Sunday, April 27, 2008


A lot of ink and electrons have been spent on President Jimmy Carter's recent meetings with Hamas leaders and the President of Syria. Although his efforts appear to have been in vain, I support Carter's effort for a number of reasons.

First - let me set some givens about some things:
1. Hamas is an organization labeled as "terrorist" by most of the world; I prefer not to use that loaded term, but instead to refer to Hamas as a criminal organization that plans and carries out international crimes (mostly in Israel) including murder of civilians
2. Hamas was put into power in the Gaza by a democratic election
3. the focus of this post is Carter and Hamas, not Israel

Carter pissed off the Israeli and U.S. governments by meeting with Hamas because neither government will talk with terrorists, and certainly not a terrorist group that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Israel. Carters point, and one that I have made on this blog, is that a refusal to talk to your enemy means that peaceful change is not possible. Standard U.S. foreign policy under the Bush Administration for dealing with governments they don't like is to call them names (i.e. "Axis of Evil") and not talk to them (and one one occasion, invade and occupy them). Carter looked for an opening and tried to make some headway.

Did the meetings with President Carter give Hamas "legitimacy," as widely claimed by the press and certain government spokespersons? No. Their election to power by the people in Gaza gave Hamas legitimacy. The meetings with Carter did not change any one's view of Hamas; those who support Hamas as "freedom fighters" still see them that way, while those who consider them to be terrorists or criminals also have not changed their view. If anything, the actions and statements of Hamas immediately following the Carter meetings - more attacks and hate statements against Israel - clearly underscore the nature of the beast.

What if Carter had had some success, such as some movement towards continued talks, a cease-fire, the release of the captive Israeli soldier? Would Carter's mission have been so roundly criticized then? The probability of success was certainly extremely low, given the fanaticism and bellicosity of the Hamas leadership. But trying, in my view - and Carter's - is certainly better than not.

What I've never understood about Hamas is why the Palestinian people support their criminal actions against Israel. Israel will never be "driven into the sea" and the Middle East will never be the same as it was before the 1940's. This is fact. Wouldn't people rather find a way to coexist with their neighbor, build a Palestinian nation and economy, increase their safety, security and standard of living than be in a perpetual no-win struggle? World opinion, and opinion within Israel itself favor a two-state resolution of this 60 year conflict. There are a few difficult issues to resolve, but intelligent and willing people will find the way.

The railing against Jimmy Carter for trying to pursue peace in the Middle East is misplaced. Bush and Company ignored Israel-Palestine for seven years. Hamas (and other criminal fanatical organizations) has continued to provoke with daily rocket launches into Israel and attacks at the border and elsewhere. Israel has shown remarkable patience on the one hand, and occasionally, perhaps, too much force on the other. (I'm not overly critical of Israel on this; after all, if a group a couple of miles from my neighborhood started launching rockets and mortars towards me, I would demand a seek-and-destroy mission by my government immediately. Israel has put up with this for years.)

I appreciate the efforts by Jimmy Carter to find some path towards peace in the Middle East. While I'm not hopeful of success, I think engagement is the better policy.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


(written on April 22, 2008)
Thirty-eight years ago today, Sherry and I were the co-chairpersons of the committee for the first Earth Day at University of California, Irvine. At this moment, we're at about 30,000 feet above the planet, flying (in an airplane, of course) to Los Angeles for a visit with friends and family in L.A., Orange County, and San Diego. This will be a trip of memories as we visit people and places some of which we haven't seen in 30 years.

My memories of the first Earth Day are faded, but some images and conversations remain. I remember the feelings of excitement and importance we felt as we brainstormed what to do, what topics to highlight, what speakers to invite. Some of the topics I remember were trash and recycling, autos and mass transit, development and sprawl, and air pollution and human health. We built a huge human figure out of trash, and had a press conference at the County dump. It was a great event.

But I also remember some of the contradictions very clearly. I was a graduate student in ecology, and had a difficult time getting even a few of the ecology faculty interested in Earth Day. The Dean finally agreed to partially fund the event if an artist friend of his would be allowed to sell cast metal "earth symbol" pendents he had designed. The V.P. of the Irvine Ranch Company, just beginning their huge urban development projects, when asked why they were designing new communities around the automobile instead of mass transit, said that they would only build in mass transit if people wanted it, and people didn't want it. And the staff person at the American Lung Association, following a meeting where we put together our program elements about automobiles, air pollutants, and public health, confided to me that this all sounded great, but he would never stop driving his car because it defined his image. I remember that by the end of Earth Day I was feeling quite disheartened.

So here we are on Earth Day almost 4 decades later, and I'm wondering if much has changed. Certainly there have been changes in both laws and attitudes. But, as I've written here previously, most new American cars get the same or worse gas mileage than the car we were driving in 1970. Global warming is finally a recognized issue - even George Bush has a hard time denying it now - but our government is having to be dragged along, almost reluctantly, instead of leading. Urban sprawl continues unabated in most of our cities, big box stores are more plentiful, and so on.

The most progress towards a sustainable world, in regards to humans, is seen on three main fronts: individuals, local governments, and an increasing number of businesses, including major corporations. These are good signs, and hopefully this is a groundswell that will change society.

So Happy Birthday Earth Day - 38 years young.

(postscript: As we flew into L.A., the brown layer of smog enveloped the plane and obscured our vision of the landscape. My wife's asthma kicked in immediately. )

Sunday, April 20, 2008


At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, I think it is true that people in the developing nations want to be like Americans in many ways. They aspire to live like we do, in large houses, with as many cars, trucks and SUVs as we want, and with all the electronic gear we can accumulate. The only problem with this is that the planet probably can't support it.

Now before you get on your high horse and accuse me of some form of elitism, what I mean is that we Americans have created a life style that is selfish, ignorant and non-sustainable.

A few facts from an article in today's New York Times:
  • the U.S. burns about one quarter of the oil used in the world
  • fleet wide standards, in miles per gallon, for new motor vehicles for several nations:
    • Japan 46.0
    • European Union 43.0
    • China 36.0
    • U.S. cars 27.5
    • U.S. light trucks 22.2
  • Average miles per vehicle driven annually:
    • Japan 7,097
    • European Union 7,829
    • U.S. 12,427
  • For every 1 American who bicycles to work, 5 walk to work, 9 use public transit, 154 drive to work alone, 21 ride in car pools
  • oil consumption increase (+) or decrease (-) since 1980, as percent:
    • U.S. +21
    • Japan +2
    • Italy -13
    • Finland -14
    • France -14
    • Switzerland -18
    • Germany -20
    • Sweden -32
    • Denmark -33
In the United States, governmental policy rewards oil and coal production and discourages alternative energy development (U.S. spending on energy research has decreased by half since 1979, while spending on military research has more than doubled, and is about 20 times what we spend on energy research).

Changing light bulbs (to compact fluorescent) and driving Prius cars are good things, but they don't address the real issues that will be the major issues for our children and grandchildren. We in America live in an automobile culture - our cities are designed around the automobile, our consumer activities mostly demand an automobile, and the oil/auto/highway lobby primarily drives government policies that affect these industries.

We generally live far from where we work. We have very few transportation options outside of our cities - passenger trains in America are a joke, with the exception perhaps of the East Coast commuter corridor. Big box stores and shopping centers are the norm, and are typically located out on the highway. We pay a ridiculously low amount of money for gasoline, compared to the rest of the world, and complain bitterly when the price increases.

There are some positive moves, mostly on the local level such as Portland, Oregon and other cities, where light rail, green buildings, and sustainability programs are on the rise. These are good signs, but I believe that a much more fundamental change is needed. As individuals, we can live more sustainably, but our government needs to undergo drastic change before our impact on the world, as a nation, is more in line with the needs of the planet.

And so to our friends in India, China and other developing nations, please do look at the American life style as you contemplate your futures, but look at it with a critical eye. You can do better than we have.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Numerous market analysts have predicted a week-ending surge in the U.S. stock market, allaying fears that the surge seen building all week in certain European markets would pass over the United States. "We've been seeing signs of this surge building all week" an analyst at the former Bear Stein said. The strongest portion is in the Kosher, organic and free-range sectors of the chicken stock market as members of the Jewish faith prepare for the first night of the Passover holiday on Saturday. Industry spokespersons attribute the stock market increase to the huge pots of chicken soup - with matzo balls, of course - bubbling on stove tops across America. All stock market analysts agree that this surge is good for the economy, good for the soul, and, of course, good for the common cold!

Saturday, April 12, 2008


It started yesterday at 6:32AM. I heard it over the hissing sound of my morning shower. It woke my wife from her sleep. When I looked out the east window, there it was, a glowing orange orb above the horizon of Mt. Tabor, rising in a sky that was - how can I describe it - blue! I heard it again when I stepped out to get the newspaper from the front porch, only this time it was hundreds of small "sproings" as the flowers on the dogwood tree threw open their pink petals to bathe in the warming glow of the morning. The sproing cacophony grew as we rushed through the house throwing open the closed windows of winter to let the outside air flood our rooms with an almost liquid sweetness. I dug through my closet to find a short-sleeved pastel cotton print shirt for a mid-morning stroll in the neighborhood.

The sproing cascade grew louder as we approached Hawthorne Boulevard, where the previous day had been like so many others with a few people here and there. But on this day the sidewalks were like a circus of color and laughter and songs and smiles. People strolling just to stroll. Panhandlers and petitioners politely positioned with their asks and their "have a nice day." Musicians, including a rag-tag bluegrass band of joyous teens entertaining people at the bus stop. The outdoor tables at the corner pizza shop overflowing with laughing, youthful patrons, their tank tops revealing rainbows of tattoos below hair of pink and blue and green. The entire scene bathing in 70 degrees. Sproing -what a day!

The forecast for the rest of this week: low 50's and rain. Welcome to Portland.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Here's another must-read article about the victims of the American occupation of Iraq, including Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. The subject of the article, Specialist Sabrina Harman, is one of the young American soldiers we saw in shocking photos from Abu Ghraib prison. Spec. Harmon took many of these shocking photos, like this one of a dead prisoner packed in ice. Because of the photos she took, and the ones in which she appeared, Spec. Harmon was convicted by court-martial of "conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, dereliction of duty, and maltreatment." She was sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank, and a bad-conduct discharge. Others working at the prison were also convicted and sentenced. End of story, right? Wrong.

The article, using letters written home by Sabrina, interviews, and other sources, tells the inside story of young soldiers assigned to a physical and mental hell, and given orders to soften prisoners up for interrogation. The methods they used were either given to them or condoned by their superiors; basically they were told to do anything that would stress the prisoners and make them talk. The results are disturbing, and were very disturbing to Spec. Harmon and her colleagues.

Strangely, or perhaps conveniently, it was only the low-level personnel at Abu Ghraib who were "brought to justice" by the U.S. government. The photo of the body packed in ice, linked to above, was a prisoner who was said to have died of a heart attack. But Spec. Harmon knew better, because the body had many signs of severe beatings. In fact, the death of that prisoner, who was later found to be innocent of any crime or terrorist link, was eventually ruled to be a homicide, but neither the C.I.A. interrogator nor anyone else involved in the interrogation was ever charged. The photos of the corpse taken by Spec. Harmon, who claims she took them to document the horror of what she saw, were used to convict her.

But there's a back story, a very important one that gets little attention. Amazingly, there is an AP story in the news today that "Bush aides OK'd harsh questioning." According to "a former senior U.S. intelligence official" there was a series of high-level meetings in which senior members of the Bush administration signed-off on harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding and others considered by critics to be torture. The meetings coincided with a series of memoranda from the U.S. Justice Department justifying the use of these techniques.

Who were these high-level officials attending these meetings in the White House Situation Room? Lord Darth Cheney was "deeply immersed" in developing the CIA interrogation program, as were Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. These people authorized the CIA to use techniques considered to be torture, and then asked the Justice Department to consider the domestic and international legality of these techniques. The Justice Department issued a series of memos that basically OK'd the techniques, and immunized the President.

The above leads us to John Yoo, a former Justice Department attorney, who authored at least one of the key memos supporting the interrogation techniques. The memo was recently declassified, and it is chilling, as excerpts show. The memo justifies, under presidential war powers, numerous harsh techniques included under the definition of maiming, such as "poking an eye out, cutting ears and burning a prisoner with scalding water or corrosive acid." Yoo has stated that "the president has sole authority to interpret international treaties, such as the Geneva Convention, which forbids torture," and that his role in the Office of Legal Counsel "was to rehabilitate presidential protections that previous administrations allowed to languish in deference to Congress and the courts."

So the question is begged, "who were the real criminals at Abu Ghraib?" Several low-level soldiers were prosecuted and punished for taking pictures, mistreating prisoners, tampering with evidence, etc. Their superiors remain free and uncharged. And the Bush Gang, except those who have retired, are still in the White House, still violating the U.S. Constitution and various domestic and international laws and treaties. Why haven't these people been held accountable for the crimes they've committed?

As if need to ask.


I had neither the time nor, quite frankly, the will to sit and watch the hearings with General Petreaus and Ambassador Crocker earlier this week. I watched a little of it, and I saw an interview of Gen. Petreaus on CNN. I think their message was that there is progress in Iraq, but it is very fragile and could go the wrong way at any moment. I could argue here, as I have before, that America should not be occupying another nation, but that argument doesn't seem to get much traction. We're stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, where all the loftly language about American democracy and morality is called to question.

The occupation of Iraq (I refuse to call it "the War in Iraq") has become for the American public an annoying reality TV show, and one that is slipping in the ratings. We mostly see and read, unless we make an extra effort, the sanitized versions of daily life in Iraq - for our military as well as for the Iraqi citizens. We're told that the situation is better because the numbers of killings and bombings are less than last year - no matter that there are still a lot of killings and bombings compared to "normal." We're told that the Iraqi security forces are "standing up" - no matter that hundreds (thousands?) of them were standing up so they could find the nearest exit. We're told that the Iraqi government is making progress with important legislation - no matter that deciding what flag to fly is hardly the kind of "important" we would be proud of. We're told that the Iraqi economy is strengthening - no matter that we citizens of the U.S. are footing the bill.

So here we are, stuck between Iraq and a hard place. The most recent brilliant stratigery of Bush & Co. is to stay the course by stalling troop withdrawals and continuing business as usual. In other words, let the next administration deal with it. Oh, but there was one concession by Bush & Co. that resulted from the recent hearings: tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan (remember Afghanistan - the other little "war" we're in?) for our military personnel will be reduced from 15 months to 12 months. Now that's what I call real progress.

Friday, April 04, 2008


I've come to the conclusion that a growing number of coffee shops and restaurants play music for the enjoyment of their staff and not for their customers. Frankly, my wife and I have written some fine establishments off our list because we can barely hear ourselves think, let alone have a conversation, above the loud music.

You might think that we're just a couple of old fuddy-duddys who only like Perry Como and Barry Manilow - not. We actually like most kinds of music (OK - gangsta rap maybe not), and enjoy good background music when we're out for a drink, or a coffee, or dinner. But I can't understand the concept behind pushing some raucus, heavy rhythm section, cranked way up screaming music into the ears of your customers. If I want rock concert-level sound, I'll go to a concert.

Sometimes we'll ask nicely if the music can be changed or turned down - our request is often honored. But why do I have to ask in the first place? The only answer I have is: bad management.

btw - don't get me started on cars going down the street with music so loud my fillings rattle....