Friday, December 21, 2012

More Seasonal Poetry

For those of you who enjoyed November by Thomas Hood (posted last month), here's a little more seasonal poetry:

Ancient Music
by Ezra Pound

Sing goddamn, damn. Sing goddamn!
Sing goddamn, damn. Sing goddamn!

Winter is i-cumin in,
Lhude sing goddamn!
Raineth drop and staineth slop
And how the wind doth ram
Sing goddamn!

Skiddth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing goddamn.
Goddamn, goddamn, tis why I am goddamn,
So gainst the winter's balm.

Sing goddamn, sing goddamn, DAMN!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Death and Children

I normally stay out of the gun control debate; it isn't something I expect to influence, as the positions on both sides are religious rather than rational.  But we're all thinking about guns in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  Even my water aerobics class discussed it today, between exercises.

My first impulse after hearing the news was to think yes, it's time to bring back the assault weapon ban.  My father had guns, he was a hunter; I think his deer rifle was a 30.06.  He treated them with respect and stored them carefully.  He's gone now, but I feel sure he would agree with me that no one needs an assault rifle to kill a deer.  Or, for that matter, a burglar.

I still think the assault weapon ban is a good idea and should be passed, but it's symbolic rather than helpful.  As Prohibition should have taught us (but doesn't seem to have), passing a law against something doesn't keep it from happening.  No one seems to understand the simple fact that if a man decides he wants to kill some number of people, and he is prepared to risk and even lose his own life in the process, you can't really stop him, unless you are extraordinarily lucky.

I don't see any need to allow ordinary citizens to have semi-automatic weapons, large-capacity magazines, or armor-piercing ammunition.  But any law must be written with extreme care to prevent the gun industry from making slight redesigns which make the next generation of weapons "not really" subject to the law. We saw that in California, which has some very tight gun control laws.  As a resident of Oakland, California, I can assure you that this town is awash in guns of every caliber, despite the state laws.  I've been told by a police officer that it's easier to get a gun than a joint in the local schools.

In addition to our own issues, the absurd availability of heavy personal ordinance in the U.S. is a major enabler of the violent wars between drug cartels that have been destroying Mexico for the last 10 years.  Thousands of people dead, and it's twice our fault:  first, we ban the sale of a product that millions of people buy, and second, we flood Mexico with guns and ammunition.  We are the armorers of the Mexican cartels, to the point that the Mexican government has asked the U.S. government to restrict gun sales along the border.

But gun availability only partly "caused" the Newtown incident.  The guns Adam Lanza used were bought legally by his mother; also, he wasn't old enough to buy a gun, he stole them.  So existing gun laws didn't stop him, and the ones we're considering wouldn't have stopped him either.  A ban on large magazines might have slowed him down some.

Another factor is American attitudes toward mental illness.  Most of us think of "illness" as something you catch, have for awhile, and then get over, like a cold, or the mumps.  This may lead us to wonder what's wrong with that guy with depression, why doesn't he just "get over it?"  Mental illness is chronic, like diabetes or high blood pressure.  You don't get over it; you live with it and manage it, usually with drugs, the way you live with and manage diabetes or high blood pressure.  But the general American mental image of "illness" is something temporary.  So if you're depressed, or bipolar, or schizophrenic, or even if you "only" have PTSD (half the children in Oakland have PTSD, and I am not exaggerating) - people don't consider that you have a disease, which is something external that happens to you and then goes away, like a cold.  It's a personal failure - it's somehow your fault.  You wouldn't have that if  you weren't doing something wrong, and you should just straighten up and be normal and then everything will be all right.  We feel it's all in your head.  (I've had people tell me that about my allergies, but that's another story.)  What we don't realize is, being "all in your head" doesn't mean it isn't real.  But because we don't think it's real, we don't understand why people need to spend all that time and money being treated for it.

Consider the things you read in the paper or on the web about mental illness, and mentally ill people.  Am I right?  Many homeless people on our city streets are mentally ill - obviously mentally ill.  Do we regard them with pity for their ailment?  No, we scorn them for being loud and dirty and smelly - not like us.  And  all these attitudes are worse if the person with mental illness is a member of the U.S. military, with its history of machismo and invincible male prowess.

I don't know what insurance companies think about mental illness treatment.  I think they understand that treating mental illness tends to take a long time and a lot of money, so they write policies very carefully to restrict the amount they pay out, to protect their bottom line.  Some policies don't even cover mental illness.  I've always had very good coverage, with Kaiser Permanente, and when I had a bout with depression after my dad died I think I got 10 weeks of coverage. Fortunately, it was enough; I don't have chronic depression, I had unresolved issues.  But if you're poor, or don't have coverage for some reason, you can't afford to pay for mental illness treatments.  And our laws make it impossible to force someone to take medications, even though when a schizophrenic or bipolar person is "off the meds" they don't understand why they ought to take them.

I think we're frightened by mental illness, because we don't understand it; and because we're frightened, we're angry at the people who have it.  Until we're willing to accept that schizophrenia and depression and so on are diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure and arthritis, and to treat them like diseases instead of like personal failings, we will continue to have a pool of untreated mentally ill people which could at any time produce a disturbed person on a rampage.  Like Adam Lanza.

Finally, there's the issue of community.  I don't claim to know what was wrong with Adam Lanza; but in all the coverage I've read, and heard on the radio, I've heard nothing about him having any friends:  no one to have coffee with, shoot hoops with, go to a ball game with, or sit and talk with.  He was (I think I read) home-schooled, so he didn't meet friends at school.  He went shooting with his mother.  I can't tell that he had any other social interactions.  And nobody seems to have thought this was odd, or tried to do anything about it.

I grew up in a small town - Napa, California in the 1950s.  Small towns must have changed a lot since then, because I remember all my neighbors talking to each other about each other all the time.  Frankly, I couldn't wait to go away to college, where I wasn't immediately obvious to everyone as "Mary Ivy's girl."  In Newtown, CT, nobody seems to have known anything about Adam Lanza.  Have we lost our curiosity?  Have we lost the willingness to ask, "How are you?" and listen to the answer?  We used to care about each other; we used to listen to each other's woes.  Do we not have time to do that any more?  Is this another side effect of the loss of the middle class?

We'd all love to wave a magic wand and ensure that no one will ever again take an assault rifle - any gun - into an elementary school and blow away a bunch of first-graders, and a few unlucky teachers.  There is no magic wand.  The only way we could make this never happen again is to change ourselves: change the way we think about guns, and stop worshipping them; change our fear and loathing of mental illness, and start treating it; go back to knowing our neighbors and caring about them.  That's a lot of change.  I don't know if we can do it or not.  But in the end, the guns are just tools - the real problem is the people.  Us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How Bad Is the Fiscal Cliff?

First of all, the term "fiscal cliff" is pure scare-mongering.  When you fall off a cliff, you die.  Usually.  If we "fall off" this cliff, we'll be uncomfortable.  We won't be dead; countries rarely die, although we might lose some less-well-off citizens.  We almost certainly will be back in recession, and who knows when we'll pull out again.  Everyone's taxes will go up; a lot of people will lose jobs when government departments are cut.

Second, the U.S. debt burden isn't that bad, and the Republicans are the only ones who think it is.  Or say they do.  If the financial markets thought the U.S. debt burden was a problem, we wouldn't be paying .65% on 5-year Treasury bonds.  (Yes, we are.)  Our real problem right now is that we haven't yet emerged from the worst fiscal downturn since the Great Depression (which took 10 years and a war to pull out of, remember).  We're spending money (yes, borrowed) on things like extended unemployment insurance, welfare, and food stamps.  Take a look at this graph:

United States Debt as a Percentage of GDP (1940-2012)

The estimated U.S. debt at the end of 2012 will be about 100% of GDP.  Before you freak, look where it was in 1946 (121.7%) and remember what happened to the U.S. economy in the next 15 years.  When, I might add, the top marginal tax rate was 90%.  Compared to the European countries in trouble (on the same graph), our debt isn't unreasonable;  Ireland's debt is 1300% of GDP; the UK's is 413%.  Greece's debt is 168% of its GDP (but Greece's tax collection rate is only 10%).  Japan's debt is 233% of GDP.  Even at 100% of GDP, we're in better shape than any of them, which is why our credit rating was downgraded in 2011 not because of our fiscal position, but because Congress wouldn't agree to raise the debt limit, normally a routine item that doesn't even make the news.

You might also note that the budget deficit has been consistently lower since President Obama took office in 2008.

I recently got an email from the White House which suggested that, if we go over the "fiscal cliff," it would cost a "typical middle class family of four" about $2,000.  If you're paid twice a month, the way I was, that's $83 less per paycheck (or about $6 a working day), which anyone would notice; but it wouldn't all come out of the paycheck; some of it would show up the next year when you paid income tax.  The White House didn't mention the income level of this family of four; the 2011 Census Bureau estimates range from $54,500 in New Mexico to $102,127 in Connecticut.  So the impact will vary wildly depending on where you are.

Still, if you're one of the many families living paycheck to paycheck, the fiscal cliff changes could tip you over a very unpleasant edge.  Which is why it would be much better if we didn't do it.  I wish I thought our elected representatives were capable of negotiating an alternative.

I'm not trying to argue that we should keep spending at the rate we have.  We shouldn't.  We need to think about what we're spending, and what we want to accomplish with the money for the nation, and not just for the various Congressional districts. And we all need to remember that taxes are the price of living in a civilized society (to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes).  They buy amenities like roads, schools, libraries, clean water, clean air, and police and fire protection.  In Princeton, NJ you can still see buildings with the medallions on them that told the 18th century private fire companies which houses they were being paid to put out, if they caught fire.  Do we really want to go back to that??

We have time to stop, think, and make rational decisions - or we would have if we didn't have this idiotic "fiscal cliff" staring at us.

It still infuriates me that we have the fiscal cliff because the Republicans didn't want to raise the debt limit, and wanted to get spending under control; but now that we're looking at it, they don't want it because it would raise taxes on the rich and cut the Defense budget in irrational ways, even though it would reduce the deficit.  And these people were elected to national office, and in many cases re-elected.

Fiscal Cliffery

The subtitle of this post should be my favorite adage, "Be careful what you ask for."  In August or so of last year, the rampant Republicans in Congress thought they were on a roll.  Having created a monster out of the country's debt burden, based on what was happening in Europe, they:

  • Insisted that getting rid of the deficit and paying down the debt was more important than getting out of the recession we were still in 
  • Blocked approval of the report of the Simpson-Bowles commission for fixing  the country's spending plans, I think because it didn't eliminate Social Security
  • Refused to consider any action in Congress that involved raising any taxes on anything or anyone
  • Caused the country's credit rating to be downgraded by jumping up and down and yelling instead of increasing the legal debt limit.
That last maneuver came close to causing the country to miss routine debt payments.  To soothe their troubled souls from having to raise the debt limit, they insisted on a backup plan:  if Congress couldn't come up with real spending reform by the end of 2012, we would have what we now call the "fiscal cliff":  all existing tax tweaks would expire (mainly the Bush tax cuts and the Social Security payroll holiday President Obama set up to take the edge off the Great Recession), and every government department and spending program would take an across the board, meat-axe 10% cut.  Including Defense.

I assume they all figured that by 2013, they'd be able to think of something to prevent this. I'm morally certain that a big part of "something" was to win the 2012 presidential election, after which they'd have a whole two months to set things up the way they wanted.  The bipartisan Congressional committee they put together to solve it certainly didn't produce anything.

So here we are.  The Republicans actually lost a little ground in the Senate, and President Obama has a mandate to raise taxes on the rich. We have 19 days, 10 hours and 21 minutes (as I write this) to January 1, 2013, when all this will ensue.  Are we any closer to a solution?  Not from what I hear.  I'm hearing all the same posturing as I did then, except that this year President Obama has given up on attempts to be bipartisan, since they never worked.

I have a bet with my financial adviser that they won't agree on a solution.  If they actually come up with something, anything, I take her out for a drink.  If they sit and scream at each other until January 1, she takes me out for a drink.

Several things infuriate me about this.  First, the country is about to be bombed out of a position it should never have occupied in the first place.  Deadlines like this are stupid.  Congress is playing chicken with itself.

Second, it's clear now that the Republicans don't give a rat's ass about the deficit.  If they did, they would be negotiating - and in fairness I've heard some very senior Republicans starting to sound like rational human beings on the subject, since they really don't want those random Defense cuts.  The trouble is, John Boehner isn't one of them.  If the Republicans really cared more about the deficit than anything, they would raise taxes on the rich, since all serious analysis of the situation says you can't raise enough money through budget cuts and eliminating deductions.  For that matter, if the deficit was the real and only issue, they would let the fiscal cliff happen, because it would punch a whacking hole in the deficit.

It's probably unfair to suggest that they won't raise taxes on the rich because the rich would then stop giving them money to get re-elected.  It's almost certainly untrue.  That money buys access to power, even if the taxes are higher.

The other reason it's clear the Republicans don't care about the deficit is that they created the deficit.  Over the last 32 years (since 1980) we have had 12 years of Democratic presidents and 20 years of Republican presidents.  The only time during that span that the budget was balanced (and with a surplus, no less) was under Bill Clinton.    Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt.  George W. Bush, the next president after Clinton, immediately instituted the Bush Tax Cuts to "give the surplus back to the people," then started two wars that he ran entirely on borrowed money.  How are you doing spending that surplus he returned to you, folks?

It pains me to say this, but I get the impression that what the Republicans really want is to stop spending money on poor people.  Grover Norquist's government "small enough to drown in a bathtub" is roughly what we had back in the Gay Nineties (1890s, that is):  no safety net; no services to speak of; certainly no regulation of food, water, or business practices; no health care; no pensions.  If something goes wrong, you're on your own.  The only happy people were the rich, who could pay for anything they needed. That's the impression I get from the spokesmen.  I'm willing to be convinced I'm wrong, but nobody's trying.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Jim unearthed this poem the other week, on a cloudy and crummy day, and sent it to me.  With all credit to the poet, Thomas Hood (1799 - 1845), I'd like to share it, as I look out on a foggy skyline.

No sun--no moon!
No morn--no noon!
No dawn--no dusk--no proper time of day--
No sky--no earthly view--
No distance looking blue--
No road--no street--no "t'other side this way"--
No end to any Row--
No indications where the Crescents go--
No top to any steeple--
No recognitions of familiar people--
No courtesies for showing 'em--
No knowing 'em!
No traveling at all--no locomotion--
No inkling of the way--no notion--
"No go" by land or ocean--
No mail--no post--
No news from any foreign coast--
No Park, no Ring, no afternoon gentility--
No company--no nobility--
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member--
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds--

Thomas Hood

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

It's Thanksgiving Day and I'm not even at home - see my posts in the other blog on the Remodel for details.  But it's a beautiful day, and the laundry will be done in time, and we're spending Thanksgiving with my cousin Mary for the first time in years.  I'm thankful for all of that.

I'm thinking how we lose contact with our family, with our old friends - if you haven't talked to someone in a while, pick up the phone.  Very few people object to being called for a "Hello, how are you?"

I'm thankful my sister seems to be getting better, and finally got a decent doctor.  (That's a whole series of posts I'm still deciding whether or not to write.)

I'm thankful we can afford to fix up the house; we plan to stay there, it's a great house.  For that matter, I'm really thankful that it's "we" - life wouldn't be anything like as good without Jim.

It's about time to leave for my cousin's, so I'll stop here and just say, I hope you all have as happy a Thanksgiving as I'm having.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Secret Money

I've had it.  I've read one too many articles about the millions of dollars in anonymous money pouring into California to defeat Proposition 30, a proposition that will only affect Californians.  I still don't understand who crowned Molly Munger queen of California and told her to spend millions of dollars on more ballot box budgeting that would defund everything except the schools, but at least we know who she is and what her stake is.

This mess is only partly caused by the Supreme Court, although God knows without them we wouldn't have had the absurd statement that "money" equals "free speech."  I'm not even going to bother to deconstruct that, it's stupid on the face of it.  Money equals money, period; and corporations, no matter what Antonin Scalia thinks, are not people.

I haven't got a citation for this, but if I recall correctly, the Citizens United decision actually included a statement that Congress should encourage disclosure of campaign contributions to support transparency.  Congress has not done this, at least partly because the Senate Republicans filibustered an effort last July, when the DISCLOSE act, which I supported, died in committee.  Before you blame the Republicans entirely, it also means that the Senate Democrats didn't have whatever it took (persuasiveness, courage, moral force, I don't know) to gather 60 votes to override the Republican filibuster.

Neither side, of course, wants campaign finance disclosure, because they are making millions (or is it billions yet?) off anonymous donations through "social welfare" organizations.  Social welfare, my eye and Betty's pet sow.  A "social welfare organization" is one that helps people who need help.  These groups - we all know their names, if not who they are - pay people to lie to defeat measures that they object to.  Look their ads up on Politifact and see if I'm wrong.

So what can we do?  We the citizens of the United States, being mostly not stinking rich, have only one weapon left against this.  We have our individual votes.  Let your congressperson know that you expect him/her to pass the DISCLOSE Act or something equivalent.  Given Citizens United, we probably can't stop the flow of money. But we must require the donors to admit who they are.  And any congressbeing that doesn't devote its ultimate efforts to forcing disclosure of the donor's name for campaign contributions over $10,000 (which was the DISCLOSE limit) should not expect to get your vote, ever again.  For anything.

We have to tell them this.  We have to remind them of it regularly.  And we have to act on it at the next election.  If we don't get campaign finance donor disclosure by the 2014 elections, we should vote against every incumbent in Congress - especially every Republican incumbent, most of whom seem to be crazy as bedbugs anyway.

And we should all also ask ourselves the question that bugs me every time I think about this:  why are these donors so afraid to tell us who they are?  What are they hiding?  What do they not want us to know?

I was raised to believe that if you said something, and meant it, you put your name behind it.  It is true that I blog under a pen name, but it isn't all that damn hard to find out who I am; and I'm only spending speech, not money.  The people behind these "social welfare organizations" are in the process of stealing our country for their personal gain.  Disclosure of who they are is the only weapon we have left.  Tell your Representative and your Senators.  And VOTE.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Losing Our Past

This post started during a recent interview.  A fellow Cal alumnus is writing a book on people who have changed careers to something they didn't expect.  This includes me, and I agreed to be interviewed.  It was very interesting, but one exchange sticks with me.  I have to give you some background.

We were discussing my college career.  I majored in English with a history minor, and in the middle of my senior year realized that no one was going to pay me to analyze Jonathan Swift, and that whatever I did for a living, it was not going to be teaching.  My mother at that time was a library assistant at the Napa City-County Library, and she suggested I consider applying to Library School, as she thought if I did I could get a summer internship in Napa.  I did both, which was the start of about 17 years in the library and records management field (with a brief interruption during which I ran a small business with my first husband).

During this exchange, the interviewer (who is around 30, based on his college dates) asked me if I hadn't considered other careers.  I explained it was because I was a woman - and he asked, more or less, what did that have to do with it?  I realized he had no clue about gender attitudes and politics in the 1960s and '70s, much less those in the '50s, when I was growing up.  So I gave him a brief summary of what the world was like for educated women in the U.S., before the feminist movement.  In case I have other readers in his cohort, I will recap briefly.  Basically, unless you were a very unusual woman (and there were some), you were expected to attend college to get your "Mrs." degree.  If you didn't get married, there were a small number of "acceptable" careers - teacher, librarian, nurse, secretary. I don't remember knowing about "secretary" as an option - if I don't make a point of investigating something, I may not know about it, then and now.

I also told him that I remembered my aunts, in the late '60s, commiserating with me that it was a good thing I was getting a college degree, since I hadn't been able to get a man.  (They weren't quite that crude.)  He was startled.  And I hadn't even gotten into the rules about divorce and abortion (which was still illegal, not that I ever had to deal with it).

I actually came through the 50's and 60's pretty well. My family was determined that my sister and I should go to college, and we did; and we both got (eventually) pretty good jobs.  But the social environment for women then was bad compared to now - higher education largely optional, no divorce if the husband didn't agree, abortion available only in deadly, illegal back alley "clinics," women barred from most professions, wife beating considered a "private, family affair" that nobody talked about.  Contraception was only just beginning to become available - oral contraceptives first went on sale in 1960.  Which led to a large increase in female college attendance, graduation, and employment.  Also, social conditions for women varied wildly from state to state.

My interviewer is highly educated, with a degree from U.C. Berkeley and an advanced degree from Harvard.  And he didn't know this history, which was an integral part of my life.  Maybe it's because he's Canadian.  But if he doesn't know, there's no hope that people who only attend U.S. public schools know - those schools have stopped teaching anything but "reading" and "arithmetic," because only those get credit on the federal tests.  At least in the 19th century they also taught the 3rd "R", 'riting.

Why does his ignorance bother me?  Because if we don't know where we used to be, and how we got there from here, we can't be sure we won't wander back down the same old paths.  (No, I won't quote Santayana; you all know the statement.)  There are a lot of people in the Republican Party who speak as though they want to go back to "the way it was" in the '50s, when white men were in charge and everyone else (especially women) knew their place.  I refuse to accept that.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


I'm getting really tired of listening to Mitt Romney complain that Obama hasn't told us what he plans to do if he's re-elected.  This from the man who:

  • Hasn't released his tax returns
  • Says "I know how to fix this country" and gives zero details
  • Plans to reduce the deficit by "cutting loopholes" and won't say which ones
His entire platform seems to be, "Trust me, I'm a businessman, I can make this work."

You know what?  I don't trust him.  Maybe it's the way he keeps lying.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


"This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased." -- Charles Dickens

All the posts I've seen about the Todd Akin affair in Missouri seem to focus on his deplorable opinions about the availability of abortion. 

I'm not surprised at his opinions.  He merely said out loud what the majority of the Republican Party management already believes.  What amazes me is the lack of comment on his level of ignorance.  He actually seems to believe that a woman's physiology can tell a rape from some other kind of sexual encounter, and can produce a "magic juice" which will prevent pregnancy.  Notice that he didn't apologize for the comment about the female physical reaction to rape; he apologized (and so he should!) for the term "legitimate rape."

There is a "magic juice" which will prevent pregnancy, but you have to buy it at a pharmacy; it's called the "morning after pill."  And many of the people who are horrified at the legal availability of abortion want to ban it, too.

Even Mao Tse-Tung admitted that "women hold up half the sky."  Women are half the human race, and Rep. Akin has no clue how the female physiology operates, even though he is a married man.  (Wikipedia doesn't mention any children.)  Even more appalling, this man is on the House Science Committee.  Based on his public statements, his understanding of human physiology is non-existent.  His Wikipedia bio says he's an "engineer", but when you look at the article detail you see that his degree is in "management engineering," whatever that is. 

When a man this ignorant about the basic workings of the human body is not only elected to Congress but assigned to the House Science Committee, this country is in very deep trouble.  I've been disturbed for some time at the growing rejection of science in many quarters - in some cases because our education system fails to teach it; in other cases because people like Rep. Akin (who also supports a Master of Divinity degree) choose instead to believe the Bible, and to assume that anything not in the Bible isn't true.  (Note:  I have no actual evidence that Rep. Akin is a Biblical fundamentalist, I am making an assumption.) 

Science got us to the top of the heap, but we won't stay there if we walk away from science.  I've made a hobby all my life of studying the Middle Ages, a period when science didn't exist and religion ruled.  We could go back there, folks.  We could indeed.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


The other day my friends on Facebook started one of those conversations about how awful are the negative political ads these days.  In order to refute this (as far as I know, American political discourse has always been pretty rough, starting with the first election after George Washington), I Googled "political insults" and came up with Rosemarie Ostler's new book, Slinging Mud:  Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics.  I may have to get that, or at least borrow from the library.

I also found an article by Ms. Ostler on HuffPo entitled 12 Classic Political Insults, from which I absolutely must share a neologism from the 1890s:  snollygostersA "snollygoster" is "a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnancy."

I have to confess, I thought of Mitt Romney. 

But my real point is:  politics today isn't any nastier than it ever was.  It's just louder because of 24-hour cable news and the Internet.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Our Sympathies to Colorado Springs

I live in the Oakland Hills.  I lived in the Oakland Hills in 1991.  I saw the smoke cover the sky.  I heard the explosions as cars and transformers blew, up the hill.  I remember packing the car, and wondering if the fire would come down the canyon to us.  (It didn't. The wind shifted.  We were lucky.)  I remember unpacking the car and realizing I'd forgotten to pack all the family photo albums; that was a queasy feeling.

Speaking entirely unofficially from all of us in Oakland who lived through that fire (and on behalf of those who died), I express our deep sympathies to the people of Colorado Springs.  We have been there.  We feel your pain.  We hope they get your fire under control soon. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Washing Machines

We're looking at a kitchen remodel - we'll get the first round of quotes tomorrow.  And one big issue is the laundry equipment, because our kitchen is also our laundry.  Our washer and dryer are about 4 years old.  The washer is pretty good; the dryer has a stupid design flaw that has ruined some clothes, but I work around it.  Jim suggested we should replace the set.  The kitchen designer also suggested we should replace the set - with a Miele compact washer and dryer.  I checked this object out.  It's smaller that what we have (2.5 cu.ft. instead of 3.5); and Consumer Reports says it has twice the cycle length (95 minutes to 45 minutes). 

After looking around, I've realized that most washers and dryers on the market today, if they handle the same cubic footage as ours, are too big for our kitchen.  They're 5-9 inches deeper, and 3-9 inches taller.  Taller is important because I use them as a working platform to fold clothes, and I'm only 5' 5 1/2" tall.  A washer top 40" high is too high for me to work comfortably on.  No, folks, bigger isn't always better.  We probably don't need the 3.5 cubic feet day-to-day, but it does mean that we don't have to take Jim's sleeping bag to the laundromat.

So I'm looking at "compact" washers, which handle 2.5 cubic feet more or less.  These are small enough to fit in our kitchen.  There aren't many of them, and the two top brands seem to be Miele and Bosch.  Which brings me to the evaluation part.  How do I tell what to buy, and whether Miele really is a good idea?  I have three sources:  Consumer Reports, online customer reviews (including CR), and the verbal evaluations of local merchants who sell and service them.

Consumer Reports doesn't rate small washers.  It only rates the big honking 4 cubic foot models.  So all I can use there are the brand ratings, and the remarks of people who've bought the big boys.  CR isn't even rating Bosch these days; a search brings up an old review page on a Bosch model with customer comments.  It rated a large Miele (which has since been discontinued), but it doesn't give a brand reliability rating.

For both Bosch and Miele, the online comments (and not just at Consumer Reports) are deeply split.  People who buy these machines either ADORE them or HATE them.  And the haters tell stories about  leaky machines and slow, rude customer service response which don't encourage me.

The local merchants who sell the brands say they're both good and neither brand has unusual reliability problems.  But then, they want me to buy from them.  The guy who sells Miele did say that he doesn't service them because Miele does all its own service. Maybe it's a good thing I've been learning German.  The woman who sells Bosch says they service them and they don't have a lot of calls; I've been buying appliances from this store for years, and I kind of trust them.  The guy who sells both Miele and Bosch says he thinks Miele is a little better on not needing service. 

I got curious and checked the user comments on the Whirlpool Duet and the LG washer, both very highly rated by Consumer Reports.  Interesting - they too had the split between "I love it" and "I'll never buy another one."  I'm concluding that online comments on washing machines aren't as useful as I've sometimes found when researching computer equipment.  With any luck on a computer review, you'll get someone who has done a detailed technical analysis.

Given that all the machines on the market today are either (a) too big for my space or (b) smaller capacity than I now have, and given that all of them seem to feel that 75 minutes and up are an appropriate length for a laundry cycle, I don't see any good choices.  I'm actually considering keeping the old Frigidaire, even if the dryer does occasionally tear up a sweater.  On the other hand, eventually this too will die and then I'll have the same problem all over again.

But this raises the question:  how do consumers (that would be us) determine whether these expensive pieces of equipment are with the four figures that most of them cost?  Consumer Reports is the only independent evaluator I know, and from what I read in the customer comments, even a washer they rate highly in their really exhaustive tests is as likely as not to leak water all over the floor, or tie the towels in a damp soggy knot because the load was unbalanced, or drip soap down the front of the machine.  My crappy old Frigidaire is compact, washes really well, never takes more than 45 minutes on a load, and usually spins things really dry.  I don't see an advantage in upgrading because of the risk of getting a lemon.

Or am I letting myself by bulldozed by a very small number of vocal discontents?  Any of my friends have any opinions on washing machines?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Learning German

After we decided to take a river cruise in Europe this summer,  Rhine-Main-Danube, Jim decided that he wanted to relearn German; I think his grandparents spoke it, and it was common in Milwaukee when he was a child.  I borrowed the first book of the Pimsleur German course from the local library, and he liked it so much he sprang for the whole thing, so we've both been studying it. 

Pimsleur teaches you languages by walking you through a series of increasingly complicated conversations; I'm finding it quite effective.  It's true that languages are my strong point, I took German in college and have been singing in it for years; I don't know how well it would work for someone who's never said Ja or Nein in his life. 

All the conversations, which we faithfully repeat several times to learn them, are between a Lady and a Gentleman, so they can work in the appropriate gender endings - an American man is Amerikaner, but an American woman is Amerikanerin.  It's all done by repetition; they never tell you how the stuff is spelled, although every lesson has a "reading lesson," a PDF that shows some words on the page and has you repeat the pronunciation.  I'm remembering a lot; but I cannot learn a word if I don't know how it's spelled (a personal quirk), so I've been dodging over to Google Translate now and then to check things I'm not sure of.

But the conversational situations are - well, they're odd.  Back in the early lessons, when all the instructions were in English, we talked a lot about ordering Bier (beer) and Wein (wine); I remember thinking, my God, these people drink like fish. ("I want to order five beers," said the Lady in German, for example.)  And I was relieved when they finally taught me how to order Thee (tea) and Mineralwasser (mineral water), since my doctor advises me not to drink.  Then later the Lady kept asking the Gentleman to give her a lot of money.  And they never could agree on a time for a dinner date.

I'm almost done with Book I; I've advanced to the point where the instructions are also in German. We're learning the various words for traveling - fahren (to drive, or travel in a vehicle), wegfahren (to go away).  We also just learned zusammen (together) and alleine (alone).  This led to a really odd little conversation between the Lady and the Gentlemen, which I repeat in English because I don't want to fool with German diacritical marks.  Are you alone?  he asked her.  No, I'm here with my husband, she said.  If you're not alone, I'm going away, he said; I'm going alone.  You're going alone?  she asks.  We could go away together. Yes, he said, we could go away together.  All this was repeated several times to get the vocabulary and the word order solidly down. 

Meanwhile I'm thinking, wait a minute, lady, I thought you were here with your husband (Mit Ihrem Mann), now you're going to go away together (zusammen) with this guy?  What's going on?

I await with interest Lesson 28, and the next adventures of these two oddballs.

Of course, we'll be on a totally English-speaking cruise ship with totally English-speaking guides; but never mind.  It's useful to relearn a language.

Thursday, June 07, 2012


I've heard one too many anguished complaints from Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan that if "nothing happens," the situation in Syria may develop into a "civil war."  I can't stand it any more.

Reality check, folks:  the situation in Syria is a civil war.  Specifically, it is a religious civil war; the Sunni majority is trying to oust the Assad family and their supporters, mainly members of the Alawite sect (a minority Shia group).  To give the protesters credit, for a long time they simply stood out in the squares and protested peacefully - to which Assad responded with tanks and mortar fire.  In the last few months, some of the formerly peaceful people have been shooting back (using captured or smuggled arms), but they're still out-gunned by the Syrian army.  And the Syrian army, except for a few defectors who refused to shoot their  fellow citizens, still supports Assad.

It's clear to me that Assad, in apparently agreeing to Annan's "peace plan," was using what I call the "Yes, Ma" response.  My dad used to say that to his mother, after which he would go about whatever it was he meant to do anyway.  Assad knows perfectly well that "negotiations" would lead to exile and loss of power at best, and he has no intention of negotiating with anybody.

Ki-Moon and Annan know this; but if they admit that the "peace plan" isn't worth the paper it's written on, they then have to confront the question:  now what?  A lot of people are asking that question anyway, and they're all looking sideways at the United States when they do. 

So - now what?  After the Houla massacre (not to mention the one that just happened in Mazraat al-Qubeir), Syria is diplomatically isolated.  Everybody's ambassadors have gone home, nobody is talking to Syria except the U.N. team - and the Russians, who persistently support Assad.  It's pretty clear that international disapproval doesn't mean a thing to Assad.  I believe he thinks he's fighting for survival; he may be right.  I also think there's probably a touch of "My father built this and handed it to me and I'm going to keep it."  As long as Russia keeps supporting him and selling him arms, he can pretty much ignore the rest of the world.  And he will.

Nobody at the Secretary of State/Foreign Minister level in any country is saying this publicly, but I think there's some background muttering to the effect that we helped the Libyans, why aren't we - why isn't NATO - helping the Syrians?  Recently I've seen some signs that the Syrian opposition is coalescing into a single force; but until now there were just scattered towns and villages under attack, there wasn't any "Syrian opposition" to support.  And that means that "helping the Syrians" would involve ... invading Syria. 

Just think about that for a minute.  Russia is feeding Syria arms, do we really want to get into a proxy war with Russia in Syria?  And the Syrian people might welcome western troops as liberators, but on the record in Iraq and Afghanistan, they're just as likely to stop fighting each other and unite against the invaders. 

Really, folks, the last time U.S. troops were genuinely welcomed as liberators was in France in 1944.  We've sent troops into a number of other countries since then and it's never happened again.  We have to stop trying to be the world's peacekeeper.  The U.S. hasn't got one single political reason to go into Syria, and that means that we should Stay Out.

Are we going to sit here and watch Assad murder his own citizens?  Yeah, I think we have to.  The Syrian people have to solve this one themselves.  I really believe this.  I also believe in the Pottery Barn rule:  You break it, you bought it.  If we go into Syria for the noble cause of helping them overthrow their own government, we'll be there for decades.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

How Did That Happen?

Since I'm singing this afternoon (with the Oakland Symphony Chorus) at the 75th anniversary celebration for the Golden Gate Bridge, the subject came up yesterday morning in the hot tub at the gym, as we all thawed out after the water aerobics class.  Somebody asked, didn't a lot of people walk on the Bridge at the 50th anniversary celebration? 

And the hot tub group agreed, yes, they did, a ridiculous and uncountable number of people walked on the bridge at the 50th anniversary celebration - so many people that the arch of the bridge visibly flattened, scaring the daylights out of every engineer who could see it.  (The Bridge web site estimates 300,000 people walked on the bridge that day.)  We all agreed, yes, we remembered that; and that's why they are not letting people walk on the bridge this time.

Then someone said, "That was twenty-five years ago??  How did that happen?"

And nobody had an answer.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Anonymous Money

The 2012 election may be decided by anonymous money.  Since the disastrous Citizens United case, a SCOTUS decision that ranks with the Dred Scott decision in its sheer wrongness, anyone can give any amount of money to any candidate or political organization, and not have to say who they are or why they want to donate.

Here is the Court's chain of reasoning as I understand it:

Money in politics is a form of speech, since it can be used to buy advertising.

Since the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, any restriction on money spent in politics is unconstitutional.

The obvious implication to everyone except the Justices is that the election, and the Presidency, is now up for grabs by the people with the deepest pockets.

I suppose if we must have money-driven politics, we must; but why does it have to be anonymous?  As a matter of fact, the Justices argued that it shouldn't be anonymous; but existing law lets nonprofit 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) organizations hide their donor lists, and they do hide them.  Two questions disturb me about this situation:

Why do these donors wish to be anonymous?

Why is the Republican Party so anxious to help them remain anonymous?  (The DISCLOSE Act of 2012 has no Republican sponsors.)

Consider the first issue:  why do the donors wish to be anonymous?  I feel very deeply that if you're going to put money behind a candidate or a cause, you should put your name on it.  (Yes, I blog under a pen name; but I don't have any money on the line here, and it isn't that hard to figure out who I am.)

This bothered me in the whole Proposition 8 campaign in California about gay marriage: the opponents were willing to spend huge sums to defeat the measure, and yet they fight bitterly to hide their donor lists.  The opponents of Prop. 8 claimed to fear physical retaliation from gay rights supporters; do the Republican super-PAC donors fear crowds of angry Democrats, with pitchforks and torches? 

What do these donors, the ones donating to the super-PACs, fear?  I have to conclude that they fear the publicity that would be associated with donating money to this or that super-PAC. They want to accomplish a political end but they don't want their fellow citizens to know.  This way lies the end of the American Republic; this way lies dictatorship.  And we won't even know who the dictator is.

On the other question:  Is the Republican Party so anxious to block the DISCLOSE Act of 2012 because it doesn't want its general constituents to know who are the major donors to whom it will owe allegiance if elected?  Fits right in with the donors' reluctance, doesn't it?

If you aren't willing to put your name on your political actions, doesn't that say that there's something wrong with them?

I have just become a citizen co-sponsor of the DISCLOSE Act of 2012, which is supported by (among many others) the League of Women Voters.  I urge all of you to consider supporting this act, and to tell your representatives in Congress to pass it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

They Never Learn

In the fall of 2008, I wrote a couple of posts (The Sorceror's Apprentice, What a Week) about the joys of credit-default swaps (CDSs), a wonderful financial instrument which lets you take out insurance against the issuer of a bond going broke and failing to redeem the bond.  The amusing thing about CDSs was and is that you don't have to own the bond to buy the CDS - in effect you can bet on a bankruptcy that you have no other stake in.  This instrument was part of what brought down the world financial system over the next two years.

I'm therefor Not Amused to discover that JP Morgan Chase has just lost $2 billion through the actions of a rogue trader (nicknamed "The London Whale") who was betting on - guess what! - right, CDSs. 

This isn't the first time a large bank has lost a huge amount of money due to the actions of a single inadequately supervised idiot, or does anyone else remember the name Nick Leeson?  Nick Leeson's bets brought down Baring's Bank, which had successfully done business as a merchant bank since 1765.  The bank was broken up and no longer exists.  I'll be interested to see what happens to JP Morgan Chase, especially since it is one of the 4 or 5 "too big to fail" companies that the U.S. Government has evidently decided they'll have to subsidize.

It is true that Nick Leeson was trading currency futures, while the London Whale, whose name is Bruno Iksil, was trading CDSs.  But they both made the same mistake.  They told themselves they were "hedging," which is supposed to be a respectable activity for a bank.  As Wikipedia puts it, "A hedge is an investment position intended to offset potential losses that may be incurred by a companion investment. In simple language, Hedge (Hedging Technique) is used to reduce any substantial losses suffered by an individual or an organization."  Sorry, as practiced by these loosest of cannons, hedging is just another word for gambling:  you have investment A, which may go down, so you also buy investment B, which you expect to go up.  Do you know it will go up?  No, you don't.  This is gambling.  The house always wins in gambling; I suspect Mr. Iksil forgot that JP Morgan Chase is not the house.  The market as a whole is the house.  And ultimately, nobody wins.

The other issue here is, why did nobody at JP Morgan Chase know what this wildcard was up to?  Questions are popping up all over the press; I linked Yahoo Finance, but just Google "jp morgan loss" to see the scope of this.  I hope we'll see an answer to that in days to come.

In March 2009, I wrote an article called Evaluating Risk, which summarized a much longer article in Wired Magazine on "the formula that killed Wall Street" (except, of course, Wall Street isn't dead).  Bankers and investors have been plagued by risk for centuries.  In recent decades, brilliant mathematicians have thought that they could measure risk mathematically, and they developed this formula which was supposed to measure risk and reduce it to a single, simple number.  Thereafter, the financial industry assumed they had control of risk.  And the whole subprime mortgage crash happened because bankers thought they could divide risk up and pass it off to others so it wouldn't hurt them. 

This was a lie.  The formula didn't cover all the possible assumptions.  We will continue to be plagued by this sort of crash until "Wall Street" finally admits that what they do is gambling, and that the risks ultmately cannot be controlled.  That means crashes will be around for a long, long time.  Because they do not learn, as this mess shows yet again.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Killing Bin Laden

On the one-year anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the government has chosen to release some of the documents they captured in Abbotabad, which, with the President's night trip to Afghanistan, has revived the subject.  The general summary from NPR today, of the official documents just released, suggests that Bin Laden was frustrated because the regional jihadi groups kept killing Muslims, thus destroying Muslim support for Al Qaeda, and he felt that he didn't have control over them.

Another story published recently was Truthout's Exclusive Investigation:  The Truth Behind the Official Story of Finding Bin Laden.  This article (which is quite interesting) claims that in 2003, the active directors of al-Qaeda isolated Bin Laden in his Abbotabad hideout, and essentially removed him from "command" of al-Qaeda operations, on the dual grounds that he was (a) physically not well and required care, and (b) a total loose cannon whose ideas where impractical and dangerous.  After reading the Truthout article, a friend of mine posted the following on Facebook:
Hmm. So it seems that the killing of Bin Laden was a completely empty gesture? "bin Laden was not the functioning head of al-Qaeda at all, but an isolated figurehead who had become irrelevant to the actual operations of the organization."
The Truthout account sounds plausible, but it concerns me, because as I read it, it is based on information from a single source, retired Pakistani Brig. Gen. Shaukat Qadir.  Gen. Qadir apparently knew large numbers of both ISI operatives and local militants, because of his long military career, and they all seem to have repeated everything they knew to him.  (Great security.)  If you assume that these sources always told Gen. Qadir the truth, and that he repeated what they said accurately, the story is significant; but those are two large ifs.  Also, frankly, I'm not sure the extent of Bin Laden's control over Al Qaeda over the last few years really matters.

Was it really necessary for the U.S. to assassinate Osama bin Laden?  I believe it was.

Bin Laden was the driving force behind the World Trade Center attacks, even though Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did (or says he did) the actual operational planning.  If the World Trade Center attacks had been organized and carried out by a country, they would have been an act of war.  They were the second attack on U.S. territory by a foreign power since the bombing of Pearl Harbor (after the World Trade Center attack in 1993), and one of only a few in the history of the nation.  The casualties were higher than at Pearl Harbor, and worse - 3,000 civilians died in New York, whereas 2,402 military personnel died at Pearl Harbor.

Having been attacked, I believe the United States had to respond.  When President Bush attacked Afghanistan (because the Taliban, ruling Afghanistan, were publicly harboring Al Qaeda) the world supported the action as self-defense.  Unfortunately, Bush and his cabinet soon began planning the insane attack on Iraq.  At that point he lost world support, and the action in Afghanistan took second place to the Iraq war.

Fast forward to the beginning of last year.  President Obama has been in office for 3 years, he is pulling the last troops out of Iraq (finished Dec. 2011).  Osama bin Laden communicates less frequently than he once did, but he's still there, and he was and is the man symbolically responsible for the September 2001 attacks.  President Bush, after talking repeatedly about "getting" bin Laden, ultimately failed to do so.  President Obama now has intelligence that suggests Bin Laden may be in the house in Abbotabad.  What does he do?  We know what he did do:  he authorized a highly risky operation by the Navy Seals to go in and "take" bin Laden.  The Seals say that bin Laden resisted them with arms when they broke in, and they shot him.  Given the Seals' training, this was predictable, although I heard an interview on NPR that suggested they would have taken him alive if he had obviously surrendered.  The point is moot.

What if the President had not sent the Seals?  Bin Laden would have stayed in Abbotabad, probably communicating less and less, and eventually died.  But the man responsible for killing 3,000 civilians in September 2001 would be free and would die a free man.  The symbolic message to the rest of the jihadi world?  You can attack the United States with impunity.  We won't come after you.  The U.S. is a paper tiger - as bin Laden is said to have believed.

It would have been irresponsible of a U.S. President to allow that message to stand, if he could alter it.  The message now is:  attack the United States, and we will hunt you down if it takes a decade.  The operational effect on Al Qaeda may well have been minor; the symbolic importance is overwhelming.

Should we have taken bin Laden alive and tried him in the U.S.?  If we could, yes.  Could we have done it?  I doubt it.  For one thing, I don't believe he would have surrendered.  If we had captured him alive, we couldn't have tried him in civilian courts - we attempted to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the New York courts, and New York refused to host the trial on security grounds.  We would have had to try bin Laden at Guantanamo, which would have tainted the entire proceeding.

If somebody slugs you in the nose, you can choose not to respond, at which point the attacker may or may not hit you again.  No one is at risk but you.  If a group attacks a nation, and kills a number of its citizens, can the government of that nation reasonably say, oh, how sad, we wish it hadn't happened, and take no action against the attackers?  I don't think so.  The rules of engagement with the worldwide jihad are being made up as we go along, but one of the things a government is supposed to do is defend its citizens from attacks by outsiders.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sheriff Mirkarimi, Shut Up

For more months than I care to remember, I've been reading the San Francisco Chronicle's coverage of the Ross Mirkarimi case.  For those of you not so informed, here's the 50,000 foot view:

S.F. Supervisor runs successfully for County Sheriff.  Sheriff-elect, not yet in office, grabs wife by arm and bruises her in a heated dispute.  Wife complains to neighbor, who videotapes her (including bruise).  Neighbor takes video to police.  Sheriff-elect says it's a "private family matter."  Sheriff-elect indicted for domestic violence, cops a plea for unlawful imprisonment, takes office.  Mayor suspends sheriff pending Ethics Commission Review.

San Francisco's well developed and active domestic violence prevention community went ballistic at that "private family matter" remark.  This is what domestic abusers always say, it's the classic response.  It hasn't been legally true in the U.S. since 1871, although enforcement has been very variable around the country.  The sheriff-on-leave has gone public recently in several detailed and vocal defenses of his position.  If you really want to read the details, just Google "Mirkarimi" - I don't think there's anyone else in the news with that name right now.  He was even on Michael Krasny's Forum on KQED for an hour.

I have one piece of advice for Sheriff Mirkarimi.  Sheriff, button your lip and zip it up tight.  Shut your pie-hole, and let your lawyer do the talking.  Because you convict yourself every time you open your trap.

Mirkarimi thinks his problem is that the mayor has unjustly suspended him from "his job," and referred his case to the Ethics Committee.  He has problems, but that isn't one of them.

His first problem is that he doesn't think he did anything really wrong.  He's apologized.  He's taken responsibility.  He now thinks that everyone should forget and forgive him, if he only explains himself enough.

His bigger problem:  he doesn't realize (or won't admit to himself) that the Sheriff's job isn't really "his."  The Sheriff is an elected official in San Francisco.  He ran for the job and won; the people voted for him.  Ask yourself if he would have won that election if this incident had happened, say 3 weeks before election day.  You know the answer. I don't think he's ever considered the question.

Why do I care?  I don't even live in San Francisco.  I care for two reasons.  One, I have close female relatives who have been abused by their husbands.  I've never been a victim, but I know victims.  And this guy reminds me of those men.  Two, I care about even-handed law enforcement.  And you can't have a man enforcing the law who thinks it's OK for him to break it, as long as it's just a little chip off the edge.  If the crime involved here was theft, or murder, we wouldn't even be having this discussion.  But it's only domestic abuse, so we get to listen to the Sheriff try to explain how misunderstood he is.

No, sir.  You are not misunderstood.  I understand you all too well.

Friday, March 23, 2012


The first step in learning a new choral piece is to read the text through, several times.  The Oakland Symphony Chorus just began preparing Ralph Vaughn Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem, a cantata written in 1936, between "the war to end all wars" and the "world war."  (For those of you in the S.F. Bay Area, we'll perform it on May 20 at the Scottish Rite temple in Oakland, with the Oakland Youth Orchestra.)

In the context of the recent incident in Florida where a "neighborhood watch captain" followed and shot a young black man returning from a convenience store, the text of the third movement of our new piece struck me. 

Before I get to that, I want to say that as a community policing volunteer in Oakland, I am disgusted by George Zimmerman.  Any real Neighborhood Watch volunteer would know his neighbors well enough to be aware of their visiting relatives, and would understand who "has a right" to be walking around in the neighborhood.  That's what Neighborhood Watch is about.  George Zimmerman appears to have had no idea that "his" gated neighborhood could legitimately have a young black man walking around in it - which means he didn't know the neighborhood very well, did he?

But I digress.  A lot of Dona Nobis Pacem is set to poetry by Walt Whitman.  I had forgotten how great Whitman's poetry is. The third movement uses this eloquent text:


Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin -- I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
Does George Zimmerman really feel that Trayvon Williams is not "a man divine as myself," merely because the face in the coffin is brown and not white??  If he does, what a terrible judgment on us all that we allowed him to learn to think that way.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Stop Calling It Birth Control

Part of the issue with those pills that only women take is that "birth control" - preventing pregnancy - is only part of what they do.  It's a big part, but it isn't the whole Megillah.  They really are a daily adjustment of a woman's hormone balance.  In fact, the wonderfully named site calls them HBC - hormonal birth control - as opposed to all the other possible birth control methods.  LadyPartsManual is doubtful about HBC - those hormones can have unpleasant side effects, too.  But on balance their impact on a woman's life is positive.

Here is an article from WebMD explaining the long list of other reasons women might sign up for that monthly packet of bubble-wrapped pills, even if they don't actually have a sex life at the time:

Other Reasons to Take the Pill

I personally have used the pill for at least two of those reasons.  Google "other reasons to take birth control" and you'll see a whole list of similar citations from all sorts of sources; WebMB, as far as I know, is a purely medical site.  I also know from experience that, even if you really don't want to get pregnant, the symptomatic relief of menstrual symptoms that the pill gives can be nearly as important to your personal life.  For a very balanced discussion of the issues, read Beyond Birth Control, from the Guttmacher Institute.

It's impossible to discuss this topic from either side without sounding sexist.  The human race comes in two genders, with totally different plumbing and hormonal environments; and in my experience, neither side understands the other's situation very well.  Some men in particular don't even seem to want to understand the implications of living in a body that bleeds for a week every month (associated with pain that sometimes stops you in your tracks)  - it's yucky and they'd rather not think about it.  Sorry, guys, I'm going to horrify you and talk about it.  For a single woman who doesn't get paid unless she goes to work, the ability to control serious menstrual distress so she won't miss a day can be critical.  Believe me, many employers will fire you if you miss one day of work a month.

Wikipedia's article on the menstrual taboo cites a 1981 study which found (emphasis mine):
A substantial majority of U.S. adults and adolescents believe that it is socially unacceptable to discuss menstruation, especially in mixed company. Many believe that it is unacceptable to discuss menstruation even within the family.[5]
This attitude is still around thirty years later, and may explain something that has puzzled me:  except for the Catholic bishops, most of the men who have been ranting about the evils of contraception are married.  They have wives, and I guarantee you, those wives either menstruate now or have previously done so.  Do their husbands actually not understand about this?  Have they never discussed it?  Given the attitudes revealed in that study, maybe they don't.  Which raises the issue, maybe they should.

The most annoying feature of this debate is that the who-pays-for-health-care issue is being drowned in the screaming over whether women should be able to decide not to have babies for awhile.  The real issue isn't contraception - it's contraception that is paid for by health insurance.  And in this Presidential campaign year, it's contraception that must be paid for under the new health care law. 

The argument comes down to this: are we willing to provide hormone therapy treatment for all women, or only for women rich enough to front it themselves?  Which would include the wives of the men who rant about paying for contraception for poor women because it infringes their religious freedom. 

We have the most rationed health care in the world:  health care rationed by luck.  Are you lucky enough to work for an employer with a paid plan?  You're in.  Are you self-employed and not very well off?  Do you work for a firm too small to pay for a plan?  You're out.  And if you're out and need serious health care, you either won't get it (and may die), or you will get it and they'll bill you directly, at a rate several times higher than they charge the insurance plans they deal with (which will bankrupt you).

Are we willing to pay for the health care that everyone needs, when they need it (and at the same rate for everyone), or shall we continue as we are?  That is the question, ladies and gentlemen.  That is the question.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Polychoral Splendors

Have you ever heard a 40 voice choral piece?  No, not 40 singers singing 4 or 8 parts; 40 singers, each performing a separate individual part.  That's what we heard last night.

When my husband bought us tickets for Cal Performances' Polychoral Splendors of the Florentine Renaissance, I mostly noticed that it featured His Majestys Sagbutts and Coronets (that's pronounced "SACKbutts", by the way).  I didn't realize until I heard the pre-concert lecture that we were attending the 21st century premieres of three choral works that haven't been performed since the sixteenth century.  None of these works has less than 40 voices, and one of them has 60.

That's right.  Sixty separate vocal lines, each sung by one singer.  From the program notes:  "... to experience the important spatial dimension of many choirs that are physically separated, a 16th-century version of 'surround sound' that is almost impossible to reproduce effectively on recordings."  (Although they did record the concert; and if it's ever on sale, I'll buy it.)  In Berkeley's First Congregational Church, we had the acoustics we needed.

The story behind this concert is absolutely fascinating, but it's also quite long, so I'll refer you to the concert program notes, which you can find online at Cal Performances.  (Warning:  it's 3.5MB.)  In very brief, it's based on conductor Davitt Moroney's scholarly research into "gigantismo" - the suggestion that in the mid-16th century, there was more than the one known instance of choral works written for 40 or more voices.  His research uncovered three of them, two from the court of Cosimo de Medici, in Florence, the third from Spain.  This was all part of the amazing flowering of art that produced the great visual treasures of Florence - who but Cosimo de Medici could have afforded a sixty-voice choir?  In fact, the pre-concert lecture noted that when Alessandro Striggio's mass, Missa sopra "Ecco sì beato giorno", was composed, there were only 5 places in Europe where it could be performed:  Florence, Vienna, Hamburg, Rome, and Madrid.  My composer can write more choral parts than your composer.

Listening to this music is like looking at a renaissance tapestry.  It's incredibly detailed and dense.  It isn't polyphony, there's no fugue.  The separate parts blend together into a sonorous wall, with brief illuminations as a soprano or a tenor soars above the sound and then blends back in.  I've never felt so much that I was in the presence of another age.  The sound was overwhelming.

I particularly liked the 40-voice canon on the Ten Commandments - ten 4 voice choruses, each singing the same canon 10 times.  When the 10th chorus comes in, all the choruses are singing all the words of all ten commandments at once (in Latin hexameter verse).  You'd think it would be total chaos.  In fact it's a brooding, introspective piece that is amazingly soothing.  You can't understand the words but you're supposed to know what they are.

Oh, the Sagbutts.  That's a proto-trombone, in case you didn't know.  They had a whole family of them, I particularly enjoyed the Gabrieli Canzon primi toni which they performed.  The really significant one was the grand bass sackbutt - I never could quite see the whole thing but it was so huge I wondered how long it was.  Wikipedia says that the double-bass or "Octav-Posaun" sackbut was pitched in A in Michael Praetorius' day, but the modern version is in B flat.  My husband, a former tubist, says that means the fully extended tube is 32 feet long, and the extended slide is probably 10 feet.  It had a "pusher" attached, because the slide is too long for a man's arm to extend fully.   Still according to Wikipedia, the only modern copy of the only surviving 17th century double-bass sackbut "is currently owned and played by Wim Becu," and that was the name of the performer last night.

Astounding music, all around.  Do read the program notes.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Life, Death, and Rules

This isn't the post I started to write last night.  In the interval, the power of the Internet has manifested itself again, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation has agreed that it made a mistake, apologized for cutting funding to Planned Parenthood and agreed to restore it.  Apparently (as happened with SOPA/PIPA a few weeks ago), when we all rise up on Facebook and Twitter to complain, they actually do hear us.  Most of what I read on Facebook yesterday was about this.

It all began yesterday when the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced they had decided to drop funding to Planned Parenthood ($600,000 a year, used only for breast cancer screenings) because Planned Parenthood is under investigation by Congress, some of whose members suspect it of illegally using federal funds to perform abortions.  We have a new rule about donating to organizations being investigated, the Foundation said.  We're just following our rules.

I'm not the only Planned Parenthood supporter out there who thought this was nuts; or the only one wondering, if they were just following the rules, why they hadn't pulled the plug on their $7.5 million dollar grant (for breast cancer research) to Penn State, currently under investigation for ignoring child sexual abuse.  Is providing abortions really worse than ignoring pedophilia?  What a question.

Now that the Komen Foundation has been bombed out of a position that no one with any sense would have occupied in the first place, I want to consider some of the issues this incident raised.  The whole thing is a classic "be careful what you ask for" - one side effect was an absolute avalanche of support for PP, which the Komen folks probably didn't intend.  But it made me think.

In a fit of anger, I wrote this on Facebook:
The anti-abortion people essentially state that they would rather allow poor women (the only ones this affects) to die of breast cancer, than give them any opportunity at all to get an abortion, for any reason.
This was unfair to the majority of anti-abortion people, of course; that's the trouble with writing, or speaking, in anger.  But the Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision appeared to take exactly that position.  They said they were stopping funding for cancer screenings because PP was "under investigation" - but Karen Handel, the Komen Vice President for public policy since last January, who is staunchly anti-abortion and who has said that since she is "pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood," is reported (in an article in The Atlantic) to have driven the decision to create the rule about being under investigation, for the specific purpose of defunding PP. 

So, which is worse - a woman dying from breast cancer or a fetus being aborted?

The trouble with the abortion issue is that there are two lives involved - and each side of the argument insists that only one of those lives is important.  But when you bring breast cancer screening into the equation, in the way the Komen Foundation did, you turn it into a decision on who should die - the mother, or the child. But that's a fool's game, because any child's welfare depends on a living, healthy mother - not one who dies of (or even spends years fighting) breast cancer.

Americans don't like to talk about death.  I suspect that our culture feels if we can just be a little more brilliant and inventive, we can make the whole thing go away.  But we can't.  Sooner or later, all of us will die; the only question is when, and how.  That child saved from abortion by defunding evil Planned Parenthood?  Will die; the only question is when, and how.  The mother with breast cancer?  Will die; in her case, the question is, will she die sooner of cancer or later of something else.

I don't know anyone anywhere who thinks abortion is a good idea.  It's a last resort tool.  The anti-abortion side tends to demonize women who have abortions; I know some women who have had them, and the decision is, always, wrenching.  I'm not going to argue either side; those arguments are unwinnable.  But I want to point out that against the 3% of its time that Planned Parenthood spends doing abortions, it spends 35% of its time providing contraception, mostly to women who couldn't normally afford it - which has probably prevented more abortions than any right-to-life group in existence.

I'm glad that the Susan G. Komen Foundation has changed its mind.  I'm afraid they will find that, even after changing their minds and doing (what I consider) the right thing, they've lost some important credibility.  And only time will show what this has done to their donor base.  Everyone will now look at them and ask, now what?  And that's too bad, because they've done serious good in their day and may still do more.  Ms. Handel is still at the Foundation.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A path to civil war

USA Today published the following quote, from the AP:

BEIRUT (AP) – A senior Russian diplomat Tuesday said a draft U.N. resolution demanding Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside is a "path to civil war," as Syrian troops besieged rebellious areas with hours of shelling and machine-gun fire.
I have one question.

What do they think is going on in Syria right now, anyway?  It looks like a civil war to me.

I don't suggest that we should all crank up the armies again and pile into Syria the way we did into Libya.  But if Russia thinks what's going on in Syria right now isn't a civil war, I'd like to know how they define one.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tracking the Money

The city of Oakland is facing the loss of $28,000,000 from its general fund, caused by two outside events:  One, Governor Brown eliminated redevelopment agencies in this year's state budget, and Two, the state Supreme Court ruled that the "give-back" the Legislature crafted, which would have let cities and states "buy" their redevelopment agencies back, was unconstitutional.  So - there goes the Redevelopment Agency money.

Why is this causing such consternation in Oakland??  Because they were using the Redevelopment Agency money  for general operating funds, that's why.  In addition to the 159 people who actually work for the Redevelopment Agency, the city was using those funds to pay, or partly pay, for positions all over the city, including (this one staggers me) half the mayor's salary!  What??

Why do they do this?  I've seen this before.  In the early '70s, I worked for the San Jose Public Library.  At that time, Lockheed-Martin was a major employer (pre-Silicon Valley), the economy was booming, the bucks were rolling in.  (Also pre-oil shock.)  And the city of San Jose, having found that citizens were always happy to pass bond issues, had developed the habit of funding basic operations (among other things, the library) out of those bond issues - so as not to have to engage in ungentlemanly conversations about, you know, taxes.

Then Lockheed-Martin lost a big contract.  In the intervening 40-odd years, the details of the disaster have escaped me; but I distinctly remember that they laid off what seemed like half the Santa Clara Valley, and the next bond issue that came up for a vote died like a skunk on the freeway.  And suddenly the city had payroll obligations that it didn't have enough general fund money to meet.  And citizens who were even less likely to vote for new taxes than they had been when they were approving bonds.  I forget what gyrations they used to solve their problem; I didn't lose my job, the city of San Jose still has a library.  But this all came back to me when I heard that the city of Oakland was paying half the mayor's salary with redevelopment funds.  (If I keep repeating that, it's because I still can't believe they did that.)

The cases in the two cities are identical.  They couldn't get the taxpayers to raise taxes enough to pay for what they wanted to spend (and the San Jose case was before Proposition 13, they only needed a majority), there was this other money "lying around," so they used it.  They ignored the fact that, technically, the other money had another purpose they were legally required to use it for.  I would love to hear the justification for paying half the Oakland mayor's salary out of redevelopment funds.

The minimal good news out of all this, for Oakland today, is that the new City Administrator has devised a plan to consolidate services and remove duplications, including eliminating a number of "jobs" that weren't actually being performed by anyone, and will be able to correct the situation by laying off no more than 105 people (out of just over 3,000) and not closing any libraries or senior centers.

This is the first glimmer of fiscal responsibility I've seen in Oakland since before we elected Ron Dellums.  God bless Deanna Santana.  The mayor (and previous city council member) has tried multiple times to get citizens to vote for property tax increases, without success; and she didn't succeed because none of us trusted the city to spend the money in a responsible and prudent way. We all suspected the city government was full of duplicated services and overstaffed departments, and if we gave them more tax money they would just continue to throw it away.

The new budget is responsible and prudent.  I'm still not ready to vote for a property tax increase.  But if Ms. Santana stays around and continues to talk turkey about consolidation and simplification, some day I might consider it.

On the other hand, the city council hasn't accepted the new budget yet.  Maybe it's too soon to relax.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why I Oppose SOPA and PIPA

Who could be in favor of Internet piracy?  For the record, not me.  But PIPA and SOPA are not only about Internet piracy.  (For the record:  SOPA is the house bill, PIPA is the Senate bill.  Any law would have to be a combination of the two.)

In the interest of the free Internet, I will do something that could potentially be illegal under SOPA/PIPA:  I will quote two extended discussions of the legislation from other blogs.

Yesterday on the global blog Crooked Timber (which I'm delighted to learn about), blogger Maria Farrell posted this:

Because Freedom isn’t Free: Why We* Blacked Out Crooked Timber

This is a detailed and thoughtful analysis of what could easily happen under SOPA/PIPA to almost any blog.  Including this one.  And it wouldn't even have to be anything I did:  if any poster on Blogger were to post allegedly pirated content, the attorney general would legally be able to - shut down Blogger.  All of it.

If this seems extreme, read this from Chris Heald at Mashable yesterday:

Why SOPA is Dangerous

Heald analyzes in detail exactly what's so threatening about this legislation, with links to the actual bill, so you can read it for yourself.

But this is my blog, so here's why I think this is wrong, based on reading these two sources (and other sources, but these were the best):

It is so broadly written that all anyone would have to do to shut down a web site, any web site, would be to file a complaint with the attorney general that the site was "facilitating the commission of copyright infringement."
Section 102(a)(2) permits the attorney general to take action against foreign sites (i.e., sites that do not fall under U.S. jurisdiction) if “the owner or operator of such Internet site is facilitating the commission of [copyright infringement].”
And as you notice, it doesn't even have to be a U.S. site.  This is the United States trying to impose its own legal structure on the entire world.  Must be okay because we're just trying to get criminals, right?

There is no definition of "facilitating" in the bill.  Here's the actual definition in SOPA (for the record this is sec. 102):
    (a) Definition- For purposes of this section, a foreign Internet site or portion thereof is a `foreign infringing site' if--
      (1) the Internet site or portion thereof is a U.S.-directed site and is used by users in the United States;
      (2) the owner or operator of such Internet site is committing or facilitating the commission of criminal violations punishable under section 2318, 2319, 2319A, 2319B, or 2320, or chapter 90, of title 18, United States Code; and
      (3) the Internet site would, by reason of acts described in paragraph (1), be subject to seizure in the United States in an action brought by the Attorney General if such site were a domestic Internet site.

That's it. That's the entire definition.  That means that a site is a "foreign infringing site" if the attorney general says it is.  Don't let the code sections they list fool you.  There is no standard of proof in this act.  There is no way for a site to prove that it isn't "infringing."  You are infringing if someone says you are.

This disturbs me deeply.  This is another step toward the end of the rule of law in this country, following on the legalizing of indefinite detention of U.S. citizens in the N.D.A.A. recently.  Even more disturbing, the attorney general is only required to make a cursory attempt to locate the owners of the site before starting proceedings.  (Read the Mashable article, and the bill, if you don't believe me.)  So your totally innocent site could be blocked and you might not find out until you tried to go there yourself.

And they're doing this based on bogus numbers.  The GAO concluded about a year ago that commonly quoted "government statistics" on internet piracy can't be validated and appear to have been mostly made up:  see this article by Nate Anderson in ArsTechnica on a GAO review of commonly published piracy estimates:

US government finally admits most piracy estimates are bogus


If you haven't already done it, I urge you all to contact your representatives in Congress and the Senate and ask them to oppose these bills.  Sure, Internet piracy is wrong, but this isn't the way to fight it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

In and Around Whistler

I'll admit I wondered about visiting a world-famous ski resort in the summer.  After all, don't you go to a ski resort to ski?  But the mountains around it are gorgeous, and when there's no snow you can hike.  There actually was snow, above about 5,000 feet - on the peaks, around 6,000 feet, it was quite snowy.  It only rained on us one day, and one of the days we were there was glorious - sunny and warm!  I'd say the activities we saw the most of included snowboarding (at appropriate altitudes, of course) and mountain biking (everywhere!).

The gallery On to Whistler starts with some photos I took on the drive from Powell River; waiting for the ferry at Saltery Bay I got some shots of a bald eagle, who was just hanging around the ferry terminal waiting for something edible to come along:

We watched the ferry come in and dock, a very slow and stately process.  We've gotten so used to cars and airplanes that we forget how long it takes to make a boat do anything in the water:

At Langdale I got some shots of seagulls from above, they were cruising below me, looking for garbage (sorry, but it's true):

I don't have a lot of photos of Whistler itself, the town just isn't that photogenic.  I've written about the bears we saw in another post, they have their own gallery.  The day I enjoyed the most was the nice day, when Jim went on a strenuous hike and I strolled around Lost Lake, a lovely lake that you can get to on the bus.  Here's Lost Lake from part way around, you can see the beach:

The high points of Lost Lake were the female merganser duck, with her five very small ducklings riding on her back:

I got several more photos of the ducks, and some very beautiful shots of the lake edges, but the other highlight was this fellow:

That, my friends, is an osprey, who hovered overhead long enough for me to get several other photos!  All the photos are at the gallery Lost Lake, for your viewing pleasure.