this work of politics.

They may yet pull it out, since we gave them enormous majorities with which to do it. But it hurts horribly to realize we had to work that hard to put in a bunch of inept fumblers.
I exempt Speaker Pelosi from this criticism. I have lots of quarrels with my Congresswoman, but she seems to be able to do the job of the politics of the House.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A deadly advertisement for more war:
The Marjah offensive is about marketing

Cenk Uygur lays out the real objectives of the current "surge" campaign in Afghanistan. [5:56] Is his account believable? I fear so. What he says fits with everything I read about that unfortunate country. Marketing by pseudo-"victory" might be acceptable if the price weren't death and destruction, for "our" forces and the Afghans. But it is.
A former NPR reporter, Sarah Chayes quit that job in 2002 to work on local development projects in Kandahar, the center of Taliban country. For the last year, she has been an adviser to U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, he of the current "surge" strategy. She reports

...the Afghan people have "crystallized their frustration" on the issue of civilian casualties.

"It's crystallized a disappointment with the international intervention that's been growing since about 2003," said Sarah Chayes...

"I actually think the issue is broader," she told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "And so the impact on the Marjah (offensive) is really going to depend on what else happens in that operation." ...

"I remember early cases of civilian casualties where I was actually surprised at the level of tolerance for it on the part of the people I was living amongst," she said.

"But it was because they felt that the international intervention was really doing something for them ... or they still held out the hope that it would."

She said the view of Afghan people on civilian casualties depends on issues such as whether they believe they are being governed by a responsive and respectful institution and whether they are seeing any prospects for economic improvement. "You need to protect the population and earn the population's trust," she said.

Chayes strongly criticized Afghan President Hamid Karzai's approach to tackling corruption in government, saying his administration is operating like a "criminal syndicate."


Doesn't sound like this is all going very well. Juan Cole reported today that Afghan Senators are calling for the execution of foreign troops that keep making "mistakes" such as the one on Tuesday that killed 21 civilians. General McChrystal has apologized.

Are the people of this country ready to buy into the notion that Marjah is a great victory and therefore we should keep pacifying Afghans as long as it takes? Actually, after a decade of lies, I doubt it.

In Patagonia, there wasn't any doubt

"The Malvinas Islands are part of Argentina." Sign at Argentina's border.

The Brits don't agree. Some serious tensions are rising.

A number of Latin American countries have rushed to offer their support to Argentina in its long-running territorial dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands.

This week Britain began drilling for oil in the waters off the archipelago, despite opposition from Buenos Aires which claims sovereignty over the islands it calls Las Malvinas. The project has reignited tensions between the two countries, who fought a brief war over the islands in 1982, with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner accusing London of ignoring international law.

Argentina says the natural resources around the islands, which lie in the South Atlantic Ocean off the Argentinean coast, should be protected, and Britain must accept international resolutions labeling the Falklands a disputed area.


The old colonial power and the mainland South American nation can't even agree on what to call the islands. The population, seventy percent of whom are of U.K.-origin, were made British citizens after the last Falklands war. That episode brought down one set of dictatorial Argentinian generals -- and cemented the loathsome Margaret Thatcher's prestige as a war-fighting Prime Minister.

Finding oil is not always a happy prospect. This keeps happening in wild places where I've vacationed.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Health care reform shorts:
Are gay people in? or out?

According to the DC-area gay pub Metro Weekly, the version of health care reform put forward by the President ahead of the ballyhooed "summit" leaves out the gay-affirming provisions that lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) got included in the House version of the bill.

Most LGBT and HIV activists had supported the House bill because it included key LGBT specific provisions.... In addition to ... data collection [on LGBT health issues], it prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the provision of health care; enabled people with HIV and low incomes to obtain Medicare coverage earlier in the course of their illness; and eliminated the tax that gay employees must pay if their same-sex partners or spouses receive health coverage from their employers' plan. Straight employees don't pay that tax but, for gay couples, the coverage is characterized by the federal government as additional income for the gay employee.

Baldwin said Monday she would ''continue to fight for all of my priorities in the final health care reform bill, including those related to LGBT health."

My household actually pays that extra tax since the Feds don't recognize our relationship, so I'm a directly interested party.

It's only fair to say that Baldwin also emphasized that

President Obama's proposal Monday ''an important step forward'' that ''helps to regain our momentum'' on health care reform efforts.

To me, this is yet again an instance in which the ruling Democrats, either led or not by President, confront an opportunity to treat LGBT people as full citizens -- or deny that we fully belong. Mostly, they choose the second option. It looks easier. Nothing that matters is easy.

I have seen the promised land


In the last election cycle, the VAN (Voter Activation Network) became the essential voter database for Democratic campaigners. Did you work to find and turn out voters? You used the VAN with various looks depending on the particular campaign you worked on.

Next time, you'll be able to do this using an iPhone or iPodTouch as you make your calls or go door to door. The free front-end for the database, the MiniVAN Touch, is online now at the App Store.

For old timers who chased around with sheaves of paper and clipboards, this is as big as news gets.

Via TechPresident.

Let us reason together

Stop trashing the sidewalk ...

Observed on a wall over a bank of garbage cans in San Francisco's Mission district.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dutch on the way out

You may have noticed the people in the orange and black skating uniforms that keep winning the Olympic medals -- those speedy Dutch skaters, wow! But did you note that over the past weekend, the Dutch government fell, because of disagreement over whether to keep troops in Afghanistan? Those people over there don't like this war. And they want the contingent of less than 2000 fighters they offered to the effort through NATO out of Afghanistan pronto.

According to the New York Times:

The question plaguing military planners was whether a Dutch departure would embolden the war's critics in other allied countries, where debate over deployment is continuing, and hasten the withdrawal of their troops as well.

"If the Dutch go, which is the implication of all this, that could open the floodgates for other Europeans to say, 'The Dutch are going, we can go, too,' " said Julian Lindley-French, professor of defense strategy at the Netherlands Defense Academy in Breda. ...

"The majority of the Dutch people say, 'Go, we’ve done enough. Let other countries do it now.' That’s a big majority and also the majority in the Parliament," said Nicoline van den Broek-Laman Trip, a former senator from the Liberal Party...

They may like President Obama in Europe, but they don't like his war -- in fact, they gave him a fancy prize in the hope he'd follow a peaceful track. He hasn't.

I find it hopeful to watch NATO countries try to back off from the wars our previous administration dragged them into -- and that this one continues. In this context, I've enjoyed reading Tony Judt's description in Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 of how the NATO alliance came into being.

"It was by no means inappropriate that at the NATO Treaty-signing ceremony in Constitution Hall, Washington, on April 9th 1949, the band played 'I've Got Plenty of Nothing...'...The French thus welcomed NATO as the guarantee against a revived Germany... The Dutch and Belgians saw in NATO an impediment to future German revanchism. The Italians were included to help shore up [Prime Minister] Alcide De Gasperi's domestic support against Communist critics. The British regarded the NATO Treaty as a signal achievement in their struggle to keep the US engaged in Europe's defense. And the Truman Administration sold the agreement to Congress and the American people as a barrier to Soviet aggression....

"NATO was a bluff. As Denis Healey, a future British defense minister observed in his memoirs. 'for most Europeans, NATO was worthless unless it could prevent another war; they were not interested in fighting one.'"

Once upon a time -- a time less marked by imperial overreach -- nations formed alliances more to avoid wars than to prosecute them ...

More on Judt's fascinating history over the next few days.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Redistricting: how San Francisco does it

For conversations with local activists yesterday, I took on the task of figuring out what the mechanism will be for redistricting in San Francisco after the 2010 Census. In addition to the nuts and bolts of the law, we wanted to think about the likely political implications of the process. But first we had to know the rules. It wasn't entirely obvious where to find that out, so I'll bring the pieces together here. The details are San Francisco-specific and typical of the city in that the process is intricate and full of points where political jockeying will take place. But something like this will happen in every jurisdiction in the country. If you want to know what your politicians are doing, you need to pay attention to this stuff.

The task: After census counts are tabulated, we'll almost certainly learn that enough people have moved, or new housing opened up, so that some of the eleven districts that elect Supervisors will have significantly more or less people than others. That change will require redistricting to restore more equal numbers of voters, based on the Census' statistically adjusted population estimates. The City Charter allows variations in the number of voters between 1 and 5 percent of the statistical mean. It also encourages district boundaries that respect "traditional districting principles" that might include "compactness, contiguity, preservation of political subdivisions and geographical regions, preservation of cores of prior districts, protection of incumbents from contests with each other, and preservation of communities of interest." Boundaries must comply with federal voting rights law, meaning that racial and language minorities may neither have their power diluted by breaking up their neighborhoods or be unduly concentrated in order to reduce their broader influence in the political process. (City Attorney memo, 2002.)

The Redistricting Task Force: When, sometime in April 2011, the city gets the new population numbers, the current Board of Supervisors (what we call the city council, because we're actually a county as well as city) will convene a Redistricting Task Force. This body of nine people will hold public hearings and huddle over maps trying to draw new boundaries. They make their decisions by majority vote. The boundaries they draw are final -- unless perhaps successfully challenged by a lawsuit under the Federal Voting Rights Act (this is San Francisco; don't rule anything out.)

The Board -- eleven fractious politicians -- will appoint three members. The Mayor will appoint three members. And the Elections Commission which oversees the City Department of the Elections will appoint three more members.

So who is on this Elections Commission? Established by local initiative to improve management of the Department of Elections, it consists of seven members appointed (one each) by the city's elected officials: the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors collectively, the Board of Education collectively, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the City Attorney and the Treasurer. (Yes, we elect a lot of local functionaries.)

The new districts: It would be highly desirable if the Task Force can finish its work by September 2011. That would allow the Department of Elections to draw new maps -- and probably change the shapes of many of the city's over 400 precincts. In recent years the Elections department has been trying to consolidate precincts to reduce costs; expect to see more of this in the new maps. This will mean that people need to find unfamiliar polling places.

Political choke points: The most obvious of choke points might happen like this: if the Mayor and the Board are at odds and appoint their partisans to the Redistricting Task Force in 2011, the deciding votes on that body will come from the appointees of the Elections Commission. Since the Elections Commission itself is a body of extremely mixed political origins, it is not at all clear where the sympathies of those three members would fall. It could matter. On the last of these bodies in 2002, all the votes were 5-4.

And then, this being the land of electoral hocuspocus and initiative law making -- all this could be moot. Our Mayor could run off and get elected Lieutenant Governor, setting off a complex fracas over who ends up Mayor until the completion of his term -- a time frame that would include appointing the Redistricting Task Force members.

Or a local initiative could change how the Supervisors are elected; the long struggle seems to be breaking out again between monied interests that prefer citywide elections and the neighborhoods that get more attentive government when Supervisors are elected in small districts.

Such an initiative might try also to alter the process laid out in this post. ...

If the quality of life here in San Francisco were not at stake, it would be time to sit back and get out the popcorn. But citizenship requires understanding these things. And their twists and turns open opportunities for activists if we learn the ropes.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery: Golden Gate Bridge surfers

Though surfers flock to San Francisco's Ocean Beach when the waves are promising -- not too choppy -- a hardy crew head to the break under our famous bridge when conditions are right. I don't know what that means, but they do and there they were on a recent sunny afternoon.

There was a good deal of jockeying for position.

Then someone would catch a wave.

And eventually run out.


Hey -- don't ride all the way to rocks. As these waves hit, I was catching the spray myself standing on the break wall.


Gotta catch up with that board.

To cap off the somewhat surreal scene, this group of Civil War re-enactors were playing just behind me as I took these pictures, preparing for festivities at Fort Point under the bridge. Ah, San Francisco!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Health care reform shorts:
Wow! Health access keeps people alive!


There's a policy wonk argument in the blogosphere about whether lack of access to health insurance kills people. The Atlantic's resident free marketeer econo-blogger Megan McArdle doubts it (and yes, she is somewhat more nuanced than my description there.) All the pro-health care reform liberal guys, notably Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn, insist that, of course, having health insurance saves lives.

As a mere person who has lived a pretty long life among a variety of people, I find this whole discussion insane. I have no question that lack of insurance means the inability of people to pay for medical care which means they don't get it. And being under-insured -- socked with high deductibles or limited to catastrophic care -- is probably even more dangerous to health than being completely indigent. I definitely know people on Medicaid (because of poverty combined with disability) who have more access to doctors than ordinary insured working people who live paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to see doctors at all.

Econo-researchers need to get out more. Or talk to the janitor who cleans up after them.

But that complaint is not, mainly, what I want to highlight here. At The Treatment blog, Harold Pollack has weighed in on the controversy, bringing forward some data that deserves more attention.

Apparently it is long established that after people become Medicare eligible at age 65, that is, when they can join the closest thing this country has to a public universal health care system, their health measures improve a lot. People start getting and taking their blood pressure medicines. Those with diabetes practice blood glucose control. He comments

...this is a substantial achievement. It’s too bad that Americans must reach age 65 to receive this benefit. It’s doubly too bad that our over-65 population shows such tenuous commitment to providing other Americans with the same financial and health security.

I agree, even as I eagerly look forward to the relative health security of Medicare in a few years.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Health care reform shorts:
Not everyone has given up

Reform advocacy groups held a little rally in San Francisco yesterday. MoveOn, Health Care for America NOW!, and Organizing for America (OFA) were prominent at this one.

Since we're in California, denunciations of the notorious Anthem-Blue Cross 39 percent premium increase were loud. An independent insurance broker told his story: over the last two years he has personally experienced a 90 percent increase. And he sells health insurance!

Young medical professionals from the Committee of Interns and Residents at SF General Hospital joined the small crowd ...

as did people who've looked to have been in this fight a long time.

The people in this crowd aren't going to look this happy if Democrats give up on the job we elected them to do.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lenten thoughts in a bitter season

The lesson of Ash Wednesday is straightforward in the liturgy:

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

I think for individuals who are fortunate enough to feel they have lived good lives (whatever they understand by that), that blunt statement of fact loses some of its terror as one ages; at least such has been the case for me.

What's harder to grasp -- and accept -- is that this true of everything. Everything. Everything that now is will one day return to the stardust from which it arose. Well, that's so far in the future it's not something to get much worked up about. A little (maybe a lot) closer in time, this Earth will cease to be habitable by its current flora and fauna; nowadays most of us are aware of that at least fitfully. We know this end could be hastened through the blunders of our species, perhaps brought on by nuclear war or runaway human-induced climate change. But all that seems just too big to dwell on, though perhaps we should.

Yet in this season of discontent, something else seems to be at risk of passing away, of dying. Political journalist Ronald Brownstein summarized how this looks in our 21st century oracles, opinion polls ...

Hope was the great lilting anthem of the Obama campaign, but for many people, hope now seems muffled, as if buried beneath snow. Indeed, in this season of discontent, alienation from the nation's public and private leadership appears to be hardening like the frozen winter ground.

The dream and promise of the United States as a democratic (small "d") "city on a hill" (Puritan pastor John Winthrop) or "last, best hope" (Abraham Lincoln) has been a perennial theme in our history, alongside and over against our mass extermination of those who lived here before us; the enslavement of many both as the literal property of others and by wage labor for others' profit amid grinding poverty; and the ongoing atrocities of empire. In 2008, we elected a President who traded in the hopeful aspects of the national myth, seeking to revive it in a contemporary idiom grounded in a more inclusive view of human and humane citizenship. This was very attractive after a decade of arrogant butch machismo and celebration of greed.

That President is still sounding those notes: this is from the recent State of the Union speech.

... when the Union was turned back at Bull Run, and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday, and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were the times that tested the courage of our convictions, and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements, our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, as one people.

...We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we're all created equal; that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it; if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else.

Heady stuff, though hard to sustain when no good policy can move in Washington because we are learning that this very Constitution has gifted us with structures that privilege corruption and obstruction. In the face of economic misery, even the most obvious responses -- job creating stimulus, health security, financial regulation -- seem to be impossible. Even in the aspects of governance where this oh-so-eloquent President acts with less impediment -- foreign affairs and the administration of justice -- it is hard to see much course correction. Is the U.S. myth on the way to the garbage bin of history?

The Lenten reminder that everything that belongs to the living will die comes to me this year in this context. Maybe the lesson of first year of the Obama presidency is that the inevitable death of our peculiar national polity, so grounded in optimism and expansive hope, has arrived. That death will come -- is this the time? And how bad will it be? How bad will it be for whom?

Meanwhile, I examine myself. For many years my work and vocation has been to draw people into democracy (small "d"). Usually people for whom the system has never worked are suspicious; electoral democracy and all that stuff is probably just another cruel hoax. Or they are cynical: if voting changed anything, "they" would outlaw it. I've sympathized -- people are not fools. But I ask, what's the alternative? Are we willing to cede any set of levers that might constrain the powerful and the greedy? Are we willing to forgo the extraordinary joy that is felt when working together with common purpose to advance the common good? No human experience that I've known feels more true to my very being. I like sharing that with folks.

This winter of discontent forces me to ask myself, have I been devoting myself to an idol? The U.S. theologian William Stringfellow would say so, I think. For him, all human structures are the hostile "Principalities and Powers" -- evil entities bent on our destruction. (This description of Stringfellow's thinking is from Jeff Dietrich of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community. PDF here.)

"Most Americans," says Stringfellow, "are naïve about the Fall, there is a discounting of how the reality of the Fall afflicts the whole of Creation, not human beings alone but also the "Principalities and Powers" as well…"

The "Principalities and Powers" are legion," says Stringfellow. "They include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols…beyond any prospect of full enumeration the "Principalities and Powers" are legion."

But it is the state that is the preeminent principality and power. "The state," says Stringfellow, "is regarded historically and empirically and biblically as the archetypal principality and possess a special status among the demonic powers."

And, in the midst of the Fall, their moral purpose and vocational imperative has been turned upside down. Thus, rather than serving life, they now serve death.

Perhaps Stringfellow is right: perhaps I've invested too much hope in structures that are hopelessly evil, that will pass away. Many of my more leftist or simply cynical colleagues might agree. But even that dire theologian thought we were called, while staring down death, to "live humanly in the midst of the Fall."

If the point of Lent is to remind us that everything dies, the purpose of the season is also to prepare despairing and easily distracted humans for that improbable other truth; the truth that Life Is, that Easter comes.

In addition to the Stringfellows of theology, there are writers who speak for more than rational but essential hope. One of the great ones of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr, is apparently a favorite of our hope-deflating and hope-inspiring President. Here's Niebuhr, naming what lives despite death:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

If anyone with a secular bent has followed this essay this far, they might like Chris Haye's very much aligned survey of the same ground without the religious overlay in The Nation. His conclusion is downright poetic.

... one thing the Obama campaign got right was its faith in America's history of continually and fruitfully tilling the soil of democracy, struggling against odds until, at certain moments of profound progressive change, a new treasure is improbably found.

... Always searching and never quite finding is grueling and often dispiriting work. But there is simply no alternative other than to give in and let the field turn hard and barren

Photo by way of Kildare & Leighlin Diocese Lenten Resources.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winter Olympics: Women still deserve wider opportunities

The figure skating is not my favorite part of the Winter games.

I'm not fond of any judged sports. It seems to me better to let competitors, within the rules of their discipline, do their thing in head to head competition and the one who could best the others on that day wins. Naturally I prefer watching events like the cross country races or the downhill skiing to judged skating. Moguls was an interesting mix of judged and straight competition -- an under-informed viewer could be a little mystified to see that the fastest competitor to arrive at the bottom of the hill still standing didn't necessarily prevail.

In the judged sports like figure skating (and gymnastics in the Summer games), the aim becomes to measure how closely a competitor can match his/her arduously honed gifts to whatever ideal image is lodged in the judges' heads. This needn't be completely arbitrary, but it is also not necessarily as athletically interesting as what these extraordinary talents might come up with if their creativity weren't so constrained by their discipline's conventions.

Elvis Stojko, a Canadian three-time world champion during the 90s, has riled some folks by insisting that skating's conventions leads to "effeminate" programs. As reported in Salon:

People tiptoe around the topic, and I was like, "You know, I'm just going to say it: Effeminate men's skating is not my style of skating. In men’s skating I like to see power and strength."

... It's not the skaters' fault. It's the way the system has been rewarding them. You have to have a program that’s dynamic. If it's the same from beginning to end, and it's soft and doesn’t have dynamic strength and power and quickness, the routines become very much the same, and it becomes very boring.

...It doesn’t have anything to do with gayness.... It's the way you carry yourself. There’s a certain strength to it when a masculine skater steps onto the ice and attacks a program. With the feminine skaters, the use of the hands becomes very soft, down to the fingertips. There's a lot of little details, but essentially you can pick up on it in the first few movements. ..As a male skater I don't want to be considered a beautiful skater. I want to be a strong skater.

Okay, I could easily decide this guy just doesn't like women and doesn't want to be identified with us.

But, you see, I share his wish to see power and strength on the ice: from the women skaters! Why are they constrained to be soft, feathery, weepy? They are obviously remarkable athletes, possessed of extraordinary agility and balance -- and rock strong in order to skate these long programs. But the latter quality is something they are required to hide.

The twosome pictured didn't come close to winning the pairs; they placed 8th. But I loved their short program. Ukrainians Tatiana Andreëvna Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov skated in what looked like Star Trek uniforms (she got to wear pants!) with power and zeal. That suited this viewer fine. I'd love to see what a solo woman skater who added visible power to grace could do in the solo competition. But we all know the sport's conventions would never allow that.
Then there's women's ski jumping. Or rather, there isn't women's ski jumping in the Olympics. San Francisco sports columnist Gwen Knapp hazards a guess at why this exclusion remains:

At the start of these Winter Olympics, American Lindsey Van held the record for the longest jump at the so-called normal hill (the smaller one) at the Whistler venue. Not the record for women, but for anyone, male or female.

At the time, no elite men's event had been held there. In the first round of the Olympic normal-hill competition, the maximum jump was 105 meters, half a meter less than Van's distance. In the final round, the longest jump broke Van's record, at 108 meters. The bronze medalist had the second-longest at 106.5 meters.

Ski-jumping results combine distance and judges' style scores, so Van's 105.5 meters don't translate to guaranteed success among the men. But low body weight allows extra loft, to the extent that the men have developed eating disorders and the sport has regulated their weight as if they were jockeys, adjusting ski lengths according to body mass. The physical advantages most men have over women, particularly upper-body strength, don't play a big role here.

To modern thinkers, the prospect that a woman might be able to outperform a male medalist in the Olympic Games seems pretty fascinating. To stodgy IOC members, the thought must be terrifying.

As Knapp points out, the women jumpers don't actually want to jump against men; they want their own event in which to compete with each other. Knapp hopes that the Olympic Committee can correct this injustice by 2014.

I also hope so; I have a 16-year old friend who would be just about ready to make that team ... You can read about women's jumping and this aspiring athlete in this article from the Rutland Vermont Herald.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Iraq agony goes on and on

People in the United States want to forget about Iraq. We broke it in 2003; we blundered about in the sectarian civil war we unleashed in 2005-6; we paid some of the combatants to cool it temporarily in 2007; and we hope to escape altogether beginning this summer, after one more round of elections scheduled for March 7.

Supporters of Iraqiya, a secular coalition, rallied Saturday in Baghdad. Prominent candidates from the coalition have been barred from an election. Michael Kamber photo; New York Times.

Things aren't looking so good on the ground -- but we're not looking. We're not interested in more Iraqis getting killed.

When I visited Jordan in 2006, one of the most knowledgeable observers of nearby Iraq that we met with was Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. In the article I summarize here, he's trying to get oblivious Americans to notice how dire the Iraqi situation has become yet again.

According to Hiltermann, many current problems go back to one of the leavings from George W. Bush's viceroy Paul Bremer who, in 2003, gifted the Iraqis with a commission empowered to perform "De-Baathification" -- to exclude from public life anyone who had been part of Saddam Hussein's ruling party. Trouble was, as in the former Communist states of Eastern Europe, anyone who wanted a professional life under Saddam had been a nominal party member. De-Baathification made criminals of people who had committed no active crimes as well as people who had committed atrocities. And many of them were Sunni Muslims, in a moment when the long suppressed Shiite majority was feeling its new power. De-Baathification was a major factor leading to the bloody Iraqi civil war.

The U.S. "surge" tamped down the Iraqi civil war after 2006, but somehow the De-Baathification commission survived. That story is quite surreal as Hiltermann tells it:

...the de-Baathification genie has escaped and gone on a rampage.

The chairman of the 2003 De-Baathification Commission was Ahmad al Chalabi, the mercurial darling of the neoconservatives and distributor of false intelligence. The parliament passed a new de-Baathification law in 2008, but failed to appoint the members of a new commission; Chalabi retained his post by default, as did the director of the commission’s implementation department, Ali Faisal al Lami, Chalabi’s trusted aide.

Al Lami, who was arrested by US forces in 2008 and accused of involvement with violent Iranian-backed groups, came out of prison in August 2009. He and Chalabi have joined a new Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), led by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. But both men retain their positions in the De-Baathification Commission, despite the glaring conflict of interest.

Is a state of law, candidates for parliament would have recused themselves from their tasks on behalf of an institution charged with screening candidates for parliament, but in today’s Iraq there is no enforcement of such salutary rules. Instead, personal vendettas and political score-settling are accepted practices along with rampant corruption and nepotism.

So these guys knocked 511 potential candidates out of the running for the upcoming March 7 parliamentary elections by charging them with Baathism. Some have since been reinstated, but Iraqis cannot help but wonder if sectarian violence is about to break out again, bigtime. The whole business looks to Sunnis like just another ruse by Iranian-backed Shiites to keep them out of government.

Juan Cole brought this story up to date yesterday. Southern Iraqi Shiites like the election disqualifications while Sunni politicians threaten to suspend participation in the election. Party offices are being bombed. And the Obama administration sent Joe Biden scurrying over for a brief visit to try to get the situation defused. Presumably there will be elections -- and the underlying pain and dispossession will continue to break out when it can.

This is the unresolved mess we will leave behind. I do think any U.S. administration will continue the "paper over and exit" strategy begun under Bush and continued under Obama. And I support that: nothing positive is being accomplished by having U.S. forces stomp around in that unfortunate country.

But as Iraq blows up, again and again, we do perhaps owe it to the families of Iraqis and Americans who have suffered from this little exercise in imperial hubris to remain aware of what we have wrought.

A toy for geeks and campaigners

These days one of my day jobs is a project to help community groups interact with the 2010 census. Every ten years, the Constitution requires that we all be counted by the federal government, an enormous, laborious undertaking. Based on how many people they find, federal and state funds get parceled out and electoral boundaries are redrawn. In general, communities benefit when everyone is counted, so grassroots groups have an interest in making sure their neighborhoods get counted -- and no outsiders are likely to be able to do it better than the people on the ground.

All this used to be a lot more mysterious than it is today. No longer: there are fabulous tools available online to help people understand what the Census is doing and what the obstacles are. If you have even a little bit of demographic or electoral geek in you, you can spend hours playing with different possibilities at Census 2010: Mapping the Hard to Count Population. This amazing site is a project of the City University of New York's (CUNY) Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research.

The census assigns every state, county, metro area, city and census tract a numerical score indicating how hard it is to count. "Hard to count" (HTC) is defined by the percentage of occupied households that did not mail back a survey in 2000 -- and also by variables that characterize the people who live there and how they live. Based on experience the Census has developed 12 variables that go along with difficulty getting a full count such as many households where people over 14 don't speak English, areas with crowded living conditions, or with a lot of people without high school diplomas. The Hard to Count website lets you display these variable on maps at many scales.

Here's the state of California, showing the HTC (progressively darker) areas, focusing on those with on the highest percentage of people receiving welfare or public assistance. Coastal Californians may be surprised to notice that, outside of Los Angeles, the areas worst hit by the recession and hence needing the most income support payments are far in the North and in the Central Valley.

Zooming in, you can get maps that display all sorts of interesting data. Here we've got San Francisco with the boundaries of the two current Congressional districts superimposed, the hard to count areas areas where there are many renters colored in ascending shades of darker colors -- the green dots indicate the relative density of renters. Note also the diagonally green-shaded areas in the Bayview neighborhood and Daly City; in those areas, some 50 percent of mortgages are in danger of foreclosure.

You can zoom in further to the Census tract level. Here's the Mission district tract I live in. A pop-up includes links to all the numerical date that form the basis for the color coding on the maps.

The Hard to Count website is a geek and campaign organizer playground. Go ahead, check it out. Just allow lots of time ...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Olympic solo-fliers

Like a lot of people, I've been zoning out watching people I never heard of participate in sports I know nothing about amid the cold white stuff (and slush) in Vancouver this weekend.

Just for fun, I thought I'd see if I could bring together some pictures of Winter Olympic athletes who are the sole representatives of their countries. Compared to the summer games, the field seems monochromatic, but these individuals have somehow got themselves and their countries on the roster, even if they almost all have no chance of winning anything.

Representing Columbia: Cynthia Densler
This skier (born in the USA) is the only woman in the solo-flier category.

Representing Ethiopia: Robel Teklemariam
According to the BBC, this fellow hopes Ethiopian prowess at long distance running can be applied at cross country skiing. Though he lives in the US, he still speaks Amharic.

Representing Ghana: Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong
This guy is a great story according to the Telegraph. He was born in Scotland where his father was getting a doctorate, raised in Ghana, but returned to the UK years later and drifted into a job as receptionist at the Xscape skiing centre in Milton Keynes, where he began to practice skiing.

He finished 13th in his first race and spent his debut professional season in 2004 at Meribel in the French Alps, where he watched other racers and copied them. The last four winters have been in the Italian Alps, funded by his summer jobs around Milton Keynes, and by the work of his wife, Sena, at the Open University. The father-of-two said: 'All I had ever known about skiing was watching a James Bond film, so it really just took off from there.'

Representing Jamaica: Errol Kerr
This Jamaican-Californian competes in a sport I never heard of: skicross. And apparently he's the only one of these solo-fliers who is actually a contender. According to the Boston Globe,

"Errol's got a good shot at the Olympics," [Olympian Johnny] Moseley said. "He's cut out for the sport."

Kerr's background helps in an event that is rowdier than Alpine ski racing, where one athlete races against the clock. In skicross, four competitors speed down a steep, winding the course together, taking on banked turns, berms and each other along the way. The first one across the finish line wins.

"It's very pure, very simple that way," said Moseley. "But there's a lot of contact, a lot of strategy and jockeying."

Representing Mexico: Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg
This man's story makes you wonder about the eligibility rules. He's authentically Mexican alright despite the improbably name, and also a photographer, business man and the pop star as "Andy Himalaya." But he's way overage for a skier, having first represented Mexico in the 1984 Winter Games.

Representing Morocco: Samir Azzimani
This skier is so pleased to be in the Olympics that he is bringing along some friends. According to Reuters, he is flying in

eight secondary school children from Woippy, a depressed suburb of eastern French town Metz that made headlines for riots last month. Azzimani, who grew up in a rough area of Colombes, outside Paris, simply wanted to share his dream with youngsters from a similar background.

Representing Pakistan: Muhammad Abbas
Apparently Pakistani-Canadians, of whom there are many, got a kick out of his arrival.

Representing Portugal: Danny Silva
I didn't find anything about this skier except that he was born in the US.

Representing Senegal: Leyti Seck
Mr. Seck has dual Austrian and Senegalese nationality.

I must pull myself away from watching this stuff -- but it certainly is fun.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Macworld magic: #fail


I spent several hours at Macworld on Friday.

This newspaper story doesn't ring true to me. The San Francisco Chronicle contends that Macworld, the annual winter Apple-fest, is just as good as always.

Macworld is physically a much smaller show, with about 235 vendors occupying 28,000 square feet. Last year, in the final year of Apple's participation, there were 419 vendors taking up 75,000 square feet. ...

Kwame Weusi-Puryear, a Palo Alto Web designer, said he believes the absence of Apple frees the show organizers to be more inventive and fun. He said last year's show was not as interesting because Apple was the undisputed draw. While Weusi-Puryear initially thought Apple's pullout was the death of the show, he now sees no reason why it can't keep going for years to come.

"I think it can survive because the fans want it," he said. "Apple will always do their own thing, but the fans need this convention. Macworld is our mecca, so we'll keep coming back."

I was prepared to spend a day at the show, as I have during years since 1985, but stayed only a few hours.

And I don't think the problem was Apple's decision not to offer a keynote and to display at the show.

There were the usual innovators trying to explain why their new inventions were something we all needed.

There were the companies that tried to attract attention with unrelated hype. I never did find out what space girl was hawking, but she was having fun.

This guy demo-ed a brush that "painted" on a screen ...

But mostly I think the show reflected the changes in the computer world. This didn't appear to be a gathering of working stiffs, looking for the next competitive advantage. Perhaps in part this was because we visited in the middle of a work day. But rather it seemed to be folks young and old tinkering around the margins of a world of techno-toys.
This family might as well have been visiting an amusement park.

Lots of attendees seemed to be in my age group.

Maybe the New York Times reader is a genuine break-through, but I doubt it.

I suspect that Mac fans and iPhone users don't need this kind of show anymore. We get all the functions we need, and sometimes more than we ever discover, from the hardware as it comes from the package. We can search out the niche products we might want online or at the App Store.

All photos taken by iPhone. I wanted to see how it would do. In similar circumstances, I would take a real camera in the future.