Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nuke No News

Update 5:35 p Pacific: The LA Times is now reporting :

"Another nuclear reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 facility in Japan has lost its emergency cooling capacity, according to the Associated Press, bringing to three the number of reactors at that facility to fall prey to Friday's magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami. Added to failure of three reactors at Fukushima No. 2, the count is now six overall."

But most concern is focused on one reactor. However, seawater pumped in to cool it seems to be working, according to Japanese power company official.

There doesn't seem to much substantive news about the Japanese nuclear plants since this morning. About that explosion:

A Japanese official said a buildup of hydrogen in the reactor's cooling system caused the explosion, but he said the containment structure was intact. Radiation was released, but government officials say the levels were low and tare dropping.


The four American experts and a colleague in Japan briefed reporters by telephone Saturday, and they said they were less certain.

Nuclear energy analyst Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies says there are many things we do not know about the failure, including whether the containment structure is fully intact. "The information that has been made public, particularly by the Japanese nuclear safety authorities, certainly indicate that radioactive elements from the fuel itself have escaped and entered the environment. And even if the reactor maintains its integrity, there's a possibility that things like open relief valves on the top of the reactor and things like that may still release large amounts of radioactivity," he said.

The LA Times is reporting that according to a Japanese official, a meltdown "may be occurring," but that isn't too different from this morning. Not a lot of certainty.

Salon has the Rachel Maddow show segment from Friday that explains the general situation and the dangers. They include release of large amounts of radiation which would be blown by prevailing winds out to sea, and towards the U.S. West Coast.

I don't see anything so far in the news about this. (Although I haven't listened to talk radio.) Neverthless, the Arcata Coop has suddenly run out of iodine, a precaution against damage to the thyroid from radiation. So it seems some people have figured it out.

Japan Nuke Plant Explosion

AP Reports:

SENDAI, Japan -- An explosion at a nuclear power station tore down the walls of one building Saturday as smoke poured out and Japanese officials said they feared the reactor could melt down following the failure of its cooling system in a powerful earthquake and tsunami.

"We are now trying to analyze what is behind the explosion," said government spokesman Yukio Edano, stressing that people should quickly evacuate a six-mile (10-kilometer) radius. "We ask everyone to take action to secure safety.".

Nuclear Plant Danger in Japan

This is not good:

"The AFP agency reported that a blast was heard and white smoke seen billowing into the air at one of two power plants which the Japanese government had placed under a state of emergency. Several workers were reported to have been injured."

Nor this:

"The Tokyo Electric Power Company said it did not believe a meltdown was underway but Ryohei Shiomi, an official with Japan's nuclear safety commission, said that it was possible."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan Earthquake: Fallout May Not Be Over

Update: New York Times: "Ryohei Shiomi, an official with Japan’s nuclear safety commission, said that a meltdown was possible at one of the two Daiichi reactors, The Associated Press reported."

As the dimensions of disaster in Japan become more measurable there, and with tsunami warnings fading into advisories here on the U.S. West Coast, a new threat is emerging to both Japan and California: nuclear radiation.

In a fast-changing situation, five nuclear plants in Japan are in emergency situations and at least two are having trouble dealing with containing radiation. Some radiation has been released on purpose to relieve pressure, but the dread word "meltdown" is being spoken. Thousands of people have been evacuated specifically because of the nuclear plant threat. In a worse if not even worst case scenario, lots of radiation would be released into the air, and might well go right out to sea and over the ocean to us here on the West Coast. This situation is fluid and could become critical within hours.

As for the tsunami situation here, the Humboldt Bay area experienced three foot surges, with possible damage to boats. Crescent City to our north however got 8 foot waves, and their harbor suffered significant damage to infrastructure and vessels. One man is presumed drowned, swept away by a tsunami wave at the Klamath River. Three others were also swept away but survived. Here's the Mercury-News summary. Here's a photo-diary at Kos from Crescent City indicating that damage to boats will cripple the fishing fleet there. Hawai escaped major damage.

Things here at least seem to be going quickly back to normal, the tsunami a day's episode, with emergency plans apparently having worked efficiently in the at-risk areas. But nobody much is yet aware of the possible threat of nuclear radiation that might follow a similar path of the tsunami, from Japan to us.

Tsunami Between Tides

So far the damage from tsunami action has been limited to boats and habors, particularly Crescent City. So far we've caught a break in that the ocean has been at low tide when the waves hit. The tsumani has been evident to people observing--a McKinleyville resident got some video of that wave action moving up from the mouth of the Mad River, which is also very near where I am. He's most recently reported that the water has been sucked out, which suggests more wave action to come. But the total volume hasn't been major, probably because of the tides.

However, high tide is coming at noon, and that's also about the time in the process that Hawaii got more action, so we're not out of the woods here yet.

But I've been up all night, so I'm not sure I'll be awake for that. Margaret has gone to HSU for meetings, even though classes were cancelled. (There wouldn't have been many anyway--spring break starts at the end of the day.) Pema the cat is happily oblivious, and there hasn't been troublesome news from the Bay or Peninsula area. The island of Hawaii where Margaret is going was the first to be hit by the tsunami, but so far no reported damage.

Whether I can get to sleep, or whether I could stay awake, are both unknown at this point. If this is my last post for awhile, it's most likely because I did fall asleep.

Tsunami Wait

News trickles in from Hawaii, where damage reported so far hasn't been extensive, but tsunami activity has continued. This suggests that whatever happens here hasn't happened yet. Some authorities are saying we should have seen most of the activity by noon, a bit more than three hours from now, but that will also be high tide, so wave action could be amplified by that.

There are reports of some damage in Crescent City harbor, but nothing yet here in Humboldt.

The reports from Japan continue to be horrific. That nuclear plant with the cooling problem is apparently okay now, but reports that a dam has broken and washed away homes. Turbulence offshore continues, and there were more than 50 "aftershocks," which measured stronger than most earthquakes.

So we wait.

So far

So far, a lot of announced closings for the day, including one power plant closed as precaution, so we're advised to reduce power consumption. Fortunately it's daylight. The first "wave" apparently had no effect--I believe we're at low tide so that should help. But the next one is due in ten minutes or so (supposedly they come twenty minutes apart) and one report on the radio said that the Bay was drawing down. Could be low tide, could be that preliminary to a tsunami wave.

Tsunami models apparently show however that northern CA and Oregon are going to take the brunt of whatever happens.


It's daylight, I woke Margaret a little early and told her the news. She's involved in the emergency planning for HSU and so was more precise about our location in terms of the tsunami inundation zone. We're high enough and far enough from the water to be safe, though if there are something like ten foot waves, we'll feel the effects indirectly. So she's taking a shower and then will fill up the bathtub. We have drinking water and even some grey water stored--at least we've gotten that far in earthquake prep.

We have exactly one local TV news operation, so-called, and they're awake now and broadcasting sporadic reports. The Red Cross is involved in setting up emergency centers, people are calling into radio talk shows to find out if where they are is safe. Meanwhile, death toll numbers from Japan are starting to mount in the hundreds.

We'll be monitoring news from Hawaii and later on, from farther down our coast, especially in the Bay and Peninsula area where Margaret's daughter lives. For us, we're about twenty minutes from when the first wave is supposed to show up.

The NBC guy is saying 8 foot wall expected in Crescent City. Electricity is already starting to go out in our area.

We're Next

Still not much information on Hawaii but time to turn attention to ourselves. It's almost daybreak. According to the radio, we may be facing 10 foot waves, and the tsunami waves will build for awhile after the first one, and the danger could extend for some ten hours.

Eureka public schools are going to be closed today. Humboldt County is in emergency status, residents of particularly low-lying areas have (they say) been advised to evacuate though there are no mandatory evacuations. Water and power supplies may be disrupted. And of course, nothing much at all might happen. But it's not a good idea to run down to the beach and try to watch the tsunami. Sounds crazy but apparently the last time Hawaii had a big one, quite a few people died for just that reason.

I'm going to wait just a little longer before I wake Margaret. We're pretty well stocked with water and candles. Everything I'm hearing indicates we're far enough away. But Margaret should be informed in time to make her judgment.

Crescent City to our north, which suffered extensive damage from a tsunami before, is being totally evacuated.


No numbers yet on Hawaii, just that the first wave has reached the islands.

The San Francisco Chronicle says waves are expected 3 to 6 feet on the California coast.

It's about an hour and a half before waves are supposed to reach our coast and it's completely quiet out there, not a siren, nothing. The local newspaper's website is clueless. But I'm just as dumb. I don't even know the emergency radio frequency. I did catch one local radio station with generally no more information than I have but the implication that some local areas, including Samoa and Manilla (yes, those are local communities, not, ironically perhaps today, in the Pacific) are being or have been evacuated. Some schools have cancelled classes.

The CNN Guy

I keep missing his name, but the CNN guy with the map and the magic marker keeps emphasizing the extremely unpredictable effects of tsunami waves. He just said that due to the many factors of coastline, ocean this and that, whatever, and speaking specifically of Hawaii, "a five foot wave in one place could be a twenty foot wave in another place."

That's seriously disturbing. I'm going to be watching the Hawaii situation closely (according to schedule, the tsunami is approaching now) to figure out exactly what to do here. I still think we're okay. But I don't know about that twenty foot wave thing. We are not much more than a mile from the ocean at its closest point. Two miles is apparently pretty much always safe. We're elevated but I don't know how high above sea level. If I trust the map, then we're okay. But I'll be watching Hawaii.

Nothing like this has happened to Hawaii for fifty years, nor on the West Coast perhaps in almost that length of time. The earthquake in Japan was the fifth largest recorded since 1960.

Hawaii, like Japan, drills frequently on what to do in earthquake and tsunami situations. Despite the certainty that a big subduction quake will occur here sometime (within fifty to a hundred years), our preparations are disorganized and ineffective. I have zero confidence in the communications systems in particular.

Not that what I'm seeing on TV inspires me with confidence about communications systems generally. I hope they are a lot better within Japan, and within Hawaii.

Approaching Hawaii

The first wave of the tsunami is due to reach Hawaii in about a half hour. CNN reports that the waves at Midway Island were five feet (the first wave), so Hawaii is expecting 3 to 6 foot waves.

Interesting that the only report actually from Hawaii I've seen was from a CNN reporter vacationing there. There were also no reporters in Japan. There are communications problems, overloaded circuits, and this may also be a result of the severe cutbacks news operations have made in staff, particularly in foreign countries like Japan and...Hawaii.

News from Japan is of oil refinery fire, mounting casualties (no firm numbers) and I saw one report fly by about a ship lost at sea, but the weight of the Goggle news now is predictably the financial impact--stocks, oil prices, insurance...These guys never think of anything else, do they?

I can't help thinking that Margaret is supposed to fly to Hawaii in three days, to be joined there by her daughter, son-in-law and new grandson. She's asleep now (and one of the main reasons I've been monitoring all this is to know whether I should wake her up, if there seems any danger.) But by the time she does wake up, the place she was going--a small island, a town close to the beach--may be under heaps of debris or washed away.

More Danger in Japan

Reports of several dangerous situations at nuclear power plants in Japan.

Locally, another NOAA bulletin has been issued, exactly the same as the last one.


President Obama has been monitoring the situation since 4 a. Washington time. Preparations underway to aid Japan, but FEMA has also been alerted for situations in Hawaii and here on the West Coast. The CNN weather guy continues to talk about 2 to 4 ft. waves or higher here, the highest estimates I've heard or seen. I've also heard estimates of the wave heights in Japan at anywhere from 12 to 15 ft, to 20 to 23 feet.

Now Hawaii has experienced a 4.5 earthquake, which is being reported as "unrelated," though a UC guy interviewed earlier said that seismologists are beginning to move towards accepting that quakes thousands of miles apart can be related, if one of them is very big. The one in Japan was very big.

Tsunami Uncertainty

The network morning shows are starting in the U.S. East Coast and boy are they behind the news.

CNN warns that the U.S. West Coast could see several feet of tsunami, more than in a decade, and that amplitude is very uncertain. Still, most of the warnings say stay away from beaches, etc. with nothing directly about danger beyond the immediate shore.

I had a look at the Humboldt tsunami inundation map--I knew where we live is outside the danger zone, but because of a quirk in how the map is divided, I hadn't realized how close we are to it, to our south. In a really bad situation we could end up with beachfront property temporarily. A really bad event could cut Arcata off in both directions (and inundate some of it as well) but this map was drawn with an earthquake off our shore in mind, with a tsunami more like the one that hit northern Japan, with the incredible force I'm seeing on TV. When I first turned on CNN I thought I was seeing a simulation. But nothing like that is expected here. Not even that bad for Hawaii, although it may be quite bad.

There are evacuations in Hawaii, where the tsunami is expected at about 5a. Pacific Coast time, 3 a. Hawaii time.

Tsunami Warning U.S. West Coast

The watch has been upgraded to a warning for the North Coast, but from what I'm hearing on TV, the greater danger will be south, except perhaps for Crescent City, which topographically is more prone to damage.

Estimated time of arrival of the first tsunami wave to Humboldt County's North Coast is 7:22 am. The last estimate I heard of amplitude was downgraded to 40 cm which is about 15 inches or a little more than one foot.

However, the NOAA site offers these amplitude predictions: Crescent City 2.50, Trinidad 1.43, Humboldt Bay 1.13. Unfortunately, I have no idea what those numbers mean, and the site offers no key or explanation.

The latest (2:18 am.) warning offers no amplitude update, and only states that the tsunami is "expected to cause damage" to the northern CA coast. It also warns that the ETA is for the first wave, but that subsequent waves could continue for several hours--and the first wave is not always the most damaging.

The imminent danger is to low-lying Pacific islands and to coastal areas of the Hawaiian islands.

Tsunami in Japan, Headed for Hawaii, Watch in CA

A major earthquake in Japan--now estimated at 8.9, with aftershocks in the 7. and 6. range--has caused devastating tsunamis in Japan that are rippling outward across the Pacific.

Among the many Pacific Rim areas expected to be hit is Hawaii, which is at the moment on Tsunami Watch. Tsunami sirens have reportedly been going off in Honululu.

The West Coast of the U.S. (as well as Mexico and South America) are expected to be hit with weaker tsunami waves. The Oregonian is reporting that tsunami waves are expected to hit Oregon and northern California coasts between 7am and 7:30 am, Pacific time. Right now the waves are expected to be 3 feet or less, but the situation is still very fluid, if you've been watching TV at all.

Here's the initial warning for Humboldt County from the National Weather Service. Updates will be issued hourly; find information at HTTP://TSUNAMI.GOV. (I tried it--it took awhile to load. I'd stick with the NWS site for now.)

The footage coming from Japan is amazing. I wish I could say the same for the reporting. But if you're hanging out on the Internet and you're in a vulnerable area, you should check out relevant sites and TV news.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Shock Troops for the Shock Doctrine

On the back cover of the paperback edition of The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, I am quoted as writing (in the San Francisco Chronicle) that it reveals "the master narrative of our time." If there was any doubt that after years abroad, the Shock Doctrine has come home, it can't stand up to the coordinated attempts by Republican governors in a number of states to use the shock of budget shortfalls to further tighten the grip of their corporate masters on the American political process, as well as to further enrich their wealthiest patrons at the expense of everyone else.

This became stunningly obvious on Wednesday, with a dramatic and fundamentally dishonest power grab. While pretending to negotiate with Democrats, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his GOPer minions in the state Senate were engaged in an extra-legal and probably illegal manipulation to strip Wisconsin public employee unions of collective bargaining rights. These were the shock troops of the Shock Doctrine, using approaches imported from successful implementation abroad, previously by the Bush administration after 9-11 and now in a concerted effort by GOPer administrations applied simultaneously in many states to grab even more power for their corporate elite bosses.

There are two basic goals: to weaken unions that form the only countervailing powers versus mega business, and most directly to weaken unions that produce the only large sources of campaign funds for Democrats, so that certain corporations have a clear field to buy the politicians that will enact their agenda. A part of that second goal is to do so in time to defeat President Obama in 2012, as the Wisconsin GOPer Senate leader himself admitted.

In Wisconsin Wednesday, the Senate GOPers rigged a committee to approve separating the provision that ends collective bargaining rights from the budget bill it had been part of, and scheduled a Senate vote for Thursday. By separating it now, they ostensibly get around the need for a quorum that would require the presence of Democrats now outside the state. My guess is that this is also a ploy to trick the Democrats into coming back tomorrow, so that they can pass the entire budget bill with the union-busting provisions back in it, and eliminate the problem they have now, which is this quite possibly illegal procedure they used to separate it. But one of the Democratic senators told Rachel Maddow that they were all onto this possibility, and none of the 14 were returning tomorrow.

But this needs to be placed in the context of this broader attack, which Rachel Maddow did in the first half of her Tuesday broadcast--in quite possibly the most important 30 minutes of television this year. She detailed these simultaneous efforts in several states. Most were following the same exact script: budget cuts to programs affecting the poor, the sick, children and generally the non-rich while providing tax cuts and other benefits to corporations and the rich that added at least as much to their projected deficits as their cuts restored, coupled with attacks on union rights.

That is what's happening in Wisconsin: "That was Governor Walker‘s first priority as governor, to make the deficit $140 million worse. Not to close the budget shortfall, but to open it further over the next few years with business tax giveaways, $140 million worth."

In Florida Governor Rick Scott proposes to cut $1.7 billion from K-12 education, while sponsoring new corporate and property tax that will add at least that amount to the budget deficit. In Ohio Governor Kasich is proposing "an more draconian union-stripping proposal than even the one that‘s being tried in Wisconsin." In Michigan, Governor Snyder "is going to raise taxes on seniors and on poor people -- $1.7 billion in tax hikes for Michigan seniors and Michigan‘s poor people, and for people who want to make tax deductible donation to public universities...Governor Snyder is taking all of that money that the state will gain and he is not using it to close the budget gap. He is giving it away in the form of $1.8 billion in corporate tax cuts. He is taking in $1.7 billion in higher taxes from poor people and old people and giving it away, $1.8 billion to businesses."

Maddow continued with the Michigan example, as it foreshadowed (though she didn't know it then) the kind of approach to peoples' rights and the American system of government that Wisconsin GOPer shock troops would exemplify less than 24 hours later.

"The Michigan house has already passed and the Michigan Senate is about to pass a bill that sounds like it is out of a dystopian, leftist novel from the future. If you think that Republican governors across the country are using fiscal crisis as a pretext to do stuff they otherwise want to do, this is something I don‘t think I ever would have believed Republicans even wanted to do.

But this is what they are proposing. It hasn‘t really gotten much national attention. But please, just check this out. Governor Rick Snyder‘s budget in Michigan is expected to cut aid to cities and towns so much that a lot of cities and towns in Michigan are expected to be in dire financial straights. Right now, Governor Snyder is pushing a bill that would give himself, Governor Snyder, and his administration, the power to declare any town or school district to be in a financial emergency.

If a town was declared by the governor and his administration to be in a financial emergency, they would get to put somebody in charge of that town, and they want to give that emergency manager they just put in charge of the town the power to, quote, “reject, modify, or terminate” any contract the town may have entered into, including any collective bargaining agreements.

So, this emergency person who gets put in charge of a town deemed to be in financial crisis by the governor‘s administration, this emergency person gets to strip the town of union rights, unilaterally, by their own personal authority. But this emergency person also gets the power under this bill to suspend or dismiss elected officials. Think about that for a second. It doesn‘t matter who you voted for in Michigan, it doesn‘t matter who you elected, your elected local government can be dismissed at will.

The emergency person sent in by the Rick Snyder administration could recommend that a school district be absorbed into another school district. That emergency person is also granted power specifically to disincorporate or dissolve entire city governments

These are not the only states where some or all of this is going on. (Republicans in Idaho passed a bill the other day stripping teachers of collective bargaining rights.) But Michigan is perhaps the clearest example of where this is heading. Maddow:

"This is about a lot of things. This is not about a budget. This is using or fabricating crisis to push for an agenda you‘d never be able to sell under normal circumstances. And so, you have to convince everyone that these are not normal circumstances. These are desperate circumstances. And your desperate measures are therefore somehow required.

What this is has a name. It is called shock doctrine."

Columnist Paul Krugman was a week or so ahead of Maddow in applying the Shock Doctrine to these situations. But Maddow had something more--the person who named and described the Shock Doctrine in her book: Naomi Klein. Here is some of what she said to Maddow:

"You know, there are some policies in the ideological Republican playbook that a lot of people like: everyone likes a tax break. But if you talk about you‘re privatizing the local water system, busting unions, privatizing entire towns, things like this, if you run an election and say this is what I plan to do, you—chances are you will lose that election. And this is where crises come in. They are very, very handy, because you can say we have no choice.

You don‘t have to win the argument any more. You just have to say the sky is falling in. We have to do this. You can consolidate power."

(Recall that, for example, Scott Walker did not even mention his plan to bust unions in his recent campaign for governor. And yet this became so important that he would not pass a budget without doing it.)

"Why are they so desperate to tie the hands of unions?" Maddow asked. "Why are 16 states facing similar battles?"

"Unions are the final line of defense against privatization of the public sector," Klein said. "Unions are the ones who fight privatization of the school system, of the water system, of the power system. That‘s where the real money is."

"They really want a corporate monopoly state," Klein said. "They don't want any countervailing force balancing out the power of corporations."

Though mass protests in Wisconsin are getting the media attention--and there's likely to be a lot more in the coming days--such protests are happening in Ohio, Michigan and other states. According to Klein, this is important to defeating the Shock Doctrine. "And what we‘re seeing is that when people do fight, they sometimes win, which is a really well-kept secret, that, you know, in all the sort of mocking of protests and glib postmodern times, sometimes they win."

According to political analyst Howard Fineman, GOPers are counting on the spectre of mass protests, and even the involvement of President Obama, to energize GOPers and convince independents that Obama is leading a wild-eyed revolution (because he's Lenin the Mau Mau as well as the Hitler gangster doing the bidding of his union bosses.)

But so far, mass protests have simply expressed that people are onto the Shock Doctrine agenda, and they don't like it. That's the key to defeating it, Klein said: you recognize it and name it, and it loses its shock power. It's also important to offer alternative explanations and solutions--for example, to government budget problems: "I think the really key part of their resistance is that people are saying, you know what, if you—if you really need some money, why don‘t you go where the money is? Why don‘t you go to the people who have all the money? And putting their own proposals on the table."

Side by Side: Shock Doctrine in Washington

This chart prepared by the Center for American Progress show GOPer proposals for the U.S. budget, which clearly mirror the Shock Doctrine efforts at the state level described in the post above. Click on the chart to make it big enough to read.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

RIP That Championship Season

Before any more time goes by, I wanted to say a few words about Chuck Tanner, who died a few weeks ago.

From the first time I dimly understood what baseball announcer Bob Prince was talking about on the radio, I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, growing up and forevermore (even if I follow the SF Giants a lot more closely these days.) Of all the managers the Pirates had since the 50s, I remember three: Danny Murtaugh, Chuck Tanner and Jim Leyland. Of those three, Chuck Tanner was the only one I met.

I interviewed him in his Pirates office for a piece I was doing for the New York Times Magazine on the relationship of Pittsburgh and its sports teams in the season after that championship year of 1979. I'd been in the clubhouse before and after a game, and it was afterwards I was finally ushered into his office. "Hello, son," Tanner said, with a smile. "What can I do for you?"

I don't remember anything else about the interview except that aura of a really, really nice guy. And so I wasn't surprised to read in Pittsburgh Post Gazette sports writer Ron Cook's memorial column that "Tanner did the right thing as much as any man I've known. He was, simply, the kindest, most decent person I've met in sports."

Tanner was manager of the 1979 "We Are Fam-a-lee" Pirates of Willie Stargell, and other players who projected a positive-feeling image, like Bill Robinson and Tim Foli. That 1979 team had a sense of possibility and even of destiny (I recall an interview on TV with Bill Robinson late in the season when the Pirates were behind Montreal and he said fans shouldn't worry, the Pirates would win the pennant, it was meant to be.) At the same time, the Pirates could be an overpowering team, especially with Stargell and the team's semi-official bad boy--Dave Parker--in the lineup. And Tanner was a wily baseball manager. All of that would come into play in the World Series when the Pirates were down 3 games to 1 to the Baltimore Orioles. They became the first team since 1906 to go on to win the Series, and they did it on the road. Bookended by the Steelers consecutive Super Bowl wins, Pittsburgh was the City of Champions.

There was a dark side to those Pirates that Tanner could be faulted for not seeing, or for overlooking. It was in later years that the players using cocaine were exposed, but the locker room on one of my visits in 1980 showed the signs--particularly (but not only) Dave Parker, who before a game manically threatened to cause me bodily harm if I quoted him, and after the game meekly apologized. But Tanner was still manager when that hit the fan in the 80s, and Cook says he always stood by his 1979 players.

Tanner was the last Pirates manager to win a World Series, and that distinction is likely to remain his. Over a beer in the press mess at Three Rivers Stadium in 1980, Harding Peterson, the Pirates General Manager, layed out for me the Pirates dim future: in a small market in the middle of other small markets, and in an area that wasn't growing in population or wealth, the Pirates ability to compete for players' payrolls with big market teams was dwindling.

The Pirates did manage one more world class team in the early 90s--the fabled Outfield of Dreams team (Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds)--but after winning the division, the Reds and the Atlanta Braves would always break our hearts in the championship series. The worst was in 1992, when the Pirates were one strike away from going to the World Series, only to lose improbably and dramatically, and for the city, tragically. Everyone knew that the team couldn't afford to keep the Outfield of Dreams together, and the break-up of that team began the next season. Now the Pirates have been a losing team for 18 straight years, a record for a professional sports franchise.

Chuck Tanner managed in Atlanta for a few years after leaving the Pirates in 1985, but the Pirates were always special--he was a Pittsburgher born and bred. He remained a popular and sunny figure in Pittsburgh and in baseball, and in recent years worked for the Pirates as a consultant to the general manager. He'll always be associated with a special time in Pittsburgh, and he will be remembered as among the best that Pittsburgh had to offer. He died in February at his home in New Castle, PA. May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Dog's Best Friend

Here's another photo from the current Sierra Magazine: "In Rajasthan, India, Hanuman langurs groom a feral dog. Primates use grooming to form social bonds, and langurs often extend the courtesy to other species. Though they're sacred in India, Hanumans (named after a Hindu god) are decreasing in number because of habitat loss. Cyril Ruoso/JH Editorial/MINDEN PICTURES" This photo made me wonder, did the human-dog relationship begin much earlier with other primates?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Last Stands

Researchers remove solar-powered sensors from a coast redwood at Northern California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photo by Michael Nichols/National Geographic Stock. Photo is used to illustrate a story in the current Sierra Magazine about the research that shows the latest threats to the coast redwoods. For those that haven't been cut down, or aren't otherwise endangered by mismanagement etc., it's the effects of the Climate Crisis, such as the decrease in coastal fog which provides the redwoods with the moisture they need. The redwoods are of an ancient species that has survived changes for thousands of years, but it is the unprecedented speed of climate-related change that most threatens them now. And that's true of a lot of other lifeforms that aren't so immediately threatened by obvious and radical changes in habitat, like the polar bears or the plants and animals in areas of what looks like permanent drought.

Economics of the Future: Winning the Future

[This is the second of two related posts. The first one is directly below.]

In this review of two books--both Marxian views of contemporary economics-- in the London Review of Books (February 3, 2011), Benjamin Kunkel articulates his own ideas on what economics can tell us about our present and future, based in part on these books.

I'm not going to review his review but simply jump to what I understand as his basic argument and conclusion, and then to the conclusion I draw from that. The problem capitalism faces is having too much money (money it can't invest because markets are already saturated so there's no point in making more stuff), which throws the producer-consumer system out of whack, showing up first of all as decreasing profits. For awhile recently, that surplus went into unreal estate and other fictitious financial fields, but we know what happened with all of that.

Part of the problem--and this is where Marx comes in--is that capitalism is not used to dealing with the fact that labor has to be paid enough to be consumers of the products it makes. There always exists "the fundamental antagonism between capital and labour, with their opposing pursuits of profits and wages..." But even with strong labor unions and relatively enlightened capitalism,"the antagonistic nature of class society nevertheless prevents such a balance from being struck except occasionally and by accident, to be immediately upset by any advantage gained by labour or more likely by capital."

So that's not the entire answer, nor could it be, because there's still the problem inherent in capitalism--the whole idea is to make more money on the stuff you make than you spend on producing it, and the surplus is often way more than even the grossest plutocrats can spend (which is one reason that corporations are sitting on two trillion bucks while unemployment is a shade under 9%.)

In the past that surplus went into huge investments, sometimes by corporations but quite often the much bigger investment projects led by government: "Examples on a grand scale would be the British boom in railway construction of the 1820s, the Second Empire modernisation of Paris, the suburbanisation of the US after World War Two, and the recent international pullulation of commercial and residential towers..."

Now add the huge factor that Marx didn't figure on, and that even most contemporary economics ignores: the ravaged Earth. "In the recently published Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, John Bellamy Foster and his Marxist co-authors refer to the identification by a group of scientists, including the leading American climatologist James Hansen, of nine ‘planetary boundaries’ that civilisation transgresses at its peril. Already three – concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere, loss of nitrogen from the soil and the extinction of other species – have been exceeded. These are impediments to endless capital accumulation that future crisis theories will have to reckon with..."

Add to that Peak Oil and you've got problems on a scale that threaten to wreck not only the endless growth mandated by classic capitalism, not to mention its habitual predation, but any chance at the "steady-state" economy the world would otherwise be evolving towards, at least as an alternative to economic suicide.

Now this is about where Kunkel leaves off. He offers no prescriptions. But to me they are obvious: that surplus goes into massive investments necessary if civilization has any chance of transitioning into the future more or less intact. The ravaging of the planet means that there are places for that surplus to go, stuff to invest in, that just happens to be stuff we need in order to survive. They include the kind of investments in a clean energy industry that President Obama is sponsoring in his "Winning the Future" initiative, which are similar in kind if not quite up to the scale that the leaders of China are instituting, among others.

They have to be bigger, but they can't stop there. Investments are required in the means to reduce and virtually eliminate carbon pollution, and control other greenhouse gases. Investments are required in infrastructure of all kinds--physical and organizational--to cope with the inevitable effects of the Climate Crisis that are in the cards, due to past carbon pollution.

All of this is necessary to save the future--I've been saying that for awhile now, of course. Only this time, the argument is also based on economics. It's a way for capitalism to save itself, maybe. That this analysis comes from Marxian analysts is just too damn bad, but sooner or later capitalism is going to have to get over itself. It will be the hard way or the easy way. Well, there is no easy way. But some ways are easier than others, and this way is the easiest--and the most hopeful--I've seen.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Economics of the Future: Marx on Paper

Like most people--including (especially) those who define and disdain Marxism--I haven't read Marx, or very much of him. While his name is a curse word in American discourse, in England at least not everyone is afraid to even read his work. And Terry Eagleton is one of those not even afraid to write about him.

He's got a review in the March 3 London Review of Books of a book by another Brit, Eric Hobsbawm, called How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011. It's the latest of several interesting reviews in that publication about Marx's economics or Marxian economic analyses. It's not the one I find most interesting, but it's probably a good idea to clear the air about Marx with a few quotes from it.

Eagleton asks why Marx is in such disrepute--he figures this began in the mid 70s, though here in the U.S. it's more like the 80s. The fall of the Soviet Union was widely seen as the last bit of evidence that Marx was wrong, as well as advocating a system of evil. On that advocacy, people like me in my generation took the prevailing bombast in the depths of the Cold War with a hefty grain of salt. Because we were against the Vietnam War and the excesses of capitalism, we were called Marxist tools, or even more extremely, as following the dictates of our Soviet Communist masters. That was a laugh. We knew it wasn't true about us, so it seemed likely a lot of other bullshit being promulgated about Marx wasn't true either.

What little we knew about Marx--like his adoption of Hegel's thesis/antithesis/synthesis, the class struggle, etc.--had nothing logically to do with Soviet totalitarianism. Stalin was more in tune with Hitler than anything we knew about Marx. Eagleton/Hobsbawm support that view, on the advocacy("Revolution was to be seen not simply as a sudden transfer of power but as the prelude to a lengthy, complex, unpredictable period of transition;" "the word ‘dictatorship’ in the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, used by Marx to describe the Paris Commune, means nothing like what it means today" ) as well as economic analysis.

Demonizing Marx has a handy class-based utility: without factoring in "labor" (i.e. everybody except the rich captialists), economic analysis doesn't have to take their interests or their worth into account. And that's been the pattern. Marx didn't invent the class system--which is pretty obvious to the English, where classes have been central to their history for centuries. It is obviously in the interests of the rich plutocrats of America to expunge the very notion that there are classes here. There's a certain romantic appeal to the notion, but there are bosses and the bossed and everybody knows it. Just as there are producers and customers, although the fact that a lot of those customers or consumers are also labor is what a lot of these economic analyses leave out. (And incidentally, according to Eagleton, Marx had high praise for the middle class.)

These oligarchs also have a vested interest in the idea of capitalism triumphant--the perfect system. Why not? It's been perfect for them. The only way that makes sense is if you ignore most of the world and what happens there. The idea has been made more difficult to stomach by the capitalist-fueled Great Recession, and near Greatest Depression. So at least in England some are going back to check out what Marx actually wrote.

But even so, as Eagleton points out, the contemporary analysis of real world economics and actual capitalism must take into account one particular situation that Marx did not clearly foresee:

"Capitalism may be teetering on the verge of ruin, but it may not be socialism that replaces it. It may be fascism, or barbarism. Hobsbawm reminds us of a small but significant phrase in The Communist Manifesto which has been well-nigh universally overlooked: capitalism, Marx writes ominously, might end ‘in the common ruin of the contending classes’. It is not out of the question that the only socialism we shall witness is one that we shall be forced into by material circumstance after a nuclear or ecological catastrophe. Like other 19th-century believers in progress, Marx did not foresee the possibility of the human race growing so technologically ingenious that it ends up wiping itself out."

The runaway consequences of human-made technologies--notably the Climate Crisis-- have changed the game, big time. While setting the record straight and gleaning Marx on paper for any relevant insights to the present and future are reasonable activities, what interests me has more to do with an analysis of the economics of the future that makes sense, regardless of its inspirations. As it turns out, there is such an analysis, which provides a guide to the future that at least gives us a chance to avoid humanity wiping itself out. That's the topic of my next post on this subject.

Grab Your Gear

I don't get colds or virus or whatever very often but when I do, I do it up right. The whole process lasts well over a week. Last week's coughing and stuffed up lethargy was spent--between necessary tasks--too much in front of that abysmal TV. At my more alert I read or watched DVDs of Northern Exposure but when most zombified, I slashed through the channels between educational, news and sports. Which is a long way to say I caught entirely too much of the Charlie Sheen week of exposure.

Apparently, Sheen's sitcom was the highest rated comedy on TV, and this is the excuse for all the attention, besides the fascination of watching a human train wreck in progress (whether that's actually the case I wouldn't know, I'm not that interested.) What does interest me however is that I do know what the highest rated drama is, and I believe the overall highest rated scripted TV show: it's NCIS.

And what a contrast! What do we even know about its star (Mark Harmon) who is largely the leader of equals in the ensemble cast. They were largely unknown when they started and now, ending their 8th season, they are still largely unknown.

I don't watch television shows--I can't stand the commercials, and can't afford premium cable. But I have at times watched NCIS first run (really only a few times) and I did zombiefy in front of the endless NCIS cable channel marathons of past seasons. I've seen it online. But mostly, it's the DVDs--absolutely the best of all these possible ways. Every minute is there, no commercials, and there are the occasionally informative or perversely interesting commentaries, interviews and docus.

So I can tell you from experience that the reason we aren't overrun by their egos is the same reason the show is successful--that group is unselfish and loving, and it's on the screen as well as--by all accounts--on the set. They are excellent actors who work well together, and know how lucky they are to be in a show that's pretty consistently well-written, with characters they can inhabit and fill.

NCIS has a really odd history. It had a respectable but nearly invisible audience for four years, before breaking into the Top Ten in its fifth season. It became the most popular scripted TV show last year in its seventh season, and it remains at the top now. Meanwhile it simultaneously became a cherished obsession for a devoted cult. And word-of-mouth continues.

Mark Harmon was a familiar face for decades from several TV series (from St. Elsewhere through Chicago Hope to The West Wing) when his recurring character of Jethro Gibbs on JAG (a dramatic series about U.S. Navy lawyers) became the center of this new series, which—with one exception-- otherwise featured unknowns.

NCIS was set in roughly the same world as JAG (it’s the federal investigative agency for Navy and Marine matters), created by the same producer (Donald Bellisario), and so it inherited a decent if unnoticed and mostly non-coastal audience base. But right from the start it was magic---the chemistry of characters, actors, writing and production that made it a compelling mix of drama and comedy from its first season. I know not because I was watching it, but because after sampling a few more recent DVDs, we went back to the start to see the whole thing.

Why is it so good? Compared especially to other police procedurals, its characters are defined but also dimensional, and the action is integrated with character and believable byplay. An ensemble of actors is matched perfectly with fascinating characters that spin around the nearly still center of Gibbs, who Harmon plays with minimalist brilliance. And it is funny. The wit and character humor create a wave that the entire show rides.

The individual characters have fans—among them, Michael Weatherley’s DiNozzo, Cote de Pablo’s Ziva (the female Israeli equivalent of Star Trek’s Data) and above all, Pauley Perrette’s Abby. And the non-unknown: the iconic David McCallum (of the classic Man From U.N.C.L.E.), who puts on an acting-with-voice clinic every time he speaks.

Their chemistry together is crucial (for awhile much of the cast lived in the same apartment complex.) Apart from some predictability in the whodunit aspect, the writing is excellent. With its CSI emphasis on crime solving and international intrigue, the show’s premise is a different take on familiar and popular styles. And by the seventh season (the most recent on DVD), which starts with one of its best episodes, it’s created its own mythology.

In seeing it all chronologically on DVD, I saw how that mythology built, and how even little style moments got their echoes later. In seeing some episodes several times, I could appreciate the quality of the acting more--especially Michael Weatherley, whose character is clownish and so what he brings to it is clearer on subsequent viewings.

Now it's true that after last week's marathon of marathons, even I am stepping back from it. But I do think it's worth noting that not every popular TV show is clotted with ego and conflict, and may even be something more or less lasting. Quality work.