Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Serendipity in the 'hood

This amazing plant grows in our front yard. It blooms something like four times a year. Someone gave us a little bush -- and now it is 12 feet tall, at least.

I took the picture in order to test Google's tool for identifying the subject of photos. The tool flunked, unable to connect the picture, which looks pretty clear to me, with the name of the plant. Fortunately Erudite Partner got interested in the experiment and used her excellent Google-fu to figure out this was an Angel's Trumpet, scientifically, Brugmansia.

And from that Wikipedia entry, we learned:

All parts of Brugmansia are poisonous, with the seeds and leaves being especially dangerous.[19][23] Brugmansia are rich in Scopolamine (hyoscine), hyoscyamine, and several other tropane alkaloids.[24] Effects of ingestion can include paralysis of smooth muscles, confusion, tachycardia, dry mouth, diarrhea, migraine headaches, visual and auditory hallucinations, mydriasis, rapid onset cycloplegia, and death.[25][26][27]

The hallucinogenic effects of Brugmansia were described in the journal Pathology as "terrifying rather than pleasurable". ...

The next morning as we were coming out of the house, as often happens, passersby were looking into the yard.

A regular Mission homey asked: "What's that plant? I feel like it wants me to sniff it or something."

E.P.: "Probably shouldn't do that. It's called Angel's Trumpet and it's poisonous."

"Even to smell it?"

"They say 'yes.'"

"Okay, now I know ..."

I can't decide whether I feel I should be responsible for knowing the toxicity of what's in my yard or not. These plants are quite common around here.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Stop! Are you going to run me over?

My ten-day duration head cold just won't quit, so today I offer only this intriguing video of an effort to increase compliance with disabled parking regulations.
I think this would scare the bejesus out of a driver who tried to occupy the wrong space unaware. Nice to run across something in which Russians are, benignly, leap-frogging us in their use of technology.

What would you do, if this turned up in a mall near you?

H/t Time Goes By for this one.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Peace is too important to be left to politicians

Professor Stephen Walt, makes a prediction about the presidential horserace.

... there’s one important concept about which we won’t hear very much: peace.

He's right of course. As far as the GOP clowns are concerned, peace is about as popular as venereal disease; they seem to be competing over who can boast of the stiffest dick. (Yes, that includes Carly -- she's doing pretty well at it, actually.)

Among the Dems, there is something beyond silence. Bernie says the right things:

Senator Sanders believes that the test of a great and powerful nation is not how many wars it can engage in, but how it can resolve international conflicts in a peaceful manner.

He's proud of his vote against the Iraq war. He's got a good grip on the fact that wars starve and strangle domestic progress.

But the Dem frontrunner is another story. Hillary is an aggressive strength projection kind of woman. As Walt remarks,

... Has Hillary Clinton ever opposed a military operation or led a successful peace campaign?

She seems eager to plunge more deeply into Syria. I've always been afraid that the first woman to have a shot at occupying the Oval Office would have so honed her reputation for bellicosity that she made herself immune to attacks based in the sexist notion that "girls don't know how to fight." As a member of my generation of early contemporary feminists, Hillary seems to have done just that; perhaps a younger woman would have felt less need to prove herself in this particular fashion. (Or maybe not.)

And Hillary seems to have learned none of the lesson of last 75 years: no shooting war the U.S. has engaged in since World War II has left either the people directly in its path or the U.S. itself better off than before hostilities commenced. When all-out war came to mean annihilation in 1945, war ceased to be a viable instrument of even superpower policy. Sure, this turns historic human experience on its head, but it is true.
Once upon a time, aspiring presidents thought there were votes to be won by promising peace. Dwight Eisenhower's 1956 slogan was "Peace and Prosperity." I'd get behind a candidate who dared such an unfashionable suggestion for our national aims. Right now that means Bernie -- but I want such a candidate in November 2016. So if Bernie falters, we're shit out of luck.
The desire for peace is a baseline human trait. Even most citizens of this empire share it, except when riled up. So why is there no permanent constituency injecting peace into presidential campaigns?
  • In the last two administrations, our rulers have perfected the evil art of waging faraway wars without troubling most of us. When you are as rich and as safe as citizens of this country, so long as no one you know is doing the fighting, you don't worry much about the foreign millions whose lives are shattered by our imperial adventures. For ourselves, we have peace. It asks a level of imagination most people lack to get across that in so much of the world, we're the problem.
  • Because we are so safe from foreign threats (though perhaps not from homegrown gun cultists), we scare easy. This is particularly true when our pols hype the supposed threat. And, in turn, our politicians are afraid that if a critical mass of us get in a panic, they'll take the blame. We need a peace movement to have the back of any politician who offers us a realistic assessment of actual threats.
  • Collectively, this society has lost any awareness that peace is a positive good. We think of peace as absence of war, not the presence of security, justice, community, possibility, and love. Peace is the precondition of all those goods; we are unrealistic insofar as we struggle for any of them without the awareness that peace is needed for all of them.
This country still needs a permanent peace movement.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Saturday scenes and scenery: Dubrovnik, Croatia

This medieval city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Dubrovnik was the capital of the Republic of Ragusa, an eastern Mediterranean trading power of the day.

A small boat harbor still thrives.

This magnificent main street fills to overflowing as buses arrive during the day. Cars cannot enter the old city. I stayed within the walls, so got a chance to wander before the throngs arrived.

Residents and tourists alike need their hiking shoes to get around the old streets.

These are worth exploring, revealing curiosities. I think she long pre-dates the restaurant; and you sure wouldn't want to traverse these high streets in a storm! Click to enlarge.

From the city walls, it is possible to glimpse kitchen gardens between the stone buildings.

Today Dubrovnik is perfectly organized to intrigue, thrill, and milk stray dollars from tourists. Good for the Croatians for getting value from their asset.

But just 24 years ago, as the city guides who lead tours explain to all who will listen, this wonderfully preserved historic site was under siege during the wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia. This map is displayed at every entrance:
Fortunately, the Serb and Montenegrin attackers wanted to own it as much as to destroy it, but for six months they cut off water, power and supplies while lobbing shells at a population swollen with 30,000 refugees. UNESCO has invested millions of dollars in restoration and repair.

Even Elizabeth Blackwell's sympathetic volume, Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro, describes siege with horror:

[In the fall of 1991,] the Yugoslav Army attacked Dubrovnik from Montenegro. JNA soldiers, supported by Montenegrin irregulars, earned a name for lawlessness and rapacity, which prompted a torrent of international outrage and disapproval. Dubrovnik had no military strategic value and was barely defended by the Croats. Nor were there more than a few Serbs living there. Rather, the attack seemed to stem from pure vindictiveness or, according to some, from the Montenegrins' traditional appetite for plunder, and led to headlines in the Western press likening the Yugoslav army to barbarian hordes. Although Montenegro was officially detached from the war in Croatia and withdrew its reservists there in October 1991, Montenegrin soldiers from their positions on the hills about Dubrovnik destroyed hotels, yachts, and other signs of sophistication or civilization with a wantonness that caused more damage to Milosevic's interest and game plan than he could possibly anticipated.

... In the year 2000 [Montenegrin] President Djukanovic made an official apology to Croatia for Montenegro's part in the 1991 attack on the coastal area around Dubrovnik. Since then, two prominent Montenegrins have been sentenced by The Hague Tribunal for their part in the shelling of Dubrovnik -- Admiral Miodrag Jokic, who was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in March 2004 and Lieutenant General Pavle Strugar, who was sentenced to eight years in January 2005.

There is plenty of residual bitterness here, just under the sunny surface. Dubrovnik plays host to a revolving museum of international war photography which felt very appropriately located.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Friday cat blogging: Kotor and Budva

The Montenegrin town of Kotor sits on the Adriatic coast in a corner of what locals call Europe's southernmost fjord. The old town is a small, fully walled, medieval city, overshadowed by extensive, crumbling fortifications on the heights. From sea and land, invaders have coveted this secluded port. I was not surprised to note a handsome cat sitting sentry on the city wall.

At ground level, cats go about their business on the stone streets, apparently unconcerned by co-existing among hordes of tourists.

These kittens seemed to feel that the tables and chairs at a sidewalk cafe had been provided for their amusement.

The local dogs showed no interest.

Down the road in the even smaller walled town of Budva, the cats seemed a little more wary. They kept themselves out of reach of the tourists.

The tourists had their own delights.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Unthinkable thinking

Back in the day, 1969 in fact, I remember sitting up late one East Coast evening watching astronaut Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. As he set down a U.S. flag, I remember remarking to a friend: "Damn, the first thing we do when get there is litter!"

These days, humans have put up thousands of satellites orbiting the earth. These provide the backbone for our everyday communications, for our scientific understanding of the planet including tomorrow's weather, and even the GPS in our cellphones and my Garmin watch. Soon we'll need that mapping capacity to direct our self-driving cars. We count on all that stuff floating around up there without even thinking about it.

But apparently all that orbital clutter makes for an new threat, a consequence of our profligate habit of thinking that the universe is so big we can just leave stuff lying around. According to Charlie Stross,

Kessler Syndrome, or collisional cascading, is a nightmare scenario for space activity. Proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, it proposes that at a certain critical density, orbiting debris shed by satellites and launch vehicles will begin to impact on and shatter other satellites, producing a cascade of more debris, so that the probability of any given satellite being hit rises, leading to a chain reaction that effectively renders access to low earth orbit unacceptably hazardous.

This isn't just fantasy. There are an estimated 300,000 pieces of debris already in orbit; a satellite is destroyed every year by an impact event. Even a fleck of shed paint a tenth of a millimeter across carries as much kinetic energy as a rifle bullet when it's traveling at orbital velocity, and the majority of this crud is clustered in low orbit, with a secondary belt of bits in geosychronous orbit as well. The [International Space Station] carries patch kits in case of a micro-particle impact and periodically has to expend fuel to dodge dead satellites drifting into its orbit; on occasion the US space shuttles suffered windscreen impacts that necessitated ground repairs.

If a Kessler cascade erupts in low earth orbit, launching new satellites or manned spacecraft will become very hazardous, equivalent to running across a field under beaten fire from a machine gun with an infinite ammunition supply. Sooner or later you'll be hit. And the debris stays in orbit for a very long time, typically years to decades (centuries or millennia for the particles in higher orbits). ... And then there's the nightmare scenario: a Kessler cascade in geosynchronous orbit. The crud up there will take centuries to disperse, mostly due to radiation degradation and the solar wind gradually blowing it into higher orbits.

There's an interesting discussion at the blog where I found this about how immanent and how destructive this might be. Evaluating it goes way beyond my expertise though I found the conversation interesting.

Humans evolved to make more and more and more -- because more was good for survival. Having managed to make so much more we're screwing up the planet, apparently we've also spread the malady into near-space.

Maybe it's just my apparently endless head cold doing my thinking, but looking at us through this lens, it's hard not to conclude there's simply too much of us.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hang in there, Planned Parenthood!

Abortion is a subject on which I support women who get aggressive with people who want to dictate to them. The cruelty of the restrictionists to actual, living women and kids seems to know no bounds. Missed the pink protests yesterday with gungus still colonizing my head (go away rhinovirus!) but was more than there in spirit.

I thought Ann Friedman did a necessary job contextualizing this struggle:

Planned Parenthood is, paradoxically, both an easy target and an effective organization because it is a brand name. Every year, 2.7 million people visit Planned Parenthood’s 700 clinics. One in five women has sought health care there. Women know that, no matter where they are in the country and no matter how much money they have, if they can get themselves to a Planned Parenthood clinic, they can get the morning-after pill, a mammogram, a pelvic exam, an abortion, or a referral. Men know they can go there for an STD test or a cancer screening. They provide reproductive and health-care services to the trans community. Everyone knows these services will be safe and, just as importantly, judgment-free.

But it’s useful, especially with all the action on Planned Parenthood’s behalf today, to remember that we shouldn’t need a reproductive-care health-care brand. Contraception and STD testing and abortion should be things that you get from your regular doctor — and you should have a regular doctor even if you’re poor. Planned Parenthood exists because the services it provides are stigmatized and pushed out of the routine health-care framework, or are unaffordable within it. And its brand recognition is so important, in part, because the opponents of reproductive choice have gone out of their way to confuse women by establishing faux clinics that provide no health services at all, and to spread misinformation about the safety of contraception and abortion.  

It is interesting to reflect that this is the issue that would have driven my deceased Republican committee woman mother out of the GOP. She believed in Planned Parenthood.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Immigrants have changed US -- again and again

The Pew Research Center has issued a new report marking the 50th anniversary of the 1965 revision of U.S. immigration law which set the contours of our contemporary demographic trends. The headline take away is that the law revision enabled this country to move into a new and different demographic reality, by enabling migration of more and different people.

This fast-growing immigrant population ... has driven the share of the U.S. population that is foreign born from 5% in 1965 to 14% today and will push it to a projected record 18% in 2065. Already, today’s 14% foreign-born share is a near historic record for the U.S., just slightly below the 15% levels seen shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The combined population share of immigrants and their U.S.-born children, 26% today, is projected to rise to 36% in 2065, at least equaling previous peak levels at the turn of the 20th century.

... As a result of its changed makeup and rapid growth, new immigration since 1965 has altered the nation’s racial and ethnic composition. In 1965, 84% of Americans were non-Hispanic whites. By 2015, that share had declined to 62%. Meanwhile, the Hispanic share of the U.S. population rose from 4% in 1965 to 18% in 2015. Asians also saw their share rise, from less than 1% in 1965 to 6% in 2015.

The Pew Research analysis shows that without any post-1965 immigration, the nation’s racial and ethnic composition would be very different today: 75% white, 14% black, 8% Hispanic and less than 1% Asian.

If you live in California, it's easy to yawn about this -- so yeah, what else is new? But obviously these changing realities are what drives much of the terror that riles the crazier white corners of the land.
When I was accidentally thrown into working on migration politics by the California immigration panic of 1994 (otherwise known as Prop. 187), I knew next to nothing about the history of immigration to this largest slice of an underpopulated continent. This report is full of items that might have given me a fuller picture -- and still do.
  • The new United States' very first law in this area, the Naturalization Act of 1790, "excluded non-white people from eligibility to naturalize. " Our white forbears wanted more workers, but not those people, however defined over the decades. This prohibition was not removed until the Reconstruction era 1870 naturalization act allowed "eligibility to individuals of African nativity or descent."
  • In the late 19th century, the white people of the west sought and got Chinese (and other East Asian) Exclusion Acts. Tough workers from Asia were a wonderful tool for building the transcontinental railroad, but they weren't having any more of those people. In 1903, federal immigration law also banned "anarchists, beggars, and importers of prostitutes." Restrictions of various sorts on Asian immigration lasted until well into World War II and beyond. They were only removed for Chinese when we found ourselves promoting our benevolent variant of imperialism as an alternative to Japan's. Competition with Communism led to further openings to Asia in the 1950s.
  • The Immigration Act of 1924 set a hard cap of 165,000 annual immigration visas, and used national-origin quotas to confine this to persons of English-speaking or other northern European origins. The restrictionists had got their way, notably in ending mass migration from southern and eastern Europe. Pew doesn't say this -- and correlation does not equal causation -- but The Great Migration of African Americans from the south to take up factory work in northern cities might never have been possible without the 1924 immigration restrictions. Industrialists needed somebody in those jobs.
  • The 1965 revision changed all this. Pew opts for the safe explanation, attributing its radical opening to mass worldwide immigration to multiple factors without pulling out a dominant thread.

    Scholars attribute passage of the 1965 law in part to the era’s civil rights movement, which created a climate for changing laws that allowed racial or ethnic discrimination, as well as to the growing clout of groups whose immigration had been restricted. The economy was healthy, allaying concerns that immigrants would compete with U.S.-born workers. Some, however, say that geopolitical factors were more important, especially the image of the U.S. abroad in an era of Cold War competition with Russia. Labor unions, which had opposed higher immigration levels in the past, supported the 1965 law, though they pushed for changes to tighten employment visas. And political players changed: President Lyndon B. Johnson lobbied hard for the bill, and a new generation of congressional leaders created a friendlier environment for it

    And so, in the Sixties, the United States once again affirmed itself a "a nation of immigrants" without much sense of the implications. (I bet the capitalists knew where we going, but it took the rest of us, and the new Americans, awhile to catch up.)
  • Meanwhile, throughout the country's history, Mexican and Latino immigration had been a constant. For Mexicans, the border crossed them rather than they crossed the border. When the Southwest needed labor, the Mexicans served. They weren't included in naturalization systems and quotas. When the bosses were done with them, they sometimes literally packed them in trains and sent them back. But in the new era of (more) civil rights, some began to exercise citizenship. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act sought to regularize the legal status of millions of people in legal limbo; roughly 2.7 million people acquired legal status. They and their children have gradually taken up their role as citizens in the states where immigration is largest: California, Florida, New York and Texas.
And so here we are today with another 11 million people living among us without a documented legal status. President Obama's executive initiatives (DACA and DAPA) have done something to sort this out; Republicans are still screaming for the cattle cars to try to stop the tide of history.

Pew makes a couple of points about contemporary legal immigrants that I found new:

Asia currently is the largest source region among recently arrived immigrants and has been since 2011. Before then, the largest source region since 1990 had been Central and South America, fueled by record levels of Mexican migration that have since slowed. Back in 1970, Europe was the largest region of origin among newly arrived immigrants. One result of slower Mexican immigration is that the share of new arrivals who are Hispanic is at its lowest level in 50 years.

Compared with their counterparts in 1970, newly arrived immigrants in 2013 were better educated but also more likely to be poor. Some 41% of newly arrived immigrants in 2013 had at least a bachelor’s degree. In 1970, that share was just 20%. On poverty, 28% of recent arrivals in 2013 lived in poverty, up from 18% in 1970. In addition, fewer of the newly arrived in 2013 were children than among the newly arrived immigrants in 1970—19% vs. 27%.

Obviously, if you have any interest in immigration issues -- and who can not? -- Pew's entire report is worth exploring. it is highly accessible, full of graphic enhancements, and waiting for a click. Give it a look.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What is true?

As I lie here in my fevered state, I keep musing about this sign I snapped recently in San Francisco's Civic Center.

Is this true? I fact checked the Nielsen assertion. The best source I can come up with is from an April 2012 survey of "more than 28,000 Internet respondents in 56 countries." That's a lot of respondents! The 70 percent figure is an increase of 15 percent from four years earlier. More people trust friends and family than the internet, but confidence in online information is growing.

I guess this just goes to show that, rather than libraries, or teachers, or other authorities, the internet is where we think information resides.

Maybe our schools should start teaching "how to fact check the web" in about the 4th grade? In high school, they could follow up with teaching "how to tell who a politician's programs benefit." These seem to be the ingredients of contemporary literacy and citizenship.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Lest we become "caretakers of ash" ...

Ever since getting back to San Francisco, I've been fighting an aggressive rhinovirus -- perhaps a little token from my 11 hour Lufthansa flight?

And consequently, I haven't been paying the sort of attention I might have in a less delirious state to Pope Francis' pronouncements in this country. Maybe I'll find time to read more of them -- maybe not.

But I was struck by these tidbits from his address to the American Roman Catholic bishops assembled in Washington at the beginning of his trip.

"Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love," said the pope.

... "We fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us," said Francis.

... "It becomes even more urgent to grow in the certainty that the embers of [Jesus'] presence, kindled in the fire of his passion, precede us and will never die out," said Francis. "Whenever this certainty weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and dispensers of the true light and the warmth that causes our hearts to burn within us."

This goes for all who struggle for peace and justice, whether we live within Francis' paradigm or within some other vision. It is so easy to loose the animating love that inspires us and become mere "caretakers of ash."

The photo is one I grabbed last May, showing the pope meeting the very gracious primate of the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, archbishop Antje Jackelén. Those Lutherans, still ahead of the curve ...

Fear itself

The article that appeared under that New York Times headline sure scared me plenty. Apparently there are a significant number of residents of South Carolina who are seriously terrified by the prospect of some piddling number of Syrian refugees landing in their neck of the woods. Not that there are any serious plans to import these unfortunate people ...

But the fear is pervasive. What has become of us?
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