Saturday, December 05, 2015

Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant

Another mass shooting, and this one is being called "terrorism," even though (like the attack in France a couple of weeks ago) it was done by a U.S. citizen and his wife.  This year we've had more "mass shootings" (381) than we've had days (339 as I write this).

Like a lot of people, I'm getting really tired of Congress' total lack of action on gun control, even the simplest and most obvious action of required background checks for gun purchase.  They even refuse to lift the ban on research on the public health effects of gun usage.  They even refuse to ban people on the no-fly list from buying guns!  What??

So I got curious about who's paying them for this, and went to maplight.comI found the following really depressing numbers.  Maplight lists 2 categories of funding under Interest Groups:

Gun Control (Anti-Guns) and Gun Rights (Pro-Guns).

The total amount donated to "gun control" members of Congress between the dates shown below was $9,750.  Not even five figures!  Here's the breakdown of the top amounts donated.  These numbers affected votes on 40 different bills during the 114th Congress.

Top Senate Recipients Funded

Edward J. Markey$2,500
Joe Manchin, III$2,000
Kirsten E. Gillibrand$1,000
Jeff Merkley$500
Tim Kaine$250
Contributions shown for the last six years of available data, Apr 1, 2009 - Mar 31, 2015, including contributions to presidential campaigns.

Top House Recipients Funded

Ann M. Kuster$1,500
Elizabeth H. Esty$1,000
Contributions shown for the last two years of available data, Apr 1, 2013 - Mar 31, 2015, including contributions to presidential campaigns.  

The list above represents all the members of Congress who got any pro-gun funding in the periods shown.

The total amount donated to "gun rights" members of Congress between the dates shown below was $2,754,455.  The breakdown on who got what is too big to display here.  Here is link to the full list:  

Take a look at the list.  Find your representatives.  I'm happy to say that neither of my senators is on the list, nor is my member of Congress.  Numbers for the Senate show the last 6 years; numbers for the House, the last 2.  I urge you to go to Maplight, look up your representatives, and see who is funding them.  And let them know that you did this.  As long as we allow these numbers to stay quietly in the shadows, the current situation will continue.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


I heard an absolutely fascinating interview the other day (Nov. 24) on Terri Gross' Fresh Air.  She was talking to a New York Times reporter, C. J. Chivers, about his recent article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled The Doomsday Scam.

The subject of this article, and about the first half of the interview, is a substance I'd never heard of:  red mercury.  What?  I'm not kidding when I say that my first mental response to the discussion of red mercury was, "What's its atomic weight?"  Red mercury has been discussed, publicly and privately, since the Cold War - the Soviets were reputed to have it.  Mr. Chivers was unable to find anyone who had ever seen it.  I recommend you to take the time and read The Doomsday Scam - it's absolutely fascinating and Mr. Chivers writes very well.

The theory of red mercury is that it can be used to build very small nuclear weapons.  The following description (excerpted from the article) was written, I'm sorry to say, by an American nuclear physicist who should have known better:
In one edition of his autobiography, he claimed red mercury was manufactured by ‘‘mixing special nuclear materials in very small amounts into the ordinary compound and then inserting the mixture into a nuclear reactor or bombarding it with a particle-accelerator beam.’’ The result, he said, ‘‘is a remarkable nonexploding high explosive’’ that, when detonated, becomes ‘‘extremely hot, which allows pressures and temperatures to be built up that are capable of igniting the heavy hydrogen and producing a pure-fusion mini neutron bomb.’’ Here was a proliferation threat of an order never before seen.
The author of this bilgewater is named in the article, so that's your incentive to read it.

But my second response was:  I've heard this legend before.  Not red mercury itself, but the legend of the rare and difficult to find substance that can confer unheard-of powers on the owner.  It was called the Philosopher's Stone, and it was the goal of every alchemist the ancient world, and the Middle Ages, ever produced.  Here is the invaluable Wikipedia on alchemy:
Alchemy is a philosophical and protoscientific tradition practiced throughout Egypt and Eurasia which aimed to purify, mature, and perfect certain objects.[1] [2][n 1] Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble" ones (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent.[3]
 Red mercury sounds like a form of Philosopher's Stone to me, although sadly one which is only used to destroy.  We tend to look down our noses at our ancestors, as ignorant and uneducated.  At least their rare and powerful Philosopher's Stone was used to cure and create.  Red mercury is apparently only intended to destroy.  How fortunate we all are that it doesn't exist.

But what is it in the human race that makes us believe in the Philosopher's Stone, or red mercury, or snake oil, or any other substance, just because someone we don't know tells us it exists and we only have to find it.

The Other "Trail of Tears"

Talk about the things they didn't teach you in school.  I went through the California public school system back in the day when it actually taught you (well, me, anyway) to read and think about things.  And I don't recall ever hearing one single mention of this.  But let's start with a question it probably never occurred to you to ask.  Say you are a slaveholder in the pre-civil war South, and you have more slaves than you want.  How do you sell them?

In this article, in the October 2015 Smithsonian Magazine, I found the appalling answer.

Retracing Slavery's Trail of Tears

It's longer than the usual Smithsonian article, but I read all of it. It was horrifying but extremely educational. I recommend we all read it, and remember, so we can not do that ever again.

As I regularly post, if we as a people don't understand who we were, and what we did, how can we possibly avoid doing it again?


I'm not going to list all the things I'm thankful for.  The list is too long, and some of it would sound awfully self satisfied.  Here are the ones I'll admit to:

I'm thankful I can walk.  I put a lot of work into walking again, after all the cartilage in my knees disappeared.  But today I can walk as far as I want.  You can never understand how important this ability is unless you've lost it and regained it.

I'm thankful I married Jim Ringland, and I'll just let it stand at that.

I'm thankful I still can sing, and do still sing with the Oakland Symphony Chorus.  It turns out that most of my really close friends sing with me there, and I'm thankful for them, too.

I'm thankful I managed to keep living in northern California.  There were times I was afraid I'd have to move to get a job, but it didn't happen.

I don't mean to say that life is perfect.  It isn't.  I won't go into the things I'd change if I could wave a wand and make it so.  But it's pretty good, on this beautiful (if chilly) Thanksgiving Day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


In the wake of the Guardian article the other day ("Airpocalypse now: China pollution reaching record levels"), I was discussing pollution, in the form of the old London "pea soup" fogs, with some friends on Facebook. 

Conveniently, this week's Economist had a review of a book entitled London Fog:  a Biography.  I'm not sure my friends believed the things I said about the old London fogs; but the review quoted some awful incidents that even I hadn't read about. 

This is what happens when several million people at once light up the coal fires to heat their homes in the winter.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Who's In Charge Here?

What in tarnation is going on in the Republican Party?  

John Boehner, who's been Speaker of the House since 2006, resigns at the end of this month, essentially saying, "I can't manage this any more."

Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, Boehner's number two, and the candidate elect for next speaker, withdrew today from the contest because he "doesn't have 218 votes."  Wait - he's the guy who is supposed to marshal the votes in his party, and he can't elect himself leader?

In the next 3 weeks or so, Congress has to pass resolutions extending the debt limit (so the country can pay its bills) and funding the government (so it can operate at all).  Normally this is managed in the House by the Speaker and the Majority leader, and they both just quit, and the election for a new speaker has been postponed with no new date.

This is all going on because there is a hard-core group of House Republicans, maximum about 40 people, who refuse to negotiate or bargain or compromise on anything at all, and apparently the Republican leadership is SO afraid of them that they have all just backed down.

In addition, Donald Trump, who has the political expertise of a lawn gnome and the charm of a carnival barker, is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and a majority of the California Republicans believe he'll likely take the nomination.  (I can't support that with a link, but I heard it on NPR in the last day or so.)

Republicans are the majority party, currently in charge in both houses of Congress.  These people are supposed to govern our country.  We already know they don't want to increase taxes to do things like repair roads and bridges, and maybe take care of the vets from all the wars they've started, because raising taxes would annoy their rich donors.  Now they can't even agree on who shall be their spokesman (it certainly won't be a woman) in the House of Representatives, because of a minority (40 out of 247) of uncooperative loudmouths.

Full disclosure:  I'm a Democrat.  But I remember a Republican Party that could govern.  It could negotiate and bargain (that's what governing is) and produce legislation that both sides agreed on, that was actually good for the country.  Hell, it was a governing party under Ronald Reagan, and I never thought I'd look back on the Reagan administration as a beacon of rational governance.

There has to be some kind of resolution to this, but right now I don't see where it'll come from.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Rudyard Kipling and the Confederate Flag

There was much public discussions recently, following the murder of 9 members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., over the practice of flying the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state capitol (among other places).  The flag at the South Carolina capitol has been removed to a museum.

People also discussed, again, whether the Civil War was about slavery, or about states' rights.  The official position of many Southerners, especially Southern officials, has been that the war was about states' rights.  In the course of the discussions, however, some people used Google to look up the state secession documents, which are readily available - and several of the documents make it crystal clear that the state is seceding because the U.S. government no longer supports slavery.  South Carolina's declaration, which was issued first, is quite explicit.  (Virginia's secession document, on the other hand, essentially says, "We're outta here," without giving a reason.)  The Texas declaration is even more interesting.  It contains this phrase, which I quote for consideration (emphasis mine):
That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.
A lot of the discussion I've read has suggested or stated that the Southern states essentially made this doctrine up to annoy people and make themselves wealthy - and they were wealthy.  In the first half of the 19th century there was much more wealth in the Southern states than in the Northern states (see Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 158 - 163).  The South made a lot of money off the peculiar institution; but its preferences weren't only based on money, as the Texas declaration makes clear.  The white citizens of the South believed firmly that Africans were created by God as inferior beings, fit only to serve.  But they didn't invent that belief. 

And that brings me to Rudyard Kipling.  For no good reason, I recently decided to read Kipling's novel Kim.  I found it at the library, in a battered Penguin Classic edition, with the famous introduction by Edward Said.  As I read the introduction, I found myself hearing echoes of those secession declarations, in passages like this:

...whether we like the fact or not, we should regard its author as writing not just from the dominating viewpoint of a white man describing a colonial possession, but also from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning and history had acquired the status almost of a fact of nature.  This meant that on one side of the colonial divide, there was white Christian Europe; its various countries, principally Britain and France, but also Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy , Russia, America, Portugal and Spain, controlled approximately 85 percent of the earth's sruface by the First World War.  On the other side of the divide, there were an immense variety of territories and races, all of them considered lesser, or inferior, or dependent, or subject.  The division between white and non-white, in India and elsewhere, was absolute, and is alluded to through Kim:  a sahib is a sahib, and no amount of friendship or camaraderie can change the rudiments of racial difference.  Kipling could no more have questioned, that difference, and the right of the white European to rule, than he would have argued with the Himalayas.
 Kim was written in 1901.  England abolished the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in 1808, with the Slave Trade Act of 1807; the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. But Said, and Kim, make it clear that, 70 years after the abolition of slavery, the attitudes which had justified slavery were still current.

If you don't understand where you came from, it's hard to know where you are.  I've read numerous other sources which make clear that white Europeans and Americans, in the 18th and 19th century, considered all the races of color as their inferiors, and even as separate species ("descended from different Adams," as Stephen Jay Gould quotes - see below).   Some scholars even used the developing science of anthropology to support this.  The best explanation I've read is the first chapter of Stephen Jay Gould's great book, The Mismeasure of Man (W. W. Norton, 1981), in which he reviews the attitudes of 18th and 19th century European and American scientists to the "inferior" races.  In fact, I think the concept of race was invented during this period, to explain all these strangely complexioned peoples that the colonization process was revealing.  Remember, if you go back 150 years from the mid-18th century, you're in a world where the vast majority of Frenchmen had never met a German, much less a person of different skin color; and there were no white people, or black people, resident in America at all.

The Southern planters didn't invent their attitudes about Africans.  They inherited them from the civilization that produced the United States:  Great Britain, where those beliefs were accepted wisdom. 

The most astonishing thing about the Declaration of Independence is that Thomas Jefferson, a Southerner who never freed any of his slaves, could write "all men are created equal."  Not "all white men of property," which is probably what he meant.  All men.  And over the last 239 years, we as a country have taken what he wrote, and tried to make it true.  We haven't even convinced all Americans; we haven't succeeded yet; we're still working on it.  But that phrase has truly changed the world.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fire in the Valley

I heard something on NPR this morning that startled me:  the report of major fires surrounding Lake Chelan, in Washington state.  Why did that startle me?  Half of the west coast is on fire.

It startled me because I've been there.  In 2006, my husband and I drove to Chelan, WA to see what it was like, and to stay in a tiny resort called Stehekin.  I still have a T-shirt from Stehekin.  The trip was memorable for a number of reasons, mainly because a forest fire broke out just downwind of Stehekin, the day we arrived.  I wrote that whole experience up, with photos, in 2011:   The Flick Creek Fire

This afternoon I thought I'd look the fires up and see how bad it was - it looks bad.  I remember the area as bone dry in 2006 (when we were also having a heat wave); it's on what Washingtonians call "the dry side", east of the Cascades, which block rain coming from the Pacific.  Here's the official account, from a local TV station:

Wildfires raging near Chelan destroy homes

There are 5 active fires, 3 of them quite large.  The map below will dump you into an everything map (frankly it looks like much of both northern Washington and south and east Oregon is on fire).  Use the plus key to zoom in - you're looking for the group of fires north and west of the big empty area around Moses Lake.  The key fires are the Reach, First Creek, and Antoine Creek fires.  Squaw Canyon and Black Canyon are relatively minor but the Wolverine fire is huge, although it seems to be under control.  The northern tip of the Wolverine fire is right across the lake from Stehekin.  All these fires were started by lightning strikes.

Map of fires near Chelan

There's very little "there" there around Lake Chelan.  This undoubtedly looks worse than it is, but if you happen to live in that wilderness, evacuation could be a problem. There aren't roads, to speak of; if you want to go to town from the area around Lake Chelan, you take a boat, or a helicopter if you're rich. The official account from, the local TV station, sounds as though the firefighters have it pretty well under control, but there's a long list of evacuation and road closure information.  I trust they get it under control.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Diplomacy and War

With the Iran agreement waiting for Congressional approval, there's been a lot of discussion about diplomacy versus war.  America has always had a minority of citizens, some of whom (I'm sorry to say) are now in the Congress, who feel the best way to solve any international situation is for America to bomb the crap out of it.  President Obama has taken a lot of flack from these people, because he personally prefers to negotiate, and if possible to arrange a multilateral solution.

Sir Winston Churchill knew more about war than just about anyone now living.  Born in 1874, he joined the British Army and saw action in British India, the Sudan, and the Second Boer War, followed by his service in World War I, both as First Lord of the Admiralty and later on the Western Front, and then his service as Prime Minister in World War II.  Assuming he joined the army around age 20, that means he was involved in wars, off and on, for over fifty years.

At a White House luncheon in June 1954, Churchill said, "To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war."

I think we ought to listen to him.  Let's get the Iran agreement approved, and go on to argue about something else.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


This is a hot word right now in the San Francisco Bay Area, where you have to be a multi-millionaire to be able to rent an apartment.  Well, in San Francisco, anyway.  Farther out, not so much.

In San Francisco a supervisor actually proposed an ordinance that would ban all new housing development in the Mission District, where poor-to-middle class Latino families are being pushed out by new, much richer residents who want to live close to the action.  It failed, the other supervisors having some common sense; but the proponents haven't given up.  They don't want "gentrification."

In Oakland, currently full of people who aren't quite rich enough to buy or rent in S.F. but who would still like to live a short trip from the action, a city council meeting was not quite interrupted recently by a group of protesters who don't want the city to sell a block of public land near Lake Merritt to a housing developer. They want the land used to build affordable housing (not that I've heard them suggesting a funding source for this).  They don't want "gentrification" either.

The argument behind both of these movements is:  new housing is always market-rate (which means, "I can't afford it").  We need more affordable housing ("stuff I can afford", actual rents not specifically defined).  The best way to make this happen is to stop those awful people from building expensive luxury condos and apartments, and make them build more stuff we can afford.

Consider Super Bowl tickets.  There are a fixed number of them.  Many more people want to buy them, than there are tickets.  The net result, as we all know, is that the price of scalped Super Bowl tickets goes through the roof.  This is what happens every time there is a limited supply of a very desirable commodity:  the price goes through the roof.  Got that?

This is what's happening in the Bay Area.  All over the Bay Area, actually.  More people want to live here than there is housing for them to live in, so the incomers are bidding up the price of the places that exist, even crummy places that formerly only the poor could afford.  Yes, they are driving out people who can't afford to pay the higher rents, or the higher home prices.  That is how the real estate market works; that's how any market works.  Money talks.  Rent control ordinances are the only reason there are any relatively poor folks left in any of the inner Bay Area towns.  Everyone else commutes from Antioch, or Tracy.

I know of only one way to drive down the price of housing, in any area.  Build more housing.  Build housing on every square foot of land you can find.  And build tall housing, lots of floors, lots of apartments and condos.  Because the prices will continue to skyrocket until there are more homes available for rent or sale than there are people wanting to buy or rent them.  Prices never go down in a seller's market; only in a buyer's market.

But - we can't have that!  That will ruin our beautiful city! 

Yeah, it will ruin our beautiful city.  That attitude is exactly why we have this situation. The entire Bay Area should have been building thousands of units of housing every year for the last ten.  But we didn't, because of any one of a number of reasons which all boil down to this:

We don't want the area to change. We want it to stay just the way it is, without apartment buildings higher than 4 stories, with single-family residences on nice lots.  And in Oakland we want to be able to see across the bay.  The amount of housing needed to make it "affordable" for anybody would interfere with all of that, which is why it hasn't happened.  Since we didn't accommodate the market, the market has taken over, and driven up housing prices.   Stopping the building of new housing will just make the situation get worse, faster. 

There isn't any pretty, convenient solution to all of this.  And given that it takes years to build any housing, what with permitting and hearings from people who don't want it to happen, the situation will not improve.  It will get worse. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Republic, If You Can Keep It

That was Benjamin Franklin's reported response to a woman who asked him, at the close of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, whether we had a Republic or a Monarchy.  His point was that republics don't just wamble along by themselves - they require constant tending from the citizens to keep them going in the proper direction.

And yet we've quit voting.  We complain constantly (I do, anyway) that there's too much money in politics, and the rich people are buying our government - but we don't vote.  Let's look at my state, California, and the 2014 election.  OK, it's a midterm, nobody turns out for midterms.  Except me.

Every source I look at has slightly different numbers for the 2014 general election, probably depending on when they counted.  So I'm using broadly rounded numbers.

For the 2014 election, California had a population of roughly 38 million.

Of that 38 million, about 63% were eligible to vote, which means over 18 years of age, a U.S. citizen, and not a convicted felon.  63% of 38 million is about 24 million. These numbers come from the U.S. Elections Project's document,  2014 November General Election Turnout Rates

Of the 24 million eligible voters, 73% bothered to register to vote.  We're now down to roughly 18 million people who are actually able to cast a ballot, out of a total 38 million.  That isn't even half of the total population.  Of those 18 million registered voters, 42% bothered to fill out a ballot and turn it in.  That's about 7.5 million people.

In other words,  20% of California's population cast the votes that determined who would be elected and what measures would pass or fail.  The other 80% didn't show up.

There's a lot of discussion out there about the prevalence of dark money in our elections (bad, I agree), and rich people like the Koch brothers trying to buy the government.  But to get elected, you still have to get over 50% of the vote for your particular office; and that means that 7.5 million Californians decided on all the offices and propositions up for election in 2014.  I voted.  Are you happy with the way I voted?  If not, why didn't you vote?

Oh, say some, my vote doesn't matter.  There were 3 California contests in the 2014 midterm that were too close to call, Assembly Districts 16, 17 and 39; at least 2 of those vote counts went on for weeks.  One guy was so convinced he'd won that he went to Washington, D.C. for new representative orientation; while he was gone, the count went the other way and his opponent was elected.  If you voted for one of those candidates, your vote counted, all right.  And if you were a Republican voter in Florida, in the 2000 Presidential election, your vote may have changed the course of history. Think what the first decade of the 21st century might have been like if Al Gore had won. I guarantee, Al Gore would never have invaded Iraq.

I don't know if we've lost our Republic yet.  But we're on the verge of walking away from it, because turning out to vote every couple of years is too much trouble.  If you don't vote because you're working 3 minimum wage jobs and you can't get to the polls, you have my sympathy; but you can sign up for a mail-order ballot and vote that way.  If you don't vote because you don't understand the issues and can't be bothered to read what the candidates say they're up to, you don't have my sympathy. Government "of the people and by the people" means it's our responsibility to read up on these things, to vote as best we understand.

I plan to keep voting as long as I can fill in a ballot; I haven't missed an election since I first voted in 1968.  Voting is my voice in our government, and I want my voice heard, however faintly.  Your vote is your voice.  Use it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Poisoned Policemen??

We've all heard the stories and seen the videos about police officers shooting and otherwise abusing unarmed black people.  I heard a special on NPR the other day that made a connection in my mind, and raised a question I have to ask.  Allow me to digress to get there.

Police officers shoot guns, mainly with lead bullets.  They train, regularly, on shooting ranges, so their skills will stay sharp.  The Seattle Times has released a report on the impact of unventilated indoor shooting ranges on the health of police officers.  I heard a radio broadcast of this on Saturday, April 11, but the report is also available online:

Lead endangers officers

This is Part 4 of their 5 part series, Loaded with Lead.  I was astounded to hear that lead exposure in a single week actually killed a training instructor:
In Londonderry, N.H., a 35-year-old police sergeant died of lead poisoning just days after training his fellow officers at a private indoor-gun range.
The range had a ventilation system that wasn't working.  He went home, went to bed, and never woke up.

Lead is a poison.  It kills people.  We've known this for centuries.  It's beginning to become a major issue in some police departments; some have stopped using lead bullets, some have stopped using indoor firing ranges.

But what does lead poisoning do to you, before it kills you, other than making you feel sick?

The Mayo Clinic page on symptoms of lead poisoning states that symptoms of lead poisoning in adults include:
  • Declines in mental functioning
  • Memory loss
  • Mood disorders
I don't believe I've heard anyone ask the question:  do the officers who were involved in those publicized incidents train on unventilated, indoor shooting ranges?  Were they, in fact, suffering from lead poisoning?  Most of the studies of lead poisoning that I can easily find are of lead poisoning in children; there's not much about adults.  But the studies of children suggest that severe lead poisoning in children can lead to "aggressive, violent behavior and explosive tempers."  Does it do that in adults?  Does anyone know?

I'm not trying to suggest that the officers in the publicized cases were not racists; they may have been.  But is a racist with lead poisoning more dangerous than a racist without it?  Do we even know??  Is anybody asking?

The worst thing about shooting ranges is that nobody is responsible for inspecting them, and that applies to private ranges as well as ranges owned by the police.  I strongly recommend you read the entire Seattle Times series, especially if you are a shooter.

If you regularly shoot on an unventilated, indoor shooting range, your health is at serious risk.  If nobody regulates shooting ranges, the people who spend time there are responsible for finding out how healthy the environment is, on their own.  You get to choose whether to ask the questions or not.

But I still wonder about the officers in Ferguson, on Staten Island, and in North Charleston, South Carolina - on what kind of shooting range did they train??

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Gender Discrimination in Silicon Valley??

Ellen Pao's gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has floated in Bay Area headlines for the last couple of weeks.  The Wall Street Journal published a good summary of the case on February 17:  Ellen Pao Lawsuit Against Kleiner Perkins Heading Toward Trial.  Ms. Pao claims her promotion to senior partner was blocked by poor reviews from a senior partner who had sexually harassed her, especially after she refused his attentions.  The suit claims multiple millions of dollars in lost wages and profits; and yes, if she'd been promoted to senior partner, she might well have made that much.

The firm, as is usual in such cases, claims that Ms. Pao is "not qualified" for promotion.  The firm's descriptions of her, and things the partners have said about her (as attributed to the firm in news reports), are a type study in discriminatory treatment of professional women.  I believe they even complained that she was "aggressive," a trait they covet in male hires.

Media accounts have focused on gender discrimination "in tech," and "in Silicon Valley." I saw discrimination like this so long ago that "tech" wasn't even an industry, and the only connection with the tech industry here is that Kleiner Perkins is a venture capital firm which invests in the tech industry.

Ms. Pao took a risk when she hired on at a partnership.  Partnership is an organizational form concentrated in the banking, finance and investment fields, and also in related fields like accounting and law.  I worked for one of these firms, which I won't name, for about 10 years in the late '70s and early '80s.  Not every partnership is like the one I worked for, and today there are partnerships with female members, even some in venture capital.  But partnership firms, like the one I worked for, can become a patriarchal 3 class society - the partners, godlike, at the top, owners of everything; below them the people on "partner track," who hope to become partners; and below them the support staff (including my humble self), who will never make partner and are therefore of no importance, regardless of what professional qualifications they may have.  In that 3 class society, women in the top tier are extremely rare, and women in the lowest tier were at general risk of sexual harassment.  I was never harassed myself; but I knew women who were - and by partners.

Kleiner Perkins isn't the firm I worked for; it isn't even in the same field.  But some of the things its partners are on record as doing are things that I was aware of in the firm where I worked, those many years ago.  This was so early in the history of Silicon Valley that the "hot rising tech firm" was Apple, still operating out of a garage.

Ms. Pao has since been appointed the interim CEO of Reddit, Inc., a popular content-sharing site.  Reddit is a corporation, not a partnership.  With any luck, she'll be appointed permanent CEO.  I recommend she stay away from partnerships.

I don't mean to imply that Silicon Valley doesn't have a gender discrimination problem; it does.  But the gender discrimination Ms. Pao found at Kleiner Perkins is a much older form.  The New York Times has an excellent article on the whole tech sexism issue, which goes into detail, and explains the implications that sexism in venture capital firms could have for the entire industry.  The point I wanted to make is that, although gender discrimination exists in Silicon Valley, they didn't start it; and what Kleiner Perkins appears to be doing feels like the world I worked in, back in the last millennium.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Losing the Wars

The hot item right now is James Fallows' The Tragedy of the American Military, in The Atlantic.  This post isn't intended as a review; it's a long article and I haven't finished it.  I'd like to explore the general theme, however, as I heard it discussed on the PBS News Hour this afternoon (that's January 15 if you want to chase it down; it won't be available on line until tomorrow).

Basically, James Fallows says that although we have the best military in the world and our soldiers have performed superbly, we've lost the wars we fought over the last 13 years, at the cost of billions of dollars - Afghanistan, Iraq, and our current involvement in Syria. If you look back to Vietnam, we lost that too, even though in all cases we were fighting a ragtag insurgency.  How can this be? said the reviewers.

Do you people not read your history?  (I absolve Mr. Fallows, I think he gets it.) The United States, in its early incarnation as an 18th century British colony, wrote the book on the ability of a ragtag insurgency to defeat a standing military, as long as the people who lived in the insurgent country supported their fighters.  In 1775, when the "shot heard round the world" was fired at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, the British Army was the finest military in the world, in charge not only of North America but of empires in India and the Caribbean.  And yet, over the next 6 years, the ragtag insurgency built into a real army and kept the redcoats from victory (sometimes very narrowly), eventually standing them down at the battle of Yorktown.  And so was born a nation, even though a sizeable number of colonials supported the British!

The Brits used our techniques themselves, one generation later, during the Peninsular Wars with Napoleon - who at that time had the finest military in the world.  Wellington's tactics depended as much on his irregular Spanish supporters, and the fact that the Spanish peasants hated Napoleon, as they did on his trained regulars.

Frankly, we should have known, in 1964, that we couldn't defeat a guerrilla insurgency (in a jungle, yet) supported by the local people.  But we were scared to death of the "Commies" and afraid if Vietnam went Communist, the whole of southeast Asia would follow, like dominos.  Remember the domino theory?  It was wrong, wasn't it?  We also thought, after World War II, that we were invincible and could win any war we took on.  Also wrong.

But we don't learn from our own history.  So after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we sent our military roaring into - Afghanistan, a country about which we knew nothing and where we spoke no local languages.  And since no one knew where "Al Qaeda" was, we took on the Taliban, a former local insurgency which at that time was the government, in a country, that (frankly) neither the British Army nor the Soviet Army could subdue.  And nor could the U.S.  We're now out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban are still there.  They aren't currently the government.  Yet.

I will not discuss the Iraq war except to say that it was a stupid action, based on a whole series of lies, which turned a stable country run by a competent dictator into the mess it is today.  Everything that was wrong about going into Afghanistan was also wrong about going into Iraq.  Saddam Hussein was not a nice man, but if he was anything, he was a secularist, and he could have been a useful ally against Al Qaeda - and much more ruthless than we are.

Barack Obama has taken a great deal of flack for his unwillingness to get involved in the mess in Syria.  He got involved only after the Islamic State thugs beheaded a couple of American journalists on video.  His initial response to stay out was correct - Syria is a hell-brew civil war of faction fighting faction, and the air strikes we're running in have a good solid chance of landing on someone we would support, if we knew they were there.  My heart breaks for the Syrian people but there is no solution to this except for someone else to come in, defeat all comers, and run the place himself.  President Obama refuses to be that person, and I support him; Syria would be a classic case of an organized military taking on not one but multiple insurgent factions.  We'd be there for decades.

I know of one case where a standing army defeated a local insurgency, and it was 21st century Sri Lanka, where the Rajapaksa military machine rolled over the remains of the Tamil Tigers and established military rule over the north of the country.  I believe this exception proves the rule, because the Tamils were a minority in the country, and in that case the majority of the population supported the government troops.  One hopes the newly elected President Sirisena will be able to begin mending fences between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.