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Archive for November, 2008

If you’ve read my “About” page, you’ll know that I don’t think “they hate us for our freedoms.”  Rather, I think they hate our foreign policy decisions over the years.  So, if that’s the case, why India?  And why did the attackers seek out Jews and British and American citizens?

Early reports identify the attackers as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.  Beginning in the 14th century C.E., India was the central point of the Islamic Mogol (Mughal) Empire.  Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of India at one time.  They are predominantly Muslim, which is why they separated from India.  Over the years, the region of Kashmir, which covers an area in northern India and northeastern Pakistan, adjacent to China, has been a point of contention between India and Pakistan.  Periodically, tensions boil over into armed conflict.  This may well have been one of the reasons for the Mumbai attack. 

Interestingly, while we were away for Thanksgiving, I began reading Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback.  Most Americans are blissfully unaware of the fact that we are an Empire, that we have had imperial aspirations going back more than a century, but that those aspirations have blossomed in the years after World War II.  Johnson takes his title from a term that had its origins in CIA machinations.  It refers to those unintended consequences of actions and decisions taken in support of our imperial ambitions.  Put simply, actions have consequences.  Others have refered to the same concept as, “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” 

Back when most Americans were crying for revenge in the guise of justice after the attacks of September 11, I worried that we wouldn’t even bother asking the difficult question of whether we (our government and its policies) might have provoked the attack.  I knew that the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a cause of great concern throughout the Middle East and that the United States was seen as part of the problem.  Many Arab politicians have said that tensions throughout the region would diminish significantly with the resolution of that conflict.

Our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, our military bases throughout the world, and the inevitable conflicts between US troops and the citizens of the countries where those bases are located all contribute to a build-up of resentment. And, especially for people for whom personal honor is such a highly-prized value, this wellspring of resentment is bound to find its expression in violence.

But why Brits?  Not only was Britain the colonial master of India (and the lands now known as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kashmir), she has been a participant in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as an American ally.  Furthermore, Britain also controlled both Iraq and Palestine, as well as Jordan, India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Bangladesh during the period between the two world wars.

As I continue with the Middle East tutorial, the areas of conflict and the reasons behind them will become more clear.  One aspect of the Middle Eastern/Islamic ethos that continues to plague both them and ourselves is a profound and well-deserved sense of pride at the civilization they created and a sense that their greatness is part of their past rather than part of their future.  Their own empire decayed, as all empires do, as the power of the United States grew.

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I’m going to be away this week, visiting family for the holiday.  The dust bunnies have been shoveled out of the house, and today was filled with last-minute errands.  But before I leave, I thought I’d take a few minutes to consider what I’m thankful for this year.

  • Loving family and friends
  • Reasonably good health all around
  • An opportunity to visit loved ones
  • Time this week to spend stitching
  • The new friends I’ve met through Mudflats who inspired me to begin my own blogging adventure
  • Living in a nation with a history of peaceful transitions of power
  • A president-elect who values intellect, pragmatism and competence above blind ideology
  • The opportunity to share my thoughts and ideas and to read yours
  • The ability to worship (or not worship) as I see fit
  • A growing sense of public service in large ways and small

As the economy continues to sour and we all look for ways to tighten our financial belts, these are the things that will continue to have value.  For many of us, the holidays this year will be more about family friends and less about material things.  That won’t be good news for the retailers.  But the reality is that many Americans are foregoing credit cards.  And lacking large reserves of cash, things are definitely tight. 

I grew up receiving an orange in my stocking each Christmas.  Now, oranges are plentiful at Christmas in Sourthern California, but that wasn’t the case where my parents grew up.  A fresh, ripe orange was a treat for them, and they passed the tradition on, still viewing that orange as a treasure.  As I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of books to my own children, I was struck by the simplicity of the Christmas gifts.  The holiday focused on relationships among family and friends.  Gifts were simple and few, often things that the recipient needed.  Each one was treasured — given and received in love. 

In recent years, we’ve focused more on gift certificates to events and activities that each of us loves.  The latest gadget is being replaced in some cases by the latest book.  A Netflix subscription gives throughout the year.  This year, we’ve begun to talk about making donations to charities in honor of a family member.  We’re fortunate. We have adequate income, and the job seems secure.  The mortgage is at a fixed rate.  The cars are paid for, and we no longer have college costs to cover, although there is still an outstanding loan balance.  But the demands on food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens is growing. 

There are many other worthy causes.  One came to my attention just today.  It’s a new political action committee in Alaska called Alaskans for Truth.  I invite you to visit their website and to consider joining with these good folks as they work to continue to take back the Alaskan political process.  Drop by Mudflats for more information and a link to their site.

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Organic diversity

Remember way back in 1992 when Bill Clinton was selecting his cabinet? He announced that his cabinet would reflect America with a mix of men, women, straights, gays, members of various ethnic groups.  So, as his selections were announced, you had the sense that he was checking off the diversity boxes.  Oh, good, here’s a Jewish woman — two for one. 

The primary requirements for Barack Obama’s cabinet apparently are intelligence and competence.  The diversity is happening, seemingly without conscious effort.  The conversations about his selections address issues other than quotas.  Another example of “no drama Obama?” Or could it be that at last most Americans recognize that intelligence and competence are not confined to old white men? 

I’m reminded of the ways in which our surroundings affect us in subtle ways, often below our conscious thought.  A number of years ago, my ex and I were in his hometown for a family gathering.  A member of his extended family remarked about how the town was changing, not for the better as he saw it.  The minorities were moving out of the part of town where they’d previously been concentrated.  We’d driven down the main street but not noticed anything remarkable prior to that comment.  But then, we realized that it was because the population mixture was very similar to what we were used to in our home town.  The people were just people whose skin tones happened to be darker than our own.  

I wonder if President-Elect Obama’s “post-racial” approach to people is in part due to his own upbringing in a racially and culturally diverse place.  And I wonder if the relatively homogeneous nature of much of rural America partly explains the attitudes of Sarah Palin’s “real America.”  When gender, skin color and sexual orientation become secondary aspects in viewing people, we’re more aware of the other qualities and abilities they possess.

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We seem to be drifting to January 20, 2009, on a rudderless ship of state.  Half of the money in the $700 billion bailout of the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) sector has been spent.  Rather than using the funds to buy up “toxic loans” as originally advertised, they’re being used to buy into the banks themselves, apparently with few requirements on how the capital infusion is to be used.  The credit market is still frozen.  The stock market has dropped another 4000 points.  Consumer confidence continues to drop, and that’s reflected in consumer spending.  The credit freeze isn’t just affecting consumers.  Businesses continue to lay off employees.  And so, the spiral continues.  Earlier this week, Hank Paulson allowed as how the current administration has decided to punt.  I can only presume that they’re fresh out of ideas.

Meanwhile, the CEO’s of Detroit’s Big 3 jumped on their private corporate jets and headed to Washington to plead for $25 billion to bail them out.  Instead of using the funds that were designed to promote innovation, they want it just to stay afloat.  Now, compared to the $700 billion, $25 billion is pretty small change, especially considering that 3 million more jobs may be at stake when you consider not just the Big 3, but their suppliers, and the dealerships with their service operations.  The CEOs didn’t seem to consider that pleading poverty while enjoying the perks of a cushy corporate jet might not sit real well with members of Congress when so many of their constituents are worried about losing their homes and their jobs. 

I have little sympathy for the Big 3.  Many of their current problems are self-inflicted.  They’ve spent billions over the years resisting any and all efforts to prod them into innovating — from rear view mirrors, to seat belts, to catalytic converters, to improved fuel efficiency.  Instead of spending that money on lobbyists and lawyers, by embracing innovation they could have remained competitive, even with the costs associated with health care and retirement benefits.  And by recognizing that workers on the factory floor can actually have some good ideas about how to improve manufacturing processes instead of seeing only conflict and confrontation between union and management, labor relations might have been less contentious.  Sure, unions have a vested interest in maintaining a confrontational position, but would the unions have been able to maintain their hold had management taken a different tack?  How is it that the Japanese model seems to benefit both workers and management?

So what are we to do? Just let them go under?  I can’t help but wonder if the thought that a Big 3 bailout would be helping preserve largely blue-collar jobs (and unions) is contributing to Congress’ initial reluctance.  But neither am I in favor of another “no strings attached” handout.  Here’s my proposal: A loan rather than a bail out, and a loan with significant conditions.

  • Dump the current executive level employees and the boards of directors
  • Replace them with people who are proven innovators.  Tom Friedman suggested bringing in Steve Jobs and predicted the roll-out of the first iCar within a year.
  • Limit compensation to $400K. After all, that’s what the President of the US makes, and his job has a lot more responsibility associated with it than CEO of a corporation, even a major one.
  • Tie increases in compensation to changes that restore long-term financial health of the company
  • Sell off or cancel leases on ALL corporate aircraft and other executive perks until the health of the industry is restored
  • Require innovation that leads to more fuel efficient and safer vehicles.
  • Use advertising dollars to make smaller, more-efficient vehicles cool
  • Import the fuel-efficient models they sell to the European market while retooling US plants to make them here. 

There’s a start.   If the Big 3 wants to take advantage of taxpayer money, there ought to be some conditions.  If they don’t want the conditions, then perhaps they deserve to fail.  I imagine that the foreign auto manufacturers wouldn’t take long to ramp up their operations here.  One can’t help but wonder how much of Sen. Richard Shelby’s reluctance is influenced by those same foreign companies’ presence in his state.

Congress, to its credit, is taking concrete steps to try to change the attitude in Washington towards the auto industry.  First, Speaker Pelosi wants Detroit to back up the request for money with a written plan detailing how it would be used.  Second, Henry Waxman will replace John Dingell as Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  It’s unlikely that Waxman will be as accommodating to Detroit’s unwillingness to change its ways.  Additionally, the fact that several key rust belt Senators will be up for re-election in 2010 may prod them into being receptive.

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Those of us who live in the West have been feeling the effects of a lengthy drought.  And if the experts are right, it’s going to be a very long one indeed.  The balance between El Nino and La Nina winters has changed significantly, and our dry years are getting drier.  While weather patterns and even climate patterns can be cyclical, there is ample evidence that we humans aren’t helping the situation.

Our wildfire season is starting earlier and lasting longer.  Forests from California to Colorado and New Mexico (and perhaps beyond) have been hit hard by a bark beetle infestation.  These little critters attack trees that are stressed due to lack of water, and the kill percentage of the evergreens is well over 50% in many areas.  That makes the inevitable fires burn hotter, which, in turn, sterilizes the soil so that the forests take far longer to recover.

The water level in Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, is dropping precipitously.  And similar things are happening in lakes and reservoirs in other parts of the country. 

Our current “minimal water use” situation is due to a maintanance and improvement process going on with our local water company.  But it just makes sense for all of us living in the West to use water wisely.  Our building codes reflect some of the lessons learned from our drought during the 70s… low flow toilets and shower heads and faucets are mandatory, and flow restrictors can be purchased to convert faucets and showers.  If you don’t have low-flow toilets, you can wrap a brick in plastic and put it in the toilet tank to displace some of the water.  These efforts result in our using less water without having to think.

But each of us can also be part of the solution through conscious personal choices.  I keep track of our utility usage, not by cost, but by the quantity used.  And since the billing cycles vary some in the number of days, I track daily averages.  It’s quick and easy because our bills provide comparisons from previous years and/or previous months.  I go one step further and keep the data on a spreadsheet, updating it when I pay the bill.  I suppose the next step will be to monitor usage against temperature averages for the month so I know how much of the variation from year to year is due to weather and how much is due to our conscious efforts to use less.  Weather.com tracks daily and monthly highs, lows, and precipitation as well as monthly averages for many major cities.  

But beyond these things, there are a myriad of minor habit changes that will help.  Do you leave the water on while you brush your teeth?  Do you capture the water that runs while you’re waiting for it to get hot and then use it to water potted plants indoors or out?  Do you run the dishwasher when it isn’t full? Do you let the water run while you’re cleaning veggies? Or do you use some of that captured water or at least turn it off unless you’re actually rinsing stuff? 

My washer has the option of a single or second rinse.  While I really prefer a second rinse, it’s not necessary, except perhaps occasionally.  And I wait until I can run a full load or at least use a lower water setting since I still have the old-fashioned top loader style.

There was a recent spate of letters from local citizens in our paper up in arms at the idea of something called “toilet to tap” in which water coming out of the sewage treatment plant is re-used.  Since we get some of our water from the California Aquaduct, I couldn’t help but wonder what these folks thought happens to all that upstream treated water….  The City of Irvine, CA, has been using gray water for irrigating parks, greenbelts and golf courses for 30 years.  And I read just last week that the International Space Station will be processing astronauts’ urine into clean water for drinking.  Talk about a test case!  As fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, we may decide that toilet to tap is a far cry better than going thirsty.  As long as the water can be demonstrated safe, why not.  In fact, it’ll probably be cleaner than a lot of what we’re drinking now.

I’m a westerner through and through.  I don’t do humidity well, and I’ve lived in the desert long enough that anything even approaching 40% in the summer feels really sticky.  So water conservation will continue to be a fact of life.  Things I want in my next house to help save water:

  • dual flush toilets (half-flush and full-flush options) at least in the master bath
  • some sort of instant hot water system
  • one of those fancy low-water use wash machines
  • smart landscaping that uses mostly native or low-water use vegetation so we can use the water more for growing veggies and herbs

Since I’m always on the lookout for more ways to save water, suggestions are welcome.  I’m fine with really short showers, but I can’t get into Navy ones where you wet down, turn off the water, soap up, then turn it back on long enough to rinse off.  I do still want a few pleasures, one of which is the feel of hot water running down my back.

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Wow, what a weekend for those of us who live in Southern California.  We’re used to those times where we lose our sea breeze and the wind comes from the desert instead.  And since they come at the end of our dry season, we all hold our collective breath.  It started on Thursday night and as the high pressure area moved east, the devil winds moved as well — from Montecito on Thursday night to the Sayre fire on Friday night to Orange County and the Triangle Complex fire on Saturday.  Finally, things are beginning to look more hopeful.  The winds are beginning to die down, and over the coming days the temps will return to normal and as the prevailing wind returns, the humidity levels will rise.

The fire fighters must be absolutely exhausted.  They’ve been going non-stop for three days and still have a lot of work to do.  Both major fires are less than 50% contained.  For those who don’t live in fire country, that means that they’ve gotten “lines” — fire breaks, essentially — less than half way around the fires.  We’ve been in a drought for several years, so fire season is beginning earlier and lasting longer than usual.  The Sayre fire, with the devastation to a community of over 600 modular homes alone, has brought more destruction in L.A. County than any fire in 40 years. 

The irony is that just Thursday, we had a major drill to prepare us for the proverbial “Big One” earthquake.  Earthquakes, fires, mudslides… those are the natural disasters we face living here.  The fires have a hypnotic beauty — as long as they’re not coming your way.  Mudslides are the inevitable aftermath once the rains come when hillsides are bare.  Earthquakes — well, fortunately most of them are minor.  And most of them are over by the time you figure out what’s happening.

Besides watching the fire coverage on the news and praying for those people who were caught up in the evacuations, we spent the weekend catching up on all those tasks that got put aside in the last couple of months before the election — things like vacuuming, washing floors, and dusting.

Today we began a week of “minimal water use.”  Our local water district is doing some maintenance, so they’ve asked us to use minimal water this week.  Guess it’s back to the “if it’s yellow” mentality.  There’s a certain yuck factor, but it does save water — an amazing amount.  We had a similar cut-back earlier this year, and I was stunned at how little water we used — just by being conscious every time we turned on the tap. Living in California during the drought of the 70s, we’ve been careful to  do the little things — run the dishwasher or clothes washer only when full, turn off the tap while brushing your teeth.  Little things that collectively add up to a lot of water saved.  But this week I won’t do any laundry (got it all caught up on Saturday), the sprinklers are turned off for the week, and we’ll capture shower water while waiting for it to get hot and use that to flush the toilet.  Who knew that toilets flush by gravity?!  Last time we all put bricks in our toilet tanks.  Now we have low flow shower heads and low flow toilets.

I did take time out, after repotting a ficus that had outgrown its pot, to watch 60 Minutes and Steve Croft’s interview with Barack and Michelle Obama.  Every time I hear him, I’m more encouraged that we’ve made the right choice.  He’s so RATIONAL — what a pleasant change!!!  I hadn’t realized how tired I was of GWB’s gut-level responses.  Obama exudes confidence — not the kind of confidence that comes with a swagger, but the kind that communicates calm.  We’ll try things.  If something doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.  YES!  So much better than just “staying the course” because you don’t have a better idea or because it’s not consistent with some sort of ideological perspective that blinds you to reality!

Hopefully next week I’ll be able to finish the next post in the Middle East Tutorial.  (I’m seriously wishing I hadn’t given away all my Middle East history texts, but somehow just carting them around for 20 years didn’t work either.  And there’s something about being an example to my other half, whose book collection goes much further back than mine…)

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New page series

I mentioned in my “About” post that I have done graduate work in Middle East studies, and Left-Eyed Jack commented that he hoped I would share some of my understanding.  So, I’ll be doing a series, as linked pages rather than individual posts.  Look for the tab marked Middle East Tutorial.  Part 1 is up with more to come over the next days and weeks.  I decided that keeping them as pages would make them easier to find…  But just as with the posts, I welcome your input into the discussion.

UPDATE: Part 2 is up.  Look for the “hot” link at the bottom of part 1, just above the comments.

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