Monday, January 26, 2015

Preparing for the Blizzard of '15

It's snowing outside.  The forecasters are predicting that 18 to 30 inches will fall in the next day and a half.  Probably we'll never know exactly how much, because they are also expecting wind gusts of 65 mile per hour, which will sweep clear the high spots and bury the low spots.

It's possible the power will stay on, but I'm not counting on it.  

We heat with a wood stove, and I've laid in a few days of fuel, so as long as the roof is intact we'll be comfortable.  

Our cook stove is electric, but there is much we can cook on the wood stove.  In fact, a pot roast is out thawing and beans are soaking.

Rye bread is baking, and we have candles and oil lamps for light.

The main problem with a power outage is water.  The pump won't draw from the well without electricity.  But I always have 40 gallons of potable water (alongside plenty of food) in the "hurricane pantry," as well as a 25 gallon barrel of non-potable water in the basement.  The rain barrel was brought in for the winter, so I filled it with another 55 gallons of water - for flushing the toilet or washing.

I've put heavy stones on top of the beehives, fetched the snow shovel from the shed, and filled the bird feeders.

And we have nowhere else we have to be.

If you are in the path of this, be safe.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January Gardening

  A half-dozen nights of single-digit cold should have done in the last of the greens, but they look discouraged, not dead.  My cold frames are nothing but a box with an old window set on top, but that's been enough to protect the hardier mustards, chards and greens.

Granted, they are not exactly luxuriating under our stingy winter sunlight, and they only exist because I haven't been harvesting them.  But still they are edible - and in their small doses they pack infinitely more flavor and vitality than the supermarket greens that one can buy.  

I'm definitely motivated to make the autumn garden a priority in the future and see if I can generate more of a winter harvest.

The window-lids don't just allow in winter sunlight and protect against the cold.  
They also give some protection from four-legged marauders.

Into a teapot I crushed mint 
that I had picked and dried for just such January days,
 and drizzled in the honey from the backyard hives,
and settled down with a hot and steaming tea that tasted like August.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Marking the Civil Rights Movement: Racial disparities as justification for racism

Ferguson protest at U Penn, by SOUL
(UPDATED, Jan 20)

One of the things that makes US racism so powerful and durable is that the more destructive and awful we make the misery, disparities and injustices of race, the more natural and right the system seems to people.  The outcomes of racism are held up as proof that our racism is right and just.

This was driven home to me a number of years ago when I directed a research project to help advocates and public health officials communicate about racial disparities in health.

One of the clearest findings is that whenever you speak about racial disparities in health outcomes (like rates of diabetes or heart disease or life expectancy) people assume that Black people just can't make smart decisions about their health.  Sharing information on disparities just serves to confirm long-standing racist assumptions about Black or Hispanic people.

Strike one.

If you try to show that Blacks and Hispanics are growing up in neighborhoods and settings that are disadvantaged and destructive, it just confirms in people's minds that this isn't just a sum of individual failings, but a collective failure of an entire race or people.

Strike two.

Complain that it's unfair or problematic that we have too many Black families in poverty, ill-health or being torn apart by the criminal justice system, and the best you can hope for is that people bite their tongues because they know it's impolite to voice what they really think of all that.

If you demonstrate that Black families and Black communities have had the deck stacked against them structurally and historically, people will shrug and shake their heads, because winners are those that overcome their obstacles and losers are those who fail to overcome their obstacles and who then blame others and whine about the unfairness of it all.

Strike three.

In our research, the only way we found around this was to talk exclusively about inputs rather than outcomes.  If you can show that a Black man who goes to the doctor for hypertension is much less likely to be given a prescription than a white man, then that is something everyone can agree ought to be corrected.  If you can show that we spend on average $700 less per year on a Black student compared to a White student - and that such disparities persist even within the same school district - this is something people agree ought to be corrected.

But these kind of "smoking gun" statistics can only address a small part of the picture.  Even more problematic is that such facts are not only harder to come by, but people dislike them, try to evade, sideline and find flaws with them.  Ultimately - they forget and discard them.  It is too hard and too troublesome to keep this kind of information in mind when the prisons, ghettos and news reports are full of Black people who prove that this whole societal disaster is their fault - not ours.  With such a lens firmly in place human psychology makes it fairly easy to sort everyday interactions in a way that confirms one's prejudices.

Social scientists have ample proof that the US enacts and enforces a race-based caste system.  An integral building block in this has been attitudes about the moral inferiority of Black character and behavior,  a portrait which remains relatively constant, whether articulated via the Bible, biology, social darwinism, or flawed culture.

Speaking as a social scientist, it is depressing that a half-century of research has given unprecedented insight into our racist system, and this has not only failed to alter that system, but in effect has served to bulwark its solidity instead.


I feel like this blog post comes across as hopeless and I don't mean for it to be so.  I am discouraged that the kind of strategic framing that we specialize in seems inadequate to the task of countering racism.  I am even more discouraged that the facts that social science has uncovered have been inadequate to the task of countering racism, and have often instead been folded into racism.

I put my hope in desegregation.  By that I don't mean busing or affirmative action - though I support both.  I mean breaking down the two-worlds experience that divides African-Americans from so many of the rest of us.

And that is something that we can all play a role in from our varied positions in this riven society.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Feeding birds in the winter's deep.

I'm inconsistent about feeding the birds - except in these deep winter weeks, when creatures can quickly freeze to death if they fall short of food.  

I had a bucket of black oil sunflower seed left over from last year and put some out a few days ago when temperatures were languishing near zero and the wind chills were well below.  

A couple of hours later the first juncos and white throated sparrows had discovered the seed.  A Carolina wren joined them, followed by the chickadees and titmice.   Soon came downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, cardinals, and song sparrows.  Goldfinches, mourning doves and house finches arrived the next day.  Even a small, un-spotted thrush arrived to see what the fuss was.

Robins and bluebirds, brown creepers and kinglets have been around, but they have no interest in sunflower seeds.

The species have their different dining styles.  Juncos, cardinals and sparrows are scratchers and won't perch on the feeder.  They'll take seed that I've put on top of branches or scattered on the ground.  The doves stroll around on the ground with them.

The chickadees and titmice on the other hand, grab a seed and fly up to a branch, where they hold the seed between their feet to peck open.  

The finches and wrens are happy to perch on the feeder as long as they can get away with it, cracking the seeds in their beaks one after another.  The downy woodpeckers will do the same, but they get restless and go foraging among the lichen.

The red-bellied woodpecker, on the other hand, will snatch a seed, fly to the trunk of a tree, wedge the seed into a crevice where it can be pecked apart.  The nuthatches are also fond of that strategy.

Jays arrive in a  noisy troop - some on the ground, some in the tree, some fluttering clumsily on the feeder.  They make a ruckus and don't stay long.

The air has been thick with the criss-crossing flight paths of scores of birds.

My stash of sunflower seed is gone.  These flocks made short work of it.  Tomorrow I will buy a bag to get through the rest of this cold snap . . .

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Love Note to 2014

For the first four months of 2014 I tried to jot down some thing that I loved - each day.  It developed into a sort of rambling poem of pleasures.  It lapsed at the beginning of May, but I came across some lines among my drafts, so here's the last installment of the Love Note to 2014 . . .

I love to be pushed by the wind.
I love clouds, and I love that the sky is blue - ricochets of light fragmented.
I love a lightning-shattered cobalt sky

I love walking an old downtown, with a history built of brick and stone, paint upon paint.
What of ours will stand a century from today?

I love the songs of the meadowlark,
the way that sandhill cranes travel in pairs,
the silhouettes of herons
and the avarice of gulls

I love a night woods echoing with the sonnets of cicadas and the ghazals of frogs.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Nine predictions for the year 2015

Street mural, Denver, Colorado
My over-arching prediction for 2014 turned out to be accurate.  We mostly muddled along with the status quo and we neither made progress on solving our problems nor did we bring our civilization finally crashing down upon our collective heads.

Of the more specific predictions that I made - I could only give myself credit for 2 of 9.  Not a very good showing - except perhaps by the standards of those who predict specifics about the future.

Nonetheless, it is entertaining to make a few more predictions just to see.  In that spirit here are my 9 predictions for 2015:
  • It will be one of the three hottest years ever recorded globally.
  • Obama attempts to put ending mass incarceration onto the public agenda.  In particular, the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.  The possibility of blanket pardons cause the Republicans to go ballistic and half of the Democratic party runs for cover.
  • Ebola flares up in Asia.  These several thousand deaths rattle the global economy much more than the African outbreak did.
  • Americans are shocked when police officers in a major metropolitan area are found to have intentionally singled out and assassinated several critics of police brutality.
  • Globally, disgust with their political elites continues to bolster support for radical, anti-establishment parties, and in more than one European country they win power, if not for long.
  • Occupy re-emerges as a political force among the younger generation - organized around its "debt jubilee" and other efforts to disentangle young people from participation in an economic and political system that is rigged against them.  The Establishment derides them as naive and disengaged.
  • (Carried over from last year) One of the world's great monoculture crops will mostly fail this year.  Although this will be blamed on a new pest or blight, the failure will actually be due to a combination of narrow genetics, unstable climate and the decline in agricultural research.
  • Kitchen gardens, backyard chickens and other small animal husbandry continue to increase dramatically in popularity and practice in the US.  Grassroots pressure to change zoning and regulatory restrictions continue to find success.
  • Oil stays below $70 per barrel.  Low gas and oil prices drive several mid-sized energy companies in the US to loan defaults and bankruptcy.  The government organizes a multi-billion dollar bailout of loan guarantees and subsidies to keep drilling operations going, and to keep dreams of Saudi America alive.
So, I'll revisit these at the end of the year and see if I can top my 2 for 9 mark!

Streetscape, Denver, Colorado

Looking back at my predictions for 2014.

Driving into Denver
I don't always have my fingers on the pulse of popular culture, but I get the sense that for most people 2014 didn't feel like a rosy year.  In fact, it seems like it was a year that people are anxious to put behind them.

Interestingly, I can't see any particular reason why 2014 was any worse that any of the years preceding it.  The big, dramatic media stories - the Ebola outbreak, Asian plane crashes, civil war in the Levant, police homicides, political gridlock, etc. - were nothing out of the ordinary.

If I were to project my own experience, I would guess that for more and more people it wasn't so much the bad news that was the issue - it was the dearth of good news.  As I framed my predictions from a year ago, we are facing multiple, overlapping, civilization-threatening challenges and it is becoming harder and harder to pretend that we have any kind of feasible plan to meet them.

To the extent that a person looks up from personal efforts to secure a portion of bread and circus and tries to grasp the bigger picture, the credibility of the cheerleaders of progress and happy trends seems to be failing.  Instead we have climate change, fossil fuel dependency, economic stagnation, a malaise in democratic governance, an unraveling of Pax Americanaand the general unsustainability of our way of life.

I short, I think 2014 sucked mostly because the nature of our predicaments became just that much harder to ignore.

From this perspective, my over-arching prediction that we would limp along upon a slowly crumbling status quo seems to have borne out.  But that was hardly an ambitious effort at prescience, and so I also made 9 more specific predictions.  Grading myself on a curve, and giving some partial credit, I'd have to give myself a 2 out of 9.

Here's how I grade myself:
  • In US politics, Republicans will spend another couple of months convincing people that their greedy insurance companies are actually Obamacare, before they pivot and take credit for all of the things that are popular about the program.   
0 for 1.  As far as I can tell, the Republicans never did pivot, but continued to demonize their caricature of health insurance reform - with a healthy majority of legislators still paying lip service to repeal.  So, no credit for that one.  I'd drop this one for 2015.
  • Democrats will get some credit for successfully pushing for minimum wage increases, and Republicans will mostly get out of the way eventually.  Life will improve slightly for millions of people and small businesses.
1 out of 2. I'll give myself credit for that one.  Every minimum wage referenda on the state ballots passed, even if the Democratic party wasn't as aggressive at leading and claiming credit as it might have been.  Momentum seems to be there for more.
  • Having disappeared almost entirely from the political and media discourse, climate change will be back in the news as hot weather, drought, and sea level rise continue to intensify.  Notably, it will be treated not as a problem to be solved, but rather as an inevitability that must be adapted to.  The solution that dare not speak its name (i.e. changing our way of living) will continue to be tabu.
1 for 3. Not strikingly right nor strikingly wrong.  Climate change discourse remains a muddle.  Notably, the idea that fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground has been emerging occasionally into the public discourse.  But no credit for this one.
  • Among the Chinese, there will be unrest in 2014 stemming from ecological degradation -- especially pollution in the air, soil and food.  The Chinese government will react by purging some high-profile officials and when that doesn't settle things, it will look for a pretext to stir up the distraction of a nativist backlash against the Japanese, Tibetans or Uighurs. 
1 for 4.  China more or less stays the course.  But this is a prediction I'd renew for 2015.
  • Energy production will limp along at a plateau, just enough to keep the global economy sputtering, while food prices will be kept just low enough to avoid riots and revolutions.  Predictors of doom and predictors of a new prosperity will both be disappointed.
1 for 5. Can't really give myself credit here. The US's shale and fracking boomlet continued, despite indications that energy companies have been losing money.  This enabled an increase in energy production, which, in the context of an global economic slowdown, created something like a glut.  Now oil prices have collapsed, which will stimulate many economies, even as it bankrupts energy companies that have been investing in the new frontiers of hard-to-get fossil fuels.
  • On the tech front, Google Glass and smart watches will fail to extend their reach beyond the chic geek digerati.  But late in the year there will be the first incarnations of true digital assistants - programs that can adapt to individuals and manage their social networking and digital connectivity.  The nimbler of the telecoms will get on board and start working on these new digital PA's.
1.25 for 6. Well the easy prediction that these iterations of glasses and watches were duds was kind of a no-brainer.  The digital personal assistant, however, didn't materialize.  In fact, there was nothing at all exciting on the tech front - unless you buy into the chimera of driverless cars . . . 
  • The Sochi Olympics will be a fiasco impressive even by Russian standards.  The one upside being that few people will go in person so the inadequacies and brutalities of the effort won't become as notorious as they might have.
1.75 for 7. Half credit.  The destructive grandiosity of Sochi looks paltry next to the annexation of Crimea a few months later.
  • One of the world's great monoculture crops will mostly fail this year.  Although this will be blamed on a new pest or blight, the failure will actually be due to a combination of narrow genetics, unstable climate and the decline in agricultural research.
1.75 for 8.  Cocoa is faltering under a blight, and candy makers are running out of reserves, but it's not a failure.  No credit, yet.  The prediction is one I'd renew for 2015.
  • On the global spiritual front, the push by Pope Francis for a more modest, non-consumerist and even ascetic spirituality will be echoed in popular movements within religions around the world, including evangelicals, muslims and others.  Governments will be unsettled and ambivalent about this development.
He's been busy, but no signs of a Franciscan revitalization movement, yet.

I'll throw in a quarter point for not being embarrassingly wrong on anything - just to round it up to a tidy 2 for 9.   When it comes to the details, my original prediction - that predicting is hard - turns out to be my main point of prescience.

I'll leave this post with a reminder that despite my doomerly tendencies, I remain optimistic.  Here's a picture of the boys climbing the wracked body of a great cedar tree on the Olympic Peninsula.

Porter and Nico