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.