Archive for January, 2010

Through a Scanner, Lightheartedly

Friday, January 29th, 2010

The only events I am routinely early for are airplane flights, so here I sit like an idiot, spending the first 2 hours of my vacation sitting in an airport terminal. BART to SFO was a breeze—I know opponents of the Oakland Airport Connector point to it as an illustration of how BART always underestimates costs and overestimates ridership projections, but at least the SFO extension actually gets you to a terminal, and doesn’t charge anything for the airport shuttle. I might still oppose the OAC if it resembled SFO, but it would be a tougher call.

This post isn’t about the OAC, however. In addition to breezing here on BART, I also breezed through security, because there were no lines. I also got to go through a “millimeter wave imaging technology unit” for the first time—popularly referred to as a full body scanner. It’s a pretty amusing experience. You walk into a clear tube, and then are told to stand on some yellow footprints and clasp your hands above your head.

Given this posture, I worried that the next instruction would be to do a pirhouette or a plie, neither of which I have proper safety training for, but in fact all that happened is that a scanner swept across the surface of the tube. I half expected to find myself beamed onto the Starship Enterprise, but instead I was merely told to leave the tube and stand on some green footprint until I was given the all clear.

Like most people who travel by plane, I’ve grown accustomed to the somewhat arbitrary security apparatus that we are obligated to pass through before we get on a plane, and the body scanner is just the next rung on the ladder. Richard Reid tried to ignite his shoe, so now all of us are obliged to plod through the machines in our stocking feet. A Nigerian set himself on fire while wearing serious explosives, so body scanners will probably soon be de rigeur as well.

Fair enough; I have serious doubts about how much we gain by constantly chasing our tails by defending against the last security breach, but I can’t say that I really have any better ideas. So along we go, slowly disrobing article by article (belts, now, are a no-no in the body scanners). Give us a few more years, and we’ll all be naked as we march in single file through a gauntlet of beeping, whirring machines, like mass-produced dolls being sent through an assembly line.

I personally don’t feel very bothered or invaded by having an image of my body show up on some computer screen, or in a hard drive in some TSA computer. In fact, I wonder if there’s a potential deficit reduction scheme in this technology. After I passed through the scanner, I was kind of curious about what I looked like in the image. Maybe they should offer to sell you prints of your scan before you walk to the gate, just as they take your photo before you get on the ferry to Alcatraz, then try to sell you pictures of yourself after you disembark on the return trip. I might pay good money for a self-portrait taken by a millimeter wave imaging technology unit, if it had an artistic eye.

Almost time to board! I won’t have time to proofread this, so I apologize in advance for any qwerty mis-hits, solecisms, or orthographical errors. And thanks for allowing me to kill some time with you like this…

These Feet Were Made for Walking

Friday, January 29th, 2010

I certainly didn’t set out to circumnavigate the city of Piedmont last Saturday, or to walk a half marathon through Oakland’s hilly northeast quadrant. One thing leads to another, however; that’s just the way life works—or my life, at least. You put one foot in front of the other, and then you do it again—a step, and another step, and then another, and the next thing you know, you’re aimlessly wandering the streets of Oakland, California.

My walk began routinely enough: I thought I’d take advantage of a break in the rains to walk the dog up to beloved Sausal Creek, hoping to see it in full flow after all the storms last week. It was somewhat anticlimactic—even my dog, who doesn’t take naturally to water, was unfazed by the current and waded right in.

Sausal Dog

The clear weather was holding, and I wasn’t in the mood to turn heel and walk back down the hill yet, so I decided to check out the walking and biking trail that leads from Montclair Village up into Shepherd Canyon. It’s a bit surprising that I’ve never been there before, since I walk up to Montclair occasionally, and have even trekked from my apartment up to Redwood Regional Park at the top of the hill a couple of times. I’m glad I finally took a look. The trail was laid where Sacramento Northern tracks used to run, so it curves nicely—and not too steeply—about a mile into the Canyon before ending at a cul de sac off Shepherd Canyon road, near where the train used to enter a tunnel through the hills.

Shepherd Canyon trail

A few panels posted alongside the trail have some interesting history about the railroad and the canyon, including the astonishing fact that CalTrans proposed building a highway up Shepherd Canyon to the east side of the hills. Thankfully, there was enough opposition that the idea never became reality. Oakland is already so criss-crossed with freeways that it’s frightening to imagine that if CalTrans had really gotten what it wanted, then we would have even more. The state legislature permanently protected the canyon from freeway development in 1972, and a few years later the city council set aside land for parks and trails, bequeathing us the Shepherd Canyon that we know today. (You can read the informational panels in pdf form thanks to the Shepherd Canyon Homeowners Association.)

Shepherd Canyon trail

The trail is a pleasant enough place to take a walk, but with truly glorious parks like Joaquin Miller and Redwood and Sibley just up the street, I’d be surprised if it’s used very much for recreation except by people who happen to live in the neighborhood. So it was heartening to see how well-used the trail is for quotidian, utilitarian purposes. In my half hour walking up the trail and back, I passed at least a dozen people who were clearly walking home from the grocery store, or biking home from errands, or walking down to Montclair Village to go to a coffee shop or the bank or wherever. That’s more people than I sometimes see walking around in my own denser, more walkable neighborhood! Since there are no sidewalks on most residential streets in Montclair, and the curvy and steep roads can make for tiring, long, and dangerous walking, I doubt that most of those people I saw would have been walking to and from Montclair Village if they didn’t have the trail. (There are some public stairways around Montclair which serve much the same function.)

After I got back to Montclair Village, I basically had two options: either retrace my steps back down Park Boulevard to home, or make some kind of loop. Park Boulevard is plenty interesting, at least to me, but I always prefer loops, so I headed north on Mountain Boulevard toward Lake Temescal, where two optimistic little girls were using the fleeting sunshine as an excuse for pretending that summer was already here.

I was about nine miles into the walk by then, and beginning to wonder why I had walked to a point in Oakland which happens to have no direct route back to my apartment. Spontaneous rambling is fun and all, but the benefits of planning ahead were starting to sink in. No matter—I still had plenty of fuel in the proverbial tank, and I had planned ahead enough to bring some snacks for the dog and some water for both of us, so onward we went, first down to Rockridge, then down Broadway to MacArthur, and then finally to home.

It seems like I end up taking a long walk like this once or twice a year, when I have a free afternoon and a hankering to see some streets that I haven’t seen before.  Not only is walking the best way, hands down, to get to know a neighborhood, but it also clarifies the relationships between neighborhoods, both geographically and sociologically. The architecture changes, the years and models of the cars parked in driveways change, sidewalks disappear or reappear, or a freeway blocks ones path and forces a quarter-mile detour. Strangers on the street greet you cheerfully, or eye you warily, or flaunt their indifference. Front yards have barking dogs behind chain link fences, or obsessively manicured landscaping, or kids’ bikes left on the grass next to driveways. All these things determine the character of a place.

I wrote a post in June about how great it is to get around town by bicycle, but for me, riding a bike is really a sort of compromise, between the speed and distance possible in a car and the benefits to one’s health and one’s soul that walking brings. As far as I’m concerned, the ultimate in human transportation is not anything designed by Bianchi or BMW or Boeing, but rather a technology devised by evolution, nature’s master engineer. You put one foot in front of the other, and then you do it again—a step, and another step, and then another, and the next thing you know, you’re not so worried about where exactly you’re going.

Right Place, Right Time

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

I was lucky to be walking by Lake Merritt when a rainbow was hovering over the Oakland hills this afternoon. Having the moon hanging out above the right side of the rainbow was just a bonus:

If you like rainbows, you may want to click through for a larger version at Flickr.

(There may be some visible distortion in the image, because it was made by stitching two photos together. The widest angle on my lens still couldn’t fit the whole damn rainbow in one shot. In case anyone wants to see the originals, I also posted the left side and the right side at Flickr.)

When standing on principle means defending the status quo

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

I was talking to a politically active friend about a month ago, as the Senate was about to pass their version of health care reform legislation, and I told him I was nervous that the Democrats in Congress, being Democrats in Congress, would find some way to fumble the ball one yard from the end zone. My friend tried to reassure me that the hard part was over, and now it was just a matter of hammering out some compromise between the Senate and House versions of the bill, and finalizing passage of the negotiated bill for President Obama to sign.

Of course I had no inkling at the time about the cruel twist of fate that would cause such a fumble—the fact that it is Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat which is endangering the passage of any kind of health care reform is horrifying, given that the expansion of health care to the poor and uninsured was Kennedy’s life’s work. So what should be done now that the possibility of getting any compromise bill past another Republican filibuster attempt in the Senate is gone? I’m no expert in health care legislation, and I won’t pretend to understand the details of the legislation the Senate passed, but I trust people who do understand the details, like Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic, or Paul Krugman of the New York Times, or Dean Baker and Jacob Hacker and others who are urging Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass the Senate Bill as it is, so that it could go straight to President Obama for his signature without having to pass through the Senate gauntlet again.

In an ideal world, I would personally favor a much more socialized health care system, but we don’t live in an ideal world, or an ideal country—we live in a country where Scott Brown can be elected to the Senate in Massachusetts, and Sarah Palin can be the Vice Presidential candidate of one of the two major parties. If there is any time to set idealism aside and take an incremental step in the right direction, then this seems like it—tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance, resulting in untreated preventable illnesses, medical bankruptcies, and tens of thousands of preventable deaths every year. (If terrorism resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year, both parties in Congress would be falling over each other in their rush to do something about it; when our inadequate health care system results in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year, one party dithers and squabbles, while the other party just obstructs every effort at reform.)

I wrote to Congresswoman Barbara Lee via her web page today (letter reprinted below), and called her office as well. The aide I spoke to on the phone told me that Lee had not made a decision on whether she would be willing to support the flawed Senate bill, but said that they were getting a lot of feedback from constituents. I told him that this seemed likely to be the only real opportunity to pass any kind of significant health care reform for the foreseeable future, and that I urge Lee to help make sure that Democrats in the House of Representatives do not miss this chance. I encourage other people to contact Congresswoman Lee (or whoever your representative is) and tell her staff that this is not the time to hold out for a better bill, or to shelve health care reform until some other year—if it was this difficult to get inadequate legislation through the Senate with a filibuster-proof supermajority, then “progressive” Democrats are crazy if they think that they will be able to get something better passed in the near future. Barbara Lee may not have to worry about her own re-election, but opposing the Senate bill because it is inadequate is not standing on principle—it is supporting the status quo.

The phone number of Lee’s Washington office is (202) 225-2661, and her staff eagerly await your calls.

Here is a copy of the email I sent through Lee’s website, typos and all. I should have crafted it offline instead of trying to compose it on the fly inside the form on her website, but I pretty much managed to say what I wanted to say:

Dear Congresswoman Lee,

I am concerned that if Congress does not enact the health care reforms currently on the table, then significant health care legislation with not be passed for years and probably decades. I know that the Senate bill is very imperfect, but the status quo is simply unacceptable: tens of millions of Americans have no insurance, resulting in unnecessary deaths, expensive emergency-room visits, and medical-related bankruptcies. This is a disaster! I am appalled that Democratic members of congress are on the verge of letting this unique opportunity to enact real reform pass by.

Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House are unlikely to be this large in coming years, so the notion that it is better to wait and try to pass better legislation in coming months or years strikes me as wishful thinking. This may be the only chance to take a significant step in the right direction on health care reform, and if this opportunity passes, then Democrats in Congress will share responsibility for all the unnecessary deaths and bankruptcies that we see in the future.

Please do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I urge you to do everything in your power to pass the Senate health care reform bill and get it on President Obama’s desk. Please let me know where you stand on this once-in-a-generation chance to finally do something about our awful current health care system.


It’s seen fire and it’s seen rain

Friday, January 15th, 2010

I mentioned, back in mid-December, my amusement at finding an abandoned couch blocking 12th Avenue—whoever dumped it apparently couldn’t even be bothered to leave it on the side of the road. The sofa was moved to the sidewalk within a few hours, but there it has remained ever since. More than a month later, it is still sitting by the side of the road minding its own business, mostly ignored except by mischief-makers.

Have a seat

We’ll see if it’s still there in mid-February.

Partners in Help

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

There are few better ways to spend one’s money than to give it to Partners In Health. That has long been true; this week it’s truer.

While PIH is now a large organization operating in many countries around the world, it began in Haiti, and still has a large medical footprint on the ground there, making the organization well equipped to mobilize quickly and effectively to help people affected by the earthquake. Here is a note posted to their website:

Over the past 18 hours, Partners In Health staff in Boston and Haiti have been working to collect as much information as possible about the conditions on the ground, the relief efforts taking shape, and all relevant logistics issues in order to respond efficiently and effectively to the most urgent needs in the field. At the moment, PIH’s Chief Medical Officer is on her way to Haiti, where she will meet with Zanmi Lasante leadership and head physicians, who are already working to ensure PIH’s coordinated relief efforts leveraging the skills of more than 120 doctors and nearly 500 nurses and nursing assistants who work at Zanmi Lasante’s sites.

We have already begun to implement a two-part strategy to address the immediate need for emergency medical care in Port-au-Prince. First, we are organizing the logistics to get the medical staff and supplies needed for setting up field hospital sites in Port-au-Prince where we can triage patients, provide emergency care, and send those who need surgery or more complex treatment to our functioning hospitals and surgical facilities. To do this, we are creating a supply chain through the Dominican Republic. Second, we are ensuring that our facilities in the Central Plateau are ready to serve the flow of patients from Port-au-Prince. Operating and procedure rooms are staffed, supplied, and equipped for surgeries and we have converted a church in Cange into a large triage area. Already our sites in Cange and Hinche are reporting a steady flow of people coming with medical needs from the capital city. In the days that come we will need to make sure our pharmacies and supplies stay stocked and our staff continue to be able to respond.

Currently, our greatest need is financial support. Haiti is facing a crisis worse than it has seen in years, and it is a country that has faced years of crisis, both natural disaster and otherwise. The country is in need of millions of dollars right now to meet the needs of the communities hardest hit by the earthquake. Our facilities are strategically placed just two hours outside of Port-au-Prince and will inevitably absorb the flow of patients out of the city. In addition, we need cash on-hand to quickly procure emergency medical supplies, basic living necessities, as well as transportation and logistics support for the tens of thousands of people that will be seeking care at mobile field hospitals in the capital city.  Any and all support that will help us respond to the immediate needs and continue our mission of strengthening the public health system in Haiti is greatly appreciated. Help us stand up for Haiti now.

If you are not in a position to make a financial contribution, you can help us raise awareness of the earthquake tragedy. Please alert your friends to the situation and direct them to this webpage for updates and ways to help.

If Partners In Health isn’t your cup of tea for political or other reasons, lists of relief organizations abound, like this one at the New York Times website. Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross are always deserving of financial assistance too, and as far as I can tell they are well positioned to provide help to those in and around Port-au-Prince.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes feels overwhelmed by the amount of suffering in the world, and impotent in the face of it all (and of course, self-recriminations about all of the frivolous ways I spend my time and my money just make me feel worse). Ultimately, though, doing something is always better than doing nothing, so please—do something.


Monday, January 11th, 2010

Regular blogging will have to wait until I fully recover my laptop from the malware that took it hostage last night, but I didn’t want the day to pass without honoring the palindrome—a particularly elegant palindrome if you ask me, but I’ve always admired the minimalist aesthetic (ironic, since I always surround myself with clutter).

In the Beginning Was the Word

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

“The beginning, the spark. an ending count to rains that feLL aLL too quickly/now the blues of her dress. they cover my eyes and all that I SEE.”

The Beginning

Now the Blues

Author unknown, although it may be the same person who wrote the declaration of despair (now painted over) which I photographed in August less than a block away. What are we to make of these enigmatic writings, so ostentatiously plain and yet begging for interpretation? Art project by someone from the artists’ colony directly across the street? Late night scrawlings of a mad, spraypaint-wielding poet? Your guess is as good as mine.

Local Paper Tars City with Knee-Jerk Headline

Friday, January 1st, 2010

Since when is it okay for the Oakland Tribune refer to Oakland as “crime central” in huge font in the lead front page headline?

A lot of people complain that the media are biased against Oakland—that they focus too much on Oakland’s crime and not enough on the good aspects of Oakland, that they depict Oakland as nothing but a violent wasteland, etc., etc. I am not one of those people: while I think that press coverage of Oakland could be dramatically improved (press coverage of everything could be dramatically improved), blaming Oakland’s bad reputation on the media instead of on the actual crime and violence and blight amounts to putting one’s head in the sand.

That said, “crime central” is over the top, especially for a nominally hometown paper which is supposed to have a more nuanced understanding of the city than, say, that other paper across the bay, or the national press. When I went out to walk the dog and picked up the paper from my stoop this morning, I was puzzled at first, wondering if the headline was referring to a particular neighborhood or intersection, because I couldn’t believe that the Tribune would actually paint the city as a whole with such a broad brush in huge letters above the fold on the front page. When I saw the subhead, however, I realized that indeed they were actually referring to the entire city of Oakland as “crime central.”

In the Trib’s defense, the article itself is okay (although pointing out that cities as varied as New York, Los AngelesSan Francisco, and Minneapolis and St. Paul have seen far more dramatic decreases in violent crime might have been nice), and the online version of the headline is unobjectionable, albeit uninspired (“Data: Oakland crime down 10 percent in 2009”). So this is likely a case of a copy editor trying to quickly dash off a punchy headline, and too few editorial eyeballs there on a New Year’s Eve to second guess the decision. Still, I can’t help but wonder if that headline would have made it into print if the Tribune were still a truly local operation, instead of being part of a chain of mostly suburban papers, whose coverage of Oakland and surrounding neighborhoods seems increasingly to merge with that of the Contra Costa Times and other affiliated papers. The move of the newsroom out of the landmark Tribune Tower in downtown Oakland, and into a bland office building next to a freeway a few years ago may not have made a real difference in its coverage, but as symbolism goes, it’s pretty lousy: Local Paper Abandons City Center for Office Park Near Airport.