Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu

Wonderful Thanksgiving Dinner prepared by J. I set the table and loaded the dishwasher.

Roast Duck with Port Sauce
Wild Rice Pilaf
Green Beans with Sauteed Almonds
Green Salad with Cucumbers and Citrus
Cranberry Sauce

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ugh, a new climate change report

Today the UN IPCC released its new report on climate change. I haven't read it yet, but the summary and the news reports indicate that it's not good. In fact, it's very bad. More importantly for our purposes, the residents of Little Planet Earth have to move much more quickly to limit the effects of climate change to the merely awful (as opposed to the catastrophic). It is unfortunate that the greatest carbon glutton is led by a man who makes Richard Nixon look good. (Tricky Dick. Oh god, I never thought I'd say that.) And Ronald Reagan could at least remember his lines, most of the time.

It's already clear that our government, and probably the next one, whether Republican or Democrat, isn't going to do what needs to be done. But I didn't expect that they would. What the IPCC report means, though, is that that political reality means that we are lost. We will long since have passed the point of no return before our political leaders are willing to impose the changes that would be necessary to save Little Planet Earth.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On Torture and Keith Olbermann

I don't have cable TV, so I wasn't able to watch Keith Olbermann until I got high-speed internet and could watch YouTube videos. At first I was really into YouTube and feared that my attention span was going to be reduced to 6:20. But I got over that and now only watch them when there's a link to YouTube on a site where I actually have to read something. Olbermann first came to my attention in September, when he trashed Bush for all of Bush's obvious failings. We needn't dwell on those here. But I'd assumed that all cable news was like FoxNews and was only interested in it as a source of entertainment.

So I checked out Olbermann and discovered that he really doesn't like Bush, was very upset at the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame (something that doesn't upset me at all, as I suspect all CIA agents of plotting against governments I like and supporting governments I detest) and had a one-night stand with a woman who later blogged on the horror of it all.

Anyway, a new Olbermann YouTube has come to my attention. It's a hissy-fit denunciation of our new Attorney General and the Congresspersons who voted for his confirmation over the AG's apparent support for what are now known as "enhanced interrogation techniques." And specifically the "enhanced interrogation technique" known as waterboarding. For the four people in the world who may not know what waterboarding is, it's a torture technique designed to make the victim believe that she or he is drowning.

What was most disturbing, though, in Olbermann' s presentation was the apparent belief that the practice of torture was something new in the US repertoire. Had he not seen State of Siege when it was shown on a double bill at half of all the benefits I attended in the 1970s, with either Battle of Algiers or Salt of the Earth? Had he not heard of Dan Mitrione, the School of the Americas or the various congressional reports detailing our bad behavior in various Third World countries? It is certainly embarrassing to have one's government outlaw various methods of torture, given that we shouldn't be practicing them in the first place, but the actual practice of torture by our government is nothing new.

(I went off to Wikipedia to learn the history of waterboarding and discovered that an early form dates from the Spanish Inquisition, then to the modern version used by both the Germans and the Japanese during World War II, and the adoption of the technique by the French in the Algerian conflict. On reading this, I was sure that--and I don't know why--the United States must have used it in the Philippines. I was right, as William Loren Katz details in a recent Counterpunch article, which is at:

I don't know why these things pop into my head; they just do.) While once upon a time, our government didn't admit to torture and certainly didn't claim a "right" to torture people, our government most certainly did torture people in practice.

I suppose it's better to have Keith Olbermann opposing torture than FoxNews supporting it, but it doesn't give Americans a clue that this might not be our first experiment with electric shock and the hood.

(A note on a barely related topic: Olbermann's latest video is a denunciation of smut on FoxNews. Apparently they've been showing a lot of skimpy bikinis on their newscasts and Olbermann is incensed! Frankly, the more smut, the less time spent convincing people that there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. More Smut, Less Talk.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Belated Environment Blog

My mom died last December. Today would have been her 78th birthday.

I promised my niece that I would blog on the environment today to make up for my grievous failure to come through on environment blog day (October 15th). Until Sunday I couldn't figure out exactly what to write about--global warming, the water crisis, deforestation, agricultural policy, the problems with petroleum-based products etc. etc. But then on Sunday I opened my San Francisco Chronicle and, in the Magazine, read the articles that set this course.

Three houses--the smallest of them 2,000 square feet, the largest 5,000 square feet. All very modern, open, beautiful gardens. All entirely too big. J and I live in the largest space we've ever had--it's 1,200 square feet. We have a room we use to store the desk, the file cabinet and two bookcases. (We rarely work at the desk, as we use our laptop on the kitchen table or the living room sofa.) This is more than enough space for two people; our flat in Oakland was about 650 square feet.

It wouldn't be so bad if it were only the really, really rich who "needed" all this territory. But the average house is now over 2,000 square feet. And the average household doesn't even have four people. Does the average household really need four bedrooms and three garages? How many rooms never get used? How much of the space is used to store junk that should just be given away? And do people ever think about what would happen if everyone in the world required that much living space? (I will not go on and on about the fact that much of the carbon allocation schemes allow no increase in carbon use by the majority of the world's population, something that majority rightly objects to.)

Oddly enough, raising the price of housing has only exacerbated the problem. As housing close to job centers becomes more expensive, and as more of it is expanded to provide larger living spaces for fewer residents, people are forced to move farther and farther away to find housing they can afford. And as the poor move to the inner-ring suburbs for more affordable housing, the more affluent who cannot afford the urban core leapfrog over those communities to buy ranchettes or houses in the forest. Not only does this place increasing pressure on natural resources, it also increases the carbon costs of commuting. Larger houses distant from work centers are doing nothing to reduce our carbon footprint.

In California the problem is made worse by Proposition 13. One of its (I think) unintended consequences was to make all but the most expensive housing cost-ineffective for local governments. Only the most expensive housing pays for itself in property taxes, so local governments encourage retail (which provides sales taxes) and commercial uses over housing. Communities seek to develop larger houses for richer people whose property taxes will pay the cost of providing services to them. (California's Central Valley, however, now has the problem of a large number of houses affordable to the affluent, but not sufficient affluent to fill them.)

Unfortunately we have little time to address the problem. Southern California is already having serious water problems, and it is only a matter of time before the northern part of the state joins them. Even if rainfall is sufficient, our water system is designed to capture and store snowmelt, not rainwater. (Snowmelt is also more predictable, controllable and easier to manage.) Our transportation system cannot and should not continue to serve more far-flung communities either with freeways or public transit. And even the most energy-efficient 2,000 square foot house uses more energy that an energy-inefficient smaller house.

What is to be done?

1. Communities must develop housing affordable to the workforce. If 20% of a community's workforce is very low income, 20% of its housing should be affordable to very low income people. If the community fails to do so, it would face three fines. The first would equal the value of the mortgage interest deduction to the community. The second fine would equal the depreciation write-off taken by landlords in the community. The third would be a carbon tax on the excess carbon used by workers who had to commute from other communities.

2. Communities must develop effective public transportation systems that serve all communities equally. The Los Angeles bus riders' strike is instructive here. Efficient public transportation must serve both poor and rich communities equally.

3. Excess carbon use taxes would be imposed on excessively large houses--the McMansion tax. And no house, no matter how energy efficient, would receive LEED certification if it provided more than 500 square feet per person. Period.

4. People owning second homes in city cores would face stiff taxes. While this wouldn't prevent the very rich from having city condos, it would limit the merely affluent to a single home.

5. Communities would be discouraged from developing excessive retail space. The United States now has three times more retail space per capita than Britain (our nearest competitor) and ten times more retail space than Europe overall. We do not need to devote that much urban and suburban space to yet another Target. And one Starbuck's every 50 feet--is that really necessary?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Playing with the Webcam

Today I spent some time playing with my webcam. J bought it for me when I was in Hawaii and I toyed with it a little there. I haven't used it much since though. So I set it up, which takes about four seconds, and took some pictures. I even made a small video of the back yard. If I can, i'll upload it, even though it's really awful. Embarrassing even. But here's one of the better pictures I took.

Friday, November 2, 2007

A Long, Slow Fall

Fall here is a strange time. It's usually still very dry, not having rained more than a tenth of an inch since May, and can sometimes be almost as hot as summer. This year fall appeared quite suddenly just after Labor Day and has been hanging 'round ever since. The trees have changed color slowly and held their colors for more than a month, as nights have been cool and we haven't had a windy tropical storm that brings down all the leaves at once. And this year the daytime temperatures have been mild, not higher than 85 degrees and often in the 70s.

But much as I love the trees, I look with misgivings at the oak in my yard. I see the thousands of leaves turning brown. I see them falling onto the patio. I see myself with a broom. I see myself picking leaves out of pots before they entirely smother the plants. I see myself asking J to schlepp yet another full can to the street. One local garden writer suggested that the leaves shouldn't be swept up, but just serve as mulch for garden beds. Were I to attempt that, I'd have to build a retaining wall to maintain a path through the yard. And I am glad Sacramento has the Claw.

The Claw is a Sacramento institution. Instead of sweeping garden debris into garbage cans for collection, Sacramentans dump our grass clippings, dead plants, and fallen leaves in piles on the street. The Claw then comes around and collects everything, taking it off to become mulch for the local parks. In the 1970s the City proposed ending green matter collection, which sparked a referendum to Save the Claw. The Claw was saved and the attempts to shift green matter collection to a tidier system have been very cautious.

Even better, the long fall has enabled me to plant lettuce. In some years the fall is just too hot for lettuce. But this year I've already begun my first crop and will start another set of lettuce pots in a couple of weeks. If I can limit the ill effects of the evil whitefly ,I will have lettuce until the middle of December. I don't try to plant lettuce right around the solstice, so I'll then put in my next crop in mid-January. If the weather co-operates, I'll be able to grow lettuce through the end of May. By June it's always too hot for lettuce and we'll have to depend on the grocery store and farmer's market.