Friday, December 31, 2010


As the year ends, I remember some of those who died this year, whose work lives on: authors, icons of the 50s, 60s, 70s & 80s, and of classic science fiction films. Plus a contemporary, a memento mori as well as a memento.

For most of my life--from Duck & Cover drills in the 50s, Doctor Strangelove and Vietnam draft in the 60s, nuclear winter and ecotastrophe etc. in the 70s and 80s and...well, immortality of any kind seemed a strained concept. (I also personally never assumed I'd make it to 2010.) Now with the reality of the Climate Crisis and the very dim prospects, I see that the future may be foreshortened but it hasn't disappeared. Immortality may just be briefer.

Anyway, it takes all kinds--from fond childhood memories of mediocre television shows to books and movies that not only made a difference in their time, but continue to echo with meaning and emotion.

In my small way I am paying my respects--perhaps in a way that spins the meaning of that phrase a little harder. I invite you to join me for a click or two.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Slave Markets

I have an unsightly little thought with which to almost end this year and portentous decade. It's occurred to me with increasing frequency over the past few months.

And it is this: is capitalism even possible (or, if capitalism is the only viable economic system for large-scale urbanized populations, is civilization even possible) without slavery?

For large economies, including capitalism, have never yet existed without slavery. Even some smaller scale tribal economies and societies used slavery, if they did not absolutely depend on it.

But even today, with all the mechanization--including actual robot labor--that you might think would end this need--there is still slavery, and much of our economic life apparently depends on it. This is often characterized as child labor, but children and other more or less helpless groups are only among those exploited to such an extent that the term "slave" functionally applies.

All this of course raises moral questions, when we unknowingly (yet, how else are they so cheap?) buy clothes and other products made by slaves. But the dirtiest big secret may be that a world organized like ours, with the numbers of humans involved, cannot function as it does without slavery. And just what does that say about our pretensions and evasions. As well as our future.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I took this photo a couple of weeks ago. (As usual with my photos, it looks much better when you click on it.) The branches of this Linden tree, which is in the yard of a neighboring house, are bare and black now. We can see this tree from our kitchen window. It is a large, beautiful tree, with big leaves. Deciduous trees aren't the rule hereabouts, but there are some that shed their leaves. The linden is both late to bloom and late to shed. So I'm usually surprised to see it still have leaves in November, and then there comes a day when I look out and the branches are bare. I never actually saw the process of it losing its leaves until this year---and I also saw why. The leaves just poured off this tree. It must lose the majority of its leaves in a single day. This was the day.

This Linden has a story, or maybe a myth. When we moved in here, the old woman who lived in that house said her late husband had brought it over from Germany many years before as a seedling hidden in his luggage. Just a few years later she died as well, and her sister moved in. Her sister soon began to decline--we found her crying on our walk one rainy New Year's Eve. She was lost and disoriented. We got her back inside her house, where much of the furniture was overturned. Margaret put her to bed, and I found the phone number of her brother, who said he hadn't seen her in months. Soon after that, she was under the care of a nurse who came every day. She also died a couple of years ago. Now the house is owned by a couple who live in a nearby town and rent it out. They had the tree trimmed back in the spring. The woman said she would have had it cut down and removed if it hadn't cost so much. Margaret told her the story of how it came to be there.

This Linden is likely to be 50 or 60 years old. The Linden tree can live a very long time--nine hundred years or more. It is a famous tree in England (where it's called the lime) and Europe (tilla), particularly sacred in Poland, and in German villages it was the tree under which meetings, ceremonies and other civic events were held, including dancing. Its flowers were used to make a medicinal tea. Perhaps somewhere they still are. I don't think this particular tree is doing very well since it was "trimmed." Until now, it's been one of the best things about this neighborhood--looking out the kitchen window and seeing that magnificent tree. You can tell just by looking at it that it could outlast us all. If it just survives us.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Emerson for the Day

“Is not the beauty that piques us in every object, in a straw, in an old nail, a cobblestone in the road, the announcement that always one road lies out to nature?”

“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
John Muir

Sunday, December 26, 2010

By now, Olivia (shown at her fifth birthday party in November) and Persephone (being pushed on a swing a few days earlier by her father Matt) have opened their packages of Doctor Seuss books and Beatles CDs, sent to them by Captain Future: saving the culture, one little girl at a time. (Or two.)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Dreaming Up Holidays Quote

"From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things
are everywhere."

Doctor Seuss
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Friday, December 24, 2010

Legacy for the Future

This is a newer TED talk by Wade Davis--from 2008-- with new and updated travels and a more finely honed message. It is a message to the present about the future:

"... if you have the heart to feel and the eyes to see, you discover that the world is not flat. The world remains a rich tapestry. It remains a rich topography of the spirit. These myriad voices of humanity are not failed attempts at being new, failed attempts at being modern. They're unique facets of the human imagination. They're unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? And when asked that question, they respond with 6,000 different voices. And collectively, those voices become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us in the ensuing millennia.

Our industrial society is scarcely 300 years old. That shallow history shouldn't suggest to anyone that we have all of the answers for all of the questions that will confront us in the ensuing millennia.
The myriad voices of humanity are not failed attempts at being us. They are unique answers to that fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? And there is indeed a fire burning over the earth, taking with it not only plants and animals, but the legacy of humanity's brilliance.

Right now, as we sit here in this room, of those 6,000 languages spoken the day that you were born, fully half aren't being taught to children. So you're living through a time when virtually half of humanity's intellectual, social and spiritual legacy is being allowed to slip away. This does not have to happen. These peoples are not failed attempts at being modern -- quaint and colorful and destined to fade away as if by natural law.

In every case, these are dynamic, living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces. That's actually an optimistic observation, because it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be, and must be, the facilitators of cultural survival."

So watch this video with that in mind. And maybe number this among your New Year's Resolutions: multiple cultural survival for survival of the future.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Humankind Dreams Up: Adventures in the Ethnosphere

This is a 2003 TED talk by Wade Davis of the National Geographic. With visits to unfamiliar cultures he illustrates: "All of these peoples teach us that there are other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself in the Earth. And this is an idea, if you think about it, can only fill you with hope. Now, together the myriad cultures of the world make up a web of spiritual life and cultural life that envelops the planet, and is as important to the well-being of the planet as indeed is the biological web of life that you know as a biosphere. And you might think of this cultural web of life as being an ethnosphere and you might define the ethnosphere as being the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity's great legacy. It's the symbol of all that we are and all that we can be as an astonishingly inquisitive species." But in focusing on endangered cultures and especially languages, he is equally apocalyptic as hopeful. This is a mind-opening and perhaps even heart-opening presentation.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It Was A Very Good Day

It was a very good day in Washington, as President Obama said as--eloquent and obviously moved--he signed the law which will ensure that every American who chooses to do so can serve in the armed forces, regardless of sexual orientation. But that was only the beginning: today the Senate ratified the treaty with Russia that President Obama negotiated and signed, that will reduce nuclear arms and increase safeguards. The treaty passed with 71 votes.

The Senate also: "passed (by unanimous consent) the defense authorization bill that Republicans held up over objections to repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell just two short weeks ago; they passed by a voice vote the 9/11 First Responders Health bill that had been the subject of so much drama and debate; and they passed by a 71-26 vote the START nuclear treaty with Russia despite Republican objections to that as well." And they even approved an Obama appointee to the federal bench. Earlier a new food safety bill was also passed.

And so President Obama has presided over the most productive Congress since at least the 1960s (according to the Washington Post.) Then just a half hour or so ago, he held a press conference in which he crisply and even fervently outlined his priorities and intentions for 2011, as well as noting these and other 2010 accomplishments "I am persistent.") Then he prepared to join his family (seen here from earlier this month at the ceremonial lighting of the White House Christmas tree) in Hawaii for the holidays. As for me, I am confirmed in my feeling that this is my President, in a way I haven't felt since JFK.

Here are some excerpts from President Obama's press conference:

First of all, I’m glad that Democrats and Republicans came together to approve my top national security priority for this session of Congress – the new START Treaty. This is the most significant arms control agreement in nearly two decades, and it will make us safer and reduce our nuclear arsenals along with Russia. With this treaty, our inspectors will also be back on the ground at Russian nuclear bases. So we will be able to trust but verify; and to continue to advance our relationship with Russia, which is essential to making progress on a host of challenges – from enforcing strong sanctions on Iran, to preventing nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. This treaty will enhance our leadership to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and seek the peace of a world without them.

In the last few weeks, we also came together across party lines to pass a package of tax cuts and unemployment insurance that will spur jobs, businesses, and growth. This package includes a payroll tax cut that means nearly every American family will get an average tax cut next year of about $1,000 delivered in their paychecks. It will make a difference for millions of students, and parents, and workers, and people still looking for work. It’s has led economists across the political spectrum to predict that the economy will grow faster than they originally thought next year.

In our ongoing struggle to perfect our Union, we also overturned a 17-year old law and a longstanding injustice by finally ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As I said earlier today, this is the right thing to do for our security. And it is the right thing to do, period.

In addition, we came together across party lines to pass a food safety bill – the biggest upgrade of America’s food safety laws since the Great Depression. And I hope the House soon joins the Senate in passing a 9/11 health bill that will help cover the health care costs of police officers, firefighters, rescue workers, and residents who inhaled toxic air near the World Trade Center on that terrible morning, and the days that followed.

So, I think it’s fair to say this has been the most productive post-election period we’ve had in decades, and it comes on the heels of the most productive two years we’ve had in generations."

I'll post more when the full transcript is available.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nice, Wasn't It?

There's a post at Climate Progress about a causal connection that Jeff Masters (Weather Underground) and others have made between Climate Crisis hurricanes and the Haiti earthquake. Though that sounds like overreaching, there's past scientific findings and theory enough to warrant looking into it. Scientists do believe there can be connections between phenomena as disparate as hurricanes (causing landslides, which if in the right spot can accumulate to trigger earthquakes) and hurricanes and volcanoes.

But as often the comments are the most interesting part of the post, as commenters note various possibilities and connections. And it's one of the comments that says it all for me. It was by "catman306" on dec. 21, 2010 at 8:21pm--the first sentence is quoted from a previous comment:

“It is interesting to see how interconnected various earth systems are.” Interconnected in ways we have yet to learn about. (unknown unknowns) That’s why a stable, self-regulating system is precious. Well, we had one. Nice, wasn’t it?

(Allow me to note that one of the frustrating features of Climate Progress is that it does not allow you to directly copy a single comment. Any attempt leads to the whole post and all the comments being copied. But I was impressed by this one enough to copy it out by hand...)

The Future of Complexity

Christmas break starts with cleanup time. Going through accumulated notes orphaned on legal pads and pocket notebooks, and trying to catch up on missed reading--it seems always this time of the year that there's a backlog of New York Reviews, partially read, to finish (or even start.)

This Old Business extends to an issue from October that contains another memorial piece on Tony Judt. There are a couple of passages I wanted to note and save, that bear on the general premise of this site, what is involved in dreaming up the future. One of the constituents, reflecting reality, is complexity. So here's the pertinent bits in what Timothy Snyder writes about Tony Judt as an historian. Judt started as a Marxist historian, but moved from that single orthodoxy: "Yet even as he distanced himself from French Marxists, Tony resisted the temptation to substitute another source of intellectual authority for Marxism. Whereas some intellectuals of his generation replaced Marxism with something that seemed like its opposite—the market, for example—he instead rejected the very idea of a single underlying explanation of historical change. "

"Tony was typical of thinkers of his generation in his attempt to escape, in the
middle of life, from the attraction and pressure of structural theories such as Marxism. But he was unusual, as a historian, in that he chose pluralism, the embrace of multiple subjects, methods, and truths, rather than fragmentation, the flight to small islands of certainty. Many historians reacted to the end of faith in overall explanations by becoming experts in a narrow or specialized subject. In the 1990s, as he prepared himself to write Postwar, Tony chose the hardest path. Like Isaiah Berlin, another influential contemporary at Oxford, he accepted the irreducible variety within history, seeking to embrace difference within an account that was harmonious, convincing, and true. Tony brought together not only Europe east and west, but also Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. He wrote with equal authority about economics, society, politics, and culture, and granted the value of specialization by mastering the huge literatures of these fields, to which he imparted grace and unity."

Marxism is both a historical account of how the present arose and a prescription of how the future must be. In
Past Imperfect, composed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tony permitted himself to be moralist and historian at the same time; during his research for and after the publication of Postwar, in the 1990s and 2000s, he allowed the two vocations of scholar and essayist to separate, to the benefit of both. As a historian he became more measured, and as an essayist he became more significant. His gift as an essayist, perfected after his move to the United States, was to be where he was and yet not to be where he was, to partake of the governing assumptions of his time and place without being governed by them. To take an example that is rarely mentioned: Tony was right, and right at the time, about the mendacity of the campaign for war in Iraq and the coming dreadful consequences for the United States. His inclination to criticize American policy, he thought, was what made him American."

After being diagnosed with ALS, Judt used the resources at his command and the collaboration of admiring writer and editor friends to write a dazzling amount of powerful prose, some of it published (and is still being published) in the New York Review, as well as in books: Ill Fares the Land, currently in bookstores, and a future publication, Thinking the Twentieth Century.

I see these approaches or attitudes as guideposts for considering the future, which inevitably involves reconsidering the past. Complexity is not only a feature of the world that science is coming to reluctantly accept and document (since western science is all about reducing reality to simple rules that can then be manipulated to make stuff happen--often enough, ways to excuse bad behavior and/or blow it all up.) But the future is a big place. And a complex one. While Marx had insights into history pertinent at least to the Industrial Age and after (if you assume we're in something else now; not sure I do) there are other causalities. History is overdetermined. Including the history of the future. Which argues for emphasizing the soul of the future, at least to me, at least in terms of what I stumble around calling my work.

Eyewitness Eclipse

First, this isn't my photo. It was taken in Portland during the eclipse of 2008, but it gives a flavor of what I saw tonight. Because...I saw it!

With all the rain in the forecasts, it didn't seem likely the sky would be clear enough. But at the time the eclipse was supposed to start, there were clouds but the full moon was burning through them. First an edge was obscured—could be a cloud but it didn’t move.

So I bundled up and went outside when the moon was about a quarter obscured. But the moon at the top of the sky wasn’t the first thing I saw—there was a wide breathtaking ring around the moon, very big, touching the belt of Orion, with stars inside and around it, with flits of clouds going by.

As the eclipse proceeded, I could see it through the binoculars as a rounded shadow on the moon—working its way to half, to three quarters. For that period the larger ring faded, and again there was a kind of tight corona of light around the moon—dark fragments of clouds moved as if to go across it but somehow they never obscured it.

But as the moon's light softened and faded, with less than a quarter visible, something unexpected. On a clear night when the moon disappeared, the disk would be barely visible, but also more stars would appear in the darkened sky. Here tonight the opposite happened. When the moon faded, the stars disappeared—just blank, milky-dark sky, cloud cover presumably, without the brightness of the moon to shine through it. Or just a coincidence? In any case, it was eerie. When the moon went out, so did the stars. I watched the last undefined light from the moon fade out, and then everything in the sky was gone. The sky was full of nothing.

I came back in to warm up, and a bit later when I returned, a star was visible, and gradually the moon. There was a reddish scar across it but the luminous outline of the disk was clearly visible. It wasn’t like the eclipse in reverse. The sky cleared more until it was almost completely clear overhead—-and though invisible high clouds dimmed it occasionally, I could watch the full disk. At one point through the binoculars it looked weirdly like a Halloween jack’o lantern—orange cast to the disk and what seemed like those triangular slashes of eyes, but just half the mouth—a half smile. The sense in this phase –maybe because of the color—was that this was a sphere in space, not just that bright disk in the sky.

A few minutes later, serious cloudbank moved in. The eclipse cycle was about over anyway. But the bright moon has not yet returned.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Moon Above, Sea Below: Happy Solstice!

Tonight is the first total eclipse of the moon to coincide with the winter solstice in 372 years. Those who can see it may also get a better view of the ongoing Ursids meteor shower. Here on the West Coast USA it begins at 11:41 pm but it's pretty doubtful anyone will see it--more storms are arriving. Southern CA (not used to this so much) is particularly hard hit, and they're getting more, causing (among other things) some nasty mudslides. (Did you know that the mud can crash down at from 35 to 64 mph?) This story estimates that about half the US will be locked in clouds tonight, but other locations in North and South America have the best view.

Meanwhile on Earth, a satellite dedicated to tracing the movements of ocean currents is providing surprisingly detailed data. Apart from yielding this pretty neat picture, this information may turn out to be the key to knowing the larger trends resulting from climate distortion of the Climate Crisis. These currents move heat around the planet, as well as being important to the ecosystem of the ocean itself, both of which are key to the continuity or survival of human civilization. Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Obama's Civil Rights Landmark

It is so far the Civil Rights landmark of the first African American President: the end of discrimination in the armed forces on the basis of sexual preference.

"Moments ago, the Senate voted to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." President Obama said in an email."When that bill reaches my desk, I will sign it, and this discriminatory law will be repealed. Gay and lesbian service members -- brave Americans who enable our freedoms -- will no longer have to hide who they are. The fight for civil rights, a struggle that continues, will no longer include this one."

The last act of a long drama began with the breaking of the filibuster in the Senate and then passing the bill, by a vote of 65-31. Once signed into law, the armed forces will begin to implement it. It is another accomplishment for Speaker Pelosi in the House, for Senate leadership, but most of all it is due to the orchestration of what turned out to be as close to a bipartisan passage as could even be imagined in the 2008 campaign.

The President worked carefully to respect the military and get their assent, to work with political allies but also to help build public support. As TPM notes, The vote will likely be seen as a major political victory for President Obama, who pushed repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell on the campaign trail and set a year-long timetable for a legislative repeal of the policy in his State Of The Union back in January." During that time he was criticized by some for going too slow, for not pressing the matter and "letting it die." But now, because of all that preparation, there is little chance that it will ever again become a major issue. It's unlikely to be challenged the way the health care law is. There will probably be bumps, but with the breadth of support now, it is permanent.

Beyond this political lesson, it is a great day for America when yet another shameful form of discrimination has been overcome. On the long road to this moment, it took the hard work and sacrifices of brave activists and service members. America is stronger today. It is more itself. And we can be prouder to be Americans.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Emerson for the Day

“It is not imagination that commonly masks reality; it is routine.”

--Emerson biographer Robert D. Richardson, summarizing an Emerson point.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fate of the Polar Bear

There's a bunch of new macro-news about the Climate Crisis, and none of it is good. But for the moment, there's one study that professes one sliver of hope about one species: the polar bear. The headline from this study by a US Geological team published in Nature says that the polar bear may not necessarily be doomed to extinction--that if there are immediate major cuts in greenhouse gases emissions, the polar bear has a chance.

This BBC article goes on to note that it isn't much of a chance, but there are two interesting points the article makes. First is from the study, which is that the tipping point in the Arctic has not yet been reached (as at least one other study suggests). This is based on observational studies as opposed to projections from models.

The second point is also observational, and it points to the more likely fate of the polar bear--more likely because it has already begun, and it mirrors the fate of many other species. As the characteristics of their Arctic habitat are lost, polar bears come into contact with other bear species, and crossbreeding has already begun. The first polar bears with brown fur mixed with white have been observed--probably from a grizzly bear mating. The article notes that other Arctic species are involved in the same process. So the polar bear is going extinct as a distinct species, as the Arctic heats up and destroys the conditions that make the polar bear the polar bear.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's Beginning To Look Alot Like...

It's not Christmas yet, but President Obama's tax cut agreement won in the Senate by a large margin, repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell passed the House and is one vote away from a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate (with the support of 77% of American in one poll), and he signed the bipartisan bill he got through Congress that stops a large pay cut for doctors from Medicare which threatened medical care for seniors. Meanwhile new polls show that his job approval among liberal Democrats did not drop appreciably because of the tax cut controversy (it's at 87%), Americans trust him more than Republicans, and way more than Congress as a whole (their approval rating is 13%), and he's well ahead of everybody to be re-elected in 2012.
Update 12/16: Repeal of DADT now has 61 votes. But a vote on the bill isn't yet scheduled in the Senate.
2nd Update: Tax cut bill passed the House. DADT vote scheduled for Sunday. Senate proceeding on START treaty consideration, but GOPers reneged on promises and killed the overall spending bill they had previously agreed to.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Emerson for the Day

"His own culture—the unfolding of his own nature—is the chief end of man.”

[ Phipp's Conservatory in Pittsburgh, November.]
Photo copyright William Kowinski 2010.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

R.I.P. Elizabeth Edwards

She may not have been the saintly model of patience and compassion of her image (at least according to some accounts) but she was a fierce advocate for what she believed, faced awful tribulations with courage, and her children praised her as a mother. Elizabeth Edwards was buried today. May she rest in peace.

Old Business

Can't-Cun has wound up with an agreement which, especially given low expectations, has some positives. John Podesta hailed the forest agreement in particular.

I'm not following the Wikileak news closely, but it looks revealing in all kinds of ways. All these items to isolate and prosecute--maybe even persecute--it and its leader(s), while news organization feast on the stories it has generated. Meanwhile it has some fierce defenders in cyberspace. This looks like it goes on for awhile. As far as I can tell, the federal government has overreacted.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Emerson for the Day

“What is the end of human life? It is not, believe me, the chief end of man that he should make a fortune and beget children whose end is likewise to make a fortune, but it is, in few words, that he should explore himself.”


It's Not That Complicated

I'm not following the political ins and outs as I once did, like way back in October. But having spent my two cents on the tax cut deal for the edification of an ever-shrinking public, I have to say that I watched President Obama's press conference and I'm not in the least confused.

Others apparently are. Clive Cook in the Atlantic called Obama's press conference this week his most interesting, and I can buy that. But he felt Obama contradicted himself: he blamed the need for this tax cut deal on GOPers who "held hostage" middle class tax cuts and unemployment insurance, unless tax cuts for the megawealthy oligarchy continue. But at the same time, he criticized progressive critics for demanding purity, when that would mean millions of middle class and poor Americans would be paying more taxes and the chronic unemployed would get nothing. As Cook put it:

Good Lord. One minute, he's reassuring progressives. We are good and they are evil. It's victims and hostage-takers, no less. Just be patient, our time will come, and accounts with the enemy will be settled. Next minute, he's rebuking the same progressives. Spare me your sanctimonious purism. It's un-American. We have good-faith differences of opinion. "This country was founded on compromise."

I simply don't see a contradiction, even theoretically, and I certainly don't see that Obama was contradicting himself. He said that although progressives are basically right on this issue, he had to compromise in order to get what was more important, and progressive ought to be smart enough to see that.

This is the difference between politics and governing. Progressives can build up their egoes and media profiles with angry demands, and progressive groups can scare up more contributions because as everyone in the politics biz knows, you raise money for opposition. Fine. But Barack Obama has a different job. He's President. He has a country to worry about, and things to get done.

I keep going back to my touchstone here, the lessons I learned at the ripe old age of 16, listening to what Ted Sorenson and JFK said about what they did in the early 60s. When they enacted what became Medicare, started the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, the Peace Corps, the first raise in the minimum wage in awhile, the Treat Ban Treaty and sent to Congress what became the Voting Rights Act.

Maybe their critique of "liberals" was more discreet, but I judged Obama's words as a rebuke intended to throw some reality into the situation so that progressives might see that demanding purism only gets them what they got in the 2010 elections, as well as not being able to effectively govern.

I have absolutely no problem with Bernie Sanders talking for more than eight hours on the Senate floor opposing tax cuts for the wealthy:"How can I get by on one house?" Sanders railed, sarcastically. "I need five houses, ten houses. I need three jet planes to take me all over the world! Sorry, American people. We've got the money, we've got the power." I am personally sickened to the point of physical disgust by Wall Street oligarchs and their GOPer servants. The Bush tax cuts for them are obscene. But even the pre-Bush taxes on the superwealthly were too low. And while it is a disgustingly high price to pay to give ordinary people a much needed break in their taxes in this unsettled economy, it has to be done. Temporarily.

There are I am sure progressives or even non-progressives who believe President Obama is wrong about the economy, that the tax cuts for the middle class aren't going to do what he hopes they will do and therefore aren't worth it, and especially aren't worth the continued tax cuts for the wealthy. But the anger is coming from those who make this an absolute moral argument, an absolute ideological argument and an absolute party-political argument, and that's the "sanctimonious" purity President Obama went after, and he was right to do so. Of course those tax cuts are immoral. It's hardly the only immoral thing government does, but the tradeoff is a moral good: that little bit of money means a lot to people who are strapped, within an economy that offers fewer opportunities. I for one am more interested in keeping my earned income tax credit than in the obscenely wealthly continuing to pay less than they did eight years ago.

As for those who think President Obama has alienated his progressive base and therefore hurts himself politically (including folks I often agree with, like E.J. Dionne) I don't see it that way. I think a lot of middle class people, in trouble or not far from it, or who are vulnerable enough to imagine it, would look at that press conference and say, he's standing up against everybody for us. He's standing up against the GOPers, because of what he got them to give to the middle class, to struggling families, to the unemployed. He's standing up against people in his own party, and he's not apologizing for it. And he's being straight about it with everybody:

"So my job is to make sure that we have a North Star out there. What is helping the American people live out their lives? What is giving them more opportunity? What is growing the economy? What is making us more competitive? And at any given juncture, there are going to be times where my preferred option, what I am absolutely positive is right, I can’t get done.

And so then my question is, does it make sense for me to tack a little bit this way or tack a little bit that way, because I’m keeping my eye on the long term and the long fight -- not my day-to-day news cycle, but where am I going over the long term?"

As for his general argument, he's made it before--the way that Social Security and Medicare started small, as highly compromised programs, etc. But he threw one more example in there that for me was more of a key to his thinking:

"This country was founded on compromise. I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding."

Though the man who was once called America's first black President agrees that this deal is good for the country, this is the perspective of the man who is our first actual black President. Think about it.

Update: Last words on this topic: The reason this happened now is time--the Bush tax cuts for both the wealthy and the middle class would disappear January 1 if nothing is done. That put the GOPers under the gun as well as Obama. Now if the election had turned out better for the Dems, Obama would be in better position now. But later in January, when the new Congress is sworn in, GOPers will be in better position to do what they want. If not for the Jan. 1 deadline, they would have waited. So that's the leverage Obama had to get concessions for this deal. Plus he faced the imminent ending of unemployment insurance payments to several million people.

This is the political reality: both sides needed to make a deal now. Obama got a pretty good one. Those who believe they would have gotten a better deal following their strategy have to convince me that (a) They're smarter than Obama, and (b) they are in the White House or Congress and in the room with the negotiators, so they're doing more than armchair arm-twisting. I mean, we can all speculate, but let's respect the fact that we aren't actually there, and he is... There are more arguments pro and con summarized in an exchange at Salon.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"You can shine your shoes and wear a suit
You can comb your hair and look quite cute
You can hide your face behind a smile
One thing you can't hide
Is when you're crippled inside--

You can wear a mask and paint your face
You can call yourself the human race
You can wear a collar and a tie
One thing you can't hide
Is when you're crippled inside--

Well now you know that your cat has nine lives
Nine lives to itself
But you only got one
A dog's life ain't fun
Mamma take a look outside--

You can go to church and sing a hymn
You can judge me by the color of my skin
You can live a lie until you die
One thing you can't hide
Is when you're crippled inside... "

John Lennon

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Deal

I have my disappointments concerning President Obama. The Can't-Cun conference seems to have been entirely ignored, and some plain talk on the Climate Crisis might help change the dynamic, but President Obama still prefers to get at this issue sideways by talking about clean energy and its role in the economic future. (Still, even when he talks about that, he's mostly ignored.)

But I have very little patience for the baying hyenas of the left who accuse him of cowardice for making a deal on tax cuts. During a commercial on Monday Night Football, I switched through MSNBC--where they were howling about Obama's selling out--and FOX--where they were howling about Obama not praising leaders of the Death Eaters Party enough for allowing this compromise.

The voice that mostly wasn't being heard was Obama's. So I had to go to the White House site to hear his point of view:

"Ever since I started running for this office I've said that we should only extend the tax cuts for the middle class. These are the Americans who’ve taken the biggest hit not only from this recession but from nearly a decade of costs that have gone up while their paychecks have not. It would be a grave injustice to let taxes increase for these Americans right now. And it would deal a serious blow to our economic recovery.

Now, Republicans have a different view. They believe that we should also make permanent the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. I completely disagree with this. A permanent extension of these tax cuts would cost us $700 billion at a time when we need to start focusing on bringing down our deficit. And economists from all across the political spectrum agree that giving tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires does very little to actually grow our economy.

This is where the debate has stood for the last couple of weeks. And what is abundantly clear to everyone in this town is that Republicans will block a permanent tax cut for the middle class unless they also get a permanent tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, regardless of the cost or impact on the deficit.

We saw that in two different votes in the Senate that were taken this weekend. And without a willingness to give on both sides, there’s no reason to believe that this stalemate won't continue well into next year. This would be a chilling prospect for the American people whose taxes are currently scheduled to go up on January 1st because of arrangements that were made back in 2001 and 2003 under the Bush tax cuts.

I am not willing to let that happen. I know there’s some people in my own party and in the other party who would rather prolong this battle, even if we can't reach a compromise. But I'm not willing to let working families across this country become collateral damage for political warfare here in Washington. And I'm not willing to let our economy slip backwards just as we're pulling ourselves out of this devastating recession.

I'm not willing to see 2 million Americans who stand to lose their unemployment insurance at the end of this month be put in a situation where they might lose their home or their car or suffer some additional economic catastrophe.

So, sympathetic as I am to those who prefer a fight over compromise, as much as the political wisdom may dictate fighting over solving problems, it would be the wrong thing to do. The American people didn’t send us here to wage symbolic battles or win symbolic victories. They would much rather have the comfort of knowing that when they open their first paycheck on January of 2011, it won’t be smaller than it was before, all because Washington decided they preferred to have a fight and failed to act."

The Deal will mean all the Bush tax cuts will continue for two more years--for the middle class as well as the wealthy. It also means unemployment benefits will be extended for another 13 months. Without action, all of these would have expired the end of this month.

But there's more--continuing the Obama tax cuts from the original stim, the earned income tax credit and other benefits, plus a payroll tax decrease early next year and incentives for small businesses. And the prospect of votes on unrelated but important matters, such as Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal and the START treaty to reduce nuclear weapons.

Some observers believe this is quite a good deal. Even a politically smart deal. But what I find most convincing is that the cumulative effect would be to add more stimulus to the economy when it needs it: to the tune of some $200 billion. With support of GOPers, yet. A stealth stim.

President Obama continued:

"I have no doubt that everyone will find something in this compromise that they don’t like. In fact, there are things in here that I don’t like -- namely the extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the wealthiest estates. But these tax cuts will expire in two years. And I’m confident that as we make tough choices about bringing our deficit down, as I engage in a conversation with the American people about the hard choices we’re going to have to make to secure our future and our children’s future and our grandchildren’s future, it will become apparent that we cannot afford to extend those tax cuts any longer.

And let me just end with this. There’s been a lot of debate in Washington about how this would ultimately get resolved. I just want everybody to remember over the course of the coming days, both Democrats and Republicans, that these are not abstract fights for the families that are impacted. Two million people will lose their unemployment insurance at the end of this month if we don't get this resolved. Millions more of Americans will see their taxes go up at a time when they can least afford it. And my singular focus over the next year is going to be on how do we continue the momentum of the recovery, how do we make sure that we grow this economy and we create more jobs.

We cannot play politics at a time when the American people are looking for us to solve problems. And so I look forward to engaging the House and the Senate, members of both parties, as well as the media, in this debate. But I am confident that this needs to get done, and I'm confident ultimately Congress is going to do the right thing."

This may not play to Washington egoes and gland-driven politicos, but it is the right balance for governing: between the needs of the future and the needs of the present. A better and fairer economy provides resources as well as a better frame of mind for building the future. But no President should ignore the advice that Harry Hopkins gave to FDR: "People don't eat in the long term. They eat every day."

This isn't a New Deal or a Fair Deal. And while I applaud Nancy Pelosi and the House Dems for voting against the tax cuts for the superrich last week, this appears to be a Deal that we need.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Emerson for the Day

"I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space, and human nature; but I saw also, that it must do it.”

Margaret Fuller

Friday, December 03, 2010


As a consequence of one of the few "real" jobs I ever had (the kind with a salary, an office, daily series of mind-destroying meetings, etc.), I went on my only "real" vacation (paid, winter, flew, sunny place, hotel, restaurants, shops, sunburn) in Cancun. This was so many years ago that if the babe in the bottom photo was there, she'd be in her forties or fifties now. But the hotel in the top photo (a smaller version of it anyway) was where I stayed. It was the winter after a hurricane mashed the place, and they were anxious for tourists to come back, so it was unbelievably cheap. And though the beaches had been damaged some, they still existed. Apparently these days, as the international Climate Crisis Convention (or whatever they call it) is happening there...not so much.

The beaches are disappearing in Cancun, thanks in large part to direct and indirect effects of global heating. But the Climate Crisis is well beyond such ironies. That the reality doesn't matter seems to be a given. So the norm is clashing headlines like Study: Climate change to cause extreme world drought (USA TODAY)meets Climate Change Doubt Is Tea Party Article of Faith (with its nice play on "faith," in the New York Times).

As everyone knows, political opposition has kept the U.S. from leading or doing anything much through congressional legislation, and that's only going to get worse when John "Voldemort" Banal becomes Speaker, and the Death Eater Party is the majority. But we're not alone--our shining country to the north disconcertingly mirrored our intransigence last month: Canada senate kills climate bill ahead of UN summit noted BBC News.

And so expectations for what the summit in Cancun can accomplish is very low--it's pretty much that Cancun can't. What is specifically at issue, what increments may show some progress, are summarized here. Some scientists even remain hopeful, either because they see incremental progress (even if others have noted that incremental progress is unlikely to be sufficient) or they take a longer view (even if that presupposes a future that may not be there.) For example, the ICCC's Rajendra Pachauri who claims:

"I am not terribly dismayed about the current state of affairs," Pachauri said. "I believe the trend is clearly toward much greater understanding and awareness on climate change than was the case three or four years ago. I personally feel very optimistic about the youth all over the world, including the US, who feel very sensitive about some of these issues. ..There's a lot of disinformation, which is driving current attitudes, and these things don't last," he added.

Meanwhile, Oxfam reports that "climate-related disasters killed 21,000 people in the first nine months of this year, more than double the number in 2009..." and "The summit takes place against the backdrop of forecasts that carbon emissions are set to start rising again after a brief interlude from the recession, and analyses showing that countries' current pledges are not big enough to keep the global average temperature rise within bounds that most nations say they want."

Since controlling carbon and encouraging clean energy are linked economically as well as ecologically, the United States is confronted with another problem that the Party of Ignorance and Hypocrisy is intent on ignoring: the U.S. is losing any chance of leadership in global clean energy technologies to other nations, particularly China. (This piece also provides some play-by-play on the Can'tcun not-goingson.)

This fact has distressed U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, as well as others who have been paying attention (just sample the comments to that story.) He says it should be our "Sputnik moment," i.e. the fact that galvanizes us into action, basically by scaring us to death. I'll at least give him credit for not calling it a "wake-up call," as every story about rising temperatures and sea levels, melting glaciers etc. is supposed to be, but hasn't been. There are good reasons why this isn't a Sputnik moment (we're not threatened with imminent nuclear holocaust from the sky by a sworn and highly propagandized enemy, for starters) but it does somewhat indicate why we're in this fix. Scientists typically don't have a grasp of political and social realities, and a field rightly following the lead of scientists has no vocabulary that has succeeded in communicating urgency or moral responsibility.

As much as the continuing inability to communicate effectively really distresses me (the current mind-numbing mumbling over "mitigation" vs. "adaptation" being the latest case in point--do they really think anybody knows what they're talking about?), that's unlikely to be most of what's gone wrong. We sure could use some plain talk and some real moral leadership. But the gap between demonstrable realities and public "belief" is so extreme, that this must be mostly in the realm of the psyche, involving politics built around psychological responses, and perhaps even rising to the status of large groups captured by a psychological complex on a massive scale, as were many in Germany and western Europe as the Nazis rose to power. Whatever it is, I don't think it has reached its fullness yet, and I kind of doubt that anything--any disastrous event even--will change that until it has played itself out, or has reached a point where a disaster or the right words at the right time by the right person throws enough cold water in humanity's face to wake us all up to these realities, and our fate.

Of course I have no idea when this will be, or what difference it will make if and when it happens. But I doubt it will be in Can'tcun.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


She's one of the most reviled people in America, and quite possibly the most reviled woman. A Google search of photos of her yields results that are overwhelming unflattering, and mostly just vicious. But she has been the most effective Democratic Speaker of the House in generations, and a true champion of the future. Today was probably her last hurrah, and she stuck it to those champions of ignorance and perfidity, the GOPers of the House.

TPM: "Using a wily procedural maneuver to tie Republican hands, House Democrats managed to pass, by a vote of 234-188, legislation that will allow the Bush tax cuts benefiting only the wealthiest Americans to expire."

Apparently the Senate is very unlikely to follow suit. But it's worth it to have this rare last moment, when somebody stands up for the change we believed in. Nancy Pelosi, I salute you.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“Are you jealous of the ocean’s generosity?
Why would you refuse to give
this joy to anyone?

Fish don’t hold the sacred liquid in cups!
They swim the huge fluid freedom.”


Airport Security Follies

The inestimable, irrepressible Jon Carroll weighs in on the airport security follies in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Politics of Downward Bound

This apparently is going to be the familiar theme for the near future: self-destructive governing based on psychotic politics, in a decadent political system out of touch with reality.

First example of the day: Congress is not renewing unemployment benefits, which apart from the unforgivable cruelty in such a wealthy nation, and with excess dripping from the favored few, will take billions out of the economy and wound economic recovery, which will in turn lead to less tax money and higher government deficits--and deficits are apparently all that Washington wants to talk about.

Oh--except for the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, a major contributor to the federal deficit and the easiest to remedy. But the politics of that now favor their retention, which will be a further drag on the economy and the deficit.

Two things are happening politically: first, President Obama is being isolated by growing polarization to his left and right. It is reflected in some polls, but the true power of it is that both sides are professional politicians, and politics in this country is now primarily if not exclusively about raising money, which requires raising temperatures.

Second, the politics of the moment make so little sense that something else is going on, something deep in the American psyche. As Gov. Strictland of Ohio said, that there is not enough public support against ending the Bush tax cuts for the most wealthy boggles the mind. There's something--or several somethings--going on.

This is what we're watching, and in my case, more silently than usual in this space, as I turn my attention to other realms where dreaming up has more of a function for the future, as well as the present.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Other Crisis

It's not just the Climate Crisis that threatens the near future. It's the economic, political and social consequences of the growing divide between the supremely rich and the rest. The rich have been getting richer and everyone else poorer since the Reagan 80s. Though Clinton policies and a booming economy temporarily boosted the middle class, thanks to GB Bush policies and now the lingering effects of the Great Recession--mostly felt by the non supremely rich--the divide is getting way out of hand.

But Bob Herbert's recent column says it better than I can:

Recessions are for the little people, not for the corporate chiefs and the titans of Wall Street who are at the heart of the American aristocracy. They have waged economic warfare against everybody else and are winning big time...

The ranks of the poor may be swelling and families forced out of their foreclosed homes may be enduring a nightmarish holiday season, but American companies have just experienced their most profitable quarter ever. As The Times reported this week, U.S. firms earned profits at an annual rate of $1.659 trillion in the third quarter — the highest total since the government began keeping track more than six decades ago.

The corporate fat cats are becoming alarmingly rotund. Their profits have surged over the past seven quarters at a pace that is among the fastest ever seen, and they can barely contain their glee."

Herbert outlines how self-destructive this is economically, but moves on to the social consequences:

"Beyond that, extreme economic inequality is a recipe for social instability. Families on the wrong side of the divide find themselves under increasing pressure to just hold things together: to find the money to pay rent or the mortgage, to fend off bill collectors, to cope with illness and emergencies, and deal with the daily doses of extreme anxiety.

Societal conflicts metastasize as resentments fester and scapegoats are sought. Demagogues inevitably emerge to feast on the poisonous stew of such an environment

Herbert suggests that those who don't think this resentment can build should remember the 1930s. But that may be the wrong model. In the 30s, as earlier in the 20th century, it was politically potent to go after Big Business, Wall Street and the Trusts for their imperious wrecking of the economy and society. But after generations of equating such criticism with Communism, and deification of "private enterprise" as the solution for everything, it's politically tougher to aim at the supremely rich corporations so cleanly.

Instead that resentment gets translated the way corporate power prefers: the anxious white middle class scapegoats those below them (actually or traditionally) in the social order: other races and immigrants. So racism is on the rise, translated into anti-Obama fervor and such cultural expressions as the recent Dancing with the Stars debacle, in which voting Tea Partiers chose a talent-challenged Bristol Palin over the clearly more accomplished uppitedly black woman.

The black man in the White House also inflames anti-government rhetoric, thus depriving the middle class of its only institutional protection against predatory corporate power. Republicans gained power by refusing to be a governing partner, a virtually unprecedented act of unpatriotic selfishness. The combination does violence to social cohesion, the kind that is necessary in times of emergency.

Meanwhile, the governing ruling class goes on as apparently clueless as ever. Herbert cites a dandy of an example--

A stark example of the potential for real conflict is being played out in New York City, where the multibillionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has selected a glittering example of the American aristocracy to be the city’s schools chancellor. Cathleen Black, chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, has a reputation as a crackerjack corporate executive but absolutely no background in education.

Ms. Black travels in the rarefied environs of the very rich. Her own children went to private boarding schools. She owns a penthouse on Park Avenue and a $4 million home in Southampton. She was able to loan a $47,600 Bulgari bracelet to a museum for an exhibit showing off the baubles of the city’s most successful women.

Ms. Black will be peering across an almost unbridgeable gap between her and the largely poor and working-class parents and students she will be expected to serve. Worse, Mr. Bloomberg, heralding Ms. Black as a “superstar manager,” has made it clear that because of budget shortfalls she will be focused on managing cutbacks to the school system. So here we have the billionaire and the millionaire telling the poor and the struggling — the little people — that they will just have to make do with less

Making the point I just tried to make, Herbert adds his remedy:

Extreme inequality is already contributing mightily to political and other forms of polarization in the U.S. And it is a major force undermining the idea that as citizens we should try to face the nation’s problems, economic and otherwise, in a reasonably united fashion. When so many people are tumbling toward the bottom, the tendency is to fight among each other for increasingly scarce resources.

What’s really needed is for working Americans to form alliances and try, in a spirit of good will, to work out equitable solutions to the myriad problems facing so many ordinary individuals and families. Strong leaders are needed to develop such alliances and fight back against the forces that nearly destroyed the economy and have left working Americans in the lurch."

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday

Santa Claus' sleigh these days takes the form of this huge ship, commissioned by Wal-Mart and built in Denmark specifically and only to haul goodies from China to the U.S. It takes just 13 people to run it, even though it's longer than a U.S. aircraft carrier. This ship is so big that it had to be built in five separate sections that were welded together. The command bridge alone is higher than a 10-story building. The ship has its own cargo crane rigs--11 of them--that operating simultaneously can unload the entire ship in under two hours. So this is where Christmas comes from, where Black Friday lives. Typically, cargo ships from China that bring consumer goods to California ports, return with cardboard and material for recycling--in other words, garbage. But these ships reputedly return completely empty. [Thanks to Bill T. for sending me these photos etc. awhile back.]

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gratitude 2010

In a personal way and in conventional terms, I have much to be grateful for this year. The family members I've just visited in PA are healthy and reasonably secure, as are Margaret and I.

In the larger sense, the difference between last Thanksgiving and this is that I no longer believe that anything will or perhaps even can prevent major calamities in the near future--within a half century. Partly this is because I now accept that effects already in the works from global heating will be very serious, and society is clearly not prepared for them. Nor does our country in particular seem likely to be up to the challenge of preventing worse consequences, or dealing effectively with the consequences to come relatively soon. So to me the future looks different than it did just a year ago.

I've been dipping into a 1992 collection of pieces by John Leonard, surely the most brilliant, incisive and comprehensive American cultural critic of the past half century, titled The Last Innocent White Man in America (which refers not to himself but to Kurt Vonnegut.) Leonard looked at political and societal events from the perspectives--the wisdom--gleaned from literature. Just sampling some of the pieces from the 80s and early 90s made me realize that things haven't changed much, not since Reagan in the 1980s, and in larger currents, not since industrialism or capitalism or even the rise of what we call civilization, which was always based on war,exploitation and racism, if not outright slavery. In particular, American racism, xenophobia, and the war of the super rich on everyone else, with the side effects of extremism justified by religion and the pursuit of ignorance that all seem to be reaching new heights, were all visible in this familiar form and growing in the 1980s.

We needed to improve faster, and we haven't. In particular, our last chance to deal with global heating without catastrophic consequences that at least equal World War II and could well be much worse and more pervasive, was probably the late 1970s or early 1980s. So though the jury is out on whether the human species has flunked evolution, it seems very likely that what we call human civilization has.

I suppose in some selfish sense I am grateful that I won't live long enough to see the worst of what will happen, although no one knows what one's personal fate may be. But while I'm here I also hope to convey to the next generations what I believe they need to know, and need to be, to meet the challenges of that future.

Part of what I hope to convey is gratitude. Some of that is in the vein of the essay by Joanna Macy that I've quoted here every Thanksgiving for the past several years. But some is different, or more specific.

The best gratitude is absolute, but some of it is based on comparison. The worst kind of gratitude is being grateful for having what others don't have, which leads to all kinds of mischief. But imagining what one might not have can be a useful and enlightening comparison. The key word here is "imagining." Using imagination is the key.

But often what is imagined is based in experience, is an extrapolation. In winters when I was growing up, our water pipes would occasionally freeze, and we would be without running water for days. Where I live now, storms or other accidents have blacked out electrical power, sometimes for a week or more. There have been circumstances in my life when I've had little food or money. When I've been thirsty and without water. When I had no place to sleep. All of these are educational experiences. We assume so much. But our most basic resources are very fragile.

So at my age, I am grateful every day when after a certain amount of groaning, my muscles work pretty smoothly and without pain. But also just about every day I am consciously grateful for hot running water. Those basics of food, clothing, shelter, energy and infrastructure and the relative ease with which we obtain them are increasingly precarious. Learning this, and then learning what this prospect and those situations may mean in terms of personal character--of qualities of soul-- as well as action in the world, are going to be more and more necessary in the future. A future that can begin being the present at any moment.

So also, gratitude for the moment. For the laughter and affection of Oliva (age 5) and Persephone (age 3.) For all my family, and all my relations. For the hummingbirds that hang out near our feeders, now that all the flowers have gone. For Glenn Gould on YouTube. For Inka Dinka Do. For the good heartedness behind the crazy cultural melange called Thanksgiving in America.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

From This Modern World, where there's information on Tom Tomorrow's gift collection for adults and a book for children. Tell him Captain Future sent you. (Though I'm not suggesting you ignore the new Doonesbury book. Just sayin.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."
John F. Kennedy

To Grandmother's House We Scan

Having just flown back and forth across the U.S., I'm marvelling at the ongoing flyers revolt, which is attracting a lot of attention as a record number of people take to the airways for Thanksgiving weekend.

Up until now it's seemed that people were so intimidated by the spectre of terrorism that they were willing to undergo the absurd humiliations that pass for security checks at airports. On this trip I noticed how normal it has become to be sorting through buckets of your possessions while holding up your pants and walking in your socks, then finding somewhere to reassemble it all, get your belt back on and your shoes back on your feet. In both directions on my trip, it went very smoothly.

There was less hoohaw about the disposition of your mouthwash and nail clippers than last time--partly because we're all used to the rules, whether they make sense or not. We know now that we're expected to pay a premium for bottled water past the check point, because we're not allowed to bring any in. On this trip, both flyers and security people dealt with everything pretty calmly and efficiently.

But it seems that the new full body scanners being installed in airports everywhere are a bridge too far for the flying public. (They weren't operational in Arcata or Pittsburgh, the two airports where I went through security.) There are fears about radiation, not mollified at all by official pronouncements of their safety (which is what government authorities always say. Once upon a time, they said nuclear fallout is good for you.) There seems to be a special aversion to how much the scanners are reputed to show.

The only alternative that the Transportation Safety Administration offers is the full body pat down, which is just as repulsive to the people who are in revolt on the scanners. The buzz has been intense--protests have succeeded in getting pat downs forbidden for children, but there's controversy about gender and sex--security men aren't supposed to be patting down women, but what if they're gay? Once the match is lit in the age of texting and Twitter, these matters become a raging fire.

The first protests I saw covered were from pilots, who were angry about the rigid, incompetent and idiotic application of meaningless rules--which is hardly new to the situation (witness the notorious problems with the No Fly lists.) Later they expressed concerned at being repeatedly scanned and exposed to cumulative levels of radiation.

Then protests from both frequent and infrequent flyers quickly became organized, and got the attention of the travel industry, which quickly met with government officials. Some changes were made, some comforting noises issued from Homeland Security and the White House, but the scanners are going forward, and the Thanksgiving flyers are about to take to the air like turkeys. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Heroes of the Future

Mark Twain to the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kurt Vonnegut to the 20th and early 21st--so many connections and similarities, and now suddenly they're both back in the news: Twain for an unaccountably popular and long-delayed memoir, and Vonnegut for the opening of a museum dedicated to him and his work. Despite the ironies embedded in these stories, these are still two causes for celebration, for two heroes of the future.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


A statue in Schenley Plaza in Pittsburgh representing the balance of nature. I took this on Friday, my one day in the city. Most of the time I've been involved with family and friends east of the city, including awedding and--tonight--a birthday party for my grand-niece Olivia. So far it's been a great trip. Homeward bound on Thursday early.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Pema Update

As she gets a little older, Pema seems to be embracing her namesake (the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron) as she becomes more still and meditative. She spends a lot of her time in the yard just sitting in one place, observing. She still runs around in the house, and she can still move very fast outside, but these are more characteristic poses. Even our neighbor remarked on it--how pretty she was, sitting still in the sun-- and he doesn't even like cats.

Lately Pema has rediscovered my lap during the video hour--there was a period when she reverted to being alarmed by noises on the TV and literally jumpy, but lately she's been more mellow about sudden swells of music or random gunfire from that location. She moves up my chest and curls up, purrs and even falls asleep. But when Margaret was away for the weekend, visiting her daughter (and grandson-to-be), Pema wouldn't do this. She sat next to me on the couch and rubbed against me, but wouldn't commit to the lap. As soon as Margaret came home, she resumed. Now I'm going away for a week, to my niece's wedding and other visits in western PA, so her routine will be challenged again. Like a lot of cats she's into routines, and now she seems able to slide into alternate ones if familiar situations recur--that one of us is away for awhile. But she's not entirely happy about it.

If you're interested in the earlier history of Pema--a feral cat rescued from starvation--follow this link. And here.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The News

Here's the good news: as far as we know, the Earth did not get swallowed up by a black hole. Some people thought that might happen when they turned on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but it didn't. At least, not that we noticed.

But the outcome of the 2010 elections made it less likely that we're going to make an orderly transition to a safe future, let alone a better one. It wasn't likely anyway, but bad times that most Americans can't even imagine are likely to become obvious sooner, and the far future has really taken a blow.

I remind you of what Paul Krugman wrote about the short-term future: "This is going to be terrible. In fact, future historians will probably look back at the 2010 election as a catastrophe for America, one that condemned the nation to years of political chaos and economic weakness. "

A battle royal is ahead for the long-term future. Yesterday President Obama reiterated what he's said in interviews, that his emphasis for the next two years is on clean energy policy, which is the positive way of talking about efforts to control the Climate Crisis. But the GOP--the Grand Oil Party--has moved to unanimity on Climate Crisis denial, becoming the party of anticipatory mass murder. Writes Marc Ambinder (with my emphasis): "The GOP plans to hold high profile hearings examining the alleged "scientific fraud" behind global warming, a sleeper issue in this election that motivated the base quite a bit." (The rest of his analysis in that column sounds pretty sane as well.)

I find myself becoming less interested in the shifting winds of politics and more concentrated on both the longer view, and the much more specific. In terms of the longer view, some of us had the hope that the improvements and stability in our lifetime meant that humanity had become mature and smart enough to move into a brighter future for all, including the ability to meet challenges like global heating we might encounter along the way. Certainly a better test for human maturity could not be devised than the Climate Crisis, which requires intelligent analysis, emotional and psychological maturity, anticipatory thinking and imagination, high levels of skills and confidence, and a society that welcomes diversity and has outgrown petty divisions.

But another reading of these decades is that they were a fortunate but temporary aberration: a product of several kinds of luck (America's position after World War II vs. the rest of the world, an unusually beneficent climate period, etc.) These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive--in fact, this period of luck and relative stability, when so many scourges of disease, war and poverty were in abeyance for millions of people was the perfect opportunity to marshal our physical, intellectual and psychological resources to really grow up as a species spread everywhere in a global society, capable of managing our collective future.

That no longer seems at all likely. There was progress in some parts of the world, but not enough, and especially not enough here in the U.S. The consequences of the past and our inability to deal with them in the present (most notably, in the Climate Crisis caused by byproducts of industrial prosperity) are very likely to cause significant hardships and disruptions, already a reality for millions across the globe, as well as unheard and unknown numbers even in America. This is almost inevitably going to grow significantly worse in the next 50 years, and beyond.

The refusal to face this reality will be painful to watch now. Those who continue the daily struggle against it will need renewed courage, tempered by hard-won wisdom. But once again they will be fighting to keep our society and our country from slipping back even farther. We still haven't made up the ground lost in the Bush II years--not even the Reagan years. If Obama's election was a step forward, this election was at least a half step back. And when we need to move forward quickly, that may turn out to be too much.

And those divisions are clearly still there. Racism was a significant factor in this election, along with oil and tobacco money. It may be a Sunset Effect, but after sunset comes night. Actually this may have been the last hurrah for the Grand Old White People's Supremacy Party. Demographics will out eventually. But the cohesive society we need in emergencies, with some level of trust in times of chaos, has grown even more remote, and some or all of us may well pay a price for that.
I find myself thinking about how completely many people are locked in the present as they know it, as if it will last forever. It's probably not going to. This thought, maybe paradoxically, orients me towards appreciating the moment. I think about hot water gushing out of the tap. I enjoy my cat while we have her. I still imagine the future, but its rewards are different than I used to imagine. It's a different and more dangerous kind of adventure. Maybe I can still suggest ways to meet it, for people who will have to face it. I probably won't be one of them. I've got a different and shorter journey to make. Meanwhile, I'm just hoping the hot water holds out.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Today is Election Day: Guard the Change

"Tomorrow [meaning TODAY], you can help determine not just the outcome of this election, but our country's future."

(President Obama, in an email yesterday)

"The last election was a changing of the guard. Now we need to guard the change."

(President Obama, speech this fall)

Don't compare us to the Almighty; compare us to the alternative."

(President Obama, speech in September)

And for a scenario of the outcome that is still possible, there's this from Nate Silver.