Friday, September 30, 2011

Items I could write posts about


... if I had a different body and mind. (I'm coping with a tough concurrence of dental pain and kitchen remodeling this week. Either would be distracting; both make deeper thought nearly impossible.)

The map above is quite a picture of where racial anxiety of the classic U.S. variety -- white antagonism to people of African descent -- still holds sway. Even if every individual imprisoned for life is really a bad, bad guy, where's something fishy here. None of these are majority Black states. They aren't all former slave states either.

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Okay, so we know that religious beliefs, if we go in for that sort of thing, are supposed to underlie our actions in the world. But I find myself more and more haunted by the insight I took from the sociological study, American Grace, that people in this country are likely to use our religious freedom of choice to migrate to a church grouping that accords with our politics, rather than having our politics shaped by religious precepts. Think about that for a minute ... if true, it says a lot about what we think religious beliefs are for.

Ah well -- at least the findings suggest that in one arena liberals are the people with more intensity ... this too agrees with American Grace.

The graphic comes from a study from Faith Communities Today that suggested that ALL religious bodies are losing the young.

Friday cat blogging

Tina sends these from Beirut.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mismeasurement and the economists

This stuns me though it may seem obscure. Felix Salmon, a Reuters finance blogger, highlights that the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the part of the Department of Commerce that collects data and issues statistical descriptions of how the economy is doing, was simply wrong by a huge amount when it first calculated what had happened to the domestic economy in the last quarter of 2008. The incoming Obama administration was told that GDP had declined by 3.8 percent. Subsequent "revisions" -- a normal feature of BEA practice as they assemble more data -- have concluded the fall was actually 8.9 percent.

This is Hurricane Katrina-level failure among the green eye shade crowd. If government leaders had known the actual picture more accurately, they might have made a more vigorous effort in the winter of 2009 to get us going again. Maybe. I also suspect that the truly smart ones probably knew they weren't getting good data, but the false picture robbed those who thought we needed a more drastic response of the intellectual ammunition they required to push harder.

Salmon explores structural reasons the BEA has become an unreliable source of information:

... the quality of statistics has been declining, and ... that the status of economists collating such statistics has been declining as well. Once upon a time, extremely well-regarded statisticians put lots of effort into building a system which could measure the economy in real time. Today, I can tell you exactly how many hot young economists dream of working for the BEA on tweaks to the GDP-measurement apparatus: zero.

I’m pessimistic that this is going to change. Putting together macroeconomic statistics is not a prestigious part of the economics profession any more, and government payscales are pretty meager compared to what good economists earn elsewhere.

Increasingly the economists in the government who craft the policy responses to macroeconomic developments are working on a GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) basis. ...

Statistical economists have fallen to the status of first grade teachers: essential to the general welfare but underpaid and scorned.
Paul Krugman has been lamenting the intellectual failings of his discipline on his blog.

I’ve never liked the notion of talking about economic “science” — it’s much too raw and imperfect a discipline to be paired casually with things like chemistry or biology, and in general when someone talks about economics as a science I immediately suspect that I’m hearing someone who doesn’t know that models are only models. Still, when I was younger I firmly believed that economics was a field that progressed over time, that every generation knew more than the generation before.

The question now is whether that’s still true. In 1971 it was clear that economists knew a lot that they hadn’t known in 1931. Is that clear when we compare 2011 with 1971? I think you can actually make the case that in important ways the profession knew more in 1971 than it does now.

Every time I read something like this, I am reminded of my own tiny brush with academic economics as an undergraduate in the 1960s. I wanted to understand how the world worked, so I enrolled in Econ 1, looking for a new way to think. But instead, I was asked to master manipulating (very simple) models that described nothing I'd ever observed around me. The only human activity that I'd seen that seemed to function at all as these models suggested was the amateur marijuana sales market. Perhaps that was the epitome of this "free market"? So I went back to studying history, absorbed what I know of economic thought through The Worldly Philosophers, a bit of Marx, a dose of Samir Amin, and other economic historians, and wondered just what these econ guys thought they were doing.

It's scary to read a winner of the Nobel prize in economics having similar thoughts from within the profession.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Stephen Colbert explains it all to you

From a friend's Facebook items ... I didn't resist reposting.

Warming Wednesdays: Moving the planet

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Last Saturday, all over the world, people brought together by climate change campaigners from, along with a host of partners, got concerned people moving in 2000 local actions in 180 countries. That ubiquitous number -- 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide -- is what scientists think is the level to which we must return the planet if we are to enjoy climate equilibrium in conditions anything like what human life has evolved within. On the right column of this blog is a counter that updates the earth's current CO2 level; as I write it reads 390 -- vast human-induced changes are accelerating.

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In San Francisco about 600 people marched and cycled down Market Street to a rally in Civic Center. I followed my standard practice at demonstrations: I'll attend either the march or the rally, but I usually can't hack both. So this report is from the march -- the crowd was swelling, though still smallish when we got to rally site.

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The Moving Planet web site proclaims "we'll ... be delivering a clear and strong set of demands." You can read the demands at the link. They seem smart and necessary. I'm not sure the demands were obvious to an uninitiated observer on Saturday. Within the march, people made their own statements, some more ingenious than others.

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She's had enough of some of the oil companies' friends sillier themes.

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I give demonstrators high marks for passion and authenticity when people make their own signs. On the other hand, you don't get "message discipline" when everybody does their own thing. Does that matter? Sure -- if the main intent is to communicate. But there are other possible and even necessary objectives in an event like this ...

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Proclaiming awful truths, as this woman is doing, would seem to be a necessarily somber activity -- but doing it in the company of others quite universally brings out good cheer.

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Some messages were simply heartfelt.

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Other messages seemed a little obscure -- presumably this was a statement about how melting arctic seas are destroying the conditions polar bears need to survive.

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This gentleman is probably in the message business, one way or another.

And so, do little demonstrations like this do any good? Most clearly, they inspirit their participants and that presumably gives the popular movement for better climate policies more energy and hope. That has to be good.

A few weeks ago, one of my friends wrote in response to one of these "Warming Wednesday" posts that "It may be too late for a mass movement ..." I'm not going to argue with that. But human beings allowed the way we organize ourselves to make this mess, so we're going to have to use the same sort of faculties to work our way out of it if we can. That demands energy and hope as well as understanding and fear -- so there's some value to keeping marching and demanding a better path.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Google leader wants government to do its job

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

This clip from ABC News shows Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, being interviewed by Christiane Amanpour. This is a reasonable man with an optimistic view of the economy's possibilities, seemingly stymied by the irrationality of our political paralysis and the emotional illusions that have shaped the country's response to economic troubles. Why doesn't government just get on with doing its part, he wonders. If it did its job, the businessmen and engineers would catch the ball and carry it forward.

Having just finished reading Steven Levy's In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, I'm not surprised to hear both Schmidt's completely reasonable prescription and his apparent frustration that the world around him just doesn't seem to get it. Google's success is a product of collecting the facts -- the data -- and following its implications.

One of the more interesting insights I got from reading Levy was that Google was late to the social dimension of the internet (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter etc.) because it was founded by and hired engineers who evaluated the significance of information on the basis of the wisdom of the entire global cloud. Google's search algorithm, the foundation of its business, depends on aggregating and analyzing what everyone online has thought about and judged to be important. The choices we make by our web clicks inform its intelligence.

Social networking turns the process of discovering salience on the internet upside down, shaping a personal, much smaller cloud for each person on the basis of the preferences of friends. This social internet space is individual -- and inherently limited. The Google cloud is the sum of all human experience and knowledge, intimidating perhaps, but also potentially unlimited.

In saying that, I've really said nothing that is not also captured in the truism that traveling to strange and different places broadens us and may make us more complete human beings. Google makes the internet an engineer's fantasy universe, shaped by that insight. There's lots to like in that. I found Levy's book a delightful window into how we have shaped and are shaped by our virtual lives.

By the way, Google owns Blogger, so naturally there is an Official Google Blog.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A discursive rant on food, kitchens and cooking

New York Times food writer extraordinaire Mark Bittman wants us to understand that fast food is not cheaper than home-cooked food. I haven't done the pricing research, but I am willing to believe him, up to a point. Where I part company is that he doesn't seem to assign any value to costs -- beyond cash outlays -- that make home-cooked food seem more expensive. First there is the figuring out what to cook. Then there is the time and whatever energy is required to go procure what you decide to cook. Finally there is the cooking itself. That's all actually quite burdensome.

He does give an oblique nod to these factors that encourage us to substitute McNuggets for real food, but then never follows up on his own observation. Here's the bit that seems about right to me:

The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch. “People really are stressed out with all that they have to do, and they don’t want to cook,” says Julie Guthman, associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism.” “Their reaction is, ‘Let me enjoy what I want to eat, and stop telling me what to do.’ And it’s one of the few things that less well-off people have: they don’t have to cook.”

I wish he'd followed up on that, but he jumps right back to charging fast food companies with working (as I am ready to believe they have) at getting us addicted. There's much more going on here.

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This potholder is part of my inheritance from my mother. She graduated from college in 1930, she was proud of her intellectual accomplishments, and she thought the expectation that as a proper wife she would be put food on the table for her husband every night was an unwelcome burden. She thought cooking was drudgery. It also never occurred to her that anyone else would do it, even to the extent of going out to dine more than three times a year. So she soldiered through the task unhappily almost every day of a more than 60 year marriage.

Bittman would have approved of her understanding of what constituted edible food; she didn't believe you could buy vegetables and fruits out of season; she even made her own jam and pickled peaches. But she hated all kitchen tasks and the food she cooked showed it. She was probably one of the most atrocious cooks who ever lived; some of the stuff she thrust at us nightly was pretty awful. She had no conception of cooking as an art form -- and it wasn't anything she aspired to improve in.

We're only a generation away from women whose relationship to food was this kind of visceral resentment, a stand-in for their general sense that women's allotted roles constrained their potential. That's certainly part of what enabled the fast food marketers to gain their ascendancy.

Resentful women who thought of food prep as part of their oppression are not the only ones who've looked to reduce the amount of time people spend cooking. Part of the vision of nineteenth century socialism was that food prep would be moved outside the home, in a word, "socialized." No longer would individuals (women) be mired in putting food on the table. Soviet Russian industrial enterprises actualized this in what are described as dreary, low-quality cafeterias. Real human beings most likely weren't so grateful to have every last speck of their private lives taken over by what amounted to their employers.

Yet the most imaginative among contemporary U.S. capitalist enterprises also go in for moving the feeding of their workforces to the worksite. Google is famous for its free gourmet restaurants for employees. During a recent civic argument about giving tax abatements to encourage Twitter to locate in a blighted area of central San Francisco, opponents pointed out that Twitter's workers weren't likely to be a boon for neighboring businesses since they could eat for free inside the company compound.

Clearly some people besides McDonalds think they get some benefit from moving eating away from the home.
For the last few summers, we've had the decidedly unusual privilege of spending some time in a household where Bittman's prescriptions are possible and followed. Abundant, if pricey, local produce, fresh-caught fish and farm-raised lamb are readily available. Our host cares about food and is a creative gourmet cook. There are hardly any nearby fast food places -- and those that exist are local, not the ubiquitous chains.

And nonetheless, the "daily dinner discussion," the preclude to shopping, still feels burdensome. Even where good food is the rule, thinking about it comes to feel arduous.
This rant isn't going anywhere very meaningful. Ironically, we are currently enduring a home kitchen upgrade that has us camping in a couple of rooms in the front of the house, cut off from our bedroom and living in chaos.

The truth is, we don't cook much. We come home from work tired and frequently default to the cheap urban take-out readily available within blocks of here: tacos, burritos, chili, chicken caesar salads, pupusas, falafel, less often Chinese or pizza. These come from small enterprises that cook their foods in-house -- we are fortunate not to live in middle-America.

What we do in a kitchen is often just "assembling." Several times a week we create a big salad out of vegetables from the excellent fruit stand around the corner. I don't think Bittman would consider our diet that bad. I consider it a vast improvement on the the diet of my youth or what I see many of my neighbors eat. But we don't really cook much.

Perhaps the new kitchen will inspire us with more enthusiasm. It certainly will be somewhat more functional and cleaner than its antiquated predecessor. But there will still be the thinking ahead and procuring hurdles to jump. Will we be willing to do that?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The wars come home ...

I left the house yesterday morning to find new messages on walls in the neighborhood.

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Of course I can't know whether the anonymous scribbler (scribblers?) really is a veteran.

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But given that only one percent of us have endured the military adventures of the last decade and that only their immediate friends and families have endured the terrible consequences, it seems likely that is who is screaming for attention here. According to the linked 2010 survey:

Fewer than 3 out of 10 Americans know there are around 200,000 homeless veterans in the U.S.

Fewer than 3 out of 10 Americans know that 20% of male veterans aged 18 - 24 were unemployed last year.

Only 35% are aware that not all veterans are eligible for VA healthcare for life, and only 31% know that veterans can wait up to a year for disability benefits.

We say "thank you for your service" -- unless they are gay -- and pay very little attention to what happens to them after their multiple tours of fighting are finished.

Someone is shouting from the walls out there.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Watching our jock entertainers

At the Washington Monthly's education blog, Daniel Luzer asks apropos repeated revelations of big money and exploitation of athletes in college sports:

Scandal beat sports reporters might know where all the bodies are buried, but why are there so many bodies anyway?

Robert Lipsyte, a former sports columnist for the New York Times shares a lot of (unpopular) answers to that question in his memoir An Accidental Sportswriter.

Lipsyte describes himself as the fat kid bullied by the cool boys in high school -- and consequently fairly quickly able to overcome the hero worship of too much sports writing. He sees U.S. sports as fostering a distinct and often socially destructive milieu.

... I began to perceive the shape of a social infrastructure that at first I called SportsWorld, now Jock Culture, because it is based on a model of manhood in the arena and it extends into business, politics, and family life. I'm more and more convinced that Jock Culture is a defining strand in American life and has helped create many of its values -- positive ones such as hard work, bravery, and fellowship, as well as negative ones such as intimidation, domination, and cheating to win. In Jock Culture, the opponent must be beaten but ultimately respected. Contempt is reserved for those who are not of the team, not one of the righteous, focused, disciplined insiders who play or cheerlead or comfort or boost. Contempt is reserved for the Outsiders, the nerds, wimps, burnouts, band fags. The English majors.

I like to think the contradictions embedded in spectator sports culture are more obvious to women -- after all, in "jock culture" the true outsiders are "girls" -- but too many women sports writers and especially TV sideline commentators seem to have absorbed its norms. Watching football, I sometimes want to scream at these women: "Nobody cares about your latest hair do, girl!" But I supposed they do.

Lipsyte found that other sportswriters responded to his noticing how the structure worked with confusion:

... why couldn't I accept these accomplished men and women in sports as my heroes? Why did my work have to be so relentlessly political? ... Then I thought -- now I always I think -- why isn't everyone else's work more political?

I can relate to that. Fortunately, I have found friends who are sports fans who, like me, insist on looking at the politics.

Lipsyte lasted as long as he did as sportswriter in the late '60 and '70s because, for a moment, some of the athletes were political too -- determined to understand the power relations that framed their lives and take some control. He ended up collaborating on writing Dick Gregory's autobiography and manifesto unhappily titled Nigger, ran at times with Muhammed Ali's entourage, met Malcolm X, and later the group of northwestern athletes who had some vague connection to the Symbionese Liberation Army. Though close to these figures, he believes he kept his integrity as a journalist, an observing outsider.

Ultimately, I don't completely trust anyone I write about. Our interests are different: mine to find what I can consider truthful as well as readable, theirs to be presented in the best light. ... I'm a reporter, I don't trust anyone. I'm too hip to be happy.

That last statement catches how the better reporters I've known seem to move in the world. It always looks a little painful.

Lipsyte's sports writing subsequent to that brief politicized era 40 years ago was more sporadic. He dipped in and out of a setting in which he was both knowledgeable and always at arms length from the many hustlers, promoters and con men who live there.

He gradually came to articulate the gender role implications of how our spectator sports are structured:

If a woman beats you, she can't really be a woman. Probably a dyke.

...I wish I had figured out that lesbian branding scam a lot earlier, because in some ways it was the flip side of calling boys who didn't fit easily into Jock Culture "fags." Women athletes as good as or better than average male athletes were obviously as queer as were males who weren't good at all or who refused to give it up for Coach. ... I realized it was more about control than homophobia, and it did keep straight boys in line. For gay male athletes, it frequently meant giving up football and baseball for cross-country or dropping out altogether. For women athletes, many of whom were lesbians ... it meant staying in the closet and/or looking "feminine."

He came to admire Billie Jean King for not only breaking up the gender hierarchy in tennis, but also for organizing the world's best players to destroy the phony amateurism of a sport based on under-the-table payoffs.

I believe that Billie Jean was the most important sports figure of the twentieth century. Not only was she the symbolic leader of a movement representing half the world's athletes and potential athletes, she had also been a leader of the revolution that had overthrown the most oppressive concept in sports, amateurism, a dictatorship in which sports officials, well-paid executives if not wealthy aristocrats, controlled unpaid athletes.

Early on, the control came through class -- only athletes rich enough to support their training and travels could compete in tennis, golf, and Olympic sports. Later, as working-class kids like Billie Jean rose, the control came through doling out money surreptitiously. By cracking open tennis to professionals, Billie Jean helped create a climate of player power that would sweep through all sports, eventually leading to free agency in baseball. Billie Jean and Muhammad Ali were the mom and pop of the so-called Athletic Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, even though neither of them was political or intellectual in the way of the academic commandos of that movement. ...

Today NCAA "student" athletes, whose "scholarships" often amount to contracts for indentured servitude that earn universities profits and acclaim, need an equivalent leader, especially in basketball and football!

Lipsyte is particularly interesting on why it took so long for sports reporters to admit the obvious and "out" the many athletes who are using various drugs to try to gain an edge.

I came out of the Greenie Era, when amphetamines were as common as M&M's in major-league clubhouses and probably more popular. Ballplayers popped speed to jolt themselves awake after nights on the town.

...Count me among the sportswriters who didn't go after the juicers. All that twenty,first-century media rage over 'roid rage felt like the revenge of the nerds. Sports scribes were so ashamed of having blown the only truly big story of their generation that they turned viciously on their former heroes. It was the mirror image of he story about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that weren't there. The front-page bigfeet blew that one. The steroids were right in front of the sports scribes, but they were in denial -- and in the tank.

... The "war" on drugs was lost a long time ago ...

This book is a true treat -- a window on sports for the politically oriented that entices the reader to sit back, relax, and watch a journalistic performer show his stuff. What's not to like?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday cat blogging

The 'hood finds a home for a stray:

Later, she gets a note from her admirers:
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To Miss Kitty:
We are happy to know you have a family to love. We will miss you as you started the day off making a lot of people happy on the way to work. You are a very special kitty and thank you for being there. Your friends ...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Whatever it meant, this didn't make the world a better place

So the state of Georgia killed Troy Davis last night -- and for a few minutes a great many of us focused our attention on the death penalty. A cursory search tells me that 58 countries currently execute criminals while 96 have abolished capital punishment. As a death penalty-employing state, we're in the company of such nations as China, Iran, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, both Koreas, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Troy Davis in the Chatham County Superior Court during his trail in the shooting death of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail. (AP Photo/Savannah Morning News)

"Georgia feels it's better to kill me than admit I'm innocent."

Troy Davis

This seems to have been an accurate summary of what we know. Davis wasn't executed because a prosecutor convinced a jury "beyond a reasonable doubt" that he had murdered someone. He was executed because, over a 20 year period, he was subjected to court proceedings that functioned like a slow-motion football replay, requiring him to show incontrovertible visual evidence that the original verdict was wrong -- only without a video tape. The decision of the original refs, no matter how biased, no matter how emotionally charged, no matter how much based on false or coerced testimony, no matter how unsupported, had to be confirmed because there was no tape.
Or perhaps this was simple; a police officer had been killed and someone had to die. I have to admit, I don't understand the drive for societal vengeance. I once went out to the perimeter of San Quentin prison the night of an execution and saw my fellow citizens cheer the news that a man had been killed. I don't get it.

But then, I didn't understand Bush's wars either and it was hard to see what made them attractive to many of my fellow citizens except that they answered some need to hit someone because we had been attacked on 9/11. About the death penalty as about the wars, all I can say is, "enough killing."
Most of us don't have to think about the state killing someone most of the time. Every once in a while a case catches our attention -- and mostly we line up wherever our preconceptions deposit us.

Andrew Cohen has reported on 100s of these cases for CBS. He knows what he thinks:

Sometimes, I believe, a murderer deserves the ultimate punishment.

But he also decided, having watched these processes, that

... it is both possible and intellectually consistent to be glad that a court has stayed the execution of a condemned man without necessarily being sympathetic to the man himself or disrespectful to his victims. It is possible to see the vindication of rights -- or at least a good-faith effort by judges to vindicate rights -- as a victory in and of itself in our nation's constant struggle for justice under the law. It is possible to separate the sins of the condemned from the subsequent sins of the justice system, and to demand more of the latter than of the former.

Sure -- people act viciously. But we must demand more than mindless, often bigoted, revenge from our legal structures. We need collective institutions that intervene to mitigate our emotional responses to crimes. The law needs to make it easier for all of us to be good rather than stoking the fires than can overwhelm our better impulses. The death penalty too often does the opposite.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I could get a crush on this woman!

I hear all this, you know, “Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.”—No!

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea—God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

The next Senator from Massachusetts!

H/t Balloon Juice.

Warming Wednesdays:
Free bus passes for a generation of "transit-first citizens"

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Young people joined their parents and politicians yesterday on the steps of San Francisco City Hall to demand free bus passes for youth. With the school district forced by state austerity measures to cut its school bus service by 50 percent -- and with Muni (the local transit agency) raising youth fares 110 percent since July 2009 -- transportation costs have become one more hurdle in the way of low income families and families of color getting a good education for their kids. As the young guy's mock-up in the picture says, "Muni is my school bus."

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Yeshan Banks from the community organization POWER introduced a parade of speakers.

James Ng, a recent graduate of the public schools and a youth leader at the Chinatown Community Development Center, spoke of his dependence on Muni throughout high school. "I love Muni -- but it costs too much."

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And this wasn't just kids agitating for pie in the sky. School Superintendent Carlos Garcia pointed out what may be invisible to people who don't live here: not all San Franciscans are well-off. Over 60 percent of children in the schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunches; families genuinely struggle with transportation costs.

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Thea Selby from the Transit Riders Union and a public school parent herself drew out the implications of a free youth bus pass: students who ride public buses to school will absorb the necessary lesson and gift of urban living in the 21st century: we don't have to choke ourselves and the planet on oil fumes in individually owned autos.

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And Supervisor David Campos has a plan to pay for it. He is building cooperation between multiple city and county agencies, the Feds, and private interests to squeeze out funds for a pilot offering of a free Youth Fast Pass. So far Supervisors Avalos, Cohen, Kim, Mar and Mirkarimi have signed on. He points out that Portland Oregon and New York City have versions of this program. Campos insisted: "San Francisco likes to think of itself as a city that can get things done. We need to prove that by approving the free Youth Pass."

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Full disclosure: I serve on the volunteer board of POWER and am proud to work with this imaginative community group.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Where's the U.S. army now?

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Map based on publicly accessible sources. Errors and especially omissions are likely.

Is it any wonder that the United States is unable to find the cash to take care of our needs at home? Not when you consider that we've got very expensive troops all over the globe.

Let's see -- there are a host of allegedly friendly countries where the United States has military installations: South Korea, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Greece, Israel, Australia ... probably more. Do we have installations in Canada? I imagine so.

And then there are couple of places where our soldiers are currently fighting increasingly pointless wars: Iraq and Afghanistan.

And then there are the places we consider trouble spots according to Nick Turse:

According to Pentagon documents released earlier this year, the U.S. has personnel -- some in token numbers, some in more sizeable contingents -- deployed in 76 other nations sometimes counted in the arc of instability:

  • Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire,
  • Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia,
  • Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda,
  • Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo,
  • Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Syria,
  • Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba,
  • the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras,
  • Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru,
  • Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela,
  • Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia,
  • Romania, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan,
  • Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos,
  • Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

This is simply unsustainable. The only question is whether we'll notice we can't afford it and pull back back or whether many of these people will simply throw us out.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Our anti-democratic Democratic leader

Our frustrating President is reported as remarking something the other day that says to me his political smarts are again asserting themselves.

“And I just have to remind people that — here’s one thing I know for certain,” he continued. “The odds of me being reelected are much higher than the odds of me being elected in the first place.”

Now he is talking sense. It seems plausible to me that winning the 2008 Presidential nod among Democratic contenders in a year when whoever got it was highly likely to triumph was indeed a stunning feat of political fancy footwork. The skinny Black guy with a thin resume and a funny name had enormous hurdles to jump to prove to Democratic voters and their "leaders" that he could be the candidate. He showed the managerial acumen to hire people who would create a plan to get him there, then largely used his time to playing the role (its a theater piece) to acting "the candidate", while being ready to step in at difficult moments. Winning in the nomination was a bravura performance and it is why he is in the job. It's good to hear he still knows that -- it would be easy in his current role to forget it.

At the same talk to donors, he apparently said something else equally telling:

The “campaign has not yet begun,” Obama told his well-heeled audience, adding he’s going to stick to his “day job” of governing for the “next several months.”

And therein is a glimpse of the man's weakness in his current role. Yes, he was dealt an atrocious hand: managing economic collapse in the midst of hegemonic decline. Nobody was going to look suave. But that offhand remark shows he considers his political necessities -- convincing, cajoling, assembling majority support, swinging his political party behind his policy prescriptions -- as something separate from doing the nation's business. (And not something he relishes it seems.)

This is a technocratic picture of government. The wise will install good policies -- the people are a noisy audience, perhaps worth managing at times, but without the capacity to know what's good for us.

This is a deeply anti-democratic (small "d") vision of our politics, one probably shared by most of our major political figures. And it doesn't work, at least it hasn't in the past. Presidents who remembered as wise and good -- I think of Lincoln, of FDR -- have been party builders, canny even if unscrupulous assemblers of majority coalitions that enabled them to get through enormously hard times. Even Lyndon Johnson deserves some credit here for knowing that his Vietnam war would destroy his party if he sought re-election. (The war's ramifications did anyway for many years.) These leaders knew that corralling the fractious masses was part of the "day job." That's what government "by the people" means in this nation's political system. The incumbent doesn't seem to get it.

UPDATE: Sounds like Obama was in full political campaign mode today in his deficit message. Good for him -- and for us for communicating by way of opinion polling that nothing else will work.

And yes, I will of course be voting for and pulling for the guy to get re-elected. The alternatives are even more puny figures. But we're all in for a long run of hard times.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Artifacts from a happier sports era

49er bread wrapper sunbeam bread.jpg
We're cleaning out obscure corners of our kitchen preparatory to long overdue remodeling and came across these improbable items: once upon a time, our sad sack pro football team was highly sought after advertising partner. Wonder if that "training table bread" was as spongy white as looks likely from its plastic wrapper?

49er wheaties superbowl xxix.jpg
Those were the days, the last time the local gladiators were dominant. Watching the 49ers flounder has become a painful weekend ritual -- just perhaps can the current assemblage bring them back from zombie-land? Time will tell. We fans have practiced modulating our hopes so the lows won't be so low.
Over the next week or so, a combination of trying to work adjacent to the remodeling and dental surgery is likely to reduce my attention to this blog. Regular posting will resume as the dust settles.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: Neighbors running

Every summer in the town of Chilmark Massachusetts, the 5k road race passes down the road near where we are staying. There are a few hot shots up front: high cross country runners and serious competitors. But mostly, this local event is just the town afoot.

This year I played at photographing the faces in the crowd. Here are a few:

woman lookng right.jpg black girl.jpg

blonde male.jpg white haired woman!.jpg

bearded man w hat.jpg old woman.jpg

sweating black man.jpg smiling woman.jpg


Friday, September 16, 2011

We'll see how this works out


This message either adopts just the right tone when the cloud generates a glitch -- or it is the prelude to extreme frustration. We'll see; I don't know yet, though a preliminary check suggests all is well.

We expect immediate, perfect service from our web interactions. Can anyone remember that 10 years ago we expected long delays and intricate journeys into interface mazes?

The prompt for this reflection is that I am reading Steven Levy's In the Plex: How Google thinks, works and shapes our lives. It is a treat.



The state of Georgia has set next Wednesday, September 21 as the execution date for Troy Davis. Davis denies committing the murder 20 years ago for which he was convicted. Most of the people who testified at the trial have now recanted their testimony. The leading witness who still says Davis was the killer is the person who nine people have charged was the actual shooter. As Amnesty International maintains, this is a case with "too much doubt."

USA Today marvels at the scale of the grassroots campaign to encourage the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles to choose clemency. Over 600000 people across the globe have signed petitions.

The case has attracted attention for years. Former president Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu are among the prominent figures who have urged that Davis' life be spared.

...The latest effort, triggered when a new execution date was set last week, includes celebrities John Legend, Mia Farrow and the Indigo Girls. All are tweeting under #TooMuchDoubt, a search term or hash tag devised by Amnesty International and the NAACP. Davis supporters also have created Facebook pages.

"In the moment, when our nation stumbles toward complete failure of its justice system, we have to give every citizen the opportunity to express their outrage and their intention that the state not do this in their name," NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous says. "When the state executes an innocent person, every citizen is implicated in that act."

In San Francisco, people concerned about the Davis case will be collecting signatures in Union Square today, Friday September 16. You too can sign a clemency petition; click this link.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

He was there when the United States adopted torture ...

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

If you've been following this story, you already know what FBI special agent Ali Soufan explains in this interview: this experienced interrogator was making good headway with getting an al-Qaeda prisoner to talk -- until the CIA insisted on bringing in a contractor to torture the guy. The Bureau ordered Soufan to leave the investigation -- to get away from the scene of the crime, as it were.

Soufan has a new book about this and other investigations of terrorism in which he has been a central figure. A Lebanese-America, he was one of only eight Arabic speakers in his agency before 9/11. In one of his promotional interviews (can't find a transcript), he was asked whether the United States now has more Arabic speakers in its security apparatus. Very quietly, he said that many had been sent to language school, but he wasn't sure if there were really any more native speakers today than in the early 2000s when he played an investigative role.

The full Frontline episode is available at the link. H/t Andrew Sullivan.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: Al Gore steps up again, with an internationalist project

One of the features that distinguishes much climate change activism from all the other clamoring activisms around us is that it frequently seeks to be carefully and consciously internationalist. This only makes sense; the threat that human activity is on the way to frying the planet obviously doesn't respect borders. Though rich societies have contributed the most to the problem, everyone's lives are on the line.

Still, this focus on building an international movement is something a little new, an effort to spark a kind of populism that is has only weak antecedents. Various iterations of popular demands for peace, such as nuclear disarmament campaigns and the February 13, 2003 outpouring against the Iraq invasion, have mounted sporadic coordinated transnational actions. The anti-neo-liberal, anti-globalization movement is also, of necessity, multi-national. But an assumption that campaigns must be international strikes me as new -- at least since socialism proved unable to unite the workers against the nationalist war-makers in Europe in 1914.

Today the Climate Reality Project, founded and chaired by Al Gore, is trying to make entire world "focus its attention on the truth about the climate crisis." A series of web talks in various languages will go on over a a 24 hour period. You can see the whole schedule and links here. The effort claims 5 million members.

It is guided by one simple truth: The climate crisis is real and we know how to solve it.

Who knows, maybe a former U.S. vice-president can launch (or relaunch) an international sense of urgency about man made global danger and the hope for global solutions. It seems a long shot, but campaigns like this must explore all possibilities.

Since I would do almost anything before I'd watch a webinar (it's a personal prejudice), I'm just glad that promoting this has Gore back in circulation, giving interesting interviews. Here he is talking with Bradford Plummer:

BP: ... taking that opposition is a given, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether something more is needed to fight it than yet another recital of climate science facts.

AG: Right, you hear a lot of people giving advice on how to talk about climate science—how you need to dress differently or stand on your head and deliver the message in rhyme. And I respect all that, and I hope a lot of people will present the message in their own way. But my message is about presenting the reality. I have faith in the United States and our ability to make good decisions based on the facts. And I believe Mother Nature is speaking very loudly and clearly. We’ve had ten disasters in the United States this year alone costing more than $1 billion and which were climate-related. It’s only a matter of time before reality sinks in, and we need both parties involved. And the only way to get the right answer is to understand the question.

BP: What about the folks who say that environmentalists should drop the emphasis on climate change and instead just talk about the benefits of energy independence or the virtue of green jobs or whatnot?

AG: Well, I think the opportunities for tens of thousands of good new jobs and building infrastructure—that’s a powerful economic argument. Reducing our dependence on expensive dirty oil in a market dominated by the most unstable region of the world—that’s also important. But I think these arguments and others are far more effective when they are coupled with the main reason for doing this, which is to save the future of civilization. And I think when the right wing and carbon polluters intimidate people into avoiding the word climate or the subject of the climate crisis, that does not help in the long run. The core of the message still has to be about the reality we’re facing.

I don't know whether Al Gore's reality-insistent presentations can make a difference, but there is something attractive about his giving the presenting of simple information another try.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An unambiguous yarn about World War I

Popular historian Barbara Tuchman's 1958 effort, The Zimmermann Telegram, is the sort of thing that "serious" historians seldom write these days: it's a good yarn. In later years Tuchman established her reputation with more substantial volumes, but this early World War I tale is more like a thriller than most history.

In 1916, the British (and the French but they don't play in this tale) were on the ropes -- broke and exhausted after two years of bloody and massively mismanaged war against Germany. Their only hope was intervention from the reluctant United States led by President Woodrow Wilson who was re-elected that year with the slogan "he kept us out of war!" Their prospects look bad.

But professorial code breakers in the basement of the British Admiralty had cracked the German codes, so the British were reading German diplomatic correspondence. Learning from these cables that the Germans were intriguing with Mexico and Japan to encourage an attack on the United States through the southwest, the British finally had a smoking gun that would force Wilson to bring his country into the European war. But how to use the diplomatic communication -- the "Zimmermann telegram" of the title -- without leaking its source and revealing to the Germans that Britain was reading its mail? The solution to that problem of "protecting intelligence assets" forms the guts of Tuchman's narrative of how the U.S. finally came into the war. It is a good story (some of which has been amplified by subsequent releases from period archives.)

When you read a lot of books about the same period, as I am doing these days about World War I (see here and here), you begin to catalog their similarities and differences and to feel they are talking with each other. Though this is a slight book about a minor episode, I found myself approaching it this way.

World War I was such a clearly mad enterprise that every author touching on it vies to describe its horrors. Here's a snippet of Tuchman's scene setting about the third winter of the war:

The ghastly losses on the Somme -- sixty thousand British casualties in a single mad day, over a million Allied and enemy losses in the five month battle --had been for nothing. The Hindenburg Line was still unbreached. The whole war had been like that, regiments of lives spent like water, half a million at Verdun alone, without either side's winning a strategic advantage, but only being riveted together like two fighting elks who have locked horns. Now the French were drained, the Russians dying, Rumania, a late entry on the Allied side, already ruined and overrun.

The enemy was no better off. Germans were living on a diet of potatoes, conscripting fifteen-year-olds for the army, gumming up the cracks that were beginning to appear in the authority of Kaiserdom with ever harsher measures. ... England had fortitude left, but no money and, what was worse, no ideas. New commanders stumbled forward in the old rut, not questioning whether to assault the Western Front again, but merely where along its wall to bang their heads. No prospect of any end was visible.

Tuchman makes no bones about her belief that defeating Germany amounted to holding up the cause of civilization and that Britain's efforts to persuade the United States to jump into the fray were completely proper and justified. She portrays President Wilson as an irritatingly stubborn impediment to this country's doing the right thing:

War stifles reform and, if the United States was sucked in, all plans for the New Freedom would be thwarted. He was lured, too, by a vision of the New World, through himself, bringing to the Old the gift of peace and a league of nations to enforce peace, an old idea newly in vogue, which Wilson now embraced as his own. If he could stop the war he could save his own program and save Europe from itself. ...

... Although no two men in any one period of history were more unlike, Wilson shared one characteristic with the Kaiser -- he would not listen to opinions he did not welcome. Wilhelm was afraid of them, but Wilson considered opinions which opposed his as simply a waste of. time. Intent upon saving Europe, he ignored the mood of the Europeans.

... Wilson saw the world caught in a berserk carnage endlessly continuing unless stopped by a disinterested outsider -- himself. The question of rights and wrongs he would not look at or professed, at this time, not to see.

Reading these repeated disparaging descriptions of the man, I was reminded of a passage from Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars, a narrative of Britain's warriors and resisters:

... if the leaders of any one of the major European powers had been able to look forward in time and see the full consequences, would they still have so quickly sent their soldiers marching off to battle in 1914?

Two years later, the leader of the United States did foresee terrible consequences and he tried mightily to "keep us out of war," perhaps not always wisely but certainly fervently.

Would the course of the 20th century have been different if the United States somehow had not gone in? Our fresh troops and above all our financing made the French and British victory of 1918 possible. The U.S. came out of that war the world's essential economic power and henceforth its imperial reach penetrated not only the colonial periphery in South America and Asia, but also the European center. The long truce of 1918-1939 in Europe ended in barbarity that made the "First World War" look a far smaller catastrophe.

Contrafactual questions are always fruitless -- and remain suggestive and intriguing. This little Tuchman volume brings them to fore starkly because it avoids any pretense of neutrality about the war's essential necessity. In later works Tuchman showed much more ambivalence, but here her story is interesting precisely because it is constructed without any such questioning.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Why are we still in Afghanistan?


What if we went to war and in the country where the shooting was happening people had no idea why we had invaded? The United States' ten year long incursion and sporadic attempt to remake Afghanistan has achieved that end, if not much else.

Nearly half of all Afghans are under the age of 15, too young to have a firsthand recollection of [the 9/11 attacks], or the U.S.-led invasion that began less than a month later. Among older people, even those grateful that the invasion ended Taliban rule, there is a sense that the conflict has moved far beyond its original impetus.

The war is widely regarded now as being driven by many other factors, including foreign self-interest and internal power struggles. ...

"At the beginning of the U.S. invasion, we hoped for security and stability," said Abdul Raziq, a 53-year-old real estate agent living in Kabul, the capital. "But 9/11 brought calamity and misfortune to Afghanistan."

... A survey last year by a think tank, the International Council on Security and Development, found that fewer than one in 10 respondents in the key southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar [where the strongest contingent of U.S. troops are killing and dying] were aware that the West's war with the Taliban was triggered by the events of Sept. 11.

Los Angeles Times, 9/10/11

Since they don't know why we are there now, Afghans are unlikely to take up any notions we might want them to assimilate when we leave.

And we will leave sooner or later -- the Afghan war is both unaffordable and unwinnable. To continue a purposeless war is also immoral.

Photo by way of ISAF Media. Taken in Helmand province, December, 2010.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Art is just so dangerous ...

Some children are ... children. Others are just small Palestinians. I guess Palestinian children can't make worthy drawings from their lives.

An Oakland children's museum, citing pressure from the community, canceled a planned exhibit of artwork by Palestinian youth that depicted the Israeli assault during the 2008-09 Gaza conflict.

The Museum of Children's Art was scheduled to display the art from Sept. 24 to Nov. 13. The exhibit had been in the works for several months, with an opening reception to feature poetry and special art activities for children. The drawings in the exhibit were created by children ranging in age from about 9 to 11 and included bombs dropping, tanks and people getting shot. ...

"The pressure was ... well, we were getting calls from constituents that were concerned about the situation," [museum board member Randolph] Bell said. "We don't have any political stake in this thing. It just became apparent that we needed to rethink this."

...Yet it wouldn't have been the first time the museum has featured wartime art by children.

In 2007, it exhibited paintings made during World War II by American children in the Kaiser shipyard child care center. The art featured images of Hitler, burning airplanes, sinking battleships, empty houses and a sad girl next to a Star of David.

In 2004, art by Iraqi children hung on the museum's walls. The pictures, made shortly after the U.S. invasion, included a picture of a helicopter shooting into a field of flowers.

The art by the Palestinian children was similar in content.

San Francisco Chronicle, 9/9/11