Monday, September 30, 2019

How we know what we think we know: polling basics

Since the Democratic presidential primary contest and reactions to the Trump impeachment inquiry are both going to inspire feverish poll taking, it seems worthwhile to share here some basics of what these mathematical wizards do. They are not always right, but they are not just pulling the numbers in the media out of their asses either.

I like this from Pew which explains how talking with less than 1000 people can stand in for, and reveal reasonably accurately, the views of a country of nearly 330 million.
The clip is the introduction to a valuable series which explores the concepts and practices involved. I'll probably pass on some more of them during the 2020 election cycle.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The impeachment inquiry is not a spectator sport

A house of cards cannot withstand a shitstorm.
So remarks an insightful friend.

It's important that those of us in the cheap seats outside the Beltway understand that we didn't get to this place through the goodness of the hearts of Democrats in Congress. This may not be so obvious to people who live in deep blue locales where our Congresscritters have long called for impeachment. It has not been obvious to those of us who are Nancy Pelosi's constituents because, in national matters, while occupying the high Constitutional office of House Speaker, she ignores us. But in areas where many Democratic Congresscritters have been avoiding calls for impeachment, especially new ones -- the "front liners" who so many activists worked so hard to elect in 2018 -- they've been hearing from dissatisfied supporters.
... August had been a challenge for the party’s rank-and-file, as activists and angry citizens back home browbeat them at town halls, grocery stores, and local events for the party’s unwillingness to impeach President Donald Trump. “We spent all summer getting the shit kicked out of us back home,” said one Democrat who received such treatment.

... grassroots anger was translating into primary challenges, [Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md] noted, and needlessly furious constituents. Rep. Cheri Bustos, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and a champion of doing nothing when it came to Trump, had recently counted as many as 111 primaries, far more than a typical cycle.

... The [Ukraine phone call] news had landed like a bomb in a Democratic caucus that was already ready to explode. Calls to impeach Trump rained down from the party’s left flank and its presidential candidates. On Friday evening, Democrats were bracing for a backlash back home. “It’s going to be a brutal weekend for a lot of people, especially those who haven’t spoken for impeachment,” one Democrat predicted. Indeed it was. Democrats, including front-liners, spent the weekend furiously texting and calling each other as they worked through how to respond to Trump’s latest lawlessness. “People are pissed,” said another Democrat over the weekend. “Front-liners are pissed! And not even the ‘progressive’ front-liners either.”
The pissed off people giving recalcitrant Democrats such a bad time are ORGANIZED. The Impeach Now coalition, including By The People, CREDO Action, Indivisible, March For Truth, MoveOn, Mainers for Accountable Leadership, Public Citizen, Stand Up America, Women’s March, and others, has planned a campaign to keep the pressure on for the next two weeks -- to keep impeachment moving.

Sign up here. Yes. You'll get more email. But millions of us have to do this stuff -- make calls, write letters, show up -- if we want to have a chance to live to fight another day for more justice and better governance. And supposing Dems get this through the House, we'll have to beat up on Senators ...

For the folks who worked so hard to turn Reno blue in 2018:
Republican Congressman Mark Amodei from Nevada District 2, which is anchored by Washoe County, was the first GOP member of Congress to support a full inquiry, if not yet impeachment. According to the Nevada Independent:
“Let’s put it through the process and see what happens,” Amodei, the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, said on a call Friday with reporters, adding that he believes Congress is justified to look into the matter.

... “Using government agencies to, if it’s proven, to put your finger on the scale of an election, I don’t think that’s right,” he continued. “If it turns out that it’s something along those lines, then there’s a problem.”
Mr. Amodei may be seeing the writing on the wall. Reno is both growing and changing demographically. This is hard on long time residents, but could be good for Democrats. Amodei was elected in 2011 to a bright red seat. But Democrats have been winning in the town in Presidential years; meanwhile Amodei's margins have been dropping. He won by 21 percentage points in 2016 (while Trump carried his Congressional district by 52-39). In 2018 he won by 16 percentage points while Democrat Jacky Rosen running for Senate was carrying Reno by 6840 votes.

If the 2020 election is a referendum on Trump, which it will be if the abuser-of-power-in-chief is still running, Mr. Amodei might even be in some trouble himself.

The times they are a-changing. Let's keep on pushing.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Saturday special with fund appeal

Our courtesy niece -- the world best Women's Nordic Combined athlete (ski jumping followed by cross-country racing) -- will be with us this weekend. TARA WON EVERY SINGLE RACE LAST WINTER!!

Because of stupid priorities that aren't good for women in highly technical, expensive, sports, US athletic organizations don't fully fund this Wonder Woman! Tara is looking to win a medal for the USA at the first ever World Championships this winter. Can you help her do it? Be part of supporting a true champion! Click here: Road to Oberstdorf 2021.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Friday cat blogging

Morty is no more. He seemed to be adjusting well to his Martha's Vineyard home as I posted last Friday. But right from the get-go, he showed a strong determination to get out of the house. He never did that at home. We didn't think about it much.

But last Saturday he succeeded in opening a sliding screen door and apparently "took off for the territory." There's no sign of him since, but we assume he was ready to curl up and die and got his wish. There are no predators here really. And there are infinite woodsy places for a small, weak cat to hunker down.

The Erudite Partner and I had worked so hard to get him more or less healthy and then to get him across the country that we'd sort of forgotten what a frail old boy he was. He was 14 years old.

After all, in the last two years he'd lost his vision and recovered it thanks to blood pressure meds, gone on thyroid suppressing food, needed topical appetite stimulant at times to keep him eating, undergone subcutaneous rehydration in our unskilled hands, grown some kind of tumor that led to a persistent nose bleed, suffered the indignity of multiple courses of antibiotics squirted down his throat, seemed to have failing kidneys so he had to be enticed to drink from an indoor fountain ... and then we uprooted him. During the trip he demonstrated his escape artistry. We didn't understand how strong his drive was to just leave.

So Morty got what he wanted, at least as best we can understand. He rubbed against each of us that morning and took off. Whatever love is between humans and cats, all three of us had it.

We subjected Morty to most of what modern veterinary medicine had to offer to an old cat. The parallel to what modern medicine offers to frail elderly people is haunting. Lots of us don't want that, but we'll be lucky to avoid the human equivalent when the time comes.

We're heart-broken as you'd imagine. Go in peace, good cat.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

That other existential threat we live under

On this date, it feels right and proper to remember Stanislav Petrov -- an obscure Soviet Russian airforce officer whom most of us can thank for the fact we're alive today.

He was on the overnight shift in the early morning hours of Sept. 26, 1983, when the computers sounded an alarm, indicating that the U.S. had launched five nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Then as now, in both Russia and in the United States "babysitting" the early warning systems that underlie nuclear powers "deterrent" forces is a surprisingly low prestige job. These guys are central to launching Armageddon, but mostly it is a posting to mind-numbing routine, isolation, and boredom.

But when Stanislav Petrov saw the warning that September night, he had an intuition that something was not right. Tensions with the U.S. were sky-high: the Soviet Union had just blasted a Korean civilian airliner out of the air -- a Congressman was among 269 passengers killed. But the Russian expectation was that any U.S. attack would a monstrous, full scale launch, not just five missiles.

... we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union's military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn't move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan."

Petrov sensed something wasn't adding up. ...

After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn't send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.

He had guessed correctly.

"Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened," he said in 2013. "If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief."


Petrov didn't get a medal for saving the world. Then, as now, military bosses were more embarrassed that their systems didn't work properly than glad about the result. He was reprimanded for failing to fill out his log book properly.

He told his story after the end of the Cold War and died a couple of years ago without much recognition.

These days, missile operators wouldn't have 20 minutes to stew. Now incoming nukes can arrive in 7.5 minutes, so Putin and Trump only have that long to decide whether to respond to a warning. For all that has happened since 1983, the two countries still point hundreds of missiles at each other, forces whose firing would at minimum end civilization as we have known it. To keep up on the insane threat that nuclear weapons pose to all of us, I recommend the podcast Press the Button from the Ploughshares Fund. Amazingly, it is quite cheerful, despite its dire subject.

In another nuke news development, Foreign Policy reports that in 1979, a U.S. satellite system deployed to help enforce the 1963 Partial (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty, picked up the telltale signal of a nuclear explosion in the ocean south of Africa. Analysts rapidly concluded the bomb was belonged to the state of Israel. The Carter administration of the time concluded that it didn't want to suffer the domestic political fallout from confirming knowledge of Israeli nukes. So they classified the report and hid it away.

The Carter administration was so afraid to enforce the PTBT against Israel’s 1979 violation that it did what it could to erase or keep hidden evidence of its detection of a test. Subsequent administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, went along with this, and the U.S. government still pretends it knows nothing about any Israeli nuclear weapons.

... What Israel says—or doesn’t say—about its nuclear weapons is its own affair. But the United States should not agree to muzzle itself.

Seems right. Here's another essential threat we ought to be interrogating those aspiring Democratic presidential candidates about. None of their plans mean much if we make a mistake and blow the planet to smithereens.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Distract the #ToddlerinChief now!

So the U.S. political system is limping toward impeachment. The threat to democracy and rule of law is so great that my brilliant, infuriating, decent, and sometimes wise Congresscritter has invoked one of our underappreciated, authentically radical, founding generation:

The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.

Getting back to our founders, in the darkest days of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote, “The times have found us.” The times found them to fight for and establish our democracy.

Nancy Pelosi

A couple of days ago I had flagged a bit of game theory about impeachment by politics scholar Daniel Drezner which still seems worth pondering:

It is safe to assume that Trump will continue to abuse the powers of the presidency as long as he is in office. The Ukraine example shows that he is not above using presidential authority for partisan gain. Furthermore, when he is not doing those things, he is pursuing other policies that harm the U.S. economy and the national interest.

Would impeachment stop any of that? No, not directly. What it would do, however, is distract the heck out of him. To say that Trump can be easily distracted would be an understatement — his short attention span occupies a healthy portion of the #ToddlerinChief thread. Sharpiegate exemplified how Trump obsessed about a small thing so much that it became a more scandalous thing.

... So why impeach Trump? Because he will obsess about it. The moment it becomes a live option, the moment a trial in the Senate seems conceivable, he will talk about nothing else. He will rant to his staff and bore foreign leaders about it. He loves a fight. And every moment Trump thinks about impeachment is a moment he is not thinking about doing even more reckless things, like trying to compromise the independence of the Fed, or launching a larger trade war, or stumbling into a real war.

Let me be very clear: I am suggesting that the House impeach Trump for two reasons: 1. He has committed high crimes and misdemeanors; and 2. Impeachment will distract Trump from further harming the national interest.

... Trump is not going to stop doing what he is doing, unless he gets distracted by something else. In a zero-sum world, it is far better to have him obsess about his political survival rather than, say, nuking a hurricane. In the zero-sum political world that Trump has made, impeaching him is the best possible response strategy to his abuses of power.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

How dare we?

The media describe her speech as "emotional." That's a dismissive adjective, especially when affixed to a young woman. If you have not heard Greta Thunberg's speech at the UN Climate Summit, you should listen to this clip which is one of the fuller versions available. It's not that long ...

If you really understood the situation and kept on failing to act, you would be evil -- and that I refuse to believe. ... How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual and some technical solutions? ... You are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. ... The world is waking up and change is coming whether you like it or not.

Yes, she's "angry." That's dismissive too. But how could she not be?

On YouTube, the comments on this clip are full of fury about the applause in the soundtrack. What's there to clap about?
The challenge remains: how can well meaning people respond when the problem is our entire economic and social system? I've always been extremely wary of advocacy of personal solutions to societal, collective, problems. Sure let's recycle as much as we can; let's try to reduce our use of plastics and carbon intensive energy. But personal tweaks to our consumption habits are not going to do the job; sadly, personal solutions too often encourage no more than self-satisfaction and an assumption of smug superiority.

So knowing what Greta Thunberg knows -- what we all know if we dare to pay attention -- shoves us back into collective political struggle, that tiresome, grubby arena of compromises and imperfect half-measures. But social rehabilitation is going to require power, the stuff of politics.

The kids are organizing; we can weigh in with them. We really have no choice. They just might save humanity's short-sighted asses.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Political appearances

Gotta love this. The Boston Globe [paywall] has hit on one of the most heartening developments of the election season: these aspiring Democratic presidents have found a sort of business uniform that suits the work they are doing. These "uniforms" must greatly reduce the quantity of attention they have to give to dressing for daily exposure to meetings and and in front of hopeful, anxious citizens and campaign workers. Just perhaps, having solved the female clothes issues for the moment, their plans and intentions are indeed being listened to.

One of my hopes for a Democratic administration elected in 2020 is that we'll be able to stop looking at pictures of phalanxes of monochromaticly white, old men in dark suits (often ill-fitting) wearing slightly shiny white shirts (permanent press?) and slick colored ties (silk, real or synthetic). They are boring and they don't look like the people of this country. It would mean a lot to me to see federal officials who look more like all of us. They won't all be paragons of leftist virtue, but they might at least be acquainted with some regular people.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

E. Jean has made the horrors of #MeToo delightful; how about that?

So what did the E.P. and I do to fill the hours on the road driving across the country? Why listen to podcasts and books, naturally. E. Jean Carroll's What Do We Need Men For? had us laughing out loud for miles on end. She reads it herself; I can't imagine anyone else could perform this with such verve and appropriate emphasis.

Men have had enough nice books written about them. Not this one, Ladies.

Carroll is the longstanding advice columnist for Elle. Since I'm a feminist, leftist lesbian in good standing who lives on the West Coast, I'd never heard of her until she went on the interview circuit for this book.

Carroll is getting all sorts of notice because she included the nasty tale of how the New York City "Real Estate Tycoon" sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s. They both ran among the fringes of the Big Apple's Beautiful People -- but the story of his pinning her against a wall and jamming his penis into her is as familiar and tawdry as male license usually is. She explains why she's never talked about this before:

Before we begin, the two great handicaps to telling you what happened to me in Bergdorf's are: A) the man I will be talking about -- not to mention his team, his lawyers, his party, his friends on Fox News, etc. -- will deny it -- as he has denied accusations of sexual misconduct made by at least sixteen credible women, namely, Jessica Leeds, Kristin Anderson, Jill Harth, Cathy Heller, Temple Taggart McDowell, Karena Virginia, Bridget Sullivan, Tasha Dixon, Mindy McGillivray, Rachel Crooks, Natasha Stoynoff, Jennifer Murphy, Jessica Drake, Ninni Laaksonen, Summer Zervos, and Cassandra Searles; and B) I run the risk of making him more popular by revealing what he did.

His admirers can't get enough of hearing that he's rich enough, lusty enough, and powerful enough to be sued by and to pay off every splashy porn star or Playboy Playmate who "comes forward," so I can't imagine how ecstatic the poor saps will be to hear their Walking Phallus got it on with an old lady in the world's most prestigious department store ...

For all the venom there, that bitterness is in some ways the antithesis of the spirit this book.

The 75-year old E. Jean Carroll really did go on her own road trip, driving her Prius "Miss Bingley" accompanied by her dyed blue-headed poodle Lewis Carroll, visiting small U.S. towns named after women, eating in diners named after women, and asking women and a few men the book's title question: "What do we need men for?" Though many are puzzled, a goodly quantity reply with a hearty "Nothing" while sharing their pains and disappointments.

Along the way, Carroll tells her own story of growing up as a socially naive, boy-crazy cheerleader and aspiring sorority beauty queen in Indiana, and finding her way in a small town culture of groping, grasping, entitled men. When she left the rural heartland to find her fortune in the big city, she attracted the unwelcome attentions of a Mafia mobster. She also has lived a life of wide ranging accomplishment and adventure which she merely alludes to without elaboration, including supporting black activists in apartheid South Africa and trekking across Papua New Guinea.

But this book is about sharing the saga of the various Most Hideous Men of My Life. She begins:

I don't know yet which of the foul harassers, molesters, traducers, swindlers, stranglers, and no-goods will make the list, but, Ladies! I warn you. Bad fellows have done bad things to your advice columnist.

This will not be pleasant for you to read. I am sorry. But if we all just lean over and put our heads between our knees, the horrid fainting feeling will pass. No one need be carried from the room.

In fact, you might find yourself rolling on the floor, laughing.

It's obvious that in answering her readers' letters, Carroll has heard everything and enters deeply into the lives of a wide array of women. This is a wonderfully respectful book; all those journalists sent to red states to interview Trump supporters in diners could learn a lot from this old lady who so obviously relates to and cares about all sorts and conditions of U.S. women. And has, almost miraculously, figured out how to transform insult into humor. Enjoy.
Reading this by ear, I didn't know it was illustrated until I snagged it from the library. The print version is full of hilarious pictures of E. Jean at many ages. Here she is on this odyssey:

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Global Climate Strike down-island

A determined band of climate activists gathered at noon on Friday at the island's crazy crossroads, the 5 Corners intersection in Vineyard Haven. Here as much traffic as there is around here tries to go every which way. We encouraged honking in sympathy. There was plenty.

There were some imaginative signs which looked as if they had been held in reserve for repeated use over a long haul.

Young people took center stage. After all, it's their future.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Friday cat blogging

Time to complete the saga of Morty's excellent adventure crossing the country with his devoted staff.

Despite our best efforts, Morty continued to escape his cat palace/jail in the back of the SUV.
Looks pretty posh doesn't it?

But he didn't think so -- so next thing we'd know, he would wriggle his way out. We gave up and Erudite Partner kept him calm on her lap.

But Morty faced one more great trial before we arrived at our island destination: the forty-five minute ferry ride from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven. For this ordeal, we imprisoned him in his mesh carrier before taking him up on deck.

Once arrived, he found a nice corner from which to survey his new domain (and doze).

He's also determined to assist the E.P. as she works on her book.
He's having a pretty good life.

A day of Global Climate Strike begins in Aquinnah

Under the auspices of the Aquinnah Cultural Center (that's a community institution through which the Wampanoag Tribe interfaces with the white residents of their lands) we marked the morning of the international cry against enveloping climate disaster at Martha Vineyard Island's western tip.

Pipe music set the mood ...

... as a somber crowd gathered in the glorious morning light.

After a young man shared his hopes and fears, an elder offered a benediction for the day:

"Go in peace. But always go in purpose."

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Climate chaos has partisan political impacts

I'm a sucker for maps, so this grabbed me. Mark Muro and David G. Victor explain what we're looking at:

Scanning the map, you can see that while the projected economic impacts of climate change are widely distributed, they are especially concentrated in the American Southeast, the Gulf Coast, and Florida. In these places, many counties will see 10% to 20% or more hits to their aggregate income. ...

Drill down on the political geography of climate damage, and it becomes clear that in much of the country, Republicans are voting for people who are opposed to climate policy, even as they are most exposed to climate damages. 

... The pattern is unmistakable. Many of the states with the most to lose from climate change voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, thereby electing a president who has disavowed his own government’s National Climate Assessment and systematically moved to dismantle former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and regulatory initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.  ... Nine of the 10 states contending with the highest losses of county income voted for President Trump in 2016, including Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama. 

And all those states have the usual complement of two Senators who represent largely rural square mileage, not numbers of residents; many boast fossil fuel extraction industries. Their elected representatives are not going to support nationwide efforts to mitigate climate disaster anytime soon.

I'm reminded of the popular refrain of the '00s: What's the matter with Kansas? -- meaning why would a once economic populist state be so bamboozled by fear of Feminazi abortionists and the Gay Menace that people would elect politicians aligned against their economic interests? There aren't any simple answers to that sort of cognitive displacement. The answers, if there are any, are likely multi-faceted.

Sure, in the urban areas of these heavily impacted states, people get it. Miami will struggle to do something to prevent chronic urban flooding; tourists and locals prefer not to get their feet wet. Houston has suffered two 100-year floods in the last decade; yes, Houston does have a problem and knows it. But their states continue to block progress through an anti-democratic Senate.
At CNN in 2018, electoral analyst Ron Brownstein looked at the partisan alignment of Senators based on relative carbon emissions from their states.

... before November's election, Republicans controlled 32 of the 40 Senate seats from the 20 states that emit the most carbon per dollar of economic output. ... before the election Democrats controlled 32 of the 40 Senate seats from the 20 largely coastal states that emit the least carbon per dollar of economic output. Those numbers didn't change in November, as Democrats gained one Senate seat from these lower carbon states (in Nevada) while surrendering another (in Florida).

His conclusion is that the political fight between the parties is primarily in those states in a middle tier of 20 carbon emitters. Those states (with their ranking as carbon emitters) include the Democrats targets, Michigan (22), Wisconsin (23) and Pennsylvania (24).

Thinking about climate provides another lens on the partisan predicament we're in. Let's hope our stasis doesn't kill too many before nature's message gets through.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

As a child, I collected postage stamps -- so I care

Among the atrocities of the Trump regime, its announced intent to withdraw the United States from the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in October seems a minor foible. But I find the symbolism in this bullying, heavy-handed repudiation of a well-functioning international agreement upsetting.

The UPU accord is what makes it possible for snail mail and packages to seamlessly cross the globe, integrated with the postal systems of 192 countries -- just about all the countries there are. It's an amazing survivor of global upheaval -- and something the United States has been in on since its origins. From Wikipedia:

Prior to the establishment of the UPU, each country had to prepare a separate postal treaty with other nations if it wished to carry international mail to or from them. In some cases, senders would have to calculate postage for each leg of a journey, and find mail forwarders in a third country if there was no direct delivery. To remove this complexity, the United States called for an International Postal Congress in 1863. ... The UPU was created in 1874, initially under the name "General Postal Union"... Four years later, the name was changed to "Universal Postal Union".

... One of the most important results of the UPU Treaty was that it ceased to be necessary, as it often had been previously, to affix the stamps of any country through which one's letter or package would pass in transit. The UPU provides that stamps of member nations are accepted for the entire international route.

The UPU set the rules for international mail: a uniform rate to send a letter anywhere in the world; foreign mail should receive equal treatment with domestic mail; and each country's postal system would retain payments it took in for international postage.

It's a truism that trade and travel were more globalized before World War I than until the 1990s. But through carnage and upheaval, the birth and death of nations, and vast technological changes, the UPU survived the 20th century; postal systems continued to deliver the mail. In the late 1940s, the UPU became part of the United Nations.

So, why is the Trump administration threatening to throw us back into the mid-1800s, forced to negotiate separate individual agreements with every country in the world if commerce and communication by mail are to continue? Yes, there are inequities in the system as it has evolved. The current rates for packages were set in 1969 when China was a developing country, not an e-commerce powerhouse. Mail from China and many other countries is cheaper than the equivalent rates shippers in the United States pay.

But grown up countries don't threaten to take their marbles, kick over the game, and go home when they think fairness requires renegotiation of the rules. That's especially true when the game benefits even the players who are protesting unfairness.

Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation writing at The Hill explains:

UPU’s work is invisible to most Americans, and that’s probably as it should be. The effects of withdrawing however, could spark a very visible chaos that turns ordinary business transactions into ordeals, and shreds the bottom line of small business owners and entrepreneurs across the country. ...

The American e-commerce giant eBay stated that “small businesses that sell online to customers around the world could see service disruptions and dramatically increased costs for shipping through the US Postal Service.”  All this is happening as the U.S. Postal Service approaches “peak season,” when mailers and shippers are operating at capacity to fulfill orders and meet holiday deadlines.

Anticipated harms from withdrawal would include undermining the international system through which the U.S. monitors packages suspected of bringing opioids into the country and might impede mailings of absentee ballots to U.S. citizens voting from abroad. In short -- more idiotic smashing of what doesn't need to be broken.

Nowadays, we more often collect stamps in our passports than from mailed letters. (And under the Schengen system, Europeans have foregone even the passport stamps.) But those international postal stamps played (and still play) a good role in alerting isolated Americans to the existence of a big world.

Mr. Trump behaves like a petulant infant as a grown man -- was he ever capable of wide-eyed wonder at the expanse of the world as child? Seems unlikely.

Okay, I'll revert to not thinking about Trump. Better to work to shove him off the stage.

UPDATE: On September 25 U.S. negotiators reached a deal to keep the UPU intact, while raising rates for delivery of Chinese packages. Why are I surprised when a U.S. trade deal actually is finalized? There haven't been many under this bombastic administration.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Moonset at sunrise

After driving across the country, it's taking me a few days to adjust to the rhythms of this lovely rural place. Hence I was up at dawn to see this lovely dawn.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Watershed restoration to mitigate climate pain

Today's post consists of excerpts from a longer article, Land Mismanagement and Climate Change: The Impact on Rural Nicaragua, co-authored by Jenna Saldana, Director of U.S. Operations, El Porvenir; Dick Whitmore, Emeritus Board Member, El Porvenir, Retired Forest Engineer, Watershed Consultant; and Mark Sullivan, El Porvenir Supporter and Volunteer. The full text is available at the link. Full disclosure: I'm proud to serve on the board of this righteous NGO.

Water is life. But, across Nicaragua, rampant deforestation for cattle, agriculture, and timber extraction is resulting in less water. Streams that once flowed year round are now seasonally dry. Community wells are drying up in deforested communities in the northern and central regions of the country, leaving villagers without a source of water. The situation is dire and watershed restoration is essential to save the future of water in Nicaragua.

... Nicaragua has been a minor contributor to global climate change yet will be significantly impacted due to location, coastal borders, and dependence on agriculture. On a global index, Nicaragua is ranked fourth most likely to suffer from extreme weather events.

General trends that can be predicted confidently due to climate change are the following:
  • rising temperatures
  • increasing drought in Central America (10-20% predicted reduction in rainfall)

  • less stable growing conditions for crops resulting in lower yields

  • increase in extreme weather events

  • rising sea level, inundation of coastal communities, and the salinization of wells in coastal areas

What is El Porvenir doing to increase water and food security? El Porvenir’s watershed restoration program seeks to conserve existing forests and restore degraded areas throughout Nicaragua in order to increase food and water resiliency. To accomplish our goal of improving land use and mitigating climate change to promote water and food security, we are actively engaged in the following watershed rehabilitation practices, many of which have been used for generations:
  1. Strategic reforestation ...
  2. Construction of terraces and other water conservation infrastructure ...
  3. Construction of vented, fuel-efficient stoves that use 60% less firewood than typical cook stoves ...
  4. Coordination with local government...
  5. Educating residents on the economic and environmental benefits of climate change mitigation...
  6. Creation of a model watershed that uses all of the above practices to show people from other communities how their watershed could flourish...
  7. [Fostering the] willingness of the community to create a vision and work together to achieve it.
None of this would be possible without the work and cash contributions of thousands of North Americans who've learned to work in solidarity with poor Nicaraguans' struggle to better their lives. You can help.

Covering Climate Now is a project of hundreds of media outlets working together this week as the U.N. meets about climate dangers, without the U.S. government, but with and for the peoples of the world.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Death changes

Rushing across the country last week, our route led by Buffalo, so we detoured just long enough to visit my family's burial plot there. My long deceased mother would be glad to know that it seemed well kept up, even though none the family's branches remain in the area.

I was struck, as I have been before, by how very many of the gravestones mark the remains of people who were NOT my ancestors. They were infants and toddlers, so beloved by their parents that they added the children to their own quite magnificent memorials.

My own mother had two siblings who died in infancy, fifty years after those Bemis children. Their names are on the great stone block erected as a memorial for my mother's parents (my grandparents.)
It was a very different time, though only a little over 100 years ago. Death had a different presence for these people.
The prolific historian of religion Philip Jenkins writes in The Decline of Death about how more secure lives, as well as longer ones, have changed religion and society. These days, we can often ignore our remote awareness that death is an inevitable part of life. We don't see much death around us. If children seldom die in infancy and mothers usually survive child birth, even for religious Christians, baptism can be postponed and individually chosen rather than quickly routine. Marriage and childbirth too can be postponed until individuals attain some economic and psychic stability. If they are comfortably off, their children will probably live into adulthood. Death is associated almost entirely with old age and usually takes place outside of homes, often in medical facilities.

The primary duties of religious professionals -- clergy, whatever their titles -- could once be summarized as getting their flocks “hatched, matched and dispatched.” But as death receded in immediacy in wealthy modern societies, religious institutions either wither or find new expressions of old truths.

Here's Jenkins:

Between them, weddings, baptisms, and funerals represented a very sizable part of what clergy did. When we remove “dispatched” from the package, we not only excise a major share of clergy time, but a very significant element of their whole raison d’etre. An increasingly indifferent public no longer saw any necessity to involve the church at any point in their lives or family arrangements. The modern “decline of death” contributed powerfully to that trend.

A society’s degree of awareness of death – or its ignorance – is a powerful variable in determining its religious orientation. By this standard, late twentieth century Europe represented a startling new world, and a far more secular one.

Or as a more general principle for research: never try to understand religion – anywhere, anywhen – without paying full attention to death and dying.

If any of this arouses curiosity, you might find the entire short article insightful.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Saturday scenery: a few Catskill cats

No, this is not turning into a cat blog, though the last few days on the road with Morty may look as if that were the case.

Last night we had dinner with family and friends in Catskill, New York, home of the annual Cat'N Around Catskill event, during which large ceramic cats decorate Main Street.

Here are a few more; click to enlarge.

By the end of today, Morty will have experienced his first ride on a ferry and this traveling circus will be ensconced, God willing, in our abode for the next few months on Martha's Vineyard island. It's been a rapid, strange trip -- dominated by cat antics.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Democrats debate

Gotta say, I enjoyed watching ten aspirants, all apparently sane if not equally attractive, knocking about policy preferences rooted in more similarities than differences.

We're being asked not whether we want change -- Democrats bet the country does want change -- but how much change to we want.

These predominantly plausible candidacies are allowing us to sort that question out rather than trying to bury it or overwhelm it with money and charisma.

It feels a surprisingly healthy process.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Oddments from Indiana

As we barreled across Iowa this morning, suddenly Morty's yowls changed tone. Yup, our boy had figured out how to squeeze over the fence that kept him trapped in his cat jail in the back of Wowser. He wanted to be with his people? In any case, he got a short ride in his cat carrier on E.P.'s lap until we found a hardware store with more fencing.

Thereafter, his best climbing never surmounted the new screening. We hope it never will. He protested most of the next 250 miles.

Even after receiving the freedom of our cat friendly motel room, he kept it up.

And then, plop! Time for a good nap.

Meanwhile the humans were pleased to encounter this reminder of Henry Wallace at an Iowa highway rest area.

To see rich land eaten away by erosion, to stand by as continual cultivation on sloping fields wears away the best soil, is to make a good farmer sick at heart. My grandfather, watching this process, used to speak of the voiceless land. In our time we have seen the process reach an acute stage and we have at last begun to take to heart the meaning of soil exploitation.

Wallace, an Iowa populist, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal-era agriculture secretary, vice-president during World War II from 1941-1945, and would have succeeded the dying Roosevelt in April 1945 had conservatives not persuaded FDR to replace him with Harry Truman. What a different country this might have been if FDR had been followed in office by an agrarian populist; GOPers thought Wallace was a communist, naturally. A speech Wallace delivered in 1942 inspired Aaron Copland to compose Fanfare for the Common Man.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Oddments from Lincoln, Nebraska

Today we barreled down the interstate behind this. Naturally I distrust their slogan: "DOING OUR SHARE FOR CLEANER AIR." Politifact declared this mostly true:

"(Koch Industries) is among the worst in toxic air pollution in the entire United States ... and churns out more climate-changing greenhouse gases than oil giants Chevron, Shell and Valero."
— Harry Reid on Monday, July 11th, 2016 in remarks on the Senate floor

Interesting that they think they need to paint their trucks with this message. (At least so I assume; have found nothing to contradict that this is the spawn of Koch Industries.)

Much earlier in the day we saw row on row of windmills on ridges in Wyoming. Wind energy is big business in Wyoming -- along with coal, uranium, natural gas, and crude oil.

The bison is the official Wyoming state animal, but on the road it feels as if it ought to be the Sinclair dinosaur. Nice gas prices though.

Morty endures as we hurtle eastward. Sometimes we suspect him of Siamese ancestry. But he seems to be holding up well.