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.