Friday, December 16, 2011

The Keystone XL has Republicans representing the 1%

Syncrude's oil sands operations, Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo by: David Dodge, CPAWS

Republicans' latest effort to fast-track approval for the construction of the Keystone XL "Tar Sands" Pipeline, prove without a shadow of a doubt that Republican leaders in Congress are working for corporate interests, that is, "the 1%".

Most Americans are not up in arms demanding the construction of this 1,600-mile pipeline, from the open pits of Northern Alberta's tar sands mines to the U.S. Gulf Coast. In fact, most Americans expressing an opinion are outraged that this expensive and risky infrastructure may be built upon our soil to support and encourage the dirtiest oil production on the planet. TransCanada, the company building it, has already experienced many oil spills. (It's no wonder Canada has now bowed out of the Kyoto Protocol. Along with Australia and the U.S., they have one of the World's highest per capita CO2 emissions rates.)

Nebraskans have spoken out about potential contamination of the critical Ogallala Aquifer. But this merely focuses on the Midwest. The potential for destruction is far greater, and in fact is advancing across Northern Alberta (as seen above.)

The ones who are vocal are the oil industry lobbyists, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican legislators who represent oil industry interests.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Neanderthal in Congress

There is absolutely NO connection between Senator Inhofe's conclusions about climate change, his decade-long personal campaign of climate change denial, and Oklahoma's powerful fossil fuel industry.

As former Chairman and current ranking member on the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, you can be assured Senator Inhofe sees protecting the health of our planet as one of his foremost responsibilities. Inhofe refers to the great work Marc Morano and CFACT are doing in Durban to assure that no progress is made toward a global climate treaty. He cites the CFACT "Special Report: The A to Z Climate Reality Check". (CFACT has been largely funded by Exxon-Mobil to counter environmental efforts. Marc Morano, former producer for Rush Limbaugh, famed "Swift Boater", and spokesperson for Inhofe's Senate Committee, also authors the Climate Depot Project for CFACT.)

I'm certain Senator Inhofe is fighting hard to reduce Big Government, the largest employer in his state. Here are a few more Neanderthals the Occupy Movement should be targeting.

From Wikipedia:

Oklahoma is the nation's third-largest producer of natural gas, fifth-largest producer of crude oil, and has the second-greatest number of active drilling rigs, and ranks fifth in crude oil reserves. While the state ranked eighth for installed wind energy capacity in 2011, it is at the bottom of states in usage of renewable energy, with 94 percent of its electricity being generated by non-renewable sources in 2009, including 25 percent from coal and 46 percent from natural gas. Ranking 13th for total energy consumption per capita in 2009, Oklahoma's energy costs were 8th lowest in the nation. As a whole, the oil energy industry contributes $35 billion to Oklahoma's gross domestic product, and employees of Oklahoma oil-related companies earn an average of twice the state's typical yearly income. In 2009, the state had 83,700 commercial oil wells churning 65.374 million barrels (10,393,600 m3) of crude oil. Eight and a half percent of the nation's natural gas supply is held in Oklahoma, with 1.673 trillion cubic feet (47.4 km3) being produced in 2009.

According to Forbes Magazine, Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corporation, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, and SandRidge Energy Corporation are the largest private oil-related companies in the nation, and all of Oklahoma's Fortune 500 companies are energy-related. Tulsa's ONEOK and Williams Companies are the state's largest and second-largest companies respectively, also ranking as the nation's second and third-largest companies in the field of energy, according to Fortune Magazine. The magazine also placed Devon Energy as the second-largest company in the mining and crude oil-producing industry in the nation, while Chesapeake Energy ranks seventh respectively in that sector and Oklahoma Gas & Electric ranks as the 25th-largest gas and electric utility company.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

And half a world away, in Hawaii...

Brother Drew presents SURFER Poll's Lifetime Achievement Award to John Severson.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Farewell Cousin Becky

On the left, our dear cousin Rebecca Pfohl (aka Becky, Rebecky, Beckles, Becca). 1951 - 2011

More remembrances of Becky in this blog.

In Memory of Rebecca M. Pfohl website.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Tax the poor

This past week it was announced that, to compensate for the loss of State funding, the University of California Regents will consider a proposal to increase University tuition 80% over the next three to four years.

In a country that holds sacred the profits of the wealthy, that refuses to even consider asking them to pay their fair share, this outrageous tax on those who are struggling to become financially responsible adults is a pure manifestation of the greed of the few controlling the welfare of the many. The same scenario is playing out in public education institutions across this nation, condemning our young to a life of debt and powerlessness before they've even begun.

This is something that should fill every American with shame.

It is legitimate cause for revolution.

Friday, July 08, 2011

President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Farewell Address - January 17, 1961

The address is memorable for Eisenhower's warning about the threat of the burgeoning military-industrial complex (a term he introduced). That portion of the speech begins at the 8:20 mark. His sentiments seem sincere and heartfelt, in contrast to the cynicism pervading today's political landscape. (I know, I know, the 50s and early 60s were not such rosy times either!)

(Thanks to Tim S. for the link.)

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Arizona haboob

The "haboob" or dust storm that struck Phoenix today. This is the type of weather event I was caught in on my motorcycle in Northeastern Arizona a few years ago. Today's was much more substantial!

(See also: HD time lapse video by Mike Olbinski.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

To the Last Drop

Syncrude's oil sands operations, Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo by: David Dodge, CPAWS

This story about Alberta's tar sands produced by Al Jazeera, will introduce Americans to their largest source of imported oil - Canadian tar, or oil sands. Clearly, the petroleum industry has made every effort to bury this story (as they un-bury their black gold.)



Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Circumference of Home

 Coincidentally, soon after beginning walking tours of my Santa Rosa hometown, I heard a story on Wisconsin Public Radio's "To the Best of Our Knowledge". It was an interview with Kurt Hoelting, author of The Circumference of Home. After learning the magnitude of his personal "carbon footprint", Hoelting drew a 100-kilometer radius circle around his home on Whidbey Island near Seattle, and vowed that, for a full year, he would abandon his car and, under his own power "live locally", exploring and rediscovering his immediate environment. After hearing the story, and recognizing a kindred spirit, I immediately ordered the book from the library.

When I asked Drew (who, of course, lives on Whidbey Island) if he knew Hoelting, he said he certainly did and even offered some assistance on Hoelting's book. Drew reminded me of an article he had written back in 1997. At the time, Drew joined Hoelting on a kayak adventure in Alaska's Inside Passage and wrote about it in the New Age Journal.

Late in the book, I see Hoelting quotes Drew in a chapter epigraph, and pays further tribute to him in the book's Acknowledgments.

Anyway, this is a fascinating journey, both internal and external, as the author struggles to reconcile his membership in modern American society with ancient traditions of respect and reverence for the natural world.
With just the slightest shift in consciousness, Hoelting's discoveries and revelations during this year "in circumference" are accessible to each of us.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Chile court suspends Patagonian HidroAysen dam project

The confluence of the rivers Neff and Baker in awesome Patagonia. Photo taken during my Americas Trip in 2006.

At roughly the same time as my visit to Rancho Chacabuco, Lisa Pike of Patagonia (the company) dispatched A Letter From Chacabuco, which spoke of the threat of development in the region. Then, I was unaware of plans for hydroelectric projects here. Had I known of intentions to dam these rivers, I would indeed have been sickened.


BBC News Latin America & Caribbean

20 June 2011

A court in Chile has ordered the suspension of a multi-billion-dollar dam project in the south of the country, following objections by legislators and environmentalists.

The five dams are to be built on two rivers in the sparsely-populated Aysen area of Chilean Patagonia.

The project was approved in May, after heavy backing from President Sebastian Pinera.

But the court has now ruled it needs to review the approval process.

It is not clear how long the court will take to decide on the matter.

The project has sparked a number of protests, some of which have seen violent clashes between demonstrators and the security forces.

The government says the dams are needed to meet the country's increasing demand for electricity.

But environmentalists say they will damage the area's fragile ecology and its tourist potential.

They also say the energy produced will be used mainly for the country's mining industry.

Rugged beauty

The five dams will be built on two fast flowing rivers that run into the Pacific - two on the river Baker, and three on the river Pascua.

They drain lakes in a region that is famous for its rugged beauty - a landscape of glaciers, ice-fields, mountains and fjords.

The dam project, which is a joint venture between a Chilean company and a Spanish-owed one, will cost some $3bn (£1.85bn) and is designed to generate 2,750MW of power.

The company, HidroAysen, says the project "represents a cost-effective, sustainable, reliable, and ecologically viable source of energy".

It says it involves flooding nearly 60 sq km (23 sq miles) of land, but will provide 4,000 jobs at its peak.

But other potential sticking points lie ahead for the company.

Correspondents say one of these could be approval to build the more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) of power lines needed to carry the electricity generated from the dams to the capital, Santiago.

Friday, June 17, 2011

America is not at war in Libya?

Wreckage of U.S. Air Force F-15E lost March 21, 2011 in Libya. Source: REUTERS / Suhaib Salem

It is outrageous that the Obama Administration, as the Bush Administration before it (and all Administrations have since World War II), is using nuanced legal interpretations to consolidate power in the Executive and erode the balance of powers prescribed in the U.S. Constitution.

Under guidance from Executive Branch legal counsel, President Obama has declared that, in ordering military operations in Libya, he has not violated The War Powers Act of 1973 (let alone the United States Constitution!)

The War Powers Act Serves to permit the President, as Commander in Chief, to act expeditiously to defend against a threat to our nation or our armed forces. It requires that the President seek the approval of Congress within a specified period following the commencement of hostilities.

The Act was the People's response to the illegal actions of the Nixon Administration  which, without the support of Congress or the American People, escalated combat operations in Vietnam, secretly expanding them into Laos and Cambodia, in clear violation of national and international law.

But debate about the intent of the War Powers Act is merely a sideshow here. The President is clearly in violation of the United States Constitution, an impeachable offense. As Commander in Chief, he unilaterally (without Congressional authorization) decided to attack a nation that was not threatening the United States.

According to the Constitution, only Congress can "declare war". (The War Powers Act, attempted to address the ambiguities between "declared" and increasingly common "undeclared" wars. Under the Act, the Executive Branch would be allowed to initiate military action when our nation or our armed forces were subject to imminent threat, but it required The President obtain Congressional approval within 60 days following the onset of hostilities, or terminate operations. Upon request, an extension to 90 days might be granted.)

Since 1973, galled by this blatant attempt to restrain the President, the ever-more-monarchical Executive has defied Congressional attempts to challenge or reign in its power.

Among the current justifications the White House is testing: the duration of American air "combat operations" were of insufficient duration to require the mandated Congressional approval. (A nuclear attack and retaliation could be finished within an hour. Is that also subject to the "duration test"?)

Now, it is claimed that NATO is leading the assault on Libya and that the U.S. is merely providing intelligence (from CIA "boots on the ground", it's suspected), logistical support and, no doubt, materiel. (Iran-Contra or Bay of Pigs revisited?) Again, a distraction from the crime of waging war without authorization. (It should be noted that the U.S. provides 75% of NATO's funding.)

In the present examples of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan (incredible!) we see the "Unitary Executive", (the idealized vision of an omnipotent Executive Branch promoted by Neoconservatives) consolidating its grip on the Nation's "command and control apparatus." Unchecked, this concentration of power threatens the freedom not only of all Americans, but of all nations.

This is not Obama's doing. It is the office and the "Fortress America" culture he has stepped into. The collapse of democracy in this country began decades ago. But, contrary to his campaign (and current) rhetoric, he submits to the precedent of making decisions that lead to further consolidation of power and, inevitably, the violent scenes we are witnessing in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

As I watch citizens rise up against dictators in the "Arab Spring", I have to ask: would Americans ever have the courage to stand up to their government? I am afraid we are a nation of cowards, preferring comfort, convenience and entertainment to confronting the powers that are increasingly stealing our freedoms, our fortunes and our future.

I suggest the citizens of Libya start collecting the scrap metals, plastics and electronics from ordinance falling upon their land. These remnants will provide positive identification of those nations who are "at war".

For once I agree with John Boehner: Obama's statement "doesn't pass the straight-face test." More importantly, President Obama's unconstitutional war and, further, declaration of immunity from accountability under the War Powers Act is an impeachable offense.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

(Click above to hear the author on "Fresh Air")
"But it wasn't clear to me just how plastic my world had become until I decided to go an entire day without touching anything plastic. The absurdity of this experiment became apparent about ten seconds into the appointed morning when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the bathroom: the toilet seat was plastic. I quickly revised my plan. I would spend the day writing down everything I touched that was plastic.

Within forty-five minutes, I had filled an entire page in my Penway Composition Book...

By the end of the day...the list included 196 entries..."

This fascinating look at the everyday encounters with plastics in our environment traces the history, development and our tortured love affair with plastics. Freinkel takes us to the refineries that produce the building blocks, the laboratories that develop the complex polymer chains, to manufacturing plants, wholesale and retail operations, municipal waste  treatment facilities, recycling operations and also explores the unintended consequences of our "one-way waste stream".

The account is a fairly balanced look at both the immense value and convenience and even environmental benefits plastics have brought to our lives, and the serious challenges such an abundant material has created in terms of health (with a thorough discussion of phthalates and other plasticizers), the environment and promotion of a "disposable world".

She gives considerable coverage to the search for solutions to plastic's "persistence" in the environment and development of alternatives to petroleum-based resins, weighing the merits of each line of research and development.

It's an entertaining and very educational work of investigative journalism.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"Occupying Iraq, State Department-Style"

U.S. Embassy, Baghdad (one of 21 buildings in the 104-acre compound)

A Frat House With Guns in Baghdad
By Peter Van Buren
Published on

Way out on the edge of Forward Operating Base Hammer, where I lived for much of my year in Iraq as a Provincial Reconstruction Team leader for the U.S. Department of State, there were several small hills, lumps of raised dirt on the otherwise frying-pan-flat desert. These were “tells,” ancient garbage dumps and fallen buildings.

Thousands of years ago, people in the region used sun-dried bricks to build homes and walls. Those bricks had a lifespan of about 20 years before they began to crumble, at which point locals just built anew atop the old foundation. Do that for a while, and soon enough your buildings are sitting on a small hill.

At night, the tell area was very dark, as we avoided artificial light in order not to give passing insurgents easy targets. In that darkness, you could imagine the earliest inhabitants of what was now our base looking at the night sky and be reminded that we were not the first to move into Iraq from afar. It was also a promise across time that someday someone would undoubtedly sit atop our own ruins and wonder whatever happened to the Americans.

From that ancient debris field, recall the almost forgotten run-up to the American invasion, the now-ridiculous threats about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Secretary of State Colin Powell lying away his own and America’s prestige at the U.N., those "Mission-Accomplished" days when the Marines tore down Saddam’s statue and conquered Baghdad, the darker times as civil society imploded and Iraq devolved into civil war, the endless rounds of purple fingers for stage-managed elections that meant little, the Surge and the ugly stalemate that followed, fading to gray as President George W. Bush negotiated a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and the seeming end of his dreams of a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.

Now, with less than seven months left until that withdrawal moment, Washington debates whether to honor the agreement, or -- if only we can get the Iraqi government to ask us to stay -- to leave a decent-sized contingent of soldiers occupying some of the massive bases the Pentagon built hoping for permanent occupancy.

To the extent that any attention is paid to Iraq here in Snooki’s America, the debate over whether eight years of war entitles the U.S. military to some kind of Iraqi squatter’s rights is the story that will undoubtedly get most of the press in the coming months.

How This Won’t End

Even if the troops do finally leave, the question is: Will that actually bring the U.S. occupation of Iraq to a close? During the invasion of 2003, a younger David Petraeus famously asked a reporter: “Tell me how this ends.”

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Unusual June weather

A low pressure system parked 200 miles or so west of San Francisco this morning, bringing a good soaking to the area.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Gayngs and White Hinterland at The Independent, San Francisco

The Minneapolis-based rock group Gayngs performed at The Independent in San Francisco Wednesday night. It was their first visit to San Francisco. I became aware of Gayngs during the past year, after hearing a track by the Rosebuds in the film Easier with Practice. That led, via Ivan Howard's connection with both bands, to my stumbling upon Gayngs. It's a remarkably tight ensemble of talented musicians who display a high level of sophistication and precision. A year ago they released their acclaimed debut album "Relayted". (Apparently all the tracks were recorded at a tempo of 69 beats per minute, 69BPM, adagio to classical musicians.) Wednesday's playlist was entirely from the album.

Though I arranged with the band's manager to get a "photo pass", at the door I learned that photography with SLRs is limited to the first three songs "then you have to move away from the stage". (Except for flash use, cellphones and small point-and-shoot cameras are not restricted.) I knew that it was a sold-out show, but when I saw the crowd swell to capacity just as Gayngs was about to come out, I decided it wasn't worth jostling just for a blog photo. So I parked myself in the balcony and (under the influence of a couple beers and an atmosphere laced with marijuana smoke,) took some long, slow shots. Next time, I'm simply going to enjoy the music (and maybe jump into the crowd and get jostled!)

Gayngs open with
"The Gaudy Side of Town". Ryan Olsen, co-founder, with the Mac.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


For many months, I've wondered what the next adventure might be. In recent years, with each successive crossing of the U.S., I felt the urge to slow down. Even eschewing the Interstate Highway System and taking to secondary roads, often with stops every five or ten minutes to have a closer look at something, it still felt I was missing so much.

I figured my next journey might well be on foot. Indeed, after buying the motorcycle, I imagined that the next "vehicle", after the bike, would likely be my feet. And I started to imagine walking across the United States, retracing some of the paths I've been down. (If "Granny D" could do it at the age of 90, I should be able to!)

But why wait until I'm forced to walk? And why look to far-off, exotic destinations to feed my curiosity? Why not start by more closely exploring the place I've lived on and off for more than twenty years?

Sticker shock at the local gas station. Above each of the station's gas pumps are rather odd signs: "Bathrooms are for everyone, but the driver should get to go first." Are oil companies now teaching etiquette? (We know from their marketing campaigns that they're already greening the environment.)

In the past year, I substantially reduced motorcycle usage, taking pleasure in seeing a smaller portion of my money go to the oil companies. (I had contributed quite generously during the "Americas Trip".) I was now driving less than at any time since first being licensed. But being nearly five miles from downtown and most of the places I frequent, the thought of walking was daunting.

A major milestone was achieved last year when I overcame my inertia and actually walked to a shopping plaza less than three-quarters of a mile from my house. The inner chatter: "walking just isn't 'cool'. Losers walk." My life-long suburban attitude told me this. What might be normal, indeed sensible in small towns like Langley, Washington or Waterbury, Vermont, here in Suburbia seems to be regarded as a bizarre, even unsound behavior. "Why would you walk?" (If it's clearly part of your exercise regimen - as demonstrated by a wild, frenetic energy - or, if you're walking a dog, that's obviously necessary. Then we understand and approve.)

I often walk, but it usually involves driving somewhere - typically to one of several local parks - in order to walk. (We gladly drive and many pay for the privilege of exercising.)

I've often driven to coffee shops and libraries. Couldn't I walk? Granted, the distances are typically four or fives miles each way, but so what? On other days, I'll devote considerable time to exercising. Why not incorporate exercise into my regular excursions? A revelatory concept for me, it's hardly a novel idea. As many have long realized (and I was slow to comprehend,) one can get one's exercise in the course of daily activity, if one chooses not to avoid it, as we are conditioned to do.

I'm also tired of financing corporate green-washing campaigns with BP, Shell and Chevron touting their environmental leadership, all while fighting tooth and nail to avoid full responsibility for environmental devastation in (respectively) the Gulf of Mexico, Nigeria and the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. All this while they announce record profits.

Bennett Valley Road, the shortest route from my apartment to downtown Santa Rosa, is one of the more treacherous roads for pedestrians. Not "foot-friendly" at all.

With the recent publicity surrounding Bike to Work Week, I felt the focus on bicycles was fine, but why not encourage an even simpler, more environmentally-benign activity, walking? Some well-intentioned friends and relatives have suggested I "need" to get a bicycle, but why? I really don't want to buy another thing (and a fairly sophisticated thing at that), including all the specialized gear the activity seems to "require" (just looking at riders here in Sonoma County.) Bicycles are one way to deal with suburban sprawl, but clearly not the only alternative to the automobile.

Early in May, I overcame my inertia and started getting out on foot, exploring my "hometown" and testing the notion of walking long distances. The first day out, I walked about ten miles. I thought this experience could lead to a blog post: "Stranger in My Own Town". By day's end, my feet were raw and body aching. The concept of walking across the country seemed absolutely ludicrous, another hair-brained scheme.

And the argument that walking would save money was also quickly undermined. After a few miles, I was already hungry and dreaming about the restaurant that soon became my destination. I spent $18 on food and beverage during that first walk.

During the second walk, swelling in my lower legs developed into vasculitis, a new malady to consider.

By the third time out, ten miles felt like "no big deal". (I might feel differently in the heat of summer.) There were still blisters and discomfort from footwear. (I have alternated between hiking boots, running shoes and sports sandals, trying to determine which serves me best.)

Now at the end of May, I have made eleven walking-tours of the community and chalked up over a hundred and ten miles on foot. It is likely the first time in my life where, over the course of a month, the distance traveled on foot exceeded the distance traveled by motor vehicle. A pattern seemed to emerge: one day walking, followed by one day riding, followed by one or two days remaining at home. (Having no job to go to makes this experiment quite simple.) In May, I put $20 worth of gasoline in the motorcycle. Most of it is still there.

It has been a revelation how easy it is to meet and talk with people when you're on foot. Regardless of social or economic status, conversations erupt spontaneously with people on the street. I'm much more inclined to step into a business that piques my interest and though I'm on foot, I really don't find much hesitation to deviate a few blocks to follow my curiosity. And on foot you can ignore all those newly-installed pay-point parking systems.

You know, there is a certain pleasure in walking (or bicycling) past these annoying places.

And finally, earlier this month, a notice arrived from my insurance company, Safeco, advising me of a 29% increase in the premium for the coming year. (This despite a perfectly clean record, and the fact that I'm driving less than 20% of my historic rates.) It would be nice to free myself of insurance abuse.

That major corporations can treat us customers with such indifference, and with impunity, makes it all the more pleasing when we realize there is always the option to simply turn our backs on them.

At close quarters, it's interesting to observe an "instinctive phenomena". When drivers first spot me along the shoulder of the road, there is often a slight swerve of the vehicle in my direction, followed by a correction to avoid me. In motorcycle training, we taught riders to avoid looking at obstacles. "If you look at the obstacle, you're likely to hit it. Look where you want to go."

Example of how a "technological solution" causes us to consume fifty times the resources to achieve marginal benefit. Suddenly I'm seeing these discarded floss holders. I don't think I'd ever notice a piece of floss on the ground. These things however...

The walk downtown is a journey back in time. From the small eight-home subdivision where I presently reside in a "granny" apartment, with its custom homes built in the early 2000s, I first pass by apartment complexes constructed in the 80s and 90s. Twenty minutes from my house, I have reached the early-1960s and easily recognize the style of home from my childhood and early teen years, the same construction used in our new family homes purchased in the Santa Clara Valley circa 1959 and 1963, with two-car garages then the prominent feature. (Most now have at least one vehicle parked outside, that won't fit in the garage.)

I'm surprised in these housing tracts how many of the street-facing windows are blinded, or obscured by vegetation allowed to grow up in front. The owners turn to the back yards for their refuge. After an hour, I'm in the 1940s and 50s - simple, austere and uninspired box houses. Some residents make up for the dreary architecture with lush and varied gardens. Half-way downtown and I'm back to my birth year.

On foot, you're much more likely to appreciate the flowers in bloom. Right now, the air is perfumed with rose and jasmine.

After 75 minutes, I'm among homes that would remind my parents and even grandparents of their childhood. Most have generous front porches. It seems we were more social creatures in earlier times. Some have lost considerable portions of their front yards to street-widening projects. Their add-on garages are tucked in the rear, and are barely large enough for a full-size car. So mostly, in these neighborhoods, cars are parked in driveways or at the curb. Roughly 150 years spanned in this 90-minute walk to the Flying Goat coffee shop in Old Railroad Square, itself housed in an old stone hotel from the 1800s.

For the most part, I would not term walking in Santa Rosa "pleasant". It's extremely difficult to escape the roar of traffic. And the ubiquitous two-cycle engines of lawnmowers, weed whips, blowers and chainsaws are almost always in earshot. It's kind of like cell-phone towers: you leave one behind and immediately pick up the next. Same with the "auditory barrage" from these annoying engines. I joke about it, but it seems pretty clear that the noise from engines is a real stresser, something the human body is not inured to. I'll experiment with walking early to see if the noise level is significantly lower.

Lucy! Santa Rosa was home to "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz. His characters are a common sight throughout Santa Rosa.

The Flying Goat coffee shop. Probably my favorite hang-out these days. It's just under a five-mile walk from the house (and worth the effort!)

Less than two hundred yards east of this spot, Santa Rosa Creek flows beneath U.S. Highway 101. Here, it provides a calming influence for walkers and bicyclists on the Prince Memorial Greenway. To the west, as the setting becomes slightly more rural, it might be possible to conjure a sense of the Santa Rosa Plain before humans.

Luther Burbank home and gardens, downtown Santa Rosa

I remember (long ago!) there was serious debate about the aesthetics of power lines over our neighborhoods. With the advent of internet and cable home service, the overhead "rat's nest" threatens to block out the sun. Between these wires and jet contrails above, I fear there will be Global Cooling in these neighborhoods! (And just how much weight can those poles take???)

This looks like someone's idea of a Bonzai Redwood, except this one stands 60 to 80 feet tall!

As I paused while waiting to cross Farmer's Lane, one of the busier thoroughfares in Santa Rosa, it struck me that the level of traffic noise is astounding. And to make matters worse, so many vehicles are engineered or modified to make them even louder than necessary. There is something quite sociopathic about this. (Here in Santa Rosa, we like our big, beefy pick-up trucks.)(I also thought about the oft-heard Harley justification “the noise lets people know we're coming.” It’s all about safety, right? That’s why many Harley riders go without helmets any chance they get.)

The more I "learn" about walking this city, the more I become aware that its a "normal" activity, a way of life for many and that the Santa Rosa has made serious efforts to encourage walking. (I just wasn't hearing the message.)

Napa Valley is currently constructing a 44-mile "Vine Trail" multi-use path from the ferry terminal in Vallejo, northward to the base of Mount St. Helena. It will be designed for bicyclists, walkers, strollers, senior citizens - everyone. A great idea.

Walking through Montgomery Village, an open air shopping center, attractively landscaped with beds of roses. I passed close by the front doors of the shops, often breathing the air coming out of the store. It can tell you a lot. The air from Ross Dress for Less was particularly interesting - an overwhelming smell of plastics and those sizing chemicals used in clothing manufacturing.

In Santa Rosa, many subdivisions contain cul-de-sacs. Seeking to flee the noise of large thoroughfares, I have walked into some, to explore potential alternative walking routes. Since virtually every suburban California yard is fenced, pedestrians are generally prevented from moving between subdivisions, except via the main boulevards. In this way, we engineer communities to discourage walking (and bicycling.) We force pedestrians and bicyclists into the same corridors as motor vehicles, with their noise, and emissions and dust from brakes, tires, oil, and whatever additional detritus they kick up from the pavement.

In many parts of the United States, property is not demarcated with fences and people are able to cross yards, passing between neighboring streets. Where I have seen this, it seems so refreshing and free. We have a certain "tyranny of fences" here in California. (I know the old expression "good fences make good neighbors", but I don't necessarily believe it. Good neighbors make good neighbors.)

Obviously, walking brings out the self-righteousness in me (as if I've not been polluting with the best of them all these years.) One more thing to observe and rein I walk.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The AfPak Swamp

A few hours before President Obama addressed the nation announcing the "successful" operation to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, I had just finished reading Bob Woodward's excellent book Obama's Wars.

Much of the book focuses on Obama's struggle to find the right exit strategy in Afghanistan. From page 281, this insight:

Obama said he wanted his final decision to be based upon consultation with the military and not something that was forced upon him. He had to get himself and the country out of that box. War could not suck the oxygen out of everything else. Some of it had to do with the nature of wars that had the U.S. fight local insurgencies. There were going to be no victory dances in the end zone. One of his problems with Bush had been the constant talk of a victory that was not attainable.

Obama had campaigned against Bush's ideas and approaches. But (Deputy National Security Adviser Tom) Donilon, for one, thought that Obama had perhaps underestimated the extent to which he had inherited George W. Bush's presidency - the apparatus, personnel and mind-set of war making.
I came away with a very troubling picture of the role Pakistan was playing in the region, essentially working all sides, variously cooperating with (or tolerating) the Americans and our allies, the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and various other "terrorist" groups.

It was revealed that India, Pakistan's mortal enemy, is sending $1.2 Billion in aid to Afghanistan. (Why is this not headline news?) This is certainly threatening to Pakistan and lends credibility to the argument that Pakistan is in indeed supporting anti-government operations in Afghanistan.

According to Woodward's account (p. 215):
...Pakistan would view a strong Afghan national government as aligned with their archenemy, India, thereby basically surrounding and isolating Pakistan.
The following testimony gives a fairly complete summary of the issues the United States is presently confronting in the "AfPak" region.
Prepared statement by Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations

Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate
1 Session, 112th Congress

Hearing on Afghanistan: What is an Acceptable End-State, and How Do We Get

Mr. Chairman:

Thank you for asking me to appear before this Committee, in this instance to discuss U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and, more specifically, what constitutes an acceptable end-state in that country and how the United States can best work to bring it about. As has been the case over the past eight years, my statement and testimony today reflect my personal views and not those of the Council on Foreign Relations, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Americas Trip Afterword - Five Years Later

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. "The southernmost city in the World." There are, however, towns further south.
Across the Beagle Channel, there's more land! (I guess that's why they call it a channel.) 
When viewing this photo, you must think "cold"!

Five years have elapsed since The Americas Trip concluded on April 10, 2006. Of course, in a very real sense, such experiences never end, and to this day, I continue to digest the lessons of that journey. In recent weeks, I’ve taken the opportunity, really for the first time, to read the story from beginning to end.

(I also took considerable pains to integrate text and photographs, which hopefully results in a more intelligible narrative. It’s baffling why it didn’t occur to me to do this sooner.)

Naturally, through this process, a myriad images, thoughts and emotions come flooding back, accompanied in many instances by regrets. Regrets that a sense of urgency, momentum, or more likely some habitual response in my nature prevented my stopping to appreciate opportunities never to be repeated.

Occasionally, however, the world just forces us to stop and experience the present moment. How often the most powerful and memorable experiences seemed to occur when things went “terribly wrong” or failed to adhere to my plans and expectations.

Many memories stand out, often the result of an unexpected gesture or kindness. A child carrying coffee to my muddy roadside shelter early in the morning. A driver stopping to ask if I’m lost and then telling me to just follow him. A hotelier gently and patiently correcting my Spanish. School children offering their meek salutation "caballero, buenas tardes." The smiles freely given along the way. The earnest efforts of so many to really help. Heartbreakingly beautiful and humble people. Everywhere. Without exception.

I often find myself recalling particular moments and regretting that I don’t have the means to return to some of these places, or simply keep the journey going, without end. It’s unlike me to wish to be counted among the wealthy, but at such moments I think “it certainly would be nice…”

Ultimately, I emerged from this retrospective troubled by a frank observation: that for all the expense and effort, all the investment of time and energy, nothing noble or heroic was achieved.

In fact, one might argue the contrary. Rather than celebrate my “accomplishment” I’m more inclined to feel a trace of shame or embarrassment. It was not something remarkable that I did. It was an expensive excursion made possible solely by my membership in a very affluent segment of the population.

Tourism need not be wasteful and self-indulgent, but looking at my case, it seems an apt characterization. Wasteful, in that I spent roughly $45,000 on specialized equipment, lavish meals, expensive hotels, costly repairs to my “ultimate driving (riding) machine”, and a very sizable contribution to the petroleum industry I so love to demonize.

Selfish in the pursuit of this “dream” through my imposition upon others, not behaving as their guest, but as one entitled to attention, service, satisfaction, and respect, often displacing or inconveniencing others equally deserving. The pursuit was too often marred by my unreasonable demands and expectations, and sometimes impetuous behavior, as if my undertaking were more important than any other.

At the time, I certainly recognized the symptoms of this all-consuming obsession (and witnessed the same in fellow “adventurers”): checking off the famous destinations, accumulating impressive statistics such as miles traveled, borders crossed, countries visited, passports stamped, hours at a stretch in the saddle. Sometimes I simply moved ghost-like across the land without really touching or being touched. More often than not, I would seek out my own kind, gathering whenever possible to exchange tales of the road and compare notes. Later I would look back in wonder at my own isolation from the very places and people I chose to “visit”.

At times it felt like I regarded local inhabitants merely as a “supporting cast of characters.” Did I ever consider the question “how am I enriching the lives of those I encounter?” In retrospect my behavior was shameful, especially when people and lands failed to “measure up to my standards”, as if hapless individuals were in a position to influence or control mankind's systemic failures.

I cannot with a clear conscience endorse the “adventure lifestyle”. I see travelers who have invested their lives and identity in sharing and encouraging this type of activity, but I cannot dispel the notion that rather than some breed of modern heroes, we are more likely to be insufferably ignorant and inconsiderate "rich bastards", indulging in luxuries most can only dream of.

And so, with this little rant duly recorded (it's something I had to get off my chest), where do we go from here? “How do you make it right?” What is a noble pursuit (if indeed there is any part of me that could actually commit and follow through on such an undertaking?)

I know there is another way to travel, one much gentler on the planet and more respectful of the people along the way. A way that involves giving as much as receiving. I have heard of other travelers who immersed themselves in the cultures, learning the languages, and even teaching in schools. In some cases, they abandoned their original personal goals and gave themselves to more urgent, humanitarian pursuits.

If I return to the road, I hope I will be able to follow such examples.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Gasland and the fracking debate

Hydrofracked? One Man’s Mystery Leads to a Backlash Against Natural Gas Drilling

by Abrahm Lustgarten
ProPublica, Feb. 25, 2011, 6 a.m

There are few things a family needs to survive more than fresh drinking water. And Louis Meeks, a burly, jowled Vietnam War hero who had long ago planted his roots on these sparse eastern Wyoming grasslands, was drilling a new well in search of it.

The drill bit spun, whining against the alluvial mud and rock that folds beneath the Wind River Range foothills. It ploughed to 160 feet, but the water that spurted to the surface smelled foul, like a parking lot puddle drenched in motor oil. It was no better — yet — than the water Meeks needed to replace.

Meeks used to have abundant water on his small alfalfa ranch, a 40-acre plot speckled with apple and plum trees northeast of the Wind River Mountains and about five miles outside the town of Pavillion. For 35 years he drew it clear and sweet from a well just steps from the front door of the plain, eight-room ranch house that he owns with his wife, Donna. Neighbors would stop off the rural dirt road on their way to or from work in the gas fields to fill plastic jugs; the water was better than at their own homes.

But in the spring of 2005, Meeks’ water had turned fetid. His tap ran cloudy, and the water shimmered with rainbow swirls across a filmy top. The scent was sharp, like gasoline. And after 20 minutes — scarcely longer than you’d need to fill a bathtub — the pipes shuttered and popped and ran dry.

Meeks suspected that environmental factors were to blame. He focused on the fact that Pavillion, home of a single four-way stop sign and 174 people, lies smack in the middle of Wyoming’s gas patch. Since the mid 1990’s, more than 1,000 gas wells had been drilled in the region — some 200 of them right around Pavillion — thousands of feet through layers of drinking water and into rock that yields tiny rivulets of trapped gas. The drilling has left abandoned toxic waste pits scattered across the landscape.It has also disturbed the earth itself. One step in the drilling cracks and explodes the earth in a physical assault that breaks up the crust and shakes the gas loose. In that process, called hydraulic fracturing, a brew of chemicals is injected deep into the earth to lubricate the fracturing and work its way into the rock. How far it goes and where it ends up, no one really knows. Meeks wondered if that wasn’t what ruined his well.

Meeks couldn’t have foreseen it when he began raising questions about his water, but hydraulic fracturing was about to revolutionize the global energy industry and herald one of the biggest expansions in U.S. energy exploration in a century. Although the basic technique was developed decades ago, technological advances had made it possible to frack deeply buried rock formations long thought to be inaccessible. That meant a vast stockpile of domestic energy was suddenly available to help loosen the grip of foreign oil on the U.S. economy. It also meant that gas — which burns cleaner than coal — would become a pillar of the government’s campaign to address climate change.

As a result, drilling was about to happen in states not typically known for oil and gas exploration, including Michigan, New York and even Maryland. It would go from rural, sparsely populated outposts like Pavillion to urban areas outside Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh. Along the way, a string of calamitous accidents and suspicious environmental problems would eventually make hydraulic fracturing so controversial that it would monopolize congressional hearings, draw hundreds in protests and inspire an Academy-Award-nominated documentary produced for Hollywood.

Louis Meeks, unintentionally, would be a part of that fight from the very beginning. His personal fight began with something simple: the energy industry’s insistence that fracturing couldn’t contaminate water.

Continue reading at ProPublica.

May 9, 2011 Update: Scientific Study Links Flammable Drinking Water to Fracking