Saturday, February 27, 2016

Woof-Woof, Win-Win

Okay, I think we're all ready for a win-win.

Dogs and cats as pets have never been more numerous, but a lot of animals are collateral damage, and have less than happy lives.  Those who aren't abused (or aren't abused anymore) but shy away from humans, still have less chance of survival. In a better world being a people animal wouldn't matter so much.  But that's the way it is now.

 When these animals wind up in shelters, they have less chance of being adopted.  Feral animals who hide or cower don't seem like promising pets.  Their lives may then turn out to be quite short.

On the other hand there are children who have trouble reading, or who can't see the point of reading. (Even before they get to the teen years when smart phones and pheromones dominate, and "books smell like old people.")

Then along came some genius to turn two apparently unrelated problems into one solution: kids reading to shelter animals (this article focuses on dogs, but it's also being done for cats.)

Being read to by a child stirs the animal's curiosity, and a child's voice is less threatening.  To what degree this actually increases the animal's social skills, who knows, but it does familiarize them with humans and human speech, in a safe place.

Meanwhile a kid who likes reading has somebody to read to, and to show the pictures to, just like a parent or teacher.  Or a kid who doesn't read too well is not facing a critic who picks at pronunciation or even aspects of the story that strictly speaking aren't reflected in the text.

It probably doesn't always work--the dog or cat is bored, or the child is--but it seems to work often enough to be a lovely win-win, and maybe the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Climate Crisis Perspective

The effects of the climate crisis have clearly begun.  More and more extreme storms, insect-borne diseases affecting more areas as they warm, and most floods in the U.S. are related to the climate crisis.

And it's likely to get worse, with more effects, and with worse and more widespread manifestations of known effects, as that study on floods shows.

Seas rose faster in the 20th century than in the previous 27 centuries, and this (other) new study shows that without the climate crisis they would have risen much less, or not at all.

A study of U.S. forests shows that they are all threatened by effects of the climate crisis.  Not just in the west or the north or the south, not just certain species of trees, but all the forests, everywhere.

And so on.  The good news is that a lot of things we're worried about now, people won't be worrying about in the near future.  The bad news is it's because they'll have newer and potentially bigger things to worry about.  Sometimes because things will be gone. In any case, things will be different.  Eventually, almost everything.

The jobs of the future are likely to be more basic, requiring a combination of skills now almost lost, plus skills more sophisticated than most of us have.

That's just to deal with the effects.  Addressing the causes is another very big job, with the potential, and probably the necessity of transformation.

It's going to take more than conservation, more than the hopeful but small movement towards clean energy technology, even as oil prices tumble.  It's going to take public policy and business working towards the same goals.

It's going to take new technologies, some of which are today's advanced and maybe crazy ideas, and some of which haven't yet been dreamed.

Some of the technologies most often  proposed in the recent past are very dangerous, and potentially more disastrous than immediate climate crisis effects.  But that can't stop us from using knowledge to see if we can't make trees more resistant, bring the oceans back to health, or develop better and easier clean energy forms, or (even if this isn't a climate change problem per se) stop the global die-back of pollinators--bees and butterflies--quantified in this new study, before our food supply crashes.

Skills being developed here and there in small pockets of sanity will need to be brought up to scale.  These include the skills of peace--of shared decision-making, of defusing violence and so on, because that's what everybody really fears about this--the fears of every gun for itself, zombie apocalypse, big wars that devolve into local wars over very scarce resources.

The politics of the moment obviously can have a major impact on all this, but we place our hopes in the people who are more or less ignoring this noise and who are concentrating on developing those skills and that knowledge that will be useful in the coming years.  And who teach the children well.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Daily Babble: El Nino, Young Women, Emma Thompson and the GOP Zombie Apocalypse

It's raining today, but that hasn't happened very much this month.  Here on the North Coast we had a January that was 50% above the average rainfall, but we're closing in on a February that's about 50% of average.

So for all the ballyhoo about the monster El Nino, and all the power and uncertainty it may be putting behind weather elsewhere, it hasn't lived up to billing up here.  It's also been a dry month in the rest of California, where the El Nino noise and bits of rain have probably been a factor in the recent run of months that CA cities haven't met water conservation standards set by the state.  Whereas they were exceeded during the summer.

For us, instead of an El Nino anomaly, we've gotten pretty much what we've been getting in recent winters: one solid month of rain, and way below average the other winter months.  We do have March ahead, although its average rainfall is historically less, and there is some precedent for El Nino's effects to power up in March and April. But so far the drought--or global heating trends--are proving to be the more powerful factors.

Now for something completely different...

An intriguing article at New York on the changes that have been going on in America for young women.  The stats are basically 6 or 7 years old, but apparently they show a continuing trend:

In 2009, the proportion of American women who were married dropped below 50 percent. In other words, for the first time in American history, single women (including those who were never married, widowed, divorced, or separated) outnumbered married women. Perhaps even more strikingly, the number of adults younger than 34 who had never married was up to 46 percent, rising 12 percentage points in less than a decade. For women under 30, the likelihood of being married has become astonishingly small: Today, only around 20 percent of Americans ages 18–29 are wed, compared to nearly 60 percent in 1960.

The article dwells on the political ramifications, but of course there are more ripples in the social fabric than that.

With the Oscars coming up, there are lots of features about its history and so on, and what the awards might mean.  What they don't necessarily mean is that the winners will have lasting meaning.  Some will, and some have.  Kate Winslet is up for another best supporting Oscar (I did see that one, and she disappeared into that role.)  She won her first exactly twenty years ago in Sense and Sensibility, the title of which is often prefixed with Jane Austen's and followed by, a film by Ang Lee.  Though he was the director, it was really a film by Emma Thompson, who wrote it (and won an Oscar for doing so.)

All that is to introduce a really interesting piece in the Atlantic  about how the changes she made in characterization (giving the male characters dimension that Austen didn't) also created images or models of men: Sense and Sensibility deliberately imbued Austen’s first published heroes with qualities they either didn’t have in the novel or didn’t have to the same degree: egalitarian attitudes toward women, an affection for children, and emotional sensitivity.

This film has added weight this year because one of those men was played by Alan Rickman, who was (to my mind) even better in his non-villain roles.

Finally, politics.  The consensus on the Net about the GOPer debate Thursday was that Rubio landed some blows finally, but that Trump is still standing.  Such speculation was superseded today by Trump's endorsement by Chris Christie.

But something more interesting happened earlier in the week.  A columnist in the Washington Post wrote about Donald Trump, mixing Greek myth and Mary Shelley for his metaphors:

"A plague has descended on the [Republican] party in the form of the most successful demagogue-charlatan in the history of U.S. politics. The party searches desperately for the cause and the remedy without realizing that, like Oedipus, it is the party itself that brought on this plague. The party’s own political crimes are being punished in a bit of cosmic justice fit for a Greek tragedy.

Let’s be clear: Trump is no fluke. Nor is he hijacking the Republican Party or the conservative movement, if there is such a thing. He is, rather, the party’s creation, its Frankenstein monster, brought to life by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker."

He cites the pattern of "wild obstructionism" and "the party’s accommodation to and exploitation of the bigotry in its ranks." "No, the majority of Republicans are not bigots. But they have certainly been enablers."  And not Trump first among those enablers, but "Republican party pundits and intellectuals." "What did Trump do but pick up where they left off, tapping the well-primed gusher of popular anger, xenophobia and, yes, bigotry that the party had already unleashed?"

Partaking of both obstructionism and bigotry, he wrote, "was the Obama hatred, a racially tinged derangement syndrome that made any charge plausible and any opposition justified."  Though Obama's policies were well within the mainstream of Democratic candidates and Presidents, he was attacked as subversive and illegitimate.

Others have made similar critiques, including me.  The difference is the author: Robert Kagan, a Republican, a "prominent neoconservative intellectual" (says J.Chiat)  and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  And so there is the conclusion that is singular so far, but perhaps a harbinger:

So what to do now? The Republicans’ creation will soon be let loose on the land, leaving to others the job the party failed to carry out. For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton. The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Make America White Again?

Here's how the coverage of the GOPer Nevada caucuses went on Tuesday: stories like this that declared Trump the winner, but included incidents of "irregularities" that look a lot like vote fraud.  And then pretty immediately, stories like this that analyze Trump's victory as if all those votes were legitimate.

The question for coming days is whether the media, which does not traditionally follow up stories about vote fraud, does so in this instance.  In newsrooms it may well be argued that Trump would have won anyway--which is probably true--so these risky stories would be for naught.  Except that the overwhelming percentage of his victory is a great deal of the story, and is a momentum-making argument for bowing to his aura of power and inevitability.

But sift through the tweets in that first New York Mag article, and see if you get the impression that the people who support Trump have little or no regard for the democratic process.  Because they're angry.

This is following right in goosestep with the rise of the proto-Trump in Germany in the 1930s.  His angry, less educated and economically backward supporters got weapons and snappy uniforms.  Trump's presumably already have caches of guns, so the brown shirts are all they'll need.  (Later on of course, rich, educated and cultured Germans latched on to the guy with immense and growing power, and got even sharper uniforms. Plus the houses of Jews and the run of wine cellars throughout Europe.  For awhile.)

The Nevada voters were older and angrier than earlier contests, and they were predominantly white. (That Trump maybe got the majority of a small number of Latinos is irrelevant.)  So they match up with the analysis developed and focused by several people but explained most recently in a Slate piece.   America was great not when the federal government left people alone (as in the current mythology) but when the recipients of federal help--the G.I. Bill, FHA housing loans, etc.--were mostly white.  Though there is some truth in the unfettered private sector argument--because without laws against racial discrimination in hiring, white people got all the jobs.

This story summarizes:    One of the reasons that there was so much of this "free stuff" available to white people back in the day is that it wasn't available to nonwhite people. Discrimination meant there were bigger slices of the pie to go around, so to speak, for every white person.

Non-white people are getting too much now, because they're getting anything at all.  So white taxpayers are paying for more than white people's needs. That has to stop---so returning to whites only is how to"Make America Great Again."

Which isn't going to happen.  Not without a fascist takeover, and no Supreme Court.

We can have compassion for people in pain, and politically seek to remedy unjust or unnecessary causes of that pain.  But politically we also have to understand how close we are getting to a very dangerous situation.

Another perishable post on politics

The Hillary camp must be watching quickly unfolding GOPer moves with particular interest.  On Sunday, some pundits were openly doubting that the GOPer Establishment (i.e. Jeb! backers) were going to rush to the aid of Marco Rubio, as their last stand savior.  At the end of Monday, the Washington Post reported that this was exactly what happened during the day.  Jeb! had left the race, and without much in the way of a mourning period, his backers were "flocking" to Rubio.

Good news for Rubio, at least in terms of money.  He had far less that Cruz or Trump.  But being the hero of the Jeb! Establishment in a voting with the middle finger year, not so much.

The Post piece agreed with others, however, that Rubio's road to the nomination is pretty narrow and uncertain, if not downright unlikely.  His announced strategy is to accumulate delegates without winning any of the March 1 Super Tuesday states, and start win some winner-take-all states on March 15.  Just to do the former, he'll have to leapfrog Cruz with the Evangelicals who don't vote for Trump.  To do the latter is the to be or not to be question.

From the Hillary point of view, Rubio must be their least favorite opponent.  I've been thinking about the debates.  Facing a woman candidate is an unknown quantity in presidential debates for GOPer candidates.  The hard edge of Tail Gunner Ted might not go over too well if he gets too aggressive.  That prospect is even greater with Trump.

Aggressive unto the threat of violence.  Too much?  Then you missed Trump on Monday, telling his adoring crowd that he'd like to punch a protester in the face.  Nothing on Cruz of course, who said he'd get Immigration police to round up and deport permanently all 12 million undocumented.

Of all the people who try to explain Trump's methodology, the one who makes the most sense to me is conservative columnist David Brooks.  In a column he wrote, prematurely burying Trump after his Iowa loss, he put his finger on it: and it's studio wrestling:

Donald Trump was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2013. He’d been involved with professional wrestling for over a quarter century. At first his interest was on the business side, because so many of the events were held at his hotels. But then he began appearing in the ring as an actual character.

What Trump apparently learned in that arena--the aggressive bluster that WWF fans love--he transferred to his TV persona and especially to his candidacy.

Professional wrestling generates intense interest and drama through relentless confrontation. Everybody knows it’s fake at some level, but it is perceived as fake and real at the same time (sort of like politics). What matters is not so much who wins or loses, or whether you are good or evil, but the aggressiveness by which you wage each mano-a-mano confrontation.

Many have been waiting for Trump's cartoon aggression and bullying of women in particular to go too far and rebound on him.  It hasn't, and absent real violence against protesters or media at one of his rallies (which is a growing possibility,) it probably won't in the GOPer primaries, especially in the South.

  Brooks explains his core support this way: Social inequality is always felt more acutely than economic inequality. Trump rose up on behalf of people who felt looked down upon, made them feel vindicated and turned social conduct on its head. And especially with available targets like uppity blacks and uppity women, Trump can keep blustering away.

But it's one thing to bully women and the media remotely, or to do it for GOPer debate crowds.  It's another to do it face to face in the Finals, in the context of a one-on-one presidential debate.  With an audience of voters that do not fit the profile of GOPer primaries.

 As repulsive a spectacle that might be should Trump face Bernie Sanders, the more likely scenario of facing Hillary could be his undoing.  Although the ratings will be spectacular, which may be all that he really wants.

For this alone, Trump must be the candidate Hillary people wish for.  It may be that it's a case of careful what you wish for, and in that particular column Brooks was premature at best in sounding Trump's demise. But given the choices, I suspect the candidate the Hillaryites want to face least is Rubio, with his altar boy face and smile.  His youth might be especially appealing.  He's just as extreme as Cruz and Trump, and in some areas more extreme, both in domestic and foreign policy.  He would be just as much a catastrophe.  But even with his robotic demeanor, he might do better in debates than they.

Still, as long as GOPers are determined to vote with their middle fingers, Rubio is running for vice-president.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Black History

Every picture has a story, and sometimes that story is history.  His story is that he's three years old, and Barack Obama is his hero.  His favorite book is "The White House Pop-Up Book."  And that's President Obama's hand on his cheek, and his mother behind him--she brought him to a Black History Celebration at the White House, the last time the first African American to be President of the United States would be its host.

The photo is an official White House one by Pete Souza.  I've posted several, maybe even many of these over the years.  I favored the ones depicting President Obama with children, particularly children of color.  Children respond to him, and he clearly responds to them.  They say a lot.

This particular photo became the subject of a moving story by Janell Ross in the Washington Post.  Though young Clark is on the other side of the rope line, President Obama stopped to talk to him, and fix his tie.  Ross wrote of the moment:

"The look in Clark's eyes offers one half of America's current story. A country once determined to import and enslave black Americans is now, indeed, led by one. That is a transformation so profound and complex that when another young black child, Jacob Philadelphia, visited the White House in 2009 and asked the then-new president if they have the same hair. Obama bent down and advised Jacob to find out. The answer -- yes -- said much more to Jacob, the millions of Americans who have seen the Souza photo of that moment since. It said, I am like you. You are like me. The most powerful elected office in the world is mine and is truly possible for all of us. Obama reportedly gave the photo a permanent and special home in the White House.

But then, there is Obama's tender touch on Clark's cheek this week. It is another remarkably familiar gesture between strangers which also reveals something deep and true. It speaks to the other half of America's current story. Obama is our president. Still, this remains a country where children who look like Clark, but are perhaps a decade older, are widely regarded as a menace. They are to be feared and contained. Obama's touch says, this child is precious and valuable because of who he is and what he can become. But when Obama said as much -- telling reporters in 2012 that if he had a son, that son would look like Trayvon Martin -- a good portion of America reacted as if that reminder was itself an extreme affront.

On Thursday, before Clark left the White House, President Obama inscribed Clark's favorite book. Clark's mother brought it along. The inscription reads: "To Clark -- Dream big dreams! Barack Obama."

And at the other end of history, also visiting the White House was Virginia McLaurin, who is nearly 107 years old.  She remembers when Hoover was President, the Model T and living before electricity (as many did even in the 1930s.)  And of course, growing up in the South, she remembers segregation, which--if you posit that it effectively ended in 1964, was in force for some 55 years of her life.

She thought she would never live long enough to see a black President--and she was 99 before she did.  But more incredible than that, she made it to the White House, and to meet the President and First Lady.

She was so happy that she danced.  And they danced with her.  In a video that apparently went viral, after being posted on the White House Facebook page.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Gateway Drug

I have to be very careful about listening to music.  It can take over.  My brain plays it incessantly, my moods synch to the lyrics, my psyche gets entrained to its rhythms.

Fortunately I am not tempted to listen to much new music, as befits my age, and I can handle classical music and jazz pretty well, though I still get infected sometimes.

But once in awhile I happen on music that's new to me, and I can get in trouble.  That happened recently when I innocently clicked on an article in the New Yorker about a 90s band I'd never heard of, and never heard.  (I confess I looked at the article because it was by "Bill Wyman," but it turns out to not be the Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman.)

But the article made the band--called the Vulgar Boatmen-- sound intriguing so I hopped over to YouTube and began listening.  There's a lot there--songs off their 90s records, a few live performances (though as the article notes, the band is actually two bands, and the performances don't always match with the band that made the record) and especially the remixes, which are pretty startling in their clarity, economy and musicality.

So I listened to them all, and wound up disagreeing with much of what Wyman wrote that he hears, but I did get hooked, especially on this song, "You Don't Love Me Yet."  To me the lyric strategy is to throw in some names and observations but mostly assemble random sticky lines from other songs.  So at best they wind up with sort of mysterious but compelling lyrics along with this unique music (as on perhaps their best-known song, "You and Your Sister.")

 On "You Don't Love Me Yet" it's the guitar riffs that get me, and the voice (a little Paul Simony to my ear.)   I remember that riff from 1980s New Order (I think--their stuff on YouTube doesn't sound anything like it).  If I had a band, I'd be getting them to listen to this music.

Listening to it now I'm relieved that the spell is broken (I think--I'll know later if I can still think straight without hearing that riff), but I'm passing it on to you anyway.  Maybe you're one of those who can take it or leave it, you can quit anytime.

Voting with the Middle Finger

Weird weekend with the Democrats caucusing in Nevada but the Republicans voting in the South Carolina primary.  The Republicans will caucus in Nevada this week, and next weekend the Democrats vote in South Carolina.  Or maybe this separation should be viewed as symbolic, of two different democracies.

In any case Donald Trump triumphed in South Carolina.  One of the voters there explained why--he was "voting with my middle finger."  Hillary Clinton won in Nevada.

Now that some numbers exist, political pundits feel more comfortable in predicting the final outcome of the nominating contests.  Various of them made strong cases that this weekend's winners are going to be the candidates.

Jonathan Chait made the salient point that Rubio's second place tie--ten or so points behind Trump--is less impressive than he'd like it to look.  He needed to win South Carolina and didn't.  He's not utterly out of it, nor is the universally despised Tailgunner Ted, but fighting for second place is not going to be enough.  Even with establishment GOPers starting to line up behind him, the only ray of hope that South Carolina provided Rubio is that late deciders broke for him, not for Trump.  But if Trump keeps notching victories in March, it's very probably over.

Meanwhile, Chris Danner's roundup of punditry makes the case that Bernie Sanders has peaked.  They base this on numbers, but a rationale is not hard to develop. Sanders is the Democrat's anti-establishment candidate, though his appeal isn't to anger alone but to hope.  His supporters ask that people vote "with their hearts."

But if these pundits are right, Democrats are also checking their heads, as Dems are wont to do.  Barack Obama won their hearts, but in debates, town halls, speeches and in response to real world events, he demonstrated an ability to handle the job of President.

 Bernie Sanders has an intriguing record.  I first became aware of him when he was the socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont.  (I was following the local rebellion against a proposed giant shopping mall, which turned out to be the first such project stopped by citizen action.)  Sanders turned out to be both a creative and pragmatic mayor, and if memory serves he was voted as the best mayor in the nation by his fellow mayors.

That was a long time ago, and it remains to be seen if Sanders can convince heads as well as hearts that he is up to the full range of presidential responsibilities.  But the nominating process is a matter of accumulating delegates, and he is rapidly running out of time.

That of course is not even a question being raised by the finger-voting GOPers who support Trump.  If we needed a reminder of how extreme all the surviving GOPer candidates are--and how that extremism is growing--here's one from the New Yorker's Amy Davidson.

The Republican party is becoming the party of the middle finger.  Whether it destroys itself in immense defeat in 2016 or destroys the country in victory is the open question.  Even an immense defeat in congressional elections may not prevent the GOP from functionally destroying the Supreme Court.

Hillary Clinton has not proven to be an especially skillful executive of her own campaigns, or even of the State Department, but at this point, voters may calculate that she's as close to a stable transition to a better country as we've got running. The GOPer friendly columnist David Brooks is not the only one who is already beginning to miss President Obama.