Friday, March 31, 2006

Parsimonious Illegitimates

Howard Stern usually has ants in his pants, but this week he has a bee in his bonnet. He's vexed at those among his faithful listeners who weren't faithful enough to make the switch to satellite radio when he did, and correctly surmises that their fickleness might have something to do with satellite's monthly subscription fee.

"It's insulting to me that everyone hasn't come with me. I take it personally," the jilted Stern whines with a whine, adding "I want to say to my audience...You haven't come with me yet? How dare you? We're up to wild, crazy stuff, the show has never sounded better. You cheap bastard(s)!"

It's a sign of the times, Howard, and a sign of the Times (New York and L.A.) as well. Editors at the country's most prestigious newspapers have been moaning and groaning for some time about falling circulation, and a couple of pundits have even suggested that print news organs are the dinosaurs of the cyber age, and that we're witnessing the first stages of the final die-off.

Yet if you walk into any urban coffee shop on any weekday morning, half the people there have their noses buried in the paper. And newspapers are still very profitable according to the latest reports from people who keep track of such things. In fact, compared to other industries, publishing is a better investment bet than most.

So why the gloom and doom? And what did Howard Stern think was going to happen when he transferred the dubious blessing of his illustrious presence to a pay service?

Enter the San Francisco Examiner, sneeringly referred to by some as the ex-newspaper. But even snobs and doubters will figure out eventually that it's the newspaper of the future.

The Ex is a tabloid for starters, and I'm surprised that everyone hasn't gone to that smaller, easier-to-manipulate size. It has no front page stories per se, just big headlines, photos, and teasers for the stuff inside. The staff is small, there are no regular daily columnists or "stars," it's heavy on wire-service copy, it publishes six days a week, omitting the Sunday log, and most importantly, it's free. All its revenue comes from advertising.

Free radio, of course, has been around forever, and the fact that it's full of obnoxious ads doesn't seem to deter listeners from preferring it to pay services.

News and commentary are everywhere nowadays, on T.V., on the net, on radio, and this constant barrage of information, yakking, and analysis is not only ubiquitous but mostly free. Howard Stern and the editors of our most prestigious papers need to go back to square one and learn the most fundamental lesson of all: people don't pay -- not even a pittance -- for something they can get for free.

Howard Stern will survive, but with a diminished, more hard-core listenership. The New York and LA Times (Timeses?) will survive too, but in a few years they'll look more like the SF Ex and probably be giveaways.

See, I'm a cheap bastard too. And yes, the Chron is a better paper than the Ex in a number of ways, but I don't want to buy it. I can read it on line if I need to, or pick up a used (free) copy when I'm having my wake-up jolt at the Cole Valley Cafe.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Busted Pump

The most under-reported story of late March was the run-up of crude oil and gasoline prices due to supply disruptions in Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico, with further threats to the world supply emanating from Iran and Venezuela.

Because the price of fuel affects the price of everything else, crude's quick runup toward $70 a barrel is an unwelcome jolt to an American economy already worried about inflation. Oil closed slightly above $67 a barrel on March 30.

American companies' production in the Gulf of Mexico is still 343 thousand barrels a day below normal because of damage to drilling and refining facilities caused by last summer's Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. That's 23 percent below normal.

In Nigeria, various rebel organizations have vowed to cut that country's oil exports in half. It's difficult to tell whether these shadowy armies are political organizations or merely groups of bandits motivated by the expectation of ransom money, or possibly a combination of both, but they have certainly made good on their threat. Royal Dutch Shell has suspended activity at half its production sites in the country, causing a loss to world markets of over half a million barrels daily. The company says it will not resume production at the affected facilities until it can guarantee workers' safety.

A potentially even more serious threat to world oil supplies is the possibility of an embargo or production interruptions which might be caused by war in Iran, which is second among OPEC oil exporters only to Saudi Arabia. On March 30, all five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany strongly urged the Iranians to halt their uranium enrichment program, but Iranian government spokesmen in Tehran rejected the plea. The Bush administration has said it will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran.

The most recent development portending potentially serious oil supply problems is a dispute which culminated with the government of Venezuela ordering Exxon-Mobil, which holds long-term leases there, to vacate the country.

The company did not respond directly to the Venezuelan government or its president, Hugo Chavez, but in an e-mail to the Associated Press said "ExxonMobil de Venezuela continues to have a long-term perspective of its activities in Venezuela," which is corporatespeak for "We're not leaving."

The stand-off is the result of Chavez's clashes with corporate leaseholders during the past few months as he has moved to "re-nationalize" Venezuela's oil production by bringing in government-controlled oil companies from friendly countries to replace the multinational corporate leaseholders working there now, whom he accuses of looting Venezuela's oil wealth over the years.

Since Chavez took office in 1999 he has moved relentlessly to limit the role of the multinationals in the Venezuelan oil industry. He has overseen legislation requiring a majority government interest in all production, raised taxes, and demanded higher royalties on every gallon of crude that's pumped by foreign oil companies. He has also collected millions of dollars in what he claims are back taxes owed to Venezuela.

On March 30 the Venezuelan Congress approved new measures which will turn 32 privately run oil fields over to state-controlled joint ventures.

Among the terms faced by companies like Royal Dutch Shell PLC, France's Total SA, and Exxon-Mobil are a minimum 60 percent stake for the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) in each field, Venezuelan control of the boards of these joint ventures, an increase in income tax from 34 percent to 50 percent, and an increase in royalties from 16.6 percent of product value to 33.3 percent.

Exxon-Mobil was the only company to outright reject Venezuela's new rules and regulations, and signaled its displeasure in December by selling one of its largest fields in the country, Quiamare-La Ceiba, to its joint venture partner, the Spanish-Argentine company Repsol YPF.

The American corporation's belligerent refusal to comply with Chavez's government has now resulted in its expulsion from the country, but it's an expulsion Exxon-Mobil has thus far refused to acknowledge.

Some observers worry that continuing friction between Chavez and the U.S. might result in a Venezuelan embargo against U.S. markets. The country is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, and would probably not have too much trouble finding other customers.

The United States consumes slightly more than 20 million barrels of oil a day, of which six million barrels is supplied by domestic production. The rest is imported.

The Jeremiah-like commentator James Howard Kunstler has surmised for the past several years that any kind of disruption in the U.S. oil supply, especially one involving multiple breakdowns in the supply mechanisms of several different sources simultaneously, would spell economic and social catastrophe for the United States. He explores this subject in some detail in his book, "The Long Emergency."

The world now appears to be in danger of potentially playing out Kunstler's darkest predictions.

Jill Carroll

Jill Carroll's captors in Iraq let her go this morning. She was unharmed and said that except for being locked up, she was treated well -- not beaten, not raped, not tortured.

Her experience contrasts starkly with our government's treatment of the illegally-held and illegally tortured kidnap victims in Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram AFB, Afghanistan, some of whom may be genuine terror suspects, but many of whom are guilty of nothing more than being disliked by their local police.

It will be interesting to see if Carroll's release and her testimony that she was treated humanely gets any kind of comment at all from the crusaders at the chauvinist, xenophobic, and virulently anti-Muslim site, Little Green Boogers.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Howard Kaloogian, a Republican candidate in the Southern California CA-50 specical election (Randy "Duke" Cunningham's old seat) posted a picture of downtown Baghdad on his website. It showed happy pedestrians calmly walking about on a busy commercial street.

Kaloogian wanted to show how badly the mainstream press is misrepresenting all the "good news" in Iraq with their alarmist and negative daily accounts of constant violence and mayhem.

The problem is it's not a picture of Baghdad at all. It was taken in Istanbul, Turkey.

Is there anything these creeps won't lie about?

Update: No, that's not it either.

Jesus's General kindly sent this picture of "Baghdad" to Assemblyman Kaloogian.

Unfortunately for the General, that's as wrong as Kaloogian's shot of Baghdadinople. First of all, it's Bagdad, CA, not Baghdad. Secondly, I've been there, and there's nothing at the site of the former town except a tree, some broken glass, and the stumps of a few buldings, with old Route 66 running through it.

The General's pic looks like the main street of 29 Palms or Joshua Tree.

Bagdad lives on though, in the great movie "Bagdad Cafe."


Our military establishment's main objective for the last 56 years has been to appropriate between $300 and $400 billion annually (in 2002 dollars) from the national treasury. They take what they can out of our pockets, and put the rest on our nation's credit card.

Needless to say, it's not always easy to spend all that money. Sometimes the brass hats and their civilian overlords have to find novel and creative ways to squander the fruit of our ill-advised largesse. Consider the missile defense shield, which at this point consists of defensive missiles that can't hit anything and, in some cases, can't even get out of their silos.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the military is using shrinks at Guantanamo to think up and implement new and original ways to torture people, as is detailed in this story by William Fisher. Groups known as BISCUITS (Behavioral Science Consulatation Teams) are on staff at Gitmo, according to former torture masters at the facility, "to advise the military on ways of increasing psychological duress on detainees, sometimes using their medical records to find ways of exploiting their fears and phobias, to make them more cooperative and willing to provide information."

For example, if an "illegal combatant" is known to be afraid of the dark, he can be locked away in solitary total darkness for a few days to encourage him to tell what he knows (or make up shit he doesn't know, as the case may be). If a guy's medical history indicates a phobia concerning dogs...well, you get the idea.

This approach is identical to that used by Big Brother's sadistic pain engineers in "1984," where they used "Room 101" to finally and invariably get "thought criminals" to confess.

What was in Room 101? It varied from person to person, but it was always that thing you were most afraid of.

So why am I not surprised? The fact is, here in the Empire of Pentagonia (formerly U.S.A.) nothing is surprising. Pentagonia, 'Tis for Thee.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Pentagonia 'Tis for Thee

Such a pity that the late, great American Republic should be buried without at least the formality of a funeral. It was unceremoniously covered with loose dirt as it lay in a shallow hole last week, partly by the Little Emperor’s announcement that we are in Iraq to stay, at least as long as he’s in office, and also by the earlier “signing statement” he appended to the new version of the “Patriot” Act, a stern warning to Congress that it could bugger off if it seriously thought it might impose any conditions on its implementation, or on the sacrosanct person of the Commander-in-Chief. Executive usurpation of the legislative function is part of the New World Order, and only those of us unreasonably and sentimentally attached to the Constitution of our departed republic object to it.

But if there was no memorial service, there is at least a beautifully done post-mortem in Chalmers Johnson’s “The Sorrows of Empire,” subtitled “Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic.” This book is above all a history lesson, and anybody who thinks that the military dictatorship under which we find ourselves suddenly embarked was an overnight development, or that George Bush, Jr. was born out of Ronald Reagan’s thigh, needs to read it. The Empire of – what should we call it? Pentagonia? – has been a long time coming, was born decades ago, and matured under our noses as we slept and dreamed of democracy and our humanitarian ideals.

Johnson’s thesis centers on 9/11 as a turning point because that catastrophe and the Iraq War which followed caused “a growing number (of Americans to) finally (begin) to grasp what most non-Americans already knew and had experienced over the previous half century – namely, that the United States was something other than what it professed to be, that it was, in fact, a military juggernaut intent on world domination.” (p. 4)

While he devotes one chapter to exploring the roots of militarism and the American Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of Johnson’s 300-plus page book is a detailed examination of the changes in our government and foreign policy that began with the advent of the cold war and have now culminated in our quest for global hegemony. He concentrates on recounting details of the $300- to $400-billion annual military expenditures (in 2002 dollars) that have dominated our annual budgets since 1950, the growth of our empire of military bases which now span every continent except Antarctica, and the detailed history of every intervention our military has undertaken since the end of World War II. The work is overwhelmingly factual rather than rhetorical, and draws on literally thousands of carefully footnoted sources.

Two themes run through this harsh and depressing history. One is the gradual erosion of Congressional power and influence and the corresponding usurpation of what were formerly legislative functions – deciding whether to go to war, for example – by the executive. The other is the necessary theme of habitual military and security apparatus secrecy, which enabled the embryonic corporo-military dictatorship to maintain a façade of normalcy as it consolidated its grip on the governmental and appropriations processes.

As I read through the details of the money spent, of the metastasizing chain of super-bases, many of them miniature American cities, all around the world, of the excuses and public relations campaigns the Pentagon and its executive department spokesmen mounted to cover our naked aggression against helpless countries like Nicaragua, I became angry not only at what had been and was being done in our name, but at my own ignorance. Why, for example, had I never heard of the immense American installation in Kosovo called Camp Bondsteel? Why had I not known that we were in the former Yugoslavia to stay, and that our permanent presence there was obviously part of our Middle Eastern master plan? Apparently secrecy in a media-intensive world needs consist of nothing more than prudently abstaining from publicity.

Where is all this leading? Johnson’s conclusion leaves no room for optimism. “From the moment we took on a role that included the permanent military domination of the world,” he concludes, “we were on our own – feared, hated, corrupt and corrupting, maintaining ‘order’ through state terrorism and bribery, and given to megalomaniac rhetoric and sophistries that virtually invited the rest of the world to unite against us.” (p. 284) He sees nothing ahead for us except perpetual war, the erosion of democracy, truthfulness and candor supplanted by propaganda and the glorification of war, and bankruptcy.

Is there any hope we might avoid such a fate? “There is one development,” Johnson says in his final paragraph, “that could conceivably stop this process of overreaching: the people could retake control of Congress, reform it along with the corrupted elections laws that have made it into a forum for special interests, turn it into a genuine assembly of democratic representatives, and cut off the supply of money to the Pentagon and the secret intelligence agencies.” However, he admits the prospects for such a turn of events are dim, and that “Failing such a reform, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.”

The title of Chalmers Johnson’s next book, of course, is “Nemesis.”

Despite the complexity of the subject, “The Sorrows of Empire” is an easy read. Johnson is a university professor, but his unvarnished and straight-ahead style is free of academic and technical jargon. Anyone, even someone with little knowledge of history, can read and understand “Sorrows.” It was published in 2004, is possibly the most important book of the last ten years, and certainly one of the most important of the last half century.

It's Good to be the King

Susan G. over at DailyKos is reporting that the Little Emperor finds Ibrahim al-Jaafari unacceptable as Prime Minister of Iraq.

Our ambassador there, Mr.Khalilzad, has announced to reporters that President Bush "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" Jaafari as head of the Iraqi government.

So much for democracy.

Jaafari is a Shia and an important figure in the Daawa Party, which led the revolt against Sadam following the first Iraq War. The revolt was crushed and Jaafari went into exile along with other Daawa leaders.

He's not a hardliner, and says he wants to bring Sunnis into active participation in the government. But I guess that's not good enough.

Elections notwithstanding, Bush has indicated he wants to get himself another boy.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Free Tinkerbell

Bad blogs are the proverbial dime a dozen, and it's a little too easy to dial a few up at random and waste time in that silliest of exercises, feeling smug and superior to ignorant and bigoted maroons. I suppose we all do it, even though it's a singularly unattractive practice, and sort of the intellectual equivalent of beating up the village idiot.

That said, I still check in with Kaye Grogan from time to time because I enjoy adventures in syntax, and have to get my weekly dose of subjectless sentences wherever I can since I quit teaching school. Commenting on Senator Clinton's purported emotional instability in her latest offering, Grogan remarks, "To me being unstable is certainly not what I would call a viable candidate for the highest office in the country."

I'll go along with that. But then, I didn't realize Being Unstable was running.

However, bad blogs are pedestrian and ubiquitous, like coupons for Cocoa Puffs. What's more interesting are inexplicable, mysterious, and inscrutable blogs, the kind whose purpose and intent are completely indecipherable.

For example, the blogger known only as Taylor asks, "What else accomplish you need to grasp regarding maytag is the name everybody knows? The latest report is total here maytag is the name everybody knows. Be in the grasp regarding maytag is the name everybody knows."

"Maytag" may be "the name everybody knows," but why post it on a blog, especially with a link that goes nowhere? Why would I want to know that "Everything Great Starts Here with a career at Taco Bell"? And why would anyone post a comprehensive catalog of stories relating the gruesome details of spousal murders?

Perhaps you can help me answer these questions if you check out Free tinker bell collection for yourself.

The blogosphere is full of these kinds of sites, although kitsch is much more common. See for yourself. Just click on the button in the upper right hand corner of this space that says "Next Blog."

What do you think you'll get? I'll predict you'll get a page by somebody named Doreen, with lots of clip art snippets of pink angels with stubby wings, hearts that say "I Love You," rainbows, multi-colored peace signs, and pudgy lavender unicorns with long eyelashes, and it will be entitled, "My Flufy Kittys" and will have half a dozen or so out-of-focus pictures.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

L'Affaire Domenech

During the third week of March, blogs of all political stripes were consumed with the flap created by the Washington Post’s hiring of right-wing blogger Ben Domenech, who resigned his new position after a three-day tenure during which he was exposed as a clumsy and obvious plagiarist.

A founder of the blog, Domenech, 24, has no conventional journalistic experience and is not a college graduate. He was hired by Post's editor Jim Brady not as a print journalist, but to write a daily column for the paper’s online operation,

Brady’s announcement that he had hired Domenech, and the reasons he gave drew intense and immediate reaction from left-leaning bloggers. Why, they asked, had Brady chosen to specifically seek out and hire a right-wing commentator? Led by the front-page writers at, several bloggers speculated that Domenech’s hiring was motivated by a desire to placate right-wing critics upset with regular Post print columnist Dan Froomkin's frequent criticism of the Bush administration, which Brady denied.

Other bloggers asked why Brady, after supposedly searching for a qualified candidate to add “balance” to the Post’s site, chose one whose qualifications were at the very least questionable. The American Prospect’s Greg Sargent, writing on the magazine’s blogsite ( commented that “(T)he thing that probably matters most to the folks who run the Post is that they're seen in the end as professionals. The widespread attention being given to the hiring of a political operative type like Ben simply doesn't reflect well on the institution insofar as it's one of the leading practitioners of journalism.”

The most perceptive analysis of the Domenech controversy was provided by Josh Marshall at his Talking Points Memo (, who accurately surmised that Brady was simply caving in to the constant attacks on the Post from the “liberal media bias” crowd, and contended that “The Washington Post, or rather its online incarnation, has managed to capture the essence of the silliness of the ‘media bias’ debate in one easily digestible set-piece of its own making.

“(T)o balance Froomkin,” Marshall continued, “the Post goes out and gets a high octane Republican political activist who hits the round running with a tirade of Red State America revanchism and even journalism itself.

“Managing perceptions is the death of good journalism, especially manufactured perceptions,” Marshall concludes, “and even more those manufactured for the easily cowed.

“I’m embarrassed for the Post. Embarrassed by the Post.”

It wasn’t long before the Post had ample reason to be embarrassed for itself. Domenech’s first piece for the WaPo blog ran on March 21st. Two days later and Atrios’s Eschaton blog ( revealed Domenech as a habitual plagiarist, posting links to movie reviews he wrote for the student newspaper at William and Mary College, along with parallel sources which showed he had lifted them almost verbatim from and a Usenet reviewer, Steve Rhodes.

Other bloggers quickly jumped in to expose more of Domenech’s thefts of others’ work, and found that he had appropriated a chapter from the 1990 book “Modern Manners” by the humorist P.J. O’Rourke and ran it as an editorial in the same college paper that published his bogus reviews. By March 24th he had resigned, and his career as a Washington Post blogger was ended.

By March 25th even conservative bloggers like Michelle Malkin ( admitted that Domenech had no business writing under the masthead of a major newspaper, and that he deserved the obscurity toward which he is rapidly bound.

All this raises the question of whether the Domenich affair is worth all the ink and heat it generated. It’s reasonable to ask whether bloggers don’t have more important things to concern themselves with than the WaPo’s hiring of a puerile, inexperienced winger. But careful reflection and Josh Marshall’s words above lead to the inescapable conclusion that media intimidation and manipulation is vitally important, and that when a major news organ caves in to right-wing pressure, we lose another fragment of democracy.

James Madison contended in The Federalist Papers that the most important democratic right, and the one that determines all the others, is the right to information. If we can’t openly exercise this right, without manipulation, free of any sort of political orthodoxy, our other rights don't matter because they will soon cease to exist.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Paradise Lost

Everyone has heard the story from India of the six blind men and the elephant. Asked to study and describe it, one grabbed the trunk and said the elephant was like a snake; another laid hold of a foot and said it was like a tree, etc.

The crisis, or rather constellation of crises America now finds itself facing is like that: bigger than anything that's ever walked the earth, and so multi-faceted and complex that it can't be described in a single sentence. People who write about it generally limit themselves to only one facet of it, which is probably best since every aspect of our unfolding disaster deserves its own detailed analysis.

However on close consideration, I find there are two aspects, or rather two clusters of aspects of the crisis which are the most important, because they have a direct impact on America's prospects for continuing to function as a society, as an economic entity, and as a government. The first has to do with fossil fuels consumption, consumption in general, and environmental degradation. The second is the victory of militarism and establishment of military dictatorship as our form of government,the death of the American republic, and the fascist state's appropriation of all of American society's surplus wealth, both present and future.

The first constellation of topics is dealt with by James Howard Kunstler in his book "The Long Emergency," and also covered piecemeal on a weekly basis on his blog, Clusterfuck Nation (see right sidebar). Kunstler's emphasis on the consequences of rising petroleum prices and the carcinogenic proliferation of urban/suburban sprawl doesn't leave much room for analysis of the consequences of global warming, although he does devote a chapter to it in his book. The ambitious and well-informed reader will want to consult other sources to stay up to date on that aspect of the crisis.

The other topic head -- the disaster of triumphant militarism and its destruction of the Constitution, the American government, and the American economy, is comprehensively and masterfully exposed in "The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic" by Chalmers Johnson, a foreign policy academic, U.C. San Diego professor, and a former CIA consultant. This is the essential book for anyone who wants to know how close to utter self-destruction we now are, or how pathetically unequipped to impede the war machine's drunken careening toward the precipice.

Published in 2004, "Sorrows" is the most important book of the last decade, and possibly the most important of the last 50 years. Fortunately, Johnson is an outstanding writer as well as a tireless researcher, with a plain, down-to-earth style free of academic jargon, and a talent for organization that enables him to cast a bright light on all the dank and secret corners of the military-industrial complex's (the same one Eisenhower warned us about) subversion of the three-branch system of government, creating an executive dictatorship in its stead, and its theft of virtually all the excess wealth this country has produced since the end of World War II, a fortune so immense that the pharaohs and emperors of ancient times could never have dreamt of it.

Johnson unfortunately has no solutions, easy or otherwise, for this long-running disaster, which we are so late in acknowledging and so inadequately equipped to deal with. Without saying so directly, he serves notice that anyone hoping the Democratic Party might be able to ameliorate this mess is leaning on a broken stick. He cites a $30-billion, ten-year boondoggle involving the conversion of Boeing 767's to aerial tankers which would be used for refueling combat aircraft in flight, which wasn't even on the list of the Air Force's top 60 priorities. Who led the charge for this white elephant of a project? None other than those two left-wing, liberal Democratic senators from Washington state, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. In this case they lined up so perfectly with the m.o. of the Republican majority that House Speaker Dennis Hastert showed his approval of their bill by tacking on funds to lease four new 737's exclusively for congressional junkets and vacations.

"Such obvious indifference to how taxpayers' monies are spent," Johnson comments, "bordering on corruption, no longer attracts notice. It has become a standard feature..."

Other standard features Chalmers Johnson explores are the proliferation of military bases and secret torture facilities worldwide, the role of the CIA and other intelligence services in the functioning of a secret and largely off-the-books government, the increasing monitoring of "what the people of the world, including our own citizens, are saying, faxing, or e-mailing to one another," and the habit of excessive and probably illegal secrecy generally.

For a short version of the ideas Johnson elaborates in "Sorrows," see Tom Engelhardt's two-part interview with him at the web site "Working for Change," here and here.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Fish Gotta Swim, Birds Gotta Fly

I was asked what's changed in my life since the war started, and how it's affected me personally.

Not much, really. It's just been a pretty clear-cut case of "suspicions confirmed."

I haven't trusted the powers that be since they engineered us into that meatgrinder called Vietnam. And I always figured they'd get us into another one, since very little has changed since then.

Sure, the rich have gotten richer, and the poor, along with the U.S. treasury, have gotten poorer.

But, the only significant ideological change I've seen in the last 40 years is that the corporations, rich individuals, and the so-called conservatives have gotten louder, more aggressive, more abrasive, more obnoxious, more intolerant, stupider, and more dangerous. They're the most dangerous people on earth, and possibly the most dangerous people in history.

They're a danger to themselves too, though, that's the thing about it. They run with scissors and do not play well with others.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Going Public

Today there's going to be an anti-Iraq War protest somewhere near you. Hope for good weather, and let's all be there. If a couple million people turn out nationwide somebody'll have to notice.

Individual voices of the kind we give vent to here on the internet don't amount to much, since we mostly just talk to each other. We'll have to act in unison if we want to send a message.

So let's send one: We're sick to death of these warmongering, torturing, civilian-bombing, lying, money-grubbing, imperialistic, arrogant, aggressive, self-righteous, hairsplitting, wrong-headed bloodsuckers and money-grubbers.

Bring the troops home now, and send George Bush back to Crawford to cut brush and shovel manure in somebody else's direction.

And don't forget: the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and the Evil Empire itself were brought down by relentless, continuous, unyielding mass disobedience.

Guilty Hamburgers

Whenever my daughter leaves here to work in some faraway city or foreign land, I throw the vegetarian diet out the window for a day or two. It's hamburger time.

I have no desire for big rare steaks, pork chops, beef tongues, chitterlings, linguisa, keilbasa, or any of that other stuff. A modest beef patty on a standard-issue white bun with a little mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato -- there's nothing better in the world.

To be completely honest, we're not really all that vegetarian around here. The kid will eat a piece of fish occasionally, and even likes a little chicken soup now and then, provided I can guarantee her that the chicken led a satisfying life during which it was encouraged to realize its full potential by being allowed to run about on the ground and scratch for little scintillas of food, rather than being imprisoned, its spirit broken, in one of those wire cages.

Mostly though, it's tomatoey stuff on pasta and beany stuff mixed with rice. There are lots of avocados and bananas, everything seems to have lemon in or on it, and there's more cheese than is probably good for us. Meatless Mexican-style food is the default setting, bread and hummus the emergency ration.

Therefore, it's with no small amount of relish (figuratively, not literally) that I devour two fresh hamburgers accompanied by Bush's baked beans on those days like today when Rachel flies off to Toronto or Dayton or wherever. I suppose I should feel guilty, but I don't.

Bwah hah hah hah.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Chapter 13

The same night it killed the Dubai Ports deal, the House Appropriations Committee voted a "supplemental" 67-billion-dollar appropriation for continued funding of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

That's a 67 followed by nine zeroes.

The death of the Dubai Ports deal made headlines, but the multi-billion-dollar war appropriation didn't.

Meantime, Mort Zuckerman at U.S. News reports that the Fed's current fiscal obligations, liabilities, and unfunded promises amount to $43 trillion. It's an amount that can never be paid, and almost equal to the total net worth of all American households.

I've seen people act this way in "real life" -- running up credit card and other debts as if there was never going to be a day of reckoning, until the creditors begin to catch wind of what's going on and blow the whistle.

I don't understand this kind of behavior, but that's just me. It seems to operate as some form of hyperextended mega-denial, and even though it's fairly common I put it right next door to the more exotic forms of delusion -- thinking there are little green people under the bed, and that sort of stuff.

The country is headed rapidly toward default. There's simply no way out of it.

But it's hardly being reported, and no one wants to think about the consequences, which will be, to put it mildly, severe.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pogonometry... the art and science of sculpting facial hair, or so I've been told. I'll have to accept my informant's assurances about it since I can’t find that word in any dictionary.

What beard and moustache sculpting had to do with the "Pogonometric Revue," which featured three bands, a belly dance company, and an acrobat, at the Cell Space in San Francisco's warehouse district on March 12, I have no idea. Kit, the guitarist-vocalist for the Inkwell Rhythm Makers does have two long tendrils descending from his beard (they look sort of like a squid's tentacles), but I doubt they were the inspiration for the revue's obscure name.

The Inkwells -- guitar, gutbucket and washboard -- were up first, and set the tone for an evening of unorthodox and truly alternative entertainment. IRM plays an old-timey, ragtime 'n' blues sound -- what you might call jug band music without the jug. They travel and play a lot on the west coast, do street busking in their hometown of Eugene when they're not traveling, and generate tremendous amounts of energy for an acoustic trio, especially one with only a single conventional instrument. Be sure to see them if you have the least appreciation of that kind of music, but avoid them if you loathe it, because they don't play no REO Speedwagon.

The Toids (unfortunate name) came next, a musical act with tremendous music and no act. An odd blend of violin (Lila), accordian (Dan), Arabic tabla (or doumbek) (Tobias), and various stringed instruments (Ryan), there’s no way to categorize this group’s sound. “World music” is a vague and inadequate descriptor; “Arabic-flavored eclectic western fusion” is a little closer but still doesn’t really convey what the Toids do.

All four are world-class musicians, but also world-class music scholars and wonks, so completely concentrated on what they’re doing that they tend to ignore the audience. So the Toids are best consumed when they’re fronted by another act, and that’s where the Indigo belly dance troupe came in.

I don’t want to review the Indigo because I’d be reviewing my daughter, something I don’t like doing. I’ll limit myself to saying that she’s an innovator who uses a traditional form as a point of departure, and has a talent for finding and developing like-minded performers.

After a brief interlude featuring an exciting and highly skilled Cirque-de-Soleil-style acrobatic aerialist, the evening concluded with the Brass Menagerie, an odd collection of ten or so young to middle-aged local horn players and percussionists who have learned, against God knows what odds, to play the melodically bizarre and rhythmically complicated traditional music of the Balkans. Why they’ve taken the trouble to learn this (for most Americans) obscure form is anyone’s guess, but the result is exciting, different from anything you’re likely to hear anywhere else in this country except maybe at an ethnic wedding, and very danceable. We cleared away the folding chairs, the Menagerie set up right on the dance floor rather than the bandstand, and everyone ended the night with some exuberant stomping as the acrid smell of marijuana (it wouldn’t be a San Francisco concert without it) wafted throughout the cold, cavernous, cinder block-and-cement warehouse building.

And yes, a good time was had by all, or to put it a little more succinctly and actively, everybody had a good time.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Funky Town

The odds are that Bush will finish his second term, but it's not a sure bet. In fact, he's probably in more danger than he realizes.

There's an excellent article in the San Francisco Chronicle this morning by the paper's Washington Bureau Chief, Carolyn Lochhead, entitled "GOP is in 'deep funk' over Bush spending." It notes among other things that Bush's support among Republicans slipped by eleven points in March, probably due to the Dubai Ports deal, which galvanized anti-Bush feelings within his own party.

What Repubicans and other conservatives are unhappiest about of course is the spending, especially the prescription drug plan/giveaway to big drug companies, and all the earmarked legislation. It's not politics, but incompetence and to some extent dishonesty that have them upset.

There are some interesting details about earmarks in the article which show that Bush is either not dealing a straight deck or not playing with a full deck. He appears to not know what he's talking about, or if he does, he's lying as usual.

Dissatisfaction with this administration is quickly gathering like a huge black storm cloud. The Democrats are unlikely to take back either house of Congress next year (they'd need to pick up six seats in the Senate and 15 in the House), but even if they don't I think impeachment looms as an outside possibility.

If you like betting against the odds, bet on it.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

No Exit

Of the 450,000 students scheduled to graduate from California high schools this June, about 100,000 have still not passed one or both parts of the state's exit exam. About half of the students for whom English is a second language haven't passed it.

The class of 2006 is the first to face this graduation requirement, which has now generated a students'and parents' lawsuit claiming the exam is discriminatory. Many of the aggrieved students, whose first language is frequently Spanish, have very high grade point averages.

However, this past Wednesday the state Board of Education voted against offering any kind of alternative assessment to compensate for the high failure rate. The Board has already agreed, in the face of earlier spectacularly high rates of failure, to lower the minimum passing scores from 70 percent for both parts of the test to 55 percent for the math portion and 60 percent for the English section, but otherwise remains convinced, in the words of Board member Donald Fisher, that the exam meaures basic English and math skills that all potential high school graduates should possess.

I decided to go on line and see if I could take some sample portions of the test to be able to decide if the complaints were justified. After answering 30 sample questions from one "strand" of the algebra and numeric reasoning portion of the test I found myself right about where I'd been in high school -- at 70 percent accuracy, even with my extremely modest and deficient mathematical skills. I managed to miss all six of the algebraic graphing problems -- something I never learned. So if I was to spend a month or so learning how to chart and read those silly graphs, which few people other than engineers will ever need to manipulate in a real-world working situation, I could probably do quite well.

When I tried to download a section of the sample reading test the enormous number of KB's in the 46-page PDF document swamped my little laptop's central processing unit and froze my machine harder than a hockey rink. Even though I can safely assume I wouldn't have any trouble with the reading and writing parts of this test, there's no doubt that's where the problem lies, especially with writing.

Is it really fair to expect a kid who only began learning to speak, read and write English at age 12 or 14 to write with the same degree of proficiency at age 18 as native-born English speakers?

I think there's a good way to find out. Before demanding that high school students successfully negotiate this exam as a graduation requirement, we should administer it to all the high school teachers in the state and see how they do with it. Then we should give it to a large sample of the Chamber of Commerce business types who agitated so aggressively for it back in the nineties, and see how many of them pass it.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to have all the members of the California Legislature and the state's Board of Education take it as well.

If more than 20 percent of the people in those select groups flunked the thing, I'll bet it would, like the victims of a boojums snark, "softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The "I" Word

There’s something happening on the impeachment front much more significant than the municipal initiatives in California and Vermont.

On December 18, 2005, Rep John Conyers of Michigan, a Democratic congressman with four decades of tenure introduced a resolution requesting the House to form “a select committee to investigate the Administration’s intent to go to war before congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment.” Seven other members of the House signed on as co-sponsors.

It’s unlikely at this point that the Conyers resolution will be any more influential than the Newfane, Vermont City Council in tilting the House toward initiating actual impeachment proceedings. However, Conyers has other reasons besides naïve hope for introducing this measure. The main one is, in the congressman’s words, “To take away the excuse that we didn’t know.”

Sometime in the future, people are going to hold the present-day members of Congress accountable. They’ll ask, “What the hell were you doing when Bush suspended the Constitution and took the country into a disastrous war on false pretenses?” Conyers and his co-sponsors want to be on record.

Quoted in Lewis Lapham’s Harper’s article “The Case for Impeachment” in this month’s (March) issue, Conyers asks, “What would you have me do? Grumble and complain? Make cynical jokes? Throw up my hands and say that under the circumstances nothing can be done? At least I can muster the facts, establish a record, tell the story that ought to be front-page news.”

The 182-page, heavily-footnoted report Conyers’s staff has produced is based on information found in hundreds of open and publicly-available sources such as newspaper stories, television broadcasts, magazine articles, and sworn testimony before both houses of Congress. Its rationale for impeachment includes the entire catalog of high crimes and misdemeanors the administration has committed since 9/11 – illegal spying and wiretapping, violation of the Geneva Conventions, and the illegal detention and torture of terror suspects real and imagined – but it concentrates mainly on the lies and deliberate deceptions that were foisted on Congress and the public during the highly choreographed prelude to the Iraq War.

“That President George W. Bush comes to power with the intention of invading Iraq,” Lapham writes, “is a fact not open to dispute.”

This past Monday, Conyers, Lapham, and a number of others took their push for impeachment, or at least the serious discussion of it, to the airwaves with a forum on C-Span. I don’t have cable where I’m staying right now, so I couldn’t watch it.

House Resolution 635 isn’t likely to go anywhere in the near future. But in uncertain and turbulent times, circumstances can change enormously, sometimes very quickly. You never know. Six months from now, Bush and Cheney may be looking at impeachment with real fear and real astonishment.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

With Devotion

A certain young lady I know, a showbiz type, was asked by an interviewer, "What does your tattoo mean?"

"The one on my stomach?" The question referenced a line of Indic calligraphy surrounded by tiny blossoms which runs sinuously across the woman's lower abdomen and around to her back.

"It's Sanskrit, from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali -- number 114, actually.

"It says 'In order for your practice to be grounded in earth, it must be done continuously, over a long period of time, with devotion.' So, those three elements -- I used to have a hard time practicing, so I decided to put something like a post-it note on my body to remind myself."

And that's my inspiration for today, from one who inspires quite frequently.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Around Calif

Public Transport Blockbusters

Columnist Ken Garcia writing in the San Francisco Examiner pans "Crash," but without mentioning "Brokeback," which we can infer was his choice for Oscar.

"...(T)he worst movie I saw last year;" Garcia groans, "a film of such obviousness and sledgehammerlike subtlety that you could see the plot coming like a runaway Metro car. One Los Angeles critic rightly called its cliche-ridden story line 'vehicular metaphor slaughter.'"

This is a lead into a difficult but doable segue, as Garcia swiches his subject to the much lamented woes of the SF Municipal Railway, "a public transportation system which relies on a honor system of payment -- which to no one's surprise has turned out to be a clear case of honor among thieves."

He goes on to recount his own "descent into crime." Late for an appointment, he was running to catch the car at Montgomery Street, fare in hand. "Alas, there was no station agent in sight and the coin slots were closed."

The coin slots were closed?(!) No wonder the Muni is losing money. Garcia did what I would have done and used the unguarded exit gate, confident that he wouldn't be apprehended by one of the transit system's twelve (count 'em) fare inspectors.

Garcia concludes that since it's losing $50 million a year to stile jumpers, the Muni's decision to lay off station agents and fare cops was probably not the sharpest way to deal with fiscal pressure.

Angry Bill Calls it Quits

Republican congressman Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, one of the heavy hitters in the House of Representatives for many years, will not seek re-election in 2006. He's stepping down after a quarter century during which his biannual return to Washington was nearly automatic.

Thomas was one of the key figures helping Bush to get all the elements of his tax giveaway to billionaires passed. But because of the House's self-imposed term limits on committee chairmanships, he would have had to relinquish his influential position as head of the Ways and Means Committee had he chosen to stay. At 64, Thomas was ready to rest on his laurels and probably write that memoir which all his friends and associates will pretend to read.

Like his colleague in the Senate, Ted Stevens, Thomas has a notoriously ungovernable temper, and is famous for throwing pyrotechnic tantrums and epithets. He was also an extremely effective representative for the folks back home, as I found out first hand when I wrote letters on behalf of my wife's dad to try to get his disability status with the V.A. upgraded. The effort was successful, but would not have been without help from Thomas's office.

His departure is probably bad for Bakersfield but it's potentially good for the country. If you listen closely you can hear the Republican grip on Congress starting to slip and buckle, and they need another retirement like they need another Tom DeLay.

Never Put it in Writing

The University of California system has been ordered by a San Francisco judge to pay back $33 million in fees to graduate school students. The U. raised grad school fees after publishing promises in their catalogs that the fees for new students would be locked in "for the duration of his or her enrollment."

The ruling applies to nine thousand students who enrolled in 2002 or earlier, and also to some others who were informed of additional fee hikes in 2003 after they had already been billed.

The check's not in the mail yet, though. The University will appeal the ruling on the grounds that there was no signed contract.

Just because they said that doesn't mean they meant it.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Phantom: Liberal Media Bias

From a poster at Politics: It has been the standard M.O. of the media when dealing with Bush ... we have event ... what possible scandlous outcomes could come from it (true or not) ... promote the hell out of the possiblity as if it were true ... (THEN) .. when reports and investigations begin to prove otherwise, go to next event and execute the same M.O.

I'm afraid I simply don't understand this theory of the "liberal" media.

It's true that the national corporate media have been questioning a lot of what the administration says and does, especially in the last year. However I see no "M.O." driven by media liberalism, if for no other reason than the major media are all giant companies in themselves, or are owned by mega-giant corporations. And I guarantee you, the people who sit on the boards of directors of those companies are not "liberals." They're capitalists concerned with profits.

The New York Times Company, for instance, owns 18 other newspapers, a bunch of TV stations, and the Boston Red Sox. NBC is owned by General Electric, CBS by Viacom, and ABC by Disney. Time-Warner owns CNN and Time Magazine. And don't forget, when you talk about "the media" you're also talking about papers like the Washington Times as well as Fox News.

Thus, when the NY Times or MSNBC reports that Lewis Libby outed Valerie Plame on instructions from Cheney and Rove, it's not "liberal bias" that's motivating them to say that. Their motivation is much more down-to-earth, namely that it would not be profitable for their boards of directors, to whom the news operations must answer, to insult the intelligence of their viewers by trying to feed them the Scott McClellan version of these events.

These "liberal media" are already in enough trouble for having acted as the administration's cheerleader and sewer pipe in the runup to the Iraq debacle. You can only lose so much credibility before you start to lose money.

And who are the people who sit on the boards of these companies and giant corporations? They probably drink lattes, and drive Porsches, and give money to African relief charities, and send their kids to snooty Ivy League schools, and patronize the Museum(s) of Modern Art, and live in snobby suburbs. That all sounds very liberal, but to repeat, I guarantee you they're not liberals, even though most of them may be a few ticks to the left of Ann Coulter, Matt Drudge, and Heinrich Himmler.

It's the bottom line they're concerned with, not some imaginary "liberal" line.

A latte does not a liberal make, and neither does a credible news story.

Friday, March 03, 2006

More Stencils

There's some great outdoor wall work posted at the web site "Stencil Revolution."

I particularly like this one, "No Hay Escape" (There is No Escape) by Veggie, both for its virtuosity and its size.

Also noteworthy is this "Child Soldier" by Plugone of Colchester, England.

The great thing about stenciling as a means of political agitation is that people -- the broadest possible public spectrum -- are exposed to the message whether they want to be or not. On a blog the writer ends up mostly preaching to the choir.

The only way to get a wider audience than the one you get with illegal public wall grafitti is to go on t.v. or buy a newspaper page.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Stile Slackers

A few days ago my daughter and I paid our buck and a half each at the turnstile and were waiting to board the "N" streetcar home. One just happened to be standing at the platform.

As we approached the door she spotted a transit cop on the train, writing a ticket. "Did you get your transfer out of the turnstile?" she asked me.

Always the clueless provincial, I hadn't even been aware that the turnstile produced a ticket. I thought people just paid their six quarters and went through, but as it turns out you'd better have proof of purchase when you board a Muni vehicle in San Francisco or you can get a $177 ticket.

I guess it was my lucky day, not just because Rachel was with me to give instruction on the finer points of urban survival, but also because when we went back upstairs my pink transfer was still sticking out of the turnstile. Beginner's luck. And another "N" showed up in less than ten minutes.

But this near mishap got me wondering how many people ride the Muni -- one of the best public transit systems in the country -- without paying? And how many get away with it?

Too many, as it turns out.

Up until now Muni officials have consistently claimed that unpaid ridership throughout the city averages between ten and twenty percent. That assumption has been shattered by recent surveys run by the Transit Authority and independently by the San Francisco Examiner, both of which found that over half of Muni's passengers jump the turnstiles one way or another, as reported in a page-two series in the Ex yesterday and today. At one station fare avoidance ran 73 percent.

The cop we saw writing a ticket was one of only thirteen working the system, so anyone who wants to ride without paying has a pretty good chance of getting away with it. How much does this cost the system? Do the easy, thumbnail math: the Muni serves 700,000 riders a day, so if half of them don't pay their dollar-fifty, that's over half a million dollars a day.

Here's the thing, brothers and sisters: the Muni would still run at a loss even if everybody paid. So think for a minute about how you'd get around the city if the Municipal Railway went under, just because you don't feel like giving up your little quarters, which you can fully afford. Would you like to take a taxi everywhere? Could you even get a taxi if everyone in town was taking them? Would you care to keep a car in the city? Rent a garage? Pay auto insurance? Buy gas? Drive on Market Street at five in the afternoon?

No, I didn't think so.

Fortunately, relief is at hand in the form of the heavy hand of authority. As I used to tell my students whenever I put on my ugly face and instituted draconian measures of one sort or another, "I don't like doing this, but it's apparently how you guys want it."

"Transit agencies across the nation agree that the best way to make riders pay their fair share is simple enforcement," says today's Examiner article by Marisa Lagos, "and Muni this week approved plans to hire 40 new fare inspectors."

The new transit cops will cost the system about $3.7 million, but will bring in an estimated $14.8 million. At first, they're going to write a lot of tickets. And think of what that money could buy. Muni says for that kind of cash it could decrease fares by a quarter, or put 100 more buses on the street every day, or hire 168 vehicle mechanics, or maybe implement some combination of those kinds of upgrades.

It's a shame it had to come to this. In the People's Socialist Free City of San Francisco, so close to God and so far from the United States, you'd think people would voluntarily do the right thing. But apparently even pinkos need to be policed.