Monday, December 14, 2009

Let Men Their Songs Employ

I'm sure I've complained about this before.  I find the current passion for verbal political correctness grating, if only because it produces such ugly English.  I ran up against this again last week, singing Christmas carols.

I've given up on Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, where the line "She bore to men a saviour" has been corrected to "She bore to us a saviour."  Which doesn't sound all that bad.  But this year our caroling director decided that it was just too, too politically incorrect to sing, "Let men their songs employ," in Joy to the World.  We were supposed, she said, to sing, "Let all their songs employ."

Well, I'm not a-gonna do it.  (I'm also not going to sing, "The Lord has come."  The line is, "The Lord is come," and that's what I sing.)   The beauty of this song is the line of its poetry, taken from Psalm 98 in that most politically incorrect of documents, the King James Bible; and trying to sing, "Let all their songs employ" is like biting down into a piece of fudge and cracking your tooth on a rock.  It's the right number of syllables but it feels wrong.  I am (believe it or not) a feminist; but I'm also an English major, and I refuse to disinfect my favorite Christmas carols like this.  I won't sing Good Christian People, Rejoice, either - besides, it doesn't scan.

We're missing an opportunity for some historical perspective here, and a little comparative linguistics.  One of the English language's annoying  characteristics (to a feminist, at least) is that it has no gender neutral pronoun.  You can't refer impersonally to a person or class of persons without implying gender, usually male gender.  According to Wikipedia, "most Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, and a number of Niger-Congo languages" do not have a gender-neutral pronoun (who else is there??), and use the masculine pronoun as the general.  (I thought I recalled gender neutrality of a sort in both French and German; but it's been a long time since I studied either.)  Until the French Revolution, and its call for general equality, nobody in Europe complained publicly about this; but it's now very fashionable to insist that we not use the masculine pronoun as the general, because it is sexist and promotes discrimination.  

To quote the Wikipedia article on this point:
Patriarchal societies with genderless languages, such as Chinese, demonstrate that gendered pronouns are not a prerequisite for inequality to exist.

(Oh, Chinese.  That's who else.)  According to Wikipedia again, there have been a number of attempts to produce a gender neutral pronoun (I like hir, myself - Larry Niven used it in Ringworld), none of which have ever stuck.  Our languages are wired very deeply into our brains, it seems.

In pre-industrial Europe, the general pronoun was the masculine partly because most of the actions of any significance were, in fact, taken by men.  I don't necessarily approve of this; but it was so.  And we can't really evaluate how far we've come toward the demands in Mary Wollstoncraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) unless we look back at where we were then, when women were not allowed to vote, hold property, or become educated.  

But I digress.  This isn't a defense of women's rights.  This is a plea that we should find a way to respect everyone's rights without destroying the beauty of our language and the astonishing poetry it can produce.  We need the beauty of the poetry, too.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Schizophrenic Republicans

OK, this is it.  The Republican party is officially talking out of both sides of its mouth.  Today's business news proves it.

In one article from the AP, Obama administration extends bailout program, several Republicans urge strongly that the unspent portion of the $700 billion TARP funds "should be devoted exclusively to curbing the country's soaring budget deficits," instead of putting it into a jobs program (tax breaks for hiring new employees, increased small business lending, and an infrastructure program) as the administration proposes.

In a second article from the AP, House vote raises taxes to pay for extending tax breaks, Republicans object to proposed tax increases, which would pay for extending a number of miscellaneous tax breaks by increasing the penalties on international tax cheats (nobody objects to that!) and by taxing fees earned by investment managers as ordinary income (top rate 35%) instead of capital gains (15%).  

Republicans argued that the tax increase would reach far beyond Wall Street, hitting real estate investment funds across the country. Instead, Republicans said, the tax breaks should be financed by federal borrowing, increasing the budget deficit.
So - it's OK to increase the budget deficit to protect the favorable tax treatment of some of the richest people in the country, but it's not OK to increase the budget deficit by helping get unemployed Americans into work.

Do these guys ever actually listen to what they're saying, or do they just pick talking points off the list, as the spirit moves them??  I understand that the national Republican Party, as an organization (I except various individual Republican politicians), has no interest in the welfare of this country and its citizens at all - its only interest is in getting back into power.  But do they really think that this form of "white man speak with forked tongue" will do that??

Monday, December 07, 2009

Memories of Cal - Smyth Fernwald

The U.C. Alumni Association has a discussion thread going on LinkedIn called "what did you do while you were at Cal, other than go to class?"  I've posted a couple of notes there, but the exchange has got me thinking, and I think I'll put some of those memories up here, too.

Going to Cal was tremendously exciting to me.  I'd literally never been away from my family before, and here I was, living by myself in a dormitory, sharing a room with a stranger!  I didn't live in any of the dorms you see at Cal now, certainly not in any of the classy new ones with wireless Internet and actual interior decoration.  The dorms I lived in, called Smyth Fernwald, aren't dorms any more - they're student family housing and they have been extensively remodeled!  Trust me.  No modern families would live in those rooms. 

The Smyth Fernwald complex was unique because of the location:  it was and still is at the extreme top of Dwight Way, a solid mile from the Bancroft and Telegraph intersection (and probably a couple of hundred feet difference in elevation!).  The last block up that hill was steep enough to give small cars a problem; it certainly gave hoofing students a stiff climb.  A geological web site I found suggests that the old buildings were torn down in 1999 because of seismic problems; they were right on the fault scarp for the Hayward Fault!  I never did athletics at Cal, but walking back and forth to the dorms kept me pretty fit.  There was a shuttle bus, but it didn't run out of class hours or on weekends.

I started at Cal in the fall of 1963, and the dorms were still segregated - women in one building, men in another.  I don't think co-ed dorms evolved for another 10 years.  The Smyth-Fernwald buildings were U-shaped, two long 2 story wings connected by a lobby and lounge at one end.  Women lived in three two-wing buildings; men lived in a single building, Smyth Hall, with three wings in a W.  Persons of the opposite gender were allowed only in the lounges, under close supervision by the building housemother.  You went through a permanently locked door to get from the living wings to the lounge.  You signed in and out when you entered or left the dorms; on weeknights you had to be back in by 10 or 11 (this time may be wrong), on weekends you had till 2:30 AM.  After that the doors were locked, and you had to ring and wake the housemother to get in - or climb through the window of an accomodating friend.

The rooms were just large enough for two single beds, two small desks, and two modest closets.  They had two double-hung windows.  I think I remember steam heaters.  I don't think they had telephones (I'm not totally sure of this); if you wanted a telephone you used the pay phone in the lounge.  Communal bathrooms and showers were down the hall.  The rooms were painted one of four pastel colors - pink, blue, green, or yellow.  You decorated your room with anything you could attach with a pin - tape was verboten because it took the paint off.  Draped madras bedspreads were fashionable curtains, and one of my roommates went in for a draped fishnet dyed hot pink.  At the time it seemed tremendously romantic and exciting, but as I think back now, the place was a dump, the paint was applied thinly, the bathrooms were Soviet (although they did mostly work).  The communal bathrooms meant that residents regularly marched up and down the hall in varying states of undress, so any male visitors to the living floor (workmen, family members) were supposed to be preceded by a female, loudly announcing, "Man on the floor!"

Dorm residents had a meal ticket that entitled them to three squares a day in the dorm cafeteria, except for Sunday nights.  Because we were so far from the campus, I think I recall that we could use our ticket for lunch in the campus cafeteria; most dormies had to go home for their ticket lunch.  I was having lunch in the cafeteria on campus on November 22, 1963, when one of my fellow Smyth dormies set her lunch tray down on the table next to me and announced flatly, "They just shot the president."  I can't recall her last name but her first name was Marsha, and I can still see her face.

Sunday nights you were on your own for food.  I remember walking down the hill on Sunday nights to a pizza joint on Telegraph which even I recognized as dubious (but it was cheap!), for a slice and a coke.  Then I'd walk back up to the dorm and listen to old episodes of The Shadow being rebroadcast on a local radio station.  The pizza joint didn't survive my tenure at Cal; the space is now occupied by Amoeba Music.

I remember the food at the dorm cafeteria as pretty ghastly, but it was probably just standard steam-table fare.  Unlike the campus cafeteria, I have no special memories of the Smyth cafeteria, except this:  they used to serve red snapper on Fridays, fried and breaded (these were still the days when Catholics didn't eat meat on Friday), and I still won't eat red snapper if I have a choice of any other fish.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

More on Afghanistan

So we're sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.  But we'll start pulling them out in 18 months.  I expected better than this from the president; but it is a difficult and complex situation.  Back in October I thought through some of the issues with sending an army into Afghanistan, and you could have concluded from that, that I didn't think we should.  So now I'll look at some of the other arguments.

The first and biggest argument is:  the United States made this mess, the United States ought to clean it up.  You wouldn't let your ten-year-old walk away from a broken window with the argument that he had other things he needed to concentrate on.  That's roughly the position being taken by the folks who say, bring the troops home, we need to spend the money on health care / jobs / climate change / fill-in-the-blank.  It's true that we actually had a reason to invade Afghanistan (unlike Iraq); but the fact is we invaded.  And now some people argue that we can't afford it, we have responsibilities at home, etc.   Yeah, but we invaded.  We broke the window; we ought to sweep up the glass.

A second related argument will probably be pooh-poohed as old-fashioned.  OK, I'm old-fashioned.  We're getting a reputation as a nation that others can't depend on, because when the going gets tough, the Americans go home.  That wasn't the reputation we had in World War II, or even in Vietnam (until Nixon decided to cut his losses).  We've been building this rep since the first Bush administration, when George I let the Iraqi "marsh Arabs" think he would back them against Saddam, and then sat back while Saddam gassed them; it picked up steam when Clinton pulled the Marines out of Somalia after the "Black Hawk down" incident, because nobody at home was willing to accept American casualties.  We're in the process of pulling out on the Iraqi Sunnis (or so they could argue).  And now we've just told the Afghans that we're only there for another couple of years.  Believe me, the Taliban was listening.

If we aren't willing to finish these little expeditions, we shouldn't start them.  So in this case I'll say, very reluctantly, that Obama is right - at least right that we should send the 30,000 more troops. 

There were two very interesting op-ed pieces in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle that I'd like to bring to the president's opinion, although I think Gen. McChrystal may already understand them.  Both of them make the point that the central government in Afghanistan is an active hinderance to our efforts; both of them point out that Afghanistan has, in John Arquilla's words, "no history of successful democratic rule from Kabul."

John Arquilla, of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, argues that we need to negotiate with the Taliban (Flaws in Obama's Strategy for Afghanistan), because many of the people who look like Taliban to us are actually Afghan patriots who regard us as invaders.  If we can treat them with respect and help them to develop their own societies, they may turn on the actual Taliban, whom they don't like either.  This is what happened in Iraq with the Sunni Awakening.

Mizgon Zahir, an Afghan-American freelance journalist, urges Obama to bypass the Kabul government and deal with local tribal elders (Afghanistan needs nation-building from U.S.), because Afghan citizens don't trust the corrupt government in Kabul.  Ms. Zahir argues that "community self-governance makes the most sense in a tribal country."  Afghans trust their tribal elders, and a true government can only be built on the basis of that trust.

If we pull out in 2011 with the Taliban just waiting to take over, we'll add Afghanistan to the list of people who believe that you can't depend on the Americans.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Never apologize...

Tiger Woods' current mess has got me thinking about the phrase, "Never apologize, never explain."  Which Tiger certainly should have taken to heart, but let that pass.

This is one of those phrases that you hear, or read, and you can never quite remember who said it.  I had a list of names in my mind that I thought were responsible for "never apologize, never explain" - they included Disraeli, Napoleon, and the Duke of Wellington.  I'm not the only one who thought of this in connection with Mr. Woods, and there's been some web discussion, which led me to Google the phrase.

Apparently nobody knows where it really came from.  What seems to be the authoritative research was done on a site called Ask Metafilter - I've found multiple links to it and of course, here's another one.  One source, according to Metafilter, is:
... the screenplay for the 1949 film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, written by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings. The line is spoken by John Wayne and the exact quote reads, "Never apologize and never explain--it's a sign of weakness."
Evidently I had the wrong Duke.  The Ask Metafilter site has a series of posts about the phrase, and a lot of interesting back story, but apparently none of the people I had it associated with ever said it.  So much for my erudition; John Wayne, indeed.  I've never even seen She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  If you read the whole thread, though, the screenwriters copped the line from someone - but no one is quite sure from whom.

But back to the Tiger. On December 1, the day before it all came out about the girlfriend and the voicemail message and the sheaf of emails (can emails be in a sheaf?), somebody on a local forum I follow posted the following link to the Wanda Sykes show - and Wanda summed it all up, and it's even funnier considering what came to light the next day:

Poor Tiger.  I wonder how he likes the taste of crow.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Energy Bars

When you're traveling, the food you get to eat can be very variable.  We spent last weekend in Yosemite Valley, which limited our dining options; we mostly ate at the Ahwahnee Hotel, which is Very Good and Very Expensive.  When we came home, however, we had to decide what to do about lunch, since Jim wanted to come home via Crane Flat and Big Oak Flat (I forget which road that is).  Frankly, along that route at this time of year, you can't even rely on an open convenience store until much later in the day than we wanted to eat.  

We were in Curry Village when we decided to get something we could eat sitting in the car, by the roadside somewhere, which meant that "lunch" was "something we can buy in the store at Curry Village."  Jim had the remains of a sandwich from the day before, and he ate that; I decided to get a couple of energy bars.  

They didn't, of course, have any of the ones I like; I've tried both Luna and Clif Bars, and I'm not impressed.  (I like the energy bars Kashi makes.)  But I like peanut butter, so I chose something called "thinkThin," in the "chunky peanut butter" flavor.  This was the strangest energy bar I've ever eaten.  It had no flavor.  It didn't taste of anything; not peanut butter (certainly not chunky peanut butter, since it had a very uniform bland texture), not the chocolate which appeared to coat it.  No flavor at all.

A look at the label (I should have done this first) explains it.  The first ingredient is "protein blend (calcium caseinate, whey protein isolate, soy protein isolate)," followed by glycerin, and sugar-free chocolate coating.  (Maybe that explains the lack of chocolate flavor.)   They claimed it was flavored with "sea salt" but I couldn't taste any salt, either.  In other words, this is sort of "essence of food" without any of the usual characteristics of food like scent, flavor, or texture.  It said it had 8 grams of fat (probably in the chocolate) but I couldn't taste that either.

I ate the thing because it was what I had, and I assumed it had some nutritional value.  It's supposed to help you lose weight.  A diet of those things would drive you to a double cheeseburger with a chocolate milk shake in sheer frustration.  When we finally found an open convenience store, I bought a pair of Reese's Cups, and finally got my peanut butter fix.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Civilian Trials for Terrorists

There's been a lot of flap lately about Attorney General Holder's plan to try the half dozen men suspected of the 9/11 attacks in civil court in New York.  The AP quotes Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as calling it a "perversion of justice" to put wartime enemies into a civilian criminal court.

I guess the Allies were wrong to try the Nazi leaders in Nuremberg, then.

Mr. Holder believes he has the evidence to convict these men in a normal civilian court.  I'm not sure whether the people who oppose his plan don't believe him, or whether they're afraid a New York jury wouldn't convict these guys.  Frankly, I believe a New York jury is so likely to convict that, if I were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's defense lawyer, I'd be moving for a change of venue.  We're supposed to have one of the best legal systems in the world; do we really not trust it to give these men honest justice? 

And let's stop talking about a war.  This isn't a war.  We're being attacked, not by an enemy nation with an army, but by a group of criminal thugs who use a perversion of Islam as justification for acts that no religion, including Islam, condones.  These are criminals, and the criminal system is the right place for them.  We'd do better if we took that mindset to Afghanistan, too:  the Taliban, and Al Qaeda for that matter, are armed thugs practicing extortion on the people of Afghanistan (and Pakistan), just like the Mafia in Chicago in the thirties.  They even run dope, like the Mafia.  They're just another form of organized crime, and we need to use our crime-fighting tools on them, and quit dignifying them as opponents in a "war."

About Abortion

Let's be clear about the Stupak Amendment to the House health care reform bill.  This amendment won't prevent any woman, by itself, from getting an abortion.  It will only prevent poor women from getting abortions; rich women will be able to fund their own.  But any woman poor enough to require federal subsidies to buy insurance (which will be a lot of women, I suspect) would have to pony up her own dollars if she found herself in a pregnancy which she couldn't, for some reason, carry to term.  This could be anything from an inability to feed the children she already has to a life-threatening health condition; the Stupak amendment makes very little distinction.

I thought the problem with our current health system was exactly that the care you get depends on the amount of money that goes into your health insurance.

I'll offer a trade, though - the Stupak Amendment can stand if we also add an amendment to prevent any Federal funding for Viagra and similar drugs.  Ever.  In this case there would be no exceptions, since the inability to get it up is not a life-threatening condition.  We'd have the same condition:  rich men would still be able to get the drug through private insurance, poor men would have to find their own dollars if they want it.

Seems only fair to me.

Friday, November 06, 2009

It's Being Dealt With

It's now all over the San Francisco Bay Area that Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and his wife have some problems with the IRS.  The IRS has slapped a tax lien on some property they own, for $239,000 in back taxes covering 2005-2007, during most of which period Mr. Dellums has been Mayor of Oakland. 

The Mayor has recently told the Montclarion newspaper that "it's being dealt with."  I can't link this statement because, although some of the Montclarion is online, this article isn't; and a quick Google search for "Dellums tax" doesn't produce any online published response from the mayor.  But I have the paper in my hand.

There you go again:  the passive exonerative (sometimes called the passive evasive), so favored of politicians .  Heaven forbid that Hizzoner should say exactly who is doing what, or anything as direct as, "We're going to pay the money."  I've blogged about this practice before (Hiding behind the passive, March 2007).  What's really clear from the article is that Mr. Dellums doesn't want to talk about this:

"I told you that it's being dealt with," he said Monday night.  "We owe taxes.  It's now being dealt with, and it will be dealt with expeditiously.  Period ... P-E-R-I-O-D."
Well, I wouldn't want to talk about it either, but - I'm not the mayor.  This is unfortunately typical of Mr. Dellums' entire tenure as mayor - he doesn't want to tell people what he's doing, ever, about anything at all.  In this case, the situation he doesn't want to talk about could theoretically (if something goes wrong in those expeditious dealings) end up with the mayor of Oakland in tax court.

This is not the behavior that voters expect from the mayor of a large city.  I didn't vote for him, and I've only seen him do one thing in office that made me consider I might have been wrong - the negotiations over the garbage contract in his first year in office.  I recently read a speculation that he may be considering a run for a second term.  I think he should reconsider.  Based on the comments on his lifestyle in all the articles about this mess, I don't think he can afford this job.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Not Jerry Brown

So Gavin Newsom has withdrawn from the 2010 California governor's race.  I didn't plan to vote for him; I consider him a fast-talking flake (too fast talking sometimes).  But this election poses a major problem for me:  the Democrats, at this moment, have nobody in the race - except Jerry Brown, who isn't officially running, but is accumulating campaign funds like they were going to stop printing money tomorrow.

I will not vote for Jerry Brown again.  Ever.  For anything.  I sat through his first governorship, and listened to him oppose Proposition 13 until it passed, when he pretended it was his idea all along.  "Governor Moonbeam," pfah.  I endured his mayorship of Oakland, a town he did a lot to destroy.  He imposed his "strong mayor" government because he couldn't bear to have anyone disagree with him, ever; after he left, the clueless citizens of Oakland elected Ron Dellums, who can't make a decision to save his soul and doesn't really like running a city, anyway.  (I never have figured out why he agreed to run.  Maybe he felt flattered to be asked.)  Lately Mr. Brown has been making a fool of himself in the Attorney General's office - although at least he had the sense to put his wire-tapping assistant on administrative leave.  I wonder how long it'll take for the guy to be reinstated.  The mere fact that he thought it was OK to record conversations secretly, in the AG's office, says volumes about the tone of that office - set by Mr. Brown.  The whirring sound you hear is Pat Brown, an honest and honorable politician, spinning in his grave.

So - no Democrats running.  Whom to vote for?  Well, there's someone I'd like to see win it:  Tom Campbell, the moderate Republican.  Tom Campbell, who actually understands the state budget - he must be the only man other than the Comptroller who does.  And Tom Campbell, being a moderate Republican, hasn't the chance of a celluloid cat in Hell, although I'm delighted to see him hanging in there and will certainly vote for him if he gets the nomination.  The Republicans look like going for Meg Whitman, probably because she can pay for the campaign herself, even though her voting record is nearly nonexistent (great civic participation!) and she's on the record as donating to Democrats.

If the race turns into Jerry Brown versus Meg Whitman, I'm voting Green.  Or Libertarian.  I suppose I could register Republican so as to vote for Campbell in the primary, but it'd put me on the Republican mailing list, and I don't think I could stand it.  We have to have somebody in the governor's mansion who will tell the idiot citizens of California the honest truth about the corner they've painted themselves into; and whoever that person may be, it ain't Jerry Brown.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Learning to Read

I'm listening to an extended discussion on Talk of the Nation about the Baby Einstein videos, whether videos increase infant intelligence, and how best to teach children to read.  You know, I learned to read by the time I was 3 or 4.  My grandmother taught me; she'd sit with me on her lap, and read me the Sears, Roebuck catalog.  It doesn't take a video to teach a child to read, in fact, it's almost certainly counter-productive.  It takes a parent or other adult, some kind of reading material, and a small child.  You could probably teach a child to read from the sports section of the newspaper.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Maternal Mortality

I heard this on National Public Radio this morning, and I'm still shaking my head:

From the BBC World News:  
Health ministers from around the world have agreed that swift action must be taken to reduce the number of women dying during pregnancy and childbirth.
At the UN Population Fund meeting in Addis Ababa the ministers said the number of women dying in this way was actually increasing in some nations.
My basic response to this:  WHY DID IT TAKE YOU SO LONG TO NOTICE??  This has only been going on for, what?  A hundred thousand years?  A million?  How old is the human race?

Gee, women die when they try to have babies.  What a surprise!  Who ARE these yo-yos, anyway, and how many of them are female?  (Guess.)

Not that I disagree.  I think it would be a good thing to reduce maternal mortality; I even agree that family planning is the best way to go about it.  I definitely agree that the rich world is directing all its health aid dollars to "fashionable" diseases like AIDS (stuff that kills us; we don't die in childbed - mostly), and blowing off aid for primary health care which would actually do something about maternal mortality.

I'm just floored by the sheer effrontery of it all; we've just noticed, so it must be a real problem.  Men!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Executive Pay

How did we collectively let it come about that a small group of powerful men, corporate senior executives, is allowed to set its own pay scales?  These people decide among themselves how much they should be paid, and (subject to the vagaries of the tax code) how the pay should be structured (cash, stock, options, etc.).

It shouldn't surprise us that they've quietly agreed, over the last few decades, to wring every drop of blood they could out of the turnip.  If the corporations they run had done this, for the prices of the goods and services they sell, it would be an antitrust violation; but somehow it's OK if the executives are all on each other's boards (they are) and they all agree on what each other should be paid (they do).

Nobody else in this world is allowed to determine unilaterally how much money he makes.  Not you, not I, not the President of the United States.  Congress comes close, in that they can vote themselves a raise; but they're restrained by outrage among their constituents which could prevent them from being reelected.  Only corporate executives (and mainly American corporate executives, although the practice is starting to spread to Europe) can decide, the value of my job is, oh, $750,000 a year base, but it also deserves annual bonuses of (say) $15 million dollars.

Nobody is "worth" that much money, not even if he (it almost always is he) can spin gold from straw, like Rapunzel.  The practice is sheer, unadulterated greed.  In the middle ages, these men would have been vilified as mortal sinners for their greed.  Now they are "the masters of the universe."  Which is right?

So I'm not weeping that the Treasury Department is cracking down on senior executive pay at the banks that have taken TARP money.  Believe me, you'll never see any of these men standing on a street corner with a cardboard sign reading, "Hungry, please help."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Remembering the Loma Prieta Earthquake

Today is the 20th anniversary of the earthquake that leveled the Marina District, knocked a hole in the Bay Bridge, and destroyed the Cypress Structure, killing 42 people unlucky enough to be driving on it.  I looked for my diary for the period (yes, I keep a diary), only to find absolutely no entries between August 1989 and April 1990!  This is what happens when you use a diary to rant about things that bother you; when you're reasonably happy, you don't write in it!  So this entire account is from memory, and I won't swear to any of it.

At 5:04 PM on October 17, 1989, I was at work at the Bank of America's data center in Concord, California, in my window cube on the 2nd floor of Building C.  This wasn't a bad place to be - Building C is only 4 stories high and broader than it is tall, so it's pretty stable.  My friends in Building D (6 stories high and mounted on rollers because at that date it had production mainframes on the 5th floor) told me they had a pretty wild ride.  Still, you couldn't miss it when the place started to rock, and I immediately dived under the desk in my cube.  The quake lasted 15 seconds - when the floor is rocking under you, that's a long time.  I had time to look up at the tangle of electrical wires on the underside of my desk, wonder if I ought to be under there, look at the wall of windows right across the aisle, and conclude that yes, I should be under the desk.

Next, of course, BART shut down.  BART, for the non-local readers, is Bay Area Rapid Transit, the local light rail system, and much of it runs on elevated tracks.  It actually wasn't damaged; but management shut it down until they could inspect it.  Since I had ridden BART to work that morning, I now had no way to get home. 

I didn't really try to get home right away; those of us still in the office spent some time gibbering at each other and phoning people to see if they were all right. 

We also wanted to know the status of the mainframe computers - at that time I worked on the team that supported a secondary set of mainframes (VM, for the technically curious) that the Bank of America used for back-office work, including everybody's email.  (Remember, this is 1989.)  Those machines were in the San Francisco data center, and we were worried about them, because if they crashed, it could take hours to get them safely back up and running.  Fortunately the San Francisco data center (also on rollers) came through the earthquake in fine shape, and the automatic diesel backup generators kicked in when the power failed, just the way they should, and gave the operators time to shut the systems down orderly.  Just time.  The diesels ran out of fuel 10 minutes after the systems came down.  After that, the fuel gauges were checked more often.

Eventually I decided to see if I could cadge a ride home, since the Caldecott Tunnel seemed to be undamaged.  I rode home with a woman I didn't know very well, who lived a mile or so from me in the Oakland hills.  I still remember that ride.  I was in much more danger in that car that I had been from the earthquake, because my driver was out of control.  She kept taking her hands off the wheel to put her palms to her cheeks and shriek, every time the radio reported another development.  It didn't help that she tuned the radio to KPFA, which was broadcasting every disaster it could hear of, in a hysterical tone that I thought was rather irresponsible; they clearly gave the impression that all of downtown Berkeley was on fire, although I found later that it was only one building.  I remember wondering if I should tell her to pull over and let me drive, except that we were on a freeway, and it wasn't clear she wouldn't just stop in the lane.  I was profoundly grateful when she dropped me off.

That's about it.  Our house was undamaged.  My husband was fine - he was walking across a parking lot to his vanpool when the quake hit.  That was the beginning of the time when you couldn't drive directly from Oakland to San Francisco - you had to go down to San Mateo or up to Richmond.  I got out of the habit of going to San Francisco during that period, and I've never really gotten it back.  The destruction of the Cypress Structure bothered me more than the rest, because I have a collection of relatives who, when I was a child, lived in Alameda and San Leandro; and when we drove to visit them, we took the Cypress Structure.  We'd all moved on and I didn't drive that route any more, but that could easily have been my whole family on that lower deck.  Scary thoughts.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rain, Rain...

They said this was going to be a helluva storm, and it is.  It's raining like the lead-in to that business with Noah and the Ark, only not for so long. Yet. 

I remember Bill Cosby's old routine about Noah and the Ark:  "Noah," said God in an ominous voice, "How long can you tread water?"

We haven't seen a storm like this in years.  Oakland usually gets around 23 inches of rain in a year.  I checked the Oakland North rain station (which is conveniently online) for the damages, and since 03:00 this morning we've gone from .38" of rain (which I think was the year to date since January) to 3.53" of rain.  That's 15% of our annual average, in less than 12 hours, and it's clearly prepared to go on doing this for some little time yet.

I'm wrong.  Oakland North just posted the results for 13:00 - 4.22" of rain, or 19% of the annual average.  Are we really getting half an inch an hour?

Fortunately, due to the previous drought, the ground was as dry as a Sahara dune, so all the water will (probably) soak right in and not even cause any hillsides to slide downward, taking houses with them.  This time.

I don't know who's right or wrong about "global warming," although it seems reasonable to me that there should be some consequences to all the heat-trapping gases we've been belching into the atmosphere for the last 2 centuries.  I read recently that the hottest year on record was 1998, and the more recent temperature changes are actually due to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and not to us at all.  I think what we're seeing here isn't necessarily warmer or cooler, but wider extremes.  The storms will be more frequent and stronger, the droughts will last longer before the rain comes; the rain when it comes will be heavier.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Friday, October 09, 2009

President Obama's Nobel Prize

President Barack Obama has just won this year's Nobel Peace Prize, and the blogosphere and the conservative talkshow weenies are going off like a 4th of July fireworks display.

I have to admit, it surprises even me a little.  He's been in office less than a year, he's still fighting 2 wars (even if he is pulling out of Iraq), the American conservative movement maintains a constant state of low-level simmering hostility to him.  But everybody needs to keep two things in mind:

This. Isn't. Barack. Obama's. Fault.

He almost certainly didn't know it was coming.  The Nobel Committee plays its cards so close to the vest that we won't know who the other candidates were for this year's prizes until 2059.

He didn't ask for it.  As far as I know you can't nominate yourself for any Nobel Prize.

Even if someone did nominate him and then tell him they had, the Nobel Committee famously makes its own decisions.

Personally, I think they gave it to him for trying to make peace.  After 8 years of Dubya wandering around waving a (metaphorical) six-shooter, a president who says, "Let's talk" instead of "Let's invade" is an amazing relief, even if you don't agree with every decision he makes.  I am gobsmacked that everyone is blaming him for this decision!  This is incredible.

Yesterday, Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida gave a wonderful speech to Congress, (thanks to my Facebook friend Lauretta for the link!) in which he lambasted both the Democrats and the Republicans on health care.  In this speech, he said:  "If Barack Obama were somehow able to cure hunger in the world, the Republicans would blame him for overpopulation... If the President has a BLT sandwich tomorrow for lunch, the Republicans will try to ban bacon."  This is the guy who said that the Republican advice to people without health insurance was, "Die quickly;" he's worth listening to.

So now that Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize, what will the Republicans try to ban?  Peace, or Nobel Prizes?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Air Traffic

One of my regular habits, when my schedule allows, is a late afternoon water aerobics class at a local gym.  They have a small outdoor pool, in a slightly claustrophobic enclosure off the locker rooms.  It's relatively rare for us to see any air traffic above us while we splash, but today the sky was practically swarming.

We heard a high-pitched snarling sound, like an angry sewing machine.  We all looked up - sometimes you see a police or a traffic copter - and there were three little propeller planes, the single-engine overhead-wing style, flying very low overhead in tight vee formation.  Cessnas flying in close formation?  I don't know if they were really Cessnas, of course; I don't wear my glasses in water aerobics class, so my vision is limited.  They looked like Cessnas.  What they did not look like was military fighter jets.  Now, it is Fleet Week, and the Blue Angels are in town; but I never heard that the Blue Angels flew single engine prop planes.  Maybe it's just copycats.  Then they were gone, and we went back to exercises.

A little later we heard a lighter snarling sound, and one of the little planes flew back over by itself.

Finally, I happened to glance up and saw a blimp, floating silently past the south end of the pool.  Not the Goodyear blimp; it had some kind of ad for tickets on the side. 

I'd still like to know who was flying single-engine propeller planes in close formation. 


I have as much right to pontificate about the situation in Afghanistan as anyone else, so here goes.

The question, of course, is:  do we send in more troops, and if so how many?

But the bigger question is:  what exactly are we trying to accomplish here?

Gen. McChrystal has grasped the basic truths of the situation, from what I've read:  straight fighting will not win this, protecting the citizenry from the Taliban and helping to build out infrastructure will win this, but it'll take a long time and a lot of boots on the ground.  This is why he's asking for a lot of boots on the ground.  I think the reason Pres. Obama is taking a long time to thing this out is because of the implications of the bigger question.

Afghanistan is a poor country; it's mostly a rural country, with only a few large cities.  Because of the almost total lack of infrastructure (read:  roads), people who aren't in the cities don't get to them much, and people who live in the cities don't go to the country much.  Since the total lack of infrastructure also means almost no schools, people in the countryside are poorly educated except in Islam, their religion.  The primary organizing force in the countryside seems to be the tribe or clan; national identity is secondary.  People in the countryside voted or didn't vote for Hamid Karzai in the recent election because their clan chief told them to; less so in the cities.  And like a lot of groups where authority is vested in people, not in laws, there's a lot of corruption - you get something done by paying the right man a bribe.

This is a pre-industrial society.  European countries were more or less like this until maybe the 18th century.  The Taliban are a major force because the Taliban are a religious army, willing to fight for their cause; most of the villagers are subsistence farmers, who don't have time to fight for a cause or anything else.  And how do the Taliban eat, if they don't farm?  Extortion from the villagers, of course; it's a protection racket.

So yes, if we can protect the villagers from the Taliban, they'll support us.  But if we leave even for a few weeks, the Taliban will be right back in the village; so how does it profit the villagers to support us?  The Taliban will take it out of their hides when we leave.

This is why Gen. McChrystal wants all those men.  "Securing" Afghanistan means taking, and holding, and defending, every damn village; because every village we don't take, and hold, and defend, the Taliban will take back.  And our troops will have to defend the Afghans, plus the people we send to help build infrastructures - roads, schools, telecoms.

The next question is:  how long will it take?  That's the kicker.  We have to do this until we've improved conditions enough that poor young men won't have to fight for the Taliban to make a wage. How long is that?  I can easily see us in Afghanistan for a couple of generations - how long will it take until the young men now fighting will be too old to hold power any more, in a society that respects old leaders?  How long will it take us to educate an entire generation, an entire society, in the concept of the rule of law?

Our official mission statement is to prevent the Taliban from providing Al Qaeda with a safe haven, because of Sept. 11, 2001.  The only reliable way to do that is to take over Afghanistan and run it ourselves.  Is that really what we want to do??  Especially since it wouldn't solve the issue of Pakistan, where Al Qaeda is actually hanging out these days (according to most people's best guess)?

I don't have answers to these questions.  But there are reasons Afghanistan is called the "graveyard of empires."  I don't want it to be our graveyard.  I read a comment from a Kabul shopkeeper, who complained that yeah, when the Taliban were in charge, the girls couldn't go to school; but so what, they had great security, they kept the thieves out of his shop. 

If that's the way the people of Afghanistan feel, maybe we should let them and the Taliban have each other back, and deal with the country diplomatically and from a distance. 

More on Health Care Reform

I've been debating whether to post about the recently announced changes - future changes, but changes - in my health insurance coverage.  Then a friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to Keith Olbermann's special comment hour on Countdown the other night.  Here is the link:

It'll take about an hour; but you should watch this.  Everyone should watch this.  Speaking from the heart, he makes the case for a health care system where your income and your insurance coverage doesn't matter.  Every politician who has voted against "the public option," everyone who says we can't have "single payer" because it's "socialized medicine", should be locked into a room with this playing on an endless loop.

Did you know that, if you have no health insurance, your odds of dying, here in the 21st century, are roughly the same as the odds on a poor person dying, who lived in the slums of Manchester, England in 1846?  Olbermann quotes the studies.  How is this progress?  What has happened to our priorities, if we've let ourselves get to a point where you can die for no better reason than that you're too poor to afford treatment, and you have no insurance?  Happens here all the time. 

It isn't happening to me.  I have, right now, what I and others consider some of the best health care in America: the Kaiser Permanente HMO, which covers almost everything.  The trouble is, I have it because of my husband's job; and my husband's employer, which I won't name, has decided that it's too expensive.  In a couple of years, two things will happen:  my husband will retire (sooner than he planned; but if he doesn't, the promise they've made him for 30 years, that he'd have health insurance in retirement, will be broken); and we'll still have Kaiser, but we won't have the HMO.  We'll have an annual cap, and a deductible, and an HSA, and we'll pay for 20% of everything.

Actually, I'm relieved.  What we've been told we'd have was obviously too good to be true.  They've dropped the other shoe, and the result isn't as bad as I was afraid it'd be.  At least we'll still have group coverage.

For me personally, this will make very little difference.  By the time it goes into effect, I'll be on Medicare (government run health care!  OOOOOga!), and my access to Kaiser Senior Advantage won't be touched.  But my husband will be on this plan for something like 9 years, until he qualifies for Medicare; and he'll be retired, on a fixed income.  I hope he doesn't come down with something expensive to treat - like some of the conditions I have.  We're pretty well placed; but medical treatments can eat through the biggest nest egg. 

I have "pre-existing conditions," big time.  I couldn't get individual health coverage to save my life.  (And it would be "to save my life.")  I'm an AARP member, so I might be able to get their group coverage if worse came to worst; but I couldn't get Kaiser, and in anything but the Kaiser HMO, there's the constant question:  how much will 20% of this be?  Can I afford that?  My ongoing medications aren't hugely expensive under the current plan, being mostly generic (who knows what Medicare will be like?), but there are a number of them, and keeping myself supplied, and monitored for side effects, would be prohibitive without insurance.  I could be one of those people, dying because they can't afford the meds and the insurance has maxed out; or, worse than dying, living in constant pain and with reduced ability to function.  That's what the meds do for me; they allow me to function.  But only because I have insurance.

Best health care system in the world, my ass.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Who Are We, Anyway?

This post came together from several sources:  a Newsweek article reviewing a study at the University of Texas on the reactions of very young children to people of other races (See Baby Discriminate); Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times about Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina (may his giblets wither) calling Pres. Obama a liar; and a post on a blog called Religion Dispatches called "Fear of a Black President," by Jonathon L. Walton, assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. 

Start with the Texas study, which explored the attitudes toward race in a group of Caucasian families near Austin.  The article is fascinating.  Most of the parents in the study couldn't, literally could not, discuss race with their children, beyond mouthing platitudes like, "Everyone is equal."  (I loved the 7 year old who eventually asked his mother, "What does 'equal' mean?")  In the total absence of guidance from their parents, children concluded that:  white people were nicer than black people; black people were more likely to be mean than white people; or (to generalize) "people like them" were better than "people who aren't like them."  This is pure tribalism; frankly, this attitude is what drives much of the conflict in Afghanistan.  In families where the parents did discuss race frankly with their children, the children concluded that skin color didn't matter much.

If you don't talk about something with your children, the conclusions they draw on the subject may not be what you expect.  Note, parents, that this applies to sex, too, but that's another post.

Maureen Dowd, of course, drew the obvious conclusion that a Southerner like Rep. Wilson, when he shouted, "You lie!" at President Obama, implicitly followed it with the time-dishonored epithet, "boy!"  Her column concluded (reluctantly, she says) that the screaming objections to Obama and his policies really are racial.

Of course they are.  As the U.Texas study found (remember, Texans are generally considered Southerners), children form racial attitudes very very early.  Children raised in the American South more than 40 years ago (including my late father, and also Joe Wilson, who is 62) were openly taught that black people are by nature inferior to white people in all ways.  So if you were a small town failure with a small job, whose high point was a couple of beers with the boys on Friday night, you could still reassure yourself that you were better than "them," just because you were white.

It's very hard for Bubba to defend that position when the representative of "them" is Barack Obama.

"Fear of a Black President" begins with this comment:
Ever the statesman, and often candid to a political fault, President Jimmy Carter asserted this week that much of the animosity directed toward President Barack Obama is “based on the fact that he is a black man.”
God bless Jimmy Carter, who speaks his mind.  And he's perfectly right.  Prof. Walton's point, which I strongly recommend you read in full, is that the real problem isn't so much that the ranters can't tolerate Obama's blackness, as that they can't tolerate any change in their personal perception of their own superiority as white men:
President Obama can’t win with these folks because they are blinded not just by his race but also by an uncritical devotion to their own. His pigmentation rather than his policies cut against the grain of what these persons wrongly consider “natural” or “American.” More specifically, his very being is a haunting rejoinder to such white Americans of what they are not—indeed what they have never been. This African American man with an Arabic name has dared to usurp all of the cultural and cognitive tropes that white supremacy has historically claimed for itself. He is calm in the face of their unrestrained emotion. The more illogical they act the more rational he comes across. And, of course, the more eloquent and erudite he presents himself, the more he provokes the Joe Wilsons of the world to mindlessly blurt out, “You lie!” 

I've been slapped down before for suggesting that we'll never move forward as a country until we can learn to judge and react to a person (thoughts, actions, ideas), and not a skin color - and that includes our judgements of ourselves.  I still think it's true; the hysterical reaction to President Obama confirms it.  What I don't know is how we get there.  But I suspect racism is like alcoholism - you can't quit doing it until you admit you have a problem.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Driving in the Desert

I recently did the "cross-Sierra shuttle" for my husband, who wanted to climb Mt. Whitney:  I dropped him off in Kings Canyon, then picked him up 9 days later in Lone Pine, on Highway 395.  In the meantime, I drove to Las Vegas to visit my sister.

During that week or so, I drove something like 780 miles, maybe 680 of it through the desert, in three separate sessions.

Driving through the basin and range country always fascinates me.  You have a long way to go, and the traffic is often quite light, so everybody drives as fast as they can - I drive as far over the speed limit as I think I can get away with, so I'm regularly passed by people who think they can get away with more.  The immediate roadside whips by, but there's nothing on the immediate roadside except sagebrush, and the occasional dead truck tire, so you focus on the landscape.  The road can be anything from a 2 lane highway to Interstate 15, and you share it with a steady procession of big rigs. The traffic all moves at roughly the same speed; occasionally a car passes a truck, or a truck passes a truck, at a relative speed difference of maybe 5-10 miles an hour.  It's all very stately.

The landscape is flat, with mountain ranges rising on both sides, anywhere from 5 to 30 miles away; the road trails across the middle of the flat part, and eventually vanishes into a notch.  You have a lot of time to watch the mountains rotate past you in slow grandeur. 

Occasionally you pass a highway turnoff, which leads to a dirt road, which leads over a low hill to - who knows?  A ranch?  An abandoned mine?  Once in a while the dirt road will lead to a solitary house, a mile or two back from the road, with a couple of outbuildings, surrounded by empty desert.  It's hot as the seven hinges of Hades - I don't think I saw a temperature below 95 on my car thermometer the entire trip - and you wonder how they can possibly live in that bare building, with no shade trees.  There are no shade trees, of course, because there's no water for them, which leads you to wonder where the people in the house get water.  It seems a little outside the range of the Alhambra man.

Driving through the basin and range country makes you feel very small and fragile.  The mountains are huge, and they loom over you.  If you ever took geology, you may remember what an alluvial fan is - you can see a lot of gorgeous examples of them.  The rock colors are beautiful and subtle.  All you can think is, I hope the car doesn't break down, I hope the air conditioner holds up.  Between Tehachapi and Barstow there is one settlement (I hesitate to call Kramer's Corners a town) that's right on the road (Highway 58) - you pass the towns of Mojave and Boron, but they're off the road a mile or five.  I stopped in Boron to find a rest room; I didn't see a building taller than one story (how would you keep the second story cool?).  The town seemed to huddle under the lash of a furnace-hot wind; and yet, the people were friendly and helpful, I saw an antique store, they have a museum to the twenty-mule team era.  They didn't have a gas station that I saw; they must drive to Kramer's Corners for gas.  What must it be like to live in a blast furnace?

For that matter, what must it have been like to cross those deserts, not in an air-conditioned car at freeway speeds, but on a horse, making maybe 20 miles a day (horses can go faster than that but they have to have water)?  Or in a Conestoga wagon behind a span of oxen (10 miles a day)?  Terrifying and beautiful. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Islam in Oakland

It doesn't surprise me to see Muslim women in Oakland; I see the standard wrapped headscarf all the time.  It did startle me, the other day, to see a woman walking along Telegraph Avenue wearing the full niqaabThis isn't the full-coverage Afghan burqa, but you've probably seen photos of Saudi women wearing something similar - full black, head to toe, except for a narrow slit over her eyes.  She was pushing a double stroller and accompanied by a small boy, about 4 or 5 years old.  Since I was driving a car, I didn't get a photo, but I did think about taking one.

On one level, it's her religion, and I defend her right to practice it.  But on another level, the niqaab really gets to me.  Islam as a religion imposes a great deal of physical modesty - men and women are both expected to keep themselves covered except in the presence of spouses.  But you'll never see a Muslim man who covers his entire body except for his eyes; only women are expected to do that.

I don't know enough about Islam to evaluate the differences among the various requirements to cover the hair, or more; and I've read interviews in which Muslim women explain that covering themselves makes them comfortable, and if so, more power to them.  But it bothers me.  It disturbs me in a way I can't quite define, that has to do with personal empowerment, and equality, and the absence of choice.

It also disturbs me in a way I can define:  concealment of identity and purpose.  I don't really know whether that was a woman pushing that stroller.  It was a human being wearing an all-enveloping black robe that revealed only the eyes.  (I don't recall whether I could see the hands or not.)  I assumed it was a woman because men don't wear the niqaab.  But there've been cases in Afghanistan when male suicide bombers disguised themselves in burqas to get past checkpoints.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thoughts on Climate Change

In the August 2009 issue of Scientific American (no link; they now require a digital subscription; your library has the issue), author Kate Wong considers some of the reasons the Neanderthals may have died out, since there's now considerable evidence that they coexisted with homo sapiens for around 15,000 years.  Analysis of isotopes trapped in "primeval ice, ocean sediments, and pollen retrieved from such locales as Greenland, Venezuela and Italy" seems to show that, during a period known as "oxygen isotope stage 3" (OIS-3), which ran from around 65,000 years ago to 25,000 years ago, the climate became wildly unstable heading into the last glacial maximum: 
So rapid were these oscillations that over the course of an individual's lifetime, all the plants and animals that a person had grown up with could vanish and be replaced with unfamiliar flora and fauna.  And then, just as quickly, the environment could change back again.
The Neanderthals were preliterate; they had no way to pass information on hunting, edible plants, survival techniques, and so on, to the next generation, except orally.  Later in the article, Ms. Wong notes that until around 30,000 years ago, neither homo sapiens nor Neanderthals lived long enough to be grandparents; around that time, homo sapiens began to live to see their grandchildren - but not Neanderthals.  Living long enough to be grandparents is a tremendous evolutionary advantage - additional help in child rearing, plus the transmission of learning and experience to the new generation.

Was it lack of the ability to pass on workable survival techniques that did in the Neanderthals?  Or was it merely those wild climate swings, themselves?  How would we cope with a climate that took an area from forest to open grassland within a generation?  How will we, if it happens to us?  The climate swings the team studied covered 40,000 years - longer than recorded human history.  We're worried about human caused climate changes (well, some of us are) - we need to remember that climate changes we didn't cause may be just as significant and just as threatening.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Climate Change Data

A recent newsbrief from Scientific American reports that climate change skeptics are using normal variations in scientific data on the climate to attack the principle that the climate is changing, caused by us - a principle believed by 97% of the 3,000 scientists surveyed by the University of Illinois in January.  Apparently an automated system of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) published obviously incorrect data on Arctic sea ice, and the skeptic community went nuts - "they don't know what they're talking about!"  In fact, NSIDC discovered it had a faulty sensor, fixed it, corrected the data, and audited all their past data; but - "they don't know what they're talking about."

OK, the first point here is that if we provided a genuine education in the scientific method, enough people would understand peer review and data revision in the light of new information that these arguments wouldn't fly.  But, regrettably, we don't.  Even the students who manage to graduate with the ability to read and write stand a sporting chance of not understanding the concepts that drive scientific investigation, or the idea that it's possible to correct errors.

But the paragraph that really caught my eye summarized the opinions of one Marc Morano of the site Climate Depot, a leading climate change skeptic:
Rather he believes that “lack of warming in recent years” has helped his cause—although this decade is the hottest in recorded history, there hasn’t been a record-breaking year in 10 years. Moreover, recent papers suggest that natural climate fluctuations might continue to mask the expected warming trend for up to three decades.
You can boil a living frog to death if you start him out in a pan of cold water and raise the temperature very gradually.  Are we sitting in a pan of water?  How hot is it, anyway?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Night Out in Las Vegas

First, let me say that Carlos Santana was great:  wonderful band, awesome rhythm section (all three of them), fine lead singers, and of course the man himself on lead guitar.  Santana is the most relaxed performer I've ever seen on stage, leading to a continual game of "where's Carlos right now?" as you look for the velvet shirt, the cap, and the red electric guitar.  He wanders around and stops to play wherever he is when his next lick is due, occasionally exchanging a high five with another musician.  And the lighting designer is a damn genius.  You couldn't really see Santana clearly from halfway back, but the video monitors did continual close-ups of him (and the others) - his face is mellow and warm, and totally focused on his music. 

Now let's talk about the venue:  the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.  The concert was in "The Joint," their performance venue (recently upgraded, according to the web site).  I agree with their hype about the sound system and the lighting, both were excellent; but the web site raves about "seven VIP luxury suites and a prestigious VIP level." Don't think this implies any sort of luxury for the schmucks down on the floor.  We sat in folding chairs (cheap folding chairs), locked together to make a row.  Worse, the peon who numbered the chairs in our row (in chalk, by hand, on the underside of the seats) couldn't count; our tickets were for seats 4 and 5, and the seats in our row were numbered "3 4 6 7...," so they effectively sold us a non-existent seat. The ushers on the floor finally got everybody settled in, and the seats really were quite good, except for the six-foot dude in front of me who spent almost the entire concert standing up and grooving.  Fortunately the two video monitors gave a continuous if disjointed view of the stage action.

I brought earplugs with me.  I can't imagine why I didn't think to take them to the show.  I think my hearing has largely recovered.

No place that seats 4,000 people can realistically be described as "intimate."

I give points for effort to the casino staff on the ground, but my overall impression of the place was of poor maintenance and tacky patrons.  The bathrooms were dirty; one of the handicapped stalls in one bathroom had been out of order so long they'd removed the door and were using it to store cleaning supplies.  The other "handicapped" stall was barely wide enough for a walker or wheelchair, and had not been cleaned since someone puked in there, despite the fact that the restroom had an attendant.

Now for tacky patrons:  I've never seen so many cheap hookers - obviously cheap hookers - in one place in my life, even on earlier trips to Las Vegas.  (We usually go to shows in the higher class casinos.)  Even on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland.  Waiting for the valets to retrieve our car was a runway show of the latest in 5 inch stiletto heels, micromini skirts, and push-up bras.  Oh, and thongs.  They had a sign on the door saying "dress code after 6 PM."  Given what we saw before, during and after the show, I shudder to imagine how people dress before 6 PM!

Another plus for the casino staff on the ground:  when the valet captain saw my sister's walker, she jumped our ticket to the front of the line, saving us probably 40 minutes.  But the valet staff was edgy in the extreme, and tonight - 2 days later - we found out why.

They were being busted.  The police raided the casino that night:  narcotics and prostitution, in an area somewhat oddly called "Rehab" ("the ultimate Vegas pool party").  As we tried to drive away (it must have taken us 10-15 minutes to clear the casino driveway), we saw medical techs, and assumed somebody'd had an accident; but we also saw a K-9 unit, which isn't usually dispatched to an accident.  But it sure is dispatched to a drug bust!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wicked, the Musical

We saw Wicked, the musical, recently at the Orpheum Theatre. Wicked is quite a show. I had a switch flipped in my head that it was a comedy because it was a musical, but trust me, it isn't funny. It's a very good show, though - staging, dancing, singing, lighting, costumes, all excellent.

I started this post as a review of the show, but what I really want to do is talk about Elphaba, the Wicked Witch. I've now read the book and seen the musical, in that order (not always the best order!), and although the stories are quite different, the central character is very consistent in both forms. Elphaba is a misfit who was born with green skin. Everybody looks at her and shudders. She's also very bright, a rebel, and an underdog who passionately defends other underdogs.

There are sequences in both stories where Elphaba attends college away from home; this doesn't resemble my college years very much (I went to U.C. Berkeley, where nobody worried about "popularity" but the sorority girls), but it brought back vivid, painful memories of high school! It isn't fun to be unpopular in a school, any school. Some of the things Galinda (later Glinda, the "good witch") does to Elphaba just rang big, clanging bells for me. So by the middle of the first act I'm identifying solidly with the Wicked Witch (and resenting the way everybody treats her!).

In fact, Teal Wicks, who played Elphaba, was gorgeous, especially in the second act when she finally got some decent clothes! She had presence and style in the face of an appalling costume and everyone else's (acted) disdain. She has a fabulous low alto range, which I thought added substantially to the role. I love a good alto. And she visibly strengthened and matured her character through the show.

It's very clear in both the book and the musical that Elphaba's "wickedness" lies in her refusal to accept the wickedness of the people in power (speaking of people in power, you must see Patty Duke as Madame Morrible!); and that's as close as I'll get to a plot synopsis. Read the book yourself (or see the show!). We all know
how her story ends from the L. Frank Baum book (not to mention the movie!); but it's the story and not the ending that matters. And she maintains an integrity throughout her story that I wish I thought I had.

Friday, August 21, 2009


I often glance at the Google News "Top stories" to see if anything important has happened; since I have a pretty full iGoogle page, I see a lot of abbreviations (which of course you can expand by mousing over the link, you know this).

This morning I saw one that made me stop, from Bloomberg:

Existing Home Sales In U.S. Jump to Two...

Mousing over the story, I find that "Two..." translates to "Two-Year High," which is more reassuring; but for a minute there I wondered if Bloomberg was just being unusually honest.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sick Bird

Scrub jays nest in our neighborhood. In fact, I ate lunch in the back yard a few days ago to a continual "serenade" from one. But one of them - more than one? I can't tell them apart - doesn't seem to be well. My husband came home night before last and found him sitting on our front stoop. I'm not a bird vet, but he looked sick to me. I like taking photos of birds, though, and I had one posing for me, so I snapped a few shots.

He didn't seem very happy.

I got my long lens out and took a couple of closeups:

He looks ill, doesn't he?

The next day, we saw either the same bird, or a different bird with the same problem, sitting on the woodpile in the back yard. I didn't take any other pictures, but I walked out to look at him, and he didn't look any better than this. It's a very unusual scrub jay that will let a human being walk to within 3 feet of him. I saw a (healthy) scrub jay fly off the woodpile when a squirrel jumped off the fence onto the pile, and got within 3 feet of him. This guy just sat and stared at me, breathing very fast.

I wondered if I should report it, but to whom? Who cares about scrub jays?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Health Care Reform

I've been reading all the rants about this, and this isn't any attempt to analyze the issues and cite sources. This is just my personal opinion on the situation.

First, I agree with my blogger friend Linkmeister, who commented in a post today that the Republican party has now made its position clear. They aren't interested in health care reform. They are only interested in defeating whatever President Obama tries to do. This being the case, the hell with bi-partisanship.

Second, I've thought about this a lot, and I'm convinced that we will never get health care costs under control until we separate health care from capitalism. Health care isn't something you should plan to get rich at. It's a service that should be provided to everyone, like fire and police protection. (Okay, in Oakland, California, "police protection" as a service provided to everyone is kind of a touchy subject. But my point stands on the "should.") The profit motive in health care is what's driving costs inexorably upward, and we won't get costs under control until we come to a common agreement that for-profit health care is a Bad Thing. It's the defense of the Bottom Line that causes companies to cancel people's coverage the minute they come down with something that will be really expensive to treat, like cancer.

Yes, this means I want a "public option." Actually, I don't - I want single payer. So far, the Repubs have managed to shove that off the table. Maybe, now they've made their position clear, we can bring it back; since they aren't going to agree to anything anyway, we can ignore the fact that they don't like it.

But there's one more thing we have to do to make this work: we have to reform medical education. Becoming a doctor is fiendishly expensive; people come out of their training fully qualified and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. That training has to be subsidized, as part of the subsidy for medical care itself, or no one will go into medicine. This is just part of providing the service. Hopefully such reforms will attract people who want to provide health care, instead of people who want to become filthy rich doing specialties like cosmetic surgery and neurology. I have nothing against either cosmetic surgery or neurologists, I use the specialties as a general example; I am aware of a shortage of general practitioners, because it's so hard to pay off your medical school debts on a GP's income that everyone wants to get into the high-stakes specialties.

And this is personal. I'm in favor of single payer (or at least a "public option") because I expect to need it. Right now my access to health care depends on my husband's employer; I have a fall-back position at my own former employer. I have no faith that either of those companies will continue to support health care for retirees. I really think we need to separate health care from employment, and if that means taxing employer-provided health care, then let's tax it.

I'm hearing a general consensus on several critical points: everybody should be have health insurance; nobody should be refused coverage because of a pre-existing condition; nobody's coverage should be dropped just because they got sick. The only thing we're still arguing about is "socialized medicine," AKA "how do we pay for this?"

People have been bitching about this for fifty years, for Crissakes; I remember the screams of "socialized medicine" in the '60s when Medicare was passed. We're now in the 21st century, and most of the major industrialized countries have universal coverage, and none of them is Socialist. (You really think Canada or Great Britain are Socialist?? You don't know what "socialist" means.) And they all look at us and shake their heads and say, "Crazy Americans." Can we please get on the train that everyone else is on, and start figuring out how to control the costs??

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I feel a great sense of accomplishment - I've finished something! Specifically, I've finished weeding, tweaking, and posting the photos I took over the long weekend we spent in Fort Bragg last November, to celebrate my husband's birthday. They're all now available at my site on SmugMug, in 7 separate galleries.

It's amazing how many photos you can take in 3 days with a digital camera. I didn't post all of them, either, but I think I posted the best. I may post one or two more photos of the Point Cabrillo Fresnel lens, but the best of them are up.

I have to be honest - I decided to go with SmugMug, which is paid, when I could have put up free galleries at SmugMug lets me put a few photos up at a time; with the galleries, I pretty much have to do the whole thing at once. Doing photo galleries on the web site is just more work.

Enjoy the photos.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Computers Have No Memory

No, that's not what I mean.

Years ago, we kept our personal schedules, and our personal address lists, in paper books. If we were really organized, we kept them all in the same book, which may have been called a DayRunner or a Filofax. I used DayRunner, because it let me change out only the calendar pages, and keep my address pages from year to year. When an address or a phone number changed, you crossed it out (if you kept the list in ink) and wrote in the new one above it. I remember my mother's address book with sometimes 3 or 4 addresses scribbled in. (My sister moved a lot when she was in college.)

Now, we keep our addresses, and our schedule, and a whole lot of other things, in our electronic devices - computers. Cell phones. iPhones. Cell phones are a lot easier to carry around than DayRunners; I quit using a DayRunner because the weight of it in my purse was breaking my arm. But I've lost those crossed out addresses - I've lost the history. Electronic calendars have no memory of what the appointment was before you changed it. They don't remember what Aunt Betty's address was, before she moved to Cleveland. But my mother's
calendar did - and her address book did.

I thought of this because, the other day, I had to reschedule an appointment for a haircut. Like half the world, I use Microsoft Outlook, and I rescheduled a "recurring" appointment to happen one week later - and the entire history of my haircut appointments vanished. Now, I don't especially need to know when I got a haircut in March. But if the issue ever came up, it's gone.

Historians now can read the diaries, the desk calendars, the daily life records of people who kept their daily information in paper books. What will future historians know about us, 200 years from now? Will they be able to read what's in our cell phones? Mine has a password. Or will human history disappear, somewhere around 2003? Is a blog really the same as a diary? Will they even be able to read our blogs?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Pioneer Basin

My husband is about to go backpacking again, this time in the vicinity of Mammoth. In fact, he's going in at McGee Creek, then over McGee Pass, eventually to Big McGee Lake. (You think Mr. McGee lived around here??)

He was looking at all this on Google Earth last night and showed me an area called Pioneer Basin, a high-altitude valley in the eastern Sierra, which we both agreed was misnamed. The peaks surrounding this basin are: Mount Crocker. Mount Hopkins. Mount Huntington. Mount Stanford. The obvious name for this valley is Robber Baron Basin, although Railroad Cartel Valley might do.

Monday, July 27, 2009

About Professor Gates

Everybody else has weighed in on this, why should I be left out? I think by now everyone knows the story of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard, who was hauled into the Cambridge police station because - well, there we get into disagreement. One group says it's because he was Entering a House While Black. One group says it's because he sassed a cop. One group says his neighbor called the cops on him because he was black.

Here are my thoughts on this mess, in no particular order.

I recall reading that Prof. Gates had been on an extended trip to China; he'd been gone for several weeks. Did his neighbor know he was due back that night? As a member of a local community policing citizen group, we encourage people to call the cops if they see what looks like a break-in attempt, especially if they know the homeowner is away. I give the neighbor full marks for civic involvement. I'm appalled to read on CNN that what H.L. Mencken called the booboisie is phoning her and threatening her for being a racist.

The 911 tape from this incident has been released, and the neighbor simply said, "two men." She didn't mention their race. In fact, she said she couldn't see one of them at all, and she thought the other one "looked kind of Hispanic." Obviously, when Sgt. Crowley arrived at the scene, he could see that both men were black. But it's clear that the 911 call was caused by the appearance of a break-in.

It's very clear that Prof. Gates took immediate and extreme umbrage at being accosted in his own house. I can understand that. On the other hand, in my experience it is never a good idea to argue with a cop at the scene, even if you think he's wrong.
I read one account that said the professor was trying to keep the sergeant from phoning in. It sounds to me as if the professor over-reacted and caused a scene, and Sgt. Crowley hauled him in for disorderly conduct.

Here again, I've been working with the police in Oakland, California for a couple of years now. I rode along with an officer for a shift, when I took the Citizen's Police Academy. Their level of professionalism, in general, is very high. (Disclosure: I have no personal experience with the Cambridge police.) But you have to keep one thing in mind about police officers, and we learned this the hard way last March: police officers have the only non-military job in which you can be killed at any moment, in the normal course of work, by someone you don't know has a gun. When they walk into any new situation, as Sgt. Crowley did, they are on edge. They have both professional training and personal desire to stay in complete control of the situation. Sgt. Crowley, when he approached the house, had reason to believe he was accosting two burglars; and he was alone. When the professor showed his ID, the sergeant obviously knew he wasn't dealing with a burglar; but by that time he was dealing with an angry man who was yelling at him.

As far as I can tell, the only good thing about the incident is that it has all of us talking about it. I hope all parties can discuss it rationally when they have their beer at the White House.

You Can't Mean ME??

I listened to NPR's Talk of the Nation today while taking a shower. They were discussing a proposal, from Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe, to create a Federal ban on talking on the phone while driving. Here's a link to his op-ed piece, which lists the research that suggests that driving while talking on the phone is equivalent to driving after a 3-Martini lunch.

I agree with Mr. Jackson, but that isn't the point of this post. What amazed me was the people who phoned in to comment on the show. To a caller, they all said that yes, yes, it's terrible, other people can't talk and drive - but they can. The callers all have the superior wisdom or multitasking capacity or whatever to drive a car and have a phone conversation - hell, maybe they juggle plates too. One man ("I've been a truck driver for 24 years") even suggested that there should be an advanced driving license that allows one to telephone while driving, after demonstrating ability.

This demonstrates a feature of the American psyche that has been driving me nuts for some time. I sum it up in this phrase:

"You can't mean those rules apply to me??"

People rarely actually say this; but they act it. When you see someone jaywalking, or crossing against the light, or doing some other damn stupid thing that happens to be against the law, they're implying that the rules don't apply to them. And they're terribly offended if they get a ticket for it. The infuriating ones are those who drag their kids along with them, against the light; they're raising the next generation of people who don't believe the rules apply to them.

It's the people whose cell phones go off in movie theaters, or concert halls. I was charmed to learn recently that using a cell phone in a New York theater during a concert will get you a $50 fine.
It's the people who throw McDonald's wrappers on the sidewalk, and Coke cans in the shrubbery. My shrubbery. It's the people who walk their dogs off-leash in leash-only areas, and who don't pick up the poop. From my flower beds.

It's the people in every chorus I've ever sung in, who routinely ignore the director's instructions on singing on pitch, because, of course, she can't mean them; they aren't singing flat. (I said this to my voice coach, who teaches classes as well as individuals; and he just slumped over the keyboard for a minute.) I'm happy to say that eventually the singers do get up to pitch; but we'd get there a lot faster if all of them would stop for a second and ask themselves, can I be doing that?

There was just one caller on Talk of the Nation who admitted that she herself had run 3 red lights while talking on the phone and driving; but that was as close as anyone came.

Yes, folks, the rules do apply to you, just as they apply to me; and we'll all get along together a lot better if we realize that.

Speaking of driving, the activity I really want to see prohibited while driving a car is applying mascara using the rear-view mirror.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Least of These

I was going to begin by asking, rhetorically, why Arnold Schwarzenegger invariably decides to solve the state's problems by taking funding away from people who are short of funds to begin with. Unfortunately, I know why - these are people who never, under any circumstances, contribute to his campaigns. School children, sick people, blind people, old people - they have no power and (usually) no money, which is why they rely on state funding.

Arnold's latest target, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle's Andrew Ross, in his Bottom Line column today, are the sick, disabled and elderly people who manage to stay out of nursing homes by using the state's In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program. $95 million of the "savings" in the governator's so-called budget are projected to come from this program, by eliminating "waste, fraud, and abuse."

Why do Republicans always assume that the poorer and more powerless a group is, the more likely they are to be responsible for "waste, fraud, and abuse"?? We got the same mantra in the '90s when Bill Clinton allowed himself to be Republicanized into "reforming welfare" and getting rid of "welfare queens."

The vaunted savings aren't there. Mr. Ross quotes a representative of the Legislative Analyst's Office who states that repeated investigations have found minimal fraud in the program - "minimal" meaning "1% or less." So, not only will the service cuts force these people into nursing homes (where, by the way, it will cost the state a lot more to give them a lower standard of care), it won't solve the budget problem it's touted to solve. This is insane, and Schwarzenegger has to know it's insane - he isn't stupid. I don't know exactly what he is, but I do know one thing: he's wrong. And it's going to cost the State of California even more money.

Birth Certificates

One of the current wingnut obsessions going around is the idea that Barack Obama isn't really an American citizen. He was born in Kenya, goes the theory, and "slipped into Hawaii by his mother," and his U.S. birth certificate is a fake. (Details of this ridiculous story come from Willie Brown's column today in the San Francisco Chronicle.)

In the first place, if this were true, it would have come up during his Presidential run, and it would have gotten him thrown out of the race. The McCain-Palin team would not have let that slip by.

In the second place, this birth wasn't in East Waterless Ford in the middle of the 19th century - this was the State of Hawaii in 1961. Hawaii had been a state of the Union for 2 years in August 1961, and the birth certificates issued then were as valid as any. There's absolutely no evidence for challenging Barack Obama's birth certificate.

Willie Brown made an interesting point in his column, that he himself never had a "formal" birth certificate - his birth in 1934, in Mineola, Texas, was only recorded in the family bible:
I had to get what was called a delayed birth certificate. In other words, we had to go back and find people who lived in Mineola, who were citizens themselves and who swore that my mother had a little boy on the date that I said I was born.
Mineola, Texas in 1934 may not have been East Waterless Ford, but I think you could see it from there.

For that matter, my own father was born in 1907 in Wolf Creek, Missouri (which is even closer to East Waterless Ford than Mineola) - and his birth certificate, along with a whole load of other information that makes doing genealogy in my family a challenge, went up in smoke in the 1930s when the county courthouse in Wright County, Missouri burned.

A lot of people, especially older people from poor rural areas, have questions about their civil documents; but Honolulu, Hawaii in 1961 was not a poor rural area. The whole idea is absurd, and its only purpose is to make noise. If you want to read some of the reasons it's crazy, take a look at this entry on

Is Barack Obama a natural-born citizen of the United States?

Oh, and the birth certificate he displayed on his campaign web site because of all this dreck isn't a forgery, either.