Cave Boys Out

Well, all twelves boys stranded in a watery cave in Thailand, and their young coach, are safely out. I feared it wasn’t possible, that one or more of the boys would die. As the crisis ends, one person lost his life — a trained Thai navy Seal who ran out of oxygen. Everyone else made it out relatively unharmed.

This is surely a  moment for rejoicing, and for affirming the generosity of the human spirit. Experienced divers from all over rushed to help. They were needed for this complex and dangerous rescue.

The boys will soon be home, their bodies and spirits recovering from a terrifying experience. All good wishes to them and their families, and kudos to the courageous rescuers who risked life and limb to bring about this miraculous conclusion.

Maybe the Thai government should seal up that cave entrance. Just a thought.

Getting to Know Seattle: The March

Seattle is a progressive city, and Seattle-ites show up big for things like Saturday’s march. My entire family went — Matt, Amy, the kids, Sara, Ben — and I met up with them along the route, by happenstance actually. I hadn’t intended to march, but was crossing 4th when they came by. I took the kids’ hands and walked with them for a few blocks.

I think it’s incredibly important for Archie and Else to be part of this march, and to know why they are marching, and to see the solid wall of people marching with them. As Ben observed, there is one more piece here: that everyone eligible to vote follow up the march by actually registering to vote, and voting.

As I wrote on a blog post a few weeks ago, it makes perfect sense to me that high school students are driving this activism against the NRA and gun manufacturers, who are the ones really represented by the NRA. This isn’t about Second Amendment rights — it’s about protecting the right to sell more guns, plain and simple. A small percentage of the American population are gun owners, but fueled by a flood of money from gun manufacturers and a lot of fear, they exert disproportionate power in Congress. High school students are old enough to march, unlike children the ages of those killed at Sandy Hook, and high school students have been visibly and directly affected by school massacres. By the same logic, college students drove the protests against the Viet Nam war. They were the ones being drafted, sent to Viet Nam, and killed.

I’ve read pundits who assert that we are engaged in a “cold civil war”, between contrasting visions of what America is going to be. I think that’s true. An emboldened NRA is not my vision of America. Nor is the empty macho Trump-Bolton-Pompeo posturing. I eagerly await November 2018, and the presidential election two years beyond. Maybe it had to get this bad in order for reasonable people to be moved to defend democratic values. But it doesn’t have to stay this bad.

As long as good people vote.

Creating Our Own Fault Lines

Cushing, Oklahoma, prides itself on being the pipelines crossing of the oil industry in this country.

Dubbed the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World,” Cushing is the nexus of 14 major pipelines, including Keystone, which alone has the potential to transport as much as 600,000 barrels of oil a day. The small Oklahoma town is also home to the world’s largest store of oil, which sits in hundreds of enormous tanks there. Prior to this recent spate of natural disasters, Cushing oil levels were already high. They’ve increased nearly a million barrels, to nearly 60 million barrels, since Harvey hit.”

Oklahoma is vulnerable to tornadoes, but above ground storms are not a threat to the pipeline system, which is below ground. Oklahoma used to be considered seismically stable which, along with geographic location, made the state idea for oil storage and distribution.

No more. The state has become seismically unstable, for an entirely man-made reason: fracking. Oklahoma has become the most seismically unstable of the lower 48 states. And the pipeline and storage systems were built to safety standards that reflect the former reality, not the current one. Those standards reflect the priorities of the American Petroleum Institute, and reflect the group’s desire to get oil to market as quickly and inexpensively as possible. There is little in the API’s list of priorities that shows concern for protecting the public.

Don’t look to the Trump administration either, for the reasons we’ve seen already. The EPA under Scott Pruitt certainly isn’t going to  stand up. Nor will the Department of Energy, or the Department of Transportation.

We the public are on our own, and at the mercy of seismic activity whose potency we’ve literally created from once stable ground.


Fighting Rats with Cats

New York City has a big rat problem, which I don’t doubt although I’ve never seen a rat while walking the city or staying in a city hotel or going down into the subway. But I don’t doubt rats are there, in the millions.

New York is fighting its rat problem with cats, feral cats to be exact.

Enter the NYC Feral Cat Initiative. Volunteers trap colonies of feral cats, neuter and vaccinate them, and then transport at least some of the colonies to places where rats are an overwhelming problem. Colonies of cats are safer than putting rat poison everywhere, and the presence of cats repels rodents whether or not the cats catch and eat adult rats or their babies.

I like the idea. Seems like a win-win for everyone. Feral cats are repurposed, as it were, rather than put down, and rat life is disrupted. Like cockroaches, rats are hard to eradicate. This Initiative seems like a way of boosting the natural ecosystem in a way that favors humans, and the cats get a new lease on life as well.

The Caliph

Most non-Muslims in the United States, when we hear the terms “Caliph” or “Caliphate” think of the current scourge on the Middle East, ISIL, and its murderous leader Al Baghdadi. But in the Muslim faith, “Caliph” simply means a successor, a deputy, to the founding prophet Muhammed. The Islamic world was ruled by a caliph for 13 centuries after the death of Muhammed in 632 until the overthrown of the last Ottoman caliph in 1924.

If you want to know more about that long history, try this two part documentary from Al Jazeera, which I found fascinating:

There is a third section yet to be released. I recognize that any 90 minute overview of a long and complex history is truncated. But given how little any of us know about the origins and belief system of 1.6 billion people around the world, I think it’s incumbent upon us to learn.

I’ve asked a devout Muslim friend of mine to view the documentary and tell me if it comports with his understanding. I’ll let you know what he says.

Film Review: Spotlight

If you liked All the President’s Men, you’ll love Spotlight, the story of how the Boston Globe cracked the long-hidden pedophilia scandal in Boston. Following the story in the Globe, the scandal broke worldwide. What had been covered up for decades is now a legal nightmare involving billions of dollars in reparations from the Church to injured victims, and is an ongoing source of shame for the Church hierarchy and for all the priests involved. And there were a lot of them.

I hesitate to use the past tense, because I’m not at all sure the Church is no longer a haven for pedophiles.

We all know the details of the story, but the film makes the viewer feel the outrage anew. For decades, senior Church figures like Cardinal Bernard Law conspired to shame families into silence and settle abuse allegations for a pittance and outside public view. Then high ranking clergy like Cardinal Law transfered the guilty priests to new parishes where they could abuse vulnerable children again. Other institutions, including the police and the press, were complicit.

I like Pope Francis a lot, and I think he’s much better than the Popes who came immediately before him. But despite his assurance that the Church now takes the abuse of children by priests seriously, Cardinal Law sits in Rome in a comfortable retirement outside the legal reach of the Boston authorities and under the protection of Rome.

That’s shameful too.

Making a Manufactured Town Real

When it comes to architecture, what makes a style “real”? Architect Michael Bierut, who created Disney’s Celebration twenty years ago, has an interesting essay on the topic in CityLab. You might call Celebration a completely fake and entirely manufactured town. But you could also say that of tony Westchester County, New York, where Bierut lives:

He even describes his own neighborhood in Westchester County, New York—which he likes—as “a fake Craftsman-style house next to a fake colonial house, next to a fake Cotswold cottage thing, next to another fake thing.”

“No one has ever walked to my house and said ‘This seems quite inauthentic,’” he adds. “They say, ‘What a nice house, how many fireplaces do you have?’” With enough time, anything can become “authentic.” Even Celebration. “The older it gets,” he says in How To, “the more I like it.”

Jerry and I lived in a 1929 Tudor in Rochester, NY, which certainly seemed to have more authenticity than some of the newer Tudors I see in mega-home high priced suburbs, but of course anything “Tudor” isn’t native to upstate New York at all. Cobblestone houses are, but the Tudor style goes back to old England.

The steel and glass building I live in now makes no pretensions to belong to any period at all. It’s more energy efficient than Matt and Amy or Sara’s Craftstman style homes, which in turn owe their origins to the English Arts and Crafts movement. But you could find the same high end building in many urban centers. It belongs to a social class demographic, not an architectural style.

In the case of Celebration, whose middle-American, mostly white residents seem quite happy there, give a place time enough to let the trees grown and the landscaping take root, and even something designed to resemble Disneyworld begins to look like it belongs in the location where it was built. Seems very American to me.

The Difficulty of Fighting ISIS

Tarkhan Batirashvili was one of ours. He is a former non-commissioned officer of the Republic of Georgia, trained by the U.S. to fight the Russian invasion of that country.

Now he’s Abu Omar al Shishani, and he’s fighting with ISIS.

He and other ISIS military commanders are flush with high-level U.S. provided equipment and  munitions captured from collapsed Iraqi battalions.

When the Republican presidential candidates, or Senator McCain, or any of the hawks demand that we train and equip “moderate Syrian forces”, I’d like them to think about al Shishani, or indeed about Osama bin Ladin before him. Credible allegations suggest that bin Ladin received training from the CIA to fight against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s.

Absent a permanent U.S. occupation of collapsed Middle Eastern countries, I’m not sure what resuming a hawkish policy on the region might look like. Individuals and factions are very happy to take our money, training, and arms – like the Sunni forces we paid to fight on our side during “the Surge” – and they then go off the rez to engage full bore in their centuries-old conflicts with each other. They are not, repeat not, fighting for the freedom to have Western-style democracy.

I’m getting to be a big fan of containment, hardening our intelligence so that we can forestall rogue attacks within the U.S., and working with anyone who has influence in the region, including Russia and Iran, to try to quell the current turmoil and utter disarray.

[reference an article by Mitchell Prothero entitled “U.S. Training Helped Mold Top Islamic State Military Commander in McClatcheyDC.]

Shout Out for Customer Service: Lydia Sanchez

Customer service in this country is almost a lost art. We’re now expected to size our own shoes, bag our own groceries, print our own stamps from a machine, and package and return purchased items that arrive in unsatisfactory condition – and often, to pay the return postage ourselves.

When we do get good service, it’s almost a surprise.

I wrote earlier this week about needing to apply for a duplicate deed to the cemetery plots I bought in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery when Jerry died. I found Lydia via Bob at McGee Monuments in Rochester, who told me to call her up and tell her what I needed.

Lydia answers her phone. She works for the City of Rochester as a customer service person for Mt. Hope Cemetery. She told me she’d need a little time to find a deed from 2002, but that she’d get right on it.

She actually did.

An electronic copy of the deed was in my email yesterday morning, less than 24 hours after I spoke with her, along with a map of the cemetery marking the spot where Jerry is buried.

Thanks, Lydia. You’re great at what you do, and I suggest you forward this blog post to your boss downtown so that he or she can see how appreciated you are.

If any readers out there join me in valuing good service, you can give a shout out to Lydia here in the Comments section. I think we improve Customer Service by showing our appreciation, whenever and wherever attentive service occurs.

Death Penalty for Tsarnaev

I have deeply mixed feelings about the death penalty, believing with the late Justice Blackmun that that state shouldn’t really be in the business of exacting death. That said, I have little sympathy for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He mercilessly killed innocent people, including a child. I don’t think he was a bit remorseful.

At the same time the media was reporting on Tsarnaev’s death sentence, the Atlantic had a piece by Jeffrey E. Stern entitled “The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett”. Oklahoma, where Lockett was convicted and sentenced, has a very pro-death penalty governor, Mary Fallin, who was willing to over-ride a stay issued by the state Supreme Court. Even though Oklahoma couldn’t get a reliable drug cocktail, even though the paramedic couldn’t correctly insert the IV through which the lethal drugs were administered, and even though Lockett was conscious and suffering long enough for those present to feel horrified and wonder if they should stop the procedure, the death penalty was carried out.

We want a veneer of civility when we execute someone. That’s why states have stopped hanging, gassing, or shooting convicts. We make it a quasi-medical procedure, during which the person sentenced to death is expected to feel no pain.

But if Oklahoma is representative of what happens in the death chamber, there’s no veneer.

We killed Tim McVeigh. We didn’t kill the Unabomber. We will kill Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Mercy and justice for the victims? Retribution? Accountability? Why in one case, and not the other? And it’s not civilized. Not at all.

I don’t know how I’d have voted if I’d been on that jury.