Thursday, April 28, 2016

Primary fever is moving this way ...

As we come closer to California's June 7 primary, it's time for this unique voter registration video (featuring many friends). It is not to be missed. If you've moved, or changed your name, or aren't sure you are registered, you can do it all online at this link. Don't wait for the last day.

In fact, according to Capitol Weekly, voter registration in California has been soaring for awhile. That's normal in a presidential year, but this expansion has interesting features.

Overall, registration has skyrocketed in the first months of 2016. There have been over 850,000 registrations in the months between January 1 and March 31. This is twice as much as was registered during the same period in 2012. It even exceeds the total new registrations in the months leading up to the 2008 Primary ...

Each time there has been a big primary somewhere else, thousands have flocked to sign up, predominantly Democrats and Latinos. New registrants always skew young, since so many are just coming of voting age in any year. But look at the pattern.
Registration Growth Jan 1 – Mar 31, 2016 Compared to 2012

There are other changes.

... we see an amazing change in the way that voters can be reached by campaigns or pollsters – only one-in-five of the new registrants have a land-line phone number on the file. Yet, more than 50% have an email address – more than double the rate of voters with emails on the current file

Maybe someday campaigns will stop with the phone calls? I'm not holding my breath.

For all the strides California has made in making it easier for residents to register, I still think the requirement itself is ridiculous in this time of big data. Eleven states allow any resident to walk in to a polling place, show some kind of identification, and be checked online by poll workers, and vote on the spot. Not surprisingly, turnout is higher in these states. California has enacted same day registration, but not yet put it into effect. Maybe next election? More likely next year when this round is over ...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

SFPD is a disgrace

They are also heavily armed.

More appalling racist and homophobic text messages from a former officer have come to light. The guy is a former officer because he ended up under investigation for rape and somewhere along the line the sort of things he said to his friends, including friends on the force, came to the surface.

"F--- that nig."

"They're like a pack (of) wild animals on the loose."

"Indian ppl are disgusting."

These are actually some of the less inflammatory ones.

Former police chief and present District Attorney George Gascon had a surprisingly perceptive and cogent diagnosis of the department:

"No. 1: There's a substantial number of people within the organization that are racist," Gascon said.

"And No. 2: There's a culture that has allowed those people to thrive and survive and even promote within that environment."

...Gascon likened the leadership of the department's union to police in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1950s. "They would probably feel right at home," he said. "It's a good old boys network that does everything they can to protect the status quo."

Over the last two years, the SFPD has shot and killed four men of color, three Latinos and one African American, in circumstances in which any claim officers were threatened by the dead men is simply preposterous. So far Gascon has not used his authority to charge any of the shooters for the killings.

San Franciscans continue to ask when Gascon is going to bring the force of the law to bear on our outlaw gang in blue.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ease up, sister ... look before you shriek!

It happened to me again yesterday. While running the trails in Golden Gate Park, I stopped in at the public restroom at the Beach Chalet. Whew! -- no line out the door. On weekend afternoons sometimes these facilities are overwhelmed by restaurant and brew pub customers. But not this time ...

I step inside and a small blonde woman pipes up: "You're in the wrong restroom."

"No, I am not!" Fortunately a stall opened up just then and that's the end of it.

Often I'm a little more communicative when I encounter this gender anxiety. But hey, I was running. I was wearing nondescript, non-gendered running clothes. I look like a tall, old lesbian who doesn't give a damn what the world thinks about her appearance when she is trotting about outside. I look that way, because that's who I am, which I think is quite good enough, thank you very much.

All this to say, these stupid, vicious bathroom bills like the one in North Carolina are not only an attack on transpeople, although they are certainly a direct attack on the humanity of transpeople.

These measures are an attempt to shore up crumbling rules about gender presentation which seek to constrain many of us. But human beings are almost infinitely variable. If we were free to notice, most of us would not exactly fit conventional social definitions or what is a "man" or what is a "woman." Gender is a spectrum -- and some people aren't even on it, experiencing themselves as "non-binary." We can get over enforcing gender rules on other people ... or on ourselves.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Spain: carnage, confusion and courage

It is a truism that the victors get to write the history. In The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Antony Beevor points out that the story of Republican Spain upends this pattern, presumably because General Franco's victorious Nationalists were functionally a branch of the Nazi/Fascist axis utterly destroyed in the European phase of World War II. The Generalisimo held on to power until 1975, but his dictatorship was a tainted relic of ugly memories.

Beevor's history is largely an account of military campaigns whose details are not gripping to most foreign readers; the larger history seems worth recounting, if only because, for those who didn't live through it, it might seem tangled beyond comprehension. The contemporary analogy is probably Syria's terrible civil war with its mix of domestic and international belligerents and deathly incompatible ideologies.

Franco's revolt against the democratically elected Spanish Republic was based in the imperial army in the African colonies, re-enforced by a collection of traditional monarchists, a feudal and obscurantist Roman Catholic church, Spain's own quasi-populist fascist movement, and industrialists and landowners determined to resume unchecked power. Though this was not a simple coalition to manage, the Generalisimo rapidly emerged as the unchallengeable leader commanding a coherent and ruthless military force in service of national dictatorship.

The Republic was a political mess, composed of ineffectual bourgeois democratic liberals, anarchist trade unions and cooperatives, and communists more loyal to Stalin's Russia than to Spanish liberty, all pulling and hauling for advantage. Not surprisingly, Republican forces were never effectively organized or properly led against the Nationalists and were crushed with enormous loss of life both in battle and through decades of reprisals. Modern estimates calculate that the Fascists were responsible for 3 to 5 times the number of political massacres committed by the left, with 150,000 to 200,000 victims.

That brief summary elides that this struggle was as much a proxy war among European states as a civil war. Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy armed and equipped Franco's forces, tested their most modern aircraft and tanks in Spain, and sent "advisors" and even units of regular troops. The Soviet Union armed the Republicans much less generously, managed to extract Spain's gold reserves in return, and meddled in favor of the communists within the Republic's domestic political fracas. Britain and France dithered, unsure whether they feared fascism or communism more. The United States Congress passed a law forbidding supplying both belligerents, but our capitalists found ways to assist their kind. The internationalist left, mostly communists, raised brigades of foreign fighters to support the Republican cause. (I've bought Adam Hochschild's Spain in Our Hearts about the US contingent and will write it up soon.)

Beevor tells this story deeply, I think fairly, with empathy and sometimes disgust. If you want to know about Spain, this is a good book. Apparently it was a best seller in Spain on its release in 2006.
Reading Beevor, I learned about an episode of courageous integrity at the outset of Franco's brutal regime which I am sure is legendary among those who know it, but of which I had been ignorant. It seems worth sharing here. For simplicity's sake, I am taking this from a Wikipedia article which tracks other accounts.

In 1936, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was an author, poet, philosopher, one of Spain's most celebrated intellectuals, and rector of the University of Salamanca.
On 12 October 1936 the celebration of Columbus Day had brought together a politically diverse crowd at the University of Salamanca, including Enrique Pla y Deniel, the Archbishop of Salamanca, and Carmen Polo Martínez-Valdés, the wife of Franco, Falangist General José Millán Astray and Unamuno himself. According to the British historian Hugh Thomas in his magnum opus The Spanish Civil War (1961), the evening began with an impassioned speech by the Falangist writer José María Pemán. After this, Professor Francisco Maldonado decried Catalonia and the Basque Country as "cancers on the body of the nation," adding that "Fascism, the healer of Spain, will know how to exterminate them, cutting into the live flesh, like a determined surgeon free from false sentimentalism."

From somewhere in the auditorium, someone cried out the motto "¡Viva la Muerte!" (Long live death!). As was his habit, Millán Astray responded with "¡España!" (Spain!); the crowd replied with "¡Una!" (One!). He repeated "¡España!"; the crowd then replied "¡Grande!" (Great!). A third time, Millán Astray shouted "¡España!"; the crowd responded "Libre!" (Free!) This -- Spain, one, great and free -- was a common Falangist cheer and would become a Francoist motto thereafter. Later, a group of uniformed Falangists entered, saluting the portrait of Franco that hung on the wall.

Unamuno, who was presiding over the meeting, rose up slowly and addressed the crowd: "You are waiting for my words. You know me well, and know I cannot remain silent for long. Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent. I want to comment on the so-called speech of Professor Maldonado, who is with us here. I will ignore the personal offence to the Basques and Catalonians. I myself, as you know, was born in Bilbao. The Bishop," Unamuno gestured to the Archbishop of Salamanca, "whether you like it or not, is Catalan, born in Barcelona."

"But now I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath, "¡Viva la Muerte!", and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent. General Millán Astray is a cripple. There is no need for us to say this with whispered tones. He is war cripple. So was Cervantes. But unfortunately, Spain today has too many cripples. And, if God does not help us, soon it will have very many more. It torments me to think that General Millán Astray could dictate the norms of the psychology of the masses. A cripple, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of cripples around him."

Millán Astray responded: "¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la Muerte!" ("Death to intelligence! Long live death!"), provoking applause from the Falangists. Pemán, in an effort to calm the crowd, exclaimed "¡No! ¡Viva la inteligencia! ¡Mueran los malos intelectuales!" ("No! Long live intelligence! Death to the bad intellectuals!")

Unamuno continued: "This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. [Éste es el templo del intelecto, y yo soy su gran sacerdote.] You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win [venceréis], because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince [pero no convenceréis]. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken."

... Unamuno was removed from his position of rector of the University of Salamanca by Franco and placed under house arrest. He died of natural causes before the year ended.
We all like to think we'd be courageous if confronted by political atrocity. But would we? The old man was.
Unamuno was escorted from the hall surrounded by howling, saluting fascists. Photo source.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Earth Day conundrum

This Earth Day, I might as well share a dirty secret: I've loved living in Northern California during the dreadful drought of the last few years. We've had a little rain this winter (enough to make for this green panorama overlooking the city), but for an urban resident who takes to the hills to run trails, this winter has been dry enough to create no impediment. Mostly we've had day after day of lovely weather. I can't imagine a more pleasant climate for my personal taste than we've enjoyed.

Apparently I am not alone in this. Patrick J. Egan and Megan Mullin share their version of my observation and point out that our comfort with the weather is blocking urgency about rising temperatures.

For a vast majority of Americans, the weather is simply becoming more pleasant.

Our findings are striking: 80 percent of Americans now find themselves living in counties where the weather is more pleasant than it was four decades ago. Although warming during this period has been considerable, it has not been evenly distributed across seasons. Virtually all Americans have experienced a rise in January maximum daily temperatures — an increase of 1.04 degrees Fahrenheit per decade on average — while changes in daily maximum temperatures in July have been much more variable across counties, rising by an average of just 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade over all. Moreover, summer humidity has declined during this period.

In order to more effectively raise awareness and increase public concern about climate change, our research suggests that we need to stop talking so much about rising temperatures. A focus on extreme weather events — which are easily understood by the public and have potentially much greater impact on human health and the economy — may be a better strategy.

And when we do discuss temperatures, we should acknowledge the temporarily pleasant side effects of global warming. But then we should stress that these agreeable conditions will one day vanish — like ice on a warm winter day. ...

Well maybe. Or maybe individual humans are pretty much incapable of generalizing from the minuscule evidence provided by our own experience to something so big, so without precedent in human terms, as the warming of our island home. We either believe the scientists -- who after all have delivered life spans exceeding 80 healthy years, the green revolution, and air conditioning -- or we don't.

Or, as David Roberts points out, we adopt a middle ground. The climate is warming and human beings' carbon pollution is the cause, but the change is not serious ... yet.
We know there is worse to come -- but it sure is a lovely season, isn't it?

We need leaders who take the long view and who listen to the scientists. Fortunately, they seem available if we insist we want them.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Saturday scenes and scenery: Howard/Langton Community Garden

As I wandered about South of Market with my camera while Walking San Francisco, a friendly local invited me to explore inside the fence.

According to a timely Earth Day article at Hoodline:

It’s hard to believe this space used to be a parking lot. The property was purchased by the city in 1970 and turned into a playground. But over time it came to be known as “Needle Park”—a site where unsavory activities took place. In the late 1980s, Langton Street residents arranged for Friends of the Urban Forest to plant trees in memory of a neighbor who had died of AIDS. Today, the mature flowering fruit trees line the street along the garden. This was the first step towards neighborhood greening.

The area is divided into garden plots, but, as I often am, I was attracted by the garden's idiosyncratic artifacts.

The Buddha is peaceful, but this Guardian less so.

Not all the victims of the SFPD are human.

Someone has hung a hat.

And someone has hung a bat.

In a corner, the inevitable ceramic frog.

You can see for yourself off Howard St. between 7th and 8th.

Friday, April 22, 2016

People the city doesn't want are refusing to be silenced

On April 7, officers of the San Francisco Police Department shot and killed Luis Gongora-Pat, a resident of a tent encampment where people were living on the street in the Mission. Mayor Ed Lee responded to this outrage by calling for "sweeps" -- forcible destruction of the tents and belongings of homeless people all over the city. In the days after the Gongora's death, police harassed and dispersed witnesses and his neighbors from the encampment.

On Thursday, people with experience living on the streets spoke out in Clarion Alley on the city's ongoing effort to push them out of sight and mind.

Bilal Ali, Human Rights organizer for the SF Coalition on Homelessness explained:

Homeless and street-based San Franciscans have been surviving these ongoing sweeps for months and in some cases years. ... the city is continuing this failed police of displacement rather than listening to us homeless people as we state the logical solution to the growing crisis which is housing. Luis Gongora would still be alive had he been inside. Bottom-line.

Mike Lee brought news of sweeps in Berkeley where he lives on the street and is running for Mayor. He's an impressive orator.

Here seen laughing with a friend, Elaine (l), has been enduring street sweeps since 2010. She reminded listeners:

... we have forgotten what America is supposed to be about ... we're supposed to be about loving each other. ... give us a home and we'll show what love is about.

According to the Coalition on Homelessness, the city has only 1300 shelter beds, less than one bed for every five homeless people. And a shelter is not a home ...

Across Valencia Street, activist hunger strikers demanding that Chief Greg Suhr be fired set up camp in front of the Mission Police Station.

Friday cat blogging

The Howard Langton Community Garden has a resident panther strolling about its domain.

The beast accepted a friendly scratch ...

but then settled happily to enjoy the afternoon.

Encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Happy birthday to the Queen

If, as is true in this household, you get your news from the BBC, you can hardly have missed that today is the 90th birthday of the English monarch.

Flickering black and white live images of her coronation are my first memories of television; my mother was an Anglophile in whose mind the Royals were associated with winning the war against Hitler. They got a lot of passes for that one.

The image is from the recent Annie Leibowitz show at the Presidio. Oddly, this was the only projected photo which remained onscreen throughout -- and definitely one of the most interesting.

Tech progress rant

I enjoy the 538 Significant Digit email (kind of a link list of data-ish items), but Wednesday's iteration was just a little too twerpish for my taste. Too often Five-Thirty-Eight veers toward unnecessary cuteness, while nonetheless providing solid content most of the time. In this campaign season, I skim its politics category daily.

Here's the offending item, in toto:
18 seconds
I got one of those new chip credit cards, and it’s a total nightmare. It takes credit card machines forever to read the card, and society hasn’t yet developed the conversational mores for chitchat with the cashier during the half-minute the busted-up card reader is judging me. But there is hope on the horizon: Visa is launching software that can cut up to 18 seconds off the transaction time. I really wish I could go back to the swipe card because I don’t really need the extra security — that’s a problem for people with enough money where having a credit card stolen would be a cause for concern rather than a way for a thief to quickly overdraft at a Taco Bell.
The accompanying link was to the Wall Street Journal, but I don't link to their pay-walled content. Here's a Denver Post version of the story.

All I can say is: dude, have you ever been outside the old U.S. of A? The credit card chip technology is the international standard most everywhere. I even encountered it in rural Montenegro and was glad my card had been upgraded. They don't know from swiping.

We're on the wrong end of the chronic contemporary experience of being stuck with legacy technology. Small businesses hate the chip development, because, understandably, they don't want to have to replace their machines. Even some larger national outfits (thinking of you, Costco) seem stuck in old technology. But they'll all come along eventually.

Here's a geek explanation of the credit card chips:
Credit cards with chips use the EMV standard, which stands for “Europay, Mastercard, and Visa.” EMV is a global standard allowing chip cards to interoperate at point-of-sale systems and automated banking machines. (Despite the name, American Express and Discover are also participating.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

In New York, voting "sucks": a story from a worse time

Josh Marshall at TPM has been using the occasion of the first meaningful presidential primary in New York State in decades to point out the Empire State's voting process is antiquated and burdensome to voters. The state is heavily Democratic already. And the political parties are mostly content to split the spoils rather than compete. This works fine for current office holders; they won, after all. Why rock the boat through measures to increase turnout like early voting, easy vote-by-mail, easy registration, etc.? In consequence, by the standards of contemporary "best practices" for democratic (small "d") balloting, as Josh says New York sucks!

Naturally, there are people who are trying to do something about this. Apparently in Tuesday's polling, New York City's elections bureaucracy committed enough procedural "irregularities" that there will be audits. (This is about the mechanics of voting, not the outcome.) And VOCAL-NY is working hard to open voting to people with felony convictions, thus returning the franchise to 100,000 mostly Black and brown men.

It really used to be worse. Here's a tale from more primitive times: I allowed myself to be recruited as a poll watcher for a neighborhood candidate for some sort of Rent Board. I think the year was 1972, probably in a local election. The place was the Lower East Side -- not then the hipster playpen it is now, but a gritty Puerto Rican neighborhood where we stepped over addicts and drunks on the sidewalks. Esther Rand was already a legendary tenant organizer, a warrior against "urban renewal" as displacement of poor people was called then -- and a proud member of the Communist Party. She was loved by tenants, known as a fighter who would drive the City government nuts before allowing landlords to mistreat tenants. That she might win this minor job was not impossible, if still unlikely.

So I dutifully reported to a dark, dingy basement on Christie Street. The Democratic election functionaries who ran the place greeted me as if I might have two heads. But I'd been briefed to insist on my right to observe, so they decided I could sit in a corner as long as I shut up. I settled in.

In those days, New Yorkers voted on heavy metal "voting machines" about the size of a refrigerator. There were four of them, each in a separate "booth" enclosure. The voter had to pull a curtain across the opening behind herself in order to prime the machine to accept a vote. The machine wouldn't work if the curtain wasn't properly closed. The ancient machines didn't work very well, so the curtain closing sometimes took several attempts.

Once the curtain was closed, the voter confronted barely legible names inside small metal windows. Next to these were sort of switches that you could move to indicate your choice. Or you could do your voting the easy way: Democrats and Republicans each had a "party" lever that would automatically vote the party list. But your vote wouldn't count unless you then pulled a large level that recorded what levers or switches you had moved. This released the curtain and made a satisfying "clang" sound.

As anyone can imagine, there was a lot here that could go wrong -- and much did. The most frequent problem was closing the curtain to begin the voting. The elections functionaries did try to help with this. Sometimes voters would get angry once inside at malfunctioning switches and kick the machine. What effect this had I didn't find out. The functionaries were always asking, "did you pull the lever?" to ensure that a vote had been counted.

We didn't have a lot of traffic. Usually the voters presented themselves to the officials, then used the nearest booth. Only when we got busy did anyone use the machine at the end of the row. But when they did, things got really interesting. Whenever anyone would use that machine, they'd see their choices be switched to the Democratic slate list when they pulled the final lever, regardless of what they had chosen. Or the machine would jam completely and not let them finished the process. Imagine angry New Yorkers who were pretty sure their votes were being stolen from them. Despite much yelling, the election workers couldn't seem to get that one working properly -- unless this was "properly."

I don't think any higher authority ever took any notice.

Esther Rand lost. I don't really think it had to do with the machines, but there was certainly no way to find out.

Graphic via Met Council on Housing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Lest we forget: driven from Afghanistan

This Times article appeared fleetingly at the margin of the electronic paper:

Afghanistan Had Record Civilian Casualties in 2015, U.N. Says
KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban suicide attacks and a fierce battle for the northern city of Kunduz made 2015 the worst year for Afghan civilian casualties since the United Nations began tracking the data, officials said on Sunday, in a sobering reminder of the cost of the conflict at a time when the prospect of peace seems as distant as ever.

The United Nations documented 3,545 civilians killed and 7,457 injured last year, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the United Nations Human Rights Office said in a report presented at a news conference in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The total casualty figure, 11,002, was 4 percent above the 2014 level. The number of civilian injuries rose 9 percent, though there were 4 percent fewer deaths.

Having, fruitlessly, turned over that apple cart, the U.S. has left unfortunate Afghans to stew. Further down the link list there's this:

Civilian Casualties in Afghan War Are Unabated in 2016
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan documented 600 civilian deaths and 1,343 wounded in the first three months of 2016, which by most accounts is expected to be a bloody year as the Taliban rejected the latest efforts to bring them to peace talks. While the death toll fell 13 percent from the same period last year, the number of wounded increased 11 percent, the report said, with a high rise among children. ...

“In the first quarter of 2016, almost one-third of civilian casualties were children,” said Danielle Bell, the United Nations human rights director in Afghanistan. “If the fighting persists near schools, playgrounds, homes and clinics, and parties continue to use explosive weapons in those areas — particularly mortars and I.E.D. tactics — these appalling numbers of children killed and maimed will continue.”

The report blamed the insurgents for 60 percent of the casualties, and forces on the government side for 19 percent.

Though the Taliban were still at fault more often, the report noted that deaths caused by pro-government forces were up sharply from last year — roughly 70 percent higher over the same period. ...

It sure was a lovely little war of revenge, wasn't it?

Not surprisingly, many Afghan have hightailed it toward Europe as this map shows. In the public imagination, escapees from the Syrian war have eclipsed these Afghans, but they keep on coming across the vast expanse of Central Asia. Afghans are the second largest group reaching Europe, after Syrians. Most (some 5 million) stop, to work and to survive, in Pakistan and Iran, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Some number close to 500,000 have made it to Europe.

Though Afghanistan is the source of the second largest refugee flow toward Europe, its nationals are not the second largest group to win a place on that continent.

Meanwhile, the United States which kicked the hornet's nest is notably stingy about accepting the human casualties of our war policies.

American veterans have taken up the cause of thousands of interpreters and guides seeking visas to escape reprisal at home. Between October 2006 and November 2015, the United States issued only 17,619 visas earmarked for this special category, though many more of these applicants remain in limbo. During this same period, only 5,375 Afghans received visas through conventional channels. Washington remains deeply suspicious of Afghan visa applicants from all walks of life.

Remind me, what is war good for?
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