Thursday, December 29, 2011

Looking backward

This very post is One Finger Typing's two-hundreth since I started the blog in February 2010.

No, a 200th post is not nearly so dramatic as putting a man on the moon, perhaps not even as dramatic as baking a souffle that doesn't fall. But. Let's keep it in context, shall we? This is a blog, not NASA, and not Le Cordon Bleu. It's also the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, which gives one license to turn to matters that are ... less than earthshattering.

Though you can probably peg it short of earthshattering, it's hard to gauge a blog's impact. Who's reading? How carefully? With what result? Bottom line, does anybody really care? For better or worse, the answers to these questions are often a mystery.

Here's what I can tell you: some posts on One Finger Typing get a lot more hits than others. Blogger stats, Google Analytics, Feedburner, and Google Webmaster Tools all point in roughly the same direction on this question (some more directly than others) ... and who am I to question four opaque tools, whose data sources appear to overlap, and that are run by the same disinterested party? Disinterested in my particular blog, I mean.

Coming in at #1, says the most informative of my unimpeachable sources, is Drafting vs. Editing, posted on 18 Nov 2010, a meditation on how a writer (this one) approaches drafting new material as opposed to editing work-in-progress.

You wouldn't think a post like this would attract a lot of attention. I mean, I'm not Stephen King, or a ghost writer for Strunk & White. So what gives? Maybe it's the image included in the post one of Michelangelo's "Prisoners" from the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. In fact, when I look at search terms in Google Analytics, variants of searches for Michelangelo's sculptures, unfinished sculptures, and prisoners account for some of this blog's highest positions in Google Search results. How many of those click-through to read my work (or see images shamelessly appropriated in my post)? More than a few, apparently. On average, visitors spend enough time on the page to suggest most are reading the post, and the bounce rate is respectably low. Hmmmmmm....

Shakespeare, power, theme in literature also finishes in the top-five. There are a lot of people searching for Shakespeare out there on the intertubes, and sometimes they find me. Why is that? When I saw this post's recently-read rate spike as the semester came to a close at the university where I work, the lightbulb clicked. Readers spend more time on this page than on Drafting vs. Editing, and the bounce rate is higher. That could suggest readers on a focused mission. Students. Term papers. Cut and paste. And a content source who doesn't have the brains to charge for his literary musings!

O brave new world...

Here's the thing, though. Between impossible-to-gauge impact and vagaries of page-hit trackers, I'm less inclined to dwell on statistical analysis and wacko theories to explain the numbers; and more interested in reflecting back on a couple of hundred essays that, in better moods, strike me as decently written and, for the most part, better considered than your average Tweet.

(Is that an oxymoron? To call a Tweet well-considered? I suppose if brevity is the soul of wit ....... but, then, Polonius wasn't exactly deep.)

So never mind the numbers, here are a few posts from this blog's first two hundred that make some of my 'best of' lists:

If you're a regular reader: thanks for your time and attention. And please feel free to leave more comments. Lots more comments!

If you're just stopping by: welcome, and I hope you enjoy some of the posts linked above. And do leave a comment ...

If you're a search engine bot, cut me a break, okay?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reconsidering hotel amenities and other overreaching theories

What's a blogger to write the day after Christmas? Hmmmmmm ... I dodged this dilemma last year by taking a holiday during the holidays.

It was so tempting last week to draft a blog full of potshots at idjut Senators of both parties who fantasized that a two month extension of payroll tax relief would look like anything other than inability to govern; and at Republicans in the House who imagined that voting down this pathetic "compromise" was somehow going to come off more heroic than holding their collective noses and punting on real legislation until 2012.

Somehow, that didn't work out for the Party of No, not even in the Wall Street Journal. Trying to hand a hundred sixty million U.S. citizens a tax hike for Christmas? Not a smooth move. Silly, silly elephants...

What theory could possibly explain why "rank-and-file" G.O.P. Representatives would hang that albatross around their own party's neck?

Well, tea party people are a mystery to me, but CNN quotes a GOP source who explains that most members were concerned with the uncertainty caused by just a two-month extension [fair enough] as well as the political benefit the White House could gain in the national dialogue over taxes [wha ... huh? really?].

As SemDem of DailyKos, to whom I owe the CNN link, put it: The House GOP is admitting their big concern is that the middle-class will get a tax cut, and Obama will get credit for it... so let's JUST F- them!!

It's a theory.

But hey, it's still Christmastime, more-or-less, and just because my idea of celebrating on December 25th is to see a movie and go out for Chinese food doesn't mean I'm blind to the merit of dismounting from high horses for one week each year. Minimum, I mean.

So I'd like to take this opportunity to retract a theory of my own. It's a theory I advanced in Decline and fall of hotel amenities, a post I published here on One Finger Typing in late August.

In that post, having recently stayed at a series of hotels that, across the board, provided guests with shampoo in bottles that are virtually guaranteed to leak in your luggage if you dare take them home, I theorized that cheap shampoo bottles might well be a secret plot on the part of a hotel industry determined to shore up its bottom line by any means necessary ... that hotel management types put their heads together at some hotel management type conclave, and figure[d] out that flimsier bottles would stanch the flow of amenities (and profits) from their properties.

It was a theory, okay?


I'm here today to tell you, mea culpa, that my sample size was, well, a little on the anemic side. Since August, I've stayed in several more hotels, some of them downmarket, one of them featuring $600 rack rates on the back of the door (no, of course I didn't pay that much). In point of fact, the mix of shampoo bottle quality at these hotels was ... mixed. The most downmarket among them provided single-serve, hard-to-tear-open envelopes of astringent shampoo, and nary a drop of conditioner. The place with the $600 rack rate offered well-constructed bottles, with secure screw-tops that would easily survive a trip home in a traveler's luggage.

So much for late-summer's conspiratorial theorizing.

It's a big world out there, no? I guess you can't always tell Why Stuff Happens.

So here's to chillaxin' through the last week of 2011. And to hopes that the federal government will come back fresh and rested in 2012, ready to do the jobs we elected them to do.

Yeah, right......

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Yes, indeed, it's Chanukah, or Hanukkah, or Chanukkah, or Chanuka, depending how you Romanize the Hebrew. Last night was the second of eight, and my partner and I declared the evening Latkes for Dinner night.

Latkes are potato pancakes, and a traditional food for celebrants of Chanukah. While variants abound, the basic ingredients are, well, basic: grated potatoes, eggs, flour, and grated onion. Salt and pepper, natch. Fry 'em up in a fry pan with not too much oil but not too little. Serve them with apple sauce, or sour cream, or both. Bacon? Ahhhhh .... probably not.

A colleague came by my desk earlier this month and asked me how I make latkes. His daughter (ten years old, or thereabouts) is an enthusiastic cook and a vegetarian, and she wanted to give latkes a whirl. 'Tis the season, and all that. My colleague, R--, can't summon up latkes from his own cultural background, so he asked my advice.

Sitting at my desk, thinking technology thoughts, I wasn't expecting the question. I reeled off what I remembered off the top of a head that was immersed in wikis and code repositories and enterprise service busses. When I went home, I looked up a recipe for latkes from a book my grandma once gave me and realized I'd forgotten a few key elements (like the grated onion -- oy!), so I brought the book in the next day and photocopied the recipe for R--.

But I never actually use the recipe.

Any residual tendency to use recipes for savory dishes was knocked out of me by a stint as a cook some twenty years ago, the one I mentioned last week in Changing careers. We didn't serve latkes per se at Oliveto, a restaurant here in the East Bay that focused then and still on northern Italian cuisine. We did occasionally serve potato pancake variants, perhaps serving them with smoked salmon and creme fraiche and chives. Mmmmmmmmmm... But I was saying: cooking with your senses -- touch, smell, taste, vision -- it's a principle, a habit, an abiding joy, actually. It sticks with you.

(For the record, I do tend to closely follow recipes for pastry, bread, cakes, and so forth. Baking is fussier than cooking savory dishes, I prefer to hedge my bets.)

So when I came home yesterday evening and started to prepare latkes I made them the way my grandma used to describe most anything she taught me to cook: a few of these, some of those, a smidgen of the other, season, pan fry, serve. However. I did pay attention to what I was cooking by instinct ... expressly so that I could share with you, my faithful readers, Steve's Own Latke Recipe.

To wit:

The Ingredients

3 russet potatoes, medium size
1/2 of a red onion, medium size
3 eggs, large
4 heaping tablespoons flour
salt & pepper to taste
cooking oil, for frying

The Prep

Peel and grate the potatoes and the half-onion into a large steel bowl. The grated root vegetables will be pretty wet, so you want to squeeze out the water, then spread them on a towel (I use a clean dishtowel) and roll it up tight, pressing and squeezing to force the water out of the vegetables and into the towel. Then return the potatoes and onion to the bowl.

(You're going to need to wash that towel now, by the way. You've already added the starch.)

Next, crack the eggs and mix them in with a spoon. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture, one spoonful at a time, mixing in-between. Add salt and pepper to taste. I'm pretty generous with both. No, I'm sorry, I can't really be more precise than that.

Cooking 'em up

Heat a pan. I use a non-stick, 12" frying pan. Once the pan is hot, add oil. I use canola oil; olive oil tastes nice, yes, but its smoking point is pretty low so it's not a great choice for frying, not even in a pan. How much oil should you use? Enough to get the whole surface of the cooking pan slick -- more than a film, less than a pool. When you put the latkes in the pan, you want them to kind of slide around easily, to skate on the oil slick as it were, but not to be sunk in a pool of cooking oil, not even a shallow one. Or maybe you're looking for something more like deep-fried? Look, it's cooking, there's room for judgment calls.

Let the oil get hot, but don't let it smoke.

Form pancakes with your hands. Yes, it's messy. Get into it! Six big latkes or perhaps eight or ten smaller ones can be had from the ingredient quantities listed above (check out the photo). I cooked up two batches of three latkes each, and put the first ones on a paper-towel lined pizza pan in the oven to stay warm while I cooked the second batch. You want to let the latkes get nice and crispy on one side, then turn them over. You'll see the grated potato turning decidedly brown as the time to turn them approaches. It's okay to peek to check for doneness. After flipping the latkes the 2nd side will cook faster than the first.

The meal

I'm not big on sour cream, but don't let that stop you. Apple sauce is the perfect accompaniment to latkes in my book.

Enjoy! Even if you don't celebrate Chanukah, or have a preferred spelling of the word.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Rescuing freedom from U.S. government predation

The Congress of the United States voted last week to permit the government to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely, without due process. This violation of a core principle of U.S. law and government was tucked into a military appropriations bill.

We're talking no court, no lawyer, no judge, no jury. Just the government's accusation. No matter where in the world a victim of this legislation is arrested.

An unlimited term of custody. You're locked up for as long as the government wishes, or until "the end of hostilities," whichever comes first.

Here's the ACLU's take, several days before the Senate approved the bill, from Laura W. Murphy, as quoted on Glenn Greenwald's blog:

If President Obama signs this bill, it will damage both his legacy and American’s reputation for upholding the rule of law. The last time Congress passed indefinite detention legislation was during the McCarthy era and President Truman had the courage to veto that bill.

President Obama has indicated that he will not muster former-President Truman's courage. Instead, Obama has said he will sign this poisoned legislation into law.

It would be easy -- too easy -- to wail, to gnash teeth, to call for the resignation of every cowardly, freedom-squandering legislator in the Senate and House who voted to approve the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in which this rape of liberty was embedded. But what would be the point? In a matter of days, when Obama signs the measure, grievous damage will be done by our government to guarantees of due process that are embedded in the DNA of our social contract.

What do I mean by "the DNA of our social contract"? I mean the Bill of Rights, specifically the fifth amendment to the Constitution of the United States. To refresh collective memory, emphasis added:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

What were our elected legislators thinking?

U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) published his thoughts in the Huffington Post on Friday. Sen. Franken titled his post, Why I Voted Against the National Defense Authorization Act:

The bill that passed on Thursday included several problematic provisions, the worst of which could allow the military to detain Americans indefinitely, without charge or trial, even if they're captured in the U.S. [...]

With this defense authorization act, Congress will, for the first time in 60 years, authorize the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without charge or trial, according to its advocates. This would be the first time that Congress has deviated from President Nixon's Non-Detention Act. And what we are talking about here is that Americans could be subjected to life imprisonment without ever being charged, tried, or convicted of a crime, without ever having an opportunity to prove their innocence to a judge or a jury of their peers. And without the government ever having to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

I think that denigrates the very foundations of this country. It denigrates the Bill of Rights. It denigrates what our Founders intended when they created a civilian, non-military justice system for trying and punishing people for crimes committed on U.S. soil. Our Founders were fearful of the military -- and they purposely created a system of checks and balances to ensure we did not become a country under military rule. This bill undermines that core principle, which is why I could not support it.

Makes sense to me.

What about the 93 Senators who voted to pass the legislation? What were they thinking?

I can't even begin to speculate. In any case, the question of the moment has less to do with blame and fury, however justified blame and fury may be, and more to do with correcting this grievous error.


It's time for every U.S. citizen who gives a fig for liberty to call loud and clear for a repeal to the indefinite detention provisions of 2012 NDAA right now. To call today. Whether you believe your Congressperson and/or Senators would support such a repeal or not.

This is not hard to do, because a focal point for correction of this egregious legislation is at hand. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California) has introduced a bill to repeal the indefinite detention aspect of 2012 NDAA. Yep, she introduced her corrective measure even before the signature President Obama has promised to ink was applied to the offending bill's printed page.

Meet S.2003, the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011. From a press release from co-sponsoring Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah):
"The government’s most basic responsibility is to protect the civil liberties of its citizens," said Senator Lee. "Our nation has fought wars on American soil and around the world in defense of individual liberty, and we must not sacrifice this most fundamental right in the pursuit of greater security.  Without freedom there is no security."

"Americans who commit treason, or plot treasonous acts, should and will be punished for their crimes. But granting the United States government the power to deprive its own citizens of life, liberty, or property without full due process of law goes against the very nature of our nation's constitutional values."

Also sponsoring the bill are Senators Leahy, Udall (CO), Kirk, Gillibrand, Paul, Coons, Durbin, Nelson (NE), Shaheen, Franken, Udall (NM), and McCaskill.

As of this morning, the House has not yet introduced a version of this bill; that gives you an opportunity to urge your Congressperson to introduce or co-sponsor such a bill. And then to support it vigorously. makes it easy to find your Senators' or Representative's website (where you can send them digitally-delivered messages) as well as FAX and phone numbers (either of which will weigh more heavily than an e-message, so call or FAX if you can).

All we've got to lose, to repurpose the words of former President George W. Bush, are our freedoms.

Thanks to my U.C. Berkeley colleague Aron Roberts, and contributors to a thread he initiated on Facebook, for a well-researched and richly-hyperlinked discussion of the indefinite detention provision in 2012 NDAA. The links in Aron's thread formed the basis of this post. Thanks to Eugène Delacroix for Liberty Leading the People (1830), and to Wikimedia Commons for its image of the iconic painting.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Changing careers

The first paying job I ever had was a gig with the block association in my neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Several times a week I was to walk up one side of the street and down the other, picking up trash. I have no memory of how much I was paid, but I do remember the goal: a bicycle, a two-wheeler. I think I remember that the bike on which I had fixed my desire was a Schwinn "Green Hornet." It was definitely green, and my parents told me they couldn't afford it but that I could try to earn the cost of the bike. Thirty dollars. A princely fortune to a third-grader in nineteen sixty something.

But boy-o-boy, I wanted that bike.

So I picked up trash on our block, eventually earned the thirty bucks, bought the bike, and learned to ride it on the asphalt of the schoolyard up the street: Bryn Mawr Elementary (now the Bouchet Academy), the same school Michelle Robinson would enter as a kindergartener a year or three later, by which time my bike and I had moved on. Young Michelle's future husband, now the POtUS, was living in Jakarta at the time.

I did a fair bit of freelancing work between the third and ninth grades -- lemonade stands, selling greeting cards, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, baking dessert breads with my friend Henry and selling them to moms in our neighborhood, babysitting.

Then I got on a payroll. One payroll after another. McDonalds, Long's Drugs, miscellaneous lab assistant gigs, delivering flowers, loading lunch trucks, hauling obsolete machinery to a storage facility, wiring circuit boards, managing procurement for a tech startup.

Then I went freelance again: writing end-user manuals for software companies, programming, data-entry or temporary secretarial gigs when better-paying work dried up. When I got tired of looking for the next job with all that delicious "spare time" that was supposed to come with being your own boss I tried my hand as a cook.

And then I signed on as an employee at UC Berkeley, where I've been for ... a long time. Mostly in some job title or other that boils down to "professional geek." I'm billed as an "IT Architect" these days, and have trouble explaining exactly what that means, especially to people who don't work in software development. What I can tell you is that the title is less important than it might sound. And the truth is, most days I'd rather write fiction. (It's okay if my colleagues read this confession. My ambitions as a novelist are common knowledge at the office.)

Sometimes working as a professional geek seems ... complicated. The job claims a lot of mindshare, and not just during regular hours. The work involves a lot of lying awake at night, worrying. Every few months I toy with the idea of changing careers again. Mostly this sort of musing is make-believe, which is especially obvious when I fantasize about becoming a barista.

Yup. An espresso jerk.

In some moods, I'm really drawn to the idea of making a living at something that doesn't require deep intellectual engagement. My theory is that with a lighter-weight job I could save deep intellectual engagement for something in which I'm eager to engage, deeply.

I was sitting in one of my several favorite Berkeley cafes a few weekends ago, reading an old issue of The New Yorker (I'm behind, shamefully behind, I can't keep up any more). When I looked up, one of the newer baristas -- a striking Central American with pale green eyes -- was hanging a sign in the window, translucent plastic with red lettering, in blocky upper-case letters. "NOW HIRING" it said. I was looking at it from behind, so it looked like GNIRIH WON if I let the part of my brain that can read backward go a little bit out-of-focus.

I thought about it. About the sign, not about reading backward. And about asking the guy whether they were looking for somebody full- or part-time. About asking what the gig would pay.

In the end I didn't ask. See? Make-believe.

Maybe next year.

What would you do for a living if you could do something other than you're doing now?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Subaru dipsticks, the intertubes, and me

Months ago I wrote about my "new" car. New to our household, anyway. New as of July 2010, that is, when I posted Elegy for a manual transmission. It's a Subaru Legacy wagon, vintage 1991.

Like I explained summer before last, we don't drive much. Maybe 2500 or 3000 miles per year between the two of us who share the vehicle. It's easy in our Berkeley neighborhood to leave the car at the curb: we walk; we ride our bikes; we live about a mile from where each of us works, give or take.

I used to do my own car repair. Oil changes, sure, but most everything else too, from installing brake pads to replacing clutches to fixing blown head gaskets. I rebuilt a couple of engines even, though they were Volkswagon engines, way over on the simple end of the spectrum. As a used-to-fix-his-own-car kind of a guy, I'm not going to forgo checking the engine oil even if my crawl under the chassis days are naught but a fond memory.

In this car, our '91 Subaru, it turns out you can check the transmission fluid and the fluid lubricating the differential gears as well. There are more dipsticks under this car's hood than I've seen in all my born days. But let's let that go for now. Let's stick to checking the engine oil.

Having had intimate relationships (as it were) with a variety of dipsticks over the years, I didn't think I could be surprised when I checked the Subaru's oil the first time. But in the event? Let's just say I was puzzled. It's like some engineer designed the Subaru dipstick while on very strong hallucinogens.

I mean, what's with the twist? Is this a dipstick or is it sculpture? Check out the photo (with thanks to Lone Ranger, from ndondo's thread on, linked below). See what I'm saying? It's like the guy who designed it imagined some gnome down there riding the crank shaft who might appreciate a dipstick with a certain je ne sais quois.

Okay fine. I pulled the dipstick out of the engine block, got over the twist, wiped, reinserted, waited a few seconds, pulled it out again, and looked at the oily end. S.O.P., right?

And what did I see? Well, there's a kind of U-shaped thing going on, oil climbing way higher on the edges of the stick than in the middle. But worse? What's worse is that the oil level reads differently on one side than it does on the other.

Not helpful.

I'm not the only one who has complained about Subaru dipsticks. I learned this from the intertubes quickly enough.

Strabismo asked on forums about three years ago, Has anyone figured out the oil dipstick yet? He got testier in the body of his post: "I've owned a Subaru for 4 years and I still can't figure out how to get a clear reading from that diabolical engine oil dipstick."

Diabolical indeed. Strabismo must have read Milton, who associated straightness with God and anything bent or twisted with Satan. Did you notice that when you read Paradise Lost? A useful bit of arcana pointed out to me by an excellent professor, the late Julian Boyd, who led me through Milton's epic for the first time.

On, ndondo asked a similar question. That post, Oil Change - how to read the Dipstick, is chock full of advice. I tried a number of the suggested methods, but none of them worked for me.

So I asked my friend Bill. Bill owns a Subaru Outback, and has for about ten years. He'd know, wouldn't he?

No, it turns out, he wouldn't. Bill hasn't been able to figure out how to check his car's oil for about ten years, despite the fact that he's a licensed engineer. A civil engineer. By this time, I was not feeling particularly civil toward my Subaru's dipstick, but it would have been wrong to blame Bill for that.

After a while I went to see my mechanic. Not for the dipstick thing, for a minor service. But I was there, right? So when I picked up my car the next morning I asked my mechanic to show me the trick.

There weren't any tricks, he told me.

He pulled out the dipstick, wiped, inserted it, pulled it out again, and there it was, just ... fine. You could more or less tell where the oil stopped and the no-oil began. And the dipstick read the same on both sides.

But ... that's not how it worked for me!?!! There had to be a trick!

Okay, okay, there's a trick, my mechanic explained. He hadn't started the car yet that day. Leave it overnight, he told me. Check it in the morning, before you drive. Stone cold. All the oil fully drained into the oilpan.

(Hadn't I tried that? Had I? Hadn't I tried everything???)

Maybe I hadn't tried quite everything. Maybe I hadn't even read everything. See, on that thread, somebody with the handle lfdal had written, "The only way I can get a reliable reading is to get a reading first thing in the morning."

Must have missed that somehow. Was that the trick?

After all those failed attempts, a long surf through the intertubes, giving up, then asking my mechanic -- which is what I should have done in the first place -- I gave it a shot. I tried the leave-it-overnight thing at home.

No dice.

Was it my mechanic's shop rag, imparting some magical quality to the dipstick that my cheap paper towel couldn't match?

No. No way. That's looney.

How hard can it be to engineer a dipstick that just ... works?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Fifteen authors: reflections on a Facebook 'you show me yours' list
Elegy for a manual transmission

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Paying what things cost

I'm going tell some stories. They're not long enough to have titles, I don't think, so let's just call these their headings:
  • Grocery bags
  • A top-tier university's e-mail system goes kaput
  • Dirt
  • Black Friday, or the Ghost of Christmas Futures
What these stories have in common is their bottom line: paying what things cost.

Grocery bags

San Francisco passed a law in 2007 that prohibits large supermarkets from using plastic grocery bags. The idea was to encourage folks to bring reusable bags to the store with them. This would help the city to do its share to reduce the resource-costs inherent in manufacturing plastic bags, and reduce the environmental damage plastic bags cause. But instead of bringing their own reusables from home, a lot of people who shop at large supermarkets have chosen to let the supermarkets pack their groceries in paper bags.

So San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi proposed another law -- set to be voted up or down this week, but in the event deferred until early next year -- to prohibit all retailers from using plastic bags (with a few exceptions for raw and fresh food), and to charge customers at all retail outlets in San Francisco a small fee for bags of any kind. Again, the idea is to reduce environmental damage caused by plastic bags, and encourage customers to use and reuse shopping bags.

As Dave Lewis, Executive Director of Save The Bay, wrote in Sunday's SF Chronicle:
These changes are good for businesses, which will no longer be expected to give away a product for free; bags will become an item for sale, just like a carton of milk.

Why is it a good idea for bags to be an item for sale? Lewis argues:
Bay Area residents use an estimated 3.8 billion plastic bags per year and discard more than 100 plastic bags per second. The average use time of a bag is only 12 minutes, but once in the environment, plastic lasts for years. Plastic trash entangles, suffocates and poisons fish and wildlife, including sea turtles, birds and marine mammals. It smothers the bay's wetlands. These bags are one of the most common items retrieved at coastal cleanup events on the bay and ocean shoreline.

So there's a cost to using plastic bags. Similarly there are costs to using disposable paper bags (costs to retailers who supply them, and in terms of wood, water, toxic chemicals, and energy used to manufacture them). These costs are obscured by the illusion to retail-customers that they're free. Mirkarimi and Lewis want to get the illusion out of the picture, and for people to pay what bags cost.

Not everyone agrees with this line of reasoning. The shrillest windbag who publishes regularly in the SF Chronicle wrote an op-ed on Sunday titled "Where windbags dare to outlaw plastic bags." Unfortunately, and as is often the case, there's nothing in Debra Saunders' piece that rises to the level of reasoned argument. It's all spinning in circles ... there would be little point to quoting Saunders. But if you're looking for an alternate opinion, have a read. It's a free country, or so they tell us.

A top-tier university's e-mail system goes kaput

UC Berkeley has been suffering a relentless series of e-mail system outages for about a month. I know, not the end of the world in the grand scheme of things, but you wouldn't know it working in the campus central IT department (which is, as it happens, where I work). The UC Berkeley e-mail system, CalMail, hosts 70,000 e-mail accounts, and forwards messages for twice that many more alumni. Faculty, staff, and more than a few of the institution's 35,000-or-so currently enrolled students depend on CalMail every ding dang day.

How did it come to pass that an enterprise IT organization of some hundreds of employees at (arguably) the top-ranking public university in the nation let it's e-mail system go kaput? Here's my boss's boss's boss's boss, Associate Vice Chancellor & Chief Information Officer Shel Waggener, on this topic, from his update to the campus of 30 November:
CalMail supports 70,000 accounts over 100 subdomains for students, faculty, staff, emeriti, and retirees, and also provides forwarding services for 140,000 alumni, handling more than 3 million messages a day. The current environment is five-years old and is reaching its normal end of life. The hardware was scheduled to be replaced this year during a normal refresh cycle; however the replacement is expensive (over $1M) and with the acceptance of the OE Productivity Suite project, as well as the strong interest in external services such as Google and Microsoft, the decision was made to pursue those options rather than investing in a platform we would only be shutting down in the near future.

"OE" is "Operational Excellence" a fix-your-budget product that Berkeley (and other campuses and for-profit companies) bought into on the advice of consulting firm Bain & Co, at a cost that substantially exceeds the replacement cost of hardware referenced above. Part of what "Operational Excellence" decision makers are recommending to mitigate campus budget woes is that we outsource e-mail. This idea has been in the works for a while, and I'm betting it's going to happen. The company to whom we will eventually outsource this critical bit of infrastructure has not yet been selected, as far as I'm aware.

Translating from spin-speak, what the excerpted quote boils down to is the following: we figured we'd operate e-mail for tens of thousands of users on a wing and a prayer while we figure out what's next, in order to save a million bucks.

How long will what's next take to come about? Factor in negotiation, selection, and contract review. Then there's the transition, which will not be a flip-the-switch kind of an operation. I'm guessing a year or two. So if the hardware on which CalMail runs "was scheduled to be replaced this year" and we've got 1-2 more years to go, we're talking two or three years on a wing and a prayer. And, as we know from the message excerpted above, five years is "normal end of life" for equipment of this sort.


Was it necessary to take the risk our IT organization took? To run a core service that everyone at UCB depends on to accomplish their work, on hardware 50% beyond its normal lifecycle, to save a million dollars? (For reference, the total campus budget -- not just IT but the whole shebang -- is $1.8 billion annually.)

So was taking that risk a poor decision?

Well, you know, the buck stops where the buck stops, and I'm sad to say that no matter how many executives were involved in the decision to squeeze the life out of CalMail hardware, our IT organization is going to be explaining and apologizing for some while to come. In the meantime, we look like cr*p.

But ... hang on a minute ... that business about the buck stopping? That's the core problem, isn't it?

With state contributions to higher ed dropping to historic lows as a percentage of operating budget, the bucks are stopping in California when it comes to supporting universities. And skyrocketing tuition being charged students and their families isn't making up the shortfall.

What's an Associate Vice Chancellor & CIO to do if he can't afford to pay what it actually costs to run e-mail for 70,000 people at a top-tier university?


Among the deepest observations I've come across about paying what things cost comes from Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Jackson wrote an essay in a book called Nature's Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies, a volume I've blogged about recently (in relation to Occupy Wall Street) and will undoubtedly cite again. Jackson's essay is titled "Think Like a Prairie: Solving the 10,000-Year-Old Problem of Agriculture." The author takes the long view, you see. Like many others in this slim volume, this single essay is worth the price of the book.

Here's a summary of Jackson's essay in a few short paragraphs:

Topsoil is the medium in which plants grow, including plants that humans cultivate (a.k.a. agriculture). Topsoil includes elements like calcium, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, and trace minerals that are essential nutrients for plants. These are, in Jackson's phrase, "ecological capital." The elements that comprise "ecological capital" are gradually and naturally leached further and further underground by the flow of water, through topsoil and into aquifer and oceans; over time, the elements and minerals are leached out of the reach of the roots of plants that need them.

How does this perfectly natural process get 'reversed' so that plants can continue to live here on Planet Earth? Wes Jackson quotes Arnold Schultz, emeritus professor in the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley, on the topic: "Well, this is a dynamic planet. It keeps recharging itself through geologic activity." That is to say, what goes down gets spit up ... by volcanos and earthquakes and the like.

That's well and good, but we humans, who have been growing plants for about 100 centuries (a blink in time on a geological scale), are using up topsoil faster than it is being recharged through geologic activity. The biggest environmental problem associated with agriculture is, Jackson asserts, the loss of topsoil: "except in major valley systems such as the Indus and the Nile, soils soon wear out [...] [I]n North America's upper Midwest, the largest region of the world's best land, many areas have lost half of their topsoil in just a century and a half of farming."

Wes Jackson doesn't just identify problems, he identifies solutions.

What his solutions boil down to is farming organized around bioequilibrium, which means recognizing that the energy input into agriculture (to make up for the loss of topsoil, generally by importing soil and minerals from elsewhere) has a significant cost ... and if you put that cost on the books, it makes sense to invest in modes of agriculture that don't deplete topsoil nearly so quickly. Jackson's organization, The Land Institute, is all about figuring out how to make agriculture work in bioequilibrium -- socially, economically, and politically.

That is, Jackson and his colleagues are trying to figure out how we can pay, season by season, what it actually costs to grow and consume what we humans grow and consume.

Black Friday, or the Ghost of Christmas Futures

On 25 November 2011, the outdoor clothing company Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the NY Times. The whole ad is available as a PDF linked from the company's blog post of the same date.

It was a smart piece of advertising, and told some important truths. Excerpting:

Black Friday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red. We’re now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet. [...]

Environmental bankruptcy, as with corporate bankruptcy, can happen very slowly, then all of a sudden. This is what we face unless we slow down, then reverse the damage. We’re running short on fresh water, topsoil, fisheries, wetlands – all our planet’s natural systems and resources that support business, and life, including our own. [...]

There is much to be done and plenty for us all to do. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything. [A]nd join us in [...] reimagin[ing] a world where we take only what nature can replace.

It's an ad, right? These people are out to sell product?

And yet.................

A last word from my grandteacher

I've studied Tai Chi Ch'uan for some years. Back in the late 1980s, when I was new to the practice, I attended summer workshops with my teacher's teacher, Lo Pang Jeng, or "Ben Lo" as he encourages Americans to call him.

Ben worked us hard. You wouldn't necessarily think all those graceful, flowing movements you see people performing in parks are physically demanding, but the practice in Ben's lineage is oriented toward the martial aspects of the art and it's grueling. In his day, Ben was a taskmaster. Especially at those weeklong summer workshops.

In his mid-eighties now, Ben is still going strong, his posture upright, physically vigorous and mentally sharp. This is a very good advertisement for something he has told students over and over and over again after making us work until we ached.

We'd be gasping at the end of thirty or forty minutes of holding difficult postures, sweat streaming, trying to massage the burning cramps out of our legs. Ben would survey the tormented objects of his instruction, laugh, then do his best impersonation of a man broken by age: hunched over, making painful, halting progress as he pushed an (imaginary) walker. Then Ben would stand erect, and look around at we suffering young folk. Merrily, in his thick Chinese accent, he'd admonish us:

You can pay now. Or you can pay later.

Those are the choices.

Thanks to Akshay Mahajan for the image of a garbage dump in Phnom Penh; to Amber Case for the image of a server room after a fire at Western Washington University; and to Matthew Felix Sun for the image of his painting At Home.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Bioneers and Occupy Wall Street
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Facing things we'd rather weren't so

Monday, December 5, 2011

Berkeley's Art Practice Undergrads at Worth Ryder Gallery

I had a fun time checking out the Honors Studio undergrads' end-of-term show, which opened last week at the Worth Ryder Gallery on campus, on the ground floor of Krober Hall. Full disclosure: one of the undergrads is my cousin.

If I had to pick a favorite-in-show, it would be Sketch, by Stephanie Smith. Her several pieces explored the concept of art being on and off a wall or other surface, but I found Sketch hauntingly beautiful as well as conceptually intriguing. I do think I have a thing for ladders, perhaps rooted in Jacob's dream on his journey between Beersheba and Haran, at a place called Luz that Jacob called Beth El (Genesis 28). Be all that as it may ... Stephanie Smith knocked Sketch out of the park.

If I had to pick a favorite element of a cousin's many-faceted piece, Home Sweet America, it would be the Stock Market Prediction Tool (yep, that's a yo-yo in the photo, below) ... clever, fun, critical -- all favorite qualities, whether in a cousin or an artist. And especially in both. Ariel M. Ruby, I am really looking forward to lots more of your work in the years to come.

If I had to pick one more favorite, I'd pick two, in ink and watercolor by Bliss Morton, The Junkyard I and ... dang, I can't make out the numeral next to the image on the left ... perhaps it's The Junkyard II. Melancholy images, beautifully rendered.

The So Low Show will be exhibited through 10 December at the Worth Ryder Gallery. That gives you the rest of the week to see it: Tuesday - Saturday, noon - 5pm (map).

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Richard Serra's "Sequence" at the Stanford Art Museum
Shape, stone, seeing: Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Michael Ondaatje
Artists as vanguard vs artists as liberators

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Moral injury as a cause of PTSD

I stayed in a motel over the Thanksgiving weekend, and on Friday morning had a look at USA Today, copies of which were stacked in the lobby they way they are in hotels and motels across the country. USA Today is not a paper I normally read. I found one of the front page articles deeply distressing. Its title: Study suggests feelings of guilt are a top PTSD cause. The article is a heartbreaking work of staggering density.

Here are the first couple paragraphs:
A leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder is guilt that troops experience because of moral dilemmas faced in combat, according to preliminary findings of a study of active-duty Marines.

The conflicts that servicemembers feel may include "survivor's guilt," from living through an attack in which other servicemembers died, and witnessing or participating in the unintentional killing of women or children, researchers involved in the study say.

Well, yes.

I don't want to be flippant here, because this topic about as far as one can get from Things That Matter. I'd prefer to withhold from my fingers permission to type something sharp and angry, like No sh*t, Sherlock.

(Oops. Those fingers, they've got a mind of their own.)

Full disclosure: I have never served in the military. And yet. It's hard for me to fathom how this study qualifies as news.

I can wrap my mind partway around how the study qualifies as science: at its most pedantic, science (and perhaps especially social science) formalizes things known by pretty much anybody who's paying attention.

Indeed, to anyone who has been paying attention to pretty much any part of the last several millenia of recorded human culture, it's obvious that war has been destroying the bodies, minds, and souls of young men and women for a very long time. Destroying bodies, minds, and souls is pretty much an existential condition of war. Has been since war's invention.

Homer and the Greek tragedians who wrote some centuries after him made that plain a looooooooooong time ago. But you don't have to go back to the classical period for evidence in the human record. There are plenty of lessons to be drawn from more recent history and culture.

Siegfried Sassoon's poetry might be a place to start if you're looking for evidence from the most recent century of war's human and psychic toll. Sassoon wrote vividly of his horrific experience in the trenches of World War I. If you aren't into poetry, you can't go wrong with Pat Barker's fictionalization of the same period, including her fictionalization of historical figures. Barker's Regeneration trilogy starts with an evocation of the poet Sassoon being classified as mentally unsound for refusing to continue to fight an insane, inhumane, and senseless war (Regeneration); the last book in Barker's trilogy won the Man Booker Prize (The Ghost Road).

You'd rather watch a movie? Try The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now, which won five and two Oscars respectively, among many other awards. Those two movies describe the insane, inhumane, and senseless war in Vietnam of the 1960s and 70s. For films that go to the heart of how troops are affected by the current war in Iraq, watch The Hurt Locker or In the Valley of Elah.

It is a national shame and tragedy that among the men and women returning from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who have been treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, half have been diagnosed with mental health issues, and nearly 200,000 of these suffer from PTSD (these numbers pulled from the same USA Today article linked above). How can we bear having done this to our own young people, let alone bear the crushing horror of what we've demanded our young people do to the men, women, and children of Iraq and Afghanistan?

It is an embarrassment to human capacity for belaboring the obvious that it takes a scientific study for a national newspaper to connect the inhumanity that troops were trained and ordered to inflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, and compelled by the brutal circumstances of their deployment to endure; with the deforming effect on their psyches that overwhelms these veterans when they return home.

Thanks to tiganatoo for the image shared on Flickr of a stencil drawn from Pablo Picasso's painting, Guernica.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Richard Serra's "Sequence" at the Stanford Art Museum

One of many things I was grateful for this past Thanksgiving weekend was a stop on our drive back from a holiday dinner in Watsonville, where we feasted with cousins.

We stopped at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford University campus because the last time we were there, for only a brief hour, we didn't have time to visit Richard Serra's "Sequence" (2006), a steel sculpture of monumental scale and exhilarating beauty.

Friday's sky was almost perfectly clear, allowing bright sun and deep shadow to heighten color and dramatic contrast as one moved through Sequence. I made my way slowly through the sculpture again and again, seduced by its fluid power, seductive curves, and hypnotic textures.

I know, I know, blah blah blah, you can't see art by talking about it. So here's a walk-through video, taken by an amateur videographer (that would be me) with consumer equipment (that would be an iPod Touch) in two shots, separated by about 20 minutes. The sound track is ambient; the low-pitched engine noise on the 2nd part of the video is the Goodyear blimp flying overhead. It's not the same as being there, but maybe it'll give a glimmer of an idea of the actual experience.

Serra's Sequence is loaned to the Cantor Arts Center from the collection of Doris and Don Fisher, and since its creation in 2006 has been exhibited at MOMA in New York and at LACMA in Los Angeles. It will be a part of the inaugural installation of the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA when the new wing of the museum opens in 2016. That leaves plenty of time to see it on the north side of the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford Campus.

Don't forget to visit Andy Goldsworthy's Stone River in the field northwest of the Cantor Center's main entrance, or the Rodin sculpture garden on the south side of the building. It's hard not to be thankful for a visit to Stanford's art museum.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Shape, stone, seeing: Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Michael Ondaatje
Marilyn Monroe meets the Haymarket Riot: a tale of two Chicago sculptures
Meet the Fishers

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Chancellor Katehi, Athens Polytechnic, and ... Janet Jackson?

In a post of Tuesday titled Athens Polytechnic comes to UC Davis, John Quiggin cites a report published in February of this year that became the basis to abolish a law establishing "university asylum" in Greece. Until it was abolished, university asylum restricted the ability of police to enter university campuses in that nation.

No matter what an American thinks of such a law, or its abolition -- whether or not said American knows much about the social and political context in which a "university asylum" law was established in Greece (I don't) -- it's got to catch your eye that one of the authors of this report from the International Advisory Committee on Greek Higher Education was Linda Katehi, currently the Chancellor at UC Davis.

Yes, that UC Davis, the campus on which police doused sitting, unarmed, non-violent students with pepper spray late last week.

This came to my attention Tuesday via Facebook posts from people with whom I am or have been associated at UC Berkeley, as colleagues and/or as fellow-activists. I've seen it a few places since, but not in mainstream media. Co-authorship of the report is not listed on Chancellor Katehi's on-line CV, but that document appears to predate publication of the report. Blackout? Could people who care about news possibly think this is unimportant? Is the story a hoax? I'm guessing no, yes, & no, respectively, but YMMV.

Katehi's co-authorship of the report on Greek universities takes on startling significance when considered beside her tearful apology on Monday for UC Davis police officers' shocking misuse of this "defensive weapon" (a description of pepper spray given by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, according to yesterday's SF Chronicle).

Look at what the report to which Chancellor Katehi contributed, says:

The politicizing of universities -- and in particular, of students -- represents participation in the political process that exceeds the bounds of logic. This contributes to the rapid deterioration of tertiary education.

I don't read Greek, so I didn't even open the MS-Word document copy of the original report linked from Quiggin's blog. The translated excerpt given above was provided by "a Greek friend" of Mr. Quiggin.

Another translation, also linked by Quiggin, was posted in April to Blogspot. The presentation in that post is poor, with some of the letters blacked-out by what looks like a wonky Blogspot theme, but the same sentence translated by Quiggin's friend can be recovered. I recovered it (just a bit of copy paste, nothing sneaky). The two data points, combined, give me some confidence that the translation is accurate. On, the sentence is translated as follows:

The politicization of the campuses -- and specifically the politicization of students -- represents a beyond-reasonable involvement in the political process. This is contributing to an accelerated degradation of higher education.



Politicization of students, citizens of their own nation, degrades higher education?

Really? In Greece? The cradle of democracy?

In Athens? Where Socrates held forth to his students, one of whom was Plato?

Should the students known as "The Greensboro Four" from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina have stayed in their dorms studying in 1964 rather than sit at a Woolworth's lunch counter where they were 'forbidden' to sit so that their courage could give a critical boost to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement? Would the authors of this report have had students sit out protest against the Vietnam War? Would they have had the South African high-school students who rebelled against that nation's apartheid regime in 1976 remain at their desks? Would they have had Chinese students who turned out by the tens of thousands in Tienanmen Square in 1989 remain docile in their classrooms?

The politicizing of universities -- and in particular, of students -- represents participation in the political process that exceeds the bounds of logic. This contributes to the rapid deterioration of tertiary education.

And this from a Chancellor whose tearful apology of Monday referred to the Athens Polytechnic uprising of 17 Nov 1973 -- with apparent respect, as a bid for cred to her university's students, it seemed? A university-based uprising that resulted in a military junta piloting tanks -- tanks! -- onto campus to enforce the junta's rule ... when Katehi was a student at that university???

Okay, I've never even visited the country as a tourist, but I'm willing to allow for the possibility that my media-filtered perception could be true. Maybe it is the case that Greek politics get really volatile really quickly ... but still. Was Chancellor Katehi leaking crocodile tears on Monday? Or was she realizing how far she'd fallen from where she'd once been?

This is a campus leader whose co-authorship of the report of the International Advisory Committee on Greek Higher Education suggests pretty clearly that she doesn't believe students on a university campus have any business mixing education and engaged citizenship (a.k.a., political involvement). Not any longer she doesn't, whatever her position might have been in 1973.

How far is it from Katehi's current political position to setting campus policy that directs campus police to meet campus protest with disproportionate force?

It's almost enough to lead a person to theorize conspiracies.

Is she the Chancellor her tearful speech suggests? Or is she a reincarnation of Janet Jackson? Not the Janet Jackson who was the victim of wardrobe malfunction. I'm talking about the Janet Jackson of 1986. The Janet Jackson who sang I wanna be the one in control...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
When authorities equate disobedience with violence
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
Bioneers and Occupy Wall Street

Monday, November 21, 2011

Story matters

The East Bay Express ran an article in this week's issue titled Blaming the Bass. It's a California water-wars story. The article was a piece of political journalism, but what struck me had more to do with my interest in narrative than my interest in politics.

Background first: as many on the west coast of the U.S. know, we've got a bit of a salmon crisis going. In a sound byte, the Pacific salmon fishery collapsed in 2008.

Much evidence and the analysis of many scientists, environmentalists, and salmon fishermen indicates that water siphoned out of the San Joaquin River Delta has a great deal to do with this collapse. Many farmers, for whom said water is siphoned from the delta, are eager to find a different culprit. For background, you might start with Colin Sullivan's article, Salmon Fisherman Swim Against Political Tide in Long-Running California Water War (NY Times, 2 April 2010).

There's a convergence of interests in mitigating or reversing the conditions that have led to the collapse of the Pacific's salmon population, whatever those conditions might be. People like to eat salmon. People who are invested in fishing for salmon would like to continue to make a living that way. People who like hanging out in forests -- or who are convinced that healthy coasts and watersheds are fundamental to the health of our planet -- those folks are eager to get behind forms of environmental regulation that constrain and repair damage done to streams and rivers, in which salmon spawn.

Farmers in the state's Central Valley are, in some respects, a competing interest, and that's what Blaming the Bass is about in the East Bay Express this week.

In a nutshell: Some say that the collapse of the salmon fishery is less about water siphoned from the delta and more about too many bass that live in the delta. In this narrative, bass eat salmon smolt (young salmon) in quantities that significantly diminish the salmon population. Therefore, the proponents of this narrative argue, people who fish should be permitted to take more bass and younger (smaller) bass home with them than current Fish and Game Commission regulations permit, which would reduce the population of bass ... and, by extension, restore the salmon fishery without need (or without as much need) to limit water pumped out of the delta to irrigate farms.

In the counter-nutshell, others say that bass have little or nothing to do with declining salmon population, and that this business of killing bass to save salmon is piffle. Those who follow the money (and the water) argue that the bass-kill-salmon narrative is aimed simply and disingenuously at undermining effort to reverse diversion of water the salmon depend on to swim upstream and spawn. They say that undermining that effort is being spearheaded by agricultural interests for whom less water diverted to farms means less profit.

Who's telling the truth?

I have no expertise or authority that qualifies me to judge on your behalf. So I'm not going to say, at least not categorically. I do have my sense and sympathies that have evolved over years of following California water-wars ... and -- full disclosure -- as I have come to understand those wars I'm inclined to distrust agricultural interests that have acted with consistently reckless short-sightedness against those who seek shared water use among diverse interests and species.

So don't take my word on any of the substance of water-war issues. In fact, I'm not aiming to prove one story or another in this blog post. The thing I want to point out is how much is at stake -- politically and economically -- in telling the story of the salmon fishery's collapse. One way or another. I'd go so far as to say there's no such thing as a story that lacks a point of view.

As for how much is at stake in this particular story? Look at the NY Times article cited above, which tells us:

The plummeting catch has led to the cancellation of the commercial salmon season the past two years, causing the loss of 23,000 jobs and $2 billion in revenue, according to a study by Southwick Associates, an analytical firm that specializes in resource issues.

That's a lot of jobs and a lot of money.

So let's look a little more closely at how the narrative is being controlled and by whom in this week's East Bay Express story.

Professor Peter Moyle of UC Davis claims in the article that striped bass have been falsely implicated and used as a scapegoat for environmental damage caused mostly by the over-pumping of water from the delta. David Ostrach, formerly of UC Davis and a former colleage of Moyle's says that, "Striped bass and salmon and delta smelt all coexisted and thrived together until the 1960s, and these fish all concurrently declined when they turned on the switch of the water projects."

Still quoting from the Express:

Ostrach and Moyle both assert that no credible data exists showing that striped bass predation has ever had a significant impact on salmon numbers. They say that predation occurs substantially only in several isolated "hotspots" where pumps, levees, and artificial sloughs create a confusing network of waterways in which striped bass easily ambush wayward salmon smolts.

You might well ask whether the journalist who wrote this story, Alastair Bland, selectively picked expert sources sympathetic to a particular point of view, perhaps Bland's own. I don't know the answer to that question. I would like to think not, but then I tend to find scientists truthful, as I believe they are kept honest by community norms that require assertions to be justified by empirical evidence, and peers who check each others' sources and methods and facts.

I am less ready to trust in the honesty of industry-funded lobbying organizations like the so-called "Coalition for a Sustainable Delta" (cited in the story as a principal proponant of the narrative that blames striped bass for collapse of salmon population). That organization has a web site rife with that we're just citizens concerned with the common good look, combined as it is too often with reticence about just who funds the organization's activity. You know what I mean, it's that industry-funded lobbying organization look that is evident throughout our nation's twenty-first century corporatocracy. Go ahead, look for yourself.

(It's true, I'm not taking a 'centrist' stance, in which all opinions are treated as equally plausible. I lean one way and not another, and I won't pretend otherwise.)

Interestingly, Paul Krugman, my personal-favorite among op-ed writing, Nobel-prizewinning economists, had something to say about neutrality and centrists just this past Friday. On the topic of then-imminent failure of the Congressional "supercommittee" charged with proposing a way out of future federal deficits, here's Krugman's view of how the news media and pundits have contributed to the current state of the federal budget narrative:
So the supercommittee brought together legislators who disagree completely both about how the world works and about the proper role of government. Why did anyone think this would work?

Well, maybe the idea was that the parties would compromise out of fear that there would be a political price for seeming intransigent. But this could only happen if the news media were willing to point out who is really refusing to compromise. And they aren't. If and when the supercommittee fails, virtually all news reports will be he-said, she-said, quoting Democrats who blame Republicans and vice versa without ever explaining the truth.

Oh, and let me give a special shout-out to "centrist" pundits who won't admit that President Obama has already given them what they want. The dialogue seems to go like this. Pundit: "Why won't the president come out for a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes?" Mr. Obama: "I support a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes." Pundit: "Why won't the president come out for a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes?"

You see, admitting that one side is willing to make concessions, while the other isn't, would tarnish one's centrist credentials. And the result is that the G.O.P. pays no price for refusing to give an inch.

Scientists, environmentalists, and fishermen are trying to control the narrative of why the Pacific salmon fishery collapsed, backing up their story with history and evidence. The bass-blaming farmers and their blandly-named coalition are trying to control the narrative too, backing up theirs with things that look less historical and less honest to me -- but you'll have to decide for yourself which story you believe.

See, everybody tries to control narratives.

The so-called "birthers" tried to shift perceptions about the legitimacy of the Obama presidency by making up stories about his birth certificate. Climate-change deniers attempt to spin the miniscule percentage of credentialed scientists who argue that humans have nothing to do with global warming into a narrative about a 'split' in scientific opinion. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau tried to tell a story a week and a half ago in which non-violent protesters incited a police beating, but then he realized that evidence contradicted his claims and changed his tune. Critics of the Occupy protests tell stories that paint the entire movement as a ragtag, violent, and unhygenic convergence of hooligans and hooliganism; Occupy naïfs tell stories in which the destructive or violent acts of some don't count because the vast majority of protesters and supporters aren't participating in those acts.

Each of these narratives has its believers, sad to say. There's enormous power and consequence in shaping such stories. Narratives take root, and come to govern what people believe, how they behave, what political leadership and initiatives they support.

In a better world -- in my idea of a better world, anyway -- critical analysis would play a greater role in shaping belief, behavior, and political loyalties. But in the world we've got? Story matters. You've just got to hope that people will, more often than not, discount the stories that veer furthest and most irresponsibly from truth.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Henry IV and Berkeley G.O.P.'s 'diversity bake sale'
Starbucks' vacuum-packed greenwashing
Allusion in fiction
Am I my fiction's protagonist?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

When authorities equate disobedience with violence

Much has been written about the Occupy movements in San Francisco's East Bay Area, but I think there's still room for further exploration of the core principles at stake in the relations of government (broadly speaking) to the Occupy protests. I'll frame this exploration with a remarkable stream of morphing statements emanating from the office of UC Berkeley's Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau.

Many readers will already have seen on YouTube video showing riot-geared UC Police (UCPD) striking and swinging at unarmed, non-violent students on Wednesday of last week (9 Nov 2011). Frankly, I find this video almost unwatchable, but if you haven't seen it or its cousins yet, I'm afraid you should.

I wasn't at the scene of these beatings, so I'll defer to UCB Professor Celeste Langan, of the English Department, to contextualize the video. From her 13 Nov blog post Why I Got Arrested with Occupy Cal--and How:

The organizers of Occupy Cal asked those who were willing to stay and link arms to protect those who were attempting to set up the encampment; I chose to do so. I knew, both before and after the police gave orders to disperse, that I was engaged in an act of civil disobedience. I want to stress both of those words: I knew I would be disobeying the police order, and therefore subject to arrest; I also understood that simply standing, occupying ground, and linking arms with others who were similarly standing, was a form of non-violent, hence civil, resistance. I therefore anticipated that the police might arrest us, but in a similarly non-violent manner. When the student in front of me was forcibly removed, I held out my wrist and said "Arrest me! Arrest me!" But rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed. The injuries I sustained were relatively minor--a fat lip, a few scrapes to the back of my palms, a sore scalp -- but also unnecessary and unjustified.

In shocking contrast, here is Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's initial description of what went down on Sproul Plaza, excerpted from e-mail sent to all faculty, students, and staff on 10 Nov 2011 (emphasis added):

We are not equipped to manage the hygiene, safety, space, and conflict issues that emerge when an encampment takes hold and the more intransigent individuals gain control. [...] It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully; they were told to leave their tents, informed that they would be arrested if they did not, and indicated their intention to be arrested. They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers' efforts to remove the tent. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.

There is no telling what the Chancellor was thinking. He was in Asia, distant from events, necessarily relying on his subordinates in the administration ... who seem to have misled him. Nonetheless, Birgeneau's equation of "linking arms" with "not non-violent" acts is a statement of principle, not an analysis of the events of 9 Nov. It is hard not to hold him responsible. Professor Langan takes the Chancellor to task eloquently on this point in the blog post from which I quoted, above.

Law Professor Jonathan Simon comments on this type of absurd equation of peaceful protest with criminal violence, in relation to Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street (at Zuccotti Park), in his blog post Governing the Occupy Movement through Crime (also cross-posted as a UC Berkeley hosted post on politics and law):

In many cities, including most prominently Oakland and New York, tent encampments on public spaces by the Occupy Wall Street movement have been cleared in early morning raids by police (read about the Oakland situation here). This time, at least, police violence seems to have been minimal. But what is regrettable is the use by city leaders of the lame excuse that "crime" problems necessitated the end of the encampments. It may be that the Occupy Wall street movement must generate new meaningful actions to build its momentum, but the claims that the encampments were generating unacceptable levels of crime is both false and reflexive.

To the latter point first. The gist of the argument behind this blog, and the book, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear, is that political leaders facing a chronic legitimacy deficit since the late 1960s have frequently used protecting citizens from crime as the least problematic way of justifying the exercise of power.

I think that this business of beating non-violent protesters to protect (other) citizens can be boiled down to a simple sound byte: across the political spectrum of elected and appointed officials in the United States, from former POtUS George W. Bush to, in last week's unfortunate missive, Berkeley's Chancellor Birgeneau, authorities want us to believe that disobedience and violence are the same thing.

If this weren't a family blog, I'd say f*ck that sh*t.

When Chancellor Birgeneau returned from his trip to Asia, he wrote to the campus again. Four days later he'd begun to spin a very different tune. From his e-mail of 14 Nov to the campus community, excerpting for the sake of brevity:

[...] it was only yesterday that I was able to look at a number of the videos that were made of the protests on November 9.  These videos are very disturbing.  The events of last Wednesday are unworthy of us as a university community. [...]

Most certainly, we cannot condone any excessive use of force against any members of our community. I have asked Professor Jesse Choper, our former Dean of Law, and current Chair of the Police Review Board (PRB) to launch immediately a review of the police actions of last Wednesday and Thursday morning.  [...]

We believe that we can best move forward by granting amnesty from action under the Student Code of Conduct to all Berkeley students who were arrested and cited solely for attempting to block the police in removing the Occupy Cal encampment on Wednesday, November 9.  We will do so immediately.

I believe that as a campus community, we can and must join together and focus on our common goals - inducing the state to reinvest in public education, working to repeal Prop. 13, finding a way to reverse Prop. 209, and instituting reforms that will help California regain its status as the door to the American Dream through public higher education. [...] We share the aspirations of the Occupy movement for a better America.  I am confident that as a campus community we will find a peaceful and productive way forward.

As a watcher of Berkeley campus politics from my student days in the late 1970s through now (I am currently a staff employee at Cal), let me assure you that this is an extraordinary reversal for a Chancellor. Amnesty for student protestors is not granted easily or arbitrarily on our campus, or by this administration. I would not like to be the idjut who told Birgeneau-in-Asia that matters were so dire that he ought to conflate violence with peaceful civil disobedience. He's got to be pissed that he was forced to pull such a clumsy about-face. Maybe not as pissed as Professor Langan or student and community activists, but plenty angry nonetheless. Perhaps the object of his ire is UC Police Captain Margo Bennett, who emitted this same absurdity to the SF Chronicle in advance of Birgeneau's e-mail. Or perhaps she was toeing a line drawn by the same administrator who misled the Chancellor. We may never know.

On Tuesday (15 Nov) Occupy Cal called a general strike and a day of "Open University" instruction, in which professors and grad students were encouraged to hold their classes en plein air. Thousands of people turned out for discussions on Sproul Plaza, a "convergence" at noon (pictured in my photos here in this post, props to the band in the one a couple of paragraphs up for their punk-rock rendition of Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind). This mass of protestors held an afternoon march through downtown to Berkeley City College. Back at Sproul in the evening, a large general assembly voted to re-establish the encampment on Sproul Plaza. Then Professor Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, gave the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture to at least 5,000 peaceful attendees -- some put the crowd as high as 10,000. (It was not Reich's strongest speech, but that's another blog post; see his 6 Big GOP Lies About The Economy on YouTube for Reich at his finest.)

But what I really want to circle back to is the email message -- a third one now in the course of five days! -- sent by Berkeley's intrepid Chancellor at 5:07 pm on the day of the general strike, Tuesday. In its entirety this time:

To the Campus Community:

We all share the distress and anger at the State of California's disinvestment in public higher education.


The issues require bold action and time is short. I will inform you of the time and place as soon as possible.

Robert J. Birgeneau,

The all-caps are his.

Yes, the Chancellor is calling for a forum and a debate. It's not a "radical" tactic by any stretch of the imagination; but the call is in keeping with an academic milieu, with his leadership position, and with Birgeneau's 2009 call in the Washington Post, co-authored with Vice-Chancellor Frank Yeary, for deep recommitment to public higher education, funded by the Federal government.

Let's hope also that his latest call for "bold action" signals the Chancellor's reassessment of his absurd conflation of disobedience with violence, of five days before.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
Bioneers and Occupy Wall Street
Birth of a movement?