Thursday, August 21, 2014

portrait of Churchill Dec. 1941 by Yousuf Karsh
"You do your worst and we will do our best.”

Winston Churchill in December 1941, speaking of the Axis powers soon after Pearl Harbor, to the U.S. Congress.

Response



President Obama's statement yesterday on the murder of American journalist James Foley rightly characterized the ISIL terrorists as extremist murderers and torturers with no legitimate place in civilized society.  President Obama is able to make this charge credibly precisely because he has been so nuanced in his statements and policies, especially regarding Islamic peoples.

Not everybody is so precise or accurate.  The haters who aim the energy of their racial and religious prejudices are all too ready to make blanket accusations.  Some of this is the worst kind of politics, reviving the racial ignorance that goes immediately to a non-white against white scenario (which is also at work in reactions to events in Missouri.)  Neil Steinberg's column is a must-read on this topic (including his brilliantly selected and appropriate Winston Churchill quotes.)  

This murder has focused attention on ISIS/ISIL.  It's identity is emerging as a kind of terrorist cult-- a lot like the Kymer Rouge in Cambodia--but not limited to people from one country or of one race.  Learning about this entity will help to formulate responses.

But in the aftermath of this horrific murder, this is a dangerous time.  Already extreme voices and political opportunists are whipping up war fever and xenophobic hysteria.

We don't need bluster, and we can all be grateful that Cheney and Co. are not in the White House at this moment.  We don't need Hillary Clinton's bluster either, of the kind she expressed in her Atlantic interview.  We need accuracy and strategy, and a renewed commitment to the best aspects of our civilization.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

America 2014

What's going on?  In America 2014.  Violent responses may be the work of a few outsiders, and the precipitating act--a police shooting and killing of an unarmed young black man in broad daylight--is still the focal point, but more is happening and more is being exposed in Ferguson, Missouri. Race is central to what is happening. While many whites presumed the higher visibility of blacks in the media, in the professions and the workplace meant that racism was over, its effects have continued.  Racial injustice and the need for justice on many fronts, and the politics of race (and the racism of politics) are all coming to the fore.

The militarization of police is not just about hardware.  The scene above--heavily armed men in combat gear pointing deadly firearms that appear to be military (perhaps semi-automatics or automatics)-- at unarmed civilians on a public street in an American town was seldom if ever seen during the Civil Rights movement or huge anti-war demonstrations.  It's something that US soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq seldom if ever did.  It tells a story about the shocking place we are in 2014.  Wherever that place is, it's not America, not for long.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Girl of Summer

Mo'ne Davis, who Friday became the first female pitcher to win a Little League World Series game with a complete game 2-hit gem, helped Philadelphia' Mid-Atlantic Region champs win over Texas on Sunday with an RBI single in a come from behind thriller.  She'll pitch again Wednesday against Las Vegas.

Friday, August 15, 2014

News Week: Lows and Highs

The news quite often causes us to wonder just how low human beings can go, and how insane elements of our culture can become.  "Curiosity" about these is likely a big reason the internet is what it is these days.  I'm not generally in sympathy with this obsession for the darkest and most bizarre to tweet and tsk tsk about.  And as farcical as it gets, I don't look for my laughs there either.

But sometimes such evidence is unavoidable, as in the aftermath of the death by suicide of Robin Williams.  Based on very early reporting, the internet and its established news sites (including those associated with long established if now desperate print publications) were flooded with analyses and especially first person comparisons, opinions, etc. of all kinds.  All based, as it turned out but not surprisingly, on incomplete information.  Thursday his wife revealed that he had known he was in the early stages of Parkinson's Disease, of which depression is a common symptom.

But the usual range of opportunism and self-aggrandizement (along with sincere remembrances) were utterly innocent in comparison with the hateful and hate-filled comments by rabid right extremists, including so-called leaders and so-called Christians.  I won't dignify their repulsive and cynical and corrupt commentary by repeating any of it or identifying any of them, especially since their primary goal is to get named.

On top of this, the tendency of internet sites and social media to attract those most twisted with hate, ego and myriad delusions, culminating in one of Robin Williams' daughters being so bullied and abused that she quit all of her social media accounts.

Yet the news also provides us with contrasts, which may be straws to grasp but definitely are loci of hope.  This past week provided at least these:

The Fields Medal, widely regarded as the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematics, was won for the first time in history by a woman:  Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford University professor who was born in Iran.  Her work is called boldly original and it appears to cross boundaries between traditional mathematical disciplines.  To somebody who couldn't understand trig, it sounds as if it can be significant beyond academic math.

The victory of course is as well for all the women who were told, and all the girls who still are told one way or another, that girls aren't good at math, it's for males only.  For them this is the academic equivalent of  Lisa Leslie's first WNBA slam dunk.  And that's before the significance of her work itself can be evaluated in the future.

Then there's the Little League World Series, and the victory of Jackie Robinson West of Chicago in their first game, sparked by three--count 'em, three--home runs (plus a triple) by leadoff batter Pierce Jones.  Representing Great Lakes Region as the Illinois state champs, Jackie Robinson West from the South Side of Chicago is the first all-black team to make it to the LLWS in "over a decade" (according to this ESPN report) and the first Chicago team since the 80s.  The team is part of the league's urban initiative program begun 15 years ago.  

Best of all perhaps, they are the toast of Chicago.  The Jackie Robinson West team doesn't know, said their coach, how big they are back in Chicago.  Another ESPN piece quotes: Gabe Bump, fiction writer and Chicago resident, said of this JRW run for the right to do something seldom seen by any Little League team from Chicago, "It's important because they are the kids Chicago wants to forget about. These are the kids that get their schools closed. I'm rooting for them because they're South Side kids, but it's much more to it than that."

The story concludes: "here's almost a feeling that what is happening now has nothing to do with sports. It's something much bigger. At least, that's the way it is being taken in; that is how it is being embraced. Basically, calling this a feel-good story is underselling the true nature of the weight this story carries at this moment."

Update: On the second day of the Little League World Series, Pennsylvania team pitcher Mo'Ne Davis threw a two-hitter to become the first female pitcher to win a LLWS game.  She's also black.  Apart from the extra-sports significance, these stories are big deals for baseball because the proportion of African American MLB players has been diminishing.  

Thursday, August 14, 2014

An American Tragedy

It's an American tragedy specifically because race is at its center, and despite everything from good faith efforts through wistful hope to obvious denial and political opportunism, it's wearily the same American tragedy it's been for centuries, just the latest chapter.

The events in Missouri began with a police officer shooting down an unarmed teenager in broad daylight.  This--but I strongly suspect not this alone--led to protests, then looting and vandalism, then more protests, and then several nights of police actions that have been widely criticized.

A reporter who witnessed the fourth night of protests wrote:

"What transpired in the streets appeared to be a kind of municipal version of shock and awe; the first wave of flash grenades and tear gas had played as a prelude to the appearance of an unusually large armored vehicle, carrying a military-style rifle mounted on a tripod. The message of all of this was something beyond the mere maintenance of law and order: it’s difficult to imagine how armored officers with what looked like a mobile military sniper’s nest could quell the anxieties of a community outraged by allegations regarding the excessive use of force. It revealed itself as a raw matter of public intimidation."

The events in Missouri brought focus to the increasingly "militarization" of US police forces, the willing dump for the Pentagon's surplus weapons designed for combat and antiterrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thursday the governor of Missouri ordered the state police to take charge, and its commanding officer (black and who grew up in this town) seemed to have calmed things down.

But the racial element of the shooting is the true focus (though this militarization is obviously part of it, as non-whites--especially black and brown people-- are treated as the equivalent of foreign enemies and terrorists in their own cities.)  Writing about the killing of Michael Brown that precipitated the Missouri protests, Amy Davidson in the New Yorker:

"Michael Brown was black and tall; was it his body that the police officer thought was dangerous enough? Perhaps it was enough for the officer that he lived on a certain block in a certain neighborhood; shooting down the street, after all, exhibits a certain lack of concern about anyone else who might be walking by. That sort of calculus raises questions about an entire community’s rights. One way or the other, this happens too often to young men who look like Brown, or like Trayvon Martin, or, as President Obama once put it, like a son he might have had."

These incidents are deeply related to the white gun culture.  This Daily Kos diary makes this point while contrasting two situations of the previous week: of a white young man openly carrying a loaded shotgun on a public street, refusing to relinquish it to police officers without penalty, and a young black man who was toying with a toy gun in a Walmart toy section while talking on his cell to his girlfriend, and was shot down and killed by police.

In an internet culture keyed to oddity, the Walmart story went viral for awhile, soon replaced by next "bizarre" tweet-worthy photo or tale.  But many black people take greater note of such a happening, and they do not forget so quickly.

Racism is alive on American streets and endangers us all.

(Top photo is from the New York Times.)

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Big Dry

It's not just the brown grass in the front yard, or the brown fields along 101 that look more like southern California or the Bay area than our far northern California home.  It's the latest stats: the US Drought Monitor has placed us in the Exceptional Drought category, the highest possible. (It's marked in the darkest color on the map.)

The entire state of California has been in some category of drought conditions for awhile.  But as recently as January, no part of the state was in the Exceptional Drought category.  Now 58% of the state is, including almost all of the coast.

Update: Drought and climate change threaten our redwoods, and the big trees in general, which a scientist says could be completely gone in a century.

The latest reports and scientific speculation on El Nino (that it is less likely to be the strong one that often brings rain to California, and it is less likely to occur at all) was the top story on the local newspaper front page, along with predictions for a dry winter.

Meanwhile there are so many fires--10 in northern California, to the north, east and south of us, as well as in Oregon--that our skies have a hint of red.

Water policy has become a statewide concern, reflected in the state legislatures.  After the Brown administration resisted restrictions on water-wasting fracking, some sites are being shut down for fear of contaminating aquifers.

 Cities are adding personnel to police water use restrictions that went into effect statewide on August 1. And in yet another dubious use of new technology, if you want to report your neighbor for wasting water--there's an app for that.

 In a more positive response, municipalities are becoming more interested in water purification, especially since in many cases the purification and reuse of waste water costs less than desalinization or even purchasing water from remote locations.

In the short term California tends to be more extremist than some other places, so water consciousness and conflicts are going to ramp up quickly.  But in the long term, changes that have long been discussed will need to be really considered, and the best of them implemented.  Extraordinary drought doesn't look like it will end soon, and in any case the climate crisis is going to make dry cycles and "normal" times dryer in most places for the foreseeable future.  If we held out hopes up here in the far northern coast of the state that our unique climate would be immune, it's clear now that it isn't.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Climate Vs. Distraction

The politics of distraction has been markedly successful for reactionary forces.  Distort, distract and refocus the debate on outrageous distortions that make something as conservative as Obamacare seem radical, and debate on the deeper and more meaningful changes in the dysfunctional US healthcare system ends--with the insurance companies still in charge.

The politics of distraction has been particularly successful on the climate crisis.  While it was something that was happening but would manifest its damaging effects on humanity in the future, the necessary debate on what to do about it was sidelined by the raging and outrageous phony debate on whether it was real.

But now the effects are showing up in the present, and denialists are beginning to sound like those tobacco companies hacks and stooges who were still claiming in the 1990s that the science was uncertain about the harmful effects of tobacco smoking.

It may be that the virilence of their denials is in inverse proportion to the weaknesses of their arguments.  In any case, the political efforts to deny the climate crisis--and especially deny responsibility for changes necessary to forestall it getting worse in the future that the present can still affect--is massive.

These efforts seem to be centered on creating a political atmosphere that enables corporations to protect their current activities and profits.  The political windbags and the relentless denialists on the Internet are the stormtroopers.  Their job is to distract and keep the debate as crazy as possible, and stuck on the fundamental denialist issues.  The actual battles are being waged in legislatures.  The Republicans in the US Congress effectively hold Congress hostage.  But there are pitched battles in state legislatures.

Take a very recent effect of the climate crisis out of the many in the news this month: the half a million people in Ohio who couldn't drink their water because of algae building up in Lake Erie.  The causes form a perfect storm we're going to see again and again--environmental malfeasance by big corporations (principally agribusinesses using high phosphate fertilizers) with consequences also caused by the climate crisis (principally more rain and heat in the affected area.)  It was, salon said, a manmade disaster.

Moreover, Scientific American said in its headlines:Lake Erie Algae Bloom Matches Climate Change Projections/ The bloom that poisoned Toledo's waters may become more common as the waters of the Great Lakes warm.

Connections to big corporate efforts to bully state legislatures are made in this brilliant Guardian column by Ana Marie Cox.  Although the Republican governor of Ohio signed fairly weak legislation that at least recognized the problem of phosphates in fertilizer runoff,  Cox notes:

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker “eased” the deadlines for polluters in the state to meet the previous administration’s numerical standards for the amount of phosphorous allowed in public waters (he tried to replace the numeric standards with a “narrative description” of reduction efforts, but wasn’t successful). In Tea Partying Florida, the Republican state legislature sought to overturn locally-enacted bans on phosphorus fertilizer – an effort pushed by a Scotts Miracle-Gro lobbyist who texted a representative, “I am begging for your help here.”

Cox also found counterexamples: "purple" and "red" states that are addressing the phosphate issue, because their citizens don't take kindly to the prospect of not having water to drink.  She suggests that Republicans have the opportunity now to change their current extreme opposition to anything that smacks of doing the environment any good.

But this change into extreme anti-environmentalism (the EPA after all was established in the Nixon administration) took some years and will resist, at least until very powerful corporations start turning themselves around.  Agribusiness may be the last except for the fossil fuel behemoths, that are busy buying up state governments all over the country to enable fracking and other extreme measures that keep them rolling in the megabucks in the fossil fuel business.

For the American citizenry as a whole, which polls show is already alarmed by the climate crisis, the political effects will likely come in the form of demanding that government deals with the effects of the climate crisis on their lives.  So far there hasn't been the division between dealing with causes and dealing with effects that I've feared, but it's always possible.  For now, it seems that support for dealing with effects (including banning phosphate fertilizers) may well translate into support for dealing with causes (reducing greenhouse gases.)

So we're doing it the hard way, by suffering the effects that cannot be forestalled because we didn't deal with causes earlier.  But it's getting harder to be distracted. The climate crisis is all around us.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Nukes Remain a Present Danger

Viewing the news of the past week or so--let's face it, any week but especially recently--it's easy to lose any faith in human civilization and its ability to avoid killing itself.  We have one big victory to remember, which is that we managed to avoid nuclear holocaust in the decades of its greatest danger, and nations engaged in successful treaties to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, and their hair-trigger status.

But the nuclear threat is not consigned to history.  It is still here.  And in some ways the dangers have increased. A generation or two have grown up without the nuclear threat being prominently mentioned, believing it to be historical, not present, and often not understanding the great difference between bombs and thermonuclear bombs.  Admittedly, non-nuclear bombs have grown in destructive power, but there are still very much less devastating in their total effects.  This is true of the so-called tactical or smaller nuclear weapons.  They are of a different order.

This unfamiliarity may make things more dangerous.  Treaties have slowed the spread of nuclear weapons, but such weapons still exist and are still spreading.    Chances would seem to increase that one will be used.  The lack of live alarm about nuclear weapons probably made it easier both for Russia to violate a nuclear arms treaty (while suggesting it might withdraw from the treaty completely) and for the media to treat the U.S. charge that this happened as a fairly minor one day story.

There are fewer nuclear weapons actively pointed at targets in the U.S. or the former Soviet Union now, but that's not the same as none.  Some believe the chances of accidental launch are even greater today.  We're also learning how many times we came very close to ending the known world in a few hours, or of a horrible accident that would have wiped out millions and contaminated areas the size of US states.

Eric Schlosser's book on the many brushes with apocalypse we had and didn't know it is brilliantly reviewed by the great Louis Menand in the New Yorker.  He passes on a sampling of the incidents, which includes one as recent as 1995, in which Russian president Boris Yeltsin had minutes to decide whether to trigger a nuclear retaliation for what the military were certain was an incoming missile attack.  It wasn't, it was a weather satellite launched from Norway, which the Russians had been notified about but that information didn't get to the right people.  This was only one of many such incidents.

There's been news about poor training and dangerous sloppiness recently in  US missile launching facilities.  There have been revelations about how sloppy and inept the systems were and perhaps still are in the UK and how dangerous the launch system may have been in Russia and still may be.

Out of sight and out of mind does not mean out of the range of possibilities.  Doctor Strangelove is not dead.  President Obama made progress towards new treaties with the goal of a nuclear-free world.  We aren't there yet, and we may be going backwards instead.

Those of us who lived through the Cold War may find our thoughts turning to the reality of nuclear weapons in August, the month in 1945 that two atomic bombs dropped on cities in Japan.  So far they are the only two nuclear bombs to be used as weapons.  That's almost amazing.  But it's hardly a guarantee they will be the last, especially as the memory fades, and as new generations have little knowledge of the dimensions of this threat.

So any millennials who somehow stumbled onto this post, go back and google nuclear war and nuclear weapons.  The threats are not just in the past.  They are in your world and your future.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Choice

Voters are offered a stark choice in November, and that was dramatized once again on Wednesday, as the Republican House voted to sue President Obama for administrative decisions regarding the Affordable Care Act, and Obama was speaking in Kansas City about the range of real issues facing most Americans:

  "Look, we’ve got just today and tomorrow until Congress leaves town for a month. And we’ve still got some serious work to do. We’ve still got a chance to -- we got to put people to work rebuilding roads and bridges. And the Highway Trust Fund is running out of money; we got to get that done. We’ve got to get some resources to fight wildfires out West. That’s a serious situation. We need more resources to deal with the situation in the southern part of the border with some of those kids. We got to be able to deal with that in a proper way.

 (Applause.) So there’s a bunch of stuff that needs to get done. Unfortunately, I think the main vote -- correct me if I’m wrong here, Congressman -- the main vote that they’ve scheduled for today is whether or not they decide to sue me for doing my job... But think about this -- they have announced that they’re going to sue me for taking executive actions to help people. So they’re mad because I’m doing my job. And, by the way, I’ve told them -- I said, I’d be happy to do it with you. So the only reason I’m doing it on my own is because you don’t do anything. (Applause.) But if you want, let’s work together. 

I mean, everybody recognizes this is a political stunt, but it’s worse than that, because every vote they’re taking like that means a vote they’re not taking to actually help you. When they have taken 50 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that was time that could have been spent working constructively to help you on some things. (Applause.) And, by the way, you know who is paying for this suit they’re going to file? You."

"So some of the things we’re doing without Congress are making a difference, but we could do so much more if Congress would just come on and help out a little bit. (Applause.) Just come on. Come on and help out a little bit. Stop being mad all the time. (Applause.) Stop just hating all the time. Come on. (Applause.) Let’s get some work done together. (Applause.)..."

"And that’s what sometimes Washington forgets. Your lives and what you’re going through day to day -- the struggles, but also the opportunities and the hopes and the good things, but sometimes the rough things that happen -- that’s more important than some of the phony scandals or the fleeting stories that you see.  
This is the challenge of our time -- how do we make sure we’ve got an economy that is working for everybody? Now, all of you are doing your part to help bring America back. You’re doing your job. Imagine how much further along we’d be, how much stronger our economy would be, if Congress was doing its job, too. (Applause.) We’d be doing great."

All the pundits talking to each other in Washington who think the Democrats don't have a potentially winning message in 2014 might think again.

(All photos: Kansas City Star)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

as July ends

     BK photo.  Click image for full photo.

On the threshold of August, summer fires in California.  One just north of here in Six Rivers National Forest halted traffic on the main road to there for a day or so but was expected to be contained by Monday.  Two larger fires are burning to our south: in the Sacramento area and near Yosemite.  As elsewhere, they are burning hotter and faster because of drought-dried vegetation.

With requests to voluntarily cut back on water use apparently ineffective, California will begin mandatory restrictions on home water use on August 1.  The announced guidelines are fairly limited (don't water down your driveway etc.) but each municipality is supposed to develop its own rules.  We haven't been notified of ours yet.

So here on the North Coast, where some maps show the least effect predicted from the climate crisis of anywhere in the states, we're still looking at possibly big effects of small changes.  Though not yet part of the media buzz, there's knowledgeable talk of a rodent population explosion, along with some insects, possibly due to the mild winter.

By the National Weather Service stats, we've have above normal temps (2-3F) and below average precip (which usually isn't much) for June and July.  I don't have stats on pollen but we're really feeling it more, so I assume it's been consistently higher, a consequence of both those weather factors.  So hay fever symptoms are more on than off this summer.

So far our summer crops still seem abundant.  We're enjoying the high season for strawberries right at the moment, mostly from the hotter areas to the east.  It's possible to grow tomatoes in Arcata now, though we have only one plant with just a few baby tomatoes.  But the smell of the tomato vine on my fingers reminds me of August in PA, when the tomato and pepper crops were coming in, and fried plates of same were frequent.

And there's this butterfly, which looks to be an Oregon Swallowtail.  We don't get many butterflies here, maybe nobody does.  But there's been a couple around this month.
BK photo.  copyright William Kowinski 2014

Speaking of Sports

The SF Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates are in the playoff hunt probably for the rest of the season, although the Dodgers sweep in San Francisco may turn out to be a pivotal moment.  So far the only contender to make a move was SF, trading a very good minor league prospect for veteran pitcher Jake Peavy.  The Giants hope to repeat their success with down on their luck veteran starters (most recently Tim Hudson.)  Peavy was immediately thrown into the deep water Sunday with a start against the rival LA Dodgers, to try to stop the bleeding as the Dodgers knocked the Giants out of first place with two straight wins in San Francisco.  His outing was respectable in an otherwise weird and poorly played game, featuring bad calls and errors by another recently acquired veteran, Dan Uggla, whose fielding lived up to his name.  Peavy got the loss, 4-3.

Meanwhile the Pirates survived Coors Field in Colorado, salvaging one win out of three games.  On Sunday they finally scored runs and hit enough homers to take the Rockies 7-5.

 Both the Giants and Pirates have more away games than home games remaining (SF has 6 more away than home, Pirates 3) which is usually not good. But the Giants are a pretty good road team--their epic slump in June and July was mostly at home after a very good road trip.  They started after the break with a good road trip, and lost their first games back.

 The Pirates on the other hand are nearly invincible at home, and not so great away.  Another difference: the Giants this year prosper the most when they score early and hang on (although their bullpen has been an adventure lately.)  The Pirates come from behind a lot, which has been a characteristic of some great Pirate teams in the past.

  The Giants will contend with the Dodgers, and both those teams continue to be plagued by injuries to key players.  But in the just concluded home series, the injury depleted Giants were clearly outplayed by the injury depleted Dodgers. The Pirates are in a competitive chaos with three other teams, and they have several late season head-to-heads with the Reds and the Cardinals.  And coming up next week, the Giants and the Pirates play their last series against each other, in San Francisco.  So at least I'll be able to listen to those games on the radio.

NBA:  The LA Lakers have finally done something right: hired Byron Scott as their coach.  Scott is an experienced coach at a high level (the Lakers beat his Nets in the 2002 finals), he won championships as a key player for the Showtime Lakers (and had the support for coach of key members of that team like Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Michael Cooper), and he mentored a 17 year old rookie named Kobie Bryant, who also lobbied for him.

 Phil Jackson says that in the NBA today you need a dependable point guard and a big center.  The Lakers acquired point guard Jeremy Lin and sort of big man Carlos Boozer.  I wasn't a fan of Boozer's game and didn't see Lin much, but they're veterans without being over the hill overpaid fading stars, so it does suggest these Lakers could have a respectable number of wins with some exciting games.  Because I expect Kobie will be back with a vengeance.

Most of the ESPN analysts who know more about the league than I do, don't exactly agree--they believe the Lakers are in a terrible position, not good enough to contend but too good to qualify for the best draft picks.  The rebuilding however must begin with the credibility of the organization.  Having whiffed on acquiring Carmelo Anthony, let alone LeBron James suggests that players suspect the legendary LA organization is not what it was. It is the Buss boy who probably has to prove himself to the elite players in the league.  Hiring Byron Scott looks like a start.

Meanwhile across town the LA Clippers have a better team but are in deeper chaos because of the still ongoing Sterling/Silver affair.  Donald Sterling is tying things up in court but Clippers coach Doc Rivers added urgency to the situation by suggesting he won't return if Sterling is still the owner.  Star player Chris Paul has since said he might sit out the season for the same reason.  There's even the possibility that players on other teams will refuse to play, perhaps limiting that to refusing to play the Clippers.  So just letting this all drag out in the courts doesn't look like a good option.
Update: Or not!  A judge's ruling Monday seems to clear the way for the sale of the Clippers by mid-August.  It's not yet certain but looks more like resolution is near.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Thing With Feathers

As I remember it, it started out quietly.  A small group of scientists, or maybe just one, suggested that a remote ancestor of birds might be dinosaurs.  Dinos might even have been warm-blooded.

These days the warm or at least tepid-blooded dinosaur is a full blown theory with lots of evidence.  And the convinction that dinos and birds are related has been growing.  But I doubt if anybody predicted this.

On Friday the National Geographic online had this headline: Siberian Discovery Suggests Almost All Dinosaurs Were Feathered.

Yes, dinosaurs were the things with feathers.  First there were a few species discovered in China that definitely had lots of feathers.  But now: "This does mean that we can now be very confident that feathers weren't just an invention of birds and their closest relatives, but evolved much deeper in dinosaur history," he adds. "I think that the common ancestor of dinosaurs probably had feathers, and that all dinosaurs had some type of feather, just like all mammals have some type of hair."

Think about all those dinosaur models, all the books and dino toys that boys love.  How fierce and formidable they look, how warlike and ready for titanic battles, just like in the movies.

It's easy to overlook that most were vegetarians anyway.  But now they aren't plated, smooth hard-skinned streamlined for action huge roaring beasts.  They're fluffy.

The article goes on to say that this doesn't mean all the dinos were covered with feathers like birds.  They may have had just a bit of fluff here and there, especially the bigger ones.  But still.  The roaring towering dinosaur image is likely utterly shot.

Just why dinos had feathers is still a mystery. What exactly did all these different feathers do? "I don't know; nobody knows for sure," Godefroit says. "These animals couldn't fly, that's all we can tell you."

Man, feathers and they can't even fly and swoop down, or attack in formation or anything.  Maybe not so red in tooth in claw after all, that leaf-munching tyrannosaurus fluffy. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Internet Dystopia

Someone left behind a copy of Wired magazine at the Post Office, so I picked it up.  It's a big thick issue with a story headlined on the cover that sounded interesting.  I paged through it, while searching for the table of contents or at least the article, and I was amazed.  Ad after glossy ad, mostly for men's luxury products.  There were half a dozen ads just for high-end wristwatches.  So much advertising, and I never did find the table of contents or the article.  (This isn't the issue, but the cover says alot, especially in contrast to the cover below.)

I remember Wired when it was thin and new, publishing articles by Kevin Kelley about how the Internet was going to create an automatic egalitarian Utopia.  Now it resembles nothing so much as an issue of GQ in the 1980s.  Granted that this particular issue was an old one in the holiday gift-giving season.  But even so.

With the maturation of internet-related corporations, and all the money involved, comes the same sort of excesses as previous rich businesses, like the Google executive who took and overdose (or maybe poisoned) heroin provided by an unhappy hooker on his party boat.   Kind of doesn't fit the revolutionary image.

The most conspicuous difference on the net is the nature and amount of increasingly intrusive advertising.  I've been reading Josh Marshall's site since it was a one-person blog called Talking Point Memo at least a decade ago.  Since then he's been building it as a political news and opinion site, employing a number of others.  Recently he's been pumping up a membership model with extra access while the public site is so clotted with ads in the form of video, banners, and (clearly marked) faux news that the site takes forever to load on both the browsers I use.  Extra incentive to buy the membership I guess.  But the content has itself moved to the most politically sensational, finding every right wing outrage that's easy to describe in a paragraph.  It seems to be all about the eyeballs, but this particular combination of  predictable content and intrusive advertising is losing mine.  It's not a site I check every day anymore.

The struggle for viable economic models, mostly so far involving a geometric increase in advertising, is probably one reason nobody I know of talks about the internet Utopia anymore.  Even universal access to the internet is threatened by proposed new rules that will allow different tiers of service (though in fact, providers are already doing this.) The move from desktops to new devices with very pricey service fees is creating an internet for the well-to-do and nobody else. But it's worse than that--the internet threatens to become a dystopia.

It is already a dictatorship, when users have the choice of "agreeing" to various forms of spying if they want access and services at all.  There was a kerfuffle over a "study" done at Facebook that did more than study--it changed information on individual sites.  Today there's a story based on another study that uses Google accumulated data on searches to determine what Republicans and Democrats search for during extreme weather.  If that's not an actual First Amendment violation, it should be.  But it's business as usual on the internet, where information is what these companies have to sell.

  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Small Step

Forty-five years ago today, a human being first set foot on another world.  Some 600 million people on Earth were watching and listening as Neil Armstrong descended to the surface of the Moon from the Apollo 11 lunar lander, saying (in words slightly obscured by static) "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Those of us who were alive and old enough usually remember where we were.  I was visiting Colorado, and had spent the afternoon in a car winding through the dry bare mountains near Denver, which seemed to me as desolate as a moonscape.  Kathi, the driver, and my girlfriend Joni were from Denver and we were seeing the sights, but I remember this landscape (and possibly the thin air that I wasn't used to) just made me despondent.

A few hours later we were in the basement rec room of Kathi's parents' house as we watched the ghostly image of Armstrong on the Moon.  I felt it--that I was watching in real time an extraordinary moment in human history.  At the same time, that indistinct black and white image was a little like watching Captain Video on an early black and white television set when I was five or six.

Years later the worlds of science fiction and factual history collided again at a Star Trek convention dinner.  I stopped to speak to Nichelle Nichols at a table in the darkened ballroom when she said she wanted to introduce me to someone. From the seat next to her up popped a man in a suit holding out his hand--it was Neil Armstrong.  I shook the hand of the first human to really touch another world.
Earlier in this 45th anniversary year, MIT Press published Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek.  I liked everything about this book except the title, which suggests a conscious and coordinated campaign of hype and spin.  The book's contents tell a different story.  Though NASA and the major corporations involved in this titanic effort all had public relations and marketing people, NASA set the standard by insisting that the media be given full factual information.  There was plenty of hoopla surrounding the astronauts in particular, but a lot of that was generated by media responding to the burst of public interest that caught everyone by surprise.

As this book says (and other sources affirm), well into the 1950s the idea of rocketing humans into space was considered to be science fiction fantasy, believed only by children.  The Eisenhower administration itself was skeptical, though the U.S. government was confident that its plans to send a satellite into orbit as part of the 1957-8 International Geophysical Year would be the first such endeavor.

But early in the 50s, some magazine articles accompanied by dramatic cover art in Colliers plus the 3 Walt Disney programs beginning with "Man in Space" stirred some public interest.  Then came the shock of Soviet space firsts--the first satellite (Sputnik), the first live animal, the first man and the first woman in Earth orbit.  Humans in space was no longer a fantasy.

After a few disasters (including at least one on live TV), the U.S. Army and Navy succeeded in getting satellites up.  The civilian agency NASA was created, and suddenly the astronauts became heroic celebrities. After two sub-orbital flights, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.  Shortly afterwards, President John F. Kennedy issued his famous challenge: to land a man on the Moon and return him safely before the end of the 1960s.

After a string of successful one-person flights (the Mercury program) and two-person orbits mostly testing procedures and equipment for the moon shot (Gemini), the Apollo program began with an horrific tragedy: during a ground test, a fire aboard the crew capsule killed three astronauts, including the second American in space, Virgil Grissom.  After months of reappraisal and redesign, Apollo flights began and continued at a pretty rapid clip that kept the astronauts in the news and built to the moment of Apollo 11.

But for the next 6 Apollo flights, public interest dropped gradually and then precipitously.  "Few people alive on December 14, 1972, can tell you where they were on that day," this book notes.  But it was the day that the last humans to ever go there left the moon.  No one has been back since.

This book continues examining the coverage and marketing efforts after Apollo 11 and speculates on why interest dropped so far so fast.  Television coverage of the space program increased network news prestige--particularly CBS--but lost money, so after Armstrong it was cut back severely.  Other factors are suggested, notably that the goal of landing an American on the moon was basically Cold War competition with the Soviets, and after Apollo 11, it was game over, the home team won.

The authors also note how much else was going on to absorb public attention, and having lived through those years, that's certainly pertinent: the Vietnam war and associated actions in Southeast Asia, antiwar demonstrations, racial unrest, Kent State, the 1972 presidential campaign and the first Watergate stories were all happening between Apollo 11 and 17.

The book repeats assertions that the rise of the environmental movement in those years--partly inspired not at all ironically by the now iconic views of Earth in space, and the "earthrise" photos from the moon taken by Apollo astronauts--diverted attention from out there.

I recall all of these factors as at least partially true.  But there was also the relentless pace of U.S. space flights.  I saw them all on TV, from Explorer and Vanguard in 1958 through the Apollo shots more than a decade later.  I don't think people were totally fixated on the winning the space race aspect, but nobody could sustain excitement and the same keen interest for all those events.  Rockets to space were getting to be a regular thing.

Also, NASA had apparently concentrated so hard on getting humans to the Moon that they didn't come up with much for them to do there that was interesting, such as scientific exploration and experiments that could be communicated in an involving and exciting way.

This book does an admirable job of chronicling how NASA and the institutions involved got the information out, and how the media went about covering the stories.  There was a marketing concern, since it was felt that public interest would encourage Congress to keep funding the space program, but there were also concerns to keep commercialism from tainting the patriotic effort, leading to a shifting dance on what corporations could and couldn't do to publicize their part of the space program.  (Apart from major contractors, the winner on becoming identified with the astronauts was clearly Tang.  If you were there, you know what I'm talking about.)

This is a large format "coffee-table" book with lots of photos and sidebars.  Written by two public relations professionals, it not only tells the public information story but features enough documentary information (including transcripts of key Apollo moments) to be a good resource on the space program itself.  It seems to fulfill the NASA ideal of being as objective and complete as possible.  Though this was supposedly the Mad Men era, this book affirms that there really was a feeling of common purpose that permeated the space program and extended to the media.  The story of humans in space, of humanity on the Moon, was so powerful and inspiring that it often overrode selfishness and spin.

Today we know how many things went wrong as the Eagle was trying to land on July 20, 1969.  But somehow it did land, and that moment inspires awe even today.  Perhaps even more so, since such a voyage has returned to the realm of fantasy, only with better visual effects.    

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Climate Action

From the New York Times:

"President Obama announced a series of climate change initiatives on Wednesday aimed at guarding the electricity supply; improving local planning for flooding, coastal erosion and storm surges; and better predicting landslide risks as sea levels rise and storms and droughts intensify.

The actions, involving a variety of federal agencies, were among the recommendations of the president’s State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, a group of 26 officials who have worked since November to develop the proposals.

One of the projects involves shoring up the power supply during climate catastrophes, and the Department of Agriculture on Wednesday awarded a total of $236.3 million to eight states to improve electricity infrastructure in rural areas. A government study released in May concluded that climate change would strain utility companies’ ability to deliver power as extreme weather damaged power lines and hotter temperatures drove surges in demand."

Here's the White House story on this conference and these announcements. What's significant about this task force apart from its topic is that it includes tribal leaders, and they've made substantial commitments to address these problems on Indian lands.

 Thanks I'm sure in great measure to climate adviser and White House counselor John Podesta, the Obama administration is proceeding on real efforts to deal with the effects of climate disruptions already underway and in the pipeline, and to deal with the causes of future global heating by reducing carbon pollution and advancing carbon capture technologies as well as clean energy for the future.

The need for both becomes evident every day.  On Wednesday a typhoon that's killed at least 38 in the Philippines is headed for China.  So it makes sense that the US and China have signed eight new agreements on various matters relating to climate.  The emphasis is on sharing technology, research and expertise on a range of technologies, including "clean coal."

The New Divestiture Movement

When a few months ago Stanford University announced that it was divesting from coal companies, the industry all but laughed in public.  But the divestiture movement that was so effective in pushing South Africa to end apartheid  started slowly and with much more controversy.

Now the climate crisis divestiture movement got a very big and significant participant--the World Council of Churches that represents half a billion Christians announced it is ceasing investments in fossil fuels.

“The World Council of Churches reminds us that morality demands thinking as much about the future as about ourselves — and that there’s no threat to the future greater than the unchecked burning of fossil fuels,” Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, said in a statement. “This is a remarkable moment for the 590 million Christians in its member denominations: a huge percentage of humanity says today ‘this far and no further.’”

 These may not have immediate major economic impact, but the writing is on the wall.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

It Must Have Been Supermoon glow

Another overcast night meant the "Super Moon" was visible here only in photos.  Oh well.  The photos are neat.

Speaking of Sports

NBA: LeBron James is going back to Cleveland.  The response in sports media is overwhelming positive: he's going back to his home town area, he's admitted his mistakes in the way he left, and incidentally, he's making $88 million.  The move led to this Bill Simmons piece on basketball genius, a lot of it about Michael Jordan as well as LeBron--it's the best basketball piece I've read in a long time.  It says a lot about what happened in Miami and why LeBron left, plus Bird and Magic lore.

Once LeBron made his move, others followed quickly.  Contrary to my prediction, Bosh turned down a really good situation in Houston to rake in the dough by resigning with Miami, which lost its superstar but gained a lot of cash (otherwise known as "cap room.")  Pau Gasol left the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls.  Carmelo Anthony is reportedly negotiating with the Knicks to stay in New York.  The Lakers got point guard Jeremy Lin.

So who wins and who loses?  The clearest winner is the Eastern Conference.  The Bulls and of course Cleveland strengthened, the Knicks at least haven't lost ground.   Charlotte is improved.  Miami obviously will no longer dominate the conference, so it's going to be a lot more competitive and probably a lot better.The Chicago Bulls could be the team to beat--a long time since that could be said.

The Lakers got a point guard and lost their crucial big man and Kobe's experienced partner.  The Lakers organization has screwed up so badly for the past several years that it's going to take several years to just get even, and by that time, Kobe will likely be gone and LA may well enter another dry period with no face to the franchise.

That said, no other Western Conference team has conspicuously improved through free agency.  There's still time for teams to make moves and it's likely there will be some with the potential to change things.  In fact both the Lakers and Knicks have to make moves--they don't have enough players signed to field a decent team.

Baseball: After some tough--even freakish--losses against St. Louis and a blown lead in Cincinnati, the Pittsburgh Pirates showed why they are one of the most exciting teams in baseball.  Again losing a lead and down to their last inning, Andrew McCutchen blasted a 95 mph fastball over the wall in center to tie the game.  The Reds almost won it in the 10th but the mighty arm of super-rookie Gregory Polanco got the runner at the plate.  And with two outs in the 11th, McCutchen blasted a changeup out of the park to left, the game winner.

Meanwhile the Giants don't seem able to win for anybody but Lincecum.  Update: Unless the starting pitcher (Bumgarner) and catcher (Posey) hit grand slams in the same game for the first time in major league history.  And guess which one of them hit his second slam this season?  Hint: it wasn't Posey.  Giants won 8-4 Sunday.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Obama Admits His Failed Presidency

President Obama finally admitted the truth in Austin, Texas:



The crisis in 2008 hurt us all badly -- worse financial crisis since the Great Depression. But you think about the progress we’ve made. Today, our businesses have added nearly 10 million new jobs over the past 52 months. (Applause.) Our housing is rebounding. Our auto industry is booming. Manufacturing is adding more jobs than any time since the 1990s. The unemployment rate is the lowest point it’s been since September of 2008. (Applause.)..  So a lot of this was because of the resilience and hard work of the American people. That's what happens -- Americans bounce back.

But some of it had to do with decisions we made to build our economy on a new foundation. And those decisions are paying off. We’re more energy independent. For the first time in nearly 20 years, we produce more oil here at home than we buy from abroad. (Applause.) The world’s largest oil and gas producer isn’t Russia; it’s not Saudi Arabia -- it’s the United States of America. (Applause.)

At the same time, we’ve reduced our total carbon pollution over the past eight years more than any country on Earth. (Applause.) We’ve tripled the amount of electricity we generate from wind. We’ve increased the amount of solar energy we have by 10 times. We’re creating jobs across the country in clean energy. (Applause.)

In education, our high school graduation rate is at a record high; the Latino dropout rate has been cut in half since 2000. (Applause.) More young people are graduating from college than ever before....The Affordable Care Act has given millions more families peace of mind. They won’t go broke just because they get sick. (Applause.) Our deficits have been cut by more than half.

We have come farther and recovered faster, thanks to you, than just about any other nation on Earth...  For the first time in a decade, business leaders around the world have said the number-one place to invest is not China, it’s the United States of America. So we’re actually seeing companies bring jobs back. (Applause.) So there’s no doubt that we are making progress. By almost every measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office." (Applause.)

By the way, if you think President Obama doesn't have the fire and the eloquence of candidate Obama, and if you think the 2014 elections are a foregone conclusion, you need to see this speech from Austin, Texas.

"The truth is, even with all the actions I’ve taken this year, I’m issuing executive orders at the lowest rate in more than 100 years. So it’s not clear how it is that Republicans didn’t seem to mind when President Bush took more executive actions than I did. (Applause.) Maybe it’s just me they don’t like. I don’t know. Maybe there’s some principle out there that I haven’t discerned, that I haven’t figure out. (Laughter.) You hear some of them -- “sue him,” “impeach him.” Really? (Laughter.) Really? For what? (Applause.) You’re going to sue me for doing my job? Okay. (Applause.) I mean, think about that. You’re going to use taxpayer money to sue me for doing my job -- (laughter) -- while you don’t do your job. (Applause.)....

We could do so much more if Republicans in Congress would focus less on stacking the deck for those on the top and focus more on creating opportunity for everybody. And I want to work with them. I don’t expect them to agree with me on everything, but at least agree with me on the things that you used to say you were for before I was for them. (Applause.) You used to be for building roads and infrastructure. Nothing has changed. Let’s go ahead and do it. (Applause.) Ronald Reagan passed immigration reform, and you love Ronald Reagan. Let’s go ahead and do it. (Applause.)

Let’s embrace the patriotism that says it’s a good thing when our fellow citizens have health care. It’s not a bad thing. (Applause.) That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing when women earn what men do for the same work. That’s an all-American principle. (Applause.) Everybody has got a mom out there or a wife out there or a daughter out there. They don’t want them to not get treated fairly. Why would you be against that?

It’s a good thing when parents can take a day off to care for a sick child without losing their job or losing pay and they can’t pay their bills at the end of the month. It’s a good thing when nobody who works full-time is living in poverty. That is not radical. It’s not un-American. It’s not socialist. That’s how we built this country. It’s what America is all about, us working together. (Applause.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Eye of the Storm


As we've noted here, El Nino and the climate crisis itself are phenomena of nature that take a long time and particular circumstances to develop, but once they take hold, there's nothing that can be done to stop them until they've played themselves out.  The best that can be done is to blunt their effects, and (in the case of the climate crisis) take steps to see it doesn't get worse or ever happen again.

We may be part of a similar political phenomenon, though politics is only its location and not totally its cause.  It may be so powerful that it can't be stopped until it plays itself out.  Though it's not clear where it will end up, it is obvious where it is going.

Right now we might call it the revolt of the reactionary right, a kind of apocalyptic extremism pushing the US into political crisis, and perhaps constitutional crisis.

Republicans in Congress, in some states and in the rabid right media are converging on one point: the presidency.  Over the past weekend, House Speaker John Banal repeated his demand that House Republicans sue President Obama over still unspecified actions in violation of his legal mandates.  On Tuesday it was reported that the House will make a circus out of this for the next three weeks, scheduling a vote perhaps hours before the House goes on one of its frequent recesses.

A GOPer Senate candidate in Iowa upped the ante by accusing President Obama of being a dictator.  And for some the lawsuit is not enough--they want Congress to impeach President Obama.  That demand was connected to a kind of political threat not so viciously made since the days of Joe McCarthy when Sarah Palin said
"we should vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment."

Jonathan Bernstein wrote a perceptive post that outlines the growing pressure within the Republican party to push for impeachment, the unprecedented nature of this proposal, and the likely bad outcome for Republicans and the country.

In a comment on that post, I wondered if Banal's lawsuit was to short-circuit the calls for impeachment, though some observers thought it was to be a kind of warm-up for impeachment.  On Wednesday Banal  said he "disagreed" with the calls for impeachment so far.  On Thursday the lawsuit (itself unprecedented) was unveiled--it focuses on President Obama's "failure to enforce the Affordable Care Act" as passed by Congress--the same act that Republicans have voted a zillion times to repeal.  And a law that (on the same day) is proving to be working.

Update: The commentary on Friday had to do with whether the courts would find that Congress has the "standing" to even sue.  Here's Jonathan Bernstein on that. There's also the likelihood that this could go on for more years than President Obama has in office.  BUT (and this is just my conjecture), an early decision by a court that the House of Representatives does not have standing and therefore the suit is thrown out, and the only remedy available is impeachment: this could lead to a renewed and even more frenzied impeachment push. 

For her fiery call, Sarah Palin received a certain amount of ridicule (including Borowitz: Americans Unhappy To Be Reminded That Sarah Palin Still Exists.) But it is not really clear that this is over.  Some Republicans may feel President Obama's tepid poll numbers, and the ongoing if premature debate over the success or failure of his presidency, create a political context sympathetic to their actions.  But the poll numbers are changeable (when the polls aren't bogus) and the debate has two sides.

For example there's the position that Obama did what any Democrat would have done as President (Bernstein has proposed this.)  Jonathan Chiat disagrees.  He notes how only President Obama's steadfastness in sticking with the comprehensive Affordable Care Act when others in his administration were ready to cave and accept an increment or two, kept the bill together long enough for passage.

I would add another example.  Both Bernstein and Chiat agree that any Dem would have proposed a big stimulus package.  But the difference may be in what was in that package.  I'm not sure all other Dems would have insisted that a chunk of spending be devoted to embryonic clean energy projects.  Yet that seeding was important and possibly crucial to the tremendous growth in clean energy we see today, to the point that it is a real economic as well as ecologic force.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Two Weather Makers for 2014 and Beyond

As "The World Set Free," that great episode of Cosmos said, climate is the general outline of weather and it is pretty predictable.  The day to day weather within it is still pretty unpredictable more than a day or so in advance.  But there are a couple of phenomena that do determine weather, and both are making news.

One is our old friend El Nino.  As this pretty thorough ABC article explains, it occurs when several small things happen at the right times, and then it takes on a life of its own. In a way, that's a relevant model for the climate crisis itself.  When El Nino gets established it can last for two years or so.  Right now the relevant scientists are 80% sure El Nino is developing.  It's likely to be felt in fall and winter.  As this article notes, the early effects are already being felt in India, where the monsoon season is dryer, and food prices are going up.

The general effects of El Nino are increased global heating and more extreme weather.  It moves the rain around so that some areas get a lot more than usual, and others a lot less, causing flooding and drought respectively.  Since El Nino releases heat from the oceans, there's speculation that this time it will be even hotter because the oceans may be holding much of the carbon-caused heating that's happened in the past few years.  Record-breaking global temps for the next year or two at least would then be likely.

How big an El Nino this one might be is still an open question. One reason is that there isn't enough good information, although there could have been more.  As the ABC article notes, real systematic study of the phenomenon only began after the El Nino of the early 1980s.  A system of buoys with measuring instruments was created--but in the US financial crisis of 2008, support for maintaining them was dropped.  So we're getting less information than we could be.

The question of whether this will be a "normal" or "super" El Nino is closely watched here in California, because it may be the difference between some rain and a lot of rain, maybe even enough to break the drought.  In any case, El Nino tends to push weather to the extremes, both in extent and duration.

Another major phenomena determining weather is the jet stream.  Last winter and this spring and summer have been characterized by unusually extreme weather hanging around for a long time.  There was also the "polar vortex" bringing Arctic cold south into the U.S.  Now a series of studies suggest that unusual "waves" in the jet stream that sort of move cold and hot air around in unfamiliar patterns, can and did cause such extremes.  Moreover, a cause of these waves may be global heating.

What nobody knows is the combined effect of these two phenomena happening together.  But we may well find out very soon.

Update: Because of these and other effects of global heating and the climate crisis, the UN today said that the "normal" baselines for predicting weather are no longer normal, and must be updated if forecasts are to be anywhere near accurate.

Paul in Pittsburgh

Paul McCartney played Pittsburgh the other night.  I wasn't there but some of my genes were--my niece Megan and her husband Steve were there.  I've seen films of Paul's most recent tours and the concerts are great, not only for the great music but for the audiences--two, three, four generations of Beatles fans, ecstatic and singing along.  And McCartney fans--there's a generation or two in there somewhere that knew him first from Wings or after.

Megan and Steve even had a Beatles-theme wedding.  I guess the Beatles mixes I made for Megan and her sister Sarah when they were little were not in vain.

I was present for a Paul McCartney concert back in 1976 at the RFK stadium outside Washington.  We were high up and far away but someone brought binoculars and passed them around.  I got them during a ballad with Paul at the piano.  When I got him in focus I was startled to see him apparently looking right at me.

In its account of the Pittsburgh concert--only the second on his current US tour, which almost didn't happen because of his recent illness--the Post Gazette published his set list.  I've heard his recent concert versions of many of these tunes.  So I did the best I could do--I listened to the music playing in my head.

Speaking of Sports

Baseball: The SF Giants were so far ahead in their division that one of the worst months it is possible for a contending team to endure has left them in a two-team race with the Los Angeles Dodgers that will probably continue the rest of the season, if--IF--they can right the ship after the All-Star break.  They had a couple of games returning to form, Hunter Pence turns out to be a terrific lead-off hitter,  Brandon Belt is back and taking up with where he left off as a power hitter, Joe Panik is turning into a skilled major leaguer who can deliver timely hits, and the starting pitching is coming around--the miracle of Lincecum in particular.  Relief pitching is still shaky and it will have to stabilize for them to stay at or near the top.  Their series with Oakland--now the team with the best record in the majors, replacing the Giants--suggests the NL pennant may not be worth all that much anyway.

Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Pirates continue to scorch the league, with Gregory Polanco already a star, even beside the Hall of Fame numbers that Andrew McCutchen has been putting up for the past month or so.  Their test will be to maintain this momentum after the break.  They have very difficult competition in their division: the Brewers, Cardinals, Reds and Pirates are all separated by no more than 4.5 games. They'll need nerves of steel to win the division or even a playoff spot, but on the other hand they are only 4 games above .500 but only 3 games out of first.

Basketball: I hate myself for being at all interested in millionaire basketball free agents shopping for multimillion dollar contracts, but I've been watching old Lakers and Bulls games on tape so the NBA has my attention.  The news changes every day, and what's becoming clear is that some of these guys may well decide based on what other guys decide.

 LeBron may well stay in Miami but it feels to me like Bosh goes to Houston regardless.  The Lakers are working the PR machine to make it seem like Carmelo Anthony is seriously considering joining Kobe and Pau Gasol as the nucleus of a contending team.  Melo would take a pay cut from the Knicks to do so.  A NYC paper is reporting that Melo wants to recruit LeBron but the Knicks don't seem to have that kind of money available--and LeBron has announced he's looking for the money.

For the Lakers hopes with Melo, the wild card is Gasol, also a free agent.  He's being actively courted by several teams who actually want him, while the Lakers have been rumored to be trading him most of the past several seasons.  Do you stay somewhere you've been dissed by management?  I would be surprised if he stays with the Lakers, but he seems to like living in Los Angeles.

  Right now the Knicks don't look in great shape for next season and if they lose Melo to LA or Chicago and that money is available, we'll see how creative and persuasive Phil Jackson can be.  The Lakers aren't in great shape either without landing a superstar or a couple of stars. Still, this conventional wisdom that Kobe is too old and is only a "nominal" superstar will be proven wrong.

World Cup: Uh, what's the World Cup again?