Thursday, November 26, 2015


I heard an absolutely fascinating interview the other day (Nov. 24) on Terri Gross' Fresh Air.  She was talking to a New York Times reporter, C. J. Chivers, about his recent article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled The Doomsday Scam.

The subject of this article, and about the first half of the interview, is a substance I'd never heard of:  red mercury.  What?  I'm not kidding when I say that my first mental response to the discussion of red mercury was, "What's its atomic weight?"  Red mercury has been discussed, publicly and privately, since the Cold War - the Soviets were reputed to have it.  Mr. Chivers was unable to find anyone who had ever seen it.  I recommend you to take the time and read The Doomsday Scam - it's absolutely fascinating and Mr. Chivers writes very well.

The theory of red mercury is that it can be used to build very small nuclear weapons.  The following description (excerpted from the article) was written, I'm sorry to say, by an American nuclear physicist who should have known better:
In one edition of his autobiography, he claimed red mercury was manufactured by ‘‘mixing special nuclear materials in very small amounts into the ordinary compound and then inserting the mixture into a nuclear reactor or bombarding it with a particle-accelerator beam.’’ The result, he said, ‘‘is a remarkable nonexploding high explosive’’ that, when detonated, becomes ‘‘extremely hot, which allows pressures and temperatures to be built up that are capable of igniting the heavy hydrogen and producing a pure-fusion mini neutron bomb.’’ Here was a proliferation threat of an order never before seen.
The author of this bilgewater is named in the article, so that's your incentive to read it.

But my second response was:  I've heard this legend before.  Not red mercury itself, but the legend of the rare and difficult to find substance that can confer unheard-of powers on the owner.  It was called the Philosopher's Stone, and it was the goal of every alchemist the ancient world, and the Middle Ages, ever produced.  Here is the invaluable Wikipedia on alchemy:
Alchemy is a philosophical and protoscientific tradition practiced throughout Egypt and Eurasia which aimed to purify, mature, and perfect certain objects.[1] [2][n 1] Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble" ones (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent.[3]
 Red mercury sounds like a form of Philosopher's Stone to me, although sadly one which is only used to destroy.  We tend to look down our noses at our ancestors, as ignorant and uneducated.  At least their rare and powerful Philosopher's Stone was used to cure and create.  Red mercury is apparently only intended to destroy.  How fortunate we all are that it doesn't exist.

But what is it in the human race that makes us believe in the Philosopher's Stone, or red mercury, or snake oil, or any other substance, just because someone we don't know tells us it exists and we only have to find it.

The Other "Trail of Tears"

Talk about the things they didn't teach you in school.  I went through the California public school system back in the day when it actually taught you (well, me, anyway) to read and think about things.  And I don't recall ever hearing one single mention of this.  But let's start with a question it probably never occurred to you to ask.  Say you are a slaveholder in the pre-civil war South, and you have more slaves than you want.  How do you sell them?

In this article, in the October 2015 Smithsonian Magazine, I found the appalling answer.

Retracing Slavery's Trail of Tears

It's longer than the usual Smithsonian article, but I read all of it. It was horrifying but extremely educational. I recommend we all read it, and remember, so we can not do that ever again.

As I regularly post, if we as a people don't understand who we were, and what we did, how can we possibly avoid doing it again?


I'm not going to list all the things I'm thankful for.  The list is too long, and some of it would sound awfully self satisfied.  Here are the ones I'll admit to:

I'm thankful I can walk.  I put a lot of work into walking again, after all the cartilage in my knees disappeared.  But today I can walk as far as I want.  You can never understand how important this ability is unless you've lost it and regained it.

I'm thankful I married Jim Ringland, and I'll just let it stand at that.

I'm thankful I still can sing, and do still sing with the Oakland Symphony Chorus.  It turns out that most of my really close friends sing with me there, and I'm thankful for them, too.

I'm thankful I managed to keep living in northern California.  There were times I was afraid I'd have to move to get a job, but it didn't happen.

I don't mean to say that life is perfect.  It isn't.  I won't go into the things I'd change if I could wave a wand and make it so.  But it's pretty good, on this beautiful (if chilly) Thanksgiving Day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


In the wake of the Guardian article the other day ("Airpocalypse now: China pollution reaching record levels"), I was discussing pollution, in the form of the old London "pea soup" fogs, with some friends on Facebook. 

Conveniently, this week's Economist had a review of a book entitled London Fog:  a Biography.  I'm not sure my friends believed the things I said about the old London fogs; but the review quoted some awful incidents that even I hadn't read about. 

This is what happens when several million people at once light up the coal fires to heat their homes in the winter.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Who's In Charge Here?

What in tarnation is going on in the Republican Party?  

John Boehner, who's been Speaker of the House since 2006, resigns at the end of this month, essentially saying, "I can't manage this any more."

Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, Boehner's number two, and the candidate elect for next speaker, withdrew today from the contest because he "doesn't have 218 votes."  Wait - he's the guy who is supposed to marshal the votes in his party, and he can't elect himself leader?

In the next 3 weeks or so, Congress has to pass resolutions extending the debt limit (so the country can pay its bills) and funding the government (so it can operate at all).  Normally this is managed in the House by the Speaker and the Majority leader, and they both just quit, and the election for a new speaker has been postponed with no new date.

This is all going on because there is a hard-core group of House Republicans, maximum about 40 people, who refuse to negotiate or bargain or compromise on anything at all, and apparently the Republican leadership is SO afraid of them that they have all just backed down.

In addition, Donald Trump, who has the political expertise of a lawn gnome and the charm of a carnival barker, is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and a majority of the California Republicans believe he'll likely take the nomination.  (I can't support that with a link, but I heard it on NPR in the last day or so.)

Republicans are the majority party, currently in charge in both houses of Congress.  These people are supposed to govern our country.  We already know they don't want to increase taxes to do things like repair roads and bridges, and maybe take care of the vets from all the wars they've started, because raising taxes would annoy their rich donors.  Now they can't even agree on who shall be their spokesman (it certainly won't be a woman) in the House of Representatives, because of a minority (40 out of 247) of uncooperative loudmouths.

Full disclosure:  I'm a Democrat.  But I remember a Republican Party that could govern.  It could negotiate and bargain (that's what governing is) and produce legislation that both sides agreed on, that was actually good for the country.  Hell, it was a governing party under Ronald Reagan, and I never thought I'd look back on the Reagan administration as a beacon of rational governance.

There has to be some kind of resolution to this, but right now I don't see where it'll come from.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Rudyard Kipling and the Confederate Flag

There was much public discussions recently, following the murder of 9 members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., over the practice of flying the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state capitol (among other places).  The flag at the South Carolina capitol has been removed to a museum.

People also discussed, again, whether the Civil War was about slavery, or about states' rights.  The official position of many Southerners, especially Southern officials, has been that the war was about states' rights.  In the course of the discussions, however, some people used Google to look up the state secession documents, which are readily available - and several of the documents make it crystal clear that the state is seceding because the U.S. government no longer supports slavery.  South Carolina's declaration, which was issued first, is quite explicit.  (Virginia's secession document, on the other hand, essentially says, "We're outta here," without giving a reason.)  The Texas declaration is even more interesting.  It contains this phrase, which I quote for consideration (emphasis mine):
That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.
A lot of the discussion I've read has suggested or stated that the Southern states essentially made this doctrine up to annoy people and make themselves wealthy - and they were wealthy.  In the first half of the 19th century there was much more wealth in the Southern states than in the Northern states (see Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 158 - 163).  The South made a lot of money off the peculiar institution; but its preferences weren't only based on money, as the Texas declaration makes clear.  The white citizens of the South believed firmly that Africans were created by God as inferior beings, fit only to serve.  But they didn't invent that belief. 

And that brings me to Rudyard Kipling.  For no good reason, I recently decided to read Kipling's novel Kim.  I found it at the library, in a battered Penguin Classic edition, with the famous introduction by Edward Said.  As I read the introduction, I found myself hearing echoes of those secession declarations, in passages like this:

...whether we like the fact or not, we should regard its author as writing not just from the dominating viewpoint of a white man describing a colonial possession, but also from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning and history had acquired the status almost of a fact of nature.  This meant that on one side of the colonial divide, there was white Christian Europe; its various countries, principally Britain and France, but also Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy , Russia, America, Portugal and Spain, controlled approximately 85 percent of the earth's sruface by the First World War.  On the other side of the divide, there were an immense variety of territories and races, all of them considered lesser, or inferior, or dependent, or subject.  The division between white and non-white, in India and elsewhere, was absolute, and is alluded to through Kim:  a sahib is a sahib, and no amount of friendship or camaraderie can change the rudiments of racial difference.  Kipling could no more have questioned, that difference, and the right of the white European to rule, than he would have argued with the Himalayas.
 Kim was written in 1901.  England abolished the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in 1808, with the Slave Trade Act of 1807; the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. But Said, and Kim, make it clear that, 70 years after the abolition of slavery, the attitudes which had justified slavery were still current.

If you don't understand where you came from, it's hard to know where you are.  I've read numerous other sources which make clear that white Europeans and Americans, in the 18th and 19th century, considered all the races of color as their inferiors, and even as separate species ("descended from different Adams," as Stephen Jay Gould quotes - see below).   Some scholars even used the developing science of anthropology to support this.  The best explanation I've read is the first chapter of Stephen Jay Gould's great book, The Mismeasure of Man (W. W. Norton, 1981), in which he reviews the attitudes of 18th and 19th century European and American scientists to the "inferior" races.  In fact, I think the concept of race was invented during this period, to explain all these strangely complexioned peoples that the colonization process was revealing.  Remember, if you go back 150 years from the mid-18th century, you're in a world where the vast majority of Frenchmen had never met a German, much less a person of different skin color; and there were no white people, or black people, resident in America at all.

The Southern planters didn't invent their attitudes about Africans.  They inherited them from the civilization that produced the United States:  Great Britain, where those beliefs were accepted wisdom. 

The most astonishing thing about the Declaration of Independence is that Thomas Jefferson, a Southerner who never freed any of his slaves, could write "all men are created equal."  Not "all white men of property," which is probably what he meant.  All men.  And over the last 239 years, we as a country have taken what he wrote, and tried to make it true.  We haven't even convinced all Americans; we haven't succeeded yet; we're still working on it.  But that phrase has truly changed the world.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fire in the Valley

I heard something on NPR this morning that startled me:  the report of major fires surrounding Lake Chelan, in Washington state.  Why did that startle me?  Half of the west coast is on fire.

It startled me because I've been there.  In 2006, my husband and I drove to Chelan, WA to see what it was like, and to stay in a tiny resort called Stehekin.  I still have a T-shirt from Stehekin.  The trip was memorable for a number of reasons, mainly because a forest fire broke out just downwind of Stehekin, the day we arrived.  I wrote that whole experience up, with photos, in 2011:   The Flick Creek Fire

This afternoon I thought I'd look the fires up and see how bad it was - it looks bad.  I remember the area as bone dry in 2006 (when we were also having a heat wave); it's on what Washingtonians call "the dry side", east of the Cascades, which block rain coming from the Pacific.  Here's the official account, from a local TV station:

Wildfires raging near Chelan destroy homes

There are 5 active fires, 3 of them quite large.  The map below will dump you into an everything map (frankly it looks like much of both northern Washington and south and east Oregon is on fire).  Use the plus key to zoom in - you're looking for the group of fires north and west of the big empty area around Moses Lake.  The key fires are the Reach, First Creek, and Antoine Creek fires.  Squaw Canyon and Black Canyon are relatively minor but the Wolverine fire is huge, although it seems to be under control.  The northern tip of the Wolverine fire is right across the lake from Stehekin.  All these fires were started by lightning strikes.

Map of fires near Chelan

There's very little "there" there around Lake Chelan.  This undoubtedly looks worse than it is, but if you happen to live in that wilderness, evacuation could be a problem. There aren't roads, to speak of; if you want to go to town from the area around Lake Chelan, you take a boat, or a helicopter if you're rich. The official account from, the local TV station, sounds as though the firefighters have it pretty well under control, but there's a long list of evacuation and road closure information.  I trust they get it under control.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Diplomacy and War

With the Iran agreement waiting for Congressional approval, there's been a lot of discussion about diplomacy versus war.  America has always had a minority of citizens, some of whom (I'm sorry to say) are now in the Congress, who feel the best way to solve any international situation is for America to bomb the crap out of it.  President Obama has taken a lot of flack from these people, because he personally prefers to negotiate, and if possible to arrange a multilateral solution.

Sir Winston Churchill knew more about war than just about anyone now living.  Born in 1874, he joined the British Army and saw action in British India, the Sudan, and the Second Boer War, followed by his service in World War I, both as First Lord of the Admiralty and later on the Western Front, and then his service as Prime Minister in World War II.  Assuming he joined the army around age 20, that means he was involved in wars, off and on, for over fifty years.

At a White House luncheon in June 1954, Churchill said, "To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war."

I think we ought to listen to him.  Let's get the Iran agreement approved, and go on to argue about something else.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


This is a hot word right now in the San Francisco Bay Area, where you have to be a multi-millionaire to be able to rent an apartment.  Well, in San Francisco, anyway.  Farther out, not so much.

In San Francisco a supervisor actually proposed an ordinance that would ban all new housing development in the Mission District, where poor-to-middle class Latino families are being pushed out by new, much richer residents who want to live close to the action.  It failed, the other supervisors having some common sense; but the proponents haven't given up.  They don't want "gentrification."

In Oakland, currently full of people who aren't quite rich enough to buy or rent in S.F. but who would still like to live a short trip from the action, a city council meeting was not quite interrupted recently by a group of protesters who don't want the city to sell a block of public land near Lake Merritt to a housing developer. They want the land used to build affordable housing (not that I've heard them suggesting a funding source for this).  They don't want "gentrification" either.

The argument behind both of these movements is:  new housing is always market-rate (which means, "I can't afford it").  We need more affordable housing ("stuff I can afford", actual rents not specifically defined).  The best way to make this happen is to stop those awful people from building expensive luxury condos and apartments, and make them build more stuff we can afford.

Consider Super Bowl tickets.  There are a fixed number of them.  Many more people want to buy them, than there are tickets.  The net result, as we all know, is that the price of scalped Super Bowl tickets goes through the roof.  This is what happens every time there is a limited supply of a very desirable commodity:  the price goes through the roof.  Got that?

This is what's happening in the Bay Area.  All over the Bay Area, actually.  More people want to live here than there is housing for them to live in, so the incomers are bidding up the price of the places that exist, even crummy places that formerly only the poor could afford.  Yes, they are driving out people who can't afford to pay the higher rents, or the higher home prices.  That is how the real estate market works; that's how any market works.  Money talks.  Rent control ordinances are the only reason there are any relatively poor folks left in any of the inner Bay Area towns.  Everyone else commutes from Antioch, or Tracy.

I know of only one way to drive down the price of housing, in any area.  Build more housing.  Build housing on every square foot of land you can find.  And build tall housing, lots of floors, lots of apartments and condos.  Because the prices will continue to skyrocket until there are more homes available for rent or sale than there are people wanting to buy or rent them.  Prices never go down in a seller's market; only in a buyer's market.

But - we can't have that!  That will ruin our beautiful city! 

Yeah, it will ruin our beautiful city.  That attitude is exactly why we have this situation. The entire Bay Area should have been building thousands of units of housing every year for the last ten.  But we didn't, because of any one of a number of reasons which all boil down to this:

We don't want the area to change. We want it to stay just the way it is, without apartment buildings higher than 4 stories, with single-family residences on nice lots.  And in Oakland we want to be able to see across the bay.  The amount of housing needed to make it "affordable" for anybody would interfere with all of that, which is why it hasn't happened.  Since we didn't accommodate the market, the market has taken over, and driven up housing prices.   Stopping the building of new housing will just make the situation get worse, faster. 

There isn't any pretty, convenient solution to all of this.  And given that it takes years to build any housing, what with permitting and hearings from people who don't want it to happen, the situation will not improve.  It will get worse.