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.