Category Archives: Current Affairs

End of Year-Start of Year Color

Ginkgo leaves and unidentified purple petals on a West Berkeley sidewalk, Dec. 31, 2016.

An end of year image: the golden fans of spent ginkgo leaves — my favorite Berkeley street tree, at least in deep autumn — and some unidentified purple petals.

Nothing profound intended, but: The gold leaves signifying the departure of one year. The splashes of purple perhaps signifying there is something beautiful in the season as we turn the page into a year that many already see as inauspicious.

Happy new year, whatever comes. We’ll have lots to think about and talk about.

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San Francisco Street Homes, 2016

San Francisco Homeless 2016

My colleague and friend Pat Yollin had me look at some pictures an artist named Judith Cohn has taken of impromptu shelters devised by San Francisco street residents — here and here.

The pictures are mostly from a part of the city I’m familiar with — the area just to the north and west of Potrero Hill. In fact, I recognized several of the shelters and beaten-down RVs and trailers she’s taken pictures of because I’ve photographed them myself.

Above, without any further comment, pictures of San Francisco street homes I’ve taken in the last 12 months.

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Trump and Life in the Reality-Based Community

I’ve been thinking about a moment I think presaged the rise of Trump — whose latest non-reality-based utterance is here:

Ford says Trump’s right. That’s because the company had no plans to move the plant to Mexico.

I don’t think Trump’s thinking big enough here. There’s a lot more he could be taking credit for.

“Just got a call from the man in the moon. Since I won, he no longer plans to smash into Earth. Will join cabinet. Huge! #MAGA”

We here in the reality-based community mean that as an attempt at humor and comment — not a report of something that actually happened out there in the perceivable world. You know, suggesting something absurd as a way of casting light on someone else’s grandiosity and distortions.

That phrase “reality-based community” came to mind recently when thinking about our soon-to-be commander-in-chief’s frequent non-fact-based pronouncements. He’s got a talent, and many of us who thought we grasped what was going on underestimated its power and appeal.

Here’s the origin of that saying, “reality-based community,” which comes from a 2004 feature by journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine. Suskind’s piece was examining how George W. Bush arrived at his instinctive certainty that the disastrous course along which he had launched the nation — the war in Iraq — was true and correct.

Along the way, Suskind reported, he met with a Bush aide who gave a glimpse into the president’s and the administration’s approach to governing:

“… Then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Of course, there’s an unspeakable arrogance to that dismissal of those imprisoned in the world of “discernible reality” — not least because of the implicit contempt for the hundreds of thousands of men and women deployed again and again to confront the deadly violence of that reality.

So now, we’re confronted with a similar but much more directly expressed arrogance and dismissal of discernible facts. I think the challenge is to keep your eyes open, to believe what you’re seeing, and to call out the illusions we’re encouraged to see as reality and the reality we’re urged to think is just talk.

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Fighting Faiths and the Marketplace of Ideas, Redux

So, I’ve mentioned Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919) before. More than 11 years ago, in fact, not that I’m particularly proud of that.

Holmes’s dissent is to fans of the First Amendment as Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” is to opera buffs, except Holmes didn’t take his act on the road. It’s a brief, tour de force exposition of the idea that governments should only in the most exceptional circumstances interfere with speech and expression.

Why does it come to mind now? Maybe it’s a light in dark, uncertain times. Although these are times, too, when the central premise of Holmes’s dissent — that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” — is contradicted by the recent triumph of unashamed bullshit.

Anyway, here’s the oft-quoted passage from the dissent:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

One of Holmes’s coinages there — “fighting faiths” — has always thrown me a little. My own clarification, after a little reading: He’s referring to ideals — freedom, for instance — that one feels compelled to fight for.

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History Behind Us, Hatred in Front of Us

Reflecting a little on what’s happened this week, and on this very disturbing piece of business here — an interview with the most straightforward, thoughtful, well-spoken white supremacist you’ll ever encounter, and all the more disturbing for that — it occurred to me once more how eager our white society has been to put its grossest transgressions in the rear-view mirror and act as if, now that we’ve resolved that little problem to our own satisfaction, everyone should move on. Nothing to see here, folks, but lots of unpleasantness we can just leave behind.

Listening to Richard Spencer, the white “nationalist” referenced above, talk about his ideas for a white “ethnostate” and his belief that at bottom, the governing sentiment among those of different races is hate, I was struck by his unwillingness or inability to confront the toughest question his African-American interviewer threw at him:

What’s the difference between you and the racists that like, you know, hung people up from trees? What’s the difference between you and the Klansmen that burned crosses on peoples lawns? What’s the difference between you and you know, the people who don’t look at me, an African-American man, as a full human being?

After dodging and weaving a little and saying he would not engage with the notion of “a hypothetical Klansman,” Spencer said this:

I’m sure there is some commonality between these movements of the past and what I’m talking about. But you really have to judge me on my own terms. Like I am not those people and I don’t fully know, I don’t know in the specifics of what you’re referring to. Like I am who I am. And you, if you’re going to treat me with good faith, you have to listen to what I’m saying and listen to my ideas. I think someone who would go down the path of becoming a Klansman or something in 2016, I think that is, those people are very different than I am. It’s, it’s a it’s a non-starter. I think we need an idea. We need a movement that really resonates with where we are right now.

He and his ilk are different because — well, they are. You just have to trust him on that. And besides, it’s 2016 and we need to put that behind us and pursue a grander idea. (At one point in the interview, Spencer shares a few of the “values” he holds dear: “greatness and winning and dominance and beauty.” That list brought a name to mind: Leni Riefenstahl.)

The grand idea is, as mentioned before, a “white ethnostate,” what he terms “a new type of society that would actually be a homeland for all white people. … All European people … [so] we would always have a safe space.”

This isn’t really a new idea, as he says. He points to Israel as such a state. But of course there’s an example much closer to home — in fact, a state founded on the very same principles of white supremacy that underlies the idea of white nationalism.

Many of us treat the Confederacy and the Civil War and the long siege of Jim Crow that followed as objects in the rear-view mirror; curious, glorious or shameful objects that have receded almost from view. Let them stay in the past.

Lincoln was one who understood the past has its claims, and that it’s not so casually left behind. In his Second Inaugural, delivered a little more than a month before the war’s end and his assassination, he spoke about how each side had called on divine support for its cause:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

And it was beyond humans, Lincoln said, to understand what price providence might demand for the crime of slavery. It was beyond us to know when the debt had been redeemed.

“‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

I think the first time I encountered the address was at the Lincoln Memorial, where it’s inscribed in marble. That passage — “until all the wealth piled … until every drop of blood drawn ” — has always stuck with me.

First, I think, because of Lincoln’s sober consideration of the magnitude of the “offense” that had led to the war.

Second, because of his suggestion that there was no way of knowing when the nation’s offense would be expiated — or even whether it could be expiated.

And third because, even though I am not one of Lincoln’s faith and I don’t imagine an omnipotent deity who wills human cruelty and then doles out punishment for it, the renewed encouragement of racial hatred we’re seeing now makes it clear that we’ve yet to really reckon with the worst chapters of our history — slavery, Native American genocide, the Klan’s reign of terror, Jim Crow, mass incarceration. And now, it seems, we’re listening to people who are eager to write the next dark chapter of history.

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Ali-Inoki and Clinton-Trump: Same Ring, Different Game

 
One of the weirder chapters of Muhammad Ali’s career was his embarrassing 1976 bout against Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki.

A 2009 retrospective on this blemish on the champ’s ring record describes what happened when the bell clanged to start the festivities:

Before the ringing had stopped, Inoki had sprinted the 16-feet gap between the two men, and thrown himself feet first at Ali in a deranged two-footed tackle. Ali sidestepped, Inoki missed. Before the two could square up, Inoki threw another lunging kick, missed again, and landed flat on his back.

And then things started to get really silly.

Inoki didn’t get up. He lay on his back at Ali’s feet and refused to stand.

As Ali circled him warily Inoki scooted around on his behind, like a hound trying to scratch its ass on the carpet. Occasionally he would kick viciously upwards at Ali’s knees. He stayed like this for all but the first 14 seconds of the three-minute round.

That was the template for the entire match, though at one point Inoki managed to drag Ali to the canvas and sit on his head. For his part, Ali threw six punches. In 15 rounds. The event was scored a draw.

Inoki’s reputation soared from his non-loss. Ali’s suffered from his participation in a farce. He also sustained significant leg injuries that some say hampered him in later fights.

I hadn’t thought of this piece of sports entertainment in a long time. But it came to mind last night watching two opponents sharing the same stage but playing completely different games — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Hillary Clinton ain’t “The Greatest.” She’s not known for her jab. It’s Trump, not Clinton, who’s renowned for his lip and has shocked the world by becoming the Republican presidential nominee and pulling himself into a position to win the election just a few weeks from now.

But in the debate, we got to see Clinton operating, for better or worse, by the rules of conventional politics. She spent time preparing. She maintained her composure when things got heated. She made a point of appearing presidential in the traditional sense.

Trump played a different game altogether, the one that got him the nomination. He bluffed, he bragged, he interrupted, he contradicted, and he interrupted again. His version of looking presidential was to cite his income for last year — a figure he put at $694 million — as “the kind of thinking that our country needs.”

You might judge who managed to stay on their feet for this round of the Clinton-Trump match and who was scrabbling around on their back kicking at their opponent’s legs by the candidates’ post-event reactions. Or one reaction, anyway:

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Mapping a Mosquito

Recently, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC, for short) publicized statistics and maps on where the Aedes aegypti mosquito is found across the United States; or rather, where the species has been found in monitoring going back to the mid-1990s.

Aedes aegypti is in the news because it’s been identified as the primary vector of the Zika virus. (Among things I didn’t know until I sat down to write this just now: The virus was first detected in a rhesus monkey in Uganda in 1947; the first human case was reported, again in Uganda, in 1952, and the first major outbreak was recorded in 2007 on the Pacific island of Yap, about 1,200 miles east-southeast of Manila (or 4,300 miles west-southwest of Honolulu, if you want to get all America-centric; it is a very big ocean out there).

But back to the Zika and the data the CDC put out. The statistics, compiled by a team of researchers from the CDC and Colorado State University, showed that Aedes aegypti had been found in 13 of California’s 58 counties since 1996 (in fact, all the reports appear to be from 2001 or later). In most cases, the mosquito has been found in just one or two or three years. In one case — Los Angeles County — Aedes aegypti has turned up in nine years since 2001, including every year from 2011 through 2015.

Anyway. Why was I paying attention to this? A colleague at work wanted to make a more informative map than those published along with the Oxford Journal of Medical Entomology article that carried the CDC data. I sort of pointed her to what she’d need to do, and another staffer helped her make a finished version.

Me? I started noodling around and came up with the very slightly refined map above.

Of course, looking more closely at what the CDC scientists had to say, I see there’s another mosquito I should be mapping, too: Aedes albopictus. As The Atlantic reported in May, scientists in Mexico recently detected the Zika virus in this second species.

Has it been found in California? Yes. According to the CDC researchers’ data, Aedes albopictus has been found in eight counties since 2001. In rough south to north order, they’re San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Kern, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Joaquin. Notable: This mosquito was found in Kern, L.A., Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino counties last year; it hasn’t been detected in the more northerly counties since 2003. (The California Department of Public Health has published a map, which is says is updated weekly, of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus detection sites from 2011 through this year.)

Maybe I’ll do a map with layers so we can see both species. That’s a project for another day, though.

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Road Blog: Battlefield Cemetery

Jewell Smith, 1904-1918, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery, part of the Shiloh battlefield.

Jewell Smith, 1904-1918, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery, part of the Shiloh battlefield.

Kate and I flew to Nashville Wednesday so that she could attend a national conference of science teachers and so that I could tag along. There would be plenty to do in Tennessee’s state capital, but as soon as I thought about coming out here I had only one destination on my list: Shiloh.

For you who have been poring over your James McPherson or Shelby Foote or who binge on Ken Burns, you know that Shiloh was one of the principal battles of the Civil War. More than that, its 23,000 casualties — the dead, the wounded, the captured and missing — signaled that the war had the potential to be very long and very costly.

I have visited other Civil War sites: Gettysburg, Antietam, the little house where Stonewall Jackson died after Chancellorsville, and others. But this visit is different somehow. My interest has evolved. I’m still interested in the ebb and flow of battle and who did what where, and I’m still curious about what could move human beings to endure and inflict the cruelty that typified the Civil War battlefield.

What’s changed for me is that the war has lost that quality of right, of honor, of transformation and finality that it had for me when I first encountered Civil War stories and when I first visited a battlefield when I was 17. Historians have long since re-evaluated the war in light of the South’s postwar racial code and enduring political power; in light of the North’s antebellum economic dependence on slavery and on Northern whites’ widespread rejection of the notion of racial equality.

So now the war is something different to the world, and it’s something different for me as well, part of a process that’s still being played out. It’s an interesting frame of mind to bring to a place dedicated to remembering the terrors and accidents of a single confrontation in the war.

I got to the battlefield on Thursday, late in the afternoon, just as a very heavy downpour began. I spent at least a half hour in my rented car down by the side of the Tennessee River, at the site of the landing that the Union commander, U.S. Grant, used to get to the battlefield after his army was surprised by a Confederate army on April 6, 1862. I wasn’t channeling thoughts about what it must have been like on that day; I was just listening to the din of the rain beating on the car (a rented Jeep Patriot if you’re hungry for details).

Eventually, I drove up to the battlefield headquarters, then strolled through the national cemetery where most of the Northern dead (and some from the South) were interred. I took some pictures, but felt that in some way I wasn’t connecting with the place. It started to rain again, so I left and started a drive around the battlefield. Hardly anyone was around.

I happened across the site of the church from which the battle took its name. I was surprised to find that there is a working church there — built in fits and starts from the 1920s through the 1950s, as well as a cemetery that apparently goes to the founding of the original church in 1851.

What caught my attention first was the fresh decorations on many graves. When I stopped and looked, I found many fairly recent burials. In fact, a former governor of Tennessee, Ray Blanton, was buried there in 1996.

But a more modest grave, one of those closest to the road, caught my attention: Jewell Smith. Born Sept. 10, 1904. Died Oct. 10, 1918. At first, I didn’t notice her photograph, a very serious portrait, embedded and well preserved in the headstone.

What happened to her? No real idea. But her date of death suggests something to me: the great influenza pandemic was sweeping the United States in the autumn of 1918.

Nearby was another headstone was a photograph: Freeman A. Cotner, died in 1951 at age 38. The portrait is striking because he’s wearing a uniform of some kind, maybe with a badge, definitely with a gunbelt. Oh, and there’s the horse.

Cotner was killed in a car accident near Fayette, Mississippi, along with his apparently sometimes-estranged wife. They either ran into the back of or head on into a large truck on U.S. 61. A daughter was with them in the car and survived. Of note: Cotner’s mother-in-law held a separate funeral for his wife, who was not buried with him.

The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.

The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.


The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.

The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.

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An Eye on the Eye of the Storm

Himawari satellite image of an intense storm in the northern Pacific, March 26, 2016.

Himawari satellite image of an intense storm in the northern Pacific, March 26, 2016.

A few weeks ago, I downloaded a Chrome browser extension that, when you open a new tab, shows a current (or at least very recent) view of the full disk of the Earth as captured by Japan’s geostationary Himawari 8 weather satellite. Himawari produces high-resolution images of the Earth — the kind you can lose yourself in for hours if that’s the kind of thing you like.

Anyway, I noticed last Friday and Saturday that the full-disk image was showing a huge storm someplace in the northeastern Pacific. I wondered whether I could find a better view of the images online, and sure enough, NOAA’s Regional and Mesoscale Meteorology Branch (RAMMB to its friends), which inventories a lot of satellite images, features a Himawari Loop of the Day.

The loop for Saturday, March 26, was titled “Intense Low in the North Pacific.” Hit that link and it takes you to a movie — you need to have a little patience for the download — of the storm I was seeing in the full-disk picture. The image above is a frame from the movie.

It’s extraordinary. Or maybe everything on Earth is extraordinary if you have a chance to sit back and watch it for a while.(One note on the movie: A shadow crosses toward the end: that’s night falling as the Earth rotates. But the surface details are still visible because of GeoColor, a system that blends visible (daytime) and infrared (nighttime) imagery. GeoColor is also responsible for the reddish appearance of cloud tops in the nighttime images.)

Below is what the storm looked like on a conventional surface weather map: a sprawling, intense system with sustained winds over 60 mph forecast to occur 500 miles and more to the south and southwest of its center. The storm was producing monstrous waves, too, with seas as high 34 feet.

stormchart

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A Test Map of Expensive Bay Area Homes

I beg the public’s indulgence for this map test.

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