Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The world can no longer afford old people

That blog headline states the message of an Associated Press story proliferating around the world as we enter 2014. Make no mistake -- there are real social strains that flow from the world's longer life spans and from growing global inequality that funnels wealth to the top of the pyramid, but that is not what articles like these are about. Articles exploring the terrible burden elders place on our societies are ideological propaganda, much like the endless din of stories about the horrors of the "national debt." They serve to soften us up for shredding whatever collective responsibility we have taken for old people.

Over the next week or so, I'm going to write a series of posts about various elements of this elder bashing campaign.

Here's a prime example: a judicial decision last month allowed the bankrupt city of Detroit to cut and escape its obligations to its retired workers. People who work for government routinely accept lower wages for the security of better benefits, including pensions. Lots of cities and states neglected to pay into pension funds adequately. Now they want to escape the consequences of mismanagement by breaking their promise to older people who can't fight back.

James Surowiecki, in the New Yorker, has provided a cogent summary of the situation.

Tis the season for taking retirement benefits away from public workers. …

… politicians often just let pension contributions slide, passing the bill on to future taxpayers. … Governments also got in the habit of promising workers higher pensions in the future so that they would accept lower wages in the present. To make matters worse, whenever pension funds looked especially robust public employees lobbied for higher pensions, and politicians were all too willing to grant them. ...

Everyone pushed off the day of reckoning, with no real thought for the taxpayers who would eventually have to foot the bill. Now that that day has arrived, you can see why governments want to claw back some of the benefits that were handed out. But this would be unjust: state and city employees worked for those benefits—teaching kids, policing the streets, and so on—and they often did so for lower wages than they would have accepted with no promise of a pension. Governments should live up to their obligations, but we can’t let them make irresponsible promises again. The temptation to defer expenditure is intrinsically hard for politicians to resist. We need reforms to control costs and to insure that governments actually pay their bills.

Go read it all.

Surowiecki has some ideas for future remedies that don't consist of screwing old people. All government workers should fall under the Social Security system -- for historical reasons, some now do not. Moreover a federal law could mandate that whatever pension obligation any unit of government should take on, it must pay into the pension fund every year, come hell, depressed taxes, or high water. Corporations are subject to such a law; their obligations receive federal insurance in return.

Instead cities, states and other units of government can be expected to spend 2014 and decades beyond trying to to wriggle out of what they promised their former employees.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A forgotten anniversary and a forgotten war

Two hundred years ago, on December 30, 1813, British soldiers and their native allies sacked the frontier settlement at Buffalo, New York, taking revenge for the burning by Americans of the Canadian town of Newark earlier that year. These events were part of what people in the United States call the War of 1812.

I don't know if the British even have a name for this little war. U.S. President James Madison led a divided nation into the fight; war proponents' motives were mixed. Though the Brits had conceded independence to their colonies 20 years previously, they acted entitled to interfere in U.S. seagoing commerce as part of their continent-wide struggle with Napoleonic France. Meanwhile, western settlers thought maybe British pre-occupation with Europe gave them a chance to seize Canada. The U.S. was economically and organizationally ill-prepared to fight the world's pre-eminent empire. Only British inattention limited U.S. losses to a few frontier skirmishes like the burning of Buffalo, the humiliating sack of the scarcely-built U.S. capital at Washington, and adoption of a grandiose, unsingable national anthem.

The burning of Buffalo was however important to launching my ancestors on course to becoming prosperous citizens of what later became an important trading settlement and eventually a major industrial city in the 19th century. The St. John family -- Gamaliel, Margaret and their 11 children -- had moved to the head of Lake Erie in 1807 and to Buffalo in 1810. From a Mrs. Chapman who had bought it from the Holland Land Company, the family purchased a lot for $4200 (serious money for the time!) and

… the frame for a house, forty feet square, standing on blocks, and back of which was an appendix of twenty feet square, one and a half stories high, enclosed and floored, having a chimney with the old-fashioned fireplace, and baking oven by the side of the fireplace.

… The lumber for the covering and finishing of the house purchased of Mrs. Chapman was all drawn from Williamsville; the logs for which had been cut and drawn to the saw-mill during the winter previous (the winter of 1809-10), The shingles for the house were all made during the same winter by my father and his boys, Elijah and Cyrus. ...

The cellar was made of the dimensions of the whole house, and the stones with which the walls were laid up were drawn from the quarries of Judge Erastus Granger on the banks of the Three-mile Creek, east of the then village of Buffalo.

A St. John daughter's recollection

At first the frontier war provided an opportunity for entrepreneurship. But in June 1813, Gamaliel and his son Elijah drowned while seeking to deliver supplies to U.S. forces that had invaded Canada. So when it became apparent that the British and Indians were coming to sack Buffalo, Margaret St. John was a widow with 8 children. Most residents including most of the St. John children fled, but Mrs. St. John and a daughter and, across the road, a woman named Sarah Lovejoy, remained behind. Family accounts report that Mrs. Lovejoy tried to defend her property. The St. Johns saw Sarah Lovejoy struck down by an Indian with a hatchet.

Mrs. St. John appealed to a British officer to save her, a widow with many children, from the same fate and for whatever reason, her house remained the only one standing in the settlement after the sack. In the following days, as the settlers filtered back into the scene of desolation, Mrs. St. John was able to offer them shelter, setting up something like a boarding house. She and her children prospered. The young generation married successfully. When in 1825 the Erie Canal brought frontier Buffalo closer to the nation's centers of commerce, St. Johns became pillars of the community. Margaret St. John died at age 69 in 1847. She was my great, great, great grandmother, a relationship I find hard to imagine. There must be quite a few descendants.

On the occasion of this 200th anniversary, Patrick B. Kavanagh has been trying to inform contemporary western New Yorkers about the bloody history of the area.

When war passes over a landscape, it often leaves unmistakable traces behind. From Gettysburg to the Somme, places that once were battlefields can seem to hold the memories of the dead in the very soil underfoot, the wind in the trees.

Not in Western New York. The Niagara Frontier was a field of war 200 years ago, and also a war graveyard. The Niagara Frontier was one of the most deadly, if not the deadliest, of the killing fields in the War of 1812. "No other place in North America saw more action," said Patrick B. Kavanagh …

What would he like people to realize, or to understand, about these figures?

"Just what happened here," Kavanagh said. "The people. This 30 miles. From Buffalo to Fort Niagara, on both sides -- these people lost everything."

"Like Mrs. Margaret St. John," he continued. "When the war starts, she's a wife and a mother of 11 children. By the time Buffalo is burned, in December, she's a widow with 8 children. She lost children and her husband."

When the United States blithely invades and bombs other people's countries, we show we've forgotten what war on our own turf means, I think.

A CNN/ORC International poll found that only 17 percent of Americans support the war in Afghanistan, down considerably from the 52 percent who backed the conflict in December of 2008. A staggering 82 percent of the country opposes the war, according to the poll. 


Another forgotten war grinds on. I doubt if there are many Afghans who want the killing to continue.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Residue from my Armpit Bowl binge

Good news, I guess. Now they've got a few women among the officiating crews. There were two women working the Fight Hunger Bowl -- aka the Emerald Bowl and the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl. It can't hurt those amped up young men to have to defer to "girls" wearing the striped shirts.

Less good news: if you watch bowls, you learn about the prevalence of UVTRs -- the acronym stands for "undisclosed violations of team rules." It seems as if most teams have sent some players home for UVTRs. Since the conduct in question is undisclosed, it is not immediately clear what the offenses may have been. Google reveals samples from past bowls ranging from drunken assault with a broken bottle, to groping women, to smoking marijuana (hey, what will change when that's legal?) to pissing off a hotel balcony.

My favorite is the Notre Dame star who responded to his suspension by apologizing for "poor academic judgment." Huh? My sharp partner who teaches college students didn't hesitate to diagnose that one: "he got caught plagiarizing, passing off someone else's work as his own. Lots of them do that."

Fifteen bowls glimpsed and some enjoyed -- twenty yet to go ...

Tis the season ...

Out at Ocean Beach, the surfers are swarming toward the water's edge …

... to catch the low, steady rolling waves.

Photographers wait for a magic shot.

And there are casualties of the season.

Northern California is lovely during a warm winter drought.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: just an ordinary building

While traveling last month, I found myself  in Paro, Bhutan, sitting across from this commercial building. For Bhutan, this is an ordinary, modern, commercial building, nothing special. I thought to photograph the painted figures that encircle it -- they too are nothing unusual. Similar motifs cover every other building of similar size in the town.

The central panel portrays the four harmonious friends of Tibetan bhuddism.

These four mountain creatures run around the frieze. Every moderately prosperous building and residence that I saw in Bhutan was covered with such paintings. They aren't for tourists; they are there because Bhutanese like them. They advertize prosperity and right concern for the order of things.
These women sat on the steps of the building, consulting over a knitting project.
In the street, a cow might wander by.

Click on any of these photos to see enlarged.

Friday, December 27, 2013

More on homelessness

7 am, Christmas morning 2013, San Francisco
After I put up a post two days ago with photos of some of San Francisco's unhoused residents, a friend raised issues about the way we think about these folks -- especially about our assumptions that "homelessness" is a consequence of pushing people out of mental institutions or results from addictions. She referred me to the National Coalition for the Homeless and particularly to their factsheet "Why are people homeless?"

Mental Illness: Approximately 16% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005). Despite the disproportionate number of severely mentally ill people among the homeless population, increases in homelessness are not attributable to the release of severely mentally ill people from institutions. Most patients were released from mental hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s, yet vast increases in homelessness did not occur until the 1980s, when incomes and housing options for those living on the margins began to diminish rapidly. According to the 2003 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Report, most homeless persons with mental illness do not need to be institutionalized, but can live in the community with the appropriate supportive housing options (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003). However, many mentally ill homeless people are unable to obtain access to supportive housing and/or other treatment services. The mental health support services most needed include case management, housing, and treatment.

Addiction Disorders: The relationship between addiction and homelessness is complex and controversial. While rates of alcohol and drug abuse are disproportionately high among the homeless population, the increase in homelessness over the past two decades cannot be explained by addiction alone. Many people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs never become homeless, but people who are poor and addicted are clearly at increased risk of homelessness. Addiction does increase the risk of displacement for the precariously housed; in the absence of appropriate treatment, it may doom one's chances of getting housing once on the streets. Homeless people often face insurmountable barriers to obtaining health care, including addictive disorder treatment services and recovery supports.

Or, less formally, people listening and responding to voices that don't exist for the rest of us are terribly visible on the streets, but they are not all or even most of people without housing -- only the most obvious. A fraction of homeless people are addicts, but that is more a condition that makes their poverty harder to overcome than a precipitating cause of their loss of shelter. This certainly fits what I've seen among precariously housed people I've known; several seemed to become drunks as their lives collapsed on the street rather than being on the street because they drank.

No one denies that these folks need a wide variety of forms of help, but none of that is likely to do much good until people have secure housing.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Another Christmas greeting

This one from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). Old Saint Nick doesn't do borders ...

Christmas has left me pooped. 'Nuff for now.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"And there was no room for them in the inn …"

Last June, the San Francisco Human Services Agency reported 6,436 homeless people in the city, of whom about 3400 lived on the streets. The rest were in shelters or otherwise in contact with "the system." Activist groups like the Coalition on Homelessness have long charged that HSA's numbers are way too low. This seems likely. Who wants to be counted by the man when on the street?

Most of the "homeless" work at least part time. They just don't have a stable place to live, so they and their meager belongings end up outside. That sure fits with what I know of the lives of the people I've known who would be categorized as "homeless." It might be more accurate to say they have been "intermittently housed," sometimes crowded into dingy lodgings or single room occupancy hotels, sometimes in charitable or social service agency shelters, occasionally in jails -- and when all else fails, on the streets.

Recently we've had one of our periodic legislative bouts of kicking homeless people when they are down. Supervisor Scott Weiner came up with an ordinance to criminalize simply being in a park from midnight to 5am. Understand, it is already illegal to sleep in parks and the police readily admit they don't have the personnel to enforce that law, but hey, we need to give them another tool to criminalize poverty, don't we?

Sometimes we have tolerant instincts.

I have qualms about photographing people who appear to be living on the streets when I walk about San Francisco. Yet I take pictures of other people who appear more affluent walking their dogs, exercising, working outside … Street people have no refuge from my camera. I try to be respectful. After all, these are people. And certainly are these people are part of the San Francisco scene.

As a society, we know how to end homelessness: put people who don't have housing into houses. Yes, it is that simple, as well as cheaper and more humane than our labyrinthine social service bureaucracy. As formerly homeless author and journalist Charley James cogently explains, homelessness is "Cheaper to Fix Than to Let Fester."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A magic moment

And then the whole city of San Francisco stopping tearing our hair and erupted in screams on the 'Stick's last night.

Via GIFD Sports.

Merry Christmas to all: all dressed up for the season

San Francisco and the Bay Area may not be the least religious metropolitan area in the country, but it is in the top ten (6th, according to Gallop polling, last year.)

But that doesn't mean we don't decorate for the winter holiday. Here's a selection of San Francisco wreaths.

These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. Click to enlarge.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Yet another winter holiday

A friend has made me aware that this season of the winter solstice, Hannukah lights, and the birth of the Christ child is the time of a modern Hindu holiday, Pancha Ganapati, that honors the elephant deity Ganesha.

Images of Ganesha turn up moderately frequently on the streets of San Francisco. Here are some samples I've run across while pursuing my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. Click on any of them to see in larger size.

Not perhaps traditional images, but neither apparently is Pancha Ganapati a traditional holiday. Here in the northern hemisphere as we wait in hope for longer days and better times, may we all enjoy whatever holiday lifts our spirits!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bigger, better, faster athletes; how about better humans?

I find it intriguing to try to imagine how The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Sports Performance by David Epstein will hold up in ten years. The Sports Illustrated senior writer has digested the current state of genetic and sports knowledge and presents a vast compilation of that research in accessible, journalistic prose. I enjoyed it and learned from it. We're beginning to know a great deal about who is born with what sort of athletic capacities and what training can do to enhance that genetic inheritance (often as not much as we hope.) But the field is advancing so rapidly that many current conclusions may look primitive in the near future.

What's less likely to change is that this sort of research into human capacities will have us delving into terrain that can be upsetting to accepted social varities. The book's website offers a list of such touchy questions:

1. Are black athletes genetically predetermined to dominate both sprinting and distance running, and are their abilities influenced by Africa’s geography?

2. Are there genetic reasons to separate male and female athletes in competition?

3. Should we test the genes of young children to determine if they are destined for stardom?

4. Can genetic testing determine who is at risk of injury, brain damage, or even death on the field?

And we worry about "tracking" in education -- the practice of separating students into different levels largely based on performance on standardized tests! Think what we might do to people if our use of genetic information is ill-considered or simply bigoted. Yet we're going to find out.

Can better understanding of the implications of our individual, inherited genes -- who is naturally super fit (6 in 1900 according to one study) and who is a naturally high responder to athletic training (perhaps not the same individuals) -- end up reducing participation to only those few who happen to have been born with a particular positive genetic profile? Historically we've identified who will get the best results in which sports with a lot of trial, error and accident. But in the context of the "winner-take-all" market in sports (a concept Epstein credits to Robert H. Frank) will there be any room for the merely enthusiastic mediocre athlete?

As the customer base for viewing extraordinary athletic performances expanded, fame and financial rewards slanted toward the slim upper echelon of the performance pyramid. As those rewards have increased and become concentrated at the top level, the performers who win them have gotten faster, stronger, and more skilled.

Sure, that's how a market is supposed to work: sports uncover winners and we delight in the performances of these genetic outliers.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics only about 20 percent of us in the United States get the quantity of exercise that is currently considered healthy. (I'm not convinced that we have a scientifically based definition of what healthy activity would require for particular individuals, but I'm sure some kind of activity is healthy.) We've evolved a civilization in which exertion is optional. We aren't about to revert to painful drudgery if we can help it.

To survive in the social context we've created, we need to find ways to identify what activities might provide satisfaction to non-elite individuals. The potential to do this is implicit in the research Epstein describes; let's hope we choose to advance in that direction at the same time we devote resources to the few who can stretch the limits of human performance. What we do with the insights of performance genetics will be about social choices we make; that's a feature of being human in the age of the Anthropocene.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tis the season of East Armpit

Today it begins, one of my favorite times of the year, the 10 days or so days of minor football "bowl" games, many between squads from colleges I've barely heard of. Around our house, we call these the East Armpit bowls -- when the young gladiators from good old EA take on the boys from West Instep for gridiron glory on TV, all sponsored by outfits with names like Beef 'O' Brady, Franklin American Mortgage, and TaxSlayer.com.

I'll be trying to get at least a glimpse of all of them, not anticipating seeing scintillating football, though that too occasionally turns up. I agree with what Bill Connelly explained at SBNation:

… what you're looking for early in bowl season is motivation, energy, and interesting back stories.

The schools that get this TV exposure are required to have won at least six games over the past regular season. When the bowl organizers have a choice (some match ups are determined by contractual arrangements with various football conferences), they pick the available team most likely to turn out some paying fans. However in the early part of the Armpit season, a lot will take place in nearly empty stadiums.

Nine college teams had the six victories that would have qualified their program for the fun and profit, but weren't selected for any bowl: Central Michigan, Florida Atlantic, San Jose State University, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy, and University of Louisiana-Monroe. One had a 7-5 record: Toledo. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers went 8-4, but no post season for them. The last two teams both defeated Navy, whose bowl against Mississippi State is is reckoned the "least watchable" of the lot by SBNation's panel.

Most of these excluded schools (and many included ones) help fund their football teams by serving as patsies for major football powers; Oklahoma, Baylor, Michigan, Auburn, Miami, Missouri and Stanford fattened their records on some of these. This feature of college football economics, scheduling for losses and profit, makes total season "records" a weak measure of success among equally matched teams.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) issues an annual report card [pdf] on graduation rates at bowl bound schools. Though football "student athletes" do eventually graduate in higher numbers than racially matched non-athletes, there's still a big success gap between blacks and whites.

  • 69 schools (99 percent) had GSRs [Graduation Success Rates] of 66 percent or higher for white football student athletes, which was more than 2.6 times the number of schools with equivalent GSRs for African American football student athletes (26 schools or 37 percent). This disturbing statistic has increased slightly since last year.
  • There were no schools that graduated less than 40 percent of their white or African American football student athletes. This is an improvement from last year.
  • 16 schools (23 percent) had GSRs for African American football student athletes that were at least 30 percentage points lower than their rates for white football student athletes which is a slight decrease from 24 percent in the 2012.
  • Georgia (nine percentage points higher), Notre Dame (eight percentage points higher), Rice (five percentage points higher), Duke three percentage points higher), and Utah State (two percentage points higher) had Graduation Success Rates for their African American football student athletes that exceeded their rates for white football student athletes.

At least some of these young men are getting something out of all this besides concussions. Meanwhile, I enjoy my guilty pleasure.

Friday, December 20, 2013

San Francisco backlash building

Our elected officials are beginning to listen up.
They have to listen. In the neighborhoods, what's happening is all too obvious. So people come out on the streets with bullhorns.
Two tenants call out the speculator who is pushing them out of their home.
The national "paper of record" has taken note of the consequences of the tech boom:
More and more longtime residents are being forced out as landlords and speculators race to capitalize on the money stream.
This week local lawmakers chipped away at edges of the crisis brought by our economic tsunami.
At Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, two measures drawn up by Supervisor John Avalos aimed at increasing and preserving the city's stock of rental apartments passed unanimously on initial vote. One measure eases up zoning planning-code restrictions that have kept approximately 52,000 existing units in legal limbo, many of them unoccupied. The second measure makes it illegal for property owners to merge or demolish any rental units for ten years following an eviction.

A separate measure introduced by Supervisor David Campos also passed which will give top priority to Ellis Act-evicted tenants in placement in publicly funded housing.
There may be some pulling and hauling, but these tweaks to the housing laws will be enacted. Avalos and Campos have been on the case for the poor and middle class all along; our more money-oriented pols have noticed that they better listen to the surging angry chorus.
Supervisor David Campos addresses the rally.
As Campos said the other day
This is about the soul of the city …
Does San Francisco still have a soul?

Friday cat blogging: a few San Francisco cats

I always wonder, do they know we perceive them as beautiful? I think so.

I've been seen.

Relax -- I'll be getting on soon.

They seldom let me take their pictures when they are outside.

These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Yemen: a story from yet another failed U.S. conflict zone

A morsel of conventional advice hammered into aspiring writers is "show don't tell." Gregory D. Johnsen's The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia does exactly that. It wasn't until I'd finished the book that I fully took in its narrative power. The former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen carries his readers along on a fast-paced ramble through the history of this desert country on the south coast of the Arabian peninsula, its homegrown and imported Islamic terrorists, and the United States' fumbling, inconsistent responses.

Much of this terrain was familiar to me, having read FBI agent Ali Soufan's account of his investigation of the USS Cole bombing and having seen the movie version of Jeremy Scahill's expose of the U.S. drone campaign, Dirty Wars. But this was different, integrating a much more nuanced explication of Yemen's enormously complex tribal society which serves as a seed bed for AQAP's (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) flourishing. Many familiar, and far more unfamiliar, names flew by in Johnsen's story; what sets this account apart is that Johnsen conveys through vivid narration far more of the interior logic that drives all the actors than any other account I've read.

As a citizen of a country that Johnsen portrays as having chosen to ape the indiscriminate violence of the terrorists through our drone strike campaign -- hey, we just wiped out a wedding party this week -- what interested me most was Johnsen's picture of the incentives that pushed our political leaders in that direction. Only some of them seem to have been undiscriminating racist war hawks. Others simply drifted into what seemed the least bad option in the context of a U.S. population that demands they guarantee absolute security against terrorist threats. If Johnsen is accurate, and he certainly seems knowledgeable, our drone campaign has only made sure there will be more terrorists.

Unfortunately, I "read" the volume as an audiobook and was surprised to discover that neither of the two libraries I have access to owns the volume. They should. This is an important story. I usually go to print editions to pass on the flavor of books here. Fortunately I can share a taste of Johnsen's conclusions from a recent Foreign Policy article. He faults U.S. policy makers for failing to understand that combating Arab terrorists on their own turf in Yemen is very different from killing expatriate Islamist Arabs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He thinks the U.S. has mesmerized itself through focusing on a succession of known leaders rather than seeking to understand the local organizational structures AQAP has built. He concludes
The Obama administration's counterterrorism approach in Yemen is primarily concerned with preventing an immediate attack directed at America or its interests in the Middle East. This is a short-term goal that eclipses everything else, from long-term strategy to the stability of Yemen itself. The United States has yet to realize that this is not a war it can win on its own. Only the tribesmen and clerics in Yemen are in a position to decisively disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.

The United States can do a lot of good in Yemen, but it can also do a lot of harm. And right now it is playing a dangerous game, firing missiles at targets in the hopes that it can kill enough men to keep AQAP from plotting, planning, and launching an attack from Yemen. … it may be time to rethink that approach in favor of a strategy that's more sustainable -- and more sensible too.
I could add also less randomly cruel. Johnsen doesn't go in for that sort of judgment, but I do.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: seasonal disorder

It's happening. Reportedly supplies of the ubiquitous Christmas evergreen are falling as a consequence of rapid global warming.

The first report of Christmas tree shortages has arrived, with Fox News 44 reporting that tree crops in both Vermont and New Hampshire have been seriously compromised this year following an unexpected early heat wave in March and a summer of flash floods.

Though the young trees — some growing for a few years — had been able to withstand the warmer temperatures in late winter, they were unable to hold up to the subsequent flooding in the summer, tree farmer Bob White told the station. “It probably took out as much as half the farm,” he said. “You get used to 20, 30 years of how everything works, and now you don’t know anymore.”

… Most farmers said the death of trees wouldn’t reflect in Christmas tree prices this year, but the loss had left some farmers saying they wouldn’t replant. So even though the full-grown trees are still widely available, the crop set to be fully matured six to 10 years from now might be at risk.

Climate instability means tree farmers no longer know what to expect and consequently will leave the dicey business if they can.

That's bad in itself. Plant biologist Clint Springer, of Saint Joseph’s University, explains:

“At this time of year, choosing a real Christmas tree is one way that an average person can make a difference in terms of climate change,” Springer says. “A study as recent as 2009 (Ellipsos) concluded that a 7-foot cut tree’s impact on climate is 60 percent less than a 7-foot artificial tree used for six years. So while cut trees are not carbon-neutral, in terms of carbon-use, they are better than artificial trees.”

We've decided we have to forego a tree altogether this year; Morty the cat is an inveterate, uncontrollable climber. A tree wouldn't last long. But I'll be sad if we're coming into a time when this indulgence in northern European winter rites is entirely replaced with plastic.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Who sews your t-shirt?

This week I took advantage of pre-Christmas sales to pick up a couple of cheap "travel t-shirts" -- the mostly polyester kind that squash well, wash well and keep their shape unto death, no matter what I do to them.

The particular items are imports from Vietnam, but they could easily have come from Bangaldesh or Columbia. This video shares a little about the lives of women who make such things.

"I imagine the people who are going to use the T-shirt are people are from the United States. Gringos. Fat people. Because the shirts that we make are immense.

PEOPLE: Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt (Part III) from NPR on Vimeo.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Is all-out war in our future?

We can certainly hope not, but over the weekend historian Margaret MacMillan pointed out a similarity between an earlier period of rapid globalization and terrible inequalities and our own times. She's promoting a new book about how Europe plunged the globe into carnage in 1914. (I wrote about her previous volume on the peace treaty that followed World War I here.) She observes in the New York Times:

Like our predecessors a century ago, we assume that all-out war is something we no longer do. The French Socialist leader Jean Jaur├Ęs, a man of great wisdom who tried unsuccessfully to stanch the rise of militarism in the early years of the 20th century, understood this well. “Europe has been afflicted by so many crises for so many years,” he said on the eve of World War I, and “it has been put dangerously to the test so many times without war breaking out, that it has almost ceased to believe in the threat …”

I wonder whether something similar could be said about the decades since the end of the Cold War. For the forty years prior to 1989, the world lived under the waxing and waning threat of nuclear annihilation by the competing blocs. When the Soviet Union went belly up, that existential threat receded, but we've lived amidst alarms and smaller wars ever since. These have been brutal, devastating conflicts for those who lived directly in their path, but remote for the rest of us. But do citizens of the United States delude ourselves when we assume that U.S. military pre-eminence means that we cannot see big wars again? I want to highlight two potential conflict zones.

First, President Obama is genuinely trying to change the game in the Middle East by talking with Iran. That seems all to the good. After all, Iran exists, a large, populous, historic country that isn't going to fade away. Policies that pretend countries don't exist are both arrogant and stupid. But a strange coalition consisting of Israel and the Middle East's most reactionary oil monarchies is working overtime to derail the prospect of peace. And they have lots of allies in Congress, well bought and paid for over decades. U.S. diplomat Robert E. Hunter points out what a big break with the past the current talks represent:

This is the end of the Cold War with Iran, (accurately) defined as a state when it is not possible to distinguish between what is negotiable and what is not. Going back to that parlous state would require a major act of Iranian bad faith, perfidy, or aggression, not at all in its self-interest.

… like any good earthquake, the extent, the impact, and even the direction it travels will not be clear for some time.  But one thing is clear: much is now different, and despite serious down-side risks, that can be positive if people in power will make it so.  As said by John Kennedy, the 50th anniversary of whose assassination also came this past week, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man.”

The people of the United States are war weary enough so that we mostly hope this policy turn will succeed, despite the concerted campaign in the interest of the states that oppose the deal to change our minds. If the Iran negotiations fail, the stage would be set not only for another foolish, fruitless and deadly Middle East war, but also for escalating tensions with Russia and China. We could blunder into an all-out war of the sort we think currently the world has moved beyond.

The other growing theater of danger is China's periphery. Sometime in the next few years China will become the world's largest economy. That doesn't mean individual Chinese will be as well off as North Americans or Europeans, it means that there are a lot of Chinese and the country has successfully turned their energy, industry and resources toward the production of wealth. From the Chinese perspective, their proud and accomplished country is encircled by suspicious neighbors -- think Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, even Russia -- all to varying degrees in league with the United States to keep it a lesser force in its own region and the world.

Emergent powers can be touchy and a little erratic. They've got something to prove to states under whose dominance they've suffered. The Chinese authorities are riding a domestic political tiger, a state where economic accomplishment is not accompanied by either the political freedoms some of its citizens hope for or the environmental controls that world improve everyone's ongoing welfare. Encouraging an assertive domestic nationalism is how states often respond to such pressures. Many Chinese carry a strong historical memory of past wrongs, especially a brutal occupation by Japan in the 30s and 40s. So do Koreans.

Meanwhile, the United States has enjoyed being unchallenged top empire in the Pacific and East Asia since 1945. Our authorities are not likely to take kindly to Chinese assertiveness. It is going to require brains and restraint from all parties in Asia not to blunder into a wide war. The interests of most U.S. citizens will be best served by policies that integrate us into a multi-polar world rather than policies that seek to continue U.S. pre-eminence over everyone else. But can our political leaders give us such policies?

As MacMillan says of pre-World War I Europeans, we think we live in a planetary civilization that's beyond all-out wars. But are we?
This post owes much the ongoing commentary on U.S. imperial antics at James Fallows' blog and to conversations with my WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras colleagues.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Snapshot from LGBT South Africa

South Africa is well ahead of the U.S. and even much of Europe in legalizing gay and lesbian marriages. Legal status and protections for gay people were a byproduct of what South Africans used to call "The Struggle" -- the long, painful organized social movement that ended white rule and created a non-racial democracy. The Struggle unleashed expansive visions of human freedom -- freedom that was construed to include gay people.

I've written what I observed of this moment previously.

Nelson Mandela's death marks the definitive end of The Struggle era. Forty percent of South Africans were born after the historic election in 1994 that made Mandela -- four years out of prison -- the country's first President elected by universal suffrage. Democracy has not ended grotesque economic inequality nor even brought widespread prosperity. The new era has been concurrent with the world's worst rate of AIDS infection, a coincidence that has been devastating to the country's self-image and confidence.

In this troubled context, South African gays, especially interracial couples, are necessarily anxious. And outside the comfortable classes in the cities, conditions for gays can be brutal. Black South African lesbians and transgender folks are at particular risk. Activist and photographer Zanele Muholi explained this to a U.S. audience recently:

... the expansion of legal rights for the LGBTQ community has been undermined by a rash of hate crimes against these groups — particularly black lesbians.

According to Muholi, this disconnect between the promise of protection under the South African constitution and the actual experience of the black lesbian community has become a point of contention for her.

“It’s one thing to say that we are protected by the constitution, but it’s another to see that the constitution is practical,” Muholi said.

Of the hate crimes endured, Muholi said, the most heinous is known as corrective or curative rape, in which lesbian women are raped by men in the belief that the act will somehow change the sexual orientation of the victim.

The difficult evolution of the "new" South Africa is a reminder that a struggle for freedom and justice never ends. It just changes form ...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: Santa in San Fran

The old guy in a red suit gets around these days.

Sometimes he peeks out from among the bushes.

Usually he's a big guy. Some representations of his reindeer are more minimalist.

The season also brings out snow dogs …

... and snow men.

All these are outtakes from my photo project: 596 Precincts-Walking San Francisco.