Sunday, September 30, 2007
There are reasons I don't normally attend political rallies, and today I was forcibly reminded what they are.
I got there about 4:20, or 10 minutes before the rally was advertised to begin. I found my way out of Oakland City Center (which is under construction) on to 14th Street, to see a line of people stretching in both directions. (It was actually two lines, but more on that later.) I asked, and found that yes, this was the line for the Clinton rally; so I started looking for the end. Half a block away, the line turned right at the corner of Broadway and kept going ... and going ... and going, all the way to the corner of 12th Street, at which point it actually ended. So I stood in it. By now it was pretty close to 4:30, but it was obvious that they weren't going to start on time with all these people out in the street. It took 45 minutes for me to work my way up to the rally entrance, with the line lengthening behind me all the time. I politely ignored at least 5 sellers of political buttons and 3 T-shirt vendors, not counting the Obama crowd on the corner. In the last 20 minutes or so we listened to a children's chorus singing "America," not very well.
The line didn't make much sense to me. It began at the rally entrance, of course, and backed up on the north side of 14th Street to Broadway, one long block; then it turned left and crossed 14th (blocked off), and snaked back down 14th halfway to the entrance again, where it made a U-turn and went back up toward Broadway, where it turned south and went another 2 blocks to 12th Street before turning again, west on 12th. I never did figure out a good reason for that U-turn on the south side of 14th.
I eventually collected the little half sheet of paper that everyone had to fill out in order to get in. We were told it was "for security reasons", but I can't think of a single security reason why they would need my name, address, email, and cell phone and home phone numbers. This is a marketing ploy to fill out the mailing list, but since I'm already on that mailing list, I played along. I will say the campaign had it organized - they had stringers going up and down the line making sure everyone had their "ticket" filled out.
Once we all got into the rally, and past the bleachers where people who actually paid money for this were sitting, we all crowded up around the stage. I never actually saw the stage, or any of the people on it. I could hear clearly enough, their sound system was more than adequate; but I was at least half a block back in the crowd, and I'm only 5 foot 5, and at least half of the crowd was taller than I am. So, for another half hour, I counted the checks in the plaid shirt in front of me, and listened to speeches from unnamed people (must have been introduced before I got there). The only speaker whose name I actually caught was Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco. I never did get the name of the man with the "black" accent who was acting as emcee (looking at the photos on SFGate, it may have been Rev. Cecil Williams), or the woman with the slight eastern clip in her voice (I actually thought, foolish me, that this might be Hillary, until she referred to Hillary as "she".) who followed the first local musician.
As the evening drew in and my feet began to hurt, the announcer introduced a second local musician who began a set of songs intended to inspire the faithful; and I looked at my watch and saw that it was 5:30, and I still couldn't see the stage, and Hillary Clinton was still nowhere in evidence, and the people running things appeared to be vamping. "I came here to hear Hillary Clinton, not these people," I said to a woman standing next to me; and she replied, "Oh, that's how these rallies are; I understand she's due around 6 o'clock." (The article on sfgate.com doesn't say when she actually arrived.) Well, I was probably foolish, but I decided my desire to see the elephant (sorry, I suppose I should say "donkey") was not strong enough to stand around until 6 o'clock, or whenever Madam Candidate chose to make her entrance. So I said the hell with it and began to make my way out of the crowd toward the BART station.
I've had trouble with crowds ever since the Free Speech Movement and People's Park Riots of the '60s; large groups of people make me nervous, especially if they're all there about a Cause. For some reason I didn't have that reaction today. In fact, I didn't really feel that I was in a cohesive "crowd" at all. I was standing in a large group of people paying polite but not passionate attention to the speakers, who continually urged them to show their enthusiasm more loudly. Maybe if I'd stayed to see Hillary, the spark would have happened and the agglomeration of humans would have coalesced into an organism. Then again, maybe not; I've never heard that charisma is Mrs. Clinton's thing.
She seems to be the front runner, she has the machine behind her, she's probably unstoppable, and I do think it would be a good thing symbolically for the U.S. to have a woman president, especially now; but something in the back of my mind says that Barack Obama would make a better president.
Saturday, September 29, 2007
First, there's this focus on "women's stuff." Some of their links are: Art and Design; Astrology and Horoscopes (of interest to me only for debunking purposes); Business, Career and Personal Finance (I'm retired); Feminism and Gender; Health and Wellness (that's what I have a doctor for); and so on. You can go read the list yourself; for that matter, you can read the posts yourself.
I'm just not very interested in "women's sites". I've tried it over the years; and they all get back to fashion (the way I'm built? surely you jest), and child care (no kids here), and weight control (yeah, I know I'm too fat; that's not a blog post, it's just a fact); and I never remember to go back. I don't understand why I should be treated differently from any other blogger, just because I'm a woman. Either I have something interesting to say or I don't. In honesty they do have some sections on Policy and News, Media and Journalism, Technology and Web, which I might actually like to read; but still.
It also bothers me that they have these Categories. My blog doesn't have a category; its purpose is to allow me to rant on whatever subject is currently exercising or interesting me. I have this feeling that if I signed up I'd end up classified as "Other", the organizational kiss of death. I've checked up on 3 or 4 other women bloggers that I've come across, and they also tend to rant on whatever's going on at the time, and not to focus on a Category.
I suppose their real point is that women bloggers are a small minority - which they are - and therefore need to be coddled and supported lest they vanish in the endless sea of male bloggers. I don't know - most of the women bloggers I've read sounded pretty confident and competent to me. Some of them astounded me. If you want to realize that all the annoying things in your life which are bothering you are really not that bad after all, go read the Babblings of Whimsicalbrainpan. Now, that woman is a survivor.
I guess I'm just not much of a joiner; I never seem to fit into formal groups. I have things I want to say in my blog, and I say them; and a few people listen, and sometimes they argue. God knows, this isn't the DailyKos! But a few people read and comment, and I enjoy the exchanges. Should I join a women's blogging group? I don't know. Maybe I'd get more readers; then again, maybe I'd end up classified as "Other" and never get a visitor from there at all. I'm still thinking about it. But as a good child of the Sixties, I've spent the last 40 years trying to persuade myself that people should be judged on their individual merits (intelligence, competence, honesty, kindness, etc.), and not by their race, gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or whatever; and that's why "women blogger" sites bother me.
Friday, September 28, 2007
I have his permission to blog about his alcohol dependency and his recovery; he's been very open about it with everyone; but the fact remains that, six months ago, I suddenly had to deal with the fact that the man I've been married to for twenty-one years is an alcoholic.
How could I not realize something like that (you ask)? Well, that's a good question. I'm not stupid; I knew he always drank wine with dinner (I only drink with dinner occasionally); I knew there were days when he drank too much, and woke up the next morning hung over. (He's very hard to deal with when hung over.) But we don't spend our entire lives watching what other people do; I was working full-time, in a high-stress job that took a lot of my energy and attention, and - frankly - I'm not always that observant, and I didn't realize how far it had really gone. Also, even though I wished he wouldn't do it, I realized that there was nothing I could do about it. I knew couldn't make him stop drinking; all I could do was nag at him about it, which would make both of us miserable, because I dislike confrontation. So, I chose not to do that. Also, frankly, I didn't want to think about it too much. It's just social drinking, I thought - but it wasn't.
What's really bizarre about the situation is that his alcohol dependency, which is a Bad Thing, has led to his alcohol recovery - and that is a really Good Thing. I didn't realize until he started talking about his recovery that he had almost completely stopped talking to me - or anyone else - at all. I didn't realize until he started going to nightly (now, weekly) recovery group meetings, that except for work, and his solitary hiking trips, it had been months since he left the house at all, and years since he attended any kind of social gathering.
So what happened? He says he finally realized that his alcoholism was affecting his ability to hike and take pleasure in nature, which is probably his major passion; and therefore it had to stop. Also, at my suggestion (I cheerfully admit), he talked to the Employee Assistance Program at his job - and the lady there read him the riot act about the characteristics of an alcohol dependent personality, and he had every one of 'em. So she enrolled him in the Kaiser Chemical Dependency Recovery Program, and he enrolled himself in a secular chemical dependency support group called LifeRing, and he hasn't had a drink since. In fact, we no longer have any wine or beer in the house, and I'm negotiating to get rid of some old bottles of spirits that date from before we got married. But they're not critical because on his worst day he never drank spirits.
I feel like I've gotten back the man I married. He's chatty, he's cheerful, he's lost a lot of weight (many empty calories in booze), he makes awful puns again, he can go to parties and talk to people - a few years ago, we went to a New Year's Eve party at a friend's house, and he walked out after half an hour, leaving me to explain that he just didn't like crowds. I didn't realize then that the drinking was already a problem.
So where did this come from? When we married he was a social drinker, nothing more. Well, several personal things - we think it's been going on for about 6 years - and a genetic predisposition. His mother died of Alzheimer's disease in 2003, just before Christmas, after a ten-year "long goodbye." It hit him really hard. He was the caregiver, and he was very fond of his mother, and he had to watch her turn into a vegetable. That's one; the party he walked out on was right after that. Just about the time she died, his job became very very stressful. That's two. And finally, I knew that he had a history of weight problems in his youth, and he lost a lot of weight in graduate school; but I learned during the recovery discussions that he was bulimic at that time; he thinks the two behaviors are related (alcoholism and earlier bulimia), apparently there is some clinical evidence for it.
As for the genetic predisposition: I'll refer you to a book called Under the Influence, by Milam and Ketcham. Amazon has it; Barnes and Noble, or your local public library, probably has it. It's been around for a while, it came out in 1981. If you think that alcoholism is caused by moral decay or lack of will power or some variant of the "Demon Rum", you need to read this book. There is a small part of the population, I think around 10 percent, that simply metabolizes alcohol differently than everyone else. If people with this chemistry get into the habit of drinking regularly, for whatever reason, they find that they have to continue drinking in order to feel well enough to function; and the more they drink, the more they have to drink. They can recover if they stop drinking altogether; but after a certain point, they can't stop drinking without outside help. It's a startling and eye-opening book.
My husband, very fortunately, made the decision to stop before he reached the point where he had to go into detox - he just stopped drinking, assisted materially by the Kaiser CDRP, which provided him with different things to do instead of drinking. As people trying to quit smoking know, the habit patterns are as hard to break as the chemical dependency. He'd been coming home from work and drinking; now he came home from work and went to a meeting, and talked about it. In fact, some nights he went to two meetings: Kaiser's, and LifeRing's. He's now down to 2-3 meetings a week; he really enjoys the discussions.
I won't go too much into LifeRing here - I've linked their web site, you can read it for yourself - but he prefers them to AA because AA is just too Christian-tinged religious for him. He's a very religious person, but he doesn't consider himself a Christian (as I don't). In case you didn't think AA was a Christian organization, I'll refer you to the LifeRing leader's blog post on a recent court case, where a Buddhist convict objected to being forced to attend AA as a condition of parole. I've added the New Recovery blog to my links.
I've been mulling this post over for 6 months. I don't know if I'll post on the subject again; but I wanted to put this out on the table for discussion.
First of all, it is appallingly rude but unfortunately typical of the Bush administration to ignore the U.N.'s attempts to Do Something about impending climate changes and schedule his own parallel meeting at pretty much the same time, inviting all the other major polluters, who ought to be at the U.N. meeting with the rest of the world.
Second, I'm amazed at the blether coming out of the White House - and yes, Condi, that includes you, the President's mouthpiece. We can't possibly slow anybody's growth, or impact anybody's economy (including ours). And we certainly can't impose binding targets, even if we choose them ourselves - why, what if we change our minds??
“Every country will make its own decisions,” she said, “reflecting its own needs and interests.”How is that different from what we've been doing all along, which is what's gotten us here, facing the entire loss of the Arctic ice pack in our lifetimes?? When the permafrost melts, what will happen to our wonderful Alaska pipeline (it's grounded on permafrost, you know)? For that matter, when the pipeline ruptures because the ground has collapsed into a swamp under it, how will the citizens of Alaska get along without all the money they get from the oil fund??
President Bush is now capable of saying the words, "human induced climate change", but he still doesn't get it. He doesn't understand what a 1.5 degree Celsius (that's 3 degrees Fahrenheit, Georgie) average increase in the global temperature will mean for the weather extremes: the winters will be warmer; the summers will be hotter (will you even be able to live in Texas in the summer?); the storms will be stronger; the rain patterns will change, which will disrupt agriculture.
It wouldn't take much of a change in the snow and rainfall pattern to make California incapable of supporting the number of people who live there now - not counting the ones who will move here next week or next year. We've just had one of the driest years on record - is that a coincidence, or the start of a trend? What price the most expensive housing market on the planet if you have Draconian water rationing??
Places near the equator, which are now uncomfortably hot and dry, will become entirely uninhabitable, and the people who live there will have to find somewhere else to live. Are we going to take them in? They're mostly poor and brown, which doesn't augur well; we have this thing about poor brown people.
The climate change has already started; and no matter what we do, it will have some effect. Immediate and strenuous efforts to reduce the fossil fuels we burn may allow us to continue to live here, in varying degrees of discomfort; but remember that the Earth will go on happily whether we can live on it or not.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
President Bush announces that he's shocked - SHOCKED! - at what's going on in Myanmar (which I notice the BBC is starting to call "Burma" again). Actually he said "outraged" but the echo of Casablanca is irresistable. A military dictatorship, who knew? Mr. Bush, who woke you up? This has been going on for I think 19 years, and for the previous 6 years of your term you've taken essentially zero notice. I hate to say this, but I think the Burmese junta is just coiling to strike, and nebulous "support" from the U.N. is going to do nada to shield the monks when the shooting starts.
Then there's the flap over Mahmoud Ahmedinajad's speech at Columbia University. This was a good thing, and kudos to Columbia for inviting him and carrying through. Kudos also to President Bollinger, who called Ahmedinajad as he saw him in his introduction. The Iranians are complaining, but I thought it was a good give and take. Barack Obama is right: we should be talking to our enemies.
I gather Pres. Ahmedinajad, in response to a question about Iran's death penalty for homosexuality, claims that there are no homosexuals in Iran. I suppose he's sure they got them all.
In this invitation, Columbia compares very favorably to my alma mater, the University of California, which just disgracefully raised a stink when Dr. Lawrence Summers was invited to speak to the Board of Regents at Davis. It looks to me as if "free speech" at U.C. is limited to people the University community agrees with. I don't agree with Dr. Summers' opinion on the different abilities of men and women in science and math; but refusing to allow to him say anything (in a formal speech to the Board of Regents) is not the appropriate response, and reinforces a popular conception of U.C. as a narrow-minded cabal of repressive left-wing ideocrats. I'm sorry, but it's true.
And finally in domestic political news, Pres. Bush's Secretary of Transportation (with White House approval) seems to have been using her office and her staff to lobby state governors and members of Congress, particularly from Michigan, to push the EPA to oppose California's request for a waiver on regulating greenhouse gases from cars and trucks. Congressman Henry Waxman thinks this is a violation of the Anti-Lobbying Act; and thank you, Mr. Waxman, for ferreting this out.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots. To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that—with one hand tied behind their back—is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.
Take torture, arguably the hardest case (and the subject of the first article in our series). A famous thought experiment asks what you would do with a terrorist who knew the location of a ticking nuclear bomb. Logic says you would torture one man to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and so you would. But this a fictional dilemma. In the real world, policemen are seldom sure whether the many (not one) suspects they want to torture know of any plot, or how many lives might be at stake. All that is certain is that the logic of the ticking bomb leads down a slippery slope where the state is licensed in the name of the greater good to trample on the hard-won rights of any one and therefore all of its citizens.
Human rights are part of what it means to be civilised. Locking up suspected terrorists—and why not potential murderers, rapists and paedophiles, too?—before they commit crimes would probably make society safer. Dozens of plots may have been foiled and thousands of lives saved as a result of some of the unsavoury practices now being employed in the name of fighting terrorism. Dropping such practices in order to preserve freedom may cost many lives. So be it.
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
1. Why are we waiting until July 1? (OK, this is probably just the way the legal system works) and,
2. Why only 16 and 17 year olds??
Once these kids turn 18, assuming they don't kill themselves and everyone else in the car before then, they will be able to text message their friends while driving, and it'll be perfectly legal. Also, most of the idiots I pass, driving one-handed at 70 MPH with the other hand gluing a cellphone to their ear, are well over the age of 18. I've seen more than one study indicating that driving while talking on the phone is as dangerous as driving drunk - maybe even more so. Just Google "cell phone driving" and look at the evidence for yourself. This is stupid, people.
OK, I'll back off and do the disclaimers: yes, yes, most teenagers don't drive and text. But in this case "most" amounts to two out of three, according to a recent study done by AAA and Seventeen magazine. That means one out of three teenagers is driving and texting, or at least driving and yakking. That's a very high percentage. If they kill themselves while doing this, that may be just Darwinian selection at work; but the odds are quite high that, through inattention, they will kill someone else too, who has done nothing more dangerous than try to drive to work. (Actually, driving to work is dangerous; much more so than the great Terrorist Threat; but that's another post...)
This article lists all the countries, and the U.S. states, that have passed some kind of ban on using cell phones while driving - in some cases just requiring hands-free equipment, but in some cases (New Delhi, India) banning even that. You can potentially go to jail for driving and chatting in Bahrain. There is a reason all these countries have banned driving and phoning: it's dangerous. It kills people. Let's keep your attention on the road, folks.
Oh, yeah, and what about eating while driving, and putting on makeup while driving?? (For that matter, what about the guy I saw wailing down the Number One lane, doing at least 80, with a 3 ring binder spread out on his steering wheel??) Well, they aren't illegal, and not even I am suggesting that they should be (OK, maybe putting on eye makeup should be); but they're just as dangerous as talking on the cell phone. Let's face it, folks: when you're driving a car, your entire attention should be on the road. This is not the time to demonstrate how well you can multi-task. As the old song goes, "Keep your mind on your drivin' and your hands on the wheel..."
Saturday, September 15, 2007
The sub prime mortgage mess has now expanded to restrict the whole credit market, not just credit to people with poor FICO scores. You can't get a jumbo loan even with good credit, which effectively means you can't buy a house in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've actually been waiting for something like this to happen. For the last dunnamany years, the investment banking community has been trading a class of financial instruments they call "credit derivatives" - whose purpose was to "manage risk", by spreading it around among multiple parties so no single party was exposed to all the risk of any one transaction.
The mortgage backed securities, which are collapsing like card houses as subprime mortgage holders default, are only one example. The general class is an investment where a group of normal, understandable transactions - A borrows money from B - is munged up into a big pot, which is then given a name, divided up into pieces and resold, with the pieces priced based on the amount of risk associated with them. In other words, instead of B just booking the fact that A owes him a million dollars, B creates derivative instruments which he sells to C and D, based on their appetite for risk. If C buys the highly rated piece of the pie (or "tranche"), then C gets a relatively low percentage of the interest, but doesn't expect to have to pay out much if the underlying loan (or loans) goes Tango Uniform; D, however, buys the bottom or junk "tranche", which carries the highest risk of default, so D gets the highest percentage of the interest. B passes on some of the income from the loans to C and D in exchange for also passing on some of the risk. This process is called securitization.
I am simplifying wildly here.
The point I'm getting to, though, is that these arrangements are enormously complicated. Further, under current accounting rules, firms that have bought these things have to "mark them to market" daily - that is, their value on the company books has to be what the holder thinks it can sell them for. (I say "it" because human beings don't own these things; financial institutions own them.) And there's where the shoe pinches, because when all the irrational sub prime mortgages started to reset their interest rates to the "real" amount, and the owners suddenly realized they couldn't pay, refinance or even sell because the housing market had slumped, the holders of these investments found themselves getting margin calls (not only do they buy this crap, they buy it on credit - they call it "gearing" or "leveraging") on investments they thought were rated AAA.
What everyone forgot was that if you have securitized a bunch of mortgage loans, and sold the pieces, they are only worth something if the mortgage holders are still paying on the underlying loans. If the mortgage holders default, the securities become worthless.
So while the mortgage firms that made the original loans were going bankrupt, the financial firms that bought the mortgage-backed securities realized suddenly that the assets they held weren't worth what they thought they were. Worse, they realized that they didn't actually know what the assets they held were worth. And worst of all, they realized that they had loaned money out to other firms, and they now couldn't judge whether those other firms were capable of repaying them or not, because the other firms didn't know what their assets were worth, either. This is called counterparty risk - the risk that the counterparty you trusted will fail you. If you have been reading in the newspaper that banks are afraid to borrow from each other, this is why.
The problem isn't that these firms are going bankrupt; it's that they don't know whether they're going bankrupt or not. And this is all happening because some very bright people invented these credit derivatives, and sold them to the financial community as a clever way to "manage risk", when in fact only about 8 people anywhere actually understand them. It all worked fine as long as there was another fool standing in line ready to buy the next one. But the fool has stepped out of line and put his money under the mattress.
Peter Lynch of 1980s investing fame used to say that you shouldn't invest in anything you couldn't explain to your mother. He was talking about buying stocks, but it applies here too.
So are they going to take the whole economy down with them?? I don't know, but I doubt it; I'm afraid I think they'll get bailed out. They've already had a kind of bail-out, when the Fed lowered its "discount rate" (what it charges banks to borrow short term to true up cash for the day) back in August. I hate to see them get off scot-free from this stupidity, but they'd take too many other people down with them.
Friday, September 07, 2007
Personally, I think Osama Bin Laden has been dead for at least a couple of years. Remember, this man's kidneys were bad: he was on dialysis. And he couldn't just drop into the local hospital for treatments: he had to carry the dialysis machine, and power for same, around with him from hideout to hideout. He has/had the money to do all this, no doubt; but it seems like a situation where it wouldn't take too many things going wrong all at once to be fatal over a relatively short period. I don't think he made it out of Tora Bora. But his mystique is so strong there's a powerful incentive for the remaining inner circle of Al Quaeda to keep releasing videos of him (with the background carefully blurred), to convince the world that he's still there and still a threat. Nobody else has that kind of mana.
The final reason I don't think it's him? This absurd suggestion that Americans should convert to Islam if we want to end the war in Iraq. That's just stupid, and while I dislike Bin Laden, he's not (or was not, if I'm right) stupid, and I don't think he would waste valuable broadcast time on a suggestion that is about as rational as the Pope suggesting that all Muslims should convert to Catholicism. That statement came from a not very bright ideologue, whose religious impulses overrode his brain; and nobody ever said that about Bin Laden.
Furthermore, if we all did convert to Islam, it wouldn't do a thing about the war in Iraq; and Osama Bin Laden knows that (assuming he's still alive). That's a local civil war among internal groups, most of whom hate Osama Bin Ladin and Saudi Wahhabism as much as they hate Americans. Shias versus Sunnis; Shias versus Shias (check out Basra and environs); everybody versus the Kurds; and the vast majority of the combatants are Iraqis. No matter what the neocons say about "Al Quaeda in Iraq". Sure, there probably are some foreign jihadis running around hoping to achieve martyrdom while taking a whack at the Great Satan; but they're a minority. How many times do we have to say "civil war"??
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Is this making you just a little nervous about buttery-flavored microwave popcorn?
According to the article, the unnamed patient microwaved popcorn "several times a day for years," and developed coughing, shortness of breath, and inability to exhale (to exhale??), which improved after he quit microwaving the popcorn. Airborne levels of diacetyl in the patient's home resembled those which have caused workplace safety lawsuits.
I have to ask this: how much microwave popcorn did this guy EAT, anyway?? Was he feeding it to birds?? To the dog? Using it to pack shipments he sold on eBay (in which case, why buttered?)?
OK, one swallow does not a summer make, and one patient with a problem based on a really unusual level of consumption probably isn't a sign of a major public health issue. It's probably not damaging to your health to eat an occasional package of butter-flavored microwave popcorn. (I do wonder about the air in the office kitchen where I used to work; the fire safety people always wanted that door kept closed, and people regularly made microwave popcorn in there...)
But you know: it isn't that hard to pop your own popcorn, from the stuff you buy in a jar. If you don't want to do it on the stove in a pan, the old way (which is free), you can get a popcorn popper for somewhere around $20; and if you put butter on the popcorn, it's just butter, not diacetyl.