Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sheehan vs. Pelosi

So Cindy Sheehan, of anti-war activism fame, is running for Nancy Pelosi's seat in Congress. Sigh.

I don't have any skin in this game, since I don't live in the district. But I read the article in today's Chronicle, and I'm just shaking my head over this. This woman has no clue; she's trying to chew up more than she can bite off; and if she were to succeed, she'd do serious damage to California's interests in Congress.

I don't agree with everything Nancy Pelosi does, but she's got my serious respect as a politician who picks her fights carefully, and keeps coming back until she wins. Her argument for not going after impeachment is compelling ("it would be divisive, we couldn't get the votes, and we would have to spend all our time on it."). I'm also impressed by the way she's maintained absolute public impartiality in a lively Democratic presidential primary. I think she knows her job and does it well.

She's the speaker of the House. If Cindy Sheehan unseats her, she will be the most junior of the junior, and San Francisco's (California's) influence in Congress will be significantly diminished.

Of course I know I'm arguing in support of the current incumbent-biased system. I don't agree with it, and have voted to change it whenever I was given the chance, but absent change, you have to work with what you have. Congress is a system in which long service equals more power.

So Cindy, I'm not going to wish you good luck, because frankly, I don't think you either can or should win. You certainly have a right to try.

Beer Tax

Every so often one rolls by that just makes you say, "What??" (I've been reading the wonderful comic strip Candorville, in which people regularly say "What?")

As reported in the invaluable San Francisco Chronicle, a group of students in San Jose is revolting (that's an active verb, not an adjective. Yet.) over the fact that one of California's proposed ways to close the budget deficit is to increase the
tax on beer by as much as $1.88 per six-pack. Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, proposes to raise the beer tax from 20 cents per gallon to $2.88 per gallon.

The San Francisco State Republicans are marching around
outside Assemblyman Beall's offfice in San Jose, complaining about "a tax on poor students." They're waving signs reading, "Students Opposed to Unjust Taxation!", and (I really can't believe this one) "No taxation on intoxication."

OK, let's rephrase this in simple English. A group of self-identified Republican students complain that an increase in the tax on beer is an infringement of their right to get drunk at the end of a long day of studying, because they're too poor to afford an additional $1.88 a six-pack. These are college students, so only the
graduate students and some seniors can even drink beer legally; but they're acting as if they were the Sons of Liberty, dumping tea into Boston Harbor.

It's perfectly true that sin taxes, like this one, are regressive taxes on the poor, if only because all sales taxes are regressive taxes on the poor. I just find it hard to put the words "poor" and "Republican" in the same phrase, although I realize I am stereotyping. Still, "poor" and "student" are normally coupled, so we'll let that one pass.

"Fight for your right to party!" they complain. I knew the educational system was bad, but in this case it has clearly failed miserably, because these yokels can't distinguish between a "right", like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, and a "privilege", which means that, if they are over 21 years old and have the money, they are allowed to buy and drink beer, as long as they don't drive a car afterward.

Students under 21 have no "right" to buy or drink beer at all, under any circumstances. Period. Regular readers of this blog know that my husband is a recovering alcoholic. Alcoholism is no joke, and there were reasons it was once prohibited, even though the cure turned out to be worse than the disease and was eventually repealed. There's a level at which society can't protect people from their own stupidity; but there's no social obligation to make that stupidity affordable. Or easy.

The article contains some serious statistics about the effects of underage drinking, which unfortunately these kids are not reading. One of the protest organizers says that "some of his fellow students spend as much as 60 percent of their paychecks on beer." Based on my experience, frankly, those students are at very high risk for alcoholism right now. I hope they wake up to the problem and stop before they do themselves real damage.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


I have to quote this. I just love it. Apparently some scientists at Cal have created T-shirts that read as follows:
We share 25% of our DNA with bananas. Get over yourself.
So far I can't find this on the Cal sites, it was cited in Leah Garchik's gossip column on Monday; but as the old saying goes, it's a good story. Let it stand.

But if I find out where to buy it, I'm getting one of those T-shirts.

Friday, April 18, 2008


My former college roommate just retired from her job, and to celebrate, the two of us took in the Annie Leibowitz show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor this morning. I knew it would be fabulous, and it was; what an eye that woman has. But one photograph stopped me in my tracks. After admiring a gorgeous color portrait of Gen. Colin Powell, in full dress uniform as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I turned my head and saw it: a formal portrait of George W. Bush's first cabinet, in (I suppose) the Oval Office, right after the 2000 election. Dubya was standing casually in the center, his hands in his pants pockets, his coat pushed back. To his left, Condi Rice, seated. Colin Powell, standing at the left (viewer's perspective). Dick Cheney, seated in front of Powell. Donald Rumsfeld, seated to the right. There was one other, standing behind Rumsfeld, and I can't recall who it was (Ashcroft?). Everyone but Dubya had his or her suit coat buttoned. It was one of the few portraits done in color; Leibowitz normally works in black and white; but since all the suits were either dark gray or dark blue, only the faces and the walls had anything like color.

It was just a formal portrait, but the print was big enough that the figures were about half life-sized; they looked huge. Everybody was serious and sober; Dubya's face was serious and sober, but the stance just looked - cocky. I looked at that portrait, and thought of what those people were collectively and individually responsible for over the next seven years, and I went cold.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Geek Pleasure

It's amazing how the small things can light up your life. I just upgraded my old Dell desktop to 4 GB of memory - all by myself! This may not sound like much, but as we used to say when nobody could get the video-feed projector to work, I'm a software type: I don't do hardware. What I do, however, is Read The Fine Manual. To give the Dell his due, Dell publishes excellent, detailed online manuals including step by step instructions on how to swap out your system memory and put in new stuff; and I printed them out and followed them, and LO! I have subsecond system response again! What a pleasure!

I suppose I could have stopped running Rosetta@home in the background. In fact, a couple of times lately, I did - I don't know what kind of proteins they're analyzing this week, but even as I type this, the 2 jobs Rosetta jobs running are taking up 650 MB of memory, all by themselves. On the 1 GB of memory I had before, this hardly left enough to bring up WinXP, much less actually DO anything. So whee! I have new memory, I have a newly fast box, and I didn't fry anything in the attempt!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Thoughts on the Police

Over the last several weeks, I've been doing something new: I've been getting to know the Oakland Police Department.

No, I haven't been arrested. Although I did spend the other afternoon riding around in a police cruiser. In East Oakland.

I subscribe to a local Yahoo! newsgroup on crime in the neighborhood. (After all, I live in the 4th most dangerous city in the United States.) Through the Yahoo! group, I learned that the OPD regularly offers a free "Citizens' Academy" - a 14 week program, available to any Oakland resident who's willing to show up every Saturday from 9 to noon. (They do run background checks. I doubt they'd let you attend if you had outstanding warrants.) You get presentations on every department (traffic, patrol, vice and narcotics, crime lab, K-9, etc.), given by people with experience in the department. I'm enjoying the class thoroughly; I've been reading detective stories for 50 years or so, and at last I'm finding out how a real police department functions, as opposed to the ones in the books.

So how did I end up riding around in a cruiser? Part of the Academy is a "ride-along" - each student picks a date and a shift, and you show up at the beginning of the shift and are assigned to an officer for the duration, usually 6 hours (although the officer's shifts are 12 hours). You ride around with him (I was assigned to a guy, although OPD has female officers) and see what he does. I went in with him on several low-risk interviews (a parked car bashed by a hit-and-run; a stolen vehicle; a school administrator trying to get a restraining order for a problem parent; a woman whose neighbor complained that her pets were waking him up). I sat in the car for some edgier stuff: a bunch of middle-school kids, fighting; a traffic stop of a rolling boom box. We answered a call for support on the school fight; the officer said that we "weren't going especially fast," and he didn't use the lights or siren, but we were going a whole lot faster than I'd ever drive through that kind of traffic!

I can't discuss one call very much, since I hope it goes to court, but there was an assault and robbery; the officer took the report, and realized that the suspects might still be in the area; he called for support, and with his colleagues' help, got them into the station in handcuffs, with solid evidence. (Well, it looked solid to me.) Let's just say they were very mean, but they weren't very bright.

So what does a police officer do all day? Think a minute and you'll realize: he does paperwork. He fills out endless reports. He listens to people and writes down what they tell him, by hand, then takes it back to the station and files it. The officer I accompanied was tirelessly patient and courteous, I never heard him raise his voice. I saw him put his hand on his gun once, but he never drew it. He was also very nice about explaining to me what he was doing and why.

The class isn't my only interaction with OPD. I'm also active in the local
Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, which does liaison between police and the neighborhood; and I'm volunteering as a citizen interviewer on the oral review boards which are part of the OPD's hiring process. So one way and another, I'm meeting a lot of cops these days.

Frankly, my opinion of the OPD has changed because of this. (Not that I ever fully bought the '60's rants about "the pigs.") The officers I've met are sharp, dedicated professionals, and they love their jobs. Some of them even love (incredibly) being cops in Oakland. Some of them are Oakland natives, born and raised. Obviously there's some selection in the people who present to the class; still, the message is very consistent, and it doesn't correlate with unquestioning support of the OPD management. But the ordinary cops on the street? They're class acts. I just wish there were more of them; Oakland has half the national average of police officers for a city of 400,000; and more than twice the crime. This can't be a coincidence.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Red Rocks

One of the other things we did while visiting in Las Vegas was to drive out to the Red Rock country for a short hike. These rocks are really red, by the way; one of these days I'll get my photos developed and then you'll see. This is all BLM land, and it was as green as it ever gets, and I saw something I've never seen before: a Joshua tree in bloom. They're quite lovely if a little odd. The highway through the area is studded with signs warning about the wild horses and burros that live in the area; they sometimes mob stopped cars, looking for food, but we didn't see any that day.

Standing in the overlook, examining the Joshua tree, I noticed a woman walking down a desert path. She wore a floor-length dark dress and carried a parasol, which seemed unusually formal for a desert hike. The overlook was on a bluff and she was maybe 30 or 40 feet below me; so I hauled out my trusty binoculars and took a look. There was a wedding party on the desert floor below the overlook. All I could clearly see was a woman, not formally dressed, with a serious camera on a tripod; but through a small tree I saw a woman wearing a cream colored floor length dress with a slightly darker cream bow on her behind, and something cream or white on her head - presumably the bride.

Then a man walked out from behind the tree, into the clearing with the photographer. He was wearing a black tail coat, with vest and the usual black pants, and a top hat. He removed the top hat, revealing an entirely bald (possibly shaved) head, dropped flat on his face on the ground, and executed about 6 pushups. Then he got up again, retrieved the hat, and walked back behind the tree. I don't remember whether the photographer got any pictures of this or not, I was too startled to notice. I hope she did.

I'm still wondering why
the groom in a desert wedding would choose to drop into the dust, in full wedding regalia, and do pushups.

I also wonder whether the BLM ranger who asked to borrow my binoculars for a look at all this, actually went down and kicked them out. She spoke as if she might - maybe they didn't have permits.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Standing in Line

We took a break over Easter weekend and went to Las Vegas to visit my sister and brother-in-law, who live there. Among the amusing things we did was to take in the Penn & Teller show - which I highly recommend, by the way. It's a great magic show, and you could take a 9 year old to it, if you don't mind all the questions afterward about how they did the tricks.

But aside from the show, I saw something interesting. We got to the theater about 40 minutes early, having been tipped that our wait in the theater would be lightened by the jazz pianist and his bass player. (The add said something about a "trio" but the most I ever saw was two, and I think one of them may have been Penn. It was certainly Penn playing the bass fiddle briefly, later in the show.) As we took our seats, I realized that the stage was full of people, standing in line. The pianist had just finished saying something but I missed it; he began to play again; and after awhile the line dwindled. However, after another set, the pianist stopped playing and, in the most seductive male voice you could imagine, invited the audience to "come up on the stage and participate in Penn & Teller's envelope signing."


Yes, envelope signing. They had an ordinary manila envelope tacked to an easel, and to while away the wait for the show, they were inviting the audience to come up onto the stage and sign their names on the envelope. The envelope would be used in the show, the pianist explained, and Penn & Teller would like everyone in the audience to come up and participate in the show by signing the envelope.

"If you are sitting next to someone who says, 'You never take me anywhere!', bring them up onto the stage for the Penn & Teller Envelope Signing."

"Bring your loved ones."

I am not making this up. And no, I didn't sign the envelope. But for the entire 40 minutes or so we waited for the show, I watched as a fairly large section of the audience - I'm guessing maybe a third - walked up to the stage, stood more or less patiently in line, and signed their names on a 9x12 manila envelope. From what I could see, enough people signed it that it was about full by the time they took it back stage. People were signing it sideways. And every time the line began to shorten, the piano player took another short break, and issued another soothing, mellifluous invitation to come up on stage and Participate in the Penn & Teller Envelope Signing.

And the moral of the story is the amazing things that people will do, if it seems harmless, they have nothing else to do at the moment, and someone asks them to in a soothing, encouraging voice.

Welcome to Las Vegas. Come up on stage and sign the envelope.