Thursday, December 31, 2009

Think Bike in the New Year

Some of you might be wondering why I keep taking pictures of bike racks.  We all see what we are looking for.  When my wife was pregnant, suddenly we saw all the other pregnant women, a phenomenon we'd barely noticed.  Nothing had changed in the world, only in our heads.  When we bought our first Subaru, we suddenly began seeing how many Subarus were on the streets of Anchorage.  

[This first picture was at the Providence Hospital garage yesterday.  I biked over (about a mile) to get my teeth cleaned.  There were three bikes (one fat bike on the right) and two mountain bikes in this rack - mine's the fourth - and there were four in the other rack in the background.  This is winter.  I've never seen more than one or two bikes here in the winter before.  These bike racks are close to full, again, in the winter.  The summer is going to mean that Prov will need more bike racks for sure.]

Cars dominate life in the US and increasingly elsewhere.  But in many ways they are the default status quo, bolstered by habit, by advertising, by city planning, and by our mental models that say we can't live without cars.  But my personal experience is that using alternative transportation - such as bikes or walking or buses - when feasible is really liberating.  When challenged to change, we think about what we're giving up, not what we're going to gain. Foot power not only saves petroleum, the air, and parking spaces,  it also keeps us healthier, connects us to the world we usually whiz by - the trees, the flowers, interesting houses, new shops (old shops we never saw) and to other people.

It's NOT either/or.  We won't eliminate the auto.  That's not the point.  We'll just use it less.  If everyone drove 20% less, that would be a huge impact.  So we just need to rethink some of the short trips.  A mile walk is extremely doable.  It shouldn't take more than 20 minutes once someone is fit.   But walks of 3 miles - hikers do it all the time as recreation - are also very doable.  But few people think about walking from downtown to UAA, but it's about a 60 - 80 minute walk.  I don't have time for that, you say.  But if you walk, you can skip the trip to the gym.  When we talk about bikes, the distances we can go increases.

[This second picture was last night at Benson and LaTouche.  The biker is in the white oblong.  It would have been better in video as his head lamp and bike lamp both flashed on and off.  These LED lights are making winter bikers much more visible to drivers.]

So, there are two reasons I do these posts:

1.  To raise people's awareness that more and more people are biking, even in the winter,  change people's idea of what is possible.  It's not just fanatics who are on their bikes.  It's normal, average people who have found that it works in their lives.

2.  To document the changes that are going on as people do start using their bikes - some just making occasional use of the bike instead of a car when it's a short trip and others actually commute every day by bike, some doing ten mile round trips or more, even in winter. 

It's the last day of the year.  Even if you aren't going to write down any New Year's resolutions, this still is a time to reflect on how we've lived our lives and how we might do it better. 

I urge you to 'see' all the bikers around you.  I urge you to try to abandon your car for at least one trip a week - and either walk or bike instead.  Start small.  You're parked at Barnes and Noble.  Instead of driving the short distance to Blockbusters for a video, walk there and back.  Once you start making some small trips like that without the car, you'll start thinking about other times you could walk or bike instead.  For some, you can start in January.  For others, go ahead, wait until April when the snow is almost gone and there's more light.  I promise you, you'll feel better. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Phil Munger, Composer

One of the reasons Progressive Alaska is such an interesting blog is that its blogger, Phil Munger, has worn so many hats that give him intimate knowledge about so many important topics in Alaska and beyond.  One of his hats is musician, composer.  Last night he and his wife Judy Youngquist celebrated their 30th Anniversary with a lot of others who crowded into their Wasilla home. 

At one point Phil invited me downstairs to his home studio to see his set up and to hear some of his new unfinished work.  Here's a glimpse of that studio and his music on the speakers and on his screen  - watch the vertical green line.  I wasn't able to figure out how, with just my Powershot, to get the light right for both the screen and the rest of the scene, so when I'm not right up to the screen, it just whites out.  And the water heater is in the same room and adds its own improvisation to Phil's composition.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Serious Man Hard to Watch

It wasn't that it was boring, but there wasn't a single character who I would like to know or be around.  They were all seriously annoying in one way or another.  Was it a good movie?  My first reaction is no, but I'm willing to pull back and consider that there was more; that I just didn't get it.

[I don't think what I write here will give anything away, but if you're planning to see the movie and want to go in with fresh eyes, stop now.]

As we talked about it over dinner afterwards, some basic themes emerged.  Perhaps the key  theme is the basic theme of this blog - What Do I Know?  What can I know?  How certain can I be?  A sub theme is about how one can find truth - science and spirituality (religion) are the main contenders.  Or maybe nothing means anything. 

For example, we have the physicist giving his students truth in a wall covering formula that none of them understand - and it's not an accident that what the Professor Larry Gopnik is proving is the uncertainty principle.  The discussion with Clive, a student who has failed the physics exam and requests a passing grade or to take it over because he didn't know there would be math on the test, also reflects the theme of how do we know what's truth.  The student says the math is hard, but he understands the dead cat (Schrödinger's Cat):

LARRY (SURPRISED) You understand the dead cat? 19 CLIVE nods gravely. But... you... you can't really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That's the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they're like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean-even I don't understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works. CLIVE shakes his head, dubious.[script from IMSDB]

But while Larry 'knows' the reality through math, it doesn't seem to translate into truths about his career or his family.   He seeks other truths from three rabbis, who tell him stories.  But when it comes to stories, Larry is just as clueless as his students are about his formulas. 

The truth theme begins the movie in the opening Yiddish tale in a Polish shtetl near Lublin, as a man comes home to tell his wife he was helped by someone she knows.  Not possible says the wife, he's dead.  So when he shows up at the house the man and wife debate if he is truly Traitle Groshkover or if he is a dybbuk

We transform from shtetl life into a 1967 Hebrew school class through an earpiece (they weren't called earbuds back then.)  The wife has stabbed the dybbuk (or was it Traitle Groshkover?) with an ice pick. The dybbuk or mortally wounded Traitle stands up and walks out.  From the script again:
Nonsense, Velvel...
She walks to the door...
Blessed is the Lord. Good riddance to evil and shuts it against
the wind.

A drumbeat thumps in the black.
Music blares: the Jefferson Airplane. Grace Slick's voice enters:
When the truth is found to be lies
And all the hope inside you dies

Don't you want somebody to love. . .

An image fades in slowly, but even up full it is dim: some kind
of round, dull white shape
with a small black pinhole center. This white half-globe is a
plug set in a flesh-toned
field. The flesh tone glows translucently, backlit. We are drifting
toward the white plug
and, as we do so, the music grows louder still.

A pull back-a reverse on the preceding push in-from the cheap
white plastic earpiece
of a transistor radio. The Jefferson Airplane continues over
the cut but becomes
extremely compressed. The pull back reveals that the earpiece
is lodged in someone's
ear and trails a white cord.

We drift down the cord to find the radio at its other end. As
we do so we hear, live in the
room, many voices speaking a foreign language in unison.

[An aside:  I don't recall white ear pieces back then.  I'm pretty sure they were all black.  And this was a transistor radio, not an iPod or even a Walkman, where it would make sense that the rabbi would later hear the same song that Danny was listening to.  Perhaps the white cords were to fool us into believing that it had Danny's songs saved instead of being a radio that would play different songs.  This is not a big deal, artistic license and all.  Just a note.]

Throughout the movie, all the things Larry knows - his marriage, his brother, his job - turn out to be not what he thought they were.  

Grace Slick's words come back near the movie's end, on the lips of the elderly rabbi:

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the hope inside you dies

Another important theme - "I haven't done anything" - comes over the phone from Dick Dutton of the Columbia Record Club.  I'd forgotten about record clubs.  The ads in magazines and in the mail offered you a bunch of free records (the kind you play music on), but the catch is that you have to then buy one each month for X months, and then they keep coming UNLESS you tell them to stop.  That scheme has migrated even more effectively to the internet.  

VOICE Okay, well, you received your twelve introductory albums and you have been receiving the monthly main selection for four months now- LARRY "The monthly main selection?" Is that a record? I didn't ask for any records. VOICE To receive the monthly main selection you do nothing. LARRY That's right! I haven't done anything! [emphasis added] VOICE Yes, that's why you receive the monthly main selection.

Through much of the movie, Larry doesn't do anything.  His wife wants a divorce and tells him to see a lawyer.  He does nothing. Finally, when it's too late, he sees the lawyer.  Clive (the failing grad student) leaves an envelope full of money, but Larry doesn't do anything - doesn't report the money or the student, doesn't change the grade, just lets things slide until the very end.  He's up for tenure, but he hasn't published any articles.  His tenure committee chair, Arlen Finkle stops by to see if there is anything Larry wants to add to his tenure file:

Arlen Finkle Well. Anything. Published work. Anything else you've done outside of the institution. Any work that we might not be aware of. LARRY I haven't done anything. [emphasis added] Arlen Finkle Uh-huh. LARRY I haven't published.

Is fate vs. free will another theme here?  Maybe, but I'm not sure.  There's a number of mentions of Hashem.   Though mostly these don't really imply fate.  Rabbi Scott does say, about all the things happening to Larry:
You have to see these things as expressions of God's will.
You don't have to like it, of course.
Or is this the curse of the Dybbuk stabbed by some foremother of Larry in the shtetl?  

I'm sure there's lots more than this.   There are the obvious similarities to Job for example.  But is this bringing together of diverse references what it takes to make a good movie?  Or is this cinematic trivial pursuit in dark heavy tones disguised by first rate technical work and acting?  Why is this world so relentlessly joyless?  While Larry, who can't seem to do anything, is painfully helpless, the other characters each have their own distastefulness.  There's his wife who's leaving him.   There's his failing student.  The rabbis who can't or won't help Larry.  His weird brother who is oblivious to anyone else's needs.  His daughter who's always nagging.  His son who's an unlovable 12 year old pot head.  Or are these people this way because Larry 'doesn't do anything'?  Or are we seeing them through Larry's eyes? 

The world they depicted is not a world I know.  Not a world I would want to live in.  Most writers and film makers write about their own worlds.  What sort of depressing childhood did the Coen brothers have to lead them to the series of films they've offered?  They aren't simply eccentric, they're dark, morose, violent.  They highlight the worst features of human beings.  There are dark films that show people living difficult lives that I've thought were terrific.  But they reflect a truth about humans, and insight into humanity, that I just don't see in this movie.  While the Coen brothers may work with the most classic of human themes, I don't see that they bring any enlightenment.  Using Shakespeare's themes, doesn't make one a bard.  I just don't think they have the wisdom to make profound films.  They're still children playing at grownup.  They can make films like Professor Gropnik can write formulas.  Their technical skill is impressive, but their understanding of humanity is not nearly as developed.  This was not my cup of tea.  

OK, that's my take.  Now I can go look at what others have said.

Jerry Traverse at Rolling Stone begins:

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are getting personal. They shot their new film in suburban Minnesota, where they grew up as sons of Jewish academics. But if you're expecting something warm and fuzzy, circa 1967, you don't know the Coens, and A Serious Man is no country for you. This seriously funny movie, artfully photographed by the great Roger Deakins, is spiritual in nature, barbed in tone, and, oh, yeah, it stings like hell.

A.O. Scott writing at the New York Times seems to have liked it (It's a NYTimes Critic's Choice.)  Here's a snippet of his review:

. . .So a question put before the congregation by “A Serious Man” is whether it makes the case for atheism or looks at the world from a divine point of view. Are the Coens mocking God, playing God or taking his side in a rigged cosmic game? What’s the difference?
The philosophical conundrums in “A Serious Man” can be posed only in jest — or, at least, in the cultural tradition of Ashkenazic Judaism that stretches from the shtetls of Poland to the comedy clubs of the Catskills, that is how they tend to be posed. But a deep anxiety lurks beneath the jokes, and though “A Serious Man” is written and structured like a farce, it is shot (by Roger Deakins), scored (by Carter Burwell) and edited (by the Coens’ pseudonymous golem Roderick Jaynes) like a horror movie.

I wouldn't go as far as Goatdog, who truly didn't like it:
A Serious Man is a truly despicable film, and I I [sic] ordinarily count myself among the Coen brothers' fans and/or defenders. So I was astonished that with this film, in one fell stroke, they had me believing that everything their detractors say might just be right: they may be talented yet juvenile creeps, the cinematic equivalent of a 13-year-old supreme being who delights in putting his little Job through unbearable torment, only to reward him with a painful death. In 90 minutes, they shook my faith in twenty years of films. Suddenly the Coens are the Federico Fellinis of burning ants to death with a magnifying glass.
 Michael W. Phillips Jr.'s (Goatboy) "talented yet juvenile" says much more clearly what I think is wrong with this film.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Brain Occupied Elsewhere, Mac Video Capture, Serious Man Alert

I guess I should be posting something today, but I'm mentally engaged with other projects. I've got a manuscript I'm reviewing for a journal. It's the second time round and I was the only negative reviewer the first time.  They have tried to address issues I raised, and it is much better, but I still have problems and I'm trying to figure out
  1. whether it's worth pursuing further or is their key issue really a non-issue and 
  2. if it could lead to something useful, how do I articulate my problems and make constructive suggestions?
Having been the recipient of plenty of reviewers comments on my own papers, I know what it feels like to get negative comments.  Negative doesn't mean abusive.  It means that the reviewer doesn't think it's ready for publication.  And for negative comments I feel an extra obligation to give lots of reasons and examples, but it's never an easy process.  So I'm struggling with how to express my reservations in as constructive a way as possible.   That's probably about all I can say on that.

Then I got notice recently that a proposal I submitted for a paper at a conference in May was accepted. So now I have to work on that. I probably will be able to share some of that process, but since I have a co-author, it gets a little more tricky.

We got a call back about an apartment in Juneau - that would make moot the ethics issues. The price and location are right and a friend down there has promised to take a look.

I went to the dermatologist this morning to check on some spots.  That's a cost of growing up near the beach in Southern California.  Nothing alarming. 

Snow Leopard Tip

Here's a gizmodo page that tells you what's new in Snow Leopard. The function I found most interesting is the ability in the new Quicktime to do VIDEO CAPTURE. From my initial experiment, you record the whole screen, so I can use this to record video, but I get everything else on the screen as well, including curser movements.  But there wasn't any audio.  I'll check it out a bit more, but even so, it's a potentially useful function and comes included in Snow Leopard.

In the new Quick Time Player, in FILE, there's an option for 'new screen recording.'  Play around from there.

And a last note:  A Serious Man is at Bear Tooth tonigh 5:30 and 8pm.  A friend in the Chicago area has assigned me that so we can discuss it.  I'm not a fan of the Coen brothers love of blood, but the violence in this movie is apparently all mental.   

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Plowing Snow Berms? 2 - Maybe Not

This is what my parking space looked like after the plow went by several times.  They did use the snow guard to keep most of the snow out of the space.  Not too much spilled.

It only took about five minutes to get rid of the snow and clear my space.

Using the new snow shovel. The old one was just like this one, except it had a black synthetic material as a blade. In the last big storm, it pulled out of the little screws (what are those called, they aren't really screws). All but one of the holes failed and this black strip was loose as I shoveled. Costco took it back with no question and the new version has a metal strip instead.

Our neighbor said he thought they had trucks to clear the berms in the neighborhood, so I left the car in the driveway and went for my run.  Here's the midday sun, getting a little higher on the southern horizon.

And here it is lighting up the trees and casting a very long shadow of the photographer.

While I was running - an abbreviated run (less so in time than distance) - it didn't appear that the other neighborhoods had had their berms cleared.  Here's the berm at the corner as I came back from the run.  My car is still in the driveway and the one you can see on the street is our neighbor, just past our place.  That car caught fire last week so they can't move it right now.  It was idling outside.  We weren't home when it happened otherwise you'd have seen the fire trucks here. :)

We're headed to Out North to see Santaland Diaries.

Plowing the Berms, Maybe

I was doing my stretches and getting ready to go out and run - I've been terribly derelict, but it's been around 30 the last few days and I have no excuses not to get out - when I heard the snow plows.  So I stopped, got some outdoor clothes on and moved the van into the driveway. 

So, here's the second sweep after I moved the van.  You can see some pavement between the front wheel and the mailbox that I did have a cleared spot for my car.  To the left is a two foot high, four foot wide berm.  The question is whether they are just coming by a couple of times to scrape a little more off the street, or are they going to actually clear the berms?  And are they going to leave my parking space, or push the berm into my space?  So far it looks like they are trying to leave my space. 

Now I have to finish the stretches and go run.  It's nice out.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Reading Brooks' Bests and Reexamining What We Know

How do people know what happened?  Even things they've seen themselves.  How does what other people say affect what they 'know?'   We really don't know that much about these things.  Kevin L. Leahy, an attorney who has defended corporations against asbestos personal injury claims writes about the memory of witnesses:
Cognition specialists discuss memory as a process that has three primary stages: (1) encoding; (2) consolidation and storage; and (3) retrieval. (Id.) Each step involves biological efforts within our brains to ensure that an eyewitness account is accurately retained. (May 2003 issue of HarrisMartin’s COLUMNS-Asbestos.)
He goes on to say that unlike artists or story tellers, who can fill in the details after the fact, and not necessarily accurately,
eyewitnesses have no license to stray from their understanding of past events during trial. Our system expressly demands that witnesses “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Once the bailiff and judge forbid conscious manipulation of testimony, however, the remaining instructions are generally silent about the accuracy of the witness’ recall.
So, you might ask, where is this coming from and where is it going?  David Brooks, in the Friday, Dec. 25, 2009 NY Times gives out his Sidney Awards to the best magazine essays  of 2009.

One of his choices is a lengthy story about Todd Willingham, an unemployed auto mechanic, who was put to death in Texas for killing his three daughters by burning his house down.  All the expert witness arson evidence pointed to Willingham.  And so did the eyewitness evidence.  But a friend who came to know Willingham when he was on death row, decided to  recheck the evidence.  And what she found suggested that  some of the details the eyewitnesses gave, was revised later on, after they were exposed to what the 'experts' thought.  From the New Yorker artcle,  "Trial by Fire"   by David Grann:
The witnesses’ testimony also grew more damning after authorities had concluded, in the beginning of January, 1992, that Willingham was likely guilty of murder. In Diane Barbee’s initial statement to authorities, she had portrayed Willingham as “hysterical,” and described the front of the house exploding. But on January 4th, after arson investigators began suspecting Willingham of murder, Barbee suggested that he could have gone back inside to rescue his children, for at the outset she had seen only “smoke coming from out of the front of the house”—smoke that was not “real thick.”

An even starker shift occurred with Father Monaghan’s testimony. In his first statement, he had depicted Willingham as a devastated father who had to be repeatedly restrained from risking his life. Yet, as investigators were preparing to arrest Willingham, he concluded that Willingham had been too emotional (“He seemed to have the type of distress that a woman who had given birth would have upon seeing her children die”); and he expressed a “gut feeling” that Willingham had “something to do with the setting of the fire.”
Dozens of studies have shown that witnesses’ memories of events often change when they are supplied with new contextual information. Itiel Dror, a cognitive psychologist who has done extensive research on eyewitness and expert testimony in criminal investigations, told me, “The mind is not a passive machine. Once you believe in something—once you expect something—it changes the way you perceive information and the way your memory recalls it.”

Friday, December 25, 2009

Swedish Tea Ring and Beautiful Cat

We went to friends for a Christmas morning breakfast.  The waffles were good, but the homemade Swedish Tea Ring was superb.  A family recipe she makes once a year.

Last night our host had dogs, a whole sled team worth. But this morning it was cats. I'm much more a cat person. I like an animal that doesn't need me, that's got a life of its own, and whose attention I have to deserve.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


This sign I saw on Latouche today seemed appropriate for Christmas Eve.  I also got a letter from Wat Alaska Yanna Vararam - a Thai/Lao Buddhist Temple in town.  It looks ahead to the new year
. . .heartedly blessing you and your family be free from all kinds of suffering, physical and mental suffering.  May you all be free from animosity.  May you all be free from the external disturbance and internal disturbance.  May the peace and pure happiness arise in your mind and leading your mind to the right way, the right way of being, right conduct in action, right conduct in thought and right conduct in speech.
So, I get good vibes this Christmas Eve from the bicycle folks (I assume that's from them) and from the Buddhists.  But as I was almost home after dropping someone off at the airport - Mt. Susitna bathed in setting sunlight was also sending blessings - I was jarred by Senator Mitch Mcconnel's belligerence on the radio news just before the vote on health care reform.   Here's a link ("this fight isn't over"):
I guarantee you, the people who vote for this bill are going to get an earful when they finally get home for the first time since Thanksgiving.  They know there is widespread opposition to this monstrosity.  And I want to assure you Mr. President.  This fight isn’t over.  In fact, this fight is long from over.  My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law.  That’s the clear will of the American people and we will continue to fight on their behalf.
Senator, when does American good sportsmanship kick in? You lost this vote 60% to 39%. That's a landslide in most elections. (And that missing vote was from your Kentucky Republican colleague Sen. Bunning.) It's not a perfect bill I agree. But much of that is due to unrelenting refusal to cooperate in any way by Republicans.

Senator, on this Christmas Eve, I guess the best  I can do is pass on the Buddhist blessings to you:
May you all be free from animosity.  May you all be free from the external disturbance and internal disturbance.  May the peace and pure happiness arise in your mind and leading your mind to the right way, the right way of being, right conduct in action, right conduct in thought and right conduct in speech.

[While looking up McConnel's words I did find some interesting trivia.  McConnel was born in 1942.  His first wife, Sherrill Redmon, is now the Director of the Women's History Archives at Smith College which was founded in 1942. His current wife, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan, and is the former director of the Peace Corps and former Secretary of Labor. He has three daughters from his first marriage.]

The White Canary in the Inlet?

Mayor Sullivan is concerned that about the Cook Inlet beluga whale getting an endangered species designation.  From Don Hunter's Wednesday Anchorage Daily News article:

"Virtually every department in the city and every business in the region has a stake in this," Sullivan said, citing potential restrictions on discharges from Anchorage's water and sewer utility, noise limits at Stevens International Airport, air quality issues, oil and gas development, expansion at the Port of Anchorage and a proposed Knik Arm bridge.
"All those things come into effect with this beluga designation," Sullivan said. "Every one of those projects could be in jeopardy, and we cannot allow that to happen."
Let's see now:  sewage dumped into the inlet could be a problem, the noise at the airport could be a problem, oil and gas development, port expansion, and the Knik Arm bridge, just to name a few.

If all these things cause serious harm to the belugas, what are they doing to the people of Anchorage.  We may not be dying off quite yet, but if sewage and oil contaminated salmon and hooligan could be harming the belugas, what might they be doing to humans who also eat them?   How might the airport noise be affecting the hypertension levels of people living in Anchorage?  How is our cancer rate affected by the oil and gas development that is threatening the belugas?  It's true, we aren't swimming in the sewage and oil and gas that is contaminating the inlet and salmon makes up a much bigger proportion of the beluga diet than even the most avid human salmon killer.

But we also know that the collective human garbage is threatening the whole planet.  Instead of a mayor who's vision is to continue doing what we have always done, I'd like to see a mayor who recognizes that we can't go on the way we have been.  Who's looking for people with imagination to start us working on the economy of the 21st, not the 19th and 20th Centuries. 

The mayor did support the Anchorage International Film Festival.   I doubt that that he saw the documentary Tapped which examines the bottled water industry and what it is endangering people's inherent rights to water and how the bottles are among the worst international contaminents.  Or if he saw A Sea Change, which explores the acidification of the world's oceans and how this threatens the food chain.  Or if he saw My Toxic Baby which is a mother's exploration of the chemicals in the foods and other products marketed for her baby.

 I know. From the mayor's point of view, these are simply alarmist left wing propaganda.  But when I got to Anchorage in 1977, the conservative Anchorage Times was railing against the environmentalist who they saw as holding up the building of the pipeline.  But all they did was make sure that there were environmental protections set in place.  Protections that didn't stop the Exxon Valdez from spoiling Prince William Sound.  And that aren't stopping BP from having spill after spill on the North Slope this year.  But today's oil company ads recognize the importance of protecting the environment and BP even changed its logo to be green and gave BP a new meaning - beyond petroleum. 

Those pesky liberals also made a big deal about smoking and now smoking and lung cancer rates as well as other smoking related illnesses are down. 

But all these issues were strongly fought by those who wanted the status quo to remain.  Just as Mayor Sullivan's answer to environmental degradation is to call for full speed ahead.  And 30 years from now when the beluga is gone, people will tell their children  how,  like the canary in the coal mine, the beluga was a warning that human health was also in jeopardy.

Should we shut down and Anchorage and have everyone move back to where they came from?  No.  But before we spend money on bridge to Matsu, let's put people to work building a sewage plant that actually cleans our sewage before it goes into the inlet.  Let's look at the impact of noise pollution on humans too.  And let's get Costco and the other big box stores to recycle the plastic and other packaging that can't be recycled in Anchorage and ship it back where it came from.  Let's look for jobs cleaning the environment, developing products that are environmentally friendly, business practices that are sustainable.   Be a visionary, Dan.  Bring Anchorage to a better future.  Don't simply prolong a past that plundered our natural beauty for a quick buck and keeps pushing more garbage and noise into our community.  Learn why economists call these things externalities and list them as one of the failures of the free market.

Ahab let his white whale drive him crazy.  Mayor Sullivan will you handle your white whale better?  Let's hope so. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Finally Out to Cross Country Ski

Don Chan came up to Anchorage to work as hospitality coordinator for the Anchorage International Film Festival.  All the film makers I know were more than pleased with how well he looked after them.

(Learning to turn around.)

  He worked so hard he never really got a chance to see much of Anchorage except the routes between the venues and places where people were staying.

I'd invited him to go cross country skiing earlier this week when everything was so covered in ice and snow, but the temperature was near 0˚F (-17˚C).  But it's warmed up (about 30˚F/-1˚C) and I offered to take him out this morning.  I decided to not even look at my computer this morning before I left.  I got to the B&B he's staying at and rang the bell.  No one around.  I walked to the back, but everything was locked and dark inside. 

Just before deciding to leave (he wasn't answering his cell either) I heard someone say she'd be down.  She let me in and I ended up waking him up.  Turns out he'd sent me an email this morning canceling because he'd been up all night working on the Palm Springs Film Festival.  But he said, "Well I'm up now so let's go."

It was his first time on cross country skis and he did fine.  We did about two miles on the beautiful - and mostly flat - Campbell Airstrip trails.  Then I dropped him off downtown on the way to a lunch meeting.  

This government vehicle was parked at the trailhead with its motor on when we arrived.  An hour or so later, the motor was still running.  We didn't see anyone around.  There may have been some logical explanation.  It was plugged into the solar panel on the pole, so given the distinct lack of sun, perhaps it was charging something up.  What do I know?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Just Got Polled about Oil Companies - Is There an Obligation to Tell Them The Truth?

I just got off the phone with pollster asking me questions about oil companies in Alaska.  He said he worked for an outfit called PSA Marketing and Research.  All he would tell me was that it was located in the United States.  He did say he was hired to call people in Alaska, so I'm assuming he wasn't in Alaska.  It's not clear to me who was paying for the survey.  An obvious choice was the oil companies.  At one point he asked whether I agreed or disagreed with statements about BP.   These statements were taken right out of their PR book.  "Do you agree that BP provides jobs for generations of Alaskans" for example.  (He asked my birth month saying that would determine which company I'd be asked about.  It would be interesting to know if others really did get other companies or that was a ruse to hide that this was coming from BP.  I know, I'm so suspicious.)

Anyway, I'd assume this was an oil industry survey except for how the surveyor reacted.  Well, he said he didn't know who was paying for it and that the last person he'd talked to had also told him about BP's recent oil spill.  Come to think of it, that's two people in a row who were asked about BP.  In any case, when I mentioned the recent spill, the previous spill, and the possibility of criminal prosecution, he responded, "Gee, that's terrible."  I had to smile and replied, "You're not supposed to say things like that, you're supposed to be neutral."  That's when he told me, well, the last guy said something similar. 

So, whoever is doing this poll, the people they hired, or at least the guy who called me, is not very professional at all. 

I just checked.  There's a PSA Interviewing Denver that's a market research company.

My outlook on polls is that no one is obligated to tell the truth in a poll.  I really don't think the normal ethical standards for truthfulness apply here.  They are taking up my time, making money off the information they get from me, and they won't even tell me who they are or who's paying for the poll.  What obligation is there for me to tell the truth here?  For all I know, they will use my information to figure out how to manipulate public opinion.  I could be wrong here - about the obligation to be honest to pollsters - so if someone thinks I do have such an obligation, let me hear your reasoning.   

Destination Juneau

Ever since I retired a couple of years ago, Rep. Max Gruenberg has invited me to Juneau for the legislative session, as a scholar, to sit in and watch what was going on.  For as long or as short as I wanted.  He wasn't going to pay me, but would let me have a desk in his office.  Well, the last two years we've gone to Thailand during much of the session, but this year I called him to have him spell out what exactly he had in mind. 

Initial discussions sounded interesting and when Alaska Airlines recently had a deal on tickets to Juneau, I bought a couple, which, in hindsight, was when I decided to go for it.  Friday I rode the Number 2 bus (I don't remember being on a bus in Anchorage where people had to stand before - it wasn't even rush hour) downtown to talk a bit more with Rep. G. 

So my role there is somewhat unique.  I'm not a staffer, I'm not an intern, I'm a volunteer.  But Rep. G has in mind something more than that, sort of a Legislative Fellow or Scholar in Residence kind of thing where I'm there as an academic.  Of course, my blogger status also came up.  Would I have to limit myself to weather and movies and other non-legislative issues?  I came up with a tentative set of guidelines:

OK to blog:
  1. Objective description of events at public meetings (yes, I know 'objective' is a subjective term)
NOT OK to blog:
  1. Anything that would cause heat for Rep. G, such as:
    1. private conversations (without explicit permission)
    2. subjective comments that paint law makers and staff negatively
  2. Legally confidential information or off-the-record meetings (not that I'll have access to this sort of stuff)

When I got to Rep. G's office on 4th Avenue, the first thing we did - Rep. G, another new staffer, and myself - was visit Joyce Anderson, Administrator for the Legislative Ethics Committee.  One requirement is that everyone working (or even volunteering) with the legislator is to have ethics training.  We can do this online and/or in person in Juneau on January 15, just before the session starts.  But we went over a few things first.  One issue that came up was no gifts over $250 value are allowed.

I had a question.  We were offered housing at a long time friend's home during the session when his wife will be out of town.
Q:   Does that count as a gift? 
A:   Yes.  You're going to have to pay.

OK, I'm going down on my own dime.  Legislators and most staff and even interns, it appears, all have some sort of per diem and/or transportation.  So, I can't stay with a friend - someone who has stayed in my house on a number of occasions when visiting Anchorage - for free.   Joyce mentioned a staffer who was told she had to pay rent to stay with her mom.  After I questioned that in amazement, Joyce did add the fact that her mom was a lobbyist.  Even so, it's her Mom, she'd give her housing no matter why she was in Juneau.  What if Mom gives her a birthday present equal to the rent the following year, would they be busted?  Is paying rent going to stop her from confiding to her mom or helping out her mom the lobbyist?

One of my areas of research has been ethics.  So I understand the concerns about conflicts of interest, but I've published the argument that every politician has conflicts of interest and that the real issues are undue gain and improper influence.  My friend would have offered the housing for whatever reason I came to Juneau; it's not because I'll be in a legislator's office.  But I also understand the issue of appearance of conflict.  I may know my friend and I have this long term relationship, and that his offer has nothing to do with getting favors from me,  but do others? 

I also raised the blog questions while we were with Joyce.  It's not an issue that's come up before.  We'll be writing the rules as we go.  But I did get Joyce's ok to take her picture and blog about what happens as I start this process of becoming a volunteer in the Alaska State Legislature.

Afterward, Rep. G and I talked about things I might do.  He's being really generous.  I can do staff work for his office, but I'm free to explore whatever is of interest and to help out in another office or just do stuff on my own.  Of course, I'm going to do some of the staff work needed in his office, but it will be interesting to see where this all leads.  My goal is just to be close enough to get an idea of what the legislative process is really like.  And to better know who represents the residents of Alaska.

I also got a booklet:  Alaska State Legislature Uniform Rules (links to pdf file)
The Constitution of the State of Alaska (sec. 12, art. II) provides: "The houses of each legislature shall adopt uniform rules of procedure." It is noteworthy that the drafters of the constitution did not say "each house" shall adopt, but rather emphasized that the "houses" should adopt uniform rules. It was the intention of the writers that Alaska should avoid the circumstances of many state legislatures where one finds house rules, senate rules, and joint rules. The uniform system is intended to permit the members and the public to follow or conduct the legislative process without a confusion of rules. The rules are adopted by both houses sitting in joint session as one body. The law on the subject of rules reads:
Sec. 24.05.120. Rules. At the beginning of the first regular session of each legislature, both houses shall adopt uniform rules of procedure for enacting bills into law and adopting resolutions. The rules in effect at the last regular session of the immediately preceding legislature serve as the temporary rules of the legislature until the adoption of permanent rules.
The rules are meant as an aid to legislators and both houses in the conduct of their business in the formal processing of legislative documents and the exercise of other powers and duties assigned the legislature by constitutional and statute law.
Copies of the Uniform Rules are distributed at the direction of the Legislative Council by the Legislative Affairs Agency.

Executive Director
Legislative Affairs Agency

There are 55 numbered rules.  Some examples:
Rule No. 1:  Organization of First Session
Rule No. 3.  Legislative Session Staff (that was less relevant than I expected)
Rule No. 8:  Privilege of the Floor
Rule No. 26:  Decorum in Debate  (that actually refers to a fat law book - Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure - which are generally rules for state legislatures throughout the US, which guide behavior, though the Alaska rules take precedence if there's a conflict, or that's what I understood.)
Rule No. 37:  Introduction of Bills
Rule No. 45:  Vetoed Bills
Rule No 54:  Suspension of Rules

So this will be an interesting period.  We did talk about blogging with Joyce (Legislative Ethics) and it appears this is uncharted territory, at least from an official policy standpoint.  I'll probably start out pretty cautiously and see what happens.  But I didn't go to Juneau to blog - that's incidental, just as it was last year when I volunteered in Thailand.  There, too, I made sure I had appropriate permissions from my NGO, though it will be a little trickier, I assume, in Juneau.   

So, after talking to Rep. G, I'm now taking this opportunity to let readers know what's coming up and that I have no idea what the impact on the blog will be.  I normally try to be careful how I write, trying to be respectful of the people I write about and if I make critical comments, trying to talk about actions or ideas, not about people.  Trying to word things in as objective terms as possible.  This does mean I rarely offer my personal opinion, but let the readers draw their on conclusion.  And I don't always succeed.  But I suspect I'm going to get much better at this style of writing in the blog.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Preparing for GIFT at Congregation Beth Sholom

The Food Bank of Alaska sponsors a program to distribute food and toys to families in financial difficulties.
"All Alaskans deserve a warm holiday meal. Every hungry child, every hungry senior, every Alaskan deserves a warm meal, not only during the holidays, but year round. Every December, Food Bank of Alaska partners with The Salvation Army, the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots and Anchorage’s faith community to make the holidays bright for families in need. Neighborhood GIFT provides holiday assistance to more than 4,800 families in Anchorage. Each family served through Neighborhood GIFT will receive a holiday food box and toys for their children (infants to age 12).

Neighborhood GIFT will take place on December 22, from 3:00pm to 8:00pm at five locations in Anchorage. If you or someone you know needs extra help making ends meet this holiday season please be sure you and they attend this distribution."
So today we went to one of the five distribution centers (see below) to help set up for tomorrow's distribution.  We spent about 4 hours unloading trucks, stacking tables, and talking with old and new friends. 

  • Anchorage City Church (100th and Minnesota)
    99507, 99511, 99515, 99516, 99518, 99522, 99523, 99540, 99587
  • Spenard Recreation Center (2020 W 48th Ave) 99502, 99517, 99519
  • Fairview Elementary School (1327 Nelchina St at 13th)

    99501, 99503, 99510, 99513, 99520, 99524

  • Congregation Beth Sholom (7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd near Muldooon)
    99504, 99505, 99506, 99509, 99521, 99567, 99577
  • Clark Middle School (150 N Bragaw St) 99508, 99514

And then when it was time to go RZZ got on his bike and rode off into the sunset.  He's got about six miles to get home.

Local Food - Viewing the Movie Ingredients

A friend let me know that the movie Ingredients - about the local food movement - was playing at UAA Sunday afternoon.  It's not like we haven't seen enough movies lately, but this is a topic I'm interested in - I've even blogged about it a little while I was in Thailand because I was working with a group helping farmers.  The topic was important and I discovered the term CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) while in Thailand.

It turns out the film was produced by Brian Kimmel, the brother of Mara Kimmel, Ethan Berkowitz's wife.  It's a good film and I encouraged him to submit it to the Anchorage International Film Festival 2010.

The film discusses food - particularly local and chemical free food - with farmers and restaurateurs in different parts of the US. 
The film was followed by a panel discussion and Q&A with local restaurateurs and local food agents, including [Rob Kineen] a [executive] chef from Orso's.  It looks like Anchorage, despite our climate and relatively short growing period, is not significantly far behind the rest of the country.  Issues of food security (what would happen if we were cut off by a major catastrophe?), health, taste, food economics and corporate farming all came up.  We're moving along, but clearly need some sort of organizing body to promote local foods among consumers, restaurants, and farmers.  And programs in the schools where kids actually get out onto farms and see where food comes from seems like a good idea.  They have such programs in other cities.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Public Relations: The GWIM Way to Solve Problems

So here was the Anchorage Daily News headline Thursday:

Wanted:  PR firm to help state fight species listings
The Legislative Council is asking public relations firms to bid between now and Jan. 4 on the effort, which lawmakers appropriated $1.5 million to fund. The PR pros are to assemble a panel for an "Alaska Conference on Climate Change," after suggesting how the panel debate should be framed. They'll launch a public relations campaign "based on the conclusions reached by the conference panel," according to the Legislature's request for proposals.
The goal of the project is figuring out how to reverse what the Legislature calls negative economic effects from listings based on climate change, like the designation of the polar bear as a threatened species.
So bear with me as I try to come up with an explanation that's plausible.  Note, one way of understanding the world is to come up with hypotheses to explain things that aren't understood and then going out to test those hypotheses.  This is sometimes known as science when done with rigor.   I'm going to brainstorm here a bit. I'm just testing one possible explanation. Then you and I can go out and talk to people who think like this and see if this line of reasoning bears further pursuit.

I don't exactly want to say this is "Republican" thinking though this comes from Republicans and the people who are taking this line seem to be all Republicans.  How about I make up a word - GWIMs - for people who believe that Global Warming Is Marketing.  I do think there is a close alignment with Republicans in any case.  Republicans have billed themselves as the party of business and American business believes completely in the power of advertising, and with good reason.  When Reagan became president, marketing gurus applied sophisticated marketing techniques they had perfected selling automobiles and toothpaste to selling candidates and ideology.  (I can't find the reference I'm looking for, but here's a NY Times article that talks about the creation of Republican think tanks to create conservative research to push conservative ideas.  Some of the people associated with operationalizing aggressive political marketing include Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes, and Michael Deaver.)

So, perhaps one way to explain GWIM behavior is to consider the many Republicans who were trained for business - either through their families, through on-the-job-training running their own small businesses with support from their local chambers of commerce, and through MBAs.  They see the world in terms of competition for market share, selling one's product, creating demand for new products, and essentially beating the other guy.  Losing means bankruptcy.  Thus winning is everything, "at any cost."  The most important application of scientific reasoning is in areas of market research.

American business creates reality through their marketing.  They create demand for products that people didn't know they needed.  I look at all the people who can't live without their cell phones, can't imagine life without them, and are willing to pay outrageous rates to have them.      Having lived most of my life without one, I know they aren't essential.  Creating the idea of cell phones as a necessity, not a luxury, is part of marketing genius  - not simply for cell phones, but for our insatiable appetite for the new in general.  (Market philosophy says price goes down if demand dips.  But people seem to be willing to pay any amount for their phones.  If people began to boycott cell phones over price, the rates would drop quickly.  See I do believe in the market too.)

Reality is socially constructed by marketers (and others like science fiction writers and the geeks that turn the SF imagination into products.) Truth is measured in dollars and when this is converted to politics, it's measured in votes.

In the fundamentalist church of the free market, 'socialist' is the current term for heretic.   And in this reality, you don't have to be a socialist to be labeled one.  That's another part of creating reality through marketing.  (Actually, 'socialist' has no substantive meaning in this case other than 'non-believer.')  Free market worshipers believe in the sanctity of business and see anything that they perceive as threatening their short term economic benefits on the level of  a terrorist attack.

One thing I've learned over the years is that most people assume that others think like they do.  So honest people assume everyone they meet is honest, and it takes them much longer to spot someone who is deceiving them.  They expect honest and that expectation looks for  excuses - there must have been an error - when it's challenged.  And liars assume everyone else is lying too, and so they are always suspicious of everyone else, not believing that anyone tells the truth.

And this applies here.  The GWIMs assume that global warming advocates are creating their own reality for their personal gain.  Here's an example from Roaring Republican  which assumes Copenhagen is simply a part of a marketing campaign:

Global Warming is more marketing campaign than science. There are spokespeople, Al Gore, Leo DiCaprio, Sheryl Crow, and there are products and services, books, light bulbs, T-Shirts, and movies. Just as there are industries buit around making accessories for iPods, there are millions of people who profit from the “green” campaign by branding their wares with the messages of the mindless.
Copenhagen seems to be equivalent to a major “Stevenote,” the always anticipated addresses by CEO of Apple Inc., Steve Jobs, who mesmerizes audiences with new products they simply have to have when the presentation is done. The media eats it up.
We found out yesterday that melting ice caps is the new product rollout for 2010. Even though the science of the message was instantly discredited, the media already invested an enormous amount of time to spreading the word. Just like a Stevenote, the press buzzed even after a few skeptical eyes pointed out the product wasn’t that great.
Speaking of that, product placement is key to global warming. Al Gore had an entire week of appearences and the message of going “green” sprawled across every single show on NBC. An Inconvenient Truth and a sewer full of other propaganda has made its way into schools across America. Children sing oaths and take pledges to be greenies. Who needs jingles when you can just indoctrinate the youth?
Now that we have the 2010 rollout, we can expect to hear more about melting ice. Yes, this years line is a little recycled, these are greenies, what do you expect? We’ve been down the ice cap melting road before. The ice seemed to be going away a few years ago, it returned. It seems to have a habit of thinning during warmer months and coming back during colder ones, if you can imagine such a concept. Still, it makes for great headlines and sells more product if the story has horrific consequences and puts humanity on the brink of destruction.
 I suspect this narrative I'm writing here is true in some cases, but not in others.  Perhaps it will be helpful in understanding - and challenging - those who try to market their way out of problems.

But in this case, they want to spend $1.5 million of our state money for their fictional reality.  While they are quoted in the article as not wanting to repeat the fiasco that was the unsuccessful marketing campaigns (also millions of state money) to open ANWR to oil drilling, this is essentially the same flawed thinking that underlay that waste of state money.

So, my basic thought here is maybe GWIMs and others of the Fundamentalist Church of the Free Market truly believe that they can create reality through marketing and so this idea of spending $1.5 million to change the reality of polar bears seems perfectly reasonable and legitimate, because, after all, in their view, global warming itself is simply a PR campaign from their competitors, the Church of Environmentalism. 

As a final note that I don't have time to pursue here -  I've discussed the social construction of reality and other relevant ideas in a previous post at length.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Winter Views Before Solstice

 The winter solstice is due Dec 21 at 8:47 AM Alaska Standard Time this year according to  Monday morning.  Two years ago I did a post on Jean Meeus whose calculations we use to determine the solstice.  We got here fast this year and by Wednesday  we'll start gaining light each day.  I took the picture above on Friday.  The sun doesn't rise high over the horizon, but it's out almost five an a half hours. 

 I had a meeting at UAA on Thursday, and while it had snowed a bit overnight, I still wanted to bike over.  They tend to keep the bike trails well plowed on campus.

A little bit of sun was out Thursday as well as you can see in this picture from Rasmuson Hall.  The ice fogged trees are still completely and spectacularly white.

And here's a common winter problem.  The bike trail was cleared fairly quickly, but as the snow plows repeat their plowing of main streets get they push the snow in the bike and pedestrian paths. 

AIFF 2009 - Vincent Part 2

I'll try to get some of the leftover videos, photos, and thoughts about the film festival up as I can.  I talked to Vincent: A Life In Color  director Jennifer Burns (and to Vincent) before their film was shown.  Here's a bit of the Q&A after the Sunday showing of the film.

This was a quirky film - about a quirky person, Vincent, who stands on a downtown Chicago bridge wearing brightly colored suits waving at the tour boats on the Chicago River. 

Burns took a local character whom many people knew about - he's also a regular on some Chicago radio and one of the tv shows - and then reveals, layer by layer, a life most of us would otherwise never have a chance to know.  It's a stereotype breaker as I saw my initial hypotheses about Vincent shattered and a completely different story unfold. Having Vincent come along to Anchorage, wearing his amazing suits (I think he said he brought five or six suits along), was an extra bonus.

This film is a definite demonstration that different from the norm is NOT less than the norm.  This was Jennifer's first film and I think it would be a better film by cutting about 20 minutes.  The people discussing Vincent's past should pretty much stay, but some of the people speculating about Vincent's present life got a bit repetitive.  But overall, it was an interesting view of humanity, not someone you meet every day.