Wednesday, October 9, 2013

An Open Letter to Mayor Jim Dear

Dear Mayor Dear,

This morning, I took my car into Midas on Carson for an oil change and checkup. I expected to wait a half hour or so, but was told it would be a couple of hours. So I grabbed my Kindle and camera, and set off for a walk around the neighborhood, thinking I would walk, read, get a cup of coffee and basically kill a couple of hours. Which I did, quite pleasantly.

After a while, I came to Carson Park. I thought I would stop there and read a bit. It was early and the park was almost empty. Three women were walking, chatting in Spanish. A city worker was going over the park with a leaf blower. A noisy, energy consuming leaf blower. Too noisy to sit and read. I decided to walk on.

I’m a tax and spend Democrat, happy to see my tax dollars and the people they employ at work. But I couldn’t help noticing that the areas the man had gone over with the leaf blower didn’t look noticeably different than the areas he hadn’t got to yet.

One of the women from the trio of walkers came past me alone.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I don’t mean to bother you. But what do you think of that?” I pointed to the leaf-blowing worker. She said that she and her friends were talking about that, how annoying it was, and unnecessary. Just what I think, too.

I’m not complaining about the worker. I’m sure he is following his department’s procedure. But I am wondering if this procedure needs to be reviewed.

On a planet with unlimited resources, this would be only annoying and wasteful. But on our planet, where our thoughtless habits of consumption and pollution threaten the health and security of generations to come, this thoughtless, kneejerk behavior is harmful and should be reviewed.

As I thought about, I began to wonder how widespread this culture of wasteful fuel consumption is in our city. I realized that a huge gas-guzzling street cleaner goes by my house every Monday morning, leaving the appearance and cleanliness of the street virtually unchanged. I bet this could be reduced to alternate weeks instead of weekly without having any noticeable impact on the appearance and livability of the city.

I wonder if it would be worthwhile to convene a committee to study the practices of all city departments with the goal of making the city more environmentally friendly. In the park example, maybe a review could lead to decreasing the frequency of leaf-blowing, if not eliminating it entirely, which would save money, improve the quality of life (walking in the park without industrial noise), and decrease our impact on the environment.

Wouldn’t that be good?

Peter Rashkin  

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

NSA – Bring it on!

I’m a civil libertarian; always have been. ACLU, etc. I’m nostalgic about the old days, before the Wars on Terror and Drugs, when we had a fourth amendment to protect our privacy.

But I hope the NSA is monitoring my phone calls.

I hope they notice that 45% of my incoming traffic is “courtesy calls” from local hustlers trying to give me a free estimate. I want the NSA to note that I hang up on these people without speaking. I’m rude, even though at least it’s real people on the other end. Make a note of it. I love it when they wait a minute before they even talk; I often hear office noise and side conversations in the background.

Another 45% is computer messages, often starting: “Did you know the FBI…” I never get beyond that.

I’ve signed up for the “Do Not Call” list, but the calls keep coming. NSA guys…can’t you do something about that?

Remember that great (and prescient) line from Invasion of the Body Snatchers: “If they get the phone company, we’re done for!”

They did. We are. NSA: Help!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Beating Heart of Western Civilization

Great visit to New York earlier this month. I love that city! For urban walking, it's the best. You can't walk 10 minutes without seeing something interesting, if not iconic. And the great subway system makes everything easily accessible.

Thanks so much to Ethel for letting me and Larry stay in her midtown apartment, the perfect home base from which to explore Manhattan. Ethel and my mother were friends in high school; she and her late husband Chuck stayed with my folks when mom was pregnant with me. Ethel is curator of comparative psychology (now emeritus) at the American Museum of Natural History, where she still has an office, just a few blocks from her home. I remember coming into Manhattan to visit her at her lab. She's worked with many different animals, but in my memory, it was rabbits.

When I was 11, I came into town on the subway with a friend. We went to AMNH, but we spent our subway money and had to walk down to Gimbels where my dad worked. A few months later, just when I was getting to be old enough to explore the city on my own, my parents moved me to the cultural backwater of Los Angeles. How could they? Oh, the humanity!

Not that LA has been bad to me. I had a great adolescence, I love access to the mountains, desert and coast, and we've got plenty of great museums and big cool buildings. And it's the capital of the third world...a real international hub, with the restaurants to prove it. But when I get back to New York City - and I'm really talking Manhattan - I feel that I'm inside the beating heart of western civilization.

THURSDAY - with Larry, Richard, Randy
Flight east, Broadway, Times Square, Greenwich Village, Chinatown, City Hall Park, 9/11 Memorial, Staten Island Ferry, Wall Street, High Line.

FRIDAY - with Larry and Richard
American Museum of Natural History, Central Park (Pale Male!), Fifth Avenue, Museum of Modern Art (Diego Rivera).

SATURDAY - with Larry, Richard, Randy, Cindy, Heather, Nick, Cordelia, Floyd
Fantastic walk: Downtown, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to the Manhattan Bridge, over to Chinatown, up to Penn Station.

SUNDAY - with Larry, Richard, Stan
Empire State Building, New York Public Library, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Grand Central Station, United Nations, Central Park.

MONDAY - with Larry, Ethel
Hudson Riverwalk, George Washington Bridge, Grants Tomb, Riverside Church, lunch with Ethel.

The crowds of people doing a million interesting things...the world headquarters of major institutions that appear around every corner...the people and goods from every corner of the empire. Pulque! In Chinatown! Incredible.

But more...the parks, the monuments, the plaques, the inscriptions over building entrances. The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government. Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times. Let us have peace.

Central Park itself, from the mid-19th century, is a beautiful tribute to our best social nature, as is the current project to provide pedestrian an bicycle paths around the entire perimeter of Manhattan.

Speaking of western civilization, check out the list of famous people, "our heroes," whose statues I photographed in four days walking around Manhattan: Daniel Webster, Theodore Roosevelt, Garibaldi, Sun Yat-sen, Horace Greeley,Washington, Hans Christian Andersen, Abraham Lincoln, Andy Warholz, William H. Seward,  Giuseppe Verde, Duke Ellington, William Tecumseh Sherman, William Cullen Bryant, Gertrude Stein.

I am not an unalloyed fan of western civ. Those poor suckers who traded away Manhattan to the Dutch India Company in 1622 didn't know what they were in for. Ask the Yemeni villagers who survived the latest US drone attacks what they think of so-called western civilization. Maybe they'll say, like Gandhi, "It would be a good idea."

The very iconography of the city speaks to the deep contradictions in the mythology. Until April 30, when the tower went up on One WTC, its tallest building was the Empire State Building. The Empire State. And the city is the imperial center of the most powerful empire in history, sucking the resources from across the globe and insisting on its moral right to control it all. The arrogance of empire...I can't embrace it.

But I am of it. I realize that, walking around in this great city, which, in its parks, its monuments, its museums, its vibrant democratic life, seems an expression of our highest ideals.

Thanks to my friends who came in to walk around with me! It was great to see you!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Nature of Things

Review: THE SWERVE – How the World Became Modern
by Stephen Greenblatt

This is a wonderful book with a compelling narrative of the recovery, in 1417, of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, by an interesting book collector, Poggio Bracciolini. It is a story of the early Renaissance, with quarreling popes and princes and a corrupt clergy, but also with a tremendous enthusiasm for the late Roman Republic and a zeal for recovering, understanding and using the things that had made Rome great long ago.

Things like grammar, architecture, democracy. That classical stuff. Educated people – and there were a lot of them, because they were needed to run the vast papal bureaucracy as well as international commerce and finance – poured over Cicero and other Roman and Greek authors.

This was a generation before Gutenberg. Books were still incredibly labor-intensive hand copied affairs. Expensive, cherished. Much of the classical library had disappeared, neglected and ravaged by time. Some had been preserved, mostly by monks for whom reading Latin literature was a daily exercise, and copying texts was a monastic craft. In the Renaissance, some of those texts made it out of the monasteries and into the schools and living rooms of the educated elites. Others remained neglected and unused in the libraries of remote monasteries. In one of these, Poggio found Lucretius' masterpiece.

On the Nature of Things was written in 50 BCE, a year before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, in the last days of the Republic (a time somewhat like our own in that big money, with fortunes built on foreign expansion, was undermining republican institutions at home). Although the ideas it promoted were not widely accepted, the book was widely admired for the beauty of its language as well as the intellectually challenging content. It was praised. Poggio would have read ABOUT De rerum natura, but never seen it, because no copy was known to exist until he found one in some remote monastery in Germany. He returned the book to circulation and, Greenblatt argues, changed the world.

In Chapter Eight, in the middle of the book, Greenblatt summarizes some of the main themes in Lucretius:
  • Everything is made of invisible particles.
  • The elementary particles of matter...are eternal.
  • The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
  • All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
  • The universe has no creator or designer.
  • Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.
  • The swerve is the source of free will.
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments.
  • The universe was not created for or about humans.
  • Humans are not unique.
  • Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
  • The soul dies.
  • There is no afterlife.
  • Death is nothing to us.
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
  • Religions are invariably cruel.
  • There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

That list, which he elaborates in the chapter, is Greenblatt's summary of Lucretius' philosophy, which is in turn and expression of the philosophy of Epicurus, 341-270 BCE. It wasn't widely accepted in Epicurus' day, in Lucretius' day, or in Poggio's. It's been parodied and pilloried. And yet, look at that list. Don't you see Galileo in it? Newton? Darwin? Einstein, Bohr? Jefferson? Jefferson had five copies of the book, and said he was an Epicurean. This is a modern view of the world; in fact, except for a few small points (I don't think elementary particles are infinite in number), it's largely my view of the nature of things. Going back to the time of Alexander the Great. Incredible!

Greenblatt explores these and other imprints of Lucretius' work in the modern world. But there's one he misses: John Lennon's Imagine is a beautiful expression of the Epicurean world view.

Just imagine!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Jim's Library

The two stacks just to the left of the building are "B Control," where Jim and I worked.

I worked with Jim for many years at Haynes Generating Station. We made electricity. We were part of Crew 4, one of the operating crews that manned the station around the clock. We worked rotating shits: Ten day shifts (6:30-2:30), four days off, 10 peaks (2:30-10:30), four days off, 10 graveyards (10:30-6:30). Except that after the last grave, if you stayed up all day, you could “cheat the company” and have a five-day weekend without using up any vacation time. There were about 14 of us on the crew, staffing three control rooms. Monday through Friday day shifts were all business, since the plant was busy with maintenance, administration, training. But the rest of the time, if nothing special was happening, we just had to keep an eye on things, with about two hours of actual duties. There was a lot of conversation, cooking and surreptitious reading. We got to know each other pretty well over the years.

Jim and I were probably the best-read guys on the crew, and we recommended books to each other and often discussed what we were reading. Occasionally he would join the hikes I put together after the last graveyard. A bunch of us would go out to breakfast, then drive up to the San Gabriels northeast of LA, instead of going home an getting some sleep. It was a little rough, but it smoothed the transition back to diurnalism.

I retired in 1998 at 51. The DWP had a harebrained scheme to save money by offering generous early retirement terms that I couldn't resist. Jim left that same year, forced out on a disability retirement after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

MS is a terrible and mysterious disease that eats away the myelin, which is like the insulation on the nerve cells. When it's gone, the nerve cells lose their ability to conduct messages. Since everything we do depends on these signals, you lose one function after another as the disease progresses. Jim used to jog and bike – and drive – until MS robbed him of his ability to balance and see. He used to play guitar, studying Bach transcriptions and Eric Clapton. Cleaning up his apartment, I've thrown away many handwritten play lists stuffed in every drawer. What Jim was practicing until the disease robbed him of that ability as well. And he used to read, before the myelin on his optic nerve deteriorated. He read a lot.

After he retired, Jim continued to live alone in his Long Beach apartment. We would get together every month or two, go out to eat, sometimes see a movie. Larry, another Crew 4 alumnus, would sometime join us. In recent years, Jim would call me when something he couldn't deal with came up, and I would help him out. His coffee maker, answering machine or tv stopped working, so I would pick up a new one for him and set it up in his apartment.

In December, he fell while making his way around the apartment. He tried to deal with the pain (mostly with aspirin and vodka), but after a couple of days he called and I took him to emergency. He had fractured a vertebra, and also developed pneumonia and esophageal bleeding. He was a wreck. He spent a week in the hospital, and a couple more in a hellish convalescent facility. It was clear he could not go back to his independent apartment living in the near future, and that realistically probably not at all. (He still doesn't agree with this, and hopes to resume living on his own. We'll see.) I found an assisted living facility, helped him move in, and I'm trying to get him moved out of his apartment so he won't have to pay rent for nothing.

The saddest and most interesting task has been to liquidate his library...boxes and boxes of books collected, saved and READ over many years.

Remember Episode 8 of the Twilight Zone, which first aired Nov. 20, 1959? I'll bet you do!

Time Enough at Last, in which Burgess Meredith gives a great performance as a bookish bank teller harassed by his employer and his wife for wasting too much time reading. While hiding in the bank vault to read, an h-bomb destroys the city. All that's left is him and the ruins of the public library. At last! Time enough to read to his heart's content. Then he trips over the rubble. His thick glasses fall and are shattered.

That's Jim.

Doris Lessing, Mark Twain, Richard Feynman, Kierkegaard, Merton.

One by one, I go through his boxes of books, long since stored away because he could no longer read them. A few titles I put aside for myself, even though I don't have any room for more books. The balance will go to the friends of the library for their book sale.

David Hume, Lao Tzu, Vonnegut, Crichton. The Portable Enlightenment Reader.

Every day he thinks of a new title he wants me to put aside in case he's able to get a device that will allow him to read again. Viking Portable Mark Twain, The Mathematical Handbook, Surely You Jest, Mr. Feynman!” So I go through the pile again, looking for his requests.

Tolstoy, Azimov, Sagan, Shaw, Wells, Fitzgerald. The Physics of Chance.

Selected Masterpieces for the Classical Guitar. Eric Clapton Unplugged, Chet Atkins Note-for-Note.

Dickens, Ibsen, Mann, Dillard, Gould, Thoreau.

The Good Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith.

The depth and breadth of the collection only underscores what a profound thing has been taken from this man by MS.

It breaks my heart.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Violence, Corruption and the Drug War

In a town in southern Veracruz, I spoke to a young man who ran a small business. I’ll call him X, because although I doubt if los Zetas or any of the local police will be reading my blog, I don’t want to risk getting him in trouble.

Los Z, he said, are like the American mafia of the 1920s, but with less ethics. Every business pays protection. Murder is rampant, prosecution non-existent. The only law enforcement agency free of corruption is the federal army, and its resources are totally inadequate. (Others disagree and cite numerous instances of corruption in the army, and, according to Wikipedia, the organization was formed in the late 90s by elite army personnel, possibly trained at the School of the Americas.)

X plays on a local fĂștbol team, and they met and beat a team from the city police department. Some gangsters started harassing the ref. X protested; the police said don’t worry, it’s nothing, but X persisted. Some time later, two carloads of gun-toting thugs came and beat him up.

X recovered, with no permanent harm. It’s a small incident, a mere anecdote, but it speaks to the widespread corruption and disfunctionality that plagues Mexico and has significantly worsened in the last decade. Pobre Mexico, he says. My poor country. And I remembered the old saying: Pobre Mexico, tan lejos de Dios, tan cerca de los Estados Unidos. Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.

It would be an over-simplification to blame Mexico’s problems on the US drug war, but it is a major factor. Just as alcohol prohibition was a major boom to the American mafia in the 20s, the drug trade is the indisputable source of the Zetas’ wealth and power. The US demand for illegal drugs, combined with the availability of arms in the US and their flow into Mexico, creates and sustains the culture of violence and corruption.

At the same time, the US offers an ideal and a solution. X spoke with admiration of the American justice system, and I am sure he is correct in this. Compared to Mexico, and for all its faults, we in the US can rely on our system and believe in it in a way that Mexicans cannot. If anything remotely like the soccer incident occurred in the US, we would expect protection from authorities and redress in the courts. Of course there are aberrations; they are the exception. When police or government officials are corrupt (and there will be corruption in any system), we expect that they will be found and prosecuted. Not so in Mexico.

Yet even in our country, the practice of justice falls too short of the ideal, as an important book published last year shows. In ORDINARY INJUSTICE, HOW AMERICA HOLDS COURT (, writer and attorney Amy Bach shows in a number of examples from throughout the country how poor people, out of expediency rather than through malicious intent, are victimized by an overtaxed and under-resourced legal system with little regard for guilt or innocence.

In the US and in Mexico, and in many other places as well, the ideal of justice, so fundamental that experiments show that even little children and animals strive for it, is severely impacted by the misguided war on drugs. To be sure, drug prohibition, as alcohol prohibition in the past, has the positive effect of suppressing - however imperfectly - drug abuse, but at what cost?

In the US, the cost includes the drain of resources needed elsewhere to support the massive prison complex, choking the court system as described above, enabling gang structures that impact city life, and disrupting families and communities as petty drug violators are caught up in the criminal justice system. Not to mention the affront to the liberty of the millions of relatively responsible recreational drug users. Isn’t this a cure far worse than the disease?

In Mexico and many other countries, including Afghanistan, US drug prohibition enables and promotes powerful criminal organizations that intensify corruption and undermine the ability of governments to protect civil society.

I feel like a broken record. I know I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said a million times already. But after my conversation with X, I want to say it once more.

Americans have a lot to be proud of, but we should be ashamed of allowing this terrible, misguided, disruptive, unwinnable war on drugs to go on and on.

End drug prohibition now.