Saturday, May 31, 2014

Maya Angelou remembered

 When you have nowhere else to post your memorial ...
you tape it to your cart.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Health policy follies at the local level

Supervisor David Campos trying to make the city health insurance system work for all
Nothing in health policy is simple -- and since the existing profiteers (insurers and their running buddies in hospitals, medical device sales, and big pharma) decree we can't simplify it by making the government the single payer, we must navigate an awkward edifice of teetering workarounds.

San Francisco has had a Health Care Security Ordinance (HCSO) since 2006 that aims to give every resident access to insurance. The Restaurant Association fought this measure tooth and nail because they don't like paying toward care for their underpaid labor force, but eventually it launched. Most San Franciscans, including the undocumented and people excluded in other categories, got some kind of coverage and health access. Good.

Then along came Obamacare, a worthy, but different, approach to the similar ends. In this state called Covered California, it doesn't cover the migrants. And lots of low paid San Franciscans still can't afford insurance on the market exchanges, even with the federal subsidies. So the Healthy San Francisco program, through the city's Public Health Department, has promised that these people can stay on the coverage they already have.

And there is even a pot of money that could be used to pay for this -- but to get at it would require amending the HCSO. Under that law, employers have been paying into health saving accounts for their workers. The idea was that this money could be used for dental or eye care or to bridge the cost of insurance. But this turned out (unintended consequences and all) to work very poorly. Workers couldn't or didn't get the funds when they needed them. In 2012 employers put $107 million into health accounts and paid out $26.4 million. Employers think this is fine; after two years if their payments have not been used, they can take the money back! At one hearing, I heard a restauranteur explain that this was an essential part of her "cash management" strategy.

But this is not supposed to be the restaurant owners' money! It is supposed to pay for health care access for their employees. And the way that Obamacare was written, that money can't just be given to the employees to help them purchase subsidized insurance. That would be too simple.

A Chronicle story captured one worker's point of view:

For [Brent] Sanchez [a waiter and bartender], it makes sense that his employer's contributions would help subsidize insurance, since he and other workers will be subject to a penalty under federal law if they don't have full health coverage.

"Consumers are paying for it, and my company is paying for it while I am on the floor," he said. "Then I am not going to see it?"

That, he said, doesn't add up.

Campos has been working for years to close the loophole in the HCSO; he's now agreed to let the Public Health Department study how they'd use this money to provide access for another year while setting a deadline for action of January 2016. As of a hearing Thursday, he'd lined up four co-sponsors on the 11 member board. That's plenty enough to force a real debate on this; do the rest of the supervisors represent the business owners or the people of the city? That usually seems to be the question these days.
If you've followed this thus far, you know why I support David Campos in the race for Tom Ammiano's Assembly seat. We need people who can thread their way through this stuff -- and who know whose side they are on!

Friday cat blogging

Sometimes I think Morty should take up modeling.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"I hope we shall all go to Heaven together. "

Here's another tidbit from U.S. history that I've encountered for the first time while reading The Founding Fathers (American Presidents). Perhaps every school child knows about this, but I'd never heard before of Abigail Adams' report to her husband, the second U.S. president, about how she'd dealt with a neighbor who had attacked "the principle of Liberty and equality." From the web archive of the Massachusetts Historical Society, here's her 1797 letter:

I have been much diverted with a little occurence which took place a few days since and which serve to shew how little founded in nature the so much boasted principle of Liberty and equality is. Master Heath has opend an Evening School to instruct a Number of Apprentices Lads cyphering at a shilling a week, finding their own wood and candles.

James desired that he might go. I told him to go with my compliments to Master Heath and ask him if he would take him. He did and Master Heath returnd for answer that he would. Accordingly James went.

After about a week, Neighbour Faxon came in one Evening and requested to speak to me. His Errant was to inform me that if James went to School, it would break up the School for the other Lads refused to go.

Pray Mr. Faxon has the Boy misbehaved? If he has let the Master turn him out of school.

O no, there was no complaint of that kind, but they did not chuse to go to School with a Black Boy.

And why not object to going to meeting because he does Mr. Faxon? Is there not room enough in the School for him to take his seperate forme? Yes. Did these Lads ever object to James playing for them when at a dance? How can they bear to have a Black in the Room with them there?

O it is not I that object, or my Boys. It is some others.

Pray who are they? Why did not they come themselves?

This Mr. Faxon is attacking the principle of Liberty and equality upon the only Ground upon which it ought to be supported, an equality of Rights. The Boy is a Freeman as much as any of the young Men, and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? Is this the Christian principle of doing to others, as we would have others do to us?

O Mam, you are quite right. I hope you wont take any offence.

None at all Mr. Faxon, only be so good as to send the young men to me. I think I can convince them that they are wrong. I have not thought it any disgrace to my self to take him into my parlour and teach him both to read and write. Tell them Mr. Faxon that I hope we shall all go to Heaven together.

Upon which Faxon laugh'd, and thus ended the conversation. I have not heard any more upon the subject.

President John Adams is a very problematic figure. His biographer in this series, John Patrick Diggins, is more appreciative of his political thought than I might be. But Adams' early adherence to abolition of Black slavery -- in which Abigail obviously concurred -- makes him more sympathetic today than he might otherwise seem.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Betting (and profiting) on climate change

Under capitalism, society is organized so that the only reliable incentive to innovation is for someone to make money. We don't seem likely to do away with capitalism anytime soon, so combatting global warming, if we do it, will have to happen in a context of private profit. David Atkins at Political Animal thinks we have an unlikely ally:

... rising sea levels and more frequent natural disasters will either make many areas uninsurable, or insurance companies will go bankrupt trying to insure them (and the same goes for insurance backed by the federal government.) Insurance companies have an existential need to get ahead of the curve on the climate question.

And he points to a Christian Science Monitor report:

A major insurance company is accusing dozens of localities in Illinois of failing to prepare for severe rains and flooding in lawsuits that are the first in what could be a wave of litigation over who should be liable for the possible costs of climate change. ...

"It's a long shot for the insurance companies, but it's not completely implausible, and if you have enough cases like this going forward it might build some helpful precedent," said Robert Verchick, who served on the Obama administration's Climate Change Adaptation Task Force.

He said insurance companies are vocal about the rising costs of global warming and want to push cities to invest in prevention as a way to avoid future lawsuits.

We might get some meaningful mitigation efforts out of this economic pressure, I suppose. How come I remain convinced that the people who've profited from our addiction to fossil fuels will pay less of the costs than the ordinary shlubs who find themselves blown away or flooded out?
When Robert Shiller was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2013, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution explained his intellectual bent:

... most people who think that markets can be inefficient are anti-market. Shiller’s solution to market problems, however, is more markets!

So we probably should not be surprised that Shiller thinks the outlandish products of contemporary financial markets can help with climate adaptation. He wants more opportunities for Wall Street to make money from global catastrophe. warming needs to be addressed by the private institutions of risk management, such as insurance and securitization. They have deep experience in smoothing out disasters’ effects by sharing them among large numbers of people. The people or entities that are hit hardest are helped by those less badly damaged. ...

We already have weather derivatives that can help, like the 50 contracts in 13 countries offered by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A ski resort can already buy protection against inadequate snowfall and a city can buy protection against too much snowfall next winter by, in effect, taking the opposite side of the same futures contract (through the exchange), thereby pooling their opposite risks. There are also catastrophe bonds, like the three-year, $1.5 billion Everglades Re Ltd. issue sponsored this month by the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation. It would provide relief to the insurer of Floridians hit by a bad hurricane; in such an event, the bond holders would bear losses.

...We have a crucial need to bring innovation to our risk-management institutions. We need to make them flexible, to clarify their long-term international legal status, to develop mechanisms and indexes that can be the basis of long-term risk management contracts and to educate the public about them. Most important, we need concrete action now to build a mechanism that will provide real help for the victims of climate-change disasters.

New York Times, May 24, 2014

Shiller is obviously a brilliant guy, looking for a decent response to crisis from the sector of social activity that is his area of expertise. I find this sort of financial gamesmanship repulsive. I cling to an instinct that human beings were made for cooperation, not competition gone feral. But climate crisis will take all kinds.

"... reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity ..."

Another prescription for a well-functioning republic to which I was pointed by reading The Founding Fathers (American Presidents):

In every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them. The great object should be to combat the evil: 1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort. ...

James Madison, 1792

Say it, Mr. Madison. He would have had no problem recognizing whereof Thomas Piketty writes.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"The haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom..."

Over the long weekend, I had time to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations. Don't miss it. Take the time.

I have no trouble with Coates' call for discussion of reparations owed to African American citizens. Having lived inside California's fight over affirmative action -- the white majority outlawed it by popular vote in 1996 -- I know well that African Americans don't get a fair start in life from schools, from neighborhoods or from the criminal justice system. White supremacy is in the very air we breathe -- far more foully polluted in black neighborhoods than in white ones.

These days I'm reading the early history of the Republic, something I skated over in university, too much of an intellectual snob to care much about my own story when I could immerse myself in European and world stories. One of the conundrums of U.S. history has been how the founding fathers could so ringingly assert that "all men are created equal" and concurrently write a Constitution that embedded chattel slavery defined by race in the fabric of their new nation.

The first section of The Founding Fathers (American Presidents), consisting of historians James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn writing about George Washington, pointed me to this explanation from the English conservative Edmund Burke when he tried to explain to Parliament in 1775 why it would serve no purpose to try to coerce their uppity colonists.

... in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free, are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege.

Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing, and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude, liberty looks, amongst them, like something that is more noble and liberal. I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man. The fact is so; and these people of the southern colonies are much more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit, attached to liberty.... Such were all the ancient commonwealths; such were our Gothic ancestors; such in our days were the Poles; and such will be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves.

In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible.

Burke concluded that pride in liberty created by living at the apex of a slave system would make the colonists too expensive to subdue. That a slave-owning class would feel a particular devotion to its own liberty as reinforcing its own privileged status seemed only natural to this insightful 18th century political thinker.

Overcoming this white supremacy stuff has never been simple.

Monday, May 26, 2014

War deaths remembered

The San Franciscans who commissioned this monument dedicated in 1903 to the valor of California's soldiers in the Spanish American War evidently didn't share the contemporary sense that death in war is a terrible waste. Hence the detail in the photo. Those who commissioned the memorial were apparently wildly enthusiastic about the 1898 conquest of the Philippines and Cuba and thought the war worth the price of some of their young men. Where we see squandered lives, they saw heroism.

The United States lost a little over 3200 soldiers and sailors in that adventure, nearly 3000 of those to disease.
The Spanish American War was my grandfather's war. He served as captain of Company C of the New York State 202nd Infantry Regiment. Family lore was that the regiment never saw combat; instead they mostly became ill on arrival in the Caribbean. My grandfather's obituary reports the unit was nonetheless among the first to march into Havana.

The young Frank Sidway cut a handsome figure in his dress uniform. I never knew him; he died, as a 68 year old civilian, a decade before I was born.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

All stirred up in the Mission

Middle school students at Horace Mann have marked the end of their instructional year with a long strip mural painted on the building. I needed five shots to capture it all. Click on the first one to cycle through the pictures.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

#CloseGitmo in San Francisco and more anti-torture activism

Ending torture and unjust imprisonment requires never giving up. On Friday a little crowd set out to remind our San Francisco neighbors and confused tourists that the United States' gulag is still open and that vicious force-feeding is still being inflicted on prisoners who have been cleared for release.

This upcoming program will bring together people working against torture in U.S. prisons and people struggling against the abuse-filled so-called "War on Terror."

Below you can listen to Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture, spreading the word on the Drew Marshall Show, described as “Canada’s Most Listened To Spiritual Talk Show.”

A brave and generous doctor

We met Dr. Richard Gross, who succumbed to a cancerous tumor on Friday, during our hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2002. When you sign up for an organized trip, you never quite know what -- or rather who -- you'll find yourself thrown in with. (We've had terrific luck actually, but you never know.) We lucked out in finding Dick and Robin in our party.

Climbing Kili was not easy. We were unlucky in the weather. We had rain and snow most of the way to the 19,300 foot high summit. Three of our original party of 12 were forced down along the way by harsh conditions and altitude sickness. Aging tourists can only attempt this adventure because their gear is hauled along by an army of Tanzanian porters, only some of whom can afford proper shoes and clothing. For the porters, this is a good job!

After a long day, our third day in sleet, snow and rain, we camped at about 13,000 feet. Overnight, it became obvious that some of us would have to give up the climb. Late that night, an incoherent porter stumbled off the mountain into our cook tent. It rapidly became clear that he had been abandoned when he couldn't carry his load by the tour group that had hired him. Dick identified his symptoms as severe pulmonary edema. He guessed the man very well might die overnight. So Dick insisted that our guides break out the oxygen they hoarded for an emergency among the tourists. After a night with some breathing help, the porter joined those of our party who were going down and everyone turned out just fine.

Dick, a self-effacing, amiable man, had risen to the special moment when he needed to break out his expert authority and use it. His insistence on treating the porter broke the frame within which a tourist trip to a high mountain usually remains locked: the guides as knowing, parental figures; the tourists as dependent, infantilized semi-children in an unfamiliar environment.

I never discussed this with Dick, but I am sure he wouldn't have thought he did anything special. And he certainly did something most of us would have wished to have done in his place. But knowing when to breach conventional roles requires habits of right living that we might all seek to emulate: generosity, courage, compassion.

We stayed in touch with Dick and Robin and so have followed his two year struggle with his disease through Robin's updates. At one point she wrote:

He still has such a cheerful outlook and a sense of humor despite recognizing his weaknesses. He is filled with gratitude of having lived a full life and being blessed with so many friends and family who are there for him. He just constantly amazes me!

Dick Gross amazed and delighted so many people. He will be profoundly missed.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Has the U.S. begun a new Cold War?

Anti-war demonstration in Kiev, Ukraine, May 22, 2014

A friend wrote recently: "I've not been having the most easy time understanding what's up in Russia. I found this op-ed in The Nation pretty helpful for getting a new perspective on things." I agreed. Katrina vanden Heuval and Steven F. Cohen are very alarmed by the United States' behavior in relation to Russia in the Ukraine crisis and more generally. There's a lot still to play out here and they've got a point:

Cold War Against Russia -- Without Debate
Future historians will note that in April 2014, nearly a quarter-century after the end of the Soviet Union, the White House declared a new Cold War on Russia -- and that, in a grave failure of representative democracy, there was scarcely a public word of debate, much less opposition, from the American political or media establishment.

... all this has come with the virtually unanimous, bipartisan support, or indifference, of the US political establishment, from left to right, Democrats and Republicans, progressives (whose domestic programs will be gravely endangered) and conservatives. It has also been supported by mainstream media that shape and reflect policy-making opinion, from the Times and The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal, from The New Republic to The Weekly Standard, from MSNBC to Fox News, from NPR to commercial radio news. ... not one of the 535 members of Congress has publicly expressed doubts about the White House’s new “Cold War strategy of containment.”

I don't know if the label "Cold War" is entirely accurate for reasons I'll get into in a moment, but I am profoundly concerned that our rulers seem so confident that they can dictate to the world's other largest possessor of nuclear weapons as if it were a minor flyspeck of a country. No country likes to be humiliated and dismissed. This kind of U.S. imperial insouciance isn't working very well these days; much of the world has noticed that they can defy the U.S. at least for awhile; ask the Maliki in Iraq or the Pakistani spooks and the Taliban.

The current unquestioned elite consensus never delves into whether Russia might have legitimate concerns when many Ukrainians, some European governments, and the United States, at least reflexively, want to extend alliances Russia view as hostile -- the European Union and NATO -- right up to Russia's borders. There's a whole lot of pain and history mixed into the intra-Ukrainian dispute with all its ramifications. All U.S. rulers seem able to do is fall back on old nostrums.

Because this plays to the mix of ignorance and U.S. triumphalism ordinary citizens of this country revert to when, if at all, we think of Russia, it is easy for our rulers to walk us into dangerous waters with no public discussion. Sure, contemporary Russia isn't the old Soviet Union. It is much reduced territorially and economically; Putin's xenophobic nationalism echoes similar sentiments in other countries, but this kind of nationalism doesn't offer much foundation for any widespread international bloc opposed to Europe and the United States. Nationalists aren't well equipped for making common cause with other nationalists for very long.

All this could lead to Ukrainian civil war, Russian intervention, even a wider war, especially if leaders continue to have a free hand, without democratic discussion, to blunder about in dangerous waters.

But there are some interesting counter trends, suggestions that the rift with Putin's Russia is not so far reaching as our media portray it. Russia saved President Obama's ass last fall by sponsoring a deal with Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad to organize the removal of that government's chemical weapons stockpile. This was a brilliant coup for President Putin (especially since investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has published some plausible evidence that the terrible precipitating gas attack was carried out by Turkish-sponsored insurgent rebels, not Assad's forces.) As far as I can find reported, chemical weapons removal under international control is still going on quite successfully, despite disputes about the last 7 percent of a stockpile at one site.

Even more important, nothing -- neither Israeli intransigence, nor U.S. posturing about Ukraine -- seems to have yet derailed the multi-party talks about Iran's nuclear industry. Cooperation with Russia is essential to those talks, yet they seem to be proceeding, despite recurrent stumbling blocks. After all, the U.S. and Iran haven't talked respectfully for 35 years; it takes some time to re-establish communication, much less cooperation.

If Syrian chemical weapons disposal fails and the Iran nuke talks collapse and media outside the United States point the finger at Russia, I'll take seriously the talk of a new "Cold War." Until then, I think we may be unfortunate enough to be spectators as our country becomes embroiled in yet another imperial muddle, risking much more serious trouble without any popular consultation. Such initiatives end badly.

Friday cat blogging

It's hard to know whether we'd get anything done around here without close supervision.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

We're a murderous species with a capacity for virtue

Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is one scary book. New Yorker stalwart Kolbert wandered the world, interviewing scientists, accompanying their expeditions into remote environments, and listening to their conclusions:

"One-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion ... And the losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific, in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and in the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys.

This book is not another plea that we humans recognize human-caused climate change, though it certainly includes that message. Rather, this book documents that human activity, the ordinary life of our inventive, fertile species, has been and continues to precipitate a mass extinction event of an order of magnitude seen only five previous times in planetary history. That's what we do, mostly inadvertently; we kill off other living things; we might be on the way to killing ourselves off too.

I want to pull out a few conceptual frames that are important in Kolbert's narrative, not so much because they are novel, but because they are helpful to understanding what we can know about the world we live in.
  • New Pangea: Three hundred million years ago, scientists believe that the planet had only one land mass, a supercontinent they call Pangea. Over a long, long time span, Pangea broke apart. Evolving life forms ceased to interact and branched off in unique directions. Eventually island continents arose; life forms evolved away from their ancestors even further; eventually the planet threw up (most obviously) Australia with its unique flora and fauna.

    Today our ability to move around the world rapidly is bringing together organisms of all sorts that never encountered each other in their original habitats. Often what we label "invasive" species easily supersede (kill off) the former inhabitants. That seems to be what is happening with the rapidly spreading chytrid fungus that is killing many frogs. Rapid dispersal of novel life forms is also, of course, a threat to humans as we carry around previously localized diseases such as eboli, HIV, SARS and now the camel virus MERS. This is the New Pangea.
  • Anthomes: Once upon a time, it would have been accurate to describe the planet as consisting of discrete environments -- biomes -- in which evolving humanoids were simply one species among many natives. We called these "grasslands," "rain forests," etc. Now some thinkers use a different mental map for segmenting the planet. No part of the world is untouched by the activities of our species. There is nowhere that is truly "wild." Hence the concept of Anthomes, areas whose environment bears a particular relationship to the activities of the naked ape, such as dense settlements, croplands, and "semi-natural" remnants. This a different way of looking at how life survives, sometimes thrives, and everywhere is undergoing of sort of accelerated struggle to adapt and evolve to the rapid changes we are injecting into the places where it lives.
  • the Anthropocene: Geologists, paleontologists, and earth scientists employ a geologic time scale for measuring past events in the planet's history. You've probably heard some of these terms like "Jurassic" or "Paleozoic," etc. If you are not a scientist, you probably never tried to keep them straight. "Anthropocene" has been formally proposed to geologists for adoption as the name for the current "epoch" -- the time frame in which humans have been rapidly altering the planetary reality. Many scientists have adopted this usage.
Kolbert is not sanguine about the future we are creating. She concludes the book with a review of what is known about our ancestor's successful extermination of large animals in the Americas, our present pressure on the few remaining large mammals in the present, and finally, our apparent elimination of close cousin humanoids -- the Neanderthals -- some of whose DNA we carry.

Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did. ...

... As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed beyond the limits of that world. ...

... With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it ....

Yes, this is a scary book. And there can be no question that, unless we deflect ourselves, humans are on a glide path to mass extinction that includes our own. Much destruction is already underway, irreversible. Should we choose to survive what we have made, we'll need to cultivate and make actual the sort of virtues that human thinkers have propounded from ancient times: courage, practicality, prudence, hope and faith. Mere glibness and self-interest aren't enough.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sign of the (local) times

When an employer thinks she should sell her workplace to prospective hires, you know job seekers have choices. Nice for the San Francisco Mission District ... what about the rest of the country?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dropping in on war and horror, thirty years ago and today

Tyler Hicks is a Pulitzer prizing winning photographer, a witness to many of the world's most violent conflicts. He was one of four U.S. journalists captured by Gaddafi's forces during the Libyan insurrection; he traveled into insurgent Syria with the reporter Anthony Shadid and brought out his companion's body when Shadid succumbed to an asthma attack; most recently, he accidentally found himself at a Nairobi, Kenya, shopping mall while invading terrorists killed 61 civilians and five security personnel in the fall of 2013. During a recent NPR interview, Terry Gross asked him how someone goes on facing that kind of death and horror and remains emotionally stable.

... I find that it's more after that you realize how much you're shaken in these things, like you -- I remember not long after that assignment, I was back in the States, I was in Connecticut with my sister, and we were just going for a run.

We were down by the beach in my hometown, and there was some work being done on a house, and there was a hydraulic nail gun that they were using, and it really sounds a lot like incoming gunfire with this thing. And as we were running, I put a few nails in, and I literally kind of like almost hit the ground. And my sister's reaction was like oh my God, you should look at yourself, man. I mean, you totally thought you were just being shot at.

I've seen that reflex. Thirty years ago today, my much loved partner flew off to spend six months in the war zones of Nicaragua, to bear witness to the Contra (counter-revolutionary) war against the popular government financed and incited by the United States.

Before she flew away, she mused about how the experience might change her:

... sometimes I am terrified. I don't want to die in Nicaragua. And you know that I give myself a good 95 percent chance of coming back whole, if not unchanged. ...There's something strange to me about being able to drop for six months into the danger the people of Nicaragua live with ...

Letters from Nicaragua

Nothing nearly so dramatic happened to her as has been lived by Hicks, but Nicargua's war was no picnic either. She escaped injury, interviewed survivors of Contra terror, and several times was present in towns that took mortar and machine gun fire, but fortunately escaped actual assault. Her exposure to war was nothing on what so many soldiers and civilians are now enduring. But unlike most of us in the United States, she has been to war.

And for several years after she returned, she had the sort of reflex reactions Tyler Hicks describes. In those days, the Fourth of July in San Francisco's Mission District meant crowds setting off every form of fireworks anyone could obtain from nearby counties where selling them was a seasonal business. You didn't drive; the streets were impassable, full of Roman candles, rockets, and cherry bombs. We had to get Rebecca out of town for the night, lest she jump under the furniture.

But this reaction passed.

Still the question remains, was she changed by dropping into someone's war? I can't assess that. I was and am too close. She remained a "brave, silly little" person, as she described herself then.

Today she starts many of her presentations about her book Mainstreaming Torture by explaining that she first met torture victims in Central America so long ago. What once was mainly visible to those who would travel to strange places is being pushed into public view at home, by journalists and by the victims. How do we internalize living in a context where seeing the unthinkable is more and more possible, if we choose to look? Do we choose to look?

In which I become a Jill Abramson partisan

And not just for this fine pugilistic image!

This from among the voluminous commentary on New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger's clumsy dismissal of the first woman to run his newsroom brings me firmly to her side:

Sulzberger had brought Thompson in to be a turnaround artist, rethinking the newspaper’s role in a media world evolving at hyperspeed. But Thompson's role as house philosopher grated on Abramson. A particular flashpoint was Thompson’s emphasis on video. Abramson was skeptical. “Jill does not like video,” a person familiar with her thinking told me. “She thought there is nothing more boring than two print people talking in front of a camera about a story you can you read in a minute.”

I hate videos in information media. Sure, we have the tools to make the things and sometimes they can prove their creators are clever. I'll even pass along ones I find clever.

But video is slow. I can read most anything more rapidly. I don't want to watch a slow medium; I want information. As Michelle Goldberg added at the Nation:

There’s no ethical problem with pouring resources into video, but it’s still not a good idea. There is, in fact, something a little desperate about print organizations rushing into a field that doesn’t play to their strengths. Text is simply a better medium for delivering the news, which is why even TV news websites like CNN and MSNBC are so text-heavy.

In general, I found the Times becoming more interesting during the Abramson era. For those with eyes to see, there was a woman's influence in its editorial decisions, without sacrifice of any journalistic values that I find worthwhile. After the rather pathetically conventional Bill Keller, probably almost any change in direction would have been an improvement. Let's hope Dean Baquet can make his own further improvements despite Sulzberger's fumbling leadership. We do still need a national newspaper.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Are you registered to vote?

The San Francisco Department of Elections does a decent job of reminding people that they need to sign up if they are newcomers or have recently moved. Today, May 19, is the last day to do this in time to vote on June 3. You can even do it online, right now.

Maybe soon we'll have election day voter registration, as ten states and the District of Columbia do now. California enacted this reform in 2012, but awaits certification by the Secretary of State that we have a voter database that can handle it. All experience suggests that reducing registration hurdles increases turnout measurably.
While on the subject of elections, check out this database toy that let's you plug in a last name (perhaps your own) and discover the likelihood that a person with that name is a Republican or a Democrat, by state, and whether that person will probably vote in November. Scroll down for the goodies.

This widget illustrates just a tiny fraction of the information that big data analysis gives political campaigns for shaping their turnout tactics and targets. I imagine the maker put it online as an advertisement.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Two Davids and assorted June 3 primary miscellany

San Franciscans living in the 17th Assembly District have been exceptionally fortunate in our representation in Sacramento. Tom Ammiano is the termed out incumbent; you might think an outrageous queer comic would be just marginal in the state capitol, but you'd be wrong. After 14 often difficult years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors which included shepherding a local health insurance plan through that body, Ammiano matured into an exceptional legislator. At the state level, he not only stood up for legalizing pot when such an initiative wasn't cool, but also sponsored a bill of rights for domestic workers, new restrictions on use of solitary confinement by state prisons, protections for transgender students, and the Trust Act to get California out of the business of helping federal agents deport innocuous immigrants.

Tom Ammiano is a conviction politician who works for a better, more fair society because he knows in his gut what it is like to be on the wrong end of harmful discrimination.

The 17th Assembly District can elect another individual who runs for office out of something deeper than personal ambition: David Campos. Campos succeeded Ammiano on the Board of Supervisors. He too is gay; he's an immigrant from Guatemala, a lawyer, a smart policy guy. He's also endorsed by Ammiano. But above all, Campos knows why he wants to go to Sacramento:

“It’s not all about the legislation you pass, it’s about the social change you effectuate.” And he noted: “With this David, you don’t need a lobbying effort to get me to do the right thing.”

48 Hills, 1/23/14

As Campos indicates, there's another David in this race, David Chiu, also from immigrant roots. Chiu has been on the Board about as long as Campos; he's shown himself to be an ambitious pol. He presents himself as someone who is "trying to work behind the scenes to get things done." I'm sure Chiu would be a reliable Democratic vote. But we can do better than send up just another time serving Democratic politician who makes a career of pleasing political donors. I've been lucky to be represented by someone who has moved the definitions of what is possible. I want another one of those. David Campos is my guy.
Because of our stupid "top two" voting system, these two guys will slug it out again in November. There's no Republican in this one.
There's another race on the June ballot where San Francisco voters could actually use the "top two" system to good effect. I often complain here that having Nancy Pelosi leading the Democratic caucus means San Franciscans have no real representation in Congress. Pelosi's main job means she owes her allegiance to the Party, not her constituents. She'll be re-elected overwhelmingly in November; no problem there. But instead of her token opposition being some anonymous Republican, if enough of us want to, we can make the indefatigable activist and Green Party stalwart Barry Hermanson the other candidate for Congress on the ballot in November. He'd get 10-15 percent, just as the Republican would. This would be a nice little demonstration, certainly worth a primary vote.
Looking at the ballot, there's Leland Yee's name at the top of the list for Secretary of State. Too bad about that one. I would have voted for him if the bribery and gun running caper hadn't come out. He was never a reliable progressive, though he usually came through for the unions. But generally I think progressives gain from having statewide officials come out of the politics of this town. We knock 'em around in a good way; when they move up in the world, they look like flaming liberals to many people. The political culture here is good for them. Too bad about Leland.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Yes on B

In the June 3 primary election, San Franciscan have to opportunity to enforce our existing height limit on the waterfront by imposing a requirement for a popular vote on any megaproject that seeks to break it.

It is generally understood that we'll approve this overwhelmingly. We like our waterfront as it is, a place where we can see the water. Both the Golden State Warriors and the San Francisco Giants have seen the handwriting on the wall and are scaling back proposals that might have led to "Trump-like towers." Good, we don't like Donald Trump much here either.

But all of this may not matter as much as we think when we contemplate the amount of sea level rise that climate science says is already underway. From Climate Central, here's a map of what the city's periphery is likely to look like by 2100. Bye-bye Mission Bay?

Saturday scenes and scenery: Marin Headlands in bloom

You'd think the drought might have tamped down the annual wildflower explosion, but somehow we've had just the right mix of local rain, fog, and high heat to result in an exceptional display.

I make no claims for the photography. These were snapped with a cellphone in the middle of a long trail run.

It was jaw-droppingly lovely along the sides of the trails.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Gay life on display as history

The GLBT History Museum in San Francisco's Castro District opened its new main gallery on Thursday.
Dr. Amy Sueyoshi and Jim Van Buskirk were the lead curators for the opening show: "Queer Past Becomes Present."

Having lived gay history enthusiastically and sometimes painfully in San Francisco since the 1970s, it was a little jarring to see what was just my existence given a professional quality museum treatment as History. I looked at the exhibits -- show posters, political flyers, Harvey Milk's kitchen table, Jose Sarria's dress, photos of Gay Parades past -- and thought, "yeah, but wasn't all that stuff just how we were?"

But naturally, that's not how most visitors will see this material. I'm glad it is there for folks who came along in another time.

And certainly not all of it was familiar. The display you can glimpse behind Amy's shoulder is fascinating:

Constructing Jiro Onuma: Putting the Pieces Together
"Constructing Jiro Onuma" details how history is a dynamic process involving continuous excavation and discovery through the personal collection of Japanese immigrant Jiro Onuma. His collection offers the only known visual documentation of same-sex intimacy in the Japanese American incarceration camps.

That exhibit includes wonderful home movies from Onuma's life.

My friend Elizabeth Cornu, retired from the deYoung Museum, here lets off a little steam after seeing this volunteer project to completion. The museum is a labor of love, opening our past to all.

Friday cat blogging

Morty inspects the student's Greek homework.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The net is our home

The net regulator, the FCC, is threatening to ratify the practice by service providers of selling a few big companies fast service -- and consigning most of us to under-maintained back roads. The video above describes this very well. I hope everyone reading this has already "commented" -- yelled and screamed -- at the FCC.

Bill Moyers did a terrific show on these issues that you can watch in full here. I was particularly struck by how New York Times media columnist David Carr observes us interacting with the net.

People have a close, intimate relationship with the Web in a way they don't other technologies. It's where they see their loved ones. It's where they communicate with people. And they have the precious propriety feelings about it. And I'm not sure if the FCC really knows what they're getting into.

...people don't get excited about this until their movie starts stuttering or they can't upload big files. Then they get plenty, plenty excited. People expect it to be like electricity. You expect to turn on the cold water and to have it flow. You expect to plug something in and for it to light up. And you expect to turn on your Internet, and for it to work. ...

[When the entertainment industry tried to pass a law that would choke the internet,] people went ballistic. And, with the support of Google, with the support of Facebook, came off the sidelines and said, you know what? You're going to break the Internet. We don't want you to break the Internet. That’s ours. Keep your hands off our Internet. If you look at the hierarchy of communication that comes to you over the web, there's your email. What could be more interesting than that? Somebody's thinking about you, sending a message.

You hit the button, and up pops your grandchild. Or, if you want, you move over and you can talk to them in real-time on FaceTime. We're living in an incredibly magical age that all this technology has enabled. ...


Carr has caught how fully embedded in our intimate lives the option of internet connectivity has become. The net is a great part of where we live. It is home. No wonder we holler when somebody tries to seize and sell off our home. Will they get away with it?

H/t to Time Goes By for the video -- one of the best of a large genre.

UPDATE: The FCC voted to go ahead with the changes that will make for a two-(or more) tiered internet. There will now be a 120 day comment period -- a 120 day fight back period.

You can put yourself in the loop on net neutrality issues here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Criminal risks when nations hang out with Yanks

According to an article in Common Dreams, "... the International Criminal Court is re-opening a 'preliminary' investigation into charges that British troops systemically perpetrated atrocities in Iraq."

The U.S. refused to join the International Criminal Court for fear some small fry country might try to hold us accountable. The ICC only has jurisdiction if national authorities fail to act on charges of internationally recognized crimes. I guess that would be too high a bar to safeguard our leaders.

Warming Wednesdays: enough already, no more

This sculpture by Issac Cordal in Berlin is called "Politicians discussing global warming." Via Sierra Club

If you are not deaf, dumb, blind and incurious (or a Republican), you know that human-caused global warming is rapidly altering the planet we live on. Human ingenuity, greed, and ignorance are causing changes so rapid that a recognizable habitat for us and everything else may not survive this century. Why just today, we read that a large segment of the Antarctic ice shelf is collapsing, meaning higher seas that will drown many coastal areas within the lives of today's young people.

Several years ago, I felt I had to devote at least one day a week of this political/reflective blog to global warming in response to the imperative that we come to grips with what our species and our social systems were doing. That intent had at least the benefit of forcing me to read a lot more popular science than I would have without it. When I started, these posts got the lowest number of clicks of any in a week; now they get the most. This is no huge spike, but it seems real.

Despite this relative interest, 144 posts later, I'm retiring this section tag. We know. The question becomes what are we going to do about it; what are we socially, spiritually, and politically capable of doing about warming and its many accidents?

As well as my many other concerns, I'll continue to write about these issues, probably mostly about their political implications, since that's my area of experiential expertise. But instead of a weekly post on climate change developments, I'll write whenever and however seems appropriate/needed/I have something to say. From here on in, these posts will probably mostly be tagged "sustainability," "climate," "annals of the anthropocene," or whatever else seems required. I'm not "giving up" -- destructive as we naked apes are, persistent and determined are also part of what it means to be human.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Health care distortions: merits of single payer keep showing

I know -- our busted political system has just managed to get the country onto a (somewhat) improved health insurance plan, at the cost of years of screaming, misinformation and downright bullshit. However, eventually, if we want all of us to have access to cost-effective medical care, we're going to have to make the transition to managed care, salaried doctors paid to keep us healthy rather than by the procedure, all with a single payer, most likely the government. Reality is demonstrating this every day.

Sergeant Shane Savage struggled with pain. He was blown to bits in Afghanistan and painstakingly and well reconstructed by Veterans Administration docs. But however marvelous his apparent bodily recovery, he still hurt -- he still suffered the nervous disorientation of PTSD and he experienced what doctors call "chronic pain."

I've known civilians who lived with chronic pain. Like Sergeant Savage, their doctors have prescribed ever increasing dosages and combinations of opiate drugs. As with Sergeant Savage, the doctors seemed to "chase" pain. And as with Sergeant Savage, the suffering person seemed to fade away into a medicated haze, no longer really there.

Wars can stimulate medical advances: so many patients, so comparatively great resources to try new approaches on damaged human bodies and minds. The US wars of the 00s have taught the Department of Veterans Affairs that filling broken soldiers with opoid pain pills is not the route to relieving suffering. Better to invest in rehabilitation -- physical therapy, behavior modification, counseling, acupuncture and yoga.

Five years ago, approximately 80 percent of the injured soldiers treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington were prescribed opioids. That figure has since plummeted to 10 percent, and many patients are benefiting from the change, said Dr. Christopher Spevak, a pain specialist there.

“As we decrease the amount of opioids, their healing and recovery has gotten much quicker,” Dr. Spevak said. The implications go far beyond the military because most patients at Walter Reed in recent years have not been suffering from serious battlefield injuries but from problems many civilians face, like back injuries.

Apparently the word is spreading; a friend who had drifted away in the opoid haze has had meds drastically reduced and may be rejoining the rest of us on the same planet.

So why did docs think for so long that the powerful pain drugs were the only way to go to treat intractable, chronic pain? Well, rehab is expensive -- and not only that, it's hard in a private insurance market for insurers to capture the pay off: a healthier, less expensive insurance customer.

In some cases, insurers will pay for such treatments, but the practice is not widespread because there are few standards to judge their value, said Dr. Jeffrey Livovich, a medical director at Aetna. Dr. Edward Covington, the director of the Neurological Center for Pain at the Cleveland Clinic, said he believed that companies like Aetna had another incentive not to pay: Programs like his are initially more expensive than opioids, and insurers are loath to invest in patients when they do not know if they will be their customers next year.

“Their view is, why should they benefit another insurer?” Dr. Covington said.

The Veterans Administration is a single payer system for persons who become the unlucky detritus of our wars -- it can afford to take the long view and prioritize patient well-being over quick results. This turns out to lead to better health outcomes all round.

My civilian pain-hazed friend is apparently being weaned off the drugs. The docs are getting the message. But our profit-oriented health insurance system incentivizes providers in the direction of expensive treatments and sometimes inferior outcomes. Except, that is, outcomes for the compensation of insurance company executives and their share holders. One way or another, these insurance parasites must be brought to heel.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Walmart execs game their own game

This is bit of a postscript about that fine retailer the Prez dropped in on last week. I thought I was beyond being shocked by the shenanigans of our corporate betters, but this is rich indeed.

It seems Walmart didn't report a very profitable business last year. After all, in our slack labor market in which even people with jobs aren't doing very well, Walmart's customers have cut back. But executives shouldn't have to do the same, should they?

Each year, when measuring top executives’ performance for pay purposes, the company says it makes various “adjustments” to its recorded financial results. In 2014, those adjustments resulted in better performance than reported in the audited statements. That enhanced performance meant higher incentive pay for executives.

... This year, the company included far more adjustments than in recent years. The impact of 11 “significant” items — including store closings, delays in store openings and the sale of operations — was eliminated from its results. In each of the four previous years, the number of adjustments never exceeded five.

... Consider the case of William S. Simon, president and C.E.O. of Walmart’s United States unit. Under Walmart’s pay plan, he would receive some incentive pay if sales grew more than 2 percent. The trouble was, Walmart’s United States sales rose only 1.8 percent in fiscal 2014. That meant Mr. Simon would miss his threshold.

After adjusting for certain items relating to the company’s sales, the Walmart unit eked out a growth rate of 2.03 percent in 2014. On the strength of that “adjusted” performance, Mr. Simon received $1.5 million, the proxy noted. His total compensation was $13 million last year.

... What adjustments helped Mr. Simon clear the bar? One action that the company took was to eliminate the decline in its United States sales that occurred after the government cut food stamp benefits — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, or SNAP — by 5 percent last November.

That reduction in benefits hurt Walmart’s sales, the company acknowledged, because many customers use food stamps in its stores. But for executive-pay purposes, that sales decline never happened. And that meant a bigger payday for Mr. Simon.

Gretchen Morgenson, New York Times

Morgenson, one of the fine reporters around, simply read Walmart's annual report to shareholders. Their little accounting trick was there for all to see. Nice job, Mr. Simon, overcoming the consequences of people being forced to eat less by skinflint Republicans.
Think I'm being too hard on the Prez for speaking at Walmart? You might want to check out Stacy Mitchell's response to the speech and photo op from Grist.

Walmart — despite its skill in attracting publicity like this — is a laggard on renewable energy and one of the biggest and fastest-growing climate polluters on the planet. While many competing retailers are already running on 100 percent renewable power, Walmart’s wind and solar projects supply just 3 percent of its U.S. electricity — and that’s down from 4 percent two years ago.

Walmart’s fossil fuel consumption and climate emissions, meanwhile, are growing rapidly. In the last year alone, Walmart’s climate emissions rose 2 percent, or more than 500,000 metric tonnes. It now ranks just behind Chevron on the list of biggest climate polluters.

As a city dweller, I don't think much about another aspect of Walmart's impact. But the other day I sure did notice I'd entered a sea of parking lots.

Why are we now burning so much more fossil fuel to move retail goods? There are multiple reasons, but many of the most important factors are rooted in the rise of Walmart. Aided by government subsidies and favorable zoning policies, the explosive growth of this chain and others like it has radically transformed retailing, changing both how goods are distributed and how people shop for them.

One of the biggest changes has been a sharp increase in the number of miles Americans drive for shopping. Growth in shopping-related driving has far outpaced increases in driving for all other purposes. “The retail industry has consolidated, going from about nine stores per thousand residents in 1970 to less than four per thousand residents in 2009,” the study explains. “This phenomenon … began with the rise of the department store and concluded with the widespread presence of Big Box retail.” Fewer stores per capita means most people have to drive a little further to get what they need. U.S. households now log an average of 2,200 miles more a year to shop than they did in 1969.

This corporation is no environmental model, Mr. President!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Be very afraid ...

Senator Marco Rubio has set a mark for Republican Presidential aspirants in 2016. He doesn't believe climate change is caused by humans.

Bring on the parade of flat-earthers ... will any of the rest of them dare differ? Even if they do, how can any responsible citizen support a political party that makes disbelief in science a precondition for advancement?

Talking torture ...

Come summer, this household is planning a cross country road trip to see what we can see and to serve as a book tour to introduce any audience we can corral to my partner Rebecca Gordon's Mainstreaming Torture. Local events are now underweigh. Anyone reading this who has an idea about a potential venue, give me a holler. You can see the events currently confirmed here.

Curious? Here's a 30 minute interview that David Swanson conducted about the book's themes for Talk Nation Radio.

Not fun, but essential.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Contradictions abound

The Prez came to Walmart in Mountain View on Friday to talk up executive orders on energy efficiency and renewables; workers were more interested in wage justice.

Email calls from all the local labor councils and even the State Federation started flowing in on Thursday. The enviros reached out too. Several hundred people rallied in a suburban parking lot early Friday morning.

The president chose Walmart to make a point: The corporation gets about 25 percent of its electricity from solar power. In the United States over all, only about 2 percent of power comes from solar sources.

New York Times

Why the Prez felt he needed to pick Walmart for his presser was hard to fathom.

Labor groups and others in the Democratic base have criticized Walmart for anti-union policies and for keeping workers' wages low. Obama made no mention of that in his remarks, but did praise Walmart for increasing its use of green energy. Chris Stampolis, a Democratic National Committee member who sat in the audience, said he was stunned that Obama was visiting one of the chain's stores.

"The message that you send when you come to Walmart is not really consistent with Democrats and the working people in this community ... who are in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in labor," Stampolis said.

Obama could just as easily have touted his alternative-energy efforts at the 49ers' new Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara or the new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, both of which will get much of their energy from green sources, Stampolis said.

"Unfortunately, choosing this particular location has created a bit of distrust between the leaders of organized labor here in the Bay Area and the Democratic Party," Stampolis said.

Carla Marinucci, SFGate

One of the chants of the demonstrators was "we voted for you; keep your promises."

It's awfully hard to build an alliance between greens, workers and politicos when the Prez they all elected touts a company known for its skinflint ways.