Sunday, December 29, 2013

R.I.P. 2013

Among those we lost in 2013: Doris Lessing, Peter O'Toole, Julie Harris, Roger Ebert, Jonathan Winters, Joan Fontaine, Karen Black, Annette Funicello, Chinua Achebe, Elmore Leonard, Lou Reed, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Frederik Pohl, Deanna Durbin, Jean Stapleton, Ray Manzarek, Esther Williams, Eleanor Powell, Philip Slater, Nelson Mandella.

More on them and others we lost at Books in Heat, Stage Matters, Boomer Hall of Fame and Soul of Star Trek.   May they rest in peace, as their work and example nourish and guide us into the future.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Our Year-End Newsletter

It’s the end of another dull and lurid year. Grandson Holden was kicked out of another prep school, while his aunt Emma divorced her fourth husband and ran off with the assistant producer of a reality show about producers of reality shows. Here at home, our town was declared pre-bankrupt and turned over to a state-appointed Manager who sold it to Google which digitized it, and so we now live in a replica that was manufactured in China—at least until somebody buys our 3-D printed house on EBay. On the bright side, we’d have a week to move, unless the buyer has Amazon Prime, in which case just overnight.

I was finally able to leave my job writing nasty comments to Internet articles about global warming and other “liberal conspiracies” for something I could believe in: correcting the appalling grammar and spelling in email spoofing.

We had a fascinating experience in local politics working on a campaign to outlaw assault weapons in our bathtub, but even though we lost that one, we are confident that our new project to combat global warming by getting everybody to wave recycled cardboard fans simultaneously will reach critical mass in the coming decade or two.

Culturally this year we attended a YouTube film festival via Skype—our favorite was the one about the new sport of texting while skydiving from drones—a real thrill ride! Although some of those space-walking cats were really cute!

Santa was good to me this year too, so consequently this letter was entirely written by my new robot!

Happy New Year from Our House to Yours!

painting: The Bear Dance at the Moulin Rouge by Gino Severini

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

  "Raccoons read alone and baboons read in bunches.
   And llamas read dramas while eating their llunches."

from Wild About Books by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Marc Brown, which one little girl on my list will be opening soon.  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Constitution Days

Two significant U.S. court cases, for the good for a change:

A U.S. District Court in Utah struck down that state's ban on same sex marriage as federally unconstitutional discrimination.  The judge's decision made prominent use of a Supreme Court dissent by Antonin Scalia.  Apart from instantly permitting same sex marriages in Utah, this decision is significant because it is based on the U.S. Constitution rather than a state constitution or other laws.

Getting much less press but possibly of great significance as well:  the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down major portions of the law that enables drilling for natural gas anywhere in the state.  This law, practically fascist in several of its provisions and its overall spirit, overrode the power of individual municipality to zone. Under the state law, drilling could be forced anywhere--in neighborhoods, near schools, anywhere.  The law enabled corporations to exploit the Marcellus shale formation for natural gas.  

 The Court  specifically cited the PA constitution's Environmental Rights Amendment. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: "By any responsible account," Chief Justice Castille wrote, "the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and the future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction." He goes on to say that although the state's regulatory powers are broad, they are "limited by constitutional demands, including the Environmental Rights Amendment."

The Court also addressed another totalitarian provision:

The court's decision, on a 4-2 vote, also sent back to Commonwealth Court for review and disposition challenges by a physician to the Act 13 provisions that would have prevented doctors from telling patients about health impacts related to shale gas development, and a constitutional challenge that the law benefits a single industry.

Drilling and fracking under draconian laws passed by corrupt state legislatures and governors has been virtually unrestrained across the country.  This is a single state decision but its basis is important: health and environment.  That opens to the door to arguments on those issues everywhere.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hummers in Humboldt December 2013

Winters here are normally wet and mild.  But after two relatively dry winters (last winter being very dry), the old pattern has been broken in another way: we had several nights in a row of sub-freezing temperatures.

Since it hardly ever goes below freezing, and because of the rain, we have flowers of one kind or another virtually year round.  I recall our first Christmastime here, when we were invited to dinner and afterwards took a walk through the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights and decorations.  But what we saw also included lots of flowers.  Someone remarked that here it is already spring.  That's not quite true but the scene was certainly striking to folks recently arrived from western Pennsylvania.

But this year the freeze has visibly killed the flowers in our yard, and no new flowers have appeared.  That may be why the hummingbirds are sticking so close to my feeders.  They're usually around more at this time of year, before they disappear some time after Valentine's Day (though I suspect they don't go far.)  But this year they are around the back porch almost constantly.

I suspected there were four of them but never saw more than three at the same time.  But this month I've seen four several times.  One afternoon all four were even stationary at the same time--three perched on the clothesline and one on a feeder.  Another day three were at the same feeder while the other flew around.

Today started sunny and mild, and when I refilled one of the feeders all four came around.  They were much more concerned with each other than with me.  They were flying right in front of my nose at one point, and it seemed even around me.  It was dazzling.

Now in mid afternoon the wind has picked up and it's turned colder.  The trees that shed their leaves have mostly just begun the process.  Brown leaves are blowing by.  A chilly scene of winter, anywhere.

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“Without Imagination we should have no knowledge whatsoever, but we are scarcely ever conscious [of this.]”

painting by Gino Severini

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Climate of War

One more point about climate before moving on for now...The potential for social conflict because of the climate crisis has been anticipated, especially by the Pentagon.  But the possibility that it is involved in current conflicts, including wars, rarely grabs attention.

Few for example think of the Darfur crisis and the ongoing and brutal conflicts in that region in relation to sudden and persistent drought, though more than one knowledgeable observer has asserted this.  And now at least one lonely voice is making the same point about the war in Syria.

On Monday the UN estimated that three-quarters of the Syrian population would need humanitarian aid in the coming year.  Savage civil warfare has destroyed economic and social infrastructures and created huge numbers of refugees.  International Rescue Committee president David Millibrand calls it an "absolute catastrophe." Others call it potentially the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times.  The UN is making the largest appeal for relief funds in its history.

But it's not so severe only because of a particular set of political circumstances.  It's also climate. The lonely voice--actually voices, of scientists --are pretty substantial on the subject:

Drought was a key factor contributing to unrest and civil war in Syria, and the severity of the drought was probably a result of human-caused climate change, new research presented here Monday (Dec. 9) at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union suggests.The study analysis suggests that the drought was too severe to be simply a result of natural variability in precipitation."

The drought led to food shortages and high food prices which often leads to unrest.  Perhaps the narrative of a citizenry finally rising to assert their freedom against a brutal dictator is more romantic than people rebelling against a government because they're hungry.  But such has happened before:

"There is a clear connection between the price of food and governmental stability, and in the long term, it is not hard to see how these year-to-year fluctuations can influence the long-term stability of even stable governments," said Brandon Lee Drake, an archaeologist at the University of New Mexico who was not involved in the study, but who has studied past climate change impacts on other civilizations."

The contribution of the climate crisis to Middle East drought--which is expected to continue--can't be quantified, but that's hardly the point.  The point is that it is a global phenomenon that in some places makes drought more likely, longer lasting and/or more severe.  Drought should not come as a surprise in the era of the climate crisis.  Ignoring its contribution is functionally the same as denying it.  Being aware of its possibility could sensitize responses to be quicker and more effective.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Democracies need not merely freedom to think and talk, but universal information and vigorous mental training...The choice is a plain one now: Train yourself for freedom or salute and march."

H.G. Wells 1937
in an unpublished article recently discovered

Now we return to our regularly scheduled bad news which is already in progress

Let's get it over with and then douse ourselves with holiday spirit.

There's retrospective bad news in the sense that scientists are revising various gloomy estimates upward.  On the heels of climate scientists suggesting they've underestimated global heating since 1997 by, oh, 50%,  the EPA says they've underestimated the amount of methane emitted in the U.S., also by 50%.  Methane is perhaps the most potent of the greenhouses gases, and the EPA is preparing to regulate these gases for the first time.

The National Research Council released two studies that remind us that while the predictions of effects used by planners is based on gradual change, abrupt climate change is possible.  That's how things typically happened in the past--big sudden changes, which means over decades or years.  The reports are full of warnings that we're not addressing any phase of the climate crisis fast enough or as comprehensively as needed.  But they also rate most of the scenarios for abrupt change as not likely in this century.

Wonder why the latest UN climate report hasn't made more of a difference?  Only parts of it have been released, but the executive summary is supposed to galvanize attention.  The Real Climate site says it hasn't, possibly because it's poorly written for its purpose.

That's been an ongoing problem, from counterproductive jargon to a reluctance or inability to state the facts in a usefully actionable context--emotionally, politically, humanly.  But that's hardly the only reason.  Another may well be embedded in another very clearly stated conclusion that nevertheless didn't make any headlines, let alone go twitteringly viral: according to the Climate Accountability Institute, there are but 90 companies responsible for two-thirds of the greenhouse gas pollution in the world.

Since they include the richest corporations in the world with a huge proportion of the world's wealth, it doesn't take a communications genius to see that there's unlikely to be a lot of money advertising this fact, and a whole lot of money available to obscure it.

We can vary the old story, attributed to various Native American tribes and possibly other Indigenous cultures, and say that in the understandable struggle between an internal animal that wants to focus on addressing the climate crisis to save the future, and another internal animal who wants to deny its place in consciousness or even in reality, the one that wins is the one you feed.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

American Exceptionalism

The United States has arguably been declining and falling for years, but occasionally there are new markers.  Apart from internal measures--decline in relation to principles and ideals, decline in relation to the past--there are comparisons with other countries.  Some of these are discounted, thanks to the collapse of the economic power of Japan, the country that scared America in the 70s and 80s.  But discounting everything is perilous.

We note this week that there is a new robotic rover on the surface of the Moon, and it is from China.  There was an apparently successful orbit of a living being and safe return, conducted by Iran.  At least some of the space activity these days is due in part to the U.S. outsourcing its own technology, and others quickly adapting it.  That technological and intellectual capital is being spent, and may not be renewed.

May not if trends in U.S. education continue.  There have been scary headlines and warnings for years, so what's new about the latest?  For one thing, the U.S. had fallen behind in average math achievement, but our best were still among the best.  No more.  Our best students languish "in the middle of the pack" internationally.  They can't keep up.

Add this to other downward trends, if not spirals: infant mortality, longevity, and above all, the enormous gulf between rich and everybody else--very likely the source of much of the rest, along with the retrenchment of governmental resources.  With even the modest advance in healthcare coverage in the Affordable Care Act under intense political fire, our healthcare system remains near the bottom of the industrialized world.   Instead the U.S. leads the world in gun violence and captial punishment--with no fear of relinquishing that dominance.

Despite this country's residual strengths and the advances in less quantifiable qualities, this all has the distinct aroma of decadence.  America is exceptional in its self-satisfied paralysis, its furious conflicts that stalemate action or even enough of a common diagnosis to proceed.

From the  New York Times editorial on Sunday:

In a post-smokestack age, there is only one way for the United States to avoid a declining standard of living, and that is through innovation. Advancements in science and engineering have extended life, employed millions and accounted for more than half of American economic growth since World War II, but they are slowing. The nation has to enlarge its pool of the best and brightest science and math students and encourage them to pursue careers that will keep the country competitive. 

But that isn’t happening. Not only do average American students perform poorly compared with those in other countries, but so do the best students, languishing in the middle of the pack as measured by the two leading tests used in international comparisons.... 

On the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment test, the most recent, 34 of 65 countries and school systems had a higher percentage of 15-year-olds scoring at the advanced levels in mathematics than the United States did. The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland all had at least twice the proportion of mathematically advanced students as the United States, and many Asian countries had far more than that.

Other tests have shown that America’s younger students fare better in global comparisons than its older students do, which suggests a disturbing failure of educators to nurture good students as they progress to higher grades. Over all, the United States is largely holding still while foreign competitors are improving rapidly."

Meanwhile, the Chinese are talking softly about their rover on the Moon (the peaceful exploration of space) which they are conducting methodically, with plenty of resources committed to it.  But their longer range plans may be more complex.  This BBC story says they are looking at future potential for the Moon's minerals. This is not really a new or necessarily sinister idea, unless the fact that the Bush administration expressed interest in the same thing tilts the balance for you.  But it shows that while these days the only Americans thinking that far ahead are science fiction writers, the Chinese aren't just wondering, they're exploring.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Good" News on the Climate Crisis

Well, the bad news on the climate crisis is piling up, along with the snow across America.  So it's past time to pass on some of the "good news" on the topic.

After much agitation, at least some folks believe the Warsaw climate meetings finally did work, to put the nations of the world on track to a meaningful treaty at the big meetings in 2015.  These appear to be procedural victories, which participants say are important.

And in the wake of disappointing news on actual deforestation, a multi-nation agreement also forged at the Warsaw talks is aimed at slowing future deforestation:

According to Paul Bledsoe, an energy research fellow at the German Marshall Fund, who is attending the talks, it is a significant step. "The ministers have been working for almost 10 years to finalise the rules which will allow donors to invest in forest management practices in the developing world and get a way to verify the emissions reductions," he said."I think this agreement allowing for investments in forests in developing countries is probably the signature achievement of these talks."

International agreements or almost agreements may or may not significantly change things in the future (because it's not clear they have so far) but as usual the actual action is being taken on the regional, state and local level.  California's cap and trade system has been in effect for a year and seems to be working well, causing no noticeable catastrophes for us Californians.  Recently CA joined with other western states and a contiguous province of Canada in coordinating climate crisis efforts:

Saying that the West Coast must lead the way in battling climate change, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington, along with a representative of the premier of British Columbia, signed an agreement Monday committing the Canadian province and the three states to coordinate global-warming policies.

Each state and the Canadian province promised to take roughly a dozen actions, including streamlining permits for solar and wind projects, better integrating the electric power grid, supporting more research on ocean acidification and expanding government purchases of electric vehicles."

 Meanwhile the governors of eight U.S. states (California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon, Maryland, Rhode Island, New York and Vermont) signed a pledge to get 3.3 million electric cars on the highways (presumably to replace carbon-spewing cars) by 2025.

More broadly, Benjamin Barber is out with a new book entitled If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.  That pretty much states his thesis, as he sees cities as the polities that will govern the future.  This is not only because mayors are closer to specific problems and find pragmatic and collaborative ways to address them, but because cities form alliances across national borders to address common problems.

Cities (especially coastal cities) are in the forefront of studying likely future problems caused by the climate crisis, which in the near term means includes anticipating and preparing for disasters as well as doing what can be done to prevent the disasters from the climate change already inevitable.

To help with this process, President Obama signed an executive order to urge along disaster preparations:

The executive order establishes a task force of state and local officials to advise the administration on how to respond to severe storms, wildfires, droughts and other potential impacts of climate change. The task force includes governors of seven states — all Democrats — and the Republican governor of Guam, a U.S. territory. Fourteen mayors and two other local leaders also will serve on the task force. All but three are Democrats.

The task force will look at federal money spent on roads, bridges, flood control and other projects. It ultimately will recommend how structures can be made more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and warming temperatures.

(Reference to party affiliation is telling--not because Republican governors and mayors weren't asked, but because their ideology apparently forbids them from protecting their citizens and infrastructure.  Another point--it's being called the "task force on resiliency"--"resiliency" being probably the least offensive and most expressive buzz word currently being used by those concerned with the climate crisis.)

This was an executive order not requiring congressional approval.  There could be more coming, with Tuesday's news that John Podesta is joining the Obama White House for a year to work on climate and energy matters (maybe healthcare too--depending on the story.)  As White House Chief of Staff in the final Clinton years, he knows his way around executive action, and is on record advocating that President Obama do more of it.

Disaster prediction is a growing science, says this New Yorker piece, although prediction alone doesn't do much.  People have to read the reports and do something about them.  The writer also believes that if people took predictions seriously, they'd move.  In most cases I wouldn't say that's the point.  The point is read the damn report and do something about it, and don't ever, ever say "Nobody could have predicted..." especially when somebody did.

The Fifty Year Handshake

As retro rightists convulse over President Obama shaking hands--gasp!--with Raul Castro in South Africa,  I return to a late November theme...the difference that the assassination of President Kennedy made and continues to make.  Or in this case, the difference not traveled.

Both the two books I cited in my post here (and review in more detail here) confirm that in 1963 President Kennedy and Fidel Castro were in touch through intermediaries, looking for ways to return to a more normal nation-to-nation relationship.  Apparently a key element in Castro's receptiveness was JFK acknowledging that the Batista presidency was garbage and the Cuban revolution understandable.  JFK wanted a pledge that Cuba would stop trying to export revolution to other countries and some movement towards less dependence on Moscow.  Castro was himself interested in that last proposition.

The two leaders probably would have met after the 1964 election, had JFK been reelected, which he almost certainly would have been had he lived.  And this current idiocy would be fifty years quaint.

Maybe this is a reason the rabid right is so rabidly against evolution.  They can't evolve.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Always Impossible--Until It Is Done

At the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, "There was only one speaker who made everybody stop and listen."

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring humans.”
George Eliot

Saturday, December 07, 2013

December 7, 1941

In Robert Sherwood's fascinating and very detailed chronicle of the World War II years in his 934 page book, Roosevelt and Hopkins,  a drama was already unfolding in the White House on Friday and Saturday, December 5 and 6, 1941.

Isolationist Republicans were zealously pursuing any indication that FDR was aiding the Allies against Germany and Japan, certain that there was as yet no threat to North America. Also they saw political advantage in tapping into the still widespread disillusionment with World War I, as well as the small but influential constituency (which included Charles Lindbergh) that admired the Nazi system and saw it as the wave of the future.   But FDR and the Democrats believed that if England and Russia fell, America would face the combined and much increased might of the Axis alone.  FDR did all he could to aid England and Russia.  He also did all he could to mollify Japan and avoid open warfare.

But by December 5, it was clear that negotiations with Japan had broken down irrevocably (even though formally they continued), and that war was imminent.  Observing Japanese naval and troop movements, U.S. military intelligence expected Japanese attack in southeast Asia, probably Thailand. Though these were British and Dutch interests, the U.S. had warned Japan against attacking them. This would put FDR in a delicate position.  It meant the Allies would be at war with Japan, but since American forces weren't attacked, he couldn't count on political and especially popular support for the U.S. joining them.   Few analysts believed Japan would attack American bases in the Philippines or Hawaii because they thought the Japanese were too smart and cautious .

When Japanese planes attacked the Pearl Harbor base, the local commanders were so lax that all the ships were in port and the planes bunched on the runways. Hesitancy among military and civilian leaders in Washington seemed based on political fears.  General Marshall recalled that earlier that year, Republicans had created havoc with the military budget over an order for "overseas caps."

   The attack on December 7, 1941 devastated the Pacific fleet, and Japanese forces followed up with victories in the early months of the war. But in other ways, the Japanese had erred, tactically and strategically.  Tactically they concentrated on bombing ships and planes. Though it took time, these were replaced with more modern ships and planes. (The battleships were already obsolete for the oncoming war.)  But they didn't attack the actual base facilities, which remained intact and became important as the war went on.

Strategically, by attacking American forces without warning, and by killing many Americans--especially sailors trapped in their ships--they guaranteed that there would be full public support for the U.S. declaring war against Japan and its allies, including the principal threat, Germany.

When FDR went before Congress on Monday he reported that Japanese forces had attacked not only Hawaii, but Hong Kong, Guam, the Phillipines, Wake and Midway Islands in the Pacific.  U.S. ships had been sunk "on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu."

Within hours and days, all the Allies and all the Axis countries had declared war on each other. There would be many very dark days in the coming year.  But FDR was able to coordinate with Churchill and Stalin a titanic effort that eventually defeated the Axis powers, without warfare on the North American continent.  It was the full beginning to 44 months of the largest and most destructive war in human history, that transformed America and changed the world.

Today most know of it through movies made about it during and directly after that war, that simplified it.  Or through the novels and movies of the 1960s that looked at it through the lens of Vietnam.  Here's Sherwood's assessment.  After noting the massive war effort undertaken by the vast majority of Americans he noted that "morale did not become a vital consideration.  Morale was never particularly good nor alarmingly bad.  There was a minimum of flag-waving and parades.  It was the first war in American history in which the general disillusionment preceded the firing of the first shot.  It had been called from the American point of view "the most unpopular war in history"; but that could be taken as proof that the people for once were not misled as to the terrible nature and extent of the task that confronted them."

Friday, December 06, 2013

A Little Bit Extreme

The second of two huge winter storms is atop us now, and is forecast to spread across the country to Washington and New York on Monday.  It comes with no interval from the first, leaving a continuous week of frigid Arctic air.  There is hardly a corner of the U.S. not touched by the cold, if not snow, frozen rain and wind.

Four people died overnight south of us in California, and of the 9 deaths attributed to the weather nationally, 8 were from hypothermia and exposure.  In other words, old people and homeless people.

For us in our normally unchanging strip of coast, a weird burst of summer turned into the coldest temperatures I can remember here (with officially record lows for several nights), although we did have a cold and clear period early last winter, too.  It is all a reminder of vulnerabilities and preparations, as climate disruption jars weather patterns to the big and extreme.

By most standards, our cold temps aren't extreme--into the low 20s at night, with daytime highs in the low 40s or 30s. But this is very unusual here. We're not really equipped here for temperatures that go below freezing for a week at a time, any more than we are for hot temperatures for a week at a time.   Pacific Gas & Electric is already curtailing natural gas to Humboldt State, so the university buildings are not heated part of the time.  I assume they're starting with institutions first before curtailing gas to homes, but that's the other problem: we have really lousy news media, and all the Internet seems to offer is pretty pictures with no meaning.  You really have to search to get an actionable idea of what's going on.

Temps are usually in the mild range even in winter here, so 60s/50s in the dry seasons become 50s/40s in the wet winter.  So there are a lot of homes that depend on wood stoves for heat.  Probably not well insulated.  Practically no houses have basements.  We're just not adapted to even the extremes of western PA.  We have to wonder whether this is a taste of the future.

This storm will eventually touch much of the country, including Pittsburgh and Washington, which also make it different.  We usually don't experience this particular bond of weather.  Our exceptionalism is non-operative.

Right now it's cold and windy and rainy.  I guess it's not yet time to worry about how deep the water lines are (ours used to freeze up occasionally in PA.)  I do worry about the hummingbirds.  I'm seeing three of them around the feeders often these days.  They made it through last night, but the coldest night forecast is yet to come before temps start to head more towards normal on Monday.  Two of them seem abnormally frenetic, and the other seems abnormally torpid.

The first storm dumped an amazing amount of snow across the U.S. (and pretty far south in places), and this second storm is forecast to do the same.  Lots of problems in cities, on roads, flights cancelled, etc.  At least one of the bloggers at Weather Underground had to go back to 1950 to find a similar early winter storm pattern. This is happening in the contiguous U.S. around the same time that the UK and western Europe gets hammered by ferocious storms and cold.

Thursday, December 05, 2013


R.I.P. Nelson Mandella, a hero of our time.

Here's a Washington Post piece on Mandela's importance to a young student named Barack Obama, and President Obama's emotional statement on Mandela's life.

President Obama running away from Obamacare

President Obama spoke about the growing income divide and deterioration of the middle class in America on Thursday.  He ended his remarks talking about the economic and other effects of Obamacare, officially known as the Affordable Care Act.

"  Of course, for decades, there was one yawning gap in the safety net that did more than anything else to expose working families to the insecurities of today’s economy -- namely, our broken health care system. That’s why we fought for the Affordable Care Act --  because 14,000 Americans lost their health insurance every single day, and even more died each year because they didn’t have health insurance at all. We did it because millions of families who thought they had coverage were driven into bankruptcy by out-of-pocket costs that they didn't realize would be there. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens couldn’t get any coverage at all. And Dr. King once said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Well, not anymore. (Applause.) Because in the three years since we passed this law, the share of Americans with insurance is up, the growth of health care costs are down to their slowest rate in 50 years. More people have insurance, and more have new benefits and protections -- 100 million Americans who have gained the right for free preventive care like mammograms and contraception; the more than 7 million Americans who have saved an average of $1,200 on their prescription medicine; every American who won’t go broke when they get sick because their insurance can’t limit their care anymore.

More people without insurance have gained insurance -- more than 3 million young Americans who have been able to stay on their parents’ plan, the more than half a million Americans and counting who are poised to get covered starting on January 1st, some for the very first time.

And it is these numbers -- not the ones in any poll -- that will ultimately determine the fate of this law. (Applause.) It's the measurable outcomes in reduced bankruptcies and reduced hours that have been lost because somebody couldn't make it to work, and healthier kids with better performance in schools, and young entrepreneurs who have the freedom to go out there and try a new idea -- those are the things that will ultimately reduce a major source of inequality and help ensure more Americans get the start that they need to succeed in the future.

I have acknowledged more than once that we didn’t roll out parts of this law as well as we should have. But the law is already working in major ways that benefit millions of Americans right now, even as we’ve begun to slow the rise in health care costs, which is good for family budgets, good for federal and state budgets, and good for the budgets of businesses small and large. So this law is going to work. And for the sake of our economic security, it needs to work. (Applause.)

And as people in states as different as California and Kentucky sign up every single day for health insurance, signing up in droves, they’re proving they want that economic security. If the Senate Republican leader still thinks he is going to be able to repeal this someday, he might want to check with the more than 60,000 people in his home state who are already set to finally have coverage that frees them from the fear of financial ruin, and lets them afford to take their kids to see a doctor."

Monday, December 02, 2013

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Again and again, I find myself saved, in words--helped, allowed, returned to possibility and hope."
--Robert Creeley

Photo: accompanies an AP story about President Obama doing his Christmas shopping at a local bookstore.  And it sounds like some serious shopping, too.  And looking pretty cool doing it.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grandmother's House

It's great to have one day of the year dedicated to gratitude, and a family holiday with food and other traditions.  But the U.S. Thanksgiving origin story again meets aspects of current reality: the day that Native Americans shared their food with starving Pilgrims, only to have the invaders slaughter them a year or so later.

American Indians have been victimized ever since, in large ways and small.  Their remaining land is the least desirable and usable, often now a dumping ground for hazardous waste and locales of toxic mining.  The lands that have remained relatively undisturbed are so remote and harsh that white people don't much want them.  So it is not much of a surprise that the first American climate crisis refugees are apt to be Inuit.

But this day is a living taunt in other ways.  Football is part of the tradition for many now, and the refusal of teams to understand the reasons for moving on from their Indian mascot names reaps ever new outrages, such as this one in Alabama, the equivalent of using the Holocaust to taunt a football opponent.  Nor is this some remote history--scroll down this story to the comments and see how close it is: "My Mvskoke great-great-grandfather, Moses Moore, and his family saw their lands near Dudleyville, Alabama, which is just 110 miles from McAdory High, taken away from them in 1838 by the federal policy that created the Trail of Tears."

In the NFL the name of the Washington team has been the focus of high controversy.  Pitfalls of the name are multiple, as evidenced last week, when the results of a game yielded headlines like 49ers Massacre Redskins.  For California Indians, it is too close to the historical reality of less than two centuries ago to be unnoticed.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day Everything Changed

When President John F. Kennedy was murdered on November 23, 1963, the course of the future changed in the U.S. and around the world.  Fifty years later, that's clearer than ever.  On that day I felt that the course of my life would change, and fifty years later, with that course nearly run, it is a certainty.  It was the day that everything changed for me.  My life would perhaps not even resemble what it is today had President Kennedy lived and completed his second term.  Not just because of him but because of what he would have done and not done, as opposed to what others did and did not do.

I've avoided nearly everything on the Internet about this anniversary, and absolutely everything on TV (since I don't have it to watch.)  I have video from that past, but I haven't watched that either.  I've confined myself to two new books--two of the many published this year, and the tens of thousands published over the years about JFK.

JFK's Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke ( Penguin Press) is a day by day review of those 100 days in 1963, with lots of background from earlier years. Clarke makes good and careful use of what's been published over the years, by historians, journalists and a lot of participants in the Kennedy administration.  He's used the archival material that's been gradually released by the Kennedy Library.  He integrates the most credible of the revelations about JFK's dalliances and his medical history.  So for someone who hasn't trusted much or read much about JFK since the first generation of biographies, this book turned out to be the right book to read.

The second book is If Kennedy Lived by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam), an alternate history built on the premise that President Kennedy did not die on this day fifty years ago.  However it is basically built on historical fact, and much of it is about pre-11/22/63.  These parts of the book match Clarke's book almost exactly.  There are a few pages based on recorded conversations that are nearly identical.

Clarke's premises is that,even though JFK's own excesses always threatened to catch up with him, 1963 was the height of Kennedy's presidency, and probably the best year of his marriage and fatherhood.  He was looked forward to running for his second term, and had found his main themes.  On a speaking tour in the west ostensibly about conservation, he found that whenever he mentioned the nuclear test ban treaty and the need to end the arms race, he got a huge response. The pursuit of peace was going to be one major theme.  The second was a national effort to address the problem of poverty.  He'd proposed a tax cut and other measures to help the middle class and the economy in general, he was committed to civil rights (especially the voting rights act) but poverty was going to be a new focus.

Clarke chronicles the painful dance that Vietnam policy had become, but he is certain--as most in the position to know were certain--that in his second term Kennedy intended to end American military involvement in Vietnam.

None of this surprises me, nor would any of it had surprised me on November 23, 1963.  I learned that he'd been shot by a p.a. announcement from our high school principal.  Then I had gym class outside.  I learned that he was dead from a boy coming down the stairs to the locker room as I walked up.  Hours later I was walking home with three friends, two of whom remain just about my only friends from high school.  Clayton and I usually walked across the fields from Central to Carbon Road, where he would go down towards his grandmother's house and I would go up and across to my house.  Johnny V. was with us that day--he lived on the street above mine.  And as it happened, my debate partner Mike and I had previously arranged to work on our debate case, so he was coming home with me rather than taking a school bus to Latrobe where he lived.

As we walked and talked we could not believe it was even possible that Lyndon Johnson could be President of the United States.  That turns out to be the Kennedys' view as well.  JFK is quoted in both of these books as believing LBJ would be a disaster.  In our shock, and forgetting all constitutional provisions, we speculated on how Bobby Kennedy could take over for his brother.  Surely that's what voters wanted.

Everything changed in America because of the assassination itself.  For me, it was the first significant death I had experienced.  There hadn't yet been one in my family.  But beyond the losses that arguably changed the psyche of the country, I saw a major focus of my life begin to fade.  In my own very small way I had organized classmates and worked on the Kennedy campaign in the 1960 election.  I got myself to Washington for the Inaugural and through luck and pluck managed to be one of the first ordinary citizens to shake President Kennedy's hand, two days after he became President.  By 1963 I had already participated in another campaign and had very interested contacts in the local Democratic party and the still powerful unions.  I was writing on world affairs (and from a very Kennedy perspective) for the school newspaper.  I followed every scrap of news in print and on TV I could about the administration, wrote letters to officials and generally felt I was practically part of the Kennedy administration.

Though I tried to continue the Kennedy legacy and remain involved in politics, even working for LBJ's campaign against Goldwater in 1964, that first impulse on November 22, 1963 gradually came true.  Without JFK's judgment, without his ability to communicate, without his style, things fell apart.  And everything else began to change.

On the morning of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, it rained.  But by the time President Kennedy got in his car for his motorcade, the sun was shining.

Greenfield's story begins with one small change: the rain continues.  Because of the rain, the plexiglass bubble top is attached to the presidential limo, so it is no longer an open car.  So when the motorcade slows down to make a turn off Dealy Plaza, a gunshot shatters the plexiglass and wounds the President.  But he survives.

In this story, President Kennedy is re-elected, and much of what Clarke's book suggests would happen does happen.  The voting rights act, medical care for the aged (Medicare) pass, JFK makes further agreements on nuclear arms with the Soviets as well as selling grain to them (and in the process keeps Khrushchev in power), he begins the process of resuming relations with Cuba, and relations with (Red) China.  And above all, he does not commit ground troops to Vietnam.  There is no Vietnam war.

But where Greenfield's book is best is in suggesting the ramifications of these policies, and of the difference it would have made with Kennedy in office when various cultural changes occur (as represented by the Beatles, Tom Hayden, Gloria Steinem, etc.)  There would be an Students for a Democratic Society, campus protests, etc.  But they would not be so violent in any sense.  Young people would join SDS and go South for Freedom Summer.  But they would also join JFK's domestic Peace Corps, in droves.  Politics and government as public service was a Kennedy tenet, and one he wanted to emphasize in his second term.  But LBJ destroyed that, temporarily for some, pretty much permanently for me.

The Vietnam war, more than any single factor, deformed my life and in various ways and to various extents changed the lives of my friends and contemporaries.  Vietnam plus LBJ plus the draft gave the 60s the edge of anger, desperation, despair.

There were right wing crazies in the early 60s, saying about JFK pretty much what they say about Obama. But they were marginal.  There were dangerous currents in the U.S. reacting to racial issues, but JFK was a quick study, and in 1963 he was aware of the new realities of the inner cities and suburbia.  There was press horseshit then as now, but despite political dangers (JFK knew the South was lost for a long time because of his support of Civil Rights)  the arc of history was strongly progressive. With a different 60s, there very well might have been a very different 70s, 80s and 90s.  And a quite different 21st century so far.

There's so much about why JFK could have been especially effective in a second term (while neither Clarke nor Greenfield expect he would have piled up the electoral votes that LBJ did against Goldwater in 1964, they agree that JFK would have won comfortably against Goldwater, and brought with him a Democratic congressional majority) that is hard to explain without knowing how different a time it was (though Clarke's book does a pretty good job of this.)  But that's precisely the point: he was right for the times.

As things turn out, I find myself in no position to be heard even if I tried to explain this.  But I was there, and I know it.  It was the turning point of my times and of my life.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Something Else Also Happens There

Credit Canada with this: when they finally have a Rabid Right political outrage powerful enough to get attention to their South, it's straight from hell.

Since last I noted it, and the accusations and admissions of public drunkenness, crack use while drunk, public urination etc. the Mayor of Toronto has been accused of bullying staff members, sexually harassing staff members and others, and physical abuse of his wife.

Under the law he remains mayor, but in two meetings the Toronto City Council took away most of his mayoral powers.  He attended the second of those meetings, on Monday, and put on a show on live television.  It was described in a National Post column by Andrew Coyne:

  "Something snapped at Toronto City Council Monday afternoon, and it wasn’t just Rob Ford’s cerebral cortex. Watching the mayor and his brother strutting about the council chamber — ignoring the Speaker, taunting other councillors, shouting down city officials, screaming insults at spectators, the whole carried out with an air of anarchic glee — was to sense the last tether connecting our politics to some sort of civilized norms breaking under the strain. We are adrift now, floating wildly, with no idea of where we will end up.

At one point the mayor engaged in an extended pantomime of a drunk driver, directed at a councillor who had been cautioned by police. At another, racing about the chamber — literally sprinting — he ploughed into another councillor, knocking her to the floor, apparently in his haste to join the apprehended brawl then under way between his brother and members of the public gallery.

To add to the general note of menace, the mayor was seen directing his personal driver/security guard, who for some reason was allowed onto the chamber floor, to videotape certain of the spectators who had displeased him. Given the services his last driver, the alleged extortionist Sandro Lisi, is accused of performing, it was an altogether chilling moment."

Ford told Council that it had "invaded Kuwait" with its action, that is forced a war, which he said he will wage in the next election.  Some observers (at least last week) consider that he could well win that election next year, because of the suburban voters of his base, and the rabid rightward swing it represents.

But evidence that Ford has become politically toxic is suggested in this story in the Toronto Globe and Mail which suggests that his own party may join with Liberals on a provincial level to change the law to make it possible for Ford to be removed from office.

Still, as Coyne noted:
 "If it is unclear where we are headed, it is clear as day how we got here. With each passing day, the Fords have been dragging the standards we expect of public officials deeper and deeper into the muck, each past act of public or private depravity somehow normalized by the next, worse offence. It is as if, knowing the evidence cannot exonerate the mayor, they and their apologists have decided to annihilate our very ability to judge the evidence."

Which prompts several thoughts about the U.S.  First, standards have been driven so far into the muck here that it takes something like this elsewhere to focus the danger.  Second, while Canada may have been following the U.S. Tea Party lead,  this episode looks a little too much like coming attractions for the U.S.

It Does Happen Here

This is not the Philippines.  This is suburban Illinois, after "unprecedented" tornadoes ripped through the length of this state, some with wind speeds approaching 200 mph.

The difference is that the people affected probably won't be starving, as some in the Philippines are.  But it's a reminder that even now, people in poor countries aren't the only ones affected by the climate crisis.

Story quotes and photos from the Chicago Tribune.

"Hundreds of residents who lost their homes or couldn't return to them amid gas leaks and downed power lines huddled Monday in a Washington church, thankful for shelter, running water and hot cups of coffee.

Others ventured out into a wasteland of plywood, drywall and chunks of twisted metal, carrying water, food and saws in hopes of salvaging remnants of their belongings.

A day after a storm of historic proportions slammed many Illinois communities, the task turned to assessing the damage — from lives lost to homes destroyed — and comprehending the power of the tornadoes.

Calling the November storm "unprecedented," Gov. Pat Quinn declared seven counties disaster areas, with National Weather Service meteorologists estimating about a dozen tornado touchdowns in Illinois. Six people were killed in three tornadoes, and two more deaths in Michigan were attributed to the storm."

"This is historic from the standpoint of the widespread nature of this," said Chris Miller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "We had tornadoes that were developing very near the Chicago area all the way to the southern tip of Illinois and a lot of places in between. That just speaks to the power of the storm that affected us Sunday."

In the photo below, the vehicles are not toys--except to the tornado.

The Gathering Storms

After the huge Typhoon Bopha wracked the Philippines last year, the country's lead climate negotiator at a diplomatic conference, Naderev Sano, delivered an impassioned plea to finally take the climate crisis seriously as a matter of life and death:

I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.

I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha [location of the conference] be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around. Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?

Now another even more devastating typhoon has wreaked havoc in the Philippines, and yet another delegate is at yet another climate conference, this time in Warsaw, delivering an impassioned plea.

"We can fix this. We can stop this madness. Right now, right here," he said, and later began a hunger strike--a fast for climate.  Video excerpts of his speech are at Youtube here.

But more than the connection between the climate crisis and more intense tropical storms is at issue here.  Forecasts of impacts suggest that poorer places like the Philippines are going to suffer the most, especially at first,while they are least able to cope with the effects.  This Philippines situation is becoming a rally point for poorer countries in the already tense relationship with rich countries, who contributed the most to the greenhouse gas pollution that will affect them.  

Munjurul Hannan Khan, representing the world's 47 least affluent countries at the Warsaw conference, said of the wealthy governments who are ignoring real action to address the climate crisis: "They are behaving irrationally and unacceptably." Hard to argue with that.

If affluent TV audiences are watching the slow progress of relief aid and the dimensions of the catastrophe in the Philippines, they may begin to understand that while much more serious and sustained attention must be paid to dealing with the very likely effects of the climate crisis, it is cheaper and much less painful in the long run to deal with the causes.  International aid organizations are making the connection, and demanding action on the causes of the climate crisis.

 But doing something now might cause pain to fossil fuel executives and rich bankers, rather than helpless poor in faraway foreign lands.  These poorer nations see this pretty clearly. As Temperatures Rise, Empires Fall was the Time Magazine headline on lessons of history in climate crises.  There's more than one way this can happen.

Meanwhile, the news on rising temperatures keeps getting worse.  Arctic temps are the highest in at least 44,000 years.  Based just on the latest UN climate report, researchers have estimated that deaths from heat waves may rise by a factor of 10.  But that may not even be the worst news of the month so far.

Climate scientists and especially climate crisis deniers have been talking about the reasons why global temps haven't risen as fast in the past 15 years as predicted.  The deep ocean carbon storage was pretty convincing, but some British and Canadian researchers suggest an even stronger reason: there was no pause.  The estimates were too low, by half.  There were gaps in the data, covered by faulty assumptions, etc.  You can read the column.  So if they are right, there's been no pause, and yet the deep oceans are still holding an enormous amount of carbon which someday will be released into the atmosphere.  Meanwhile, their graphic conclusions are in the graph higher at the top of this post.

Now to finish all the bad news I currently have, because there is some more or less good news on the topic..a very potent and clean way to soak carbon out of the atmosphere is with lots and lots of trees, with forests.  For awhile deforestation, especially in the Amazon, seemed to be waning, but apparently no more.  Brazil just announced that the massacre of the Amazon rainforest increased 28% in just one year.

Google Earth now has an interactive map of forest change for the first 12 years of this century.  The static version is below.  It shows deforestation but also new forest, though it's far and away a net loss.