Monday, December 27, 2010

Sept 11 first responders

Four billion dollars.  

That's the size of the federal settlement passed by Congress to compensate sickened World Trade Center cleanup and first responder workers who breathed the bad air from the "Pile" in the weeks after the towers fell.  No doubt many of these workers were harmed carrying out their duty, and doing their tough jobs.  Firemen, police, clean-up workers, search and rescue personnel, city and Port Authority workers.  Many brave and self-sacrificing people pitched in.

But the story is not as white-hat/black-hat as recent and 2001/2002 media coverage would lead you to conclude.  The US EPA did indeed say that the air was safe some weeks following the attacks.  However, in 2003 the work of one of my old physics professors (Prof. Tom Cahill of UC Davis) showed that the air was in fact very hazardous.  

Whether or not the government said the air was safe or not, the immediate behavior of the workers at Ground Zero was an important part of their exposure to dangerous air.  Many of the workers at the "Pile" engaged in reckless, dangerous and insubordinate conduct.  Firefighters in particular challenged anyone who they thought got in the way of recovering their fallen co-workers.  There was bravado and macho behavior.  On one occasion, there was nearly a small riot.  Some workers openly defied orders.  Some worked without respirators and other safety gear.  Many refused to follow procedures, take orders, adhere to work schedules as laid out by the Port Authority and the city of New York.  
William Langewiesche wrote a brilliant and clear-eyed account of all this (American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center), which first appeared as a spell-binding series in the Atlantic Monthly.   

It was a chaotic time.  The workers were understandably driven by their grief, rage and shame.  But some of them, some of the time, behaved dangerously and with disregard for the consequences of how they were working.  But those workers should share responsibility for what happened to them and to their health.  The harm to the Ground Zero workers was only partly the fault of the federal government.   

I wish that the lethal electric charge surrounding the Sept 11 attacks had discharged to a safe enough voltage that the behavior of the workers could have been openly discussed by at least the media (if not Congress itself) during the negotiations over this federal compensation fund.

the meaning of life

There's something pitiful about a society that spend so much energy discussing, analyzing and worrying about exactly how much junk people will buy for the Christmas holidays.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

America, I'll see you in Iowa in 2011.

If elected, I pledge to fight for former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's economic prescriptions as a key part of my platform.  Can I count on your vote in 2012?  Thank you!  Thank you very much!  The non-existence of God bless America!  Good night!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

changed comment settings

I changed the comment settings so that you don't need to be signed up with Google to leave comments on my blog.  By popular demand.  Comment away, everyone (except for you robo-spammers.  stay off my lawn!)

the health care mandate is unconstitutional, but the mortgage interest deduction is not?

In the news last week is the ruling by Virginia federal judge Henry Hudson that the individual mandate in the federal health care law is unconstitutional.  I understand the arguments about overreach of the "commerce clause" of the US Constitution. 

But how is a federal requirement mandating participation in the health insurance market different than the federal mortgage interest deduction?  As I understand it, the mandate says that if you don't buy health insurance from a private company, you pay a financial penalty and that's it.   This seems similar to the federal tax code regarding home ownership.  If you don't buy a house, you pay a tax penalty, right?  That is, if you DO buy a home with a mortgage, you get to deduct the interest from your tax bill.  If you DON'T buy a home with a mortgage (say, by continuing to rent an apartment) you don't get to deduct the interest from your tax bill.  The result is that the goverment is enforcing a financial penalty on those who refuse to buy a mortgage from a private company (or quasi-private company, I guess, in the case of FHA, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loans).

I haven't heard this issue addressed over the last week in all the commentary (though I recall it being discussed during the debate and negotiations before the federal law was passed.)

I need my lawyerly readers to explain this to me.

Monday, December 20, 2010

December blankie

Winter tugs on the grey wool blanket of night, tucking in each December day earlier and earlier.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Four hours into the wait at the airport, we stand in line, unmoving.  SNA in Orange County has a departure curfew of 10PM.  We’re instructed to get ready to rapidly board the plane, since we only have minutes to make the take-off deadline.

At the moment, we’re static.  Or nearly so, fidgeting with our boarding passes.  Occasionally stamping a foot or swinging round to survey the terminal.  Snorting, frustrated at our lack of motion.  But the ground beneath us spins rapidly eastward.  At this latitude, the Earth itself rotates at almost 800 miles per hour.  A dizzying speed that we wished we were feeling, imagining ourselves winging home.  Come on, everyone.  The curfew is only 12 minutes away.

The gangway opens.  We move down the jetway, faster than I’ve ever boarded a plane before.  People are anxious.  Will we make it?  Suddenly, we halt mid-way to the plane.  What’s the hold-up?  A motorized wheelchair that didn’t clear the previous flight whirrs up the jetway.  Perhaps 10 feet per second.  Molasses.

The rock that is our home hurtles around the sun.  Earth is a projectile, zipping along its orbit two miles every second.  Only astronauts have ever traveled that fast.  At the same time, it is the speed every person that has ever existed has moved all their lives.  Add the rotation of the Earth, and we make a wobbly sine centered on the sun.  We’re etching a solar Spirograph, absent-mindedly.

Barking into the PA, the flight crew instructs us to move again.  People are fairly running down the jetway now, around the sharp corner just inside the 737, marching down the aisle.  Minutes remain.  The jet has to be able to reach the Pacific shore by 10:20PM, or the noise abatement rules in Orange County, CA, will prevent us from taking off.  Seated, we’re fidgeting again.  Our heads swiveling as if the limited movements we can make with body parts that are not directly seat-belted down could somehow urge the plane up into the air.

Our arm of our galaxy, the Milky Way, rotates on its axis, sweeping our sun, our planet, and the passengers on SWA642 along at 50 miles per second.  100 millions stars executing their stately, quarter billion year long galactic pirouette.  An invisible spray of particles from distant suns blasts through our heads and hearts at a million miles an hour, a different wind than the one we imagine rushing past the wings of our still-taxiing jet.

Hopes rise as we trundle down the tarmac at maybe 20 miles per hour.  During the safety announcements, the flight attendants stop mid-instruction.  We’re too late.  Can’t make the curfew.  It’s back to the terminal and a slow slog to find a place to spend the night, rebook and fly out the next morning.

Now shambling through the terminal, some are angry, most are dejected.  We no longer care about speed.

The Milky Way, Sol, Earth, the edge of the North American tectonic plate, the sheetrock and concrete of the terminal, the linoleum under my feet.  Everything I’ve ever known or will ever know, hurtles away from most every other part of the Universe at nearly the speed of light.  Every single point moving close to the maximum relative speed that the Laws of Nature allow.  But at the same time, each and every point in the Universe, like each brooding former passenger of SWA642, is unmoving, stilled.

Monday, December 13, 2010


"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
  --Thomas Jefferson
Many Americans - good friends of mine among them - angrily demand that Julian Assange answer for the crimes of exposing state secrets.  Maybe they're right.

But as the kudzu of the national security state relentlessly spreads it vines, I'd like to suggest some order to the process of jailing those leaky troublemakers, Wiki- or otherwise, who put American diplomats, soldiers and intelligence assets at risk.  My request: can we please start with former Vice President Dick Cheney?
Tony Auth at

Tell it, Lloyd

Lloyd Dangle's Troubletown is here...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

climate denier tramp stamp

 An alarmingly large number of Americans and American politicians actively deny that climate change is occurring.  Or they deny that climate change is due to greenhouse gas accumulation.  Or that greenhouse gas accumulation is anthropogenic.   Or that climate change even matters.

There is little doubt that scientists studying global warming and the activists working to deal with climate change will be vindicated.  They already have been, really.  Cities are dealing today with climate change.  The 6th mass extinction in the Earth's history is well underway and warming is a significant cause.  The arctic is opening to shipping in a way that it never has in the history of shipping.  Australia just experienced a "1000 year drought."  Sea levels are higher.  Greenland is melting.  Species are spreading into changing climatic niches at a rapid rate, bringing new diseases and pests to new regions.

Whether climate denialism is motivated by political expediency, nutty religious conviction, or just the ornery contrarianism of the blogosphere, it's dangerous.  It's dangerous because the delay and obstructionism caused by deniers is running out the clock on taking action on climate change.

I don't want deniers to escape the judgment of history.  But it's common, especially in America, for cultural amnesia and historical revisionism to enable bad actors to obscure or rewrite their history.  Look at the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Something like 90% of Americans supported the start of the Afghanistan war and a large majority supported the invasion of Iraq.  Where are they now?  Who among those supporters has re-colored their record, fudged their position, re-written their position?  Most, it seems.

Climate deniers in the future will say they were merely asking questions.  They'll say they were just being skeptical.  Opening debate.  And, like the science they obscure today, they'll likely be successful in obscuring their roles in a planetary calamity.

How to hold them clearly accountable in the distant future?  My proposal: tattoos. A permanent record of the position of deniers, right there, for everyone to see.  Deniers would have the unassailable right to say "told ya so" three or four decades from now if they are (somehow) right about climate change.  And it would be difficult for deniers to wiggle out of their past position.

In order for everyone to know, a tattoo would have to be somewhere visible.  The forehead is a good spot. But no one wants a big ol' tatt on their head stating their political position.  How about UV tattoos?  Ultraviolet ink tattoos, popular with nightclubbing rave-goers, don't show in ordinary light, but under UV (or "black") light, they're plainly visible.  UV tattoos aren't perfect.  They can scar or show a bit in normal light.  But UV tattoos could be perfected with a little development effort.

I'm imagining a Mad Max world (or maybe a Waterworld) in which deniers are hunted down, inspected with a Wood's Lamp, and then dealt with using rough "Beyond the Thunderdome" justice if they a big "D" tattoo glows like a brand in the middle of their forehead...

* * * * *
A list of prospective climate denier forehead tattoo candidates:
  • Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma)
  • Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California)
  • Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin)
  • (former) Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska)
  • Rush Limbaugh
  • Glenn Beck, Fox
  • Steve Milloy, Fox News columnist
  • Professor Pat Michaels, Cato Institute

Any takers?  I'll pony up for the first dozen who sign up...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

don't ask, don't look at my bum

Let's see if I have this right:

Our military is the strongest, bravest, toughest force the world has ever seen.  We can fight crazed terrorists and stare down nuclear powers.  But if a gay soldier gets a look at a straight soldier's wee-wee in the shower, our troops will wilt like delicate flowers. 

Is this what we're talking about in the "don't ask, don't tell" debate?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

rocket man

Michigan viewed from SkyLab III
The metal schoolyard shed looked strange in the early morning starlight.  It always looked strange compared to the yellow brick school next to it.  I'd been advancing along that building all my life, one room at a time.  My class was past the middle of the building now.  The 5th grade class was on the far side of the gymnasium.  Grades 4-6 on the north side, K-3 on the south.  I was standing pretty close to my classroom.  But I wasn't thinking about that as I considered the shed.  Smooth-walled and painted a metallic gray, in the starlight it was an alien silver.

I thought about how my brother and I climbed it as a challenge, pioneering a kind of bouldering technique using the small shed door handle and the two metal hinges.  The walls sloped inwards slightly, so if you could hop up on the first hinge, you could lean inward as you reached up for the second, placing your foot on the handle in the middle.  Once you grasped the higher hinge, you could pull yourself up onto the (also sloped and smooth) metal roof, You had to bend over and shimmy forward on your belly until you could grab the big metal loop in the center of the roof.  Pull, then up.  From there, if you were brave, you could walk to the edge and grab the roof of the school itself.  Up again.  In the summer, the metal would be blazing and sitting on top of the shed was like being in a sauna.  In winter, climbing it was almost impossible because the metal was so conductive your fingers froze before you could scale it.

Three-thirty in the morning.  That fact made the scene not just strange looking to me, but a little thrilling.  A couple of friends told me they would meet me by the shed.  But I was alone at the meeting time, and I didn't have a watch.  I really didn't want to be late. I folded up the scrap of newspaper I was carrying and put it in my pocket. Up on the shed, up on the school. 

Of course, I'd been on the school roof many times before.  We were free range kids before "free range kids" was a phrase.  Being on the roof of our school was a great place to be in our big dirt clod wars.  If you didn't get caught.  But I had never climbed the tall brick smokestack.  I hesitated a moment before climbing the metal rungs, hand over hand.  The stack was a brick rectangle, perhaps three feet wide.  The rusty rungs on the north side went all the way to the top. 

At the top, there wasn't enough room to actually get off the rungs and sit or stand.  I was too scared to do that anyway, since the smokestack stood by itself.  Vertigo.  I'm not sure if the darkness made it more scary or less, since I couldn't see that well.  I clung to the top rung as my head cleared the edge.  Four sharp metal spikes on the four corners pointed skyward.   Lightning rods, I realized.  They reminded me of the school drills where we'd pour into the long hallway, sitting cross-legged, heads bent over, hands over our necks.  These drills were practice for tornadoes, though it always felt like they were actually used as school-wide time-outs.

I wanted to check the newspaper scrap in my pocket.  It listed the times and dates for local sightings.  But I didn't want to take my hand off the top rung.  It was too dark to read anyway, I realized.

I waited, scanning the sky and my neighborhood.  I looked in what I thought was the right direction.  

How different the Michigan landscape looked from forty feet.  Across the street, I could make out my house where my family was still asleep.  I was about as high as our rooftop.  To the south, the Ecourse creek wound around the school.  The actual shape of my neighborhood became clear.

Nothing in the sky but stars.  If I could see it, it would be a fast-moving glint, visible only for a minute or so.  Arcing across the sky, it would be reflecting Earthlight, moonlight, but probably not sunlight at that early hour.  And what would the men up there see down here?  Not me, looking at them, looking towards me.

I don't know why I thought I needed to be up on my grade school smokestack to see Skylab overhead.  Maybe my 11-year-old mind thought I'd get clear of the streetlights, or the smoke of fireplaces.  Maybe it was just part of the adventure I came up with.  Not sure.

I didn't see a manned satellite winging overhead on that cool morning in 1973.  But that didn't keep me from continuing to look to the sky.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

voting made easy

Ballot initiatives can be complicated, especially in California.  My girlfriend, Yvette, has developed a graphical-lexical system for analyzing ballot propositions.  It provides a fool-proof method for voters to divine the best ballot choices.  I particularly like the marijuana leaf for Prop 19.  And the cute fish that stands for funding state parks.  I'm not sure about the Prop 20 and 27 blobs.  Are they supposed to represent gerrymandered districts?  Can you figure what the other pictograms represent?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

warning signs

a copy of "Eat, Pray, Love" on the nightstand
Truck Nuts
the phrase "the American people"
the phrase "at the end of the day..."
"From the makers of..."
mustaches waxed to points
Two Buck Chuck in the fridge
blackened anything
yogic anything
ribbon pins (any color)
public list making
motorized rotating hubcap covers
audible Grateful Dead music
quotations from "The Secret"
Jerry Bruckheimer
class rings
a tendency to read horoscopes aloud
more than three cats

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Raise it

How expensive can gasoline really be when every day I see my fellow citizens, rich and poor, idling their automobile engines?  Let's tax gas.  Target: $5/gallon.

Please pass the monolithic structure

I think we need a name for the traditional turkey dinner served at Thanksgiving, with a groaning table, and large amounts of roasted bird, 'taters, stuffing, etc. 

I like "Turkeyhenge".

TSA is focused on touching your junk, but what about the pilots?

"If you touch my junk..." has gone viral. 

The new TSA screening procedures for flyers have struck a raw nerve. TSA behavior, "security theater", civil liberties, the health effects of x-ray based body scanners.  These are all worthy topics of discussion.  And are they ever getting discussion-ed.  Will boycotts of the new procedures materialize at the height of holiday travel?  Have Americans finally reached the limit of what they will give up for security?  Will an actual junk-stuffed-bomb get detected by the new methods?

I don't know.  But I don't think we're thinking about the risks of air travel clearly. 

All the focus on screening passengers obscures the facts that the aircraft and the personnel that operate them are a much richer target for terrorists and security experts.  

Last weekend an exception to the new security measures was granted for commercial pilots.  Pilots (and maybe soon flight attendants) will be able to skip the x-ray machines and junk-touching pat-downs.  To make clear my point about rational thinking on security, let's consider a specific question. 

Who should we worry more about when it comes to suicidally crashing airplanes?  Pilots or passengers? 

Below is a simple analysis of intentionally-caused airliner crashes originating from the US over the last two decades.


Consider suicidal hijackers and passengers first.

In the last 20 years, hijackers who were passengers on board US flights have killed about 3000 people.  (Outside of Sept 11, I could find no other US-originating flights that passengers intentionally crashed)

In 2008 there were about 800,000,000 US passengers.  This number has grown significantly over the last two decades.  So, let's say the total number of passengers over the last 20 years has been ~ 20 x 500,000,000 = 10 billion.

That gives us rough odds that a passenger will successfully be involved in crashing a plane:
   ~ 19 hijackers/10billion ~ 1 in 500,000,000.

Airport screening is designed to catch these people.


What about pilots?

In 2008, there were about 125,000 active commercial pilots.  So, over the last 20 years, in round numbers we can say that there were something like 200,000 commercial pilots operating in the US, with some retiring, quitting or dying.

How many planes have commercial pilots on US flights intentionally caused in the last 20 years?  It seems clear that there was at least one such pilot and it caused all 200+ people on board to die.  William Langeweische wrote a great article about it in the Atlantic.

So the odds over the last 20 years that a specific pilot would intentially and suicidally crash a commerical plane are at least 1 in 200,000. 

Or:  The annual rate of successful suicidal pilot crashings is a thousand times greater than the rate of successful suicidal passenger crashings.


Looked at another way, the number of airline deaths caused by suicidal passengers over the last 20 years is 3000, with the average number of deaths caused per passenger at 3000/500,000,000 ~ 6/1,000,000 or 6 in a million.  The number of deaths caused by suicidal pilots over the last 20 years is about 200, with the average # of deaths caused per pilot at 200/200,000 ~ or 1 in a thousand.  Death caused per pilot/deaths caused per passenger ~ (1 in a 1000)/(6 in a million) which is ~ 167. 

Or, pilots are 167 times more likely to kill you by intentionally crashing your plane than your fellow passenger is.


Potential objections to this analysis:
  1. Egypt Air 990 wasn't conclusively caused by a suicidal pilot.  Possibly.  Seems pretty certain if you read the Langewiesche article.  However, the point remains that a single pilot suicidal crash, should it occur, would instantly make my argument, because the "effectiveness" of a single pilot-induced crash is so high.
  2. Other crashes, ruled as accidental, may have actually been caused by highjackings.  Possibly.  But even if you added up ALL the deaths and crashes ruled as accidents over the last 20 years, it wouldn't change the death toll, or the number of crashes, by a large enough factor to change the "effectiveness" of pilot suicidal crashes over passenger suicidal crashes.
  3. I treated pilots as countable individuals, but passengers were counted many times (that's how you get an average of 500,000,000 passengers/year in a country with only 350,000,000 people).  This is a serious potential flaw in my analysis.  But that's a fair way to treat the numbers today, because that's how the airline security industry treats pilots today.  Passengers are "fresh" to be screened each time they come to the airport, while aircraft crew members are not.  This is really my point actually.  If we treated pilots more like passengers, they'd get screened much more intensively than they do now.


So who should we be screening?  History and a simple analysis suggests pilots should be scrutinized much more closely than passengers.  But, as with many acts in air travel security theater, rationality is not part of the performance.

Kinda junky, don't you think?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

inner city pressure

Someone is talking to me hurriedly, softly.  I'm staring at Anaheim peppers.  Looking at the peppers, I ask: Why does Safeway have to advertise the prices for two items?  Just tell me the price per item.  Not that I can't divide a number by two.  I can.  I can do long division in my head.  Two digits into three is my limit, though.  When I fill up my gas tank, I divide the miles from the last tank by the gallons used so I can track the mileage.  Usually, I'm hurriedly doing this while pulling out of the gas station.  Driving, dividing, deciding on where to head next.  What's the traffic like?  Punching up the traffic map on my smart phone.  26mpg.  Good.  No change in mileage.  Don't have to worry about car maintenance.

Is Safeway going to charge me more if I buy one?  They don't say.  I peer at the little print on the two-for-XX-dollars sign.  Really though, does it matter to me?  It'll be a difference of a few cents.  Not enough to make me buy two peppers.  But it irritates to have to think it through. 

What?  Have I found everything OK?  Sure, sure.  I guess so.  It's the produce guy.  He's talking fast about the specials.  Did I want to try a raspberry?  Did I know the seedless grapes were on special?  I shift from thinking about misleading advertising to the produce guy.  Slowly I realize he's got some kind of disability.  I can't shake him.  I push the oversized cart down the aisle.  Why are there random stacks of specials placed on the corners?  I can't turn this big cart around them without squeezing the folks coming the other way.  Over my shoulder, I hear the produce guy talk-whispering at me, but I'm concentrating now.

Shopping here is tense.  It's like many places in the city now.  A nervous energy permeates.  I think of the Safeways we used to go to when I was a kid, freshly arrived in San Francisco.  1975.  The carts were smaller.  They didn't have those radio-controlled brakes that suddenly grind to a halt if you push the cart past the boundary of the parking lot.  We were pretty poor then, but the closest Safeway was the famous one in the Marina District.  It had and has a view of the Bay, and of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Famous, because it's allegedly a pick-up joint for singles.  Seems doubtful that was ever true.  We'd walk through the store, loading up on bulk items for our family of six, picking out Asian canned goods or Mexican items that we'd have never seen in our grocery store in Dearborn Heights, MI.  Avocados.  Tortillas.  The store was quiet.  You could feel the fog if you walked by the electric doors.  The aisles clean.  No advertising stickers on the floor.  People pushed their small carts down the right side of the aisles, like they were driving, sticking close to the side of the aisle.

Ahead of me are young people.  Too young to be so large.  They are pushing their carts, oblivious to others, doing that rolling gait people do when fashion requires them to step with their heel on the extra fabric of their baggy jeans.  We're all executing a random walk - dodging each other, dodging the piled, undesired goods on special that lean in, threatening to topple.  I'm just as intent on not getting run into as I am on picking out goods.  Cheap plastic boxes hang at head level with blinking LEDs.   Coupons wave in my face.  Tiny banners flying for the corporate nations of Nabisco-landia and Nestle-stan.  I'm tempted to slap the boxes off the shelves so I can navigate freely.

There's a Safeway downtown near Jackson Square.  I remember a decade ago staggering through the empty, clean aisles.  Tipsy, after a nice dinner out with friends and maybe too much wine.  No matter.  I'm on foot, so no danger of a DUI or worse.  I'm by myself, looking for Ben and Jerry's.  The store is quiet, the Financial District types have gone home long ago.  Somehow I can feel the weight of the skyscraper above me, but it feels all right.  It's the only Safeway I've been in that is in a skyscraper.  A different kind of inner city pressure than the pressure I'm feeling tonight.

Tonight.  The grimy carts of my fellow shoppers are filled with canned cranberry sauce.  Vodka.  Lots of bags of snack foods that I don't even recognize.  There's a whole universe of snack foods I don't know about.  Something about the packaging though, tips it off.  A sort of electric look to the bags and molded plastic containers.  Yellow seems a common color for snack food packaging.  It jars to look at it.  But look at it I have to as I push towards a cashier.  Whoops, no, have to change lines.  The woman at the front is arguing with the cashier about an advertisement or a coupon.  Most times I come here there is someone arguing about a coupon.

We used coupons too, when I was a kid.  I don't pay any attention now, but we did then.  Actually, we paid much more attention to the labeled prices for staples.  I got good at dividing two-digit numbers into three digit numbers.  We tried hard to buy at the lowest price/weight.  Back then, there was not a mandate to label the price/weight that we have now.  So, I did the arithmetic when we shopped.  Not that anyone reads the price/weight on labels at Safeway today.  But the numbers are there.  I see them when I look at the misleading "2-for-XX-dollars" advertisement signs.

At the front of the line, I volley the customary Safeway cashier questions: no, no, yes, cash.  Goods in the cart, I push out the door.  Cool air in my face.  I trundle the cart through the stained asphalt parking lot just like everyone else.  Away from the doors and people now, I run with the cart and gain some speed.   Jumping up with my feet on the lower bar, hands on the red plastic cart handle, I ride through the parking lot like it was 1975.

Friday, November 19, 2010

wherein Edgar turns 20 and begins a mid-life crisis

Meet Edgar.  He's my rubber band ball.  I started making him in 1990, which makes him 20 years old.  (I don't know the actual date I started him.)  I also don't know why he's called Edgar.  It was a joke that started some years ago.  The name outlasted the memory of the actual joke. 

I was near the end of grad school when I started Edgar.  I think I had a lot of rubber bands from veggies, because there were five of us cooking in our little kitchen.  Lots of broccoli.  Also, we had one or two newspapers showing up there, at our run down rental house in Davis, CA.  It was a more rubber-band-centric world back then.  Before those hybrid broccoli band/plastic clips.  And during the time in which people read newspapers.  (Newspapers were daily collections of printed pages, with a variety of reports written largely based on the relevant facts about stories of national or regional interest.  You couldn't click on anything.  And the advertisements didn't dance or talk to you.)

I started with one band wrapped tightly around another, and then wrapped single bands until it was ball-shaped.  The core of the ball is just rubber bands.  Nothing else, except maybe some hair and dirt that the ball picked up by rolling around across the floors of all the places I've lived since then.  Sometimes I wonder what it would smell like to saw Edgar in half.  Would it be all rotten sulfur rubber band smell?  Or would the smells of my Ann Arbor fireplace or my dead cat be released?

After it got to a couple of inches in diameter, I just put the bands around the ball.  That didn't last long though, because I wanted it to grow in diameter, and simply putting the bands circumferentially made it denser and heavier, but not larger in diameter.  So, I worked out a method of creating long linear chains with large closed loops on either end.  Think of a dumbell (other than me).

I made some back-of-the-envelope estimates of the size of Edgar at the end of my life.  I assumed that the rate of adding new bands would be constant, and would be my historical average.  I assumed I'd live to 80.  I did this a few years ago when Edgar was about 11" in diameter and came up with about a 14" diameter.  That seems to be not much growth over the next 30 years, but that's because the volume increase between say, 10" and 14" diameter, is greater than the volume increase between 0" and 10"...

Recently, I measured the diameter, and was surprised to see it had shrunk significantly.  Edgar stands at 9" now.  I haven't worked out why, exactly.  Perhaps at some critical size, the tension forces begin to significantly compact the ball, sort of like a collapsing star.

So, I have a crisis with two dimensions: my sources of bands have dried up at the same time that Edgar is collapsing towards some sort of rubber band black hole.  Readers, can you help?  Collect your spare rubber bands and be a part of this grand project.  Message me, and I'll send you an address, if you care to ship bands to me.

My little slide park featured in the NYT

My little micropark on my little San Francisco street was featured in the New York Times this week (thanks Mom!)

I didn't know the history.  But I do like the various little hillside parks in my neighborhood.  I've adopted this one.  I regularly walk the few houses over to the slide park at Esmeralda and Winfield Streets and pick up trash, sweep and remove graffiti.  It's a never-ending job.  Especially the graffiti.  On a tip from the guy who keeps up the park lying immediately downslope from this one (no slide, just a well-maintained rock outcropping and planted landscape), I bought gloves and paint thinner.  I pour the thinner on my gloves and directly rub off the graffiti with the glove surface, because the graffiti is usually tough.

The article has it right.  (Usually) good natured teens slide down in the evening.  Sometimes smoking and drinking, but usually not.  There are the occasional gang/drug sellers there, but they don't persist.  And a homeless guy has recently taken to quietly sleeping on the one bench that is protected from the street.  During the day, families bring their kids to the slide.  There is always some cardboard around that some use to get real speed on the slide.  I throw away the scraps when they build up.

The other day, Yvette and I were fascinated by a guy rolling a tennis ball down the slide to his young dog, who somehow caught the ball at the end of the slide, even though the ball was moving almost too fast to see at the bottom.

Friday, November 12, 2010

bedbugs and ballyhoo

There's a panic in America over the return of the bedbug.

In the media are numerous stories of people spending thousands of dollars, tossing out all their clothes, and turning their homes upside-down. In some cases, this is occurring even when there are no bugs detected, or bites experienced. These bugs don't affect human health in the main (no disease transmission, and many people bit don't even know they've been bitten.) So, panic is the right word, I think.

That's fine. People can panic.

However, I have some predictions for the aftermath of the panic:
1) We'll soon see reports of bug-sniffing beagles (or other dogs) raised in a hurry to respond to the panic and subsequently abandoned or abused as the panic subsides.
2) Some unlucky people - probably children - will be accidentally poisoned or intoxicated by illegal pesticides such as DDT.

You read it here first!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

evolution of life on Earth: the YouTube clip

Simple, but mesmerizing YouTube video clip of the geologic time scales of significant moments in the evolution of life.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

the 112th Congress: let's throw the bums out!

The 112th Congress was elected this week. They will be sworn in on January 3, 2011. They will have had their chance (in the future). And what have they done so far? That is, what will they have done so far, when their time in office actually comes?

You know what? I'm sick of the job they're going to be doing. At some point down the road, I'm going to be mad as hell! And, I'm not going to be taking it anymore! At that time, I mean!

I'm boiling mad. Or will be. Why don't we just throw the bums out now, before they even get sworn into office next year?

After all, that seems to be how we're electing our leaders these days...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mo wisdom

Why are Americans angry at this moment? The conventional wisdom is that it's the economy. Specifically, the tired phrase "jobs, jobs, jobs" is invoked at every turn. But is that why we're so mad? And is it those upset about losing a job or not having a job that turned out the Democrats or that have fired up the Tea Party kettle?

Well, my mother has another idea.

Her idea is that it's not the jobs outlook that has people angry, but rather the drop in their net worth. Certainly this gets talked about frequently, but during the lead-in to the recent mid-term elections, the talk was of jobs, and not of wealth.

My mom's political insights are sharp. So I thought this idea was worth investigating a little.

Polling data doesn't look at wealth nearly as often as income or employment. It would be great to find polling data that breaks along net wealth rather than income. I didn't let that stop me, though.

Consider a recent Gallup Poll look at the Tea Party. Gallup concludes that in many ways Tea Party supporters resemble average Americans demographically. The ways in which they stand out are: they're more likely to be male, to be conservative and to have higher incomes than average Americans. And, they participated strongly in the mid-term election, and of course they overwhelmingly voted for the GOP.

The jobless or the poor typically don't vote. They are usually near the bottom of ranking in participation, and that was true in this election too. The Edison Research poll, published by the NYT, shows those earning less than $50,000 comprised 37% of the voters. Presumably this lower income bucket includes the jobless and those who took lame jobs to survive. But, I'm sure that if you looked at the fraction of the population earning this much or less, you'd find that they make up a larger percentage of the population than their electoral participation. The same poll shows that those earning $100,000 or more participated at 26%, which is surely an over-representation of their fraction of the population.

This reduces to: If you lost your job, you didn't vote much or all that conservatively, but if you lost wealth in the financial crisis, you voted often and strongly conservatively.

Instead of the mantra, "Jobs, jobs, jobs", a more accurate slogan might be, "Wealth, wealth, wealth".

Sunday, October 31, 2010

voluntary extinction, anyone?

It's kind of taboo to discuss it, but too many humans and too many more coming in the future is at the root of most of our trouble. What to do? Have fewer babies.

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement goes beyond what I'd advocate, but they are interesting! And amusing, too, with a light and humorous tone.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Cartoonist Lloyd Dangle puts his finger on what some Americans have upside-down.

The word fascism gets tossed around a lot. What people often miss when they use the word is that economic interests partner with government in a fascist society. While we may be slowly headed in the direction of fascism, it's not the same direction that Beck University students believe we're headed in.

When the epithet of fascism gets lobbed today, it's usually in reference to a belief that there is an incipient hostile takeover of individual rights and of the economy by the federal government. In this sense, it would probably be better to stick with socialism as a label, though autocracy fits better.

What is actually happening is that corporations, specific economic interests and wealthy individuals are corrupting, and to a limited extent taking over, government. Angry populism is being enlisted, perhaps unwittingly, in this effort. And this picture more fully resembles historical fascism.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

why this liberal is hopeful

Americans are angry. We're upset, confused and frightened. I understand it. We're living through economic dislocation, terror, war, cultural anxiety, and environmental threat.

Indications are that state and federal elections will see a strong rightward shift. Short term, I think this will be a disaster. More income inequality, increased corporate power, more punitive treatment of the poor, and the dismantling of the social safety net are all on the agenda of the right. On social policy, international policy... Back to the Future. A significant number of crazies may be elected. Xenophobia, conspiratorial thinking, belligerence. All on the menu.

But. We've been here before. Eventually, we ended up in a good place.

The anger, anxiety and reactionary mood is something like what happened in the 1930's. We had a financial bubble, large inequality in wealth, a financial crash, followed by governmental belt tightening, blame for the poor, and anti-immigrant sentiment. There was the better part of a decade between the Crash of 1929 and the New Deal successes and Keynesian war spending of the mid-to-late 30's. Though the country headed in the wrong direction during the first years of the Great Depression, eventually we had a progressive tax system, a burgeoning middle class, robust financial regulation, smart public investments, etc. The false starts we made from (roughly) 1929-1934 actually set the stage for decades of prosperity from the 40's to the 60's.

Invoking Winston Churchill: "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing... after they have exhausted all other possibilities."

That's why I'm hopeful. Though anger and confusion rule today, we may eventually do the right thing.

Hope for America

...this week's Troubletown cartoon is our ray of hope...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

new Proposition 23 slogans

The campaign to pass the California ballot proposition 23 got me thinking about how I could help.

Recall that Prop 23 is the initiative that suspends the greenhouse gas emission regulation in CA called AB32. AB 32 is the comprehensive landmark law signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger controlling CO2 emissions. AB32 could, quite literally, save the world if other governments follow suit.

Prop 23 halts any AB32 regulations on CO2 emission reductions until the CA jobless rate (now at 12%) falls to 5.5% for four consecutive quarters. It's a cynical plan, backed by oil interests and designed to appeal to economically distressed Californians. That level of unemployment is years away, if it is ever reached again in CA. In other words, Prop 23 would more or less permanently halt AB32.

So, I dreamed up some slogans for the Prop 23 folks:

"The truth is, it's a little inconvenient for us to stop global warming just now."
"The People! United! Will someday get around to climate!"
"Carbon, schmarbon."
"Carbon emissions don't kill planets, people do."
"I'll give up my tailpipe when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers!"
"A state without climate regulations is like a fish without a bicycle. (If the fish is a dead salmon, and the bicycle has been washed out to sea.)"

Saturday, October 9, 2010

better angels

I'm not a fan of military might. War might be necessary, and sometimes right, but mostly it's the workhorse of national power. Death, waste, hubris, money, petroleum, nationalism. These are not some of my favorite things.

So, when Fleet Week comes to San Francisco, you might think I'd be dismissive. Displays of giant naval ships? Lumbering bombers? Why not simulate Predator drone assassinations? Or show how cluster bombs main little kids?

Mostly I ignore Fleet Week. It's just a part of our San Francisco summer (October, that is.) But when the Blue Angels streak over my hilltop, I forget everything I think about war and armies and navies.

Metallic blue enamel. Insectoid shapes moving faster than seems possible. They rip the air with a sound like a giant burlap bag that keeps tearing for minutes at a time. Machines that are alien but somehow also all mine the moment I see them.

Going about my business through the city, everything stops for a moment when a jet streaks overhead. People stop in mid-sentence, hesitate crossing the street, look up. For a minute, all of us different people feel the same thing with no other thought in our heads. Tuning forks resonating to the same hammer strike.

Riding my bike up my steep hill in the afternoon heat, I'm woozy and wobbly. I swivel my head at a weird angle to follow the jet now suddenly overhead, itself moving at an even weirder angle. I imagine I will keeping following it, my body following my ever-twisting neck. In my vision, I end up turtled, spine on the pavement, pedaling towards the sky.

Later, I stand on the hill behind my house, where I have a panoramic view. Watching them roll, race, climb, fall. An eleven-year-old pounding on the inside of my chest. The thrilling questions of a boy: What's the fastest can I go? How fast can anyone go? Could I take that g-force? Stand that sound? What's the strongest power that there is?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How to win friends and influenza people

Walgreen's has a tiny temporary cubicle they set up for immunizations. I sat in a folding chair there today, knees kissing the cubicle fabric, facing away from the pharmacist, who was squeezed in tight with me in the little gray cube. I can't watch the needle go in my arm. I thought she was about to stick me, when I felt a breeze on my exposed arm. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the pharmacist waving at me with a binder. "Have to dry the alcohol before I stick you." We both laughed at the awkwardness of it. Then she stuck me, quick as a whistle. H1N1, Influenza B and H3N2 all at once. Doing my part to keep up the herd immunity to the flu. You're welcome, People of Earth.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thompson series

This weeklong series by cartoonist Mike Thompson frames our present political moment with a sharp eye.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I paid off the national debt! (partly)

Lots of concern about the national indebtedness of the United States of America these days. It drives Tea Partiers to rage, get economists all bothered, provides ammo for politicians to do and say all kinds of things. And the average Joe (the non-plumber type) worries and frets.

What to do? I decided to just go ahead and pay it off. Well, part of it anyway. Precisely $20 of the approximately $13,500,000,000,000 we owe as a federal republic. I made a contribution to the Bureau of the Public Dept, which is part of the US Treasury Department.

A drop in the bucket. Actually, by my estimates, more like a drop in twenty million buckets (standard drop volume, 5 gallon bucket).

I figure we each owe about $42,000. At the rate we've borrowed (Treasury bills yielding an average of 5% these days, maybe) the annual interest on this per capita amount is roughly $2,000. So, my $20 doesn't even come close to covering even the interest on my share. But $2000 does. And if I chipped in $4000 per year, I'd be actively paying down my share!

When you start figuring in things like the fact that inflation will discount the debt with time, and with economic growth, the debt will get more manageable, this big problem seems more solvable.

Sending in $20 does something else: it signals to our elected leaders that we're willing to shoulder the burden. Maybe it will drive home the point that we are willing to assume responsibility for the services we receive from the government. Maybe that will enable pols to act with a bit more courage: cut some expenditures, raise some taxes.

What about you? How about joining me and chipping in a few bucks? Are we going to complain about the debt? Or do something about it?

eliminate frosh and soph years

Governor signed into law a new requirement that California State Colleges accept all California Community College System transfer students who meet the transfer requirements. This fits well with my idea for helping to control the costs of higher education in CA: eliminate freshman and sophomore years.

What's the value of using the higher cost institutions of the CSU system and the UC system in the first two years of college students' education? At the CSU and UC, the first two years of classes are taught in overcrowded classrooms by highly paid professors, or by numerous teaching assistants, or by part time adjunct faculty. Students often have poor access to their instructors compared to the CCC system. And having Nobel Prize winners teach first year calculus just isn't a good use of their time.

Let students who are committed to joining the state colleges and university complete their first two years in our large and cost-efficient community college system.

It worked for me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

reclaiming words

Language changes. Heard that, yo. Still, many good words get unfairly maligned, tarred or tarnished. Purposefully, as the American right and sometimes the left do for political purposes.

Others words just suffer bad fortune. They get used incorrectly, or suffer an unfortunate association with some event that fixes a new meaning onto them.

Tarnished words get dropped from usage. Then the language suffers because speakers must reach for less suitable words, invent new words, or simply communicate with less clarity, precision or meaning.

If the tarring of a word is political, that word is said only ironically, or sarcastically, with air quotes, or self-consciousness.

Here's my list of words that should be reclaimed. Words that have utility. Words that are worthy. Words we should use again without feeling funny. What words are on your list?


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Boomers' last hurrah

Interesting piece by Michael Kinsley in this month's issue of the Atlantic. He argues that one way the Baby Boomers can redeem their generation is to use their collective wealth to pay down our national debt. It is certainly time for all of America to start paying for the things we want. I'm not in agreement with the johnny-come-lately deficit hawks and Tea Party apoplexics who suddenly have deficit fever. But in the long haul, we have a big problem. And the Boomers, who have not sacrificied for the nation in the way that earlier generations have (Kinsley's thesis), could at the very least make this sacrifice.

This starts with a willingness to tax ourselves, tax ourselves very progressively, and tax our estates heavily.

I think a >50% estate tax and a marginal federal rate of 45% are good places to start (and these will affect me personally).

What are you willing to do?

Monday, September 20, 2010

feminism, anyone?

It takes a lot of courage to call yourself a feminist these days. Even very liberal people avoid the label. And men? Forget about men referring to themselves as feminists (yes, it is possible to be a male feminist.)

How about you? Are you a feminist? Know anyone who openly calls themselves a feminist? If so, do they use finger quotes when they say it? Know any men who would wear the label?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

ain't that the truth?

we can't remember who drove us in the ditch we're in...

good writing

Modern Love column in NYT

Country mouse, city mouse

I live in a house in San Francisco that touches the walls of the houses on either side of me. A few blocks away is the hurly burly of the Mission District, with all its urban intensity. But every afternoon a pair of redtailed hawks flies over my backyard, letting out a couple of their characteristic screams. Some afternoons are so quiet that the bees on the echium cone flowers are the loudest sound I can hear back there.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

FB test


Step away from the Zuckerberg

I'm starting a new blog to contain my daily ramblings. I don't really want FaceBook to own everything I write, nor do I want to be read only by regular FaceBook users. So, I'm attempting to use this blog as a substitute for how I've been using FB. I'll share what I write here on FB, generally.