Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Deja Vu at Lake Tahoe

Here we go again. Residents of South Lake Tahoe, the residents of the Oakland hills salute you. In 1991 we too watched helplessly as the wind lashed the flames toward our houses; some people died because they couldn't get out. At least no one has died at Lake Tahoe.

I live in the Oakland hills - in a normal urban neighborhood, not a forested glade. But every time something like this happens, I marvel again at humanity's desire to live in dangerous places, because they're pretty. Dry climate forests, where fire has been a part of the landscape for thousands of years, until we moved in and started suppressing it to protect our houses, because we like them to be nestled among the trees. Earthquake country. (Yeah, that's me - half a mile downhill from the Hayward Fault. But: our house is earthquake braced.) Flood plains. Hurricane tracks. Tornado Alley. We seem to think that because we live there it won't happen again; but it will. The only question is when.

And yet, think one more time: what constitutes a "safe" place to live?? For that matter, define "safe". We all have to live somewhere; offhand, everywhere I can think of in America has some disastrous phenom that happens at regular intervals (blizzards; droughts; heat waves). Maybe what we need is not to be safe, but to be aware that we aren't safe, and take the necessary precautions; and if the precautions aren't enough, maybe we should live somewhere else. Yes, I'm talking about you, the people who live in the Sacramento Valley subdivisions, below water level, behind 100 year old levees. What were you thinking of? The houses were affordable; but if those levees go, replacing everything you own won't be. The people who live around South Lake Tahoe are in the process of learning this right now.

Monday, June 25, 2007

I Wish I'd Been Wrong

Every time I look at the mess in Iraq, I want to scream, "I told you so." It would be so nice to have been wrong. I'd love to have been wrong. I just reread the posts I put up on this mess last October, and then again in January.

In October I said (along with a whole lot of other people) that this was a civil war, and anybody with half a working brain could see it was a civil war, and we didn't have a the chance of a plastic cat in Hell of stopping it.

In January I predicted (again, along with a lot of other people) that the surge was not going to work. Well, here we are, almost in July, and we have more soldiers in Iraq than we've had since 2005, and the carnage is increasing daily. It isn't just that we can't control it (although we can't); it's that the Iraqis can't control it, even if they wanted to. I see no evidence that they want to. Every faction is jockeying for personal power, and revenge on the other side (with the possible exception of the Kurds who are simply trying to hold their borders).

I wouldn't change a single word of either post if I wrote them again today; so I'll just suggest that you go read them again, and tell me if I wasn't right.

The worst thing about the situation is the comment I heard on NPR, from a senior U.S. military logistics officer, that if we started a pull-out today it'd take 12-15 months to get everybody out, because every single piece of equipment has to be taken apart and cleaned to get the sand and junk out, so it will pass inspection by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. That's right - every Hummer, every rifle, every walkie-talkie, has to be inspected for pests by the U.S.D.A. before we let them back into the country. I'm speechless. This is just insane. And they're going to clean the equipment while people are shooting shaped charges at them, and suicide bombers are blowing themselves up?? And how many U.S.D.A. inspectors will that take, and do we even have that many, given they way Dubya has been cutting funds for everything but the military??

Gen. Petraeus keeps saying the surge will take time to work. Gen. Petraeus knows, I'm quite sure, that the surge will never work. The purpose of the surge is to stabilize the situation so the Iraqis can negotiate an equitable government. The Iraqis don't want an equitable government; every single faction wants to be in control of the oil reserves, and is quite happy to kill everyone else to make that so. I read today that when the British pull out of Basra, they expect fighting to break out among 3 rival Shia groups; there aren't even any Sunnis in Basra, so the Shias fight each other.

We could be in Iraq until the children of today's soldiers are old enough to be inducted and shipped over to fight, and the surge still won't work. We have to get out of there.

Friday, June 22, 2007


Today is Der Tag - The Day! I turned in my BlackBerry/cell phone, my laptop, my corporate credit card, and my badge, and walked out of the office a free woman. I feel - light. I feel free. I'm not really sure how I feel, but I met with a friend this afternoon (also recently retired), and she said she'd never seen me look so relaxed. The garden is blooming, the weather is gorgeous, and we're going out to dinner tonight. Wheee!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Carbon Offsets

Reading the news coverage of everyone's response to climate change, I've noticed that the hot new thing is carbon offsets. Everyone knows, of course, that we can't be expected to turn our busy, high-impact lives on a dime and suddenly stop emitting all those greenhouse gases - after all, we have to get to work, and public transit doesn't go anywhere near the office. (It does go by my office, actually, and I ride it; but I'm in the minority. In any case, I'm retiring in 5 days.) But - we have money! We can buy into other people's efforts to sequester carbon or reduce pollution or plant trees, and that will make it all better. Sort of. I was arranging a planned airplane trip on British Airways, and their online web site for managing your flight even includes a link labeled Buy carbon offsets.

This may not sound as familiar to you as it did to me, unless you are also a student of medieval history; but the human race has been here before. In the 15th and 16th centuries (that's the 1400s and 1500s), those of extreme sinfulness could get indulgences from the church, which would cleanse them of sin for specified periods of time. They had to do this so they could attend church and receive the Eucharist.
Indulgences occur when the Church, acting by virtue of its authority, applies existing merit from the Church’s treasury to an individual. The individual gains the indulgence by participating in certain activities, most often the recitation of prayers.
I'll confess to being charmed by the notion of an existing treasury of merit; especially considering the general moral condition of the Catholic Church in the period in question. The church said that no money could change hands in exchange for indulgences, of course; but, also of course, it did; and the scandals associated with the sale of indulgences were part of what brought on the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. Martin Luther's 95 Theses were all about the sale of indulgences.

The difference is interesting here: the medieval indulgence buyers were trying to save their souls, or at least reduce their stay in Purgatory. The carbon offset buyers are trying to do - what? Save the world? I'm afraid all they're really trying to do is appear "greener than thou" to their neighbors. But we've changed the definition of "sin" rather substantially, haven't we?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Random Thoughts

I have only 9 working days left before I retire. This is an extremely strange space to be in, with frequent recurrences of the thought, "Why do I care about this?" A firmly rooted Protestant work ethic, however, keeps me focused on the last clean-up tasks.

The Oakland City Council can be pretty odd, and pretty annoying, but at least we haven't elected anyone equivalent to San Francisco Supervisor Ed Jew. The whole incident is giving me second thoughts about instant runoff elections, since it's pretty clear that he would never have been elected in a first-past-the-post contest.

As dangerous as XDR-TB is (that's extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, in case you were in a cave last week), I think we're over-reacting to it as a society. The case of Andrew Speaker disturbs me deeply, particularly since the head of the CDC is now saying that "we need to have confidence we can take action absent documentation of intent to cause harm" (quoted in the Detroit Free Press). Presumably she means forced quarantine, as they have now imposed on Speaker; or as in the case of Robert Daniels, who is being held in solitary confinement in Arizona because his XDR-TB (which is in the process of killing him, by the way) makes him "a public menace." He was ordered to wear a mask in public, because he is infectious; he didn't do so; and the court locked him up. He is in a medical isolation unit in a jail. He hasn't been outside in 10 months. He hasn't seen a human except his medical attendants. The windows on his solitary cell are frosted; the lights are always on. Interviewers have to talk to him through the door. His wife and son are in Moscow; he may never see them again.

Neither of these men has committed a crime. As far as I know, it's not criminal to go out in public without a surgical mask, even if you do have XDR-TB. It's not criminal to fail to follow your prescribed medical regimen. It's true that to fail to do so causes drug resistant diseases; but then you die of the disease, which could actually be considered enough punishment. The ACLU is suing on Mr. Daniels' behalf, and more power to their elbow; as this man goes, so could we all go.

I don't take tuberculosis lightly. In 1929 my Aunt Margery, whom I know only by repute, died of it; my Uncle John's entire life from the age of 3 was made miserable by it (he got it from his sister, in his hip joint); my mother grew up in a household with two incurable invalids, and she herself had it and recovered, but she always registered positive on the skin test. It is inhumane - it is inhuman - to lock people away like criminals merely because we can't cure their contagious disease. Nobody locked my Aunt Margery away, and her disease was contagious and incurable. Yes, people can die from XDR-TB that they might catch from these patients - but they are all going to die anyway. Can't we show these people some compassion, instead of allowing our fear of catching their disease to turn us all into Nurse Ratched? Whatever happened to, "There but for the grace of God go I"??

Our increasing tendency to criminalize anything we don't agree with or can't control is a very disturbing and dangerous trend; we must stop this.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Citizen Josh

Encouraged by the anonymous commenter to my May 18 post, I got tickets, and my husband and I went to see Josh Kornbluth last Sunday, which included a post-monologue discussion on democracy with two political science experts whose names I (regrettably) don't recall. But they were very interesting, and I have to concede that the commenter was right: there was no profanity, there was no put-down humor, and I do cherish the mental image of Josh Kornbluth, perched precariously on the top of the Structure in Ohlone Park, because it's best Verizon signal in his neighborhood and the only place he can get "four bars". As a Verizon customer, I can relate to that, and I don't have a Structure to climb. As I recall, though, he didn't use the phrase that so impressed me; but the discussion overall was very thought-provoking (and has been extended for 2 more weeks in case you're interested).

Having watched him for 2 hours, I have concluded: Josh Kornbluth is a Hobbit. Maybe a little tall.

And then there was the crab incident. We arrived at Fort Mason early, on a sunny, boisterous day, and walked out to the end of the nearest pier to look at the bay (and, hopefully, not get blown off the wharf). About halfway down the pier, I saw a dead crab, lying on its back on the walkway. I poked it with my foot, I don't know why, and it waved its little feet in the air - not dead after all. I flipped it over and it began to scuttle down the boardwalk. I didn't see how it could live long and prosper on a boardwalk, so I talked my husband into picking it up and heaving it off into the water; our karmic deed for the day.

I just hope it stayed there, because when we got to the end of the pier, there was a guy with a bucket and a net, crabbing - he had an identical critter in the bottom of his bucket. Oh, well.