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.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Now You Know

Why shouldn't we torture the enemy combatants at Guantanamo and Bagram? Why should we follow the outdated - was it Cheney or Bush who called them "quaint"? - rules of the Geneva Convention? We're fighting for our country and our lives, they said - we have to use every tool available.

Now you know why we shouldn't have done that. Now, for the first time since Vietnam, I think (I don't recall any American captures during either the Gulf War or Iraq), an American soldier is a POW. The Taliban is holding Bowe Bergdahl, a 23 year old PFC from Idaho; and he says on their propaganda video that he's "scared I won't be able to go home."

He should be scared. We've spent the last 8 years treating Muslim "enemy combatants" like some lower form of life, not deserving respect as human beings. Ask yourself: if you were the Taliban, what incentive would you have to treat Pvt. Bergdahl any better?

I shouldn't have to explain this, but evidently we've forgotten: the Geneva Conventions were formulated in 1949, after World War II, to standardize the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians in time of war. If you read the history section in Wikipedia, the first 10 articles in the first treaty actually go back to 1864, and Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross. 194 nations have signed these treaties, including the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

The whole basis of the Geneva Conventions is the principle that "there, but for the grace of God, go I." You treat the enemy's prisoners humanely in the hope (vain during World War II) that any of your people taken prisoner will also be treated humanely. If you're trying to get information from them, you treat them humanely because you get better and more reliable information that way, but that's another post.

The problem with the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan right now is that - surprise! - the Taliban is not a "nation," and therefore not a signatory. At least, the Taliban isn't a nation yet. Since they haven't signed any treaties, the only leverage we might have had, to persuade them to treat our prisoners with dignity and humanity, would have been our humane treatment of captured Muslim "enemy combatants" - but we couldn't be bothered to do that, we had important things to do. Besides, they can't capture one of our men! We sacrificed the moral high ground to gain a victory - and now we need the moral high ground. But we can't get it back just like that. Barack Obama is making some strides, in closing Gitmo and trying to place the prisoners, but it'll take us a looong time to regain that moral high ground.

The trouble with the whole "war on terror" - and thank God we've quit using that phrase! - is that it isn't a war. It's a police action which is being mismanaged as a war. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are criminal organizations, just like the Mafia, except that their stated primary goal is religious, not commercial. (Although I notice they're perfectly happy to get rich off the opium trade.) We should have been pursuing the entire operation as an international police investigation from the beginning; but it's so much more fun to have a war.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Greenwich Village

One of the first places we went in New York was, of course, Greenwich Village. I have to confess, here, that my mental images of the Village stem from a book called The Butterfly Kid, a stoner alien invasion fantasy written in 1967 by one Chester Anderson, who is also the narrator of the book. The book is theoretically set in "the future" - actually, probably about now, and of course there is no resemblance! But I enjoyed The Butterfly Kid enough to buy a second copy when my first one began to fall apart. Believe me, the Village in that book is Very Strange.

I liked Greenwich Village. We arose from the subway to find ourselves looking at (a) a pickup basketball game, and (b) a garden, locked and walled, with a plaque commemorating a long dead pub where Eugene O'Neill used to drink. This seemed appropriate. Like the rest of New York, Greenwich Village is very dense; but it isn't very tall. Most buildings were about 5-6 stories, with some 10-15 story exceptions; no skyscrapers. There is no space between buildings here - that would be wasteful. We strolled through the Washington Mews (converted stables, and not always very completely converted either) and Gay Street (a name which predates the current usage). Gay Street is curved, and lined solid with 5 story dwellings.

It was a warm, sunny afternoon, and Washington Square (a central location in The Butterfly Kid) was boiling with people and dogs of all ages. Also pigeons. I sat on a bench to rest, and a woman near me yelped, and complained that a pigeon had just shat on her leg - I think that's the first time I've ever seen that happen. We passed a group of folkies with a bass fiddle added to the usual guitars, singing Good Night, Irene - all the people sitting and listening were singing along softly. A few yards farther along we passed a 5 piece jazz combo playing some extremely hot licks, especially the sax player; they were surrounded by a small intent crowd. The fountain was full of kids; the lawn was littered with sunbathers in bikinis.

Being in the Village, we thought it appropriate to go and look at the Stonewall Inn, and the monument to the Stonewall Riots in Sheridan Square. One memorial statue was wearing an old LinkSys router for a hat; by the time we left, a maintenance man had removed it, but I got a photo. The entire memorial is viewed with grim disapproval by the bronze equestrian statue of Gen. Philip Sheridan, at the other end of the square. I wonder what he disapproved of before they installed the Stonewall statues.

We wandered around looking for a place to eat; I don't know why this is always so hard in a strange town. I have an Internet enabled phone, and I used Google maps to try to find a place near us, but every one we went to look at had something we didn't like, or was closed; in the end we wandered down a street and saw sign reading Home. We looked at the menu, it looked interesting, we went in and dined; the food was good, rather in the Alice Waters style.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Walking around New York City

In every novel I've read set in New York, everyone is always hailing taxis, and God knows 5 out of every 7 cars on the New York Streets are taxis; but with a couple of exceptions, we traveled the Big Apple by subway (and, once, by train) - we got unlimited MetroCards. We traveled by subway, and of course we walked; I thought my feet were going to fall off the first couple of days. We stayed in the Essex House hotel (now the Jumeirah Essex House), on Central Park South, so we had several nearby subway stations to choose from.

Subway stations in New York have stairs. There may be an occasional dark, hidden elevator; there are no escalators. There are stairs, often several flights, but separated - you think you're done with them and then you find another flight. I haven't climbed so many stairs since we visited London in 1996 and the Tube people were repairing all the escalators in Victoria Station.

New York is beautiful. The buildings are beautiful; unexpectedly among the glass towers, you find a 5 or 10 story gem with delicate architectural details. The houses on the side streets go up 4 and 5 stories, and come right out to the sidewalk, except for an area to access the basement - yards, if any, are in back. God help you in New York if your knees go out.

Our first morning there, we were looking for a place to have breakfast (I never eat breakfast in a big city hotel, there's always a cheaper place a block or two away), and I suddenly realized I was looking at Carnegie Hall! Now explain to me why I took a couple of photos, but never bothered to find out what was playing there and whether we could get tickets. I haven't figured that out.

So where did we walk? We walked through midtown to Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. The decorations on the buildings are astounding - gorgeous bas-reliefs (not painted), bas-reliefs painted in brilliant colors, decorative designs just painted on the wall. We saw the Prometheus statue, and more statuary around the skating rink (converted to a restaurant for summer) - and, we saw a procession of Fox News supporters, marching around Rockefeller Center, waving signs advertising their patriotism, and suggesting that Keith Olbermann should be sent to Guantanamo Bay. I never did find out what he said.

We paid to go to the Top of the Rock and see all of southern Manhattan Island, spread out on a brilliant sunny day. Rockefeller Center is gorgeously, outrageously Art Deco, which I adore. The observation platform is protected by the usual suicide barriers, ten foot panels of thick scratchy glass - conveniently spaced just far enough apart to fit a 50 mm camera lens between the panes! Only on the very top level, which is a setback (so you can only fall about 8 feet), can you see and photograph over the glass panels.

I'm doing a new thing with photographs, we'll see how it goes. I've signed up for SmugMug, and here's a link to a photo gallery with some of my New York photos. If you like them, check back - I'm nowhere near done uploading!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Sarah Palin

OK, everyone else has weighed in on this. Why do I think Sarah Palin resigned?

I know why I don't think she resigned. It wasn't because she can't take it. If I ever saw fame go to someone's head, it went to hers, when McCain drafted her out of nowhere to be the V.P. candidate. She loved it; she's hooked on the fame drug. I also don't believe that anyone whose school nickname was "Sarah Barracuda" is a sensitive, tender plant who can't take the heat in the kitchen.

I've seen one speculation, on Another Monkey's blog, that she resigned just ahead of a huge, breaking scandal that she couldn't have avoided if still in office. He said that on Tuesday, and it's Thursday, and the scandal still hasn't broken. It still could; but it could also be another conspiracy theory. None of the multifarious ethics investigations has nailed her for anything yet.

So I guess I'll come down in the camp that believes she's setting up for a Presidential run in 2012. Do I think she can win? No - in fact, hell no. But I think she thinks she can.

I noticed one bizarre thing as I listened to her explanation of why she was stepping down. It was all in buzzwords and catch phrases. I didn't hear one single original thought expressed in English. I could actually hear her pausing between phrases. There used to be an Internet game where you could make up sentences by picking buzzwords from columns one, two and three and stringing them together - Google isn't turning it up for me, but it sure sounded as though she'd used it to compose that speech.