NPR’s "Talk of the Nation" had Chalmers Johnson on Wednesday talking about his new book, "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic." Johnson is a harsh critic of the way our military has come to dominate at least the foreign policy agenda of our government, and he offers no comfort for those (like me most of the time, to be honest) who believe we’ll just find a way to muddle through:

"One of the oddest features of political life in the United States in
the years since the terrorist attacks is how few people have thought or
acted like Barbara Lee. The public expresses itself in opinion polls,
which some students of politics scrutinize intently, but there is
little passion in the society, certainly none proportionate to the
threats facing our democratic republic. The United States today is like
a cruise ship on the Niagara River upstream of the most spectacular
falls in North America. A few people on board have begun to pick up a
slight hiss in the background, to observe a faint haze of mist in the
air or on their glasses, to note that the river current seems to be
running slightly faster. But no one yet seems to have realized that it
is almost too late to head for shore.

the Chinese, Ottoman, Hapsburg, imperial German, Nazi, imperial
Japanese, British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Soviet empires in the
last century, we are approaching the edge of a huge waterfall and are
about to plunge over it."


And he also points out what’s obvious now that we’ve gotten to watch Congress’s first impotent response to Bush’s Iraq policy:

"I believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have led the country into
a perilous cul-de-sac, but they did not do it alone and removing them
from office will not necessarily solve the problem. The crisis of
government in the United States has been building at least since World
War II. The emergence of the imperial presidency and the atrophying of
the legislative and judicial branches have deep roots in the postwar
military-industrial complex, in the way broad sectors of the public
have accepted the military as our most effective public institution,
and in aberrations in our electoral system. The interesting issue is
not the damage done by Bush, Cheney, and their followers but how they
were able to get away with it, given the barriers that exist in the
Constitution to prevent just the sorts of misuses of power for which
they have become notorious."

On the Bike: Lousy Cycling Weather List

Just to put it on the record before the beautiful memories start to fade:

The weather people were right: Saturday turned out rainy and windy, eventually. We rode into some light rain about 20 miles from the start of the 188-mile ride, but that was done with pretty quickly; if that was all we’d had to contend with, no one would have even remembered it. The northbound leg was pretty painless because we had a nice tailwind through the first mandatory stop (“control” in the language of brevets) at mile 46 or so in Petaluma. The breeze was a big help as we continued on, too. But off to the west, the hills were shrouded in falling rain, and it was raining by the time I got to Santa Rosa. It rained moderately for the next hour or so, just about all the way to our turnaround control in Healdsburg. By then, with more than 100 miles to go to get back to the start, everyone looked pretty wet. I was soaked, and couldn’t stand around much before I started to shiver. Luckily, I met a couple friends, Bruce and Rob, who were just finishing lunch and ready to leave; I had downed an orange juice and a protein shake–my stomach had felt too upset earlier to eat anything, and the liquid fuel was working just fine–and I rode with my two East Bay compadres along the edge of the vineyards down to the Russian River, then out to the coast. There, the principal weather factor turned to wind: A strong breeze was rising along Highway 1, and it was mostly right in our faces. About 20 miles after reaching the ocean, and about 57 miles from the end of the ride, it started to rain again; the wind had grown strong enough that, along with our forward motion on the bikes, the drops seemed to blow horizontally and stung my face. It rained with increasing intensity all the way back to the finishing control at the Golden Gate Bridge. It was so windy up on the span that we all had to dismount to walk around the north tower, and even then we had to lean into every step to make any progress at all; with the rain, it felt like we were getting sandblasted.

But it wasn’t all one big gray blur. Every once in a while I’d catch a piece of the scene–the glistening green slope of a mountainside before the storm really hit, the nearly-obscured hills or beaches as the rain rolled in, the rain blowing through the light cast by streetlamps–and the beauty of it all was striking. Or maybe that was just an attempt to justify subjecting myself to an experience that at points seemed crazy.

At one point, Rob and I got flat tires just below one of the last summits of the ride. The road was completely dark except for bike and car lights. We were in the middle of the storm in a dark, dripping forest, and we made our repairs with cold, wet hands. I, at least, didn’t have perfect confidence that my tire would stay inflated, but within 20 minutes or so we were riding again. One thing I like about this climb, from Nicasio up and over to San Geronimo, is that when you approach the summit, there’s always a pronounced breeze–a wind moving through the notch in the hills, a signal that you’re just about at the top. Last night, you could hear the wind roaring above us as we went up the slope. Instead of the usual breeze, a gale was blowing so hard that I wondered at first whether I could keep my bike upright. Instead of the usual fast, effortless descent, we had to keep pedaling to make progress into the wind. It was a relief to get down. We heard the same roar going up the other hills we had to cross in Marin County and faced the same wind-blown descents each time.

My hardest day ever on a bicycle? The way memory works–smoothing over the most unpleasant parts–it’s tough to say. But it would definitely be up there. I got soaked early and knew I was beyond hope of drying out (if this had been a multi-day ride, I would have found a laundromat and thrown my stuff in a dryer). It rained hard and for a long time, and it was on the chilly side–low to mid 50s all day. The wind was a special factor. As I said to Rob and Bruce after descending into San Geronimo, “That was wild.” I suppose I felt exhilarated, but a lot of that had to do with knowing that I’d be done riding in an hour or two with any luck.

The headline up there promises a list. So here they are, a quick review of the harshest weather rides I remember (one might be struck by how many of these are in the last four years; that’s when I started randonneuring and bought into the notion, perhaps to be explored later, that a little rain or heat or cold shouldn’t keep you from going out and riding all day and night).

1. February 24, 2007: San Francisco 300 brevet. 120 miles of rain and wind. Finished.

2. May 3-5, 2003. Davis 600 brevet. Rained for six or seven hours in middle of event (and for me, in the middle of the night). Cold pouring rain at the turnaround point, situated in a redwood grove in a state park. The hardship wasn’t so much the storm, but the distance still left to cover after I got a good soaking. I finished and qualified for PBP.

3. March 18, 2006: San Francisco 400 brevet. 55 miles into a 20-35 mph headwind on the western edge of the Central Valley. It took 11 and a half hours to finish the first 200 kilometers; the wind-aided return south took eight and a half hours.

4. July 22, 2006. Bay in a Day Double Century. High temperature on the road: 118 degrees. Started early, finished late, and got cooked in between.

5. January 28, 2006: San Francisco 200 brevet. Rain for 100 of the 125 miles on the road. But wind wasn’t much of a factor until near the very end. Finished.

6. September 14-15, 2006: Days two and three of the Last Chance 1,200 in Colorado and Kansas. We had a good 36 hours of 20-30 mile an hour winds; the breeze was from the south, meaning it was mostly a crosswind, but it made bike handling very tough and tiring. I finished the 1,000 portion of my ride, but did not finish the planned 200 afterward due to an Achilles tendon injury.

7. June 24-25, 2005: Great Lakes Randonneurs 600 brevet. Thunderstorms struck at the 300-kilometer mark; after two-and-a-half-hour delay, rode most of the night in the storm with bolts of lightning for extra illumination. I quit at the 400-kilometer mark.

8. April 12, 2003: Visiting Chicago for my parents’ 50th anniversary, I decide to take my brother-in-law Dan’s bike out for a ride. Temperature was about 40, and the bonus factor was a stiff breeze off Lake Michigan. I rode across the Wisconsin state line, called my sister’s house to announce my accomplishment, then enjoyed a wonderful tailwind all the way back to the North Side.

9. July 13, 1969: I take it into my 15-year-old head to ride from our place in Crete, Illinois, to Kankakee River State Park, about 35 miles away, on my red three-speed Schwinn. The temperature reached the mid-90s on a mostly unshaded route. I had a map. I did not have anything to eat or drink, though I did bring money and bought stuff along the way and I wasn’t shy about stopping to ask people for water. Finished the ride and then repeated it two days later with two friends; we tied sleeping bags and other camping gear to our bikes and hit the road. Even though I was really tired and sore and probably dehydrated and sunstruck and got a ride home from my dad, I had sort of a good time. Maybe this ride explains all the others.

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On the Bike: Weather Edition

Tomorrow’s event, part two of the qualifying series for this August’s Paris-Brest-Paris exercise in transatlantic self-punishment, is a 300-kilometer ride. That’s 188 miles in universally recognized American distance units. We’ll start at the Golden Gate Bridge at 6 a.m., ride up through the interior valleys of Sonoma County to the town of Healdsburg, head out along the Russian River to the townlet of Jenner, then ride down the coast highway to Point Reyes Station, where we’ll swing inland to go back to the bridge (the foregoing provided for those who want to keep score at home). Based on past experience, this will be something I’ll be doing well into the evening.

The hard part is: rain. The sky is clear out there now. But for the past two or three days, the forecast has predicted rain and, for the return trip on the coast, headwinds. I’ve been meaning to write a little something on the blessing and curse of modern weather forecasting for the modern bicycle rider. By which I mean: The blessing is that the sort of forecasting that’s possible today, along with tools like Doppler radar and satellite water-vapor imagery, can give you a pretty clear idea of what you’re riding into and when; the curse is that you become the prisoner of a prospective and freely revised reality.

Weather forecasting is highly model driven, meaning that a bunch of unimaginably fast and powerful computers are applying sophisticated mathematical models to the wealth of weather data pouring in from all over the globe; when the machines finish their model-assisted number crunching, they spit out a picture of the way the world will look in 12 and 24 and 48 hours and so on. Then forecasters take these visions of the world as the models predict it and try to turn them into forecasts. Except: Sometimes the forecasters are confronted with two or three or six conflicting, or at least significantly varying, takes on what tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, ad infinitum, will look like. Then the humans have to do something that is a cross between highly educated guesswork and astrology: often, based on observations about which models have “verified” recently, they’ll make a prediction based on a compromise reading of models or just lean on the model that seems the most trustworthy in a given set of circumstances.

The curse, more specifically, is that we can all look at the developing forecasts, read the forecasters’ reasoning, even consult the raw data if we think we can handle that. Which means, in the end, we don’t get a minute’s rest thinking about whether it will rain, how much it will rain, how awful the headwinds will be out on the road. On balance, it seems like it would be simpler, and much more peaceful for the soul, to just look out the window before you get on your bike. But that would be much too simple and would fail to make the best use of our high-speed Net connections.

Time for bed now, right after I check the forecast and the radar again.

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The Softball Team

Pete Dexter, the former great newspaper columnist and author of one of my favorite novels (“Deadwood”) was on KQED’s “Forum” Wednesday morning, part of a tour promoting a new book, “Paper Trails.” At the prompting of host Michael Krasny, he told this story (the MP3 show audio is here):

“It started with a column about some drug activity in a real bad part of, well wasn’t that bad a part of Philadelphia, it was the Tasker neighborhood, and this kid had gotten himself killed in a drug deal. And I wrote about it, they had a meeting that I wasn’t supposed to go to but I knew a lot of guys in Tasker, so I went to the meeting and wrote about it. It was really too bad, because this was a kid who woulda–he wasn’t a bad kid. So you’re against drugs, big deal. So I write the column and I get a call; the column came out weeks after the incident and right after the meeting. And I got a call from the kid’s mother and she was hysterical saying I’d brought it all back and stuff and I felt real bad and apologized and she wanted a retraction. I didn’t know what she was gonna retract, I mean the kid got hit in the back of the head so hard with a baseball bat that one of his eyeballs had come out and they found him dead in a stream.

“I was very nice to her, but she wasn’t having it, and then her older son called and we go through the same song and dance. And at some point in this conversation the guy started talking about how he was going to come find me and he was gonna break my legs and break my hands and all this stuff. At that point in my life, you said something like that to me I wasn’t going to come looking for you to hurt you but I was going to make myself available. I was in the gym every day then, I could take care of myself.

“I said where are you and he told me he worked in a neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket; it’s a real well-named place in Philadelphia, it’s about the worst neighborhood in that city. I went over there at 8 o’clock at night and he was sitting in there with four or five guys … we talked a little bit and I thought everything was settled and I turned away and somebody hit me, then I got hit with a beer bottle. I wasn’t hurt–my teeth were sheared and my lips were busted up–but I wasn’t hurt. And that night, it was December and I was going over to a birthday party at my friend Randall Cobb, who at the time was a–you know Randall didn’t have the talent to beat Larry Holmes, probably, but he had a fight with Mike Weaver who was the WBA champion at that time and he probably would have beaten Weaver because Cobb you could hit him with a pipe and he just could hardly be hurt. He was a pretty good fundamental boxer, wasn’t fast, didn’t have much talent or a whole lot of punch but he had beaten Ernie Shavers and he probably would have beaten this guy Weaver. Which means when he fought Larry Holmes and lost, which wound up happening, he would have come in as a white heavyweight champion of his own fighting the other guy and it would have been a huge money match. We’re just talking dollars and cents here–he would have gotten five or ten million dollars for that fight.

“I went to Cobb’s birthday party, I think it was his 28th birthday, and he saw me and asked what happened and I told him and he said, well, do you want to go talk to them about it? And it’s one of the many moments of my life where I wasn’t thinking in everybody’s best interest; I said all right and so we went back over and talked to these people a little bit. And Cobb kept saying to me, well what do you want to do? Well one of the guys sitting in there, this little fat guy, ran out the back door. The last thing I really wanted to do–I wasn’t there to get even, we just walked in there, there’s four or five guys, I don’t know, maybe six sitting there. Cobb and I–we had nothing to take care of that but all of a sudden this guy–in two minutes that place just filled up with people with softball bats and reinforced steel with little tape markings on the handles where they would use them to hit people, and crowbars. And I remember Cobb looking at the–it was snowing outside by now, and Cobb looking at these people pouring into the bar and saying to me, ‘Don’t you hope that’s the softball team?’ I was so scared I really could hardly laugh. And one thing led to another. …”

You guys got worked over pretty bad.

“I ended up–my back was broken.Yeah, giving the guy credit, he said he’d break my legs, and he did break a leg. I had bleeding on the brain. To this day things don’t work right.

“But the more expensive damage was probably done to Cobb, because he broke a little bone in his left forearm which is for a right-handed fighter, for Cobb anyway, that was all his offense anyway, he was a jabber. So he didn’t get the fight with Weaver, the fight fell through, so when he fought Holmes he got half a million dollars for it. “

TV Tour de Crud

I bray every July about Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, our English-language TV announcers-for-life of the Tour de France. It’s not just the cliched, empty language they use–granted, it was charming once upon a time–it’s their tendency to miss big moments in the race and to make assertions that are simply wrong.

To really appreciate how terrible these guys are, though, it’s necessary to tune in to the Tour of California coverage that their network, Versus, is airing each night. The main problem I have is that Paul and Phil have no concept of the race geography or terrain. Thus on last night’s Stage Two show, Sherwen spouted off about “the long straight roads of the Napa Valley” as the leading racers were shown speeding down the long, straight roads of the Central Valley, on the outskirts of Sacramento. Cycling fans hear constantly about how the racers themselves ride the course to get to know it. You’d think that the guys broadcasting this stuff could at least drive the course so they might get a feel for what’s going on; but there’s no evidence they or the producers take such a rudimentary step. Instead, they just talk over the edited video of the race and spout off. In yesterday’s stage, much of which I’ve ridden many times myself, it was obvious they had no idea where the action was taking place or what was to come. It’s just lazy, lazy, lazy crap.

That’s not the only problem with the Versus coverage, though. The stages have been edited down to a point that it’s hard to get a sense of the action unfolding. Key moments, such as a crash that put local rider Dave Zabriskie out of the race, are missed or ignored (despite the fact the show hasn’t been airing until a good four hours after the finish). And Bob Roll, the one on-camera guy I’d assume (since he has lived here) has a sense of the region. is reserved to his usual role of clown savant.

The best alternative, if you’ve got a high-speed Net connection: the live video/audiocast on the Tour of California’s own site. The video is choppy, but the audio commentary is vastly superior to what the Versus boys deliver,.

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Odd Find

I just heard a blurb on NPR on a recently unearthed home movie of the Kennedy motorcade through Dallas on November 22, 1963. The movie was turned over to the Sixth Floor Museum at Lee Harvey Oswald’s former workplace. After hearing the bit on the radio, I knew just what to do: check the museum’s website for the video. But the site was slammed with traffic. No problem: YouTube or Google Video (or both–are they the same now?) would surely have it. And they did–thirty-nine seconds’ worth, which might be all that the museum made public; or maybe that’s all that the amateur cameraman, George Jefferies, shot. (Jefferies, 82, a former insurance executive, says the home movies sat in a dresser drawer for more than four decades before he recently asked his son-in-law whether he’d like to see some footage of Kennedy’s visit to Dallas.)

Thirty-nine seconds. Not much. A crowd in the street. Limousines approaching and passing. A group of smiling passengers: the Kennedys, the Connollys. In less than two minutes, all that would change. But beyond the haunting irony in the pictures, I was surprised to see that Kennedy had drawn a big crowd and that the city had made a big deal out of the visit; in the clip, you see the flags and bunting and banners flying on lightpoles into the distance. I never realized that the city had enthusiastically welcomed Kennedy. Here’s John Connolly, quoted in the House Select Committee on Assassinations report:

“The further we got toward town, the denser became the crowds, and when we got down on Main Street, the crowds were extremely thick. They were pushed off of curbs; they were out in the street, and they were backed all the way up against the walls of the buildings. They were just as thick as they could be. I don’t know how many. But, there were at least a quarter of a million people on the parade route that day and everywhere the reception was good.”

Kennedy personally stopped the motorcade twice to speak to spectators. Imagine that happening now. The report went on to say: “Governor Connally noticed that Mrs. Kennedy, who had appeared apprehensive the previous day, was more relaxed and enjoyed the Dallas crowd. The only hostile act he remembered was a heckler with a placard that read ‘Kennedy Go Home. The President noticed the sign, and asked Governor and Mrs. Connally if they had seen it. Connally said, Yes, but we were hoping you didn’t.’ ”

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Tonight’s Reading

The New Yorker’s February 19th issue includes a take-out on “24,” its use of torture as both plot device and tool to extract information from evil-doing characters, and its impact in the real world (“Whatever It Takes,” by Jane Mayer). We’d like to convince ourselves that our prime-time television is all just play acting, that grown-ups can tell the difference between what’s made up and what’s not, and that viewers will maintain a balanced image of the world after immersing themselves in a hyper-violent, hyper-paranoid adventure like “24.” But the article points out that officials in the Army and FBI, people responsible for real-life interrogations and for training those that do them, find “24” not laughably implausible but actually harmful.

The story details a meeting between some of the show’s producers and writers and a group of officials including Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, the dean of West Point. Finnegan and “three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country” met the “24” team to discuss the impact of the show’s depiction of the unrestrained use of torture (Joel Surnow, the co-creator of the show, its executive producer, buddy of Rush Limbaugh, and convinced right-winger, declined to meet with Finnegan et al.). As Mayer recounts:

“Finnegan told the producers that ’24,’ by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by ’24,’ which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, ‘The kids see it, and say, “If torture is wrong, what about ’24’?” ‘ He continued, ‘The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.’ ”

Mayer notes that “24” isn’t the ultimate source of the moral fog surrounding U.S. policy on torture. No, the problem for people like Finnegan is that the our government is in the hands of people who promote torture as an acceptable weapon in our state of permanent war. If you’re paying attention to the regime that Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez and their brief writers are trying to put in place, the troops might be forgiven for thinking that Jack Bauer is a model they might aspire to.

In passing, one of the people who comes out looking OK in Mayer’s story is Kiefer Sutherland, who actually seems to think about the issues his character raises.

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Holiday Weekend Swine Report


Until an hour or two before this picture was taken on Saturday, Rocky was a fun-loving, terrain-uprooting boar enjoying life in the borderlands where Alameda, Santa Clara and Stanislaus counties meet, in the highlands between southern San Francisco Bay and the San Joaquin Valley. Then he met a slug from a high-powered rifle–just guessing both as to gender and to means of demise–passed on to hog heaven and got strapped to a utility box on the back of a Toyota pickup. That’s when I saw him, in the parking lot of The Junction, a roadhouse that caters to some bicycle types like myself and a lot of bikers. I just hope Rocky found a good home and a chef who knows how to make the most of him.

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Today’s Reading

Kate pointed this story out in today’s New York Times, and read it aloud:

He Confirmed It, Yes He Did: The Wicked Witch Was Dead

“Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can’t get out of his head.

“He couldn’t shake this case even if he wanted to, what with all the videotapes, the DVDs, the television broadcasts replaying the gruesome aftermath over and over, in vivid Technicolor. Those striped socks, curling back like a pair of deflating noisemakers. …

“The coroner’s name is Meinhardt Raabe, and he lives in a retirement community tucked between here and there. He can’t see or hear too well, and his short legs need the assistance of a three-wheeled walker with hand brakes. But none of this means that at 91 he has forgotten much, because he hasn’t — especially about that case.”

It might be hard to believe a profile on one of the bit players in “The Wizard of Oz” might make compelling fare, but the story’s worth reading just for the writer’s touch; the story he tells is touching, too. There’s a catch, though: For a reason that escapes me–probably because this is the work of a highlighted national columnist, Dan Barry–the story is only available online as part of the Times Select service (we get Times select because we shell out for a daily subscription to the paper). It’s hard to see how this really helps the Times much. It’s one thing to put op-ed columnists and older-than-two-week archives under wraps and make people pay to see them, though I wonder if even that’s a winning proposition in the long term. This is just a lovely slice of life, and it comes as something of a rude surprise that it can’t be shared (unless, I suppose, people want to make do with email copies).

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