Monday, December 31, 2007

Affordable Health Care

I've been going through the Divided We Fail site's list of candidate statements on where they stand on the various issues of affordable health care. This is an interesting site: nobody called the candidates and asked them questions. It's excerpts from their web site articles and speeches that relate to the Divided We Fail issues. You have to give AARP credit for a lot of research to dig all that out and post it, with links.

I notice a certain lack of detail on the "how" in all these fine statements. Everybody says that health care will be "affordable", and no one will be able to refuse you for a pre-existing condition. (They're not dumb, they know what the issues are.) What I don't see is how the candidates expect to compel the existing health insurance industry to sell health care insurance policies if they don't think they can make a profit on them. You can make laws and rules that say, if you're going to sell health insurance policies, they have to meet these criteria; but what happens when all the major vendors say, we can't make any money at that, we withdraw from that market. They've done it before: there are areas in the hurricane belt where certain insurance companies won't sell homeowners' insurance any more. They're not really interested in "insurance" as it was originally developed; they only want to play the game if the dice are loaded so they can always win. The only way to do this is to take profit out of the medical game altogether and run it as a subsidized public service.

The only one who comes right out and says, we're going to have universal publicly financed health care, is Dennis Kucinich; and he may be a fine man but he has about as much chance of winning this election as he has of being elected Pope. John Edwards at least admits that "the health system could evolve into a single-payer plan."
Single-payer is ultimately the way we have to go; otherwise we can't get away from the insurance companies trying to squeeze out every last premium without ever paying out on a claim.

Divided We Fail

I've decided that I agree with the AARP - we have to do something about health care, long term care, and financial security. That's why I've added the "Divided We Fail" logo to the blog. If you agree, step up too. The link's right there - it's up to you. (By the way, their site sucks in FireFox - use IE7 to get it to load properly. Sigh.)


My husband just sent me a link to a NY Times op-ed piece that was making the rounds of his recovery group, and it's interesting enough that I want to share it here.

The Hangover That Lasts

Go read it - you have to have a login to but they're free and they've never hassled me with spam. It isn't very long.

I'm fascinated by the conclusions (from studies on rats) about rats which engaged in the laboratory equivalent of binge drinking during adolescence, and then stopped drinking. They're capable of learning - but they're not capable of relearning. They can't admit they were wrong. They show "a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making." They "fail to recognize the ultimate consequences of [their] actions." And all this is present even after a long period of sobriety.

The one good thing the study mentions is that, in "former alcohol-drinking mice", exercise clearly stimulates "the regrowth and development of normal neural tissue". So - exercise is good for the formerly drunken brain.

And neither I nor the article's author have ever mentioned the name you're thinking!

Now how do we explain Dick Cheney?

Health Insurance

I can't believe there hasn't been more publicity about this - I've seen one article, essentially a press release.

The EEOC has just ruled that employers don't have to offer full retiree health benefits to retirees who have reached the age of 65 and qualify for Medicare. They claim this just "formally authorizes the long-standing practice of employers" of paying less for retiree health care after the retiree qualifies for Medicare; they made the decision because the U.S. Court of Appeals (3rd circuit) ruled in 2000 that employers who spend less for health coverage on retirees eligible for Medicare, than they do on retirees who don't yet qualify, are in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

EEOC claims this is "in the public interest", because without the ruling employers would quit offering retiree health coverage to all retirees because of the extra expense for retirees also covered by Medicare. I thought that's what they were doing anyhow. They claim this will preserve retiree health benefits for younger workers while not reducing benefits for older workers. They claim they have broad bipartisan support for this (although while they list the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers, I don't see the AARP listed).

Full disclosure here: I'm retired, and my health insurance comes from my husband's job; and when he retires, theoretically he will continue to get full, lifetime health insurance as a retiree. (Yeah, there are about 8 of those left.) I see this ruling affecting my ability to continue to have health coverage, and it scares the liver out of me. I'm about to turn into one of the "older workers" who will get reduced health benefits; and while I'm generally in good shape, I have a number of chronic conditions that require regular medications and checks with the doctor, and my health would deteriorate pretty fast if I couldn't get those.

Maybe I'm over-reacting. But let's get cracking on universal health care coverage, huh??

Still No Turkeys

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I've never gotten a photo of the turkeys living up the canyon; and I have a feeling I never will. The problem is the schedule; according to the guy I spoke with (who works at the racquet club up the road), they're around all the time, "pretty early." Oof. This probably means (they being birds) that they get up with the sun, or maybe a little before.

I have to be honest here: I am not a "morning" person. One of the most delightful things about being retired is the ability to roll over and pull the covers up around my ears when my husband's alarm clock goes off. I've always felt that, if God intended us to see the sunrise, She would have scheduled it later in the day. I tried to get up early a couple of days but never made it early enough.

I could still potentially find them around sunset; but afternoon is when I'm working on my volunteer projects, and I tend to wake up from my web configuration screens and realize, wait - it's dark already. Too late to go look for turkeys now. I went a couple of times, but not at the right times. Oh, well. I enjoyed seeing them - and the photo I really wanted was the one of them ambling calmly down the middle of my street. That photo would require a time machine, I'm afraid. So - no turkey photos, but delightful memories of two accidental sightings. That'll have to be enough.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto, 1953 - 2007

In pace requiescat, Benazir Bhutto. Whatever you were or weren't guilty of, you never deserved this. I suspect you were guilty of nothing more threatening than wishing and working for a fully democratic Pakistan.

Every so often I start to hope. I think, well, we've stopped doing this awful thing and we've pretty much eliminated that dreadful practice - then an incident like this one comes along and I realize, nope, the old demons are still strong. Will the human race ever reach a point where it can collectively agree to disagree?? Why is it always necessary to kill the people you disagree with? Why is it ever necessary to kill the people you disagree with? I know all the arguments; I just don't buy them.

Actually, 250-300 years ago, Christians were killing each other over what now look like minor theological points. After the Thirty Years' War devastated Europe, pretty much all the countries there decided simultaneously that they wouldn't go to war over that any more. There were still local spats over religion, but by the end of the 18th century, the various sects of Christianity had more or less agreed to disagree, and later wars were over "rational" things like land and politics. If you look at the history of Islam, it has never really had its equivalent of the Thirty Years' War; the trouble is, it may be having it now, between the Sunnis and the Shias. One of the leading suspects in the Bhutto assassination is the local Islamic fanatic movement, incorporating the Taliban and al Qaeda.

What really fries my potatoes over this, though, is my deep suspicion that Benazir Bhutto was killed because she was a woman who wielded power. That her actual political positions, her actual intents, were of less important to her killers than the fact that she was a woman, wielding great political power, in a world where (they believe) women should stay home and keep their faces covered and their mouths shut. She had ruled the country before; she could have done so again; and for that alone, in the minds of these fanatics, she had to die. Of all the things I find intolerable about the Islamic extremists, their attitude toward women annoys me most - if only because it was not the Prophet's attitude! They are taking their patriarchal, tribal customs and pasting them on Mohammed and claiming he told them to do these things, and they lie. I'm not even an Islamic scholar and I know this, just from listening to real Islamic scholars discuss the issue.

Of course, she could also have been assassinated by one of Musharraf's boys, simply because she was probably going to win the election. You never know. But I hope we find out. She cared about her country and worked hard for it, and she ultimately died for it - she deserves to have the truth about her death known.

Last fall, among other U.C. scholarship candidates, I interviewed a charming young woman from Pakistan; I can't help but think of her, and grieve with her over the damage to her country from these squabbling ideologues. When will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas in California

Winter in the Bay Area: I walked down to the small commercial district near my house, about half a mile away; it's a beautiful sunny day, mid-50s, intermittent breeze. On my way back, I noticed a house belonging to some acquaintances, who have hung an evergreen wreath under the front picture window, decorated with a dark red bow and a couple of red ornaments. Next to the evergreen wreath, and matching the colors exactly, is their massive display of blooming bougainvillea - dark red with dark green leaves - all over the porch.

I love you, California. I guess the recent frost wasn't so bad after all.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas To All

This is an unpopular thing to say these days; one should say, "Happy holidays," so as not to offend anyone. I certainly don't mean to offend anyone; and when talking to my Jewish friends I wish them happy Chanukah; my chorus sings Ma'oz T'zur along with In Dulci Jubilo when we go caroling. In the rush not to offend, though, I think we forget that the original purpose of this greeting was to wish people well. To hope that they enjoy the season, however they celebrate it, as best they can.

The common "we must not offend anyone" mode always makes me think back to Aesop's fable about the man, the boy, and the donkey; you can find one version here. The moral of this fable is: try to please all, and you please none. If I wish someone a Merry Christmas, and they say, "But I celebrate Kwanzaa, we don't do Christmas", the only thing I can do is wish them a Happy Kwanzaa; if they choose to be offended because I didn't do that first, I can't stop them. I can see how people who follow other traditions feel overwhelmed by the tsunami of "Christmasness" that rolls over us every winter; but it still bothers me that I'm not supposed to wish them well without knowing in advance which particular form of well-wishing they prefer.

I'm not especially religious; and I hate to shop (although I don't belong to the Church of Stop Shopping either!). My view of Christmas is more Dickensian than anything else: I've read A Christmas Carol so often I know it almost by heart. Dickens' view of Christmas was only marginally associated with the worship of Christ; what he really valued it for was to encourage charity among men, especially charity from the rich to the poor ("to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."), but also from the poor to the poor; and sometimes charity was nothing more than to wish someone well.

So, with that in mind, I wish all of you well in the way that is most natural to me: that is, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. If you prefer to translate that into some other form, feel free; as long as you remember the well-wishing.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Noodly Universe

I was reading Scientific American tonight (November '07 issue) and they had an article on multiple universes, string theory, and "branes" ("The Great Cosmic Roller-Coaster Ride"). The article is available online, but it unfortunately lacks the illustrations that inspired me; you'll have to go to the library and look at the paper copy to see the artist's rendition of a "Calabi-Yau space." There's a picture of one here, and also in Wikipedia, along with many mathematical formulae; but the picture in SciAm had long stringy appendages sticking out of the central mass. It looked familiar; it looked strangely familiar, and then I realized:

It's the Flying Spaghetti Monster in disguise! These scientists are covert Pastafarians! "String theory" indeed - what better to make strings than spaghetti? The Universe is a physical manifestation of the FSM and the cosmic strings are His Noodly Appendages. All is now clear.

Actually, I've been reading the cosmology articles in SciAm for 30-odd years now, and as time has gone on they've gotten farther and farther out, to the point that I ask myself: do these people have any work to do?? I realize this is a serious branch of science, but the basis of science is that you establish a theory, and then you make a prediction, and then you create an experiment to test the prediction, after which you either declare victory and start writing up the article for Science, or you go back and tinker with the theory some more. (The scientific method in a nutshell.)

The trouble with cosmologists, and especially string theorists, is that they've been trying for 20 years to devise experiments that would validate their theories, and they can't do it. They'd have to create the conditions that existed within nanoseconds after the Big Bang, and then be able to stand back outside the inferno and analyze the process. I don't know why they think the experiment wouldn't incinerate the experimenter. They plan to work on very small scales, of course: just a minuscule inferno.

As I read about strings, and branes, and scalar fields, and dark matter, I get a whiff - just a whiff - of the "ether" which filled interplanetary space only about 125 years ago. The scientists of that day could no more sample the atmosphere (or lack of it) in interplanetary space, than today's cosmologists can collect a piece of dark matter in a test tube and weigh it. But they were just as convinced that it was there. Today's scientists have much better equipment and much better experimental data. But until they can verify a prediction, they're no better off than the people who believed in ether. They'll tell you the mathematics makes it work; maybe it does. Mathematics is a language I never mastered, and this is a pretty esoteric dialect. I'd still like to see a verified prediction.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Steam Trek, the Silent Movie

To quote the friend who sent me this YouTube link:

"This is what Star Trek would have looked if it had been shot back in 1899 by Georges Méliès. Worth watching just for the Star Trek theme, rendered on a piano. Stunning."

The animation is hilarious. You'll see a link, "Steam Trek, the blog" if you're interested in how they did it...

You Have To Watch This

Boggart sent this to me a couple of weeks ago, and the stupid thing has been running through my head ever since. So, out of the kindness of my heart, I will share this short animation with you, my loyal readers - it's hilarious. All of you over the age of 50 will grok it instantly. Any younger readers - well, it'll make sense to you eventually...

The Baby Boomers

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Evil Genius or Compliant Front Man?

I have a disagreement going with one of my commenters, Curtis Faville, on the nature and involvement of Pres. Bush in the doings of his administration, and after our last exchange (in the comments under Don't Relax Yet) I think I'll pull the issue out of the comments and start a discussion on it.

My position has always been that Dubya is a front man, happy to have a position of apparent power ("I'm the decider") while not actually driving the major decisions, like the invasion of Iraq or the privatization of Social Security. His position in his administration is a rough parallel to the role Leland Stanford Sr. played in California's "Big Four" - he was the affable public spokesman, while Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins actually ran the Central Pacific Railroad combine. Stanford wasn't even always aware of all the details of the inner workings.

Curtis' position is that Dubya is an intelligent, evil man who is fully engaged in what his administration has done.

It's certainly true that Dubya's business career, fully documented at

has been a success only in the sense that he personally profited immensely from every phase of it; any business enterprise he ever participated in was a disaster for the other shareholders. So this argument cuts in Curtis' direction.

I'll confess I've also read commentary that indicates that when Dubya has something he really wants, he can and does push back, even against Cheney (whom I personally regard as this administration's éminance grise). Another point for Curtis.

Here's the reason why I don't think he has been a central player, and wasn't originally intended to be a player at all. Look at the web site of the Project for the New American Century, especially at the Statement of Principles. Look at the list of people who signed that statement - in 1997
, I might add, 3 years before the 2000 election. It was signed by every significant member of the first Bush administration, plus a number of the major neoconservative intelligentsia, except for - Dubya himself. It was, however, signed by Jeb Bush. I believe the PNAC planners originally intended to run Jeb for president, but switched to George when the skeletons in Jeb's closet became too obvious to survive the blinding light of a presidential campaign. Dubya's major personal skeleton was his former lifestyle, and since he had reformed that, it could be - and was - turned into a selling point.

I believe the neoconservative team that designed and built the 2000 election campaign, headed by Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, chose Dubya as an electable figurehead who would go along with their major policy objectives as long as they allowed him to appear to be in charge. Remember that Dick Cheney was the man in charge of the team who decided on the vice presidential candidate, and came up with - himself. I believe the administration's continued insistence on executive privilege and secrecy is a deliberate attempt to conceal who actually is in charge - if possible, permanently. And I believe Dubya went along with this plan, first because he does enjoy power (even if not absolute), and second because he saw the possibility of making a lot of money out of it.

And to quote a T-shirt I saw advertised on the Internet a couple of years ago, the thing I hate most about this administration is the way it makes me sound like a nutcase conspiracy theorist!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Saving the Day

Mr. Bush's heart is touched. (Also, he doesn't want to go down in history as the president under whom millions of people were foreclosed out of their houses, crashing the economy.) He's going to save the day. He's going to freeze interest rates on those awful adjustable loans for five years:
  • If you're living in the home and it's your primary residence.
  • If you're current on your payments.
  • If you got the mortgage between January 1, 2005 and June 30, 2007.
  • If your interest rate will reset for the first time between Jan. 1, 2008 and June 30, 2010 by more than 10% on the first reset.
  • If you can't make the higher payments.
  • If you can't qualify for refinancing.
Behind on your payments already? Got the mortgage in 2004? Mortgage already reset once? Hasta la vista, baby. The article in today's San Francisco Chronicle suggests that something like 145,000 homeowners will be helped by this (estimate from the Center for Responsible Lending); whereas some 2 million mortgages will reset over the next couple of years.

So this isn't a real attempt to help anybody; this is a stupendous exercise in government CYA. Now let's talk about some of the real issues.

First of all, nobody beat these people over the head with a club and forced them to sign off on these loans. This was a voluntary business transaction, and they didn't read all the paperwork, and now they discover that the broker lied to them about the rate increase and they can't afford the loan payments. Under normal business practices in this country, they are SOL. If a business borrows money to expand its operations, and instead the business goes bust and can't repay the loan, it declares bankruptcy. Yes, these are human beings not businesses, and yes, my heart bleeds for them, and yes, many of them were deliberately deceived by brokers hustling for high commissions on loans they personally had no stake in, but dammit. There's such a thing as personal responsibility. Are we responsible for our actions all the time, or only when they work out right?? Can we spell Moral Hazard? I don't have to worry about it, the Guvmint will bail me out. If it can get the hotline phone number right.

Second (and this one absolutely floors me) this suggestion is coming from a REPUBLICAN president! A Republican president is suggesting that, in order to bail out the Little Guy, we must mess with the free market and rewrite contracts that have already been signed and performed under for up to 2 years. I don't think even FDR ever tried to rewrite contract law. Whatever happened to the Republicans as the party of small government and less regulation? (Of course, if you're going there, whatever happened to Republicans as the party of fiscal responsibility, but that's another whole post.)

Full disclosure: I am a Democrat (God help me), not a Republican.

Third, this whole thing assumes that the loan servicers are the ones who will determine the last 2 items on the list above (can't make higher payments and don't qualify for refi). The problem with this goes back to the problem with this entire Donnybrook: the loan servicers aren't empowered to make changes to the loan contracts because They. Do. Not. Own. The. Loans. They are bookkeepers and administrators; they track loans, collect payments, and pass the dollars on to the people who do own the loans.

And who does own the loans?? If I say "hedge fund investors" you'll throw something at me, but it's true. Your neighbor's house loan was "securitized" (see my post from September): bundled together with a bunch of other loans, the bundle divided up into pieces, and the pieces ("tranches") sold at prices, and interest rates, based on their credit rating. Which has nothing to do with the individual credit rating of the owner of any one of those loans. In fact, I'm not sure you could identify the substantive "owner" of a home mortgage that was securitized; and if you could, it would be more than one person (or entity); and every one of those multiple entities would have to sign off on a change to the contract. Unless the government rewrites the contracts by fiat, which is what Dubya is proposing.

And if that happens, the people who bought those securitized mortgages will lose money. Figure how likely it is they'll cooperate with this. Of course, they're going to lose money anyway, because they backed a dead horse; but with this plan, they'll have somebody to sue - and it'll be our government. Isn't that a great idea??

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Don't Relax Yet

I see the Department of National Intelligence (which is an oxymoron) has now concluded that, in contradiction to its firm statement 2 years ago that "Iran was currently determined to have nuclear weapons", it has now discovered that Iran in fact shut down its nuclear weapons development program in - wait for it - 2003. In other words, at the time they assured everybody that Iran was actively developing nukes, it actually hadn't been working on them for 2 years.

Of course, the fact that Mahmoud Ahmedinajad has been jumping up and down for 5 years yelling (in effect, and in Farsi), "Nyaah, nyaah, we're gonna enrich uranium and you can't stop us!" does rather color the issue. He also says they only want the uranium for peaceful purposes; but of course, nobody believes that.

When I read this article, my initial reaction was, surely we can relax now. Surely, the wingnuts in the Executive Branch now have no conceivable grounds for bombing Iran. But I've reconsidered - at least in part because Dubya stood up this morning and basically said, this doesn't make any difference, they could restart the program any time. This is the argument of a man spoiling for a fight. It is also, I'm afraid, the argument of a man who spent too much time in childhood watching Davy Crockett - I keep getting the echo of the motto Disney gave their hero: "Decide what's right, then go ahead." Davy Crockett never reconsidered the fact that he might have been wrong in the first place, and neither does Dubya. Oliver Cromwell, where are you, now that we need you?

Considering the mess Dubya made in Iraq, I don't know why he thinks he could do a better job taking on Iran, but he does seem to think so, God help us all.

Furthermore, if you think about it, why should he - or we - assume that anything at all the Dept. of National Intelligence says is correct? These people can't get to the bottom of the stairs without a map. They still - the last time I heard - have no resources on the ground in Iran, and in fact few or no staff members who even speak Farsi. How in hell can they claim to know anything about what's going on there? Do we just assume that the French and the Brits are kindly feeding them information??

Honest, if we can get through Dubya's last term of office without starting another fershlugginah war, I may begin to believe in miracles, because I can't see anything else out there that could stop him.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Thank You, Courtney Ruby

In the last few days I've had a feeling that I haven't had in as long as I can remember. I have been grateful to an elected official that I voted for, because that official was vigilantly performing the duties of her office. And the weird thing is, the office is not one of the high-visibility spots: it's the Oakland City Auditor.

At the last election, the race for City Auditor was actually one of the liveliest contests on the local ballot, with the former auditor (who had been in office for years and was accused of being impossible to work for and gutting the department) up against 2 likely-looking and well qualified newcomers, of whom Courtney Ruby, a CPA and former CFO, took the election and took office. Courtney Ruby has just released a hard-hitting audit of city payroll practices, and I feel like standing up and cheering. She's identified more than $3 million in "loosely monitored payroll transactions" over a 3 year period, and she says she's not done.

The reaction from the city administrator, Deborah Edgerly, was disgracefully unprofessional - she called the report "inaccurate and misleading," and somewhat grudgingly agreed to work with the auditor and the city council to identify "payroll policies and practices that need changing." I translate this response as "You don't understand how we do things here." But I think Ms. Ruby does understand how we do things here, and she's just documented it publicly.

Chip Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle says it's the "first independent fiscal analysis coming out of Oakland City Hall in the 10 years I've covered the place." He further points out that Ms. Ruby, formerly with the East Bay Conservation Corps, is not part of "the city's political cabal" - well, exactly. The problem with Oakland is exactly that long-standing political cabal, of which, I may add, Mayor Dellums is a member in good standing; the purpose of the political cabal is to appoint some friends to well-paying commissions and award lucrative contracts to other friends - I can't think of another reason why the same names keep turning up over and over. Managing the city of Oakland in a fiscally responsible manner isn't on the table, as far as this citizen can see: we pay the taxes and pay the taxes, and still there's no money for police, for fire coverage, for street repair - the money must be going somewhere. Well, we now know that $700,000 a year is paying for automobile allowances for 238 city employees. How many cops would that hire? And why aren't these people taking public transit, or using vehicles from a pool?

Hey, Ms. Ruby - wanna run for mayor next time?

And as for Ms. Edgerly - can we please have Robert Bobb back??

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Family Trees

This is a week or so old now, but hey - who said I had to be current?

I'm bemused by the flap over the 2007 Lowe's catalog and its "family trees". For those of you who missed this, when Lowe's Home Improvement Stores published their 2007 catalog, they had a page or three advertising symmetrical cone-shaped (more or less) objects resembling pine trees, which the catalog labeled "family trees."

Everybody who saw the catalog said, "Hey, those are Christmas trees;"
the American Family Association responded to this with a mass email campaign protesting the wording ("put the Christ back in Christmas" etc. etc.); and Lowe's publicly apologized ("It certainly was not intended to offend anyone.") and republished the catalog, now including "Christmas" trees.

I hardly know where to start here. Lowe's evidently feared, in some spasm of excess political correctness, that it would offend its non-Christian customers if it referred to "Christmas" trees. I've been doing a little research on how many members of various religions live in the United States, and nobody's really sure of any of the numbers, but in various surveys of religious preference over the last few years,
between 70% and 85% of respondents said they were Christian. If you assume this mirrors Lowe's customer base, then in attempting to please roughly 15-30% of their shoppers, they managed to offend the other 70-85%. This strikes me as poor judgment. Not to mention the fact that they looked silly as hell, since the Christmas tree is an instantly recognizable cultural icon and has been for roughly 200 years.

And to finish off their folly, they did this in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (or at least that's where the linked news story was published). This will probably offend any residents of Dallas-Fort Worth who may read this, but it's not an area I associate with, shall we say, non-mainstream religions. I'm sure there are Jews and Muslims and maybe even a few Wiccans in Dallas-Fort Worth, but the vast majority of the population is evangelical. In fact, I'm not sure Catholic isn't considered non-mainstream there.

These numbers also make the American Family Association look a little, um, over-sensitive. Believe me, Christianity is in no danger in the United States. In fact, those of us who believe in the separation of church and state sometimes get a little nervous.

But the real thing that boggled my mind was: in this day and age, who in tarnation would buy a Christmas tree from a catalog?? Delancey Street already has tree lots up all over San Francisco. By next weekend you'll be tripping over pine branches in every parking lot in America. And Lowe's thinks people will order them by mail??

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Vacation Photos

Last summer I blogged at some length about the vacation we took to England and Wales, but posted no pictures. Well, I'm slow, but I do deliver (after all, there were sixteen rolls of film to go through!), and I've now got photo galleries posted on for the first 3 legs of our trip: London and Greenwich, Kent and East Sussex, and Devonshire (mainly Dartmoor). Feel free to go and browse. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I enjoyed taking them. Keep checking back - I still have Wales and the Chester-York trip to do!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

No Turkeys

Despite the time of year, this post is not about Thanksgiving.

A small flock of wild turkeys has moved into our neighborhood. I've seen them twice now - both times, en route to somewhere else and with no camera to hand. The first time, they were ambling down the middle of my city street at 5 o'clock in the evening, about 5 of them, and I saw them as I came out of the house to go to water aerobics. I tried to get a shot (from across the street) with the soi-disant camera in my cell phone, but it was not up to the challenge.

The second time (yesterday), my husband and I were driving toward the freeway around 8:30 in the morning, and there they all were, by the community playing field
fence, up the canyon. Still no camera except the cell phone, and besides we had an appointment to get to. But I clearly saw the comb on the tom turkey, and the color shading on his feathers.

Now, I really want a photo of these critters. This is why I bought that 300mm lens. They are elegant birds, long and lean, standing somewhere between knee and hip high to an adult human; and it amazes me that they're willing to come this far into civilization. The community playing field is right next to the elementary school, and the whole area was full of kids, and parents, and commuters on their way to work via the back route to the freeway. They obviously don't mind people; so I'm stalking them, camera in hand, in the morning and evening. No luck today, only pigeons and sparrows; although I did discover that someone has plastered the base of about two sections of the fence with corn kernels and some other kind of large brown seed.

Shades of my late mother-in-law, who used to be a regular customer of the feed store in her Wisconsin village; she bought 50 lb. sacks of corn to feed the deer and squirrels. I'm sure that some of the critters who grew up on her handouts must have starved to death after we moved her to California.

The turkeys may also have been deterred by this afternoon's soccer game, played by six-year-olds, in raucous progress on the playing field. The start of school is lively enough, but this was even more energetic. It's very odd watching six-year-olds play soccer - they're all about the same height (short; they looked like they were knee high to the adults) and moving very fast. With them all in similar uniforms, it was like watching a flock of wading birds flow back and forth across the beach, except that wading birds aren't screaming and chasing a soccer ball.

Still, it's a nice walk up the canyon to where I saw them last, and you never know, maybe I'll get lucky one day and there they'll be. I'm keeping the camera just inside the front door.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunny Days

It's nice to see the sun again. You can't rely on it, if you live in a coastal city; fog comes with the territory, or that medium-level cover of dry gray clouds they call "the marine layer." Yesterday it even rained; but for the whole last week we've had clouds, pretty much all day every day. I think there was one sunny day.

Now that I'm retired, I spend a lot of time in the house. Our house is an active pleasure to be in on a sunny fall or winter morning. The whole south side is covered with windows, and the southerly sun streams in and warms the place up, physically and spiritually. On a cloudy day, though, everything is gray, the sky, the neighborhood - even the yard seems subdued, despite my husband's efforts to have something in bloom at all times.

The most annoying days are when the clouds just sit on the East Bay hills, like the cloud that followed Joe Btfsplk around in L'il Abner, and the rest of the Bay Area is sunny. Talk about unfair! When I worked, I had a sporting chance of seeing some sun in Concord. But then, of course, I had to work... and the policy at the office was to keep the blinds closed at all times to keep the building temperature even and save energy. (Gee, thanks, guys.)

Today we had some early clouds, and then they blew over and the sun came out, so the house was happy again all morning. It really makes me think of "The sun pours down like honey" (but not on Our Lady of the Harbor) from Suzanne. I'll have to think of something to do this winter to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder.


Mourn for the seabirds, and the fish, and the crabs. Mourn for the beaches, and the creatures that live on them. Mourn for the people who eat the fish they catch at the piers. Mourn for the migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway. We have destroyed San Francisco Bay. Our addiction to oil has murdered the creatures, and covered San Francisco Bay with oily sludge.

The blame game has begun. Was it the bar pilot? Was it the ship's Chinese crew? Were the instruments bad? Was the fog part of the problem? Can we sue the owners of the ship? Who owns the ship, anyway? In a real sense, none of this matters; the damage is done, and the cleanup will take months if we're lucky, years if we're not. They're still finding stuff from the Exxon Valdez spill. But in a real sense, we are all, ourselves, responsible - because we can't stop using the oil.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

More Roosting Chickens

I'll admit I didn't see this one coming. On Tuesday Consumer Reports announced that they won't automatically recommend Toyota vehicles without reliability data on the specific design, after 2 Toyota models (the Camry V6 and the Tundra 4 wheel drive V8 pickup) were rated "below average" in predicted reliability. (The Camry??)

In the same report, 3 Ford models (the Ford Fusion, the Mercury Milan and the F-150 V6 pickup) made the "most reliable" list.

Ford is more reliable than Toyota? The world is coming to an end.

Well, Toyota's world may be, and in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, we may have an explanation. A former quality control inspector at the NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA, a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors, is suing both firms on the grounds that they retaliated against her when she reported multiple defects on "thousands of vehicles" coming off the line. According to the suit, eight years ago managers began altering her defect reports to lower the Daily Defect Per Vehicle numbers.

The interesting point here is that the NUMMI plant doesn't make the vehicles Consumer Reports just downgraded. It makes Toyota Tacomas and Corollas, and Pontiac Vibes. Might be interesting to check the Consumer Reports reliability ratings on the last 5 years or so of those models.

Toyota's market position has been based for years on draconian quality control. Looks like Draco has been laterally arabesqued....

The Chickens are Coming Home To Roost

The news over the last couple of days has been interesting, and is summarized by a comment in this week's Economist (not an exact quote): According to bankers, the four most expensive words in the English language are, "This time it's different."

Let's start with the bankers. Over the last couple of weeks everybody's 3rd quarter report has come out, and the red ink looks like the floor of a slaughterhouse. The chairmen of Merrill Lynch and Citigroup have been bounced. (Don't weep for them; they won't starve.) Citigroup in fact is in such bad shape that people are beginning to wonder whether the guvmint will have to bail it out (which probably means it's too late to sell my stock, fortunately not a large stake). As I commented in September, the investment banking industry thought it had invented a way to manage mortgage lending without actually personally taking any risk that the borrower would default; and they were wrong.

The fallout isn't restricted to bankers, and the bankers haven't heard the worst yet, because most of them are also in the credit card business. The fallout from subprime delinquencies is about to hit the credit card business, according to an analysis Tuesday from AP. The same people who took out mortgages they couldn't pay were carrying credit card debt they couldn't pay. In fact, some of those adjustable mortgages were refinances to pull out cash to pay off other debt... The whole industry is now watching nervously to see what The Consumer does during the upcoming Christmas season.

How does this come under "This time it's different"? Back to the subprime crisis: this time it was different because the housing market would continue to rise indefinitely and everybody would be rich because of their house. Except it didn't. This time it's different because for 40 years consumers in this country have been running their lives on credit and the bills have never come due - there was always another credit card, or you could refinance the house and "cash out" because the housing market was always going to keep rising. (Except in 1989 but nobody remembers that.)

If I sound a little sanctimonious here, I'll admit that, at one time in my life, almost 30 years ago, I ran on credit. My paycheck was never quite enough, and I had I think 7 or 8 credit cards with balances on all of them. But - I got a small windfall, and I used the windfall to pay off all my credit cards, and I've never put anything on a credit card since that I couldn't pay off at the end of the month. The only debt we have is a mortgage and we'll pay that off shortly. I'm back to where my parents were except that they didn't have a mortgage; they paid their house off in 1952. So I'm watching this from the outside; but I live here, and if we have a major recession it'll hit me too.

I've been wondering for years when this was all going to fall over, and I have a bad feeling that it's about to. And you know something? If it falls over, we'll have done it to ourselves. We made the choices. We decided we could pay for it later. Well, folks - it's later.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

One Touch of Venus

This weekend's entertainment was live, not Netflix - we went to San Francisco to see a friend of my husband perform in "One Touch of Venus", done by 42nd Street Moon. This show isn't very often performed - what 42nd Street Moon does is musicals that aren't often performed - but we thought it was fabulous: music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash and S. J. Perelman. It was lively, very funny, the cast of 10 played, sang and danced at least 15 parts with great verve. The experience was improved by the very small Eureka Theater - the audience was practically in the performers' laps and vice versa.

This isn't your "standard" musical production. First, they didn't have a full cast. Second, the sets consisted of one chaise longue, one standard chair, about 5 black and white cubes, and the piano, on which various people leaned or sat. Third, the piano, played by the music director (Dave Dobrusky) throughout the performance, constituted the entire musical accompaniment. Fourth, some of the performers carried "scripts" in some scenes - but I didn't even realize they did until the discussion after the show. Everybody was carrying binders or folders around, but most of them had reasons to carry binders and/or folders around.

I won't review the plot here - the Marin IJ did that last week if you're interested. I just wanted to recommend everybody, go see a live musical sometime, preferably a comedy. It is fantastic fun and has no relation to renting the DVD from NetFlix. In fact, it's playing through Nov. 11 - see the 42nd Street Moon web site. If you're in the S.F. Bay Area you may still be able to get tickets.

I have to quote, though, what the IJ said was the best line of the evening. One of the characters, having spent the night drinking
"Shostakoviches", malted mare's milk and vodka (??!), is asked how he feels the morning after, and says: "All my teeth feel like they have little sweaters on them." Thank you, Ogden Nash, we've all been there and felt like that...

I also want to let my readers know that I don't spend all my time worrying about coups in Pakistan.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Dictator

Well, he's done it. The BBC reported today that General Musharraf has declared a national state of emergency in Pakistan, suspended the constitution (including free speech), and replaced the chief justice. That would be the chief justice he tried to suspend earlier this year, which caused the entire legal profession to take to the streets. This move, of course, is because he was reasonably sure the Supreme Court was going to rule that his recent election to the presidency was unconstitutional because he failed to resign as army chief first, despite having promised to do so at least 4 times that I recall offhand. From the AP article:
A copy of the emergency order obtained by The Associated Press justified the declaration on the grounds that "some members of the judiciary are working at cross purposes with the executive" and "weakening the government's resolve" to fight terrorism.
Why are we supporting this man? Are we back to the bad old days of "he's an SOB, but he's our SOB?" This is pure and simple dictatorship. The Bush administration considers Musharraf a vital ally in the war against terror, despite the fact that he has been entirely unable to control the Taliban in the border area next to Afghanistan. Condi Rice, next door in Turkey (trying to keep the Turks from invading Iraqi Kurdistan, I assume), is blethering that the U.S. "does not support extraconstitutional measures" and "urging a quick return to civilian rule." This is balderdash. Musharraf is still in power exactly because he declares a state of emergency every time he is faced with a genuine election (which he would lose; he's massively unpopular in Pakistan). Supporting him merely convinces the rest of the world that Americans really are arrogant, militaristic bastards who are using the "war on terror" to advance a set of principles that have everything to do with power and oil, and nothing whatever to do with freedom and democracy.

It's unfortunate that the known civilian alternatives to Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, have been tried before and found grossly corrupt. In fact, both of them left the country some years ago to avoid arrest on corruption charges; and Bhutto has negotiated her return on the condition that the charges be lifted. The third alternative, of course, is the native Islamic militant political wing. So there aren't any good alternatives for Pakistan: an only moderately competent dictator, versus two known corrupt civilian politicians, versus the Pakistani equivalent of the Taliban.

But shouldn't we allow the Pakistani people to decide on their own what government they want? Isn't that the whole principle of democracy? We've developed much too much of a tendency in recent years to accept the results of democratic elections only if they bring people we like to power. Classic examples here are Hugo Chavez in Venezula and Hamas in Palestine. Whatever you think of them - and I don't like either of them - they were fairly elected (in Chavez' case, at least the first time; and he does have tremendous support among the poor); whereupon we took it on ourselves to declare that those people aren't suited to form a government. Unfortunately for Hamas, there's no oil in the West Bank or Gaza, so they couldn't ignore us the way Chavez does.

But back to Pakistan - every rational observer saw this development coming. It's too bad that the U.S. government (which seems to have thought that having Condi Rice call Musharraf at 3 AM Pakistan time, to urge him not to declare a state of emergency, would do the trick) can no longer be considered a rational observer.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Eighty Days

It's dark on weekend nights again, so we've restarted the Netflix subscription. Last weekend we watched an all time classic - David Niven and Cantinflas in Around the World in 80 Days.

This thing is fabulous. Watching Cantinflas alone is worth the whole price of admission; and then there are all the cameos. Go look up the cast on IMDB - everyone who was anyone had a cameo in that film, although I thought the real high point was the San Francisco saloon, where Niven was accosted by Marlene Dietrich as a saloon madam, thrown out by George Raft as her boyfriend - and the whole event was accompanied by a saloon pianist who suddenly turned around to reveal Old Blue Eyes - Sinatra himself, aged I guess about 40 and at the top of his form. This was a real cameo as he didn't even have a line!

This movie has everything. It has bullfights. It has mysterious Tangerian yachtsmen. It has elephants. It has a daring rescue - several daring rescues. It has collapsing railway bridges, and attacking Sioux. It has drugged drinks, and missed connections, and a desperate dash for the finish line. If you've never seen it, rent it. If you have seen it, rent it again. But start early - 80 days takes 3 hours!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

U.C. Is At It Again

I absolutely can't believe the article I read in today's San Francisco Chronicle. A committee of U.C. faculty have decided that the university's method of determining student eligibility for admission is "too rigid", and is therefore "unfair to some students." Their solution to this problem? Restrict guaranteed university access even further. The 1960 Master Plan for Education guarantees University admission to the top 12.5% of graduating high school seniors; the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools wants to reduce that guarantee to the top 4%.

The theory is, you see, that students in rural and inner-city schools are disadvantaged because their schools don't offer all the necessary college prep courses, and they don't have enough counselors to make sure they take the courses and do the required tests. This is all true, of course, and is further complicated by the fact that the inner-city kids also have a list of other well-known problems (low income, family breakup, constant danger from random shooters, etc.). But some of them do make it - and they are materially aided by the policy that the top 12.5% of graduates from their high school have guaranteed admission.

The faculty members are concerned that there are students (God defend us!) who now "slide in" to Cal by "doing the minimum work to be eligible." So they want to "improve standards" by raising the bar so these kids - who are now DOING the necessary work! - don't have guaranteed admission to Cal. Only the top 4% will get guaranteed admission, everybody else has to "compete" - including any of the rural and inner-city kids who might have been guaranteed a slot under the 1960 rules! Furthermore, nobody will be guaranteed a slot at a UC campus with available seats, as they are now; if your primary choice rejects you, you have to be re-evaluated again by your second choice campus, and so on.

I couldn't make this up if I tried. They are trying to expand the pool that gets into Cal by raising the bar for everybody below the top 4%? The whirring sound you hear is George Orwell, spinning in his grave at a level of doublespeak worthy of his masterpiece. And this does it for me - if this is how the faculty thinks, my donation to U.C. this year will go to Alumni Association scholarship funds, not to the general fund.

Also, someday I'd like someone to explain to me what's wrong with doing the minimum work necessary to make the grade. Does everyone have to be an overachiever? If you make the grade, you make it. The effort necessary to be in the top 12.5% of your school is not trivial; and the tests you have to pass - twice - are also not trivial.

To do them justice, the article quoted a number of faculty, and at least one regent (who has been actively involved in admissions and had never heard of this) who are as disturbed by this proposal as I am. So it may never come to pass, and a good thing if it doesn't. But it should never have seen the light of day as a serious suggestion.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

"There will be help ..."

"... for the people of California," said President Bush, as quoted on CNN today.

That's what you said about New Orleans, Mr. Bush. Call FEMA for help, you said.

Yeah, right.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Did you know you can see the smoke from the southern California wildfires on the 2KM and 4KM Pacific satellite photos? Check out the Satellite link on the National Weather Service web site (this link should display the forecast for Oakland, from which you can see the Pacific satellite shots).

In fact, has a NASA satellite image in which you can see the flames. From orbit.

Sorry, folks, but this is the price we pay to live in a state where fire is a normal part of the ecosystem. It's also the price we pay for suppressing fire for a century - the fuel built up to the point that, once it starts, we can't stop it. The native Americans, I recall reading, used to schedule controlled burns on damp calm fall days; but they didn't build housing developments.

I don't see it online, but the article on the fires in today's paper Chronicle says that people in San Diego watched the flames hopscotch over
I-15 - a 10 lane freeway. These fires are being driven by Santa Ana winds up to 100 mph - I don't see how they can stop them until the wind dies. I'm just grateful that Northern California is only getting mild winds and (at the moment) nothing serious is burning. The Oakland Hills Fire was 16 years ago, but I still get nervous on a hot windy fall day.

There's no moral to this post. I'm just scared. And the fires are 500 miles away.

Not Getting It

The San Francisco Chronicle notes today that student fees at the University of California, and at Cal State University system, increased this year by 10% (9.7% at UC is close enough to round off).

Nationwide, student fees increased 6.6% on average - two-thirds of the increase in California. And inflation, which you might think would drive this? Under 2% nationwide.

Why are student fees increasing at five times the rate of consumer inflation?

Long ago when I attended the University of California, my student fees were in 3 figures. Per year. (Of course, I could live on $10 a week then, too.) The theory behind the U.C. and C.S.U. systems was that higher education was a public good, which should be subsidized. This means that everybody pays some taxes toward it; and everybody's kids can attend. I understand that U.C. "provides more financial aid than other state systems." (With price increases like that, I hope to God they do!) Here are the explanations U.C. gives for the increase:
to maintain and improve the quality of instruction, expand student mental health services, increase financial aid and help raise faculty and staff salaries closer to market rate.
I'm tempted to suggest that if they didn't raise the student fees so high, they could budget less for financial aid, and that student mental health might be improved by not having to worry about money; but let that pass. What really fries me are the salary increases, which I doubt seriously are going to the faculty. The salary increases are going to pay senior executives in the U.C. system corporate-grade salaries (yeah, I've heard all the arguments, and I don't believe them), and they're taking it out of the students' hides. This is just plain WRONG, and it will produce an uneducated underclass in California which can't do the "knowledge industry" jobs that everyone says the economy needs, because they can't read or think.

I don't want California to become a state where only the rich can afford to attend the state university system. I don't consider that a good use of my tax money.

I'm so pissed at U.C. that I'm considering halting my donations to the University proper. I'll still donate to the Library; but the money I was giving to the Chancellor's Fund, I may now give to the Alumni Association, for scholarships - they'll need it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Freedom's Just Another Word

Retirement is very strange. For the first time in my life, I have absolute freedom to choose what I want to do. If I want to sit in the backyard and read trash novels all afternoon, I can. I can do other things I used to have to fight to have time for: exercise at the gym; rehearse music; blog; do genealogical research; shop. And what is the result of all this? You've got it: I can't decide what I want to do...

Oh, I'm not really that unfocused. I have my List of volunteer opportunities, that I thought I might like to do; I'm actually doing one of them (I'm now a special director, and the webmistress, of the Oakland Symphony Chorus). Another of them was to volunteer with a group that teaches financial literacy: I tried them, and they were such disorganized flakes that I decided my choices were not to deal with them at all, or take them over and run them. I opted to walk away. Also, I've accumulated a couple of unpaid "I could work on that" projects.

But none of this feels real yet. I'm trying to learn Joomla, the open source content management system, with the object of becoming a pro bono web designer for non-profits. I've gotten far enough to realize this means I also have to learn JavaScript, PHP, and XML...

Also, to be honest, one of the things I liked about working was all the people that were around. Yeah, I can do serious technical study by myself in the house; but I don't have anybody to TALK to. I need people to talk to, I'm beginning to realize. So maybe I need to go back to the list and check out something that would put me in a group of people.

I read one "what to do in retirement" article that suggested making no major decisions for at least a year after retiring. Maybe that makes sense. But it's odd how intimidating is the prospect of absolute freedom.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Down in Flames

This subject came up today in two wildly different contexts, so it clearly deserves a blog post.

Barney Frank has fired both barrels at the members of the LGBT community who are attacking Congress, and him, for dropping transgendered people from a job discrimination bill. His point is that they can pass the bill with job protection "only" for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, but if they include transgender people, it will be one step too far for some of the votes they need, and they won't get any job protection at all.

Mark Morford's column today dealt with the fringe responses he's gotten from people to his recent column which was mainly (but not entirely) enthusiastic about Whole Foods, which he feels on balance has added more to the grocery business in the U.S. than it has subtracted, even though not everything it sells is organic, and the takeover of Wild Oats may be uncompetitive, and yes, it is anti-union.

Both of these articles are worth reading. I particularly enjoyed Morford's comparison of the complaints he got from the extreme left about Whole Foods (Whole Foods is terrible, they drive mom-and-pop stores out of business, their takeover of Wild Oats used questionable tactics, etc. etc.) to the responses of the extreme fundamentalist right, for whom no intermediate prohibition of things they object to (ban all abortions!) is ever enough. Barney Frank (who didn't write the article) is a rare case of a working politician giving the extremists in his own constituency (yeah, he officially represents Massachusetts, but on gay rights he's pretty much The Gay Congressman) some realistic feedback about the impossibility of their demands.

Both of these situations remind me of a mother telling her five year old, "You may have a single ice cream cone but no, you may not have a double, and stop yelling or you won't get anything."

There's a mind-set out there, and you find it in all sorts of groups, for whom the perfect is the enemy of the good. If we can't get every single negotiating point on the list, we have lost the battle; BUT, we stuck to our guns, and so we are Morally Superior. Even if we haven't accomplished one single thing we set out to do.

They can't prioritize, and they can't compromise. They can't see that (in Barney Frank's example) it's a good thing to get protection against job discrimination for gays, and lesbians, and bisexuals; and maybe even when that's been in place for a while and the world hasn't ended, we can go back and try to add transgender people to it. In the Morford example, they can't accept that an organization is Good (or at least, Not Evil) unless they agree with every single action it takes.

When I married my husband, 20-odd years ago, he was politically active in the Sierra Club. I remember him complaining at the time that there was a small group of people in the Club who would rather go down in flames ("the boy stood on the burning deck") than yield one single minor point on their agenda. I don't know how many of those people are still there; all he does with the Sierra Club now is go on hikes.

Politics is the art of compromise, folks; this is what Barney Frank is trying to say. You can't always get everything you want, the first time you try, or even the fourth or fifth. And you can't get anything without giving something. I own a detective story, in which a large business is negotiating a contract with a foreign government. This business includes, in every proposal, at least one item which is there for the purpose of being given up, so as to be able to stand firm on the stuff they really want. Now, that's negotiation.

I don't like negotiation; I don't do it especially well. But by God, I understand it. The problem with the Christian fundamentalists is that they believe God is on their side. I don't know who the lefties think is on their side - Gaia? The Goddess? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? But all of these absolutists take these stances because They Are Morally Right, and therefore they can't give up a single item because it Would Be Wrong.

We will never get anywhere that way, folks.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies, and Alcoholism

This post was inspired, as sometimes happens, by Jon Carroll's column in today's San Francisco Chronicle. Mr. Carroll wrote an extended fantasy on what might have been the process by which Marion Jones chose to take performance-enhancing drugs, and the mental processes by which she supported and justified not only the drug-taking but the fact that she had to hide it (because it was illegal). I recommend the column, the analysis is brilliant. But it startled me, because on the same day it was published, I read and commented on my husband's extended (29 page) analysis of his life, and his experiences with compulsive/addictive behaviors (first bulimia and then alcoholism), how he got into them, and how he has gotten out of them.

The scary thing about the fantasized thinking of the person lying about sports drug abuse and the real thinking of the bulimic or alcoholic,
documented in my husband's account, is how close they are.

It isn't really that bad. People make too much of this. Besides,
I'm in control; I don't really have a problem.

I seem to recall from Mr. Carroll's much earlier columns that he himself had an issue with alcoholism, which he has overcome; I wonder if he consciously remembered any of that when he wrote this piece.

The question, of course, is: to what was Ms. Jones addicted? She seems to be displaying addictive behavior, but the substances she took aren't addictive in the normal sense. I've never heard that you get withdrawal symptoms from quitting taking steroids, or whatever. I have to conclude that she was addicted to: fame. She liked being Numbah One. She convinced herself that she would have been Numbah One anyway, and the drugs didn't really make that much difference. Except that they did.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


No, I haven't got a new hobby. But my usual stationary bike at the gym is down for repairs, so I had to use the ones on the 3rd floor that face a wall-sized plasma TV; and it's impossible to ignore it completely because it's so big. (Also one of the reasons I hate TV is that I find it impossible to ignore.) So I found myself this morning cranking away on the bike and looking at what looked like Highway 880 on a good afternoon with the traffic flowing smoothly along - except that the cars were all plastered with advertising, and the road was oval, and no 2 cars had more than one car length between them. Also they were going 190 MPH, or so the closed captioning said. But there they were, bumper to bumper and hubcap to hubcap, 3 lanes wide - nobody changing position, nobody trying to pull forward, nobody doing anything.

This is entertainment? I can see this on the traffic cams, except for the advertising - and, even the Nimitz doesn't get to 190 MPH. Around and around they go, and they never stop or move or change position or whatever.

Interval follows in which I read a couple of Economist leaders, and I look up again and it's worse - they're all in a single line. Still bumper to bumper, still going like bats out of hell - all in one line. I figure, if this goes on, the guy in the front car has it wrapped. (I think the guy in the front car was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., but if so he didn't have it wrapped - see results for Talladega.) It's all very symmetrical and not very interesting.

Back to the Economist, and a couple of articles later I look up to see a car break formation, roll three or four times while flames shoot out of the engine compartment, and fetch up on its roof in the infield. Following this, 2 or 3 other cars (which are now back in multi-lane formation) bash into each other and the wall, kicking up more smoke and dirt. OK, I guess they do change position occasionally. I was impressed when the first driver disentangled himself and walked away from the wreck - now, that's safety equipment!

But I still don't understand what gets so many people so excited about watching a bunch of cars follow each other decorously around an oval track, even if it is at 190 MPH.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The War Tax

Once again, the news carries things I wouldn't dare to make up.

Some leading members of the House Appropriations Committee today suggested refusing to fund the President's $200 billion continuing appropriation for the Iraq war, and recommended a war tax to fund the combat operations. This is so appropriate, and so reasonable, that I'm appalled to find Nancy Pelosi shutting it down. I'm even more appalled to hear the Republicans yelling "tax-and-spend-Democrats, nya nya nyaaa!" The Republican party is in the process of bankrupting this country on this stupid war, but God forbid we should raise taxes to pay for it.

Do these people have any idea how long we're going to be paying for this asinine war?? Worse, do they realize who's holding the Treasury bills that are allowing us to continue it? (Hint: it's China....)

And in the same week, the most spendthrift president in history, outdoing even Ronald Reagan, chooses to show his fiscal conservatism by vetoing - health care for poor children! After all, they will never vote Republican, especially if they have no health care (since they will likely die before they can vote). 72% of the country was in favor of expanding the SCHIP program, not to the "middle class" (as Boss Bush suggests), but (in some places) to people who make 300% of the official poverty level (a whacking 50% increase, it was 200%).

Do you know what the poverty level is? Dubya doesn't. It's $20,650 per year for a family of four. (And, I may add, it's the same in California as it is in South Dakota. Only Alaska and Hawaii get higher rates.) So right now people who make up to $41,300 to support a family of four can get this coverage; and the vetoed bill would have expanded it in some places to people who make $61,950. You try to support four people in the San Francisco Bay Area on $62,000 a year. That's $5,162 per month in a place where 4 bedroom houses can rent for as much as $4,600! OK, that's a "lovely 2 story executive" something in Saratoga, a known high-rent district; but a quick glance at shows that a 3 bedroom anything (minimum for a family of 4) rents for $2000 and up. (I'm not a member - I Googled "4 bedroom apartment san francisco.") There are cheaper ones, but I hesitate to think what the neighborhood looks like.

That's almost 40% of the monthly income at a generous 300% of the poverty level, and we haven't started talking about utilities and food yet. Does the SCHIP extension begin to look a little less unreasonable?? Oh, sorry, I forgot - you're probably in favor of it.

It looks like Congress may be cranking up for an override vote, and you know, if they can override this veto, I may forgive them blowing off the war tax. Would be better if they could do both, of course.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Finding Hillary

I should have known better than this, but I didn't. I saw a notice in today's newspaper that Hillary Clinton was having a rally in Oakland this afternoon, at 14th and Clay. Gee, I thought, she'll be here, I could go down and take a look at her, and see what I think. The rally was at 4:30, and I could spend a couple of hours at the College Avenue Stroll (the annual street fair), and then hop on BART and go downtown.

There are reasons I don't normally attend political rallies, and today I was forcibly reminded what they are.

I got there about 4:20, or 10 minutes before the rally was advertised to begin. I found my way out of Oakland City Center (which is under construction) on to 14th Street, to see a line of people stretching in both directions. (It was actually two lines, but more on that later.) I asked, and found that yes, this was the line for the Clinton rally; so I started looking for the end. Half a block away, the line turned right at the corner of Broadway and kept going ... and going ... and going, all the way to the corner of 12th Street, at which point it actually ended. So I stood in it. By now it was pretty close to 4:30, but it was obvious that they weren't going to start on time with all these people out in the street. It took 45 minutes for me to work my way up to the rally entrance, with the line lengthening behind me all the time. I politely ignored at least 5 sellers of political buttons and 3 T-shirt vendors, not counting the Obama crowd on the corner. In the last 20 minutes or so we listened to a children's chorus singing "America," not very well.

The line didn't make much sense to me. It began at the rally entrance, of course, and backed up on the north side of 14th Street to Broadway, one long block; then it turned left and crossed 14th (blocked off), and snaked back down 14th halfway to the entrance again, where it made a U-turn and went back up toward Broadway, where it turned south and went another 2 blocks to 12th Street before turning again, west on 12th. I never did figure out a good reason for that U-turn on the south side of 14th.

I eventually collected the little half sheet of paper that everyone had to fill out in order to get in. We were told it was "for security reasons", but I can't think of a single security reason why they would need my name, address, email, and cell phone and home phone numbers. This is a marketing ploy to fill out the mailing list, but since I'm already on that mailing list, I played along. I will say the campaign had it organized - they had stringers going up and down the line making sure everyone had their "ticket" filled out.

Once we all got into the rally, and past the bleachers where people who actually paid money for this were sitting, we all crowded up around the stage. I never actually saw the stage, or any of the people on it. I could hear clearly enough, their sound system was more than adequate; but I was at least half a block back in the crowd, and I'm only 5 foot 5, and at least half of the crowd was taller than I am. So, for another half hour, I counted the checks in the plaid shirt in front of me, and listened to speeches from unnamed people (must have been introduced before I got there). The only speaker whose name I actually caught was Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco. I never did get the name of the man with the "black" accent who was acting as emcee (looking at the photos on SFGate, it may have been Rev. Cecil Williams), or the woman with the slight eastern clip in her voice (I actually thought, foolish me, that this might be Hillary, until she referred to Hillary as "she".) who followed the first local musician.

As the evening drew in and my feet began to hurt, the announcer introduced a second local musician who began a set of songs intended to inspire the faithful; and I looked at my watch and saw that it was 5:30, and I still couldn't see the stage, and Hillary Clinton was still nowhere in evidence, and the people running things appeared to be vamping. "I came here to hear Hillary Clinton, not these people," I said to a woman standing next to me; and she replied, "Oh, that's how these rallies are; I understand she's due around 6 o'clock." (The article on doesn't say when she actually arrived.) Well, I was probably foolish, but I decided my desire to see the elephant (sorry, I suppose I should say "donkey") was not strong enough to stand around until 6 o'clock, or whenever Madam Candidate chose to make her entrance. So I said the hell with it and began to make my way out of the crowd toward the BART station.

I've had trouble with crowds ever since the Free Speech Movement and People's Park Riots of the '60s; large groups of people make me nervous, especially if they're all there about a Cause. For some reason I didn't have that reaction today. In fact, I didn't really feel that I was in a cohesive "crowd" at all. I was standing in a large group of people paying polite but not passionate attention to the speakers, who continually urged them to show their enthusiasm more loudly. Maybe if I'd stayed to see Hillary, the spark would have happened and the agglomeration of humans would have coalesced into an organism. Then again, maybe not; I've never heard that charisma is Mrs. Clinton's thing.

She seems to be the front runner, she has the machine behind her, she's probably unstoppable, and I do think it would be a good thing symbolically for the U.S. to have a woman president, especially now; but something in the back of my mind says that Barack Obama would make a better president.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Women Bloggers

I can't recall where I saw this first, but I recently noticed that there are web sites, and web rings, for women bloggers. I visited a couple of them; let's use as an example BlogHer, which exists in two forms, and If I'd spent more time on either of them I might have figured out what the difference is (maybe they're the same site with two URLs); they both had the same lead post, which, since it had to do with schools and school children, was of marginal interest to me. I was actually considering signing up for it, since I am a woman and a blogger; but the more I looked, the less I felt I fit in there.

First, there's this focus on "women's stuff." Some of their links are: Art and Design; Astrology and Horoscopes (of interest to me only for debunking purposes); Business, Career and Personal Finance (I'm retired); Feminism and Gender; Health and Wellness (that's what I have a doctor for); and so on. You can go read the list yourself; for that matter, you can read the posts yourself.

I'm just not very interested in "women's sites". I've tried it over the years; and they all get back to fashion (the way I'm built? surely you jest), and child care (no kids here), and weight control (yeah, I know I'm too fat; that's not a blog post, it's just a fact); and I never remember to go back. I don't understand why I should be treated differently from any other blogger, just because I'm a woman. Either I have something interesting to say or I don't. In honesty they do have some sections on Policy and News, Media and Journalism, Technology and Web, which I might actually like to read; but still.

It also bothers me that they have these Categories. My blog doesn't have a category; its purpose is to allow me to rant on whatever subject is currently exercising or interesting me. I have this feeling that if I signed up I'd end up classified as "Other", the organizational kiss of death. I've checked up on 3 or 4 other women bloggers that I've come across, and they also tend to rant on whatever's going on at the time, and not to focus on a Category.

I suppose their real point is that women bloggers are a small minority - which they are - and therefore need to be coddled and supported lest they vanish in the endless sea of male bloggers. I don't know - most of the women bloggers I've read sounded pretty confident and competent to me. Some of them astounded me. If you want to realize that all the annoying things in your life which are bothering you are really not that bad after all, go read the Babblings of Whimsicalbrainpan. Now, that woman is a survivor.

I guess I'm just not much of a joiner; I never seem to fit into formal groups. I have things I want to say in my blog, and I say them; and a few people listen, and sometimes they argue. God knows, this isn't the DailyKos! But a few people read and comment, and I enjoy the exchanges. Should I join a women's blogging group? I don't know. Maybe I'd get more readers; then again, maybe I'd end up classified as "Other" and never get a visitor from there at all. I'm still thinking about it. But as a good child of the Sixties, I've spent the last 40 years trying to persuade myself that people should be judged on their individual merits (intelligence, competence, honesty, kindness, etc.), and not by their race, gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or whatever; and that's why "women blogger" sites bother me.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Alcohol Dependency, and Recovery

On Tuesday October 2 it will be exactly 6 months since my husband had his last drink of alcohol.

I have his permission to blog about his alcohol dependency and his recovery; he's been very open about it with everyone; but the fact remains that, six months ago, I suddenly had to deal with the fact that the man I've been married to for twenty-one years is an alcoholic.

How could I not realize something like that
(you ask)? Well, that's a good question. I'm not stupid; I knew he always drank wine with dinner (I only drink with dinner occasionally); I knew there were days when he drank too much, and woke up the next morning hung over. (He's very hard to deal with when hung over.) But we don't spend our entire lives watching what other people do; I was working full-time, in a high-stress job that took a lot of my energy and attention, and - frankly - I'm not always that observant, and I didn't realize how far it had really gone. Also, even though I wished he wouldn't do it, I realized that there was nothing I could do about it. I knew couldn't make him stop drinking; all I could do was nag at him about it, which would make both of us miserable, because I dislike confrontation. So, I chose not to do that. Also, frankly, I didn't want to think about it too much. It's just social drinking, I thought - but it wasn't.

What's really bizarre about the situation is that his alcohol dependency, which is a Bad Thing, has led to his alcohol recovery - and that is a really Good Thing. I didn't realize until he started talking about his recovery that he had almost completely stopped talking to me - or anyone else - at all. I didn't realize until he started going to nightly (now, weekly) recovery group meetings, that except for work, and his solitary hiking trips, it had been months since he left the house at all, and years since he attended any kind of social gathering.

So what happened? He says he finally realized that his alcoholism was affecting his ability to hike and take pleasure in nature, which is probably his major passion; and therefore it had to stop. Also, at my suggestion (I cheerfully admit), he talked to the Employee Assistance Program at his job - and the lady there read him the riot act about the characteristics of an alcohol dependent personality, and he had every one of 'em. So she enrolled him in the Kaiser Chemical Dependency Recovery Program, and he enrolled himself in a secular chemical dependency support group called LifeRing, and he hasn't had a drink since. In fact, we no longer have any wine or beer in the house, and I'm negotiating to get rid of some old bottles of spirits that date from before we got married. But they're not critical because on his worst day he never drank spirits.

I feel like I've gotten
back the man I married. He's chatty, he's cheerful, he's lost a lot of weight (many empty calories in booze), he makes awful puns again, he can go to parties and talk to people - a few years ago, we went to a New Year's Eve party at a friend's house, and he walked out after half an hour, leaving me to explain that he just didn't like crowds. I didn't realize then that the drinking was already a problem.

So where did this come from? When we married he was a social drinker, nothing more. Well, several personal things - we think it's been going on for about 6 years - and a genetic predisposition. His mother died of Alzheimer's disease in 2003, just before Christmas, after a ten-year "long goodbye." It hit him really hard. He was the caregiver, and he was very fond of his mother, and he had to watch her turn into a vegetable. That's one; the party he walked out on was right after that. Just about the time she died, his job became very very stressful. That's two. And finally, I knew that he had a history of weight problems in his youth, and he lost a lot of weight in graduate school; but I learned during the recovery discussions that he was bulimic at that time; he thinks the two behaviors are related (alcoholism and earlier bulimia), apparently there is some clinical evidence for it.

As for the genetic predisposition: I'll refer you to a book called Under the Influence, by Milam and Ketcham. Amazon has it; Barnes and Noble, or your local public library, probably has it. It's been around for a while, it came out in 1981. If you think that alcoholism is caused by moral decay or lack of will power or some variant of the "Demon Rum", you need to read this book. There is a small part of the population, I think around 10 percent, that simply metabolizes alcohol differently than everyone else. If people with this chemistry get into the habit of drinking regularly, for whatever reason, they find that they have to continue drinking in order to feel well enough to function; and the more they drink, the more they have to drink. They can recover if they stop drinking altogether; but after a certain point, they can't stop drinking without outside help. It's a startling and eye-opening book.

My husband, very fortunately, made the decision to stop before he reached the point where he had to go into detox - he just stopped drinking, assisted materially by the Kaiser CDRP, which provided him with different things to do instead of drinking. As people trying to quit smoking know, the habit patterns are as hard to break as the chemical dependency. He'd been coming home from work and drinking; now he came home from work and went to a meeting, and talked about it. In fact, some nights he went to two meetings: Kaiser's, and LifeRing's. He's now down to 2-3 meetings a week; he really enjoys the discussions.

I won't go too much into LifeRing here - I've linked their web site, you can read it for yourself - but he prefers them to AA because AA is just too Christian-tinged religious for him. He's a very religious person, but he doesn't consider himself a Christian (as I don't). In case you didn't think AA was a Christian organization, I'll refer you to the LifeRing leader's blog post on a recent court case, where a Buddhist convict objected to being forced to attend AA as a condition of parole. I've added the New Recovery blog to my links.

I've been mulling this post over for 6 months. I don't know if I'll post on the subject again; but I wanted to put this out on the table for discussion.

Nature Bats Last

Isn't that a great line? I saw that on a bumper sticker. And I've been continually reminded of it by all flap surrounding the climate change meetings in New York.

First of all, it is appallingly rude but unfortunately typical of the Bush administration to ignore the U.N.'s attempts to Do Something about impending climate changes and schedule his own parallel meeting at pretty much the same time, inviting all the other major polluters, who ought to be at the U.N. meeting with the rest of the world.

Second, I'm amazed at the blether coming out of the White House - and yes, Condi, that includes you, the President's mouthpiece. We can't possibly slow anybody's growth, or impact anybody's economy (including ours). And we certainly can't impose binding targets, even if we choose them ourselves - why, what if we change our minds??
“Every country will make its own decisions,” she said, “reflecting its own needs and interests.”
How is that different from what we've been doing all along, which is what's gotten us here, facing the entire loss of the Arctic ice pack in our lifetimes?? When the permafrost melts, what will happen to our wonderful Alaska pipeline
(it's grounded on permafrost, you know)? For that matter, when the pipeline ruptures because the ground has collapsed into a swamp under it, how will the citizens of Alaska get along without all the money they get from the oil fund??

President Bush is now capable of saying the words, "human induced climate change", but he still doesn't get it. He doesn't understand what a 1.5 degree Celsius (that's 3 degrees Fahrenheit, Georgie) average increase in the global temperature will mean for the weather extremes: the winters will be warmer; the summers will be hotter (will you even be able to live in Texas in the summer?); the storms will be stronger; the rain patterns will change, which will disrupt agriculture.

It wouldn't take much of a change in the snow and rainfall pattern to make California incapable of supporting the number of people who live there
now - not counting the ones who will move here next week or next year. We've just had one of the driest years on record - is that a coincidence, or the start of a trend? What price the most expensive housing market on the planet if you have Draconian water rationing??

Places near the equator, which are now uncomfortably hot and dry, will become entirely uninhabitable, and the people who live there will have to find somewhere else to live. Are we going to take them in? They're mostly poor and brown, which doesn't augur well; we have this thing about poor brown people.

The climate change has already started; and no matter what we do, it will have
some effect. Immediate and strenuous efforts to reduce the fossil fuels we burn may allow us to continue to live here, in varying degrees of discomfort; but remember that the Earth will go on happily whether we can live on it or not.