Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Death Penalty Again

I see this subject is back. U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel has ruled that California's current procedure for lethal injection is so flawed that he'll declare it unconstitutional in 30 days if the state doesn't fix it. One problem, of course, is that the current method requires considerable medical expertise to administer, but no doctor in the state wants to have anything to do with it.

This was also Florida's problem, from the description I read of the recent botched execution there - the one that has caused Governor Jeb Bush, not normally a beacon of mercy and compassion, to suspend all elections in the state.

When the subject first came up last February, I posted a suggestion, which I still feel is sound, that we should quit pussyfooting around with lethal injections, and go back to the first and still most efficient method of humane execution ever invented: the guillotine. In further support of this argument, I'll point out that the guillotine can easily be operated by unskilled labor and no medical training is needed. Just a mop and a hose. Even Florida should have no trouble with it, as the guillotine also has no electrical connections. Given Florida's record with execution procedures, however, they should probably arrange for spotters, to make sure the executioner cuts off the correct head...

It's probably too much to suggest that we should just stop executing people. No, no - we can't do that.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Modest Proposal for Global Warming

One of the problems with global warming is all the CO2 from cars, especially cars idling in traffic. I had a brainstorm the other day: I'm sure this will be a good idea. We should eliminate cars inside cities and use only public transit and horses. Yes, horses. OK, donkeys and mules too. Horses are generally pleasant creatures (unless ill-used), they go by themselves, they produce new horses at regular intervals with only vegetable inputs, and while they exhale carbon dioxide just as we do, they certainly don't put out as much as an idling SUV. And they use zero fossil fuels.

But they're slow, you say. Um, so is most city traffic. Would we really go that much more slowly on or behind a horse than we do in a traffic jam now? Look at how the bicycles whizz past you when you're stuck. Besides, we move too fast these days. Going more slowly would be good for us. We could still use cars on the freeway for long distances, where they get better mileage. I freely admit horses aren't so good for long distance travel.

What about the road apples? People welcomed cars as a solution to pollution in the last century because cars don't poop in the street. There's the brilliant idea. The streets were full of horse poop in the 19th century because it was waste; nobody could think of a use for it except fertilizer, and farmers had their own supply. Some farms are now taking their manure dumps and processing them to extract methane which they burn for heat and power. With today's technology, it could conceivably be profitable to pay for recycled horse manure to feed into a power generation plant. Once people know they will be paid for it, they'll pick it up; look at what they do with cans and bottles. Homes could have their own small co-generation plants, for the local horse's poop; it's another way to go off the grid.

Energy independence through horse manure! It's the wave of the future.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Chocolate Chip Cookies

It's been years since I allowed myself to boggle at advertising. I mean, you expect it to be weird, right? But a recent campaign by the agency for the California Milk Processor Board has gone beyond the weird.

The idea, you see, was that everybody likes milk and cookies. So, in order to make people want to go home and drink milk, the agency got permission to put scratch-and-sniff strips that smell like chocolate chip cookies, in bus shelters in San Francisco, so the people waiting for the bus would smell the lovely aroma and go home and get some milk.

OK, I like milk, and I like cookies; but what I see when I step on the scale makes me just a little reluctant to stuff my face with either of them. And, if I'm standing in a bus shelter, I'm not there to eat (except in extreme circumstances). I'm there to catch a fardling bus, or worst case to get out of the rain for a minute. I can and do ignore printed ads, but smells are much harder to ignore. (Which of course is why they tried this.) Also, I'm an asthmatic, and I'm sensitive to strong perfumes, so I dislike smells that other people impose on me. (I actually dislike almost everything that other people impose on me; let's don't even begin on those rolling boom boxes...) It's one thing to say that it smells like chocolate chip cookies; but if the smell isn't coming from actual cookies, then it's coming from some combination of chemicals, and who knows what allergic reactions they might cause.

The real issue with these smelly bus shelters is that the smell isn't there naturally, as in a local Mrs. Field's. It's being imposed artificially by the ad agency to make you want something; and that, folks, in a space where you go out of necessity, is too much. Not to mention that bus shelters in San Francisco are often occupied by homeless or merely poor people, who may not be able to afford either cookies or milk; and for them, it's not just an imposition; it's an insult.

I'm happy to say that the City of San Francisco has ordered the scented strips removed, after getting objections from people with chemical sensitivities. But it was a dumb idea, guys. Let's stick to cute posters. The city got some flack, in a blog on the SFGATE.com site, about the fact that they were removing cookie scented strips from local bus shelters which normally smell like urinals. Well, if I could remove that smell too, I would. Imagine the awfulness of a urine scented bus stop which also had the chocolate chip cookie strip; yikes.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

New Look

Yes, I changed the look. I liked the old template but had gotten a little tired of it. This one appealed to me as appearing calming - I've always found harbors and bays and water's edges soothing. And it doesn't have the blaze of colors some of the templates have.

It's the same blogger, though. Still me.

Hope I will continue to hear from you all.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Yes, I know that most of what they taught us in school about Thanksgiving wasn't precisely accurate. Although I do think the historian who claims there were no turkeys (spelled "turkies" in the 17th century) at the First Thanksgiving is overstating his case. Just because nobody wrote down, "We ate turkey" doesn't mean they didn't; and certainly the wildlife in that area at that time included turkeys. In fact, it still does, if you get far enough from town.

Just because the historical details have been muddled over the years by people trying to prove a point, doesn't mean that the whole idea of Thanksgiving is baloney. The basic idea of a day when you are thankful for what you have, with no specific requirement to tie those thanks to any religious celebration, is a good one. We spend too much time worrying about what we haven't got. This may be a disorder of youth, although God knows it isn't restricted to young people; but young people are immune and immortal.
(Or think they are.) Older people are more aware of what they might not have. Most of my regular readers know that I have two replacement knees. I still give regular mental thanks for the simple, incredible fact that I can walk. Again. Without a cane, at a normal pace, for blocks, without any pain. I remember 5 years ago, looking out the window at people walking their dogs, at the joggers, and feeling a blinding envy.

I'm grateful that I live in a gorgeous house, in one of the most beautiful areas in the world, the San Francisco Bay Area. I'm grateful for the man I've been married to for twenty years. I'm grateful that I have as much as I need, and never have to wonder whether to pay the rent or buy groceries, because we always have money to do both. I'm grateful that I have a job which doesn't require me to stand for hours and be yelled at by angry customers, like the one my mother had. (The artificial knees don't stand as well as they walk...) Sometimes I'm just grateful that it's a beautiful day (it is today), or that a hummingbird is noshing on the Mexican sage in the front yard. Last week I was grateful - and laughing - to be able to watch the penguins in the Monterey Bay Aquarium hassle the photographer who was trying to take photos of them: they tried to eat his chinos, and his camera strap, when they weren't sitting on the aquarium lady and asking to be petted. (Now I know why the aquarium lady wears waterproof overalls.)

There are lots of things I don't have. I don't have an especially expensive car; but I have a good reliable comfortable vehicle. I don't have the latest snazzy techno-gadgets; but in general, I don't want the latest snazzy techno-gadgets. Although I do enjoy my iPod. I don't wear designer clothes; but at my weight, I'd look dreadful in designer clothes, all of which assume you can never be too rich or too thin. I have all the books I want. The point isn't what you have; it's whether you're satisfied with what you have.

People who are so poor they have to decide between paying the rent and the utility bill are, in fact, unhappy about what they haven't got; but those people, by God, have a right to be unhappy. The dissatisfaction I'm discussing here is usually in people who don't have to decide which bill to pay, and who are still not happy, because of what they don't have, but think they need. The ability to identify what you really need, and sort it out from what you merely want, is very liberating. It also frees you from the tyranny of things on sale: if you don't need something, and wouldn't use it, it's not a bargain, even if it is half price. This is why I don't belong to Costco: Costco's whole marketing strategy is based on getting people to buy stuff they don't really need, in quantities they don't really need, merely because it's on sale.

This has rather rambled on, but you get my point. And so I say: I'm thankful, and I hope all of you are thankful as well; more, I hope you all have things to be thankful for. Have a great day, and never eat anything bigger than your head (with thanks to B. Kliban).

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Cleaning House

Well, the Democrats did it - they took back the House, and they have a razor-thin majority in the Senate. Really razor-thin when it will rely on Joe Lieberman, who lost the Democratic primary and went on to win his seat back not only without party support but with the Democrats supporting his opponent. Great start, guys. Actually, if I could say one thing to each member of the Democratic leadership, it would be Han Solo's advice to Luke Skywalker: "Don't get cocky."

Just to illustrate this, we now have Charlie Rangel, newly elected chief of the House Ways and Means committee, all set to reinstate the draft, a move that polls have shown is opposed by 70% of the American public. Nancy Pelosi is reported to be a great political leader. Surely she must see what a disastrous idea this is. Mind you, this isn't a new idea for Mr. Rangel - he's been pushing it for years. But if Pelosi can't herd her cats any better than this, the Democrats may have a very short time in power this round.

Mr. Rangel's chairmanship of Ways and Means illustrates something else that worries me about this Democratic takeover. Look at the list of committee chairmen. The Dems have stuck with straight seniority for chairmanships: that means there are only 2 committee chairmen under 60 (and none under 55), Kent Conrad of N. Dakota at Budget, and Tim Johnson of S. Dakota at Ethics. Furthermore, three of the new chairmen are over 80: Akaka and Inouye of Hawaii, and Byrd of West Virginia. I have the greatest respect for these men, especially Dan Inouye, but how about some new blood and new ideas?? I objected to Phil Angelides, as I've said elsewhere, because of my feeling that he ran for governor because it was "his turn." This is just more of the same: people are chosen to run the Congress, and the country, based on time in office, and we don't get the full benefits of any ideas the new folks might have.

I'm not arguing for legislative term limits. They are a disastrous idea, and the California legislature is the primary example of it. The only term limits we need are the ones we impose when we vote the rascals out. (Fairly drawn district boundaries and public financing of campaigns would help, too...) But I do think that the party and the country would benefit if legislative committee chairmanships rotated after a set number of years.

Incomprehensible

Like most of the rest of the universe, I can't imagine why O. J. Simpson has done it. Publish his appalling book, that is. There were I think 8 people in the country who actually gave him the benefit of the doubt, and assumed that he must be innocent because he was acquitted. He's just changed all 8 minds.

I've read at least one speculation that he did it because he can't stand not to be in the limelight; he's hooked on the talk shows and seeing his name in the paper. If that's true, he's even sicker than I thought, and I hope the trend continues of refusing to carry the book or air the interviews (except for Fox which will run anything), because that's the real punishment, and the only one that will hurt him.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Sinking Ship

The rats are going over the rail. The doomed band is playing "Nearer my God to Thee" on the promenade deck of the Titanic. People and groups have come out against the current situation, that I never thought to see:

Richard Perle, the anchor of Republican defense departments since Ronald Reagan, has said that if he'd known how this would work out, he would have suggested other strategies.

Kenneth Adelman, who said that liberating Iraq would be "a cakewalk", now says the Bush national security team is "among the most incompetent teams in the postwar era".

Most telling to my mind, the Military Times Media Group, a Gannett subsidiary which puts out Army Times and its sister sheets, will publish an editorial Monday in all its titles (liberally leaked in advance), calling for Rumsfeld's dismissal, on the grounds that he "has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with Congress and with the public at large."

If you yourself have never been around the military, you may not realize how apocalyptic this is. They have to be hearing this from their readership, the serving military; in fact, the editorial will say that "active-duty military leaders are beginning to voice misgivings about the war's planning and execution." The American military just doesn't do that. The code that says you never criticize the brass is tremendously strong. But the American military is also nothing if not pragmatic, and the truth of the situation in Iraq is sinking in.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Online Networking

The online networking sites seem to be past it. Old news. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, it's too, too exhausting to maintain an active social life online. "Social networking fatigue", they call it.

I'll admit I've been following the flap over MySpace and FaceBook and all the other online hot spots. I actually joined one of the "class reunion" sites, after my high school class had a reunion; but I've never found any real information there (why would you put real information up on a site like that?), and no one ever really tries to contact me. (My email address is there, not much else.)

The networking sites do remind me of something, though. They remind me of The Naked Sun, a novel Isaac Asimov wrote in 1957, when Tim Berners-Lee was 2 years old, computers took up entire rooms and had 64K of memory, and the World Wide Web wasn't even a hallucination. Except that the Inimitable Isaac hallucinated, in The Naked Sun, the planet Solaria, where people live one to a dwelling, miles apart, and never come together in person at all; where they communicate with each other by projecting images of themselves, through which they speak. Electronic communication in place of human interaction.

It isn't possible today to approach the astounding isolation of the Solarians; for one thing, there were only twenty thousand of them on the whole planet, a number which seems as absurd to us now as it did to Asimov's detective Elijah Baley, who lived on an Earth that was a massive rabbit warren of crowded multi-level cities, with no open space left - Baley is an agoraphobe. But it's possible for, say, an addicted gamer living alone to go for days without leaving the terminal except to get food, sleep, or relieve himself; never to see another human face or have a direct conversation. And in the cases where we approach this, we approach the Solarians - they were afraid of germs, of contagion, and so they stayed apart and only spoke with each other through electronic media.

It's dangerous for us to do this. We're social beings; we need other humans. We need to talk, sing, dance, eat with each other, even if none of it has any deep significance. The trouble with the networking sites is that they foster the illusion that you don't actually need to meet people in order to be their friends; and that is a contradiction in terms. Unless you actually meet someone, you will never know if they are honestly describing themselves, or merely sustaining a brilliant, coherent lie. As the cartoon says, "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog."

It isn't, by the way, necessary to have a purely electronic connection in order to lie to someone; I've read cases of extended deceptions done entirely by letter in the 18th century, when travel was very difficult. It's just easier on a terminal.

Leaving apart the issue of honesty and dishonesty, we need direct contact with each other because that is the kind of animals we are. We need to hear each other's voices, touch each other's hands. We need to get out in the sun, feel the wind, walk in the rain. If we isolate ourselves and never go outside, we harm ourselves; and we harm each other because we forget how to deal with each other. Let us try to be more together, to be in the real world, and not place a flat-screen terminal between us and reality.

And for those of you who comment on my blog, please don't take this to mean that I think you're lying to me about yourselves; in fact, I don't. I'm just aware that I'm accepting your word, the evidence of things not seen; as you accept my word about me.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Radical Homosexual Agenda

Some of the GOP's favorite fighting phrases this election are "the homosexual agenda", and the "San Francisco liberal" attitude. If the Democrats win, Nancy Pelosi will likely be speaker of the House and all these awful things will come to pass. As a heterosexual resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, with homosexual friends and neighbors, I thought I'd try to give a general idea of what these things might be.

All the homosexuals I know are fully employed, middle-aged, middle-class people: a dentist, an insurance agent, a computer systems manager, a computer technician. Their hobbies as best I can observe them are gardening, singing (one of them sings in the choir of a landmark church), and camping. My neighbors across the street are quiet and reserved, but come over to chat with me, my husband, or the neighboring family with two small children. The computer technician does have a tendency toward unfortunate romantic entanglements, but no worse than some of my college roommates. If any of these people have an agenda, it's to pay the mortgage and retire in comfort. Some of them would certainly be married if it were legal; some of them have been together longer than some married couples I know.

I am completely baffled by the argument that extending the tax and legal benefits of marriage (which is what we're discussing here - the less formal benefits of marriage are already available to homosexuals) to people who are sexually attracted to their own gender, will contribute to the Downfall of the Institution of Marriage. With a 35-50% divorce rate in heterosexual marriages for the last several decades, how much worse can it get? And how does the idea of devoted, committed homosexual couples legally joined in marriage threaten it?

I refuse to discuss the Biblical pronouncements on the subject. Unless the U.S. actually does become a theocracy (I'm cautiously more optimistic that will not happen than I was a couple of years ago), the moral opinions of one or other religious group are their own business and should not be imposed on society at large. I include here Islamic puritans like the Wahhabists as well as Christian evangelists. If you, dear reader, are one of the people who responds with visceral disgust at the idea of gay sex, we'll just have to agree to disagree.

So what about the "liberal San Francisco agenda"? Oooo, terrifying. But it fascinates me that the GOP never actually says what the "liberal San Francisco agenda" is - it's a boogeyman, a frightening shadow in the corner. Shine a light on it, and it turns into:
  • opposition to the Iraq war
  • dismay at a foreign policy reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1918 (read The Guns of August if you think I'm kidding)
  • opposition to a skyrocketing budget deficit
  • disgust at a level of corruption that reminds me of the Democrats just before they lost power the last time
  • distress that half the population is without health insurance, coupled with fear that they could lose theirs next
  • shame that people with full-time jobs are unable to afford a home and have to get groceries from the food bank
Maybe I am a San Francisco liberal but none of this sounds especially terrifying to me. The general burden seems to be: Democrats Will Raise Taxes and Spend The People's Money On The Poor. As opposed, I gather, to Republicans, who cut taxes, but spend the people's money anyhow, largely on the rich. If you don't think that thee and me is going to have to pay back that national debt, think again.

I just read an interview with Ben Cohen, formerly of Ben & Jerry's, who now spends his time arguing that we should quit building weapons that were useful against the Soviet Union and devote the money to:
education, health care, world hunger, energy independence and even a little debt reduction
instead of building Cold War holdovers like the F/A-22 fighter jet - really useful against the Taliban, I'm sure you'll all agree. Of course, the real reason we're still building the F/A-22 is all the jobs in all the districts of all the congressmen who vote to keep it going, not to mention all the campaign contributions they get from Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Ramblings

I haven't been posting enough lately; my job is getting in the way; for one thing, it sent me to Dallas for a week. (For that matter, my job is getting in the way of a lot of things, including getting enough sleep.) Blogging takes more effort than I realized - it takes thought and research. Also, rehearsals have started again - the Oakland Symphony Chorus is putting on a pair of Christmas concerts and we're desperately memorizing, which takes time away from the blogging too (not that I'm complaining about that!).

I'm still bemused by the fact that Dick Cheney can, in practically the same breath, insist that "a dunk in water" is a "no-brainer" (that is, waterboarding is acceptable if it saves lives) and still say, "We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in." This just staggers me. Is he actually not listening to what he's saying? Or does he believe that everything he says is true because he says it? - a level of folie de grandeur that would be amazing even in him.

Easterners believe that California has no seasons, but they're wrong; we have more subtle seasons. We're currently enjoying a lovely California autumn: the liquidambars and Chinese pistaches are turning color, the days are warm and windy, the nights are crisp, not too cold, with occasional foggy mornings. (Eat your heart out, Massachusetts!) The sun comes in the south-facing windows of our dining room in the mornings, the way the house was built to do on chilly mornings after the equinox. In 1917 when our house was built, they understood about orienting the house to the climate; we can also open windows and get cross-drafts. Of course, the liquidambars and Chinese pistaches are also dumping leaves on every flat surface, as is every other tree in the neighborhood; but that's part of the ambience, and raking them up is good exercise. For my husband.

Unfortunately, 400 miles south, the bad side of the California autumn is only 5% controlled, and authorities think someone deliberately set the Esperanza fire, an incomprehensible act which is right up there with Dick Cheney's remarks on torture. I've occasionally made the crack that California has two seasons, wet and on fire; the trouble is, I'm not kidding. They're offering half a million dollar reward for the perps, and I hope they have to pay it out.

And thank you, Keith Olbermann at MSNBC, for speaking truth to power. If you haven't been following his remarks on the Bush administration, you're missing some very straight talk.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Civil War in Iraq

Not that I've doubted this for several months now, but today's San Francisco Chronicle reprinted a NY Times article that makes it revoltingly clear what's going on in Iraq, at least in the south around Basra. What's going on is nothing more nor less than the Hatfields and the McCoys.

In one corner, we have Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.

In the other corner, we have Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and its private army, the Badr Brigade.

These people are all Shiites. Theoretically they believe the same things and support the same things, and they all claim to be patriotic Iraqis (although SCIRI is widely believed to be supported and funded from Iran). What's really going on?
A dynastic rivalry between their two families has existed for decades and has carried over into a personal and political rivalry between the men, and their militias have periodically clashed.

"The split is very old, and it has caused a lot of tragedy," said Abd-Kareem al-Mahamedawy, one of Amara's most prominent political leaders and a moderate Shiite. "It's just a fight for power."
Just as I said: Hatfields and McCoys, but with private armies, which we, I point out, obligingly armed. According to the article, the stability of the current Iraqi government depends on the "truce" between these two factions; and as far as I can tell, they'd all rather duke it out for old times' sake than act together for the good of the country. The current eruption began when a local police official (Badr Brigade; in case you wondered about the rumors that the Shiite militias have infiltrated the police? All true) was killed in a bombing, and the police arrested the brother of the head of the local Mahdi Army unit. The next thing anyone knew, the city of Amara was under siege.

Why are we holding these guys' coats? (Apart from the fact that we started it by removing Saddam Hussein, who didn't take any crap from any of these yo-yos.) This isn't democracy and it never will be, as long as the place is ruled by the 21st century equivalent of the Montagues and the Capulets. The concept of turning a country that still practices the blood feud into a modern democracy is laughable (which goes for Serbia and Kosovo, too, I might add).

I remember thinking when we began this absurd incursion that what we'd end up with, after a "free" election, was a Shiite theocracy, because Shiites were 60% of the country. These developments actually convince me I may have been wrong; a Shiite theocracy would presumably enforce order. What we have here is total anarchy, where only the gun rules. We may have bigger guns; but there are 140,000 of our guys and 26 million Iraqis; and we have yet to see, anywhere, a standing army defeat an armed guerilla force on its own ground.

The sooner we bring our troops home and let the Iraqis fight this out among themselves, the better.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Why Not Angelides?

As a California Democrat of long standing (except, years ago, when I registered Republican so I could vote for Pete McCloskey in the primaries), I feel I ought to state publicly why I don't plan to vote for my party's candidate for governor.

Frankly, the main reason I don't want to vote for him is the impression I've gotten from him for the last 3 years. He doesn't want to be governor to fix what's wrong with the state, or to balance the budget, or do any of the things that come up in the campaign ads. He wants to be governor because he thinks it's his turn. He's been a faithful party hack for decades, and he's worked his way up to state office, and now he wants the top state office because he deserves it for all his work. I didn't watch the debate between him and the Gubernator, but I gather Arnold accused him of being part of the Davis machine. Well, he was part of the Davis machine, and Davis had a turn as governor, and now Angelides thinks it's his. I'm sorry, Phil, that's not how the game works. It may be how you think it works.

I have very mixed feelings about Arnold. I still think he's a poseur; but he has managed to produce the only bipartisanship the disgraceful California legislature has displayed in many years. I think he's going to win in a landslide, so I may treat myself to a protest vote for the Green party candidate. But I'm not voting for Angelides.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

Gazanias

My husband divided the gazanias in the front yard yesterday. He planted them about 3 years ago, and if you don't divide them, they get leggy. Gazanias do well in the front yard; they're showy, reliable bloomers that don't mind if you only water them once a month.

We've been in the house for 20 years now, and we've only had gazanias for about 3 years. Why? Because gazanias aren't cold hardy. They die in a hard freeze. During the first 10 years we lived here, we had regular hard freezes - I still remember the time the water in the bird bath froze solid, all the way through; and the time I looked at the back of the East Bay Hills, from my office in Concord, California, and saw them covered with snow (I think down to 1,500 feet). We haven't had a hard freeze since I think 1998.

Can't be global warming. That's just a theory. Or so they say.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Invading Iran

This seems to be the latest hot item on our increasingly reality-deprived administration's agenda. Iran would be a threat if it had nuclear weapons; and it says it wants peaceful nuclear power, but it must be lying; so we have to plan to invade it. To protect freedom. Or something.

Yeah, right. In the first place, the Iranians are correct that they have as much right as any other idiot to peaceful nuclear power. (Not exactly how they say it.) I might even agree that the fact that they lie like rugs about what they're doing at Natanz and Bushehr (and wherever else) gives even rational people pause about what they're up to. But still:

Invade Iran? With what army? The army we have is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the point that we're pullling people out of South Korea, which must amuse Kim Jong Il no end. No matter what Donald Rumsfeld thinks, if he thinks, you cannot do everything with unmanned drones. We'd have to put boots on the ground.

And there'd be no question of being greeted with flowers by a grateful populace. Weird as it seems, the government of Iran is democratically elected (the last election was at least as free and fair as the 2004 election in Ohio was). We'd be invaders, and every man's hand would be against us, and probably most of the women's. You all know perfectly well that if someone invaded the continental U.S., all those guns that us bleeding-heart liberals worry about would be turned on the enemy. From every rooftop and bush, just like in 1779. What makes the administration think the Iranians are any different from us?

Finally, if we do nuke Iran's nuclear installations (assuming someone in Washington knows where they really are, which I doubt; it's been thirty years since we had "humint," as the spooks call it, in Iran), we would become instant international pariahs. We are already the only people who have ever actually used The Bomb; and then, we were at war. I don't want to see us become the only people who have used The Bomb on a country that wasn't directly threatening them. Let's have NO first strikes.

I'm tired of this. I'm tired of watching a bunch of middle-aged power junkies, who never had the balls to put on a uniform and get shot at for their country's sake when it was their turn, wasting America's resources and ruining America's good name, for the sake of indulging their video-game wet dreams of world conquest. Why are these people not impeachable? Why are we still putting up with them?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Stop the Taliban

We have a priceless opportunity to stop the Taliban dead in its tracks before it takes over Afghanistan again, and it's very simple. All we have to do is legalize opiate drugs. The Afghan opium crop this year is up 59%, and is now providing 92% of the world's supply, according to a recent article. And that money is funding the Taliban and its attempt to overthrow the Karzai government. Given where they seem to be hiding out, drug money is almost certainly also funding Al Qaeda.

The United States is one of the biggest markets for opium and its derivatives. If we legalize opium, morphine, and heroin, we cut the legs out from under the Taliban. We also do a number of other good things for ourselves, which I detailed in my February 2 post, Prohibition Doesn't Work. The "War on Drugs" wastes our time and energy fighting personal habits that would harm no one except the users if we hadn't criminalized them; and at the same time the high price caused by the illegality is pouring money into the pockets of our greatest enemies.

Legalize the stuff; sell it over the counter, subject to the same restrictions as cigarettes and booze, and taxed in the same way; and quit subsidizing Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The purported moral horror at "drug fiends" is a crock. Sure, opiates will kill you. So will a lot of stuff you can get quite legally, starting with booze.

And while we're at it, let's legalize marijuana, too, and not just for medical purposes. Marijuana won't even kill you, which is more than you can say for booze.

Back to the Stone Age

I wish I could convince myself that Pervez Musharraf made up the story about Richard Armitage threatening to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if they didn't support us in the war on terror. Unfortunately, it sounds exactly like something I'd expect the Bush Administration to have done at the time in question. Within the first months after 9/11/2001, this administration was making some extremely loose statements. We'll never know the actual truth, unless Armitage is dumb enough to confirm it.

Presidential Reading

I'm not an apologist for Hugo Chavez. I think he's a populist demagogue. He does seem to be providing for the poor of his country, which is how he stays in power, but he's blowing Venezuela's oil revenues at a cracking pace, and the minute the oil price drops far enough, either his free-spending ways will stop, or (more likely) he'll keep spending on borrowed money and then default on the debt as hyperinflation flattens the country.

Whatever you may think of his politics, at least he's literate. His well advertised recommendation of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival does imply that he's read the thing; and having read some of Chomsky's linguistic work back when I was trying to convince myself that linguistics was interesting, I can confidently state that Chomsky is no Danielle Steele. Hell, he's no Jared Diamond; Diamond writes pretty accessibly about complex stuff. Chomsky is dense. Chomsky is obscure. If Chavez reads Chomsky, he has pretty advanced tastes and a good command of language. I wonder if he read him in English or in translation. Of course, Chavez also said it was a shame he never met Chomsky before he died; according to Wikipedia, as of today (Sept. 23, 2006), Chomsky isn't dead, so maybe Chavez can have his wish.

I would also compliment him on his remark that "the place smells of sulfur still" - that's a very poetic, effective and memorable line - except that I'm not sure whether he was speaking English or Spanish. If he was speaking Spanish, the poetic, effective and memorable line is his translator's.

The President of the United States is publicly linked with a book too. Unfortunately in his case the book is My Pet Goat...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Summer Vacation Postscript

You may recall that one of the, um, highlights of our summer vacation in Stehekin, WA was the Flick Creek Fire, which caused me to be deeply grateful for a steady north wind. The day we left, they posted a Level 1 evacuation notice, which translates to, "there's a fire in the area." I wondered what would happen if the wind shifted; and by gum, a couple of weeks ago it did. You can read all the alerts at the InciWeb site, the spot for all forest fire junkies.

On Sept. 7, the local sheriff and the fire team raised the evacuation level to Level 2. They have a long explanation of this, which boils down to, "Pack. Now. Leave if you can."

On Sept. 9, they issued Level 3 for the Hazard Creek area, one of the back country areas. Level 3 means, "Leave. Now. Don't wait to pack." No other area had to evacuate, and the notice covered I think 3 vacation homes.

They seem to have it back under control, because last Friday they dropped the evacuation notice back to Level 1 for the entire valley.

I'm still glad that wind didn't shift while we were there.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Conspiracies

I consider myself a rational person who believes things based on evidence. I don't do blind faith. So I sometimes lose track of the number of people out there in the world who are apparently comforted by the belief that there is a great Conspiracy afoot to fool us. Or something. Everybody knows about the conspiracy theories around the assassination of President Kennedy. It seems to offend some people that one guy with a rifle and a telescopic sight could kill the President of the United States; they can't believe it. He must have had help, he must have been part of a Cabal. I've always felt, never underestimate what one determined nut can accomplish, especially if what he's trying last happened 60 years or so ago and nobody realizes what he's up to. People see what they expect to see, which sometimes means they miss what's going on.

Last weekend I became aware of the latest flavor of conspiracy theories, which is almost as good as the U.N. Black Helicopters. You may have heard this one: it's the theory that the 9/11 attacks were staged by the U.S. government. That's right: it wasn't Al Qaeda. Because we know Bush wanted to go to war in the Middle East, the theory goes, it's reasonable to assume that he would arrange the attack on the World Trade Center so he could use it to justify going to war. Or maybe he knew about it and didn't prevent it, just like Churchill (as another conspiracy theory goes) knew about the attack on Coventry and allowed it to proceed so as not to let the Germans know he was reading their mail. Yeah, sure he did.

If you want to read the arguments, which are endless and involved, you can find them described in this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, which is about a video called "Loose Change"; or you can go find the video on YouTube. The video has a whole list of things the producer believes aren't covered by the official explanations, and therefore he argues that the government either actually caused the attack, or knew about it and let it go through.

I freely admit that the U.S. administration in 2001 was composed of neocon crazies, who were on public record as saying we ought to invade the Middle East and clean it up. Go check out the Project for the New American Century site if you don't believe the public record bit: they argued in a position paper that "a new Pearl Harbor" would galvanize Congress into strengthening the U.S. military. If you don't know about PNAC, you should; they are scary people, and most of them are running our government right now. Sorry, what I hate about these people is that they make me sound like a wingnut conspiracy theorist...

But I don't believe this, just because I don't think they're that bright or that organized. As Hanlon's Razor suggests, Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice. This is Our Government these people are talking about, the same government that couldn't see a cat 5 hurricane heading for New Orleans; the same government that has all the financial sophistication of a drunken sailor on payday; the same government that thought the Iraqi citizens would greet our (invading) soldiers with flowers and song. Our government? Nah.

The Fear Mongers

Maybe it's the simultaneous approach of the mid-term elections and the 5th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001; but there's been an awful lot of fear in the news lately. Years ago when Garrison Keillor was younger and A Prairie Home Companion was new, one of the sponsors he invented for the News from Lake Wobegon was "The Fear Mongers' Shop", and I sometimes feel that those folks are now running the country.

Dubya, of course, is reminding everyone how frightened they'd be if he wasn't protecting us, so we'll all vote Republican (dream on, Georgie). Ever notice how the threat alert level goes up when his poll ratings go down, and just before elections?

But it isn't only him. The San Francisco Chronicle had a big article today, Kids Remember 9/11, which interviewed four teenagers who were in grade school in 2001, and went on at length about how unsafe they feel now and how worried they are.

In fact, the kids came off better than the adults in that article; the African-American kid from Oakland frankly said he's more afraid of guns and crime in Oakland than he is of Al Qaeda, which is a perfectly rational point of view. The young woman said she now knows the world isn't a safe place, but commented that she would have found that out anyway. Unfortunately, one young man has bought Dubya's ridiculous claim that we're fighting the war on terror in Iraq: "It's to keep the terrorists busy so they don't come here." Still, he's only 15.

The quote that made me furious came from Joel McClough, 38, director for the Families Forward Program at the Institute for Trauma and Stress at New York University's Child and Study Center. Mr. McClough delivered himself of this brilliant thought:
"Teens today have to deal with the threat that they could be in danger or people they know could be in danger ... a danger they may have to confront on a daily basis and one that my generation, and people of the pre-9/11 generation, never had to.''
OK, he's 38. By the time he was 10 years old, in 1978, nobody really believed the Russians were going to try to take us down; we were negotiating nuclear disarmament treaties. But I'm 60. In 1956, when I was 10 years old, we were having duck and cover drills in grade school, so we'd know what to do if the Russians attacked. Even ten-year-olds know that a school desk won't give you much protection from a nuclear strike. I worried all the time that the Russians might attack; I grew up in the shadow of an imaginary mushroom cloud. The Bay of Pigs standoff happened when I was 15. Going farther back, an entire generation of Californians lived in fear for most of World War II, wondering if the Japanese would invade; after all, they'd bombed Pearl Harbor.

It is the height of ignorant arrogance for this man to assume publicly that no generation of young people has ever lived in fear the way this one does.

The real truth is, fear is only a problem if you let it rule you. We are allowing our fear of terrorism to rule us in a way that is way out of proportion to its actual threat. Every time we take a car out on the freeway, we risk our lives at a level that dwarfs anything the terrorists can do; but we don't fear driving on the freeway. We put our children in the car and drive on the freeway, which is a much greater threat to them than than Al Qaeda. The guns that litter this country kill far more people every year than Al Qaeda; but we don't (I'm sorry to say) fear them, in fact we don't even respect them enough to take proper care with them. We must stop allowing our fear of terrorists to rule us; and when we do, the absurdity of the idiots in the White House will become obvious and embarrassing, and we will vote them out of office.

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

Today's newspaper just had so many amazing things I have to devote a post...

Viva EspaƱa! According to the AP, Spain's top fashion show, the Pasarela Cibeles, has refused to allow models to appear whose body mass index is less than 18. Too skinny models, the Madrid regional government fears, will encourage young women to starve themselves; they want models who project "an image of beauty and health". Yes!

The town of Atherton, CA is now charging its residents $22 per cubic yard to haul dirt through the city streets. The town has a 30 foot height limit, so if you want to expand your house, you have to dig out the basement; and the excavation can cost you $50,000 and up. Before you feel too sorry for Atherton, remember that the average house price here is $2.5 million, and the area they're digging out for that basement can be as much as 20,000 square feet. A town with 2,500 houses has issued 3,600 home-improvement permits in the last 5 years, so just maybe, the good burghers of Atherton might consider living with what they have for awhile??

The Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded, after extensive study, that the CIA was right, and Saddam Hussein really didn't have any ties with Al Qaeda; in fact, he regarded it as a threat, and was actively trying to capture al-Zarqawi. And furthermore, they don't think the U.S. should have believed anything the Iraqi National Congress ever said about WMDs in Iraq... It's taken them 4 years to realize this?? Your tax dollars at work, as the mighty brains analyze the evidence.

Monday, September 04, 2006

We Have Nothing to Fear...

Many of you may have read this in the Sunday newspaper (Sept. 3), but this is so good that I'm going to quote part of it here in full, with fervent thanks to Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury for saying something brilliantly, that really needed to be said. I thought I couldn't link the site, but apparently Doonesbury doesn't impose the usual 2 week comic blackout, so here it is.

The scene is "Megaphone Mark" and his partner Chase, and Chase is complaining bitterly that "the mess we're in today" is all Clinton's fault. Mark challenges him that "the right wing has had a complete monopoly on power for four years now," and asks why he is "angrier than ever." Then it comes:


I'll tell you why. Because radicals can only survive when fear replaces reason. So they need enemies, real or imagined. As an old lefty, I know. I was as angry as they come. But being an ideologue robs you of critical thinking. I miss it. Which is why I find myself drifting back into the mainstream.
Thank you, Garry Trudeau - this is probably the most incisive single panel you've ever written.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Awfulness of Fox News

Out of sheer curiosity today, I surfed over to the Fox News web site. (I was probably impelled by mentioning Fox in my last post.)

What a disaster of awful web design that is! Politics, nothing - the site is practically unreadable. First of all, the dominant color is red, with bold black type on white in little squares; repulsive. Second, there is NO "white space" on it, virtually every square inch is covered, which means it takes forever to load. Third, the advertisements and the news stories have basically the same web presentation, except that the news stories don't usually have animated GIFs. Maybe the people who read Fox News don't care if they read a news story or an ad. I thought CNN was too busy, but this makes CNN look like fine art; it makes Yahoo News look positively elegant.

Marauding Democrats

On a simple trip to the dentist the other day, I was intercepted by a pair of earnest young men with clipboards, who asked me if I wanted to help the Democrats take back Congress this fall. This was in Montclair, a neighborhood of Oakland, California; since I never go to Montclair except to see the dentist or shop, I don't really know whether this was fertile ground for them or not: it's in Barbara Lee's Congressional district, but it's rich enough to lean rightward if it chooses, and it may; I saw several people brush them off. I fended them off in the interests of being on time for my appointment, but chose to stop and chat with them on the way back.

I was impressed. (Mildly.) The Democrats have grassroots organizers on the street. I haven't seen that in years. They had energy and enthusiasm, they had the Democrats' platform (the Democrats have a platform??) and could explain it, and I actually allowed them to persuade me out of a contribution. (I already get regular mailings from the DNC so it shouldn't add too much junk to the mail.) I normally ignore fundraising requests from the Dems, on the grounds that they are such hopeless nebbishes that there's no point in funding them. But somewhere - can we credit Howard Dean with this? - someone has remembered the tactics that ran Tammany Hall for 150 years, and ran Chicago for a generation. Two generations. Whatever you may think of the morals of machine politics, it's really efficient. Ask the Republicans.

Of course, they're still bucking the most impressive fundraising machine known to man, a grassroots organizing structure fueled by evangelical zeal, and a control of the media which the Republicans have been carefully building for thirty years (after all, with Fox, the Repubs have their own news network); but at least the Dems are trying, and they're using stuff that works for the other side. Precinct captains. Street organizers. People who go and give people rides to the polls. If they put their backs into it, this could work.

Now if the people at the top of the party can just maintain the focus...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More Social Nazis

The timing is amazing. Hard on the heels of yesterday's post about otherwise nice people who insist that you must do things that are good for you, comes an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle opposing the currently fashionable persecution of smokers, and I'm amazed to find I agree with it.

Let's get the disclaimers out of the way. I don't smoke; hell, I'm an asthmatic. I've smoked I think 7 cigarettes in my life, when I was in grad school, to see if I liked it. I didn't; you wake up in the morning and your mouth tastes like an ash tray. They say that kissing a smoker is like licking an ash try (
I was married to one, and it's not quite that bad, but you do notice it); try waking up with that in your own mouth. So I never contracted the habit, which is fortunate because if I had, I probably couldn't breathe at all now.

But this hounding of smokers by constantly reducing the list of places where they're allowed to indulge their habit is getting into the category of the people who yell publicly at pregant women drinking wine (see yesterday's post). The official justification for segregating smokers is that secondhand smoke gives non-smokers lung cancer. OK, that may even be true; but the guy with the Camel in his mouth is at much higher risk. Also, the nicotine habit is the hardest addiction to break - worse than heroin. But as long as they stay in their corners and don't breathe the smoke at other people, how is their nasty habit anybody else's business? Enough already.

This comes back down to civility, a topic I've ranted about before. If I have a nasty habit of some sort, which I manage so that it doesn't harm or threaten other people, then it is nobody else's business. If I'm fat, that's my business. If I drink too much, as long as I don't drive, that's my business. Ditto with the smoking: as long as they control where they light up, it is nobody else's business. But the category of people I call "social Nazis" (yes, I realize I'm echoing Rush Limbaugh, with whom I disagree on almost every point) feel that they, through their superior moral characterstics caused by their possession of The Only Truth, have the right to chastise other people publicly for indulging in habits that injure only the habituee.

But the pregnant lady with the wine, they cry: she's harming her baby. Well, maybe she is: but there was a whole generation of people born in the Roaring Twenties, when everybody drank socially all the time, and that's the generation that won World War II. It's probably better if she doesn't drink, but you don't see fetal alcohol syndrome in the child of a woman who has an occasional glass of wine with dinner. You see it in the children of women who drink their dinner, and breakfast and lunch too. Besides which, it's her baby. It's not the critics' baby. And, getting back to the smokers: as long as I don't have to inhale their smoke, if they want the habit, that's their problem.

The critics really just want somebody to look down on, so they can feel morally superior, safe in their possession of The Truth, which gives them the right to criticize, because they are Right. Try criticizing something they do and see how they like it.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A True Believer

I was proselytized today - and all I set out to do was take a water aerobics class. The instructor is a temporary substitute, while the normal Tuesday instructor is recovering from knee surgery; this was the first time I'd seen her, as the regular instructor just had surgery last week.

The new instructor had just read a book, after seeing the author interviewed on public television; and she was full of the enthusiasm of the converted. Nothing would do but that she must share her bright new truth with the class, especially since it was about our health. We must know this, it would be good for us. I don't remember the author's name, she said he was a researcher at Cal Berkeley; but the burden of her song was that it doesn't matter how much you exercise or how carefully you watch your diet: you must eliminate bread. If you eat bread you will be fat, and you won't be able to control it. Bread is evil, especially white bread. We all know, of course, that sugar is evil, too; but I admit I've never before heard high-fructose corn syrup described as "toxic." I think that may be a little overstated. Even fruit should be eaten only in moderation, as it contains - yes - sugar. She particularly warned the group against mangoes.

About this time, I stopped listening. I went there to exercise; if I want advice on nutrition I know how to find it. I also know a fad when I hear one, and this, by God, is a fad; in a couple of years they will have found some other thing to be appalled about. A few years ago it was the carcinogens in grilled meat. Her horror at the unsanitary conditions in a soda pop factory - they get so many flies, she said, that the FDA gives them an allowance of insect parts that are acceptable in soda pop - led me to remark that they probably do filter out the biggest bits; but mostly I just let her rant.

The interesting thing about the whole incident was her tone. She spoke with the accent and the emotional verve of a recent convert to a new religion. In another era she would have been standing on a street corner with a tambourine, singing hymns and exhorting passers-by to believe in the Lord Jesus and be saved, brothers! I guess it's true that you don't have to follow a formal religion to be religious; she certainly exhibited a religious fervor over this.

And I, of course, immediately raised my hackles and growled; I don't like people who know the only Truth. The step from "I know the only Truth" to "The people who refuse my Truth (translation: don't agree with me) are evil and must be destroyed" is all too short: and the next step after that is into war and ethnic cleansing and other unpleasant pastimes. I doubt anyone would kill someone because they eat white bread; but there are people in Berkeley who publicly embarrass pregnant women whom they don't know, if they see them drinking wine or smoking in public. This is a form of social assault, and is a lesser manifestation of the impulse that leads the Taliban to beat women who appear in public without a burqa.

I also have little patience with ascetics; this is the new asceticism, where we will only be purified if we give up the foods we like. I like bread, and it's certainly better for me to snack on than, say, potato chips or pork rinds. For that matter, I like soda pop, although I limit my intake because I'm trying to control my weight.
My main reflection on the proposed diet is that you wouldn't be able to tell if it actually made you live longer, or if it merely seemed that way...

Saturday, August 12, 2006

St. Michael of Washington??

Has anyone else seen the wonderful AP photograph of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff? Here's the link from Yahoo News. He looks like a dyspeptic Russian icon...


Comments on the Proposed Ceasefire

Here's a summary of the proposed U.N. "peace deal" for Lebanon and Israel:
U.N. resolution: Steps toward a permanent cease-fire in Lebanon

-- The resolution calls for the "full cessation" of fighting. Hezbollah would stop all attacks, and Israel would be limited to defensive military operations.

-- Once fighting ends, the U.N. force would be expanded from 2,000 to 15,000 troops to help deployment of Lebanese soldiers and withdrawal of Israeli forces.

-- It spells out a series of steps toward a permanent cease-fire and a lasting political solution, including the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon.

-- It stresses that the Lebanese government must be the only armed force in the country.

-- It requests international aid for the Lebanese people.
I have several comments on this, but they all boil down to: What on earth do they think is going to make Hezbollah abide by this agreement? Let's keep one thing in mind here. Hezbollah started this. They invaded Israeli territory just for the kicks they get from pulling the Israeli tail, and Israel reacted, big time. Worse, Hezbollah is getting major PR goodies on the Arab street for their valiant stand against the evil Zionists. They say they'll quit per the deal, but really, they have no incentive to quit. Why would they? We'll see whether they do. (How many of those damn' Katyushas do they have, anyhow? And how are they getting resupplied, if they are?)

I've heard remarks about Israel's incursions into Lebanon's sovereign state. That's ridiculous. Between Syria and Hezbollah, Lebanon isn't a sovereign state. They certainly have no control over their foreign policy: Hassan Nasrallah is in charge of that. The deal suggests that the Lebanese government should be the only armed force in the country; of course it should; and from that I deduce that at this point, Hezbollah is the Lebanese government, since it's clearly the only armed force in the country.

I'd also like to know where the extra 13,000 soldiers will come from, with which the agreement proposes to reinforce UNIFIL. This falls into the "You and what army?" category. At the best of times, the U.N. has trouble getting people to put boots on the ground under those blue hats, and the situation in Lebanon is disastrous. The U.S. has already weaseled out. Who's going to provide 13,000 additional U.N. troops? Santa Claus? The Arab League should, but in their hearts they think Hezbollah's doing just fine.

The only part of the deal that actually makes sense is the request for international aid for the Lebanese people. If only the people who promise millions of dollars in aid were willing to write the actual checks...

More Road Signs

Our recent trip turned up 2 new road signs plus an "honorable mention". The best one was

Fruit Antiques

seen in Yakima, Washington. A close second was

Espresso Burgers

just south of Orland, CA on I-5. Finally, although it doesn't fit the general category, I was charmed by the sign in Vacaville, CA advertising

Live bait indoor shooting gallery

The combination is just too odd.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

My Summer Vacation

I haven't posted in a couple of weeks, because I was on vacation and out of computer reach. I actually had my cell phone along for emergencies, but since at least half the trip was spent in locations with zero reception, I'm still not sure why I lugged the thing along.

It was an interesting vacation. Our normal process is that my husband finds a place he thinks he'd like to go, and makes all the arrangements, and I go along for the ride. He's aware of my preferences and shares most of them, so it usually works pretty well, and on major shifts we consult more closely. On this one, though, we both were bitten by our assumptions, and by the weather.

First, the weather. Remember the heat wave that flattened the country in late July? OK, we left on about day 3 of that (having spent day 2 doing laundry, packing, and attending a wedding in full regalia including pantyhose for me and a tie for him), to drive up the California Central Valley on I-5, a trip that normally sees temperatures in the 90-100 degree range. On that trip it never got below 100 degrees, although my bet that it would be over 110 in Redding failed. By 1 degree. We spent the first 3 days of our trip driving to our ultimate destination, Lake Chelan in eastern Washington, and it was at least 100 degrees all three days. Thank God for Volkswagen air conditioning.


After overnight stays in Wolf Creek, OR, and beautiful Yakima, WA, we went up a back road to Wenatchee, WA.
My gardener husband wanted to stop in Wenatchee to look at the Ohme Gardens; but my enthusiasm for touring gardens, no matter how lovely, flags rapidly in that kind of heat, so I retreated to the shade and waited for him. The Ohme Gardens are on top of a bluff and really are quite lovely; you can see the confluence of the Wenatchee River and the Columbia River from there. If you can stand the heat.

From Wenatchee we went on to the town of Lake Chelan, WA, on Lake Chelan. Now, Yakima isn't exactly nowhere, although you can see nowhere from Yakima; but Lake Chelan -
Lake Chelan is Nowhere. It's a 3 day drive from the San Francisco Bay Area and at least 2 days from Portland. In Lake Chelan we boarded a boat, and rode another 50 miles up Lake Chelan (it took 4 hours) to our ultimate destination, Stehekin, which can be reached only by boat or air. Our room in the Stehekin Lodge had no air conditioning. (It did have good cross drafting.)

And
all this area is high desert. This is where the assumptions came in. We both assumed, without exactly stating it, that a remote lake surrounded by mountains would be cool. Lush, green, and relaxing. We learned on this trip that everything in Oregon and Washington east of roughly The Dalles is high desert. Can you spell "rain shadow"?? Brown as toast, no trees, sagebrush, etc. And, given the heat wave, hot enough to fry eggs on the rocks. Furthermore, this entire area has a more or less constant wind coming down off the Cascades. Stehekin does actually have trees, but it's pretty dry, and the downslope wind from the head of the valley stops only briefly around 4 AM. When we stayed in Seattle some years ago, we bought a book called "The Wet Side of the Mountains", and I think we just visited the other side.

We hadn't been in Stehekin 3 hours the day we arrived, when we ran into one of the side effects of a dry, windy, hot climate. It's called the Flick Creek Fire, and it started while we were in the visitor center talking to the rangers; and the only good thing about it is that it was 2.5 miles downwind from us. I have never been so grateful for a steady north wind; if that wind had changed, we might not have been able to get out. I think I got some photos of the first hour or so of a forest fire (film not developed yet); very scary. Everyone was nervous the 2 days we were there, going out on the dock to watch the fire; and the firefighting teams used the Stehekin docks as a staging point.

We left Stehekin on Friday the 28th, as planned; the fire was still burning but had settled down to a widespread smoulder. We were frankly happy to see it recede down the lake. The rest of our vacation was much less interesting, spent poking around Vancouver, B.C. in cool comfort (the heat wave having broken). Someday I'll figure out why pleasant, uneventful vacations make such dull stories...

Monday, July 17, 2006

You went to college why?

The new University of California campus in Merced opened last year, and apparently part of the first freshman class is already ready to bail:
"In college, you want to meet different people, but there were only 800 of us, so after the first month, we all knew each other. It was like summer camp. There are no sport teams and nothing was established, and there is no tradition. It is not the college experience you hear about."
I won't use the young lady's name; I don't need to, you can find it in the article in the San Francisco Chronicle, right here. I realize she's only 19, but honestly, what has she been reading? Nancy Drew books? Did it not occur to her that you go to college to get an education? To broaden your mind and learn to think? Possibly even to prepare for a job somewhere? (That last point didn't occur to me until my senior year in English literature, but that's another issue.)

This young lady evidently went to college intending to party hearty. I'm impressed with her ability to remember (and immediately get bored with) 800 people, too - there were 750 in my high school graduating class and I remember maybe a dozen of them. (This is because I ran into them again at the reunion last week. Of course, high school was a few years ago.)

I have a dreadful feeling that all this means that she just hasn't met Mr. Right yet. I keep waiting for her to complain that she'll never get her M.R.S. in this dull school. I thought the feminist movement had taught us to look beyond marriage as the single goal of any young female.

The real statement about college is, what you get out of it is directly related to what you put into it, like most experiences of value. If all this young woman is willing to put into it is rooting for sports teams and participating in rituals that would be more evidently silly if they weren't so old, she's not going to get much out, even if she does transfer. But then, maybe I'm expecting too much from a 19 year old. I also hope that, if she does leave this new campus of my alma mater (full disclosure, but the campus was Berkeley), her place will be taken by someone who will really benefit from what the University of California has to offer.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Right to What??

One of the articles I read recently on the gay marriage flap quoted a judge who asked on what basis the state of California could refuse to extend "the right of marriage itself" to same-sex couples. Not the rite of marriage, but the right.

Now, just a minute here. Americans talk a lot about their rights (and not enough about their obligations, but that's another post); but where do we get a right to marry? Marriage is a voluntary contract between two people; marriage is a rite, as in a ceremony or ritual; when did it become a right, as in, something we are all entitled to have, like iPods and stereos and double cappucino no-fat lattes? If marriage is a right, how come I spent 10 years as a single divorcee?

I asked my co-worker Mike
this question, and he said, "Marriage became a right when it became a tax break," and the awful thing is, I'm afraid he's right. Correct. The marriage relationship and the property and tax codes of this country are wound together in a way that makes a mockery of the separation of church and state. Married people pay fewer taxes. Married people have the right to visit each other in the hospital if they're really sick. Married people inherit each other's property, even when they're too lazy or scared to make wills. We seem, thank God, to have quit blaming children for being "illegitimate" when their parents don't bother to get married, but we still regard people who aren't married as somehow less fit to raise children. And the 50% divorce rate doesn't seem to affect any of these opinions.

A few days ago, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a wonderful opinion piece on this subject by Robin Lakoff, a U.C. Berkeley professor of linguistics; I strongly recommend it. According to Ms. Lakoff, the purpose of a constitution is to define the agreed relationship between the government and the governed. That being the case, she argues, it has no place for rules about relationships between members of "the governed" - that would be us. She states, "Marriage is a relationship in which the government is not a direct participant." The proper place for rules governing relationships between individuals, such as marriage, is in statutory law, not in the Constitution. At that point you get to argue about whose statutes, federal or state; but the Constitution is clearly the wrong place for anything to do with marriage.

But is she right? When you go down to city hall and get a marriage license, the government issues it; and you do that even when you're getting married in a church. Then there are all those tax laws; not to mention our Fearless Leader trying to make learning how to stay married a condition for getting welfare. This could go on and on; but the more I think about it, the more I think I want the government to get its nose out of the personal relationships between human beings, except in cases of domestic violence.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Scientific Research and Me

I've just done something new, which I'm disproportionately excited about. You'd think that volunteering to let someone else use my computer would be a problem. However, I've just signed up for Rosetta@home, and what I'm letting people use my computer for is to run complicated algorithms to try to determine how proteins fold and what is the lowest energy configuration for a given protein. These solutions are used by researchers to try to figure out ways to combat diseases like malaria, HIV, and Alzheimer's.

It absolutely charms me that the software you download, to run these problems, is called BOINC (that's Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing). BOINC runs in the background using CPU when you aren't using it. It's absolutely zero maintenance: it goes out to the Rosetta server, downloads as many problems as it thinks my computer can handle (seems to be two), chews through them, and then when it's done, uploads the results to the server. I have a Rosetta account and get credit for problems solved - think karma, it's not money.

So far I haven't noticed much effect on web browsing and email, although it takes a little longer to open files. Plus, it acts as a screen saver showing you how it thinks the current protein it's working on might fold. Rosetta always needs more computing power - this is an active research facility. So if any of you would like to let the CPU you probably don't use much contribute to serious medical research, let me encourage you to check the site out and sign up. They have BOINC clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Solaris. Also, there are other projects you can sign up for once you have the client - SETI@home for instance.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Scavengers

I had a very odd conversation with my sister today. She lives on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and their phone service has been interrupted lately; she wanted to know if I'd been trying to reach her. (No, I was working.)

When this first happened, last weekend, she said someone had "cut the phone cable". I assumed accident, but it seems to be a form of semi-organized crime: the price of copper has gone high enough, and the rural phone lines in Nevada are installed carelessly enough, that some people are driving around in the small hours, and stealing the phone lines to sell for scrap. Seems like it's time to upgrade to fiberoptics?? Also, isn't this carrying good old American initiative a little too far?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Unclear on the concept

The ever-reliable (as a source of weirdness) San Francisco Chronicle had a lead article today in the business section on the joys of broadband wireless. This is a wireless card for your laptop that talks to your cellphone, so you don't have to waste time finding and negotiating a Starbuck's hot spot: you can sit down right there in the parking lot and email away. You'd probably be more comfortable at Starbuck's, but that's a detail.

We used to do something like this back in the day when I was on 24-hour pager support. Of course, at that time the duty cell phone was a brick that weighed 10 pounds (we bought a luggage cart for it), and the connection with the laptop was a phone cord plugged into a dial-up modem; but I remember one of my colleagues troubleshooting a mainframe problem with this rig while seated cross-legged on the grass at a company party. Since this was not only pre-wireless but pre-Starbuck's, it was pretty fardling advanced. (Full disclosure: I stole the epithet from Anne McCaffrey's Ship who Sang series...)

Anyway, back in the story about the 3G broadband, I loved the last quote in the story:
"It's phenomenal," Ask said. "It's great being able to open your laptop and get Internet access and not get nickel-and-dimed for service everywhere you go."
This was from someone who is paying $60 a month for access. Yeah, I guess it's fair to say she's not being nickel-and-dimed...

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Business travel isn't anything remotely resembling fun, but at least you get to look at new places from the window of the taxi, coming in from the airport.

I got a look at San Antonio, Texas this week, and found it rather charming. Unlike Dallas, San Antonio has resisted the urge to tear down all their old light industrial buildings and put up glass towers, so there are only a few skyscrapers, and lots of older few-story brick and stucco buildings with interesting architectural details, plus some pretty churches. The town was more relaxed than Dallas, too, with lighter traffic. They've done fairly nice things with their river: it's nothing resembling a riparian habitat, since the channel is bricked in solid (sigh), but they've turned it into a pleasant "river walk", below street level and lined with trees and shrubs. If I'd had time, I could have taken a water taxi along the canals; but I was in the town less than 48 hours. For that matter, if I'd had time, I could have toured the Alamo; it's easy to find, right next to the mall.

The heat was appalling, in the high nineties; with the usual corollary that the air conditioning was so cold you needed a jacket indoors, which you immediately had to shed when you left the building. They haven't had any rain for awhile, and the taxi driver said they'd been on the verge of water rationing. The hotel had signs saying we won't change your towels during your stay, and you have to ask for water in the restaurant. One of these days our tendency to use water as if there were an infinite supply of it, is going to catch up with us.


Sunday, June 25, 2006

What About Kim Jong Il?

I got into a conversation at the gym today on the subject of Kim Jong Il and his proposed missile test. It was started by the wacko suggestion, mooted by William Perry and Ashton Carter, that if they do appear to be going to fire the thing, the U.S. should pre-emptively bomb the launch site and destroy it and the missile. The rationale seems to be that the U.S. shouldn't allow North Korea to develop a long range missile with which it could conceivably fire a nuclear missile at U.S. territory. My gym mate asked what I thought we should do, and my answer was, we should do nothing. We absolutely should not shoot at the thing.

Consider Kim Jong Il, if you can. There are a number of things we aren't sure of about him and his country, starting with do they actually have nuclear weapons and is the Taepodong-2 missile as good as they say it is. The one thing we are sure of is that this guy is a complete wingnut, and one of the ways he stays in power is by waving around the threat that the U.S. wants to invade North Korea. The last thing we should do is give him any support for that notion. The U.S. wouldn't have North Korea if they gave it away with a pound of tea; but of course Kim doesn't think that way. If we shoot at his missile, we've confirmed every paranoid fantasy he's ever had. No.

I've also heard an unnamed genius from the Pentagon say he's "very confident" that if North Korea does fire the missile, U.S. interceptor rockets can destroy it. Is he talking about our missile defence system? The one that's never had a successful intercept, even when we staged the whole test and in essence told it where to point? This is a really bad idea - we absolutely don't want to give the world the notion that if they shoot stuff at us, we can't take it down. Maybe he was talking about the Patriot, which actually did shoot down some incoming during the first Gulf War, although if you look at the analysis, the actual success rate is very unclear and depends strongly on who's counting.

Clearly, our best possible response is not to dignify the effort with a response,
as my mother used to say, but just keep encouraging the North Koreans back to the six-way talks.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Future Warriors

The Economist's latest Technology Quarterly has an article on the "future force warrior" (which you won't be able to read unless you subscribe, unfortunately; but if you Google the phrase you'll come up with a whole list of public sites). The gist of it is that the U.S. military has decided it needs to protect its soldiers better (about time, too). The technology bug has bit them, however, and instead of just investing in more Kevlar body armor, they propose turning each soldier into a walking internet node (wireless, of course), complete with sensors to tell not only where he is but how he is (vital signs, asleep or awake, etc.), portable power sources, all under lightweight Kevlar armor plates (black, of course); and with a fully integrated night vision/heads up display with video feeds from robot drone scout planes, and a data link to every other soldier and vehicle.

I'm sorry, these guys have been reading too much science fiction. They have seen Matrix and Star Trek one time too many. I'm not suggesting that your basic GI can't handle all this; with training, he probably can. I am suggesting that the designers have lost sight of the K.I.S.S. principle, and of the fact that the more complicated a system is, the more likely it is to fail in unexpected ways. I do not think it's a coincidence that the picture of the proposed outfit looks exactly like an Imperial Storm Trooper, only in black.

These designers are the same people who thought the Star Wars anti-missile defense was a good idea, despite the fact that it would have required tens of thousands of lines of software code which couldn't be debugged except under fire. Virtually every computer programmer in the world thought it was a Bad Idea, and so is this. This "battlesuit" - yes, they use the term - is so complicated that the likelihood of system failures is quite high, and the early wearers of this will be, I'm sorry, sitting ducks. The only good thing is that they'll be sitting ducks wearing Kevlar armor. In addition, if the whole thing is based on the GPS and the wireless data link, what does our soldier in his battlesuit do if the other side comes up with some easy way to jam the transmission frequencies?? Or simply blow up the transmission towers? Wireless still required line of sight, last time I looked.

Go back to the video games, guys, and just buy the boys overseas some better armor. The lightweight Kevlar armor plates are the only good idea you've come up with. The really good idea would be to come up with some way to settle international disputes without shooting at people, but that's apparently way too far out.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Road Signs

I'm tired of politics. Let's contemplate a little Americana (well, North Americana, since some of this was Canadian). We're planning a driving vacation in July, up the Coast to the Cascades and then Vancouver (B.C.); driving vacations have always been my favorites (gas crisis be damned! apres moi, le deluge...), they being the way we could afford to vacation when I was a child.

One thing I always enjoy, and in fact, collect, are the advertising signs by the side of secondary roads, some hand-lettered. Most of you will have seen ads for "beer pool", but those are common. I have a small collection of rarities to share:

parking cherries (near Sebastopol, California)
diesel cheese (somewhere in Wisconsin, courtesy of my brother-in-law)
coffee minnows (on the road from Toronto to Sudbury, Ontario)
video worms (same road, a very good source)
fountain burrito gizzards (Newberg, Oregon - a deli and butcher...)

The drive to Sudbury was a fruitful source for these signs; I'm still trying to decide which is superior, coffee minnows or video worms. We also found the following which I feel qualifies for Honorable Mention:

Shoe repair and live bait

and a motel which advertised:

Cold Rooms Warm Beer Cozy Food (Oops!)

(Yes, "Oops!" was part of the sign.) How about some that you've seen?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Mr. Jefferson Stays in Washington

Let me say up front that in the case of Representative William Jefferson, D-LA, I am in solid agreement with Nancy Pelosi (not always a given): he ought to step down from the Ways and Means committee until his guilt or innocence is established. The principle here is very old: "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion." The members of Congress would get a whole lot more respect from their constituents, and the country in general, if they realized that they are in the position of Caesar's wife: it isn't enough for them to be innocent of wrongdoing. They must appear to be innocent of wrongdoing. For a public figure the appearance of venality is almost as bad as venality itself.

Mr. Jefferson has offered three arguments for staying on the committee: he's innocent; Louisiana needs the help he can give it while a committee member; and he's being picked on because he's black.

Since Mr. Jefferson hasn't yet been tried or even indicted, he is, of course, assumed to be innocent; but some very peculiar allegations have been published about him, and the Justice Department feels it has grounds for indictment. Not to mention that two of his former associates have pleaded guilty to bribing him.
If Congressmen, like Caesar's wife, should be above suspicion, he's clearly failed that test. I've said before that I thought he had some explaining to do.

Louisiana certainly needs all the help it can get. But I have some reservations about how much it needs Mr. Jefferson's help.

I hardly know how to approach the suggestion, made by Mr. Jefferson and supported by the Congressional Black Caucus, that he's being victimized because he's black, because no white Congress members have been asked to step down from their committees. There certainly
are white Republican members of Congress who, if this principle were equitably applied, should resign their committee seats; but Nancy Pelosi has no authority over Republicans, and I haven't seen any news articles about any other Democrats in just this equivocal position. In fact, Ms. Pelosi's point, which Mr. Jefferson appears to miss entirely, is that Democrats ought to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard than the Republican "culture of corruption."

Does the Black Caucus really believe African Americans ought to be immune from the consequences of their behavior, because their ancestors were forced into slavery? Does the Black Caucus really think that African Americans don't want their elected African American representatives to be held responsible, if they act as Mr. Jefferson appears to have acted?

The Republican Party leadership has spent the last few years disgusting the electorate with its corrupt and arrogant behavior. One of the strongest arguments the Democrats can make in the fall elections, if they can pull it off, is that they are honest public servants. Mr. Jefferson seems to feel that his personal privilege is more important than his party's advantage.

Death of a Terrorist

I can't feel too sorry at the loss of Abu-Musab Al-Zarqawi. He wasn't a nice man, and you couldn't call him an ornament to society. Still, I thought the photos of his dead face, plastered all over the news media, were a little much. Frankly, it reminded me of my dear, and late, aunt; except that she had better taste. We visited her once, shortly after her husband had died; and she showed us a photo of him in his coffin. Given the family history, I assume she wanted some definite proof that he was really dead and she was finally rid of him. She, however, didn't publish the photo in the newspaper to make her point.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Damn, Now I'm Really Mad

If you've read the link from where cooper posted it at Fanatical
Apathy
, you can skip this post; cooper, you already know all this.

Did you ever wonder why John Kerry lost so solidly in 2004, when the exit polls said he had it nailed? Well, folks, the answer is simple and sad, and it's laid out in extreme detail, with footnotes and documentary evidence, in the article published last week in Rolling Stone, by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The answer is fraud. The Republican administration in the state of Ohio, fraudulently prevented tens of thousands of Democratic voters from casting ballots; connived at tampering with voting machines so that votes cast for Kerry actually went to Bush, or weren't counted at all; imported goons from Texas to threaten and intimidate minority voters. These people make Kathleen Harris, in Florida in 2000, look like a chocolate cupcake.

Make no mistake: they succeeded. They swung the election. The wrong man is in the White House. The Republican machine is nothing if not efficient. Honest, no; honorable, no; but efficient. This is vote-rigging on a scale not seen in America since Tammany Hall, except maybe in Chicago on occasion.

It's a long article, but everyone should read it, and then everyone should write to their elected representative and urge them to Get Those Bastards Out Of There. Jimmy Carter, where were your election monitors in Ohio in 2004, when we needed them? This is the sort of shenanigan I associate with Belarus, or Zimbabwe; the only thing they left out were the armed goon squads actually shooting opposition voters.