Monday, October 23, 2017

Fear itself

If blogging has seemed rather light in this space of late, I agree. After a month in Spain, mostly walking on pilgrimage, and a quick week in rural Nicaragua meeting hopeful people working with El Porvenir to bring clean water to their communities, I'm having trouble re-acclimatizing myself to the shit-show that is the Trump/GOP United States.

That's not surprising. When people ask me what I learned while walking, the first thing I mention is that I realized I hadn't had a restful night's sleep since a year ago November 8. I am sure I am not alone in this. Rage at my fellow citizens for trashing the country's hope and heritage, shame that hope and heritage proved such a feeble bulwark against hate and authoritarianism, and terror of hate compounding into war at home and abroad -- all these unquiet emotions preclude tranquil dreams.

I wouldn't have enjoyed or trusted a Democratic presidency, but I wouldn't have had to worry about active government enthusiasm for polluting air and water, about seeing Puerto Rico strangled by willful neglect after the storm, or, probably, about nuclear war.

But here we are. And I am not alone. Rage and fear are rational responses to escalating cruelty and insanity. Researchers have been asking a broad sample of us the question "what keeps you up at night?" They have created a fascinating snapshot of our current anxieties as reported at We used to worry about (largely over-hyped) crime and terrorism; at this moment, we seem more frightened by corruption in government, environmental degradation, and economic unease often related to health care.
I suspect that "corruption" is a kind of stand in for a general sense that the government is not doing its job, as well as a call out of theft by political leaders, though the article does not explore this. The researchers do warn that their findings tend to mirror what's prominent in the news -- if they had run the survey soon after the Las Vegas massacre, they'd have expected fear of mass shooting to rank highly.

They will continue to have plenty to study. If there is anything the regime of the Orange Cheato reliably offers, it is unceasing alarms about the dangers of the day.

As usual, the only remedy I know for fear and impotent rage is action. Resistance keeps us human and as sane as we can be in a world gone mad. Resist and protect much.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A suspicion confirmed

In Santiago de Compostela we marked completing our pilgrimage by taking a tour of the roof of the Cathedral of St. James. We noticed that several of the towers looked like this one, a 15th century improvement on a Romanesque original. This did not seem to accord with the usual architectural style of the period; where might the Spanish architect have gotten his inspiration? Our guide suggested he might have been influenced by Spain's new world conquests in Mesoamerica.

At the Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire exposition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, we encountered this artifact. The similarity of decorative form leaps out to me.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Man-made hazards

Before wildfires slip down the memory hole among those lucky enough not to have suffered direct losses ...
This story from Grist contextualizes what those of us who live in drought prone areas are facing.

Portugal’s wildfires this year have brought sharp focus on the escalating risk of these blazes — and what little officials have done to prevent them. Popular backlash prompted the resignation of a senior government minister and a formal request for a vote of no confidence in the ruling party. But they have also brought a lesson for the rest of the world: As climate change escalates, wildfires are a problem without an easy solution. (Just ask California.)

In a struggling post-recession Portugal, suppliers to its huge paper industry have accelerated a switchover from native species to faster-growing eucalyptus. Since trees consumed by fire can now be replaced more quickly, fire prevention — simple actions like trimming branches and clearing underbrush that could greatly reduce the country’s fire risk — has fallen by the wayside due to cost cutting. Add to that, more and more people are fleeing Portugal’s rural areas — leaving an aging population behind — it’s not clear who will be able to do that work even if resources were available to fund it.

“It really is a textbook example of wildfire as a socio-natural hazard,” José Miguel Pereira, a forest ecologist at the University of Lisbon tells Grist via email. Or to put it another way, human activity is making wildfires worse. These infernos are a product of our disregard for the fact that nature is now almost entirely something we’ve created — these disasters aren’t natural.

And as you know, our influence goes beyond simply neglecting tree management. There’s a growing consensus that the most important reason behind the recent surge in megafires is weather. September was the driest month in Portugal for at least 87 years, and this summer was among the hottest ever measured. All that’s led to a wildfire season that’s 525 percent worse than normal.

Climate models show that a warmer world will mean a drier southern Europe, and increasing ocean temperatures will likely bring more hurricanes further northward. That combination will boost the frequency of massive wildfires in Europe, especially in places like Portugal. On our current warming track, recent research shows the Mediterranean will cross a threshold into megadrought in the next few decades. Many of the trees in the region will likely go up in flames before next century.

What we can make, we can work to prevent.

Resist and protect much.

On freedom from unwarranted search and seizure while traveling

Back in the dim, distant days when I started this blog (2005!) I wrote a lot about the TSA and government watch lists. (After all, the E.P. and I were told we were on the no fly list for awhile, enough to offer a chance for the ACLU to try to find out what the government was up to.) This topic has been less a priority lately, but given everything else, it is not too surprising that it seems once again current.

We've all learned a lot since those days; there's an excellent, thorough, book on the history of the U.S. government using our desire to travel to constrain and control citizens they take to be troublemakers. (The picture is of Mrs. Ruth Shipley who did the dirty work for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and FBI chief J.Edgar Hoover in the 1950s.)

Once again, the ACLU has taken up a "freedom to travel" case, this one of what seems a novel sort because it involves involuntary (short) detention of people who have not only passed through all the security theater that dominates our airports, but also have already completed their journey.

On February 22, 2017, Delta Airlines Flight 1583 departed San Francisco and headed for John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. As the plane was landing, passengers heard a strange announcement.

Speaking over the intercom, a flight attendant announced that everyone would have to show their documents in order to get off the plane. After passengers expressed their consternation, the flight attendant repeated her announcement, stating that officers would be meeting the plane and every passenger would have to show government-issued ID to deplane.

... the government does not have this authority. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires government agents to have individualized suspicion to conduct even a brief investigatory stop. Despite this, two Customs and Border Protection agents met Flight 1583 and stood immediately outside the aircraft door, blocking the exit into the jetway. The officers wore uniforms emblazoned with the words, “POLICE/CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION,” and carried guns visible in their holsters.

Passengers were naturally intimidated; some interactions with these apparent Homeland Security spooks seemed racially tinged to some passengers.

The ACLU's filing contains other notable details:

Despite the focus on the identification documents, DOE 1 and DOE 2 [officers] carried no clipboard, photograph, or list of names and did not appear to check the passengers’ identification against any list.

.... Plaintiffs did not consent to any search or seizure as they were attempting to deplane Flight 1583. Instead, they understood from the circumstances, as set forth above, that the stop and search was mandatory and that they were not free to deplane without submitting to the officers. The coercive circumstances included the announcements made by the flight crew at CBP’s direction, the presence of two large armed CBP officers obstructing the only means of egress from the plane, and the words and actions of those officers, as described above.

I recognize that last condition. When we were stopped at the San Francisco airport in 2002, we were surrounded by three urgently summoned police officers who told us that, "no" -- we might not go get a drink of water until they figured out what to do with us.

Liberty survives when people speak up against government infringements on our freedoms. It will likely be a long haul, but props to these plaintiffs for stepping up to the fight.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Justice exercises

If Ruth Bader Ginsburg can do this stuff, so can I. After a lovely September on pilgrimage when all I had to do was get up in the morning and walk 15 to 27 kilometers, getting back in the exercise groove is a stiff and sore business.

But we all need our strength for the journey ...

H/t Time Goes By.

Friday cat blogging: street cat

This wary critter lives on the streets of San Francisco. Here, he's waiting alongside his person's possessions while his human gets a cup of coffee. He showed no interest in a dog that walked by (on a leash.) But he did carefully follow the movements of a pigeon which intelligently stayed well away.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Seasonal obligation to the herd: get your flu shot

Yesterday I presented my arm and came away with a button and a band-aid.

Why suggest that this is not just to protect my personal aging body from the flu, that getting the shot also had a community benefit? If we are able to get the shot, we contribute to "herd immunity."

... vaccinating yourself vastly increases the odds that you won't get sick with flu this season, but it also protects everyone you come into contact with: your parents, your sister's new baby, the stranger on the bus who can't get vaccinated because of an egg allergy, and everyone who isn't able to weather an infection as well as you.

The idea of herd immunity is like a moat around a castle or the natural behavior of herd animals when threatened by a predator. The strong surround the weak to protect them from attack; in this case the vaccinated protect those who can't be vaccinated or those with low immunity from contact with the flu by halting the spread of the virus.

Cleveland Plain Dealer

At the risk of reading like an ad for the Kaiser Permanente system, I also have to say the HMO makes the annual flu vaccination incredibly smooth. They situate ranks of nursing students in the lobby who check your age and whether you've had past bad reactions and then give you a quick stick. This takes less than 3 minutes. So much personal and community benefit for so little time and angst ...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Rage in two kinds

It's not hard to find descriptions of the rage of Donald Trump's "base" -- those white, often rural, older, and predominantly male citizens whose disaffection stuck the rest of us with this vicious, blustering idiot. Here's an articulate sample from the National Review (via Kevin Drum):

Trump is stoking a particularly destructive form of rage — and his followers don’t just allow themselves to be stoked, they attack Trump’s targets with glee. Contrary to the stereotype of journalists who live in the Beltway and spend their nights at those allegedly omnipresent “cocktail parties,” I live in rural Tennessee, deep in the heart of Trump country. My travels mainly take me to other parts of Trump country, where I engage with Trump voters all the time.

If I live in a bubble, it’s the Trump bubble. I know it intimately. And I have never in my adult life seen such anger. There is a near-universal hatred of the media. There is a near-universal hatred of the so-called “elite.” If a person finds out that I didn’t support Trump, I’ll often watch their face transform into a mask of rage. Partisans are so primed to fight — and they so clearly define whom they’re fighting against — that they often don’t care whom or what they’re fighting for. It’s as if millions of Christians have forgotten a basic biblical admonition: “Be angry and do not sin.” ...

The Harvey Weinstein story ("revelations" only to those not placed to look or to see) is a unleashing a righteous rage just as deep, more wide, though not nearly so empowered. Here's Lindy West:

When [Woody] Allen and other men warn of “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere” what they mean is an atmosphere in which they’re expected to comport themselves with the care, consideration and fear of consequences that the rest of us call basic professionalism and respect for shared humanity. On some level, to some men — and you can call me a hysteric but I am done mincing words on this — there is no injustice quite so unnaturally, viscerally grotesque as a white man being fired.

Donald Trump, our predator in chief, seems to view the election of Barack Obama as a white man being fired. He and his supporters are willing to burn the world in revenge. This whole catastrophic cultural moment was born of that same entitlement, of Trump’s paws and Weinstein’s unbelted bathrobe, of the ancient cycles of abuse that ghostwrote the Trump campaign’s real slogan: If I can’t have you, no one will.

Setting aside the gendered power differential inherent in real historical witch hunts (pretty sure it wasn’t all the rape victims in Salem getting together to burn the mayor), and the pathetic gall of men feeling hunted after millenniums of treating women like prey, I will let you guys have this one. Sure, if you insist, it’s a witch hunt. I’m a witch, and I’m hunting you. ...

West is certainly not alone; anyone who has looked at a Facebook feed full of "me too" over the last few days knows that.

The moment feels much akin to the heady times in the 1960s and 70s when 20th century U.S. feminism lurched awkwardly out of the lineage of previous freedom struggles. Only this time, the witches may indeed represent a broader swath of humanity (one that even includes a lot of well-raised men!) Time will tell; we women are good at endurance. The slogan from the South African freedom struggle seems on point.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dangerous trees

Northern California isn't the only region experiencing perilous wildfires in this season of weather disasters. Four people have died in scattered forest fires in Galicia and Asturias in Spain in the last few days. (That's where we walked on pilgrimage during September.) Thirty-five more people are reported killed further south in Portugal. Persistent drought fueled the outbreak. Politicians want to blame arsonists. But might there be an additional factor?

While walking through this region we made a surprising observation: where farmers had until recently grown pines in wood lots meant for paper and pulp production, they are now planting eucalyptus trees. They explained that these exotics would mature in 25 years while pines required 50.

Importing eucalyptus was evidently controversial. The Australian native species can be a hazard waiting to ignite as Californians have discovered.

... eucalyptus trees can exacerbate deadly fires. Their sap is flammable, and so is their bark, which flies off when burned, igniting new fires up to 100 yards away.

L.A. Times

In Spain we saw signs of vocal opposition to imports:
These trees may be more a part of the problem than part of a solution to rural areas' economic stagnation.

Monday, October 16, 2017

We must learn to hold more than one idea at a time

What kind of world are we living in? I mean, here's the New York Times passing along strategic advice that speaks to what has all my life seemed the necessary but impossible condition for successful left projects. David Leonhardt writing about defending gains in health care access from the Trump bulldozer:

Just as Trump has both short-term and long-term goals, so should his opponents. For now, the priority is minimizing coverage losses, through outreach, lawsuits and lobbying. Doing so will also help the larger priority: preventing repeal, which would cause far more people to lose insurance than Trump can on his own.

“This stuff is really bad,” the health care expert Aviva Aron-Dine said, referring to last week’s announcements, “but it’s not nearly as bad as repeal. People should be able to hold both of those ideas in their head at the same time. Nobody should despair.”

This is in support of Get America Covered, an activist effort to mobilize people to do the job that the GOPer government refuses to do: get eligible people enrolled in subsided insurance plans. Trump can make it hard to get in and more expensive to the government, but the law continues to require subsidies that make insurance relatively affordable to many people.

Read about Get America Covered, and pass the word on.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Over 26 years ago ... she spoke out

As women today, AGAIN, struggle to demand that powerful male sexual predators JUST STOP, watch the courageous woman who forced this near-universal female experience out into the light.

Anita Hill deserves credit for putting truth before the world.

Elders amid the California fires

My friend Ronni Bennett at Time Goes By highlighted the particular sufferings of Puerto Rican old people in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Even if their houses survived, elders are particularly vulnerable in a prolonged period without electricity, or easy access to clean water, and to stocked food stores. The weak response from the Trump administration and from too many mainlanders has made a perilous situation worse.

Bennett's post led me to take a particular look at how Northern California media is covering the plight of elders in our current siege of firestorms around Santa Rosa, Calistoga, Napa, Sonoma, and surroundings. There seem to be two notable themes.

Elders are particularly at risk when electricity and modern means of communication fail. This is not just about elders being not perhaps so decisive or fast moving in an emergency as younger people. According to an account in the Mercury News:

For the hundreds who remain missing, their families are holding out hope that their loved ones are also safe but simply unable to communicate.

That turned out to be the happy case for Nanette Williams, whose 96-year-old aunt Nora Hennings was found alive by sheriff’s deputies in her Santa Rosa home just feet from fire-scorched earth. With no cellphone, no computer, no email and no car, she’d had no way to get in touch but had come through the fire relatively unscathed. ...

[Carmen] McReynolds, like Hennings and a number of people her age, doesn’t have a cellphone, computer or email address. The telephone at her home isn’t working, and authorities won’t let the family friends who have volunteered to drive by her house close enough to investigate.

Volunteers with the Timber Cove Fire Department stopped by McReynolds’ cabin near the Russian River on Friday afternoon. Family hoped she had fled to the cabin, which she’s owned since the 1960s. But she wasn’t there. A neighbor in Santa Rosa told the family that police and firefighters had been in the area when the fire broke out, urging residents to evacuate. “We hope she got rounded up,” said Coke. “But there’s no sign of her.” ...

To be old in a rapidly changing world can amount to falling out of connection in times of extreme societal stress. There may be few practical remedies beyond applied neighborliness, but that seems a scary truth.

The other theme in coverage of elders' vulnerability is the casualty report as tear-jerker. Perhaps I'm being unfair to reporters here. In the midst of a vast, terrifying, ongoing disaster, pulling out human interest stories from the chaos seems an obvious journalistic device. And stunned, grieving relatives make appealing sources. Still these accounts feel over-saccharin and a little too canned. Two specimens of the genre from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Charles and Sara Rippey were the first casualties to be identified. They were also the oldest — he was 100 and she was 98. They had been married for 75 years and they died together during the first night of the fires as flames engulfed their condominium at Napa’s Silverado Country Club. They met in grade school in Wisconsin and married on March 20, 1942. They were so well known in the Napa community that the Napa County Register carried an announcement of their diamond wedding anniversary this past spring. ... Mark Rippey, one of their sons, was interviewed on KPIX television and said Charles died trying to save his wife. “From where they found his body, he was trying to get from his room to her room,” he said. “He never made it.”

... Carmen [Berriz] met Armando in Cuba, when they were 12 years old. They both left Cuba after Castro came to power and met again in Florida. They were married in Miami in 1962 and moved to Southern California the next day.

After 55 years of marriage, she died in his arms. Mrs. Berriz was 75. When the fire came, the Berrizes were unable to escape, so they held hands and jumped into the swimming pool of their rented house. They hoped to outlast the fire. He held onto her, but she died. He was badly injured.

All the deaths (and injuries) in the fires are tragedies. But all deserve to have their stories recounted with as few maudlin cliches as possible. And elder deaths are particularly subject to the temptation among overwhelmed journalists to have recourse to vapid banalities.
Meanwhile, my bank is urging me to contribute to the Red Cross. Before I took off for Nicaragua last week, the message was about Hurricane Irma. This week it is fires. I'm skeptical. Journalist Jonathan Katz makes the case that earnest Red Cross appeals may even do more harm than good.

The problem, as Katz sees it, is that the Red Cross is a dysfunctional organization that excels at raising money but has shown little evidence of its ability to spend that money wisely or meaningfully. The Red Cross takes in close to 3 billion annually, refuses to open its books to the public, and, according to Katz, has consistently failed to produce a useful breakdown of its spending after major disaster efforts.

... Red Cross perpetuates a tendency we all have to see disasters as opportunities for charity. As a result, we spend far less time thinking about how to prevent disasters in the first place. “It’s always about relief, always about helping people after it’s too late,” Katz said.

“No one makes the world a worse place when they donate to the Red Cross,” Katz told me, “but if they do donate and assume that’s enough, we’ll keep repeating this cycle over and over again.”

Obviously people need immediate help: shelter, food, clothes and the like. And perhaps the Red Cross is good at this sort of aid. But these horrible fires should also be forcing us to think about patterns of urban/rural development and land use, all in the context of a radically warming climate.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

They know

In Waslala, Nicaragua, on the edge of what we might call civilization, they know. Climate is changing and how humans live in the only world we've got has to change. This sign hangs in the office of El Porvenir in the town. This non-governmental organization, on whose board I have the honor and responsibility to serve, collaborates with rural communities to build water and sanitation facilities while protecting and preserving the health of forests, watersheds, and the land itself. In the Anthropocene age, we're all responsible, for worse and possibly for better.

How's this for a lovely site for a water tank, 1.5 kilometers from most of the clump of 65 families this little system serves -- and another several kilometers from the spring water source on the hill in the distance?

Intrepid members of the board had to scramble down muddy roads and ford a flooding stream on local horses. I'm sure our kindly Nicaraguan hosts thought many of us pretty inept!

Here's a San Francisco-based engineer from the board mugging with the Nicaraguan engineer who is supervising this project. There is joy in this work.

Of course the real payoff will be when the system is hooked up and taps like this one begin to provide water to each household.

Water does not remain clean and available without our cooperation; that's a message for our time. The good people touched by El Porvenir remind themselves and their communities of this every day. There are no days-off. But there is much we can do, together.

Friday, October 13, 2017

From Siberia with love

Back in the USofA; my home turf is on fire; and Trump and the GOPers continue to try to destroy everything decent, generous or responsible about this cantankerous democratic republic. So time for some (moderated) escapism.

For the last six weeks in spare moments and on airplanes, I've been delighting in the more than 400 pages of Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia. After all the dispiriting reading about Russia I've indulged in lately (see this and that) this gentle, humorous, thoughtful book was a pleasant reminder of other facets of that huge opaque country.

The inescapable theme of Frazier's five journeys through Siberia is the incomprehensible extent of Russia's massive stepchild region. Stretching over nine times zones, comprising nine percent of the earth's land area, and home to only 40 million people, this is truly the "back of beyond." Terrible sub-zero cold dominates the usual image of the place, but Frazier's summer drive across the region was hot, dusty and mosquito-plagued, quite a different set of hardships. Tzars and commissars dispatched their enemies to Siberia to die; contemporary oligarchs treat the land and its people as a great open pit mine for oil, gas and minerals. And yet some of the least disturbed land on the planet remains in the harsh environs north of the Arctic circle. Frazier is a beautiful narrator of both horrors and delights, such as this description of a night camping by Lake Baikal:

When a wave rolls in on Baikal, and it curls to break, you can see stones on the bottom refracted in the vertical face of the wave. This glimpse, offered for just a moment in the wave’s motion, is like seeing into the window of an apartment as you go by it on an elevated train. The moon happened to be full that night, and after it rose, the stones on the bottom of the lake lay spookily illuminated in the moonlight. The glitter of the moon on the surface of the lake—the “moon road,” Sergei called it—fluctuated constantly in its individual points of sparkling, with a much higher definition than any murky water could achieve. Light glitters differently on water this clear. I understood that I had never really seen the moon reflected on water …

Frazier's one-over-lightly survey of Russian history aims to capture what made the nation seem so unlike either Europe or its Asian neighbors. Until modern times, Russia was subject to a series of invasions from fierce tribes from the remote steppe, repeated waves of murder and pillage. He suggests:

[I] actually can’t help returning to [the question]: namely, how Russia can be so great and so horrible simultaneously. I think one answer is that when other countries were in their beginnings, developing institutions of government and markets and a middle class and so on, Russia was beset with Mongols. That is, Russia can be thought of as an abused country; one has to make allowances for her because she was badly mistreated in her childhood by the Mongols.

Among historical Russians, he holds up the aristocratic insurrectionists, the Decembrists, who tried to overthrow the tzar and bring Russia into Europe in 1825; those who survived the failure of their coup were exiled to Siberia. He ponders what their story can suggest to people in the US.

With the Decembrists as a point of comparison, I have increased my respect for America’s Founding Fathers and the men they led, who seem to have believed even in their unconscious that King George III of England really was no better than they were. They were fortunate, perhaps, that to them King George was kind of a theoretical idea, being so distant from them physically.

True equality is a difficult concept to hold in the mind. I believe we Americans have lost our grip on it today. I know that in my case, I can tell myself that I’m just as good as a billionaire and even believe that it is true. But when I’m in the actual presence of a powerful person, my own concept of equality gets blurry, and I have a regrettable tendency to truckle, if only to be polite.

I don't think that goes for all of us, but perhaps it is true for too many. The Cheato is probably curing many of any respect they may have had for wisdom signaled by possession of great wealth.

Frazier's opus is a worthy "long read". Siberia (and Russia in general) is too large for facile description or certainly facile conclusions. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Nicaragua, Nicaraguita"

Another pretty picture of tropical paradise, in no way representative of our strenuous trips to El Porvenir water projects, but a nice memory to share while stuck in Houston waiting to see whether/when we can fly into San Francisco despite smoke delays. 

More normal blogging soon enough. 

On the road again

Watershed improvements in progress.
For the next week, I'll be in Nicaragua attending the board meeting of El Porvenir. This non-profit project
partners with the people of Nicaragua so that they can build a future for themselves. Clean drinking water is at the core of El Porvenir; sanitation is necessary to ensure that the water is clean. In addition to sustainable water and sanitation projects, we work with communities on health and hygiene education and reforestation.
We'll be visiting sites where work in ongoing and helping staff evaluate how we're doing on our tiny piece of meeting the United Nations' Water and Sanitation Sustainability Goal. (Yes, there is such a thing. North Americans blithely ignore the UN, but in much of the world UN standards are assisting development for better lives.)

I don't know how much connectivity I'll have in Nicaragua, so for the next week blogging will be sporadic or perhaps just photos.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Lake at the coffee plantation at Selva Negra

In fact most of this trip has involved swollen rivers and mud flows that knocked out bridges. Hurricane Nate didn't hit Nicaragua directly, but the storm and torrential rains have caused deaths and left major damage. And meanwhile the staff and board of El Porvenir conferred usefully. 

But for a minute late this afternoon the sun came out. 

Friday, October 06, 2017

Friday cat blogging

Never fear. Morty is not alone with America to keep him company. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Some Spanish windmills

As we walked the Camino de Santiago in Asturias and Galicia, we often found ourselves repeating a line we'd read in somebody's blog: "More windmills? Guess that means we have to climb another big hill ..."

Indeed there are a lot of windmills in Spain, especially in this part of Spain. In 2015, Spain was the fifth largest generator of wind power in the world. On a few blustery days, wind power makes up more than 50 percent of the power the country uses. Wind power even enables the province of Galicia to produce more renewable energy than its own power needs demand. Spain has promised the European Union to achieve 20 percent of all its energy needs by 2020.

The country seemed well on the way to this target a decade ago, through a combination of wind, solar and hydroelectric production. However, since the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party took power in 2011, green power production has plateaued. Subsidies for clean energy were cut; the government introduced a "sun tax" which penalizes individual private installations of solar panels which might reduce demand for the output sold by commercial power companies.

Under the new rules, these self-reliant consumers will not be able to use products such as the Powerwall battery recently launched by American automotive and energy-storage company Tesla, and will additionally be penalized for the storage systems that come included with the latest generation of solar panels.

... The Spanish government’s attitude is in contrast to other countries, such as Germany, which is encouraging the use of solar panels with batteries.

Government solicitude for the stranded costs of legacy power companies acts as an impediment to clean energy all over the world. David Roberts has recently explored why cheaper batteries are going to blow away the old monopoly electric company profit model despite their political power in the U.S. -- and as soon as 2020.

Rooftop solar can be staved off temporarily with fees and rate tweaks, but as batteries get cheaper, those strategies will stop working. More and customers are going to generate, store, and manage more and more of their own power.

Utilities have got to find other ways to make money, other services to provide, other roles to play in the power system of the future. They have no other choice.

Yet another hill to climb ...

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

A modest proposal

Even here in anti-gun San Francisco, you don't encounter many signs like this one in a fixture display window. Why not, I wonder? Yes, I know, unchecked gun-toting is legally and socially discouraged around here. Maybe such a sign doesn't seem necessary, unlike, for example, in Nevada, where casinos DO post signs to exclude guns. But, since we can't seem to win the legislative battle for sensible gun regulation, private businesses should be encouraged to take this step and complimented when they do ... Just a thought.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Spain's mad knight may still have a message for our times

Plaza de España
The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) responded to the last crumbling of Spain's colonial empire (that would the seizure by the United States in 1898 of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines) with the
realization that, in hopeless times, quixotic lunacy could save people from the paralysis that often accompanies defeatism.
According to Mariana Alessandri, embracing the "madness" of the fictional Don Quixote de la Mancha who tilted at windmills and "dreamed impossible dreams," undergirded Unamuno's principled denunciation of Spanish fascism at the end of his life, a story I've recounted previously. The philosopher's thinking seems highly relevant amidst political inertia, lies, corruption, and folly.
... Unamuno urged his fellow Spaniards to practice quixotism, which meant adopting the moral courage necessary to fight for lost causes without caring what the world thinks. ...

Quixote didn’t charge the windmill because he thought he would defeat it, but because he concluded it was the right thing to do. Likewise, if we want to be legitimate actors in the world, Unamuno would say that we must be willing to lose the fight. If we abandon the common-sense belief that deems only winnable fights worth fighting, we can adopt Unamuno’s “moral courage” and become quixotic pessimists: pessimists because we recognize our odds of losing are quite high, and quixotic because we fight anyway. Quixotic pessimism is thus marked by a refusal to let the odds of my success determine the value of my fight.

... Warning: quixotic pessimism will not go over well in public. If you choose this life, Unamuno says you will face disbelief, judgment and ridicule. He writes that moral courage “confronts, not bodily injury, or loss of fortune, or the discredit of one’s honor but rather ridicule: one’s being taken for a madman or a fool.” In a real-life context, quixotic pessimism will look like constantly face-planting in public, and we will need moral courage to accept it. People will laugh at us as they do at Quixote. ...
In our time, some windmill tilting seems to have its moments. Who thought that the horror of unified Republican control of government would end up exposing that a substantial majority of us actually believe that it is the government's job to ensure access to medical care for all? Apparently we collectively are not afraid of "socialized medicine" any more. Let's see what other longstanding truisms a determined resistance can knock over ...

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Catalan independence vote

Banners supporting Catalan and Basque separatism on a political party building in Bilbao
During the entire month we were walking in Spain, the impending October 1 regional referendum on Catalan secession dominated news media. Whenever we caught a glimpse of a newspaper or a few minutes of TV news in a bar, the separatist effort in the Barcelona region overwhelmed all other topics. (Even Trump. That was sort of restful.)

The situation is very complex, arising from centuries of historic grievances complicated by contemporary differences between a conservative federal government in Madrid and a pro-independence regional government. The national government has outlawed the referendum; it is not at all clear whether any of this is going to reveal the desires of a majority of Catalans.

Some of the apparently most complex coverage, sympathetic but honest, I've seen of the Catalan situation in English has been in the Guardian. Perhaps a British newspaper, with experience with Scottish and other regional independence movements, is better at this than U.S. media. In any case, for more substantive information, read them, not me. I know little.

But I can share an observation from our walk on the Camino that may cast a weak light. In the north of Spain, the home language of many or even most people is not what we think of as "Spanish." In Spain, "Spanish" means Castilian and that is what people call it. Catalan is the co-official language the Mediterranean coast, of Catalonia. In the Basque country, people and their street signs, use Euskara. As we walked west, signs changed languages. In Asturias, though the language is not officially co-equal, Asturian is the mother tongue. And in Galicia, the province's official language is Galician, which speakers of the majority Castilian Spanish think of as akin to Portuguese. This map shows the language distribution; like so much in Spain's rich diverse fabric, it's complicated.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Saturday scenery: Toledo, city of concurrent and successive faiths

The Spanish city of medieval Toledo is a well preserved treasury of multi-faith historical religious edifices. A schematic history of the city: the Jews came along with the Roman Empire's legions; most Ibero-Romans eventually adopted Christianity as did the northern European "barbarians" who conquered this rich land; these kingdoms were pushed to the peninsula's margins by Muslim invaders bringing a rich pan-Mediterranean civilization; and the Muslims in turn were eventually expelled by Spanish Christian monarchs in the Reconquista ending in 1492, along with the remaining Jews who became the Sephardim of the Diaspora. It's a bloody, tangled story and Toledo proudly displays the cross-fertilized remnants.

Today the Sephardic Museum occupies the Synagogue of El Transito, a worship space built by the merchant Samuel ha-Levi in 1356 by permission of the Christian king Peter of Castille.

The synagogue's intricate artistry suggests comparison with the contemporary Moorish palace of the Alhambra in Granada.

Incongruously the Jewish worship space thought to be the oldest synagogue building in Europe is now maintained by the Roman Catholic Church as "Saint Mary the White." (Yes, Catholic Spain also boasts black madonnas, black representations of the mother of Jesus, but not that we saw in Toledo.)

Far more than El Transito, despite the cross belatedly hung over the main open space, this building is infused with a feeling of its historic sacred use. The only religious edifice I've ever experienced to equal this holy feeling is the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus.

Far more incongruous is this interior from what is called the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz. The small square Islamic structure surrounded by fountains and a garden was built in 999. The Muslim city of old Toledo was conquered by King Alfonso VI in 1085 and the mosque converted into a Christian chapel in 1186.

Today Toledo throngs with gawking tourists staring at this religious melange. Do we hunger for a glimpse of religions co-existing? I certainly do.

Friday, September 29, 2017

North Korea, Washington, and the end of US empire

While we were walking the Camino, I got persistent questions from friends watching President Blunderbuss heating up tensions with North Korea (and Iran, and everyone else with half a glimmer in the wide world), "why aren't we in the streets screaming against this madness?"

Returning to the unhappy USofA seems to mean I can no longer dodge thinking about this.

Serious people, including that wise historian of things vital and military Thomas Ricks, pictured here on tour promoting his book Churchill and Orwell, opine that there is a 50/50 chance of war with North Korea, a war that would almost certainly be nuclear. Oh shit, another generation has to live under the threat of fiery annihilation as mine did in the Fifties.

The usual campaigners for peace are making the usual appeals to Congress, but this does not seem equal to the horror of the prospect. The Orange Cheeto gives us unending white supremacist distractions; Congressional GOPers continue their crusade to transfer the nation's wealth to plutocratic sponsors; and most of us just try to get along.

But also, I don't think either the peace movement, or the left, or the Democratic politicians who dissidents are stuck with as a vehicle for influence in Washington, are ready to articulate the central reality that makes war so likely at present: US empire, US hegemony, is over. Cemented in place in 1945 when World War II had flattened the rest of the world, US pre-eminence has been eroding for decades. (Many of us knew this during the Vietnam war.) But mainstream US politics has never quite found a way to deal up front and honestly with this reality. So for all the handwringing over Trump and Korea, there's hardly any mainstream debate about how this powerful country should act as a force among many in a plural world.

Obama certainly had a glimmer about this, though like all of them, he couldn't allow himself to articulate clearly that the current object of US foreign policy has to be to manage the decline of empire. He was willing to suggest some US adventures were "dumb wars"; he knew his efforts at power projection would be undercut by too many dead US soldiers, so he favored drones and spooks over troop commitments; he generally eschewed loud displays of imperial dominance.

Since we mostly lack even language to talk about this, I was heartened to read a smart article by Jeet Heer that lays out Democratic pols' tongue-tied inertia over the country's stance in the world. The entirety is a good survey of the situation and highlights Bernie Sanders' attempt to find ground that mainstream Democrats might join him in.

Sanders’s recent foreign policy speech, notably in its strong defense of the Iran nuclear deal, was a careful attempt to claim Obama’s legacy by arguing for a liberal internationalist approach of alliance-building to solving the world’s problems. The central theme of the speech was the need to re-conceptualize foreign policy not just as a matter of military policy. “Here is the bottom line: In my view, the United States must seek partnerships not just between governments, but between peoples,” Sanders argued. “A sensible and effective foreign policy recognizes that our safety and welfare is bound up with the safety and welfare of others around the world.”

I'm no across-the-board Sanders fan (too often he reminds me of thousands of old white lefty men who never understood why women and people of color and queers might have different priorities) but if he can drive Democrats in this direction, he is serving the country well.

Friday cat blogging

Morty gave the returning pilgrims a bit of the evil eye, but soon enough reverted to his affectionate self. Before meeting this fellow, I never had known an affectionate cat. Previous cats were aloof, but not Mr. Mort, most of the time.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

We get by with a little help from our friends ...

as the Beatles once reminded us.

How to help recovery from the Mexican earthquakes:
My good friend who teaches teaching at the Autonomous University of Mexico suggests this group which has a long history of working with poor families in the most harmed communities:
The information included in the graphic is how to make a bank wire transfer. You can learn more about the Grupo de Educación Popular con Mujeres here.

How to help recovery in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria:
My friend Norma has been trying to figure out how to do the most good for her island territory and writes this:

... as you have heard and seen in the news, a week after the catastrophic disaster that Hurricane Maria caused in my country and the Caribbean, about 97% of the island's 3.4 million residents are still without electricity today, more than half of the residents do not have running water and fuel, and food is being rationed in some parts of the country. With supplies running out and no water, people in isolated areas (the countryside) are starting to drink from mountain streams. Out of the island's 69 hospitals, only 11 are open and depending on generators fueled by diesel. Two people who were on life support died in the past days in a hospital in San Juan because the generator run out of diesel.

Residents are relying on generators to keep appliances, medical devices and refrigerators running. Soon they will run out of gasoline and diesel. The biggest problem is getting supplies from Point A to Point B as the country is still battling destroyed and flooded roads. Frustration and fear is mounting because aid is not getting to the residents and people are starting to get desperate. Looting is growing and people are violating the curfew. The situation now, according to the San Juan mayor, has reached humanitarian crisis proportions.

[President Trump has bowed to pressure and belatedly waived the Jones Act which was enabling shippers to extract gross profits from Puerto Rico's pain.]

For many of us here so far from our loved ones, this situation brings up a lot of anxiety and feelings of impotency and deep sadness. That is why I'm turning to you. Many of you are wondering what you can do.

I’ve looked into the places to donate money or supplies. The situation is still so chaotic that I don’t yet feel 100% sure about the options and with time, this all will become much clearer. But for now, I have three places to suggest if you want to donate funds. I think they are trustworthy, supported by some key people and organizations, and will get the funds there.

 I’ve also included a link to an organization that can coordinate volunteers. They are not ready for that yet but you can sign up and when they know how to best use volunteers, they can get back to you. ...

These are the organizations to donate:

Hurricane Maria Community Recovery Fund
This fund is managed by the Center for Popular Democracy which many of us know. They seem to be connecting with some of the most grassroots orgs in PR, some of whom we know and surely want to support.

During a time like this it may be that large NGOs like UNICEF are in the best position to deliver and distribute mass aid. This fund specifically supports children and families.

UNIDOS: Program of Hispanic Federation
This fund was started by Mayor Di Blasio and some of the Nuyorican electeds who we trust (and supported by Hamilton’s Lin Manuel). From my research the Hispanic Federation seems to have a good record of financial management and integrity.

The volunteer organization where you can sign up if you want to consider on site work is called Puerto Rico Voluntary Organizations in Disaster.
We don’t know much about them. As many of you might recall from Katrina days, it took a long time for all of this to settle -who was doing what, what level of infrastructure did orgs have to manage money, volunteers, who was supporting what areas and what kinds of people, who could be trusted. I’m sure we will see that work itself out.

Fortunately we have many good friends and activists on the ground in PR, who are in the center of all of this, and are keeping us updated and informed. ...

It is time (as always) to stand with friends around the world.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Goodbye Spain

Hello ordinary responsibilities. Ready to go, whether ready or not. Such is life.

On pilgirmage

Any blog posts are likely to be single photos for the next month; I don't know how much connectivity or communicative energy I'll have, but walking 321 km is sure to teach me much as well as take a lot out of me.

Tend your souls; resist and protect much.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Just when I was weaning myself off football . . .

This was last year. Now the Cheeto seems to have declared a culture war on the brave athletes of the NFL standing up for themselves, free speech, and Black lives. Guess I'll have to pay attention to the national game again. Thanks Colin!

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