Thursday, December 30, 2010

We're Going to Sue

Anyone living in California probably knows about the latest flap with the University of California, the 36 highly paid executives who claim they're going to sue the University if they have to retire on a mere $183,750 a year.  For the uninformed, here's the link to the original article.

I'm a U.C. Berkeley alumna, a life member of the alumni association, and I've been donating money to various university related causes most of my working life.  A few years ago, though, I quit donating to the University directly.  This was about the time we started hearing jointly about University executive salaries above $400K, and tuition increases.  (Are you listening, Mr. Yudof?  It was about the time you came on board, and your salary was the trigger.)

I now donate only to the University Library fund (directly) and to the Alumni Association.  A letter writer to the editor in the S.F. Chronicle the other day said she was going to quit donating to the Alumni Association over this flap, but she's got it wrong - the Alumni Association has nothing to do with what University execs get paid.  But this incident has confirmed my conviction that the University (as opposed to the university library) will not get One Dime of my money as long as it has people like these executives running it. 

I understand that there is or may be a contractual issue here, and frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.  These people have completely forgotten - as has the California Legislature - what the University of California was supposed to be about.  It was supposed to be about educating the children of California - NOT educating the children of California who can afford to pay $12,150 per year in tuition and campus fees.  Those kids were supposed to go to Stanford.

The argument for these absurd pension demands - indeed, the argument for the absurd salaries - is that "without higher pensions, U.C. could lose good people."  Baloney.  Horsepucky.  If the Regents chose to fire these prima donnas and advertise their jobs at salaries of $250K with comparable pension, they would be buried under a stampede of intelligent, competent, imaginative and capable people dying to get the jobs.  Especially if they limited the offer to people resident in California for at least 2 years.  University Regent Dick Blum described the litigants as "some of the University's most valuable employees."  More baloney.  These people are department heads - they are meeting attenders and paper pushers whose teaching duties, if any, are secondary.  The university's most valuable employees are the faculty and library staff who teach and support the students.

What really fried my bacon was this insistence that $187,750 a year is not an adequate pension.  Ladies and gentlemen, I retired  3 years ago, taking a lump-sum pension (that is, the entire present value of my pension) which didn't even approach that amount.  My husband is still working, but when he retires he'll get a pension that doesn't even approach that amount, and yet we expect to live very comfortably in retirement.  If you require $300,000 per year to live on in retirement, you need some training in money management, not to mention common sense.

This demand is pure extortion.  Pay us, and let the janitors and department secretaries starve in the gutter when they retire, or we'll sue you.  The University should fire these people and hire competent replacements at half their salaries.  I'm betting that the University would be at least as well managed as it is today.  Of course, that's a very low standard to beat. 

In Matier & Ross' column on Monday, Regent Blum was asked what the Regents would do if the Legislature failed to restore the $450 million it pulled out of U.C.'s budget in 2010.  Mr. Blum's response?  "Try to run the place more efficiently."


Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Yes, Maw"

When I was small, my grandmother lived with us for a while - Dad's mother.  Grandma was a nervous and fussy woman, always telling Dad what he ought to do.  My 40-odd year old father would listen quietly, say, "Yes, Maw," and then do what he was going to do all along.

Which brings me, I'm sorry to say, to P G & E.  Today's S.F. Chronicle had yet another article making it appallingly clear that P G & E has not a single clue on the condition of the gas transmission pipelines they have in the ground.  Furthermore, they deliberately choose to use the least expensive, least disruptive, least effective method of gas pipe "inspection," which failed to identify any problems in the line that blew a big hole in a San Bruno neighborhood last fall.  It looks remarkably like the explosion was caused by a weld failure, to which P G & E's response was, "Oh, there was a weld in that pipe?"

And the PUC lets them do it.  They have never been fined.  The PUC spouts boilerplate about "cooperation" and "safety," but it comes down to this:   P G & E has trained the PUC to accept a "Yes, Maw" response about safety and pipeline inspection.  As long as they say, "Oh, yes, we're working on that," the PUC does nothing. 

How did they do that?  Whom do they know?  Is it fair to ask, whom did they pay off?  Or is this just the general Republican feeling that less regulation is more?  According to the list at the Renewable Energy Accountability Project site, all the existing PUC commissioners were either appointed or reappointed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  They also all worked either in or for major public utilities.  There isn't a single board member who could be considered consumer oriented.  Maybe Jerry Brown can do something about that.

It doesn't have to be this way.  I can't remember the exact article, but I read at least one in which they said that something like 20-30% of P G & E's pipelines have been upgraded so they can be inspected by "smart pigs," while 87% of Southern California Edison's pipelines can be scanned by "smart pigs."  Since they're both regulated by the PUC, the difference has to be in the company management's attitude.  P G & E would have to pay money to upgrade those pipelines, and the security of their customers clearly isn't worth any money to them.

When the San Bruno disaster happened, I said to a friend, "This could be any of us."  It still could.  And we have no choice, because P G & E is a monopoly.  If it were a regulated monopoly, we might have a chance to have our safety considered; but it isn't regulated, any more than my father was regulated by Grandma.  "Yes, Maw" is not an acceptable answer.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I'm tired of this word.  I heard it again this morning, on the news - the business leaders President Obama met with this morning claim they can't invest in the United States because they don't have "certainty."  I guess they're afraid they might have to pay a tax or two.

Well, those poor timid little souls.  These people have more money than God, and their corporations are sitting on piles of cash which remind me of Scrooge McDuck "bathing" in his money vault.  And yet, they're uncertain, so they can't invest.

Try being without a job for 2 years and wondering whether Congress will get off its collective ass and extend unemployment benefits again.  Now, that's uncertainty. 

Ideally, I'd like to see Congress tie itself in such a knot that it doesn't act at all (the House Democrats are working on it), and the Bush tax cuts expire.  We never could afford them, we still can't.  Trouble is, if that happens, the unemployment benefit extension won't happen; and on the whole, I think President Obama called it right in his tax deal.

Our brave Captains of Industry, as they were called the last time we had this level of income inequality (1928), are actually afraid they might have to spend money hiring American workers.  American workers have the temerity to want a living wage, job conditions that probably won't kill or maim them, and a decent retirement; much too expensive for our bold business leaders.  They want to hire Chinese workers who think $45 a month is good pay and only occasionally kill themselves because of terrible working conditions.  Henry Ford was an anti-Semitic SOB, but he built his company on the American worker; the whirring sound you hear is him, spinning in his grave.

I used to take some flack because my choice of reading material regularly included comic books, particularly Marvel Comics.  I wish our business leaders had read them.  From the Fantastic Four and Daredevil to the X-Men and Spiderman, the comics I read carried a major moral message:  With great power comes great responsibility.  Our bold business leaders have tremendous power (since we seem to have decided that money equals power) - and as far as I can tell they feel no responsibility at all, except to their own salary, benefits, and perks.  They work really hard to maximize those.  The people who work for them?  Trash, to be swept out of the way.  The shareholders they claim to represent?  They only own a couple of hundred shares each, who cares about them?

I agree with Robert Borosage, on HuffPo today - "American" corporate leaders are part of the problem, and Obama's fooling himself if he tries to include them in the solution.  I put them in quotes because I don't believe they care a whit about this country and its citizens. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond

We saw the second exhibition from the Musée d'Orsay today at the DeYoung Museum. We saw the first one last summer.  I can't recommend it strongly enough, there are some astounding works on display.  The most fascinating part of it was watching the slow change in styles across both shows. 

The first show started with the classic "Academy" style, where the art authorities said, this is what you have to paint and this is how it has to look.  Then it moved on to the Impressionists, who said, we want to paint what we see.

The second show begins as the Pointillist style developed, based on scientific color theory:  science says that if we paint in this way, our paintings will glow!  The weird thing about that was that, with one exception, every Pointillist piece I saw there appeared absolutely static, no sense of motion at all, even in a painting which showed a skirt blowing in the wind.  Only Théo van Rysselberghe's Man at the Tiller gave me an actual sense of motion.  (If you look it up on line, be aware that the colors do not reproduce correctly!)  Still, a woman told me that her husband felt that, when he walked past another Pointillist landscape, the light shifted with him.  Maybe that's what they were about.  But most of them didn't give me much sense of light direction.  There's a very short distance from some of the Pointillists to Roy Lichtenstein.

After the Pointillists they showed four little Toulouse-Lautrecs. I generally like Toulouse-Lautrec, but wasn't terribly impressed with the one they chose to put in the audio tour.  I was blown away by one that wasn't:   Woman in a Black Boa!  Fabulous portrait of an amazing face!

Then we came to Van Gogh, who of course was in a class entirely by himself!  I see him as the extreme extension of the Impressionists rather than a "post" movement, but what do I know?  From Van Gogh they move to Cezanne and then Gauguin, both of whom quit trying to paint what they saw and began interpreting what they saw in terms of shapes, masses, and blocks of increasingly pure color.  A group following Gauguin worked from Pont-Aven and developed a style that looks cartoonish to modern eyes - static, stylized forms, pure unshaded colors.

After the Pont-Aven school the exhibition moves to the Nabis and their Symbolist movement.  The Nabis considered themselves a secret society, and their paintings were moving toward abstraction.  Frankly, I thought they came across as rather full of themselves.  One or two pieces reminded me of William Morris' romantic pseudo-medieval imagery. By now we're a very long way from those Academy portraits, and the artists are just experimenting to see what they can do.

The exhibition ends with two astounding Henri Rousseau pieces I hadn't seen before (War and Snake Charmer), and at least one painting I can't believe was ever hung in public in 1900 - Man and Woman, by Pierre Bonnard - both nude in a bedroom!  The early 20th century accepted nude women, but not nude men with nude women!  Finally, some of the Nabi painters moved into pure decoration, painting big panels and murals for private houses. 

It was a fascinating exhibition, and I just wanted to put down some of my thoughts about it.  If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area and haven't see the show, it's well worth the trip.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Coal in my Stocking

Some days you can't win.  I injured my left knee a year ago and have been trying to get it to heal ever since; every time I thought it was OK, another weird little pain would crop up.  In early October I saw a physical therapist, who gave me some exercises and told me, if you do those for 4-6 weeks and it's not better, see your doctor.  This week I saw my doctor, who referred me to my orthopedic surgeon.

Five years ago, I had my left knee replaced.  The orthopedic surgeon tells me that the left prosthesis has shifted, and we have to do it over.  (Side note:  the guy I'm seeing now did not do the operation 5 years ago.)  One knows these things aren't eternal, but I certainly expected to get more than 5 years out of it - the one in the right knee is coming up on 10 with no problems.  And I really don't look forward to this:  I've done it twice, it isn't fun, and the rehab is very painful.  Not to mention that I've now built up a tolerance for everybody's favorite pain drug, Vicodin:  it takes more than they like to give me to have a real effect.

To make this even more amusing, my husband and I have just booked passage, through Cal Discoveries, on the cruise of a lifetime - a Mediterranean music cruise, with Sir James Galway on board!  Our plane leaves May 1 for Venice; the boat leaves Venice May 4 for various fascinating places.

I'm waiting to hear when my surgery can be scheduled.  Post-surgery rehab takes three months.  If we can get it done before early February, I can be out of rehab in time to walk on that plane. I won't be able to sit with my left knee bent for any length of time (much less 11 hours to Frankfurt), but I have an aisle seat, and I'll be able to get up and walk around.

I don't like to plan things that depend on everything going perfectly, because so often everything doesn't.  But I will go on that cruise if it's humanly possible.  If it isn't, well, we did buy trip insurance; but I so don't want to use it.

Bah.  Humbug.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


The flap these days (there's always a flap) is over the new TSA "security" procedures, in which airline passengers have to choose between a machine that displays a photo of you without your clothing, and a manual search which is, let us say, intrusive.  This is the after-effect, of course, of last year's "underwear bomber."  Somebody got something through in his underwear, now our underwear must be searched.  Someone has suggested that body cavity searches can't be far behind; I wish I thought they were wrong.

In the first place, this is pointless.  TSA is, as always, fighting the last war.  The next strike may not involve passenger planes at all; in fact, given the crummy security around sea-borne containers, there's no reason why it should.  The infamous toner cartridges from Yemen were shipped as air cargo.  In the second place, this is all in the name of "safety" - there is no safety.  None of us is "safe."  The plane could crash; much more likely, a car could hit us on the way to the airport, or we could die of a heart attack out of the blue.  This whole airport security charade is a massive CYA exercise on the part of the government.  As long as people exist who feel it's their mission to kill Americans, Americans somewhere will be killed.

Americans used to be a brave and enterprising people.  We took risks.  We went to unknown places, to see what was there.  We did things without a safety net.  Sometimes we got killed, but we accomplished a hell of a lot.  We aren't like that any more.  Now we want to be "safe" - unless, of course, someone suggests we should quit smoking, or quit drinking soda pop and eating fast food.  Then we just want it fast and cheap.

There's an old saying in data processing:  You can have it good, fast, or cheap - pick two.  Drinking soda pop and eating fast food is fast and cheap - and it'll kill us a lot sooner than the jihadis will, and a lot more unpleasantly too, if you look at some of the side effects of diabetes.  But I digress - I was talking about airport scans.

There's no reason for airport scans except to give the government a way to appear to be "protecting" us.  They would protect us a whole lot more effectively if they lost the "we're gonna kill the jihadis" attitude and started talking to moderate Muslims about the things we all have in common.  There are a lot of them out there.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Smaller Government

Well, Republicans, you aren't "in charge," exactly, but you have the House back, and you've made gains in the Senate.  You all claim you're going for "smaller government."  OK, put up or shut up.  Let's see you get government off our backs in two significant ways:

Repeal DOMA.  Who marries whom is none of the government's goddamn business.

Repeal "don't ask, don't tell" and let the military sort itself out.  We're losing valuable servicemen and women for no better reason than their sexual orientation.

Get the government out of the bedroom.  If you do that, I may believe that you actually will reduce the size of government.  But I have to see it happen first. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kickin' it In Kentucky

Now, God knows the election here in California is weird enough, what with Meg trying to buy the governorship, Carly trying to act senatorial, and the ten dwarves running for mayor of Oakland.  But at least nobody is stomping anybody.

I learned about this from Facebook via a chain of blogs, but here's the link to the original report of this atrocity, from the local Fox News station:
Woman stomped outside Conway-Paul debate

The brief summary, from, is that a supporter tried to approach Paul and a group (more than two) of Paul supporters threw her to the ground and held her down while one of them stomped on her head and neck.  TPM has video if your stomach will stand it.

This is criminal assault and battery, folks.  Assault and battery with bodily harm is a felony in California, folks; I wonder what it is in Kentucky?  And yeah, reports indicate the woman had a concussion and multiple sprains; that's "bodily harm" in my book.

I hope everybody considering voting for Mr. Paul remembers the behavior his associates seem to think is appropriate.  The supporter was going to give him an "Employee of the Month" award from "Republicorp", which MoveOn invented to point up the connections between business and the GOP.  In refusing that award, he's just won the newly created Gestapo award for Sleaziest Supporters since Adolf Hitler.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Things You Remember

Having Sirius XM Radio in my car leads to some interesting coincidences.  Listening to the classical Pops channel (I think it's 80), is kind of like listening to an iPod Shuffle full of classical music:  they play single movements of things, short overtures etc.  The other day, they brought up a lovely, lilting piece, and I thought, I know that music, what is that?  I looked at the dash - the label said, Ovt to Donna Diana, Reznicek.  Never heard of it, I thought, but I know that music.

Then it hit me.  Wait - that's the theme to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon!  I used to watch that show religiously, but I haven't thought about it in (gasp) over 50 years - Wikipedia reminds me it went off the air in 1958!  (I was 12.)  Still according to Wikipedia, the Donna Diana overture is mainly remembered because of the Sergeant Preston show, and its predecessor on radio, Challenge of the Yukon (1947 - 1955).

For the music history buffs, the Wikipedia article on Reznicek has a tidbit that I just love.  Reznicek had a sense of humor, apparently not shared by his friend Richard Strauss.  Reznicek wrote a symphonic poem he called Schlemihl which is apparently a direct parody of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben.  You have to love any composer who can write a piece called Schlemihl!!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Pollution and Regulation

One of the GOP's constant complaints, especially in California, is that government regulations are too onerous.  It's too hard to do business here.  We're ruining the economy.  Et cetera.

From Hungary this week we have a classic example of why we have those regulations: 

Hundreds flee threat of new toxic sludge spill in Hungary

I chose this account in the Telegraph, from the U.K., to avoid any implication of American bias. 

We're ruining the economy and driving business away because we cannot trust business to keep the public welfare in mind.  Business is only interested in maximizing profit.  This is what happens when business is allowed to operate without safety requirements and pollution controls.  No irksome government regulations in Hungary led to a million cubic meters of toxic red sludge bursting out from behind a failed dam, destroying villages, livelihoods, and lives; and it now appears that this appalling reservoir may spring another leak, any day now.  It has gotten into the Danube, one of Europe's major waterways; and they're saying the Danube isn't seriously damaged, but I don't think the whole story is told yet.

The next time you hear businessmen complaining about annoying regulations, remind them of this spill.  Oh, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the gas pipe explosion and fire in San Bruno, too - those happened here, where we have regulations, which obviously failed.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Republicans and Deficits

The Republican Party has recently settled on "we must reduce the deficit" as one of their rallying cries.  The country is going broke, they cry, and it's the Democrats' fault, those "tax and spend" Democrats.

I didn't notice them worrying about the country going broke under the George W. Bush administration, when they approved off-budget funding for two wars.  Did they think the money would fall from the sky? 

George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus from the Clinton administration, which he "gave back to the taxpayers" (mostly to very rich taxpayers) to such an extent that his second administration would have been in the hole even without The Crash.  Republicans never complained about potential deficits when they passed the Bush tax cuts, which I personally think should be allowed to expire for everyone, including the middle class.  Tax rates under Clinton just weren't that high.

Both parties were complicit in the campaign to make everybody a homeowner, even people who couldn't afford it.  But removing the regulations on the financial industry which made the eventual crash so much worse?  Republicans.  Repealing Glass-Steagall, without which move we wouldn't have HAD to bail out the unmentionable banks?  Republicans.  Appointing a Wall Street power as Secretary of the Treasury?  (Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse!)  George W. Bush.  Some Democrats voted for these moves, but Republicans drove them.

I concede that President Obama's appointee as Secretary of the Treasury also leaves a lot to be desired (can't pay his taxes, and sounds like a high school valedictorian - I just can't take him seriously) - but in Obama's defense, he took office in the middle of the worst financial crisis of the last 80 years, and Geithner was in the middle of the mess in his role at the Fed and could hit the ground running.

My point here is that Republicans only worry about the deficit the country has run up when the Democrats want to pass legislation that might help people who are not rich get back on their feet and maybe get a job.  When they want to extend the Bush tax cuts, which would mainly benefit the very rich, they never mention the deficit.  Their whole attitude is, we got ours, now pull up the ladder, anybody who hasn't already got theirs doesn't deserve it anyway.  And it's ugly.  If we want to turn the U.S. into a 3rd world country, this is the road to take - the U.S. Gini coefficient is very close to its highest historical level since they began recording in 1967.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Having been through the Oakland Hills Fire, my heart goes out to the people in San Bruno affected by this terrible fire. As of this morning it's 75% contained.   By all accounts the fire began when a major gas line in the area ruptured - since the thing is still burning, it's likely to be awhile before we find out exactly what happened.  But I have an uneasy feeling.

I've spent the last 30 years or so watching our entire country (diligent individuals excepted) ignoring the issue of maintenance.  Cities, counties, states, the Federal government - nobody wanted to put any money into repairs.  I have no reason to assume that PG&E was an exception to this trend.  How long had that gas line been there?  When was the last time anybody checked on its condition?  We don't know.  I hope we find out some day.

I know this:  if we don't take care of our infrastructure, some day our infrastructure will take care of us.  I drove an acquaintance home last night, over Oakland streets, and the pavement nearly sprang my shocks.  The City of Oakland has an 80 year street repair schedule!  The Oakland Hills fire was caused by an incompletely extinguished trash fire - negligence on the part of the burners and the fire department.  This fire appears to have been caused by a different kind of negligence.  How many other gas mains resemble this one?  We don't know.  I hope we don't find out the hard way.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hating the Other

We've all heard the rants:  President Obama wasn't really born in America (sorry, Hawaii is part of America).  President Obama is really a Muslim (he attended a Baptist church for 20 years).  President Obama is really a Socialist (usually from people who wouldn't know an actual Socialist if one came up and bit them on the ankle).  A lot of people think the subtext of all this is really, President Obama is black.  It's actually broader than that, and not restricted to race, although race is part of it.  There is, and there always has been, a vocal subset of the American populace which believes that anybody who doesn't look, dress, act and think exactly like them is - the Enemy.  Based on the things they are against, the people who think this way tend to be white (often of northern European stock), Protestant Christian, family in the U.S. for at least a couple of generations, and living in rural areas or small towns.  And they're almost always anti-immigrant.

Full disclosure here:  except for the benefits of a university education and a lot of reading, I am these people:  Scotch-Irish-English, with a reputed but unprovable touch of French and Indian.  Raised Baptist (no longer practicing).  Grew up in a small town.  (Left as soon as I got out of school.)  I know the mindset well.

To this group, anybody who isn't like them is "un-American," obviously out to get them, going to destroy the country, probably a terrorist, taking jobs from good American workers, etc.  You've heard it all. 

The attitude isn't new, either.  The current manifestation is the followers of the wilder Fox News commentators; but Benjamin Franklin, normally a tolerant and liberal man, published a well-known rant about the awful "swarthy, stupid" German immigrants who were going to take over the country if we weren't careful. And this was roughly 1751, which was before we were a country!  In the mid-19th century you had the Know-Nothing party, which was convinced the country was being overrun by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were controlled by the Pope in Rome.  Believe me, if you're Irish American now, nobody thinks a thing of it, and a lot of our anti-immigrant folks now are of Irish descent; but in 1850 businesses had signs reading, "No Irish need apply."  Wait long enough and the discriminated against become the establishment; but the anti-Catholic attitude was why the U.S. didn't elect a Catholic (or Irish) President until 1960.  In the early 20th century the Italians (also Catholic) were the immigrant threat.  Have we elected an Italian President yet?  I don't think so.

This parallel may exist only in my mind, but as I drafted this post, I realized slowly that I recognize these people from another recent source.  In the great Prohibition experiment, these people were the "drys."  See my last post, Reading About Prohibition; read Daniel Okrent's book.  See if you agree with me.  I'm not sure what this means, but it's interesting.

The bigger question is, why is the human race, or some of the human race, so hostile to "the other?"  It isn't just Americans.  Look at the hostility to Muslim immigrants in Europe.  Look at the genocide in Rwanda, where the issue wasn't even skin color.  I think it's tribal.  For millennia, the human race lived in very small tribes of hunter-gatherers.  Everybody in the tribe was related. The tribe had their territory, and they lived off it, and anybody who pushed into their territory was a threat to the whole tribe.  Everybody outside the tribe was suspect.  If you don't think this mind-set is still alive today, ask yourself why we have so much trouble in Afghanistan, the poster country for tribalism.  Here we all are in the 21st century United States, living in cities and driving cars; but in the back of our minds, some of us are still afraid that "those people" are a threat to "the tribe."  We've only had "civilization" (or whatever this is) for about 5,000 years; we've only had industrial civilization for about 300-400.  Is it any wonder that part of our minds still reacts as if we lived on the savanna?

I don't have an answer for this.  I don't have a tidy solution.  I've never been any good at changing people's minds; and in any case, the attitude I'm talking about here is not rational.  It's an emotional, fear-based response, from a part of our mind we don't deal with much.  So far we've always managed to overcome the fear of the other, and incorporate these new people into our culture and our country.  I hope we can continue to do that; I think we're better for it.  But we're fooling ourselves if we think this isn't a real problem.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reading about Prohibition

I recently reviewed Daniel Okrent's Last Call:  the Rise and Fall of Prohibition.  But I'm not satisfied with what I wrote.  The book fascinated me; it's like studying a mosaic.  Okrent has done a wonderful job of detailing all the ins and outs of how the 18th Amendment was passed, and how it was repealed.  But it's the interlocking of all the motives that make the story. 

After reading this book, I think it's possible we would never have had Prohibition, and possibly not women's suffrage (at least not in 1920), if the Sons of Temperance, in an 1852 meeting in Albany, NY, had allowed Susan B. Anthony to address the meeting.  They did not.
"The sisters," said the group's chairman, were there not to speak but "to listen and learn."  (Last Call, p. 15)
As a direct result of that and other rejections by male temperance supporters, Susan B. Anthony joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and spent 50 years building the suffrage movement.  And sixty years later, when the Anti-Saloon League was building its campaign to ban alcohol, they supported the suffragists because they knew that women with the vote would vote to ban booze.

And then there are the "wets" and the "drys" - you'll recognize them.  The "drys" were mainly white, mainly from rural states, and mainly evangelical Protestants.  Their political strategist, Wayne Wheeler, developed a technique for winning close elections by calling out his faithful single-issue voters to vote for the candidate most likely to support their cause - is this familiar?  Is the Tea Party not doing something just like that right now?  For that matter, do these people look like Tea Party supporters, or what?

The "wets" were mainly from the big cities, ethnically and economically diverse, with a lot of immigrants (and Catholics and Jews, both of whom use sacramental wine), but also a lot of very rich men.  The men who eventually organized Repeal had names like DuPont and Rockefeller.  Why did the very rich want booze back?  Not because they couldn't get it - anybody could get booze during Prohibition.  They wanted to get rid of the income tax.  The income tax replaced the excise tax on booze as the federal government's main source of funding when Prohibition came in.

It's a great story, superbly told.  I'm glad I read it and I may read it again.  I grew up in the Napa Valley, and the story of the Napa Valley during Prohibition is not what you might think.  But if I keep writing, I'll just end up retelling the book - and Mr. Okrent tells it much better than I can.  Go read it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Growing by the Road

I drove to Modesto last weekend.  My cousin is in the hospital there, and I went down to see him.  The Kaiser hospital in Modesto is just off Kiernan Road, which is a freeway exit, so it was easy to find.  Going in on Kiernan, I passed a serious corn field - I think it was somebody's experimental agricultural station.  Talk about the corn as high as an elephant's eye - this field was right up there. 

I mentally noted it - I like corn and think the plants are handsome - and then drove on to my hospital visit, which was about as much fun as such visits ever are.  Leaving, I drove past the cornfield again without taking much notice.  But, climbing up the freeway on-ramp to go home, I saw - feral corn.  Not "wild corn" like the stuff they grow in Mexico - escapes from the agricultural station.  They were growing out of the landscaping by the on-ramp, and they were about 3-4 feet high; their tassels were waving in the breeze.  I was charmed, and I still am.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A Taxing Question

The Democrats in the California legislature have labored, and brought forth, not a mouse, but a proposed budget, which they claim will solve the state's deficit problem.  The main talking points seem to be that they will do the following for a representative California making $60K a year:
  • increase the personal income tax by one percentage point (additional $473 per year)
  • increase the vehicle license fee to 1.65 percent (it's now 1.15 percent and is scheduled to drop to .65 percent next year - cost to the taxpayer, $118)
  • cut the state sales tax from 6% to 3.5% (savings to the taxpayer, $677)
The Republicans, including the Governator, are posturing madly about this attempt to Raise Taxes.  Ahnold says he will "never sign a budget that includes a tax increase."

Now, we all know that they made these numbers up.  Your Mileage May Vary, as the car ads say, depending on the age of your car and the amount of stuff you buy for which you pay sales tax, besides which, you probably don't make $60,000 a year.  But just consider this arithmetic as projected.

$473 plus $118 is $591 more per year from the beleaguered taxpayer. 

But the projected savings from the sales tax cut is $677. 

On my calculator that's a net savings to the taxpayer of 86 bucks a year.

First of all, how does this constitute a tax increase??  Second, how do the Dems propose to eliminate the deficit if their tax changes will bring in less money than the current arrangement??  And third, can't any of these people add??  (Well, no, of course not - they're mostly in the 30-50 age range, which means they were educated under California's "new math," under which the ability to add numbers together to produce an answer was not taught.  But that's another rant.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The New CEO

Michael Krasny's Forum this morning began with a discussion of the change in CEO at BP, with the hapless Tony Hayward shuffled off to Siberia (well, Russia - but I love that!) and replaced by an earnest, blond (has to be a blond) American - he even grew up in Mississippi.  The question was, does the CEO make a real difference in the corporate culture?

Speaking from many years working well below the CEO level in American big business, I'll say he does.  I've always argued that the tone in any organization comes from the top.  What the CEO says, and does, and expects, sets the example for the rest of the organization; this form of "trickle down" actually trickles down.  What I heard from my bosses about work expectations was a reflection of what they heard from theirs, and on up the line to the top guy.  When the CEO changes, the expectations change.  The question is, how do they change?

There's an old saying in the tech world:  you can have it good, fast, or cheap - pick two.  BP's disastrous safety record, the worst in the oil industry as reported by ABC News, implies that BP management, starting with CEO Tony Hayward, regularly chose "fast and cheap."  "Good" wasn't on the agenda.  Will Robert Dudley change the corporate culture and move expectations toward "good and cheap" (but not fast) or "good and fast" (but not cheap)??  We'll find out.  If his expectations don't include "good," BP workers will continue to die. 

Yes, the oil spill is terrible, but this company kills people regularly.  Thirteen died in this incident.  Thirty more died in two incidents before this one.  And on it goes; check the ABC News article for the awful details.  I worked in the financial industry, where a focus on "fast and cheap" may have meant that someone would lose money; but nobody died.  In the oil industry, people die when quality and safety aren't on the checklist.  Is Mr. Dudley up to this?  We'll see.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Anatomy Class

While we were in Denver, we visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  They were presenting an exhibit (it closed July 18) called Body Worlds - the story of the heart, which we visited.  Let's start with the short summary from the museum's page:
Dr. Gunther von Hagens, a German scientist, developed a plastination technique in 1977 that preserves the human body in motion. The anatomical exhibitions by von Hagens showcase the muscular structure of the human body, and have been exhibited in such far-flung locales as Singapore and Spain.
Click the next link for details on the plastination process, in as much detail as you want.  In summary, the plastination process removes water and fats from the tissues of deceased animals, including humans, and replaces them with polymers, which preserves them indefinitely from decay.  In color.  The Egyptians never dreamed of embalming like this.  The Body Worlds exhibits (this is the second one) take human bodies, and organs, which have been plastinated, and display them in motion, showing internal organs, muscles and sinews - in short, everything but the skin, which they normally remove for display.  And the full-sized display figures (the plastinates) are amazing - posed as in extreme athletic feats, like throwing a javelin, or jumping on skis

Human bodies?  Yes.  You can will your body to the Institute for Plastination, to be preserved in this way and used for scientific education.  You can choose to be anonymous, or not.  Because the entire bodies are plastinated, organs and joints can be sectioned to display tumors or other illnesses. 

Make no mistake, I was impressed.  The plastinate displays are astounding.  The details of organs, joints, the vascular system - all in details that even doctors rarely see.  You learn more about the human body in this exhibit than you do in most introductory anatomy classes.

And yet - it gave me the creeps.  It didn't upset my stomach - my stomach doesn't upset easily - but there were signs all through the exhibit to notify the staff if anybody in your party felt dizzy or faint, so I guess some people do get queasy.  But really - when you die, is this what you want done with your carcass?  To have it mounted in a museum display, down the hall from the stuffed antelopes?  I have very mixed feelings about the process.  I'm normally all for scientific education, I'm all for investigation and teaching; and the displays of individual organs and joints (all preserved through plastination and all originally human) were fascinating.  But the plastinate displays had a whiff of P. T. Barnum about them that disturbed me, and still does.

Death is the great mystery that separates us from animals, who don't know that they will die.  It seems to me that it should be treated with more dignity than this.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dawdling Around Denver

We spent a few days in Denver, staying at the Castle Marne Bed and Breakfast in the upper Capitol Hill neighborhood.  This neighborhood is cool, very lively and urban, crawling with restaurants and coffee houses - and Castle Marne is also very cool.   It looks like a castle:

built of fieldstone with a round stone tower; it's been a Victorian home and a processing center for parolees, and several other things.  The interior is meticulously restored to its fussy Victorian greatness (that's a compliment, I like Victorian houses).  See more photos here.  They had the most delightful tea cozy I've ever seen:

The food was excellent, I really liked the staff, and it was a wonderful alternative to the corporate hotel (and it may even be cheaper, depending on the corporate hotel).  The weather was mostly nice, overcast but cool; we had one day that was overcast but 101 degrees!

Our first major excursion was an afternoon at the Denver Botanic Garden.  We didn't realize til we got there that they were having an exhibit of Henry Moore sculpture.  This meant that the gorgeous gardens were punctuated with huge abstract stone shapes:

I can never resist gardens, so I took quite a few photos, you'll find the rest here.  Take a look and rest your eyes.  I was especially pleased by the black-crowned night heron who posed for me in the Japanese garden:

 He posed for me several times and never even asked for a handout.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


You hear a lot about taxation these days.  The Republican Party, especially in California, has declared "no new taxes" its battle cry.  I find their laser focus on deficit reduction hypocritical, given that the Republican Party, when in power, has been responsible for some of the largest deficits in U.S. history.  The deficit tripled under Ronald Reagan.  George W. Bush ran two wars, off the books (so no one could clearly see what they cost), for most of six years.  Republicans speak of taxes as something horrific, something that will destroy us if they rise any farther.  Taxes are OK when Republicans need them, but not when Democrats ask for them.

What are taxes, anyway?  Taxes are not some kind of extortion racket (shut up, Howard Jarvis, you're dead).  We pay taxes to the government, which represents us, so it can use the money to make life a little better for us than it would be if we had to do everything ourselves.  Paved roads and sidewalks, for instance.  Street lighting.  Community libraries.  Clean drinking water. That's what your taxes pay for.  Exactly what your taxes pay for depends on what level of government you look at - the federal government pays for armies and navies, and regulates pharma companies and big food producers, and runs Yellowstone.  The state government pays to pave freeways, licenses professionals like doctors and lawyers, and manages Henry Coe State Park.  City governments pave streets, and license local businesses, and maintain city parks.  Do you really want to pay no taxes, and do all that for yourself, up to and including single-handedly defending yourself from criminals and putting out your own house if it catches fire?  I don't.

Proposition 13, in 1976, created a situation in California where a minority of the population can prevent the majority from taxing itself for the common good, or at all.  Passing any tax requires a 2/3 majority - 67% of the votes.  That means that 34% of the population can prevent the tax from passing.  This makes the anti-tax people just delighted, but the rest of us get tired of the way the state is cutting the services we thought we were paying for.  It's the recession, you see - the money isn't coming in any more, and since most taxation is a percentage, either of the money that's coming in or of the money that's being spent, the tax money isn't coming in either.

This is an oversimplification, of course.  But we seem to have lost the concept of agreeing on actions for the common good, and chipping in to pay for them.  A minority of the population says, "I'm not going to benefit directly from that, so I shouldn't have to pay any taxes to support it."  Because it only takes 34% to block a tax, they don't have to pay.  And the common good is not served. 

California had the best school system in the country 50 years ago.  Now we're near the bottom of the states in quality, and the complaints about the tax burden are louder than ever.  We've lost two generations of public school students because of the minority that doesn't want to pay the higher taxes.  Their kids go to private school, so why should they support public schools?  I guess there is no more common good - it's just "me."  But that's no way to run a society.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gusher in the Gulf

After months of failed tries to cap the gusher in the Gulf, we're almost ready to put a final cap on it, but wait!  We must be sure.  We have to think about this.  We want to be sure it's right.

I just want to know one thing.  Where was all this focus on getting it right, back when they were setting up the well in the first place, before the "accident?"

Or in other words:  why is there never time to do it right, but always time to do it over?

It is brutally clear that BP has no idea what it's doing, and has never had any idea what it was doing.  They should not be allowed to do business until they clearly demonstrate the technical competence required to do business without destroying the environment.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Tape on, brother"

I needed a laugh after the last few days, and I got it this morning with a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Since the Chron doesn't let you link individual letters, just the letters page, I'm taking the liberty of pasting the whole thing here, with full credit and thanks to the paper and Mr. Mark Knego of San Francisco:

Recording is reality

Get it on tape, man.
We live in a world filled with knuckleheads, on a planet called Earth. Knuckleheads like to enjoy other people's suffering.
Somebody gets shot on a BART platform, get it on tape.
Knuckleheads destroy public property, get it on tape.
Somebody beats up somebody else, get it on tape. Put it on the Net.
In an entirely related topic, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking says that aliens are coming to colonize us.
No way, baby, not after they see the tapes.
We are safe.
Tape on, brother, tape on.
Mark Knego, San Francisco

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Waiting for Mehserle

Oakland, California isn't a very comfortable place right now.  The city government is broke, or close to it, because of some Really Stupid decisions made by the City Council in previous years (most of them by the current elected council members).   They've just laid off 80 police officers, from a force that was already grossly understaffed.  Everyone (with the possible exception of Mayor Dellums, whose grasp of reality doesn't impress me) is convinced that more budget cuts are coming.  No one, starting with the Council, is making any attempt to estimate how much money might actually be coming in next year, and to budget the city government to live within that amount.  (They can't, actually; due to some of those Stupid Decisions, they've already committed to spend more than they can possibly take in, in this economy.)  The council wants to pass two property tax measures on the November ballot, to avoid laying off something like a quarter of the police force; I don't think they realize the extent to which their constituents wouldn't trust them with the contents of a child's piggy bank.

And on top of all that, the Mehserle trial went to the jury, the day before the July 4 weekend.

I'm not going to go over the whole mess again.  If you've been living in a cave for the last 18 months, open up a Google search and type in "Mehserle."  Or read this article from Wikipedia.

The good news is that the jury didn't rule before the long weekend.  The bad news is that they had to start deliberations over again, today, because somebody went on vacation and they had to put in an alternate. 

The really bad news is that a group of people here in Oakland have already decided that the verdict won't bring "justice for Oscar Grant" (Google the phrase if you want to see their call to arms; I won't dignify it by linking it), and are planning a "gathering" in front of city hall whenever the verdict is published. 

For gathering read:  riot.  We had two days of riots after the incident, even though the Oakland Police weren't involved in the Mehserle incident.  They're going to be involved in this, though - Chief Batts is appealing for calm (see his video at and bracing for the opposite.  The general feeling is that downtown Oakland is a bad place to be over the next few days.  I bet the merchants love that.

It escapes me how tearing up downtown Oakland will provide Oscar Grant with justice, or anything resembling it.  I understand that young black people feel anger toward the police.  But as others have asked, I have to ask:  where is all this anger, where is all this urge for justice, when young black people are killed by other young black people??  Is that OK? 

I volunteer downtown.  I know that at least some of the small businesses around Frank Ogawa Plaza are black-owned - and they'll be right in the middle of the violence.  Is it OK for a small business owned by an African-American to be torn up and maybe looted, as long as the rioters are black??

For that matter, it escapes me why people think violence ever solves anything.  All violence does is breed more violence.  The first thing we should always do is try to think of a non-violent way to handle a situation; Gandhi understood that, the civil rights demonstrators in the '60s understood that, and they changed their worlds with nonviolence.  Violence seems to make the rioters feel that they've "done something" to "show people" that "they won't put up with this."  But when the riot is over, nothing has changed, except that a lot of people who had nothing to do with Oscar Grant have a mess to clean up.

I wonder how they'll justify the riot if the jury actually convicts Mehserle of manslaughter (the worst verdict I personally would vote for) and he does some time.  But then, they're tearing the place up in a noble cause.  Aren't they?

Monday, July 05, 2010

Green Deserts

You may have noticed this in the photos from Nevada.  All the deserts we crossed this year were really green, with lots of wildflowers ("lots" of wildflowers for a desert, that is).  We stopped at the Salt Wash Vista Point on Interstate 70 in Utah and took most of the photos in this gallery, Blooming Deserts in Utah

You say there's a lot of red rock showing?  It is a desert.  But we saw wildflowers like this:

and like this:

It was a long drive from Fallon to Fillmore, Utah - 448 miles.  Why Fillmore?  Take a look at the map of Highway 50 through Utah - we didn't have a lot of alternatives.  Fillmore had the most motels to choose from, and one of them actually had pretty good ratings. Given what the bed was like, I shudder to think about the others.

You can tell when you get into settled country in Utah, the sagebrush and creosote give way to irrigated fields, and you see buildings.  The water comes out of the Gunnison Bend Reservoir.  The first Utah town you come to on 50 is Hinckley, and we just rolled on through, it was closed, what there was of it.  By this time, though, it was around 6 in the evening and we were getting hungry, so we pushed on to Delta, which had something resembling a main street.  (It was Highway 50.)  A cruise up and down produced a choice of a soda fountain and the Rancher Cafe, part of the Rancher Motel-Cafe; everything else was closed.  Well, it was Memorial Day.  We took a chance on the Rancher Cafe and lucked out - the place is the local Chat 'n' Chew, I think we were the only tourists in there.  I had what I considered a good bowl of homemade chili (beans and meat, and not too spicy), and we chatted with the owner.  My husband didn't like his dinner as well as I did, sadly.  After dinner we drove on to Fillmore in the gathering dusk, past the mechanical irrigators spraying the crops.

The next morning we drove through Fillmore looking for breakfast.  The fast food joint next to the motel (Larry's Drive-in) did not appeal, but we found a family-style restaurant by the other freeway entrance.  Driving through Fillmore was odd - there were very few business establishments on the main drag, and a lot of beautifully kept houses, on huge lots.  And nobody on the road or out in the yards, at 8 AM, the place was empty.  I don't know where these people work.  I know where they eat breakfast, though, and so did we.

Breakfast over, we hit the road for Denver.  The drive took from 9 AM until 8:30 PM, but we stopped a couple of times, once to spend almost 45 minutes taking the photos in the gallery, and of course for lunch and dinner (dinner in Vail, very civilized after all the desert pullouts, even indoor plumbing).  If you've never driven through the red rock country in southern Utah, you really can't imagine it - Interstate 70 plunges between nearly vertical red rock cliffs rising (at a guess) 2,000 feet above the highway.  You're climbing steadily, but it looks like you're going down into a canyon.  It's overwhelming.  Sorry, I didn't get any photos of that stretch - the angle was impossible.  But this is a must-see for people who like road trips. 

The Rockies, of course, were green and beautiful but we just wanted to get on to Denver so we didn't stop for photos.  More about Denver in the next installment.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Driving Across Deserts

I've written about this before, on our 2008 vacation, and I think I described the experience well, so I'll just refer to my earlier post, called Basin and Range.  We drove Interstate 80 in 2008, which is a pretty busy road, all told.  On this trip we took Highway 50, and it isn't called "The Loneliest Road in America" for nothing. 

Highway 50 doesn't have the stately ballet of long-haul trucks and cars that I described in 2008, because it has almost no traffic.  On Interstate 80, you're usually in sight of at least a couple of semis and one or two other cars; on Highway 50, not.  So driving this road is a different experience.  You don't take 50 if you worry about breakdowns, or the fact that there's no cell phone service.

Note:  the photos in this post are just a sampling of the pictures at my SmugMug site, in the gallery called Crossing Nevada. You can see them all larger there, too.

Between Fallon, Nevada and the Utah line, there are exactly three towns, Austin, Eureka, and Ely.  However, 47 miles out of Fallon, where Nevada highway 361 peels off to the south, you'll pass Middlegate Station:

I wouldn't call it a town.  I'd estimate the population at maybe 10 (I found a 2006 post that estimated 19), plus some transient bikers and pool players.  This photo shows about 70% of Middlegate Station:

The rest of it is a motel, a gas pump, and a rusty propane tank.  And some abandoned vehicles. 

In all these photos, observe the crowded, built-up neighborhood.  Don't laugh too hard at Middlegate Station - it was a Pony Express stop.  Highway 50 was the Pony Express route.

It's 112 miles from Fallon to Austin, 70 miles from Austin to Eureka, and 77 miles to Ely - total driving distance 259 miles, and then it's another 70 miles to Garrison, just over the Utah border.  So for 329 miles, this is what you're looking at:

This may be why I tend to fall asleep on long desert trips.  I woke up when we stopped in Austin (pop. 340).  Highway 40 is the main street.

Since it's one of the only places in 329 miles with gasoline and rest rooms, everybody stops in Austin, including this elegantly turned-out biker dog we met at the gas station:

Between Austin and Eureka we passed the most interesting thing on this part of the trip:  the Sea to Shining Sea bicycle ride across America.  They were riding from Austin to Eureka that day, and we passed them on the road. All these guys are veterans and some of them are disabled, we passed at least 3 recumbent bicycles being propelled by the riders' hands and arms - and being "covered" from normal traffic by everything from other riders on normal bikes, to a SWAG wagon, to a local cop car.  We originally planned to stay in Austin the first night, but it was full of the Sea to Shining Sea riders, so we had to rearrange the trip.  I didn't get any pictures; I do occasionally take photos of mountains out the car windows but not of anything small and close like a guy riding a bicycle. 

My husband tells me we drove through Eureka (pop. 1,103), but I must have been asleep.  I remember stopping for lunch at the petroglyph site, where I took this:

I was awake driving through Ely (pop, 4,041), but I'm not sure why; this was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, and the place was empty.  And empty is what the whole day continued to be, although we did get a glorious view of Wheeler Peak:

Monday, June 21, 2010

On the Road Again

Our vacation this year involved a lot of time on the road.  We began by driving from Oakland to Denver in 3 days.  The scenery was nice, because for this trip you don't take the infamous Highway 80.  We took California route 88 over Carson Pass.

Our trip to Carson Pass went through the Delta, always very pretty, and up into the Sierras, where there was still snow under trees and on north facing slopes above about 6,000 feet.  It looked like this:

More photos of Carson Pass are available at my SmugMug site.  The problem with all this snowy beauty, we discovered when we stopped to take these pictures, was that the only public loo in the entire pass was still buried under 7 feet of snow.  We couldn't even get back to the vista point where it sits.  Fortunately it wasn't that far to the Kirkwood resort, which is open year round and has public bathrooms. 

We had lunch at Caples Lake, which was just beginning to thaw - it's at 7,800 feet.

Caples Lake, I learned on this trip, is part of the East Bay Municipal Utility District holdings - it's the reservoir on the Mokelumne River - and therefore, my husband tells me, is "my water."  I responded that it's the water I drink, which is not the same thing at all.  We sat by the lake in the sun and it was very peaceful - not much traffic on Highway 88.

You come off Carson Pass into the Carson Valley, go up to Carson City where you pick up U.S. Highway 50 to Fallon, then east on Highway 50 across southern Nevada - "the Loneliest Road in America."  There are signs all along the road that say so, if you define "all along" as "in the 3 inhabited areas you pass between Fallon and Ely." We've driven Highway 50 before, it's about as desolate as you can imagine.   Normally, the irrigated pastures outside Fallon would be the last green green we'd see for quite a while; Highway 50 is desert, unmitigated.  But this year all the deserts were very green.

I'm always fascinated by the unmarked dirt roads that lead away from the highway into the distant hills - who goes there, anyway?  I'll talk more about the desert later, when I have some more photos up.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Oil in the Gulf

Talk of the Nation today had a discussion of the Gulf oil spill, following Obama's press conference, discussing who is and isn't doing what.  One of the speakers, by phone from Louisiana, was James Carville - remember the Ragin' Cajun from the Clinton administration?  Mr. Carville is only moderately pleased with Obama:
"For the life of me, I can't believe that he hasn't called the secretary of the Interior on the carpet, and in fact, he didn't know today that they had actually fired - at least somebody finally got fired in this government. That was wonderful."
 and feels he isn't pushing BP hard enough.  Carville specifically wants to see Obama file criminal charges against BP, and sock them with billion-dollar damages.  Listen to the broadcast, or read the transcript; Carville is always entertaining, and he's really fried right now because he's been out in the marshes, and he says there was nobody there cleaning up the oil.  But his final point was this:
... if he [Obama] drops his hammer on BP, who believe - you understand the chairman of the BP board had the utter gall to say, look, we're a big, important company, and the U.S. is a big, important nation. If he made, if he got them to the brink of going to jail and made that company put up billions of dollars to recompense people for this disaster, I think his approval rating would be 75. I do.
Criminal charges for this sort of corporate misfeasance.  Interesting concept, isn't it?  It's becoming clear that BP was cutting corners in every direction.  But it made me think of the corporations insistence that they are "persons" and that their political donations are protected "free speech."  

If a corporation is a person, and has all the rights and freedoms of a person, does it not also have all the responsibilities of a person?  To obey the laws, to refrain from destroying the environment?  A guy in the L.A. area was convicted of setting a major wildfire, and I believe he went to jail.  (But he was just a guy.)  This is worse than a wildfire.  This is turning into one of those events you date things by, like the Kennedy assassination or the Rodney King riots.  We're going to date things by this for a long time, and it's happening because BP put profit ahead of safety.  

If corporations are "persons" before the law, then when they break the law, they should face a court and a jury, just like actual persons.  And if they are convicted, somebody should do some time.  That's what happens to real people.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


The yard is lush this spring.  It should be - it's the end of May and it rained yesterday!  My husband planted some foxgloves in the yard, and we got quite a handsome specimen:

You never know when you're going to get one of these giants.  We had one once that was over ten feet tall; this isn't that tall, but it's respectable.  I stood next to it, and I estimate it's seven feet tall or thereabouts.  The blooms are gorgeous:

It's tall enough that it leans rather threateningly across the bed:

Unfortunately, its height was its undoing.  It rained all day Tuesday, and by the end of the day, that elegant stalk was flat on the ground.  It's sitting in a vase on the dining room table now, and we'll enjoy it for a day or two more.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Freedom of Speech

The latest brouhaha in the blogosphere has been sparked by one John Stossel, a columnist for Fox News.  Mr. Stossel has expressed the opinion that a major section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be repealed, to allow businesses serving the public to refuse service on the basis of race.  He may have thought this up himself, although we heard the proposal first from Rand Paul.  His position seems to be that, since "everybody" now knows that discriminating on the basis of race is wrong, businesses that do so will lose customers through the operation of the market.  Since it didn't work that way in the Jim Crow era, I don't know why he thinks it will work now, but he's entitled to make a public fool of himself if he chooses.

I learned of this through a FaceBook "share" of a petition, originating on,  entitled, Tell Fox:  "Fire John Stossel."  The petition is addressed to Rupert Murdoch, and asks him to fire Stossel to "show America that your media company has no place for the values Mr. Stossel espouses."

I agree with the petition originators that Mr. Stossel's (and Mr. Paul's) opinions are offensive.  I also believe they're wrong.  But I'm afraid they (the petitioners) display a total lack of understanding, first of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and secondly of Rupert Murdoch.

I feel quite strongly about the First Amendment.  Like Voltaire, I don't agree with a single word Messrs. Stossel and Paul say, but I will defend to the death their right to say it.  There've been a lot of arguments recently over what does and doesn't constitute protected political speech, but this case is practically the type specimen.  He thinks we should repeal part of a law.  He has every right to express that opinion.  It's a long, long journey from an opinion on a news broadcast and the actual repeal of part of the Civil Rights Act.

If you only allow free expression of opinions that you approve of, you don't support free speech.  Speech is only truly free when it's available to the opinions we despise.  What better way to refute these positions than to state them publicly and debate them openly?  Sunshine is a great disinfectant.

Then there's the petitioners' misunderstanding of Rupert Murdoch, which is quite spectacular.  Mr. Murdoch is a known quantity.  He's been around for a long time.  Fox News allows Mr. Stossel to express his opinions there because Fox, and Mr. Murdoch, understand that controversial opinions sell air-time; and selling air-time is what Fox and Mr. Murdoch are all about.  Are they exploiting the First Amendment for commercial gain?  Sure they are.  So are a lot of people.  And it's perfectly legal as long as all they state is opinion, and they don't try to present it as fact.  I don't know whether Rupert Murdoch personally agrees with John Stossel or not, but it doesn't matter.  Mr. Murdoch's personal opinions are irrelevant; the political slant of the Fox News organization is very clear, extremely consistent over time, and lined up  perfectly with Mr. Stossel's rabble-rousing opinions.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Memories of George C. Hildebrant

I attended a 90th birthday party today, for George C. Hildebrant, the man who directed my high school choir, then called the Napa High School - Junior College Choir.  We should all do this well when we're 90.  He uses a walker, but he stood up and conducted us in singing several pieces.  Most of the people who came had sung under "Uncle Hildy" during his tenure as choral director at Napa High, which began in 1947 and ended in 1966. 

The most amazing and charming event of the afternoon was the appearance of the current Napa High School Chamber Choir.  My friends who organized this told me that the current choral director, Travis Rogers, called them and asked if the kids could come and perform!  And they're a Really Good a capella chorus - beautifully blended, singing as with one voice, everything memorized.  (Some of you who read this will have heard the choirs from Mt. Eden High School, at the Paramount in Oakland; the Napa kids are their equal.)  I looked at their web site, Napa High Choral Boosters, and they're supported by what looks like a pretty standard 501(c)(3) - because, of course, music is a "frill," which we can't afford to support in our schools!  I Googled them,  and they've won international competitions.  They sang a Durufle piece; their director told us they had performed it in Paris, at Notre Dame - a by-invitation trip they took over spring break this year.  They performed two pieces accompanied by a young man with a hand drum; apparently they travel with their own percussionist.

With the current Napa High chorus, we had over sixty years of high school choral tradition represented in that room.  Everybody was crying.  Everybody's life was changed by it.  I can still sing the Hallelujah Chorus from memory (soprano anyway) because of him; we memorized everything.  And we were good - we won choral competitions too.  I still remember the one at UOP in Stockton, with massed choruses walking down the stairs after the final performance, all singing the seven-fold Amen from The Lord Bless You and Keep You, echoing in the roof.

And it all began with George C. Hildebrant.  Roughly a hundred people (not counting the high school singers!) came to this event, from Montana, from Ohio, from New York City, and from all over California, to pay respects to this man who flew bombers over Germany in World War II, and came back from a POW camp to teach generations of people how to sing together.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Hildy.  And as many more as you can make.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Secret Holds

There has been considerable chatter recently about the practice of a "secret hold" in the U.S. Senate, which is preventing numerous non-controversial Obama nominees (among other issues) from coming to a vote in the Senate. A group of senators, headed by Claire McCaskill of Missouri, is trying to put a stop to the practice (see Sen. McCaskill's recent article at Huffington Post).  Given that Missouri is the "Show Me" state, Sen. McCaskill's efforts are incredibly appropriate.  She's written a letter to the Senate leadership, signed by over 30 senators, pledging all the signers not to use secret holds.

It won't surprise anyone that none of these senators is a Republican.

I agree 100% with the good senator from Missouri.   Secret holds are a despicable and cowardly way to do the public's business.  They smack, frankly, of eight-year-old boys in a treehouse, with secret passwords and oaths.  "I'm going to stop the nation's business in its tracks," says the secret holder, "because I have reservations about this nominee or that bill; but - I don't have the cojones to put my name on it.  Why, if I put my name on it and somebody objected, I might not get re-elected!"

Do you people have NO idea how this looks from the outside??  Sen. McCaskill and her fellow signers obviously do.  I'd like to say that this practice is beneath the dignity of the U.S. Senate, except that the members of that body so obviously disagree.  "Secret" anything, with possible exceptions for genuine national security issues (and I have my qualms about that, given the abuses it has covered), is unsuitable for the governing body of a democracy.  The first question you ask about a "secret" is:  what are you people trying to hide??  If the answer is just, "who I am," that's not a reasonable excuse.  We elected you to use your judgment about the best way to govern this country, and now you're afraid to stand up and say what your judgment is.  

I think any senator who hasn't publicly pledged not to use the secret hold should have that used against him or her when re-election time comes.  Both my senators, I'm happy to say, have signed the pledge.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Arizona's New Law

Someone on Facebook asked me if I was upset just because Arizona just wrote a law that is "almost the same as Federal law."  Yes, I am upset about it, because the "almost" is the problem. The exact issue is that the local police are now essentially ordered to enforce immigration law.

Many people don't understand what a local police department does and how it does it. I've been working with the Oakland, CA PD for several years, volunteering in the local Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, attending the Citizens Police Academy, and now spending an afternoon a week answering phones and filing papers in the Recruiting division. So I'm not just talking through my hat.  I've been out on a ride-along with an Oakland cop.
The job of a local police dept. is to KEEP THE PEACE - to prevent crime if possible, solve crime if necessary, and gather evidence to convict the criminals they need to catch.

A critical piece of this job is having the trust of the community they work in. Oakland has major problems with this. Large sections of the community don't trust the police, and it's one of the reasons we are one of the five most dangerous cities in the country. Is that what Arizona wants? Because if the entire Latino population of the state suddenly feels they can't trust their local police, it's what Arizona will get.

Arizona has just passed a law that tells their local police departments, it's more important for you to find and arrest illegal immigrants than it is for you to keep the peace. Good luck with that.
And they claim it isn't racist, but it is, because in Arizona, the odds are very high that any illegal immigrant will be Mexican.  That's why this is being called the "Breathing while Mexican" law.   The annoying thing is, the entire Southwest is sprinkled with Hispanic American citizens, absolutely native-born, whose families have been here since the Spaniards came in the 1770s.  Those people will be pulled over too, and they have every right to be angry about it.
Consider trying to enforce this law in the San Francisco Bay Area.  The police would have to stop everyone and check papers, even blonds and redheads - the Bay Area has illegal immigrants from Ireland, from the Netherlands, from England, from all over Europe.  I haven't even begun to count the Asian countries from which we probably have illegals.  Now, that wouldn't be racist; but it wouldn't be possible, either.

Actually, I hope that this law won't stand.  The courts have repeatedly ruled that enforcing immigration law is a Federal, not a state, prerogative.  Arizona seems to think their law is different; we'll see.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Goldman Sachs

I've been wondering for several years how Goldman Sachs got to be so influential in Washington.  Marcus Baram documented this at HuffPo in 2009:  Goldman alumni are all over the capital, especially on the financial side.  It's the money, of course; politicians love people with lots of money, because politicians need lots of money, all the time (which is another post, about campaign finance reform; but I digress).  And there's the general assumption that if you have a lot of money, you must be really smart.  You'd think the case of Bernie Madoff would alert people to the alternative explanation that, if you have a lot of money, you may actually be really crooked.

Goldman Sachs pissed off a lot of people during the bailout; here they are, the richest firm on Wall Street, and we the U.S. taxpayers, who are losing our jobs by the gross, have to come up with billions of dollars to bail out the banks so Goldman can keep paying its people multi-million dollar bonuses.  They paid the money back to the government; but it's the principle of the thing.  As far as I'm concerned, no man is worth the kind of money Goldman pays out in bonuses, I don't care if he's spinning straw into gold.

You've probably seen the latest development in this, but if not, here's a nice analysis from the Washington Post:  "Goldman executives cheered housing market's decline."   When the subprime mortgage security crash was taking down the economy, Goldman Sachs was betting both sides of the table.  They were selling tottering CDOs based on subprime mortgages with one hand, and shorting the housing market (that is, betting that it would fall) with the other.  The 9-year-old version of this is, "Heads I win, tails you lose."  And Goldman won, really big.  They're about to appear before the SEC, to discuss how closely they really did work with the hedge fund manager who was cherry picking mortgage pools he was sure would fail, so he could bet against them after Goldman sold them to their institutional customers - like, your pension fund.

Goldman Sachs used to be a private partnership.  They went public in 1999, which allowed them to raise big money by selling shares in the stock market, without losing very much control over the firm.  This also did two things for the men who ran the firm:  it made them a barge-load of money, and it made them employees instead of partners.  Partners are personally liable if a partnership fails.  Employees just take the money and run.  I wonder if any of the old-line Goldman partners are regretting that IPO now.

I worked in the financial industry (not for Goldman, ever) most of my professional life.  It's a very strange world, and it's gotten much stranger over the last 20 years, as the lobbyists and the Republicans colluded to remove the restraints on financial firms that FDR put in, for damn good reasons, in the '30s.  I want that financial regulatory bill to pass, but it isn't good enough.  I want the Glass-Steagall Act back.