Saturday, November 17, 2012


The U. S. election finally took place and happily President Obama was re-elected.  Not that this will put an end to partisan bickering, but the general tone coming from the U. S. is likely to be far more to my liking than if the result had been different. This has put me in a good mood and I can only hope that it will last.

On Friday after the election, I had fifteen windows replaced in my house.  The installers came on time and did a tidy, efficient job.  The previously single-paned windows are now double-glazed with automatic locks. The living room windows are now casement, which crank out, instead of the smaller awning type.  Immediately I noticed the difference with significant noise reduction and a warmer-feeling house.

My wife gave me a little lecture about home improvement projects, however:  (1)  Do the projects in the summer; (2) Don't do them just because the neighbour does them; (3) Don't put them off.  In general, I agree with this.  I actually started the window project in the summer, but getting multiple quotes, ordering the windows, and waiting for the installation to be scheduled took two months, which is not unusual.  I don't think I do things just because I see the neighbour do them, but they are a good source of ideas.  I have to admit guilt on the third item, generally because there are a variety of projects that could be undertaken and it probably takes a catalyst to move them forward.

I wonder what the catalyst for re-doing the kitchen will be?       

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Avoiding U. S. Politics and Preserving Sanity

Political campaigns, particularly U. S. style, can be annoying (if not depressing).  Another two months yet before the U. S. Presidential election, to be filled with hyperbole, accusations, media hype, gotcha moments, and manipulative TV ads.  As former Canadian Prime Minister (short-lived) Kim Campbell once remarked, "Elections are no time to discuss serious issues".  When asked this year about U. S. election politics, former U. N. ambassador Stephen Lewis described them in one word: "Preposterous".

My task is how to avoid the noise as much as possible.

It should be easy.  Don't watch TV or use the internet.  That, however, is easier said than done.  I pretty much confine U. S. TV watching to TCM, PBS (which have no paid commercials), and CNN.  I've cut my viewing of CNN in half, usually only glancing quickly, before deciding whether to subject myself to more self-serving political "debate".  For two weeks I watched the Olympics on Canadian channels CTV, TSN, and SNETP, completely excluding NBC.  (This worked well, because as Canadians watched major events live, the U. S. audience waited until evening prime time to see the same on a delayed basis).

As far as the internet, I've unfriended conservatives and reduced liberals to "only important" updates.  I generally agree with liberals, but they also like to pursue irrelevant matters, and are equally capable of reducing discussion to name-calling, overstatement, and simplistic solutions (if only the 1% would pay up).

I know others shut out this process as well, one of the reasons for low voter turn-out.   The reality is that many issues are complex, involve multiple interests, and can only be resolved by trade-off, negotiation, and consideration of both costs and benefits over the long term.  Elections are conducted on sound bites, easy solutions, identity politics, emotion (mainly fear), and short term events. Therefore, we get theatre (mostly tired and uninspired), instead of substance. 

Not long ago, the election period started in February and was over in November.  Unfortunately, the process is now twice as long and twice as tiring and banal.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Stockton, California

I lived in Stockton, California, from 1947 to 1953, between the ages of four and ten.  I attended El Dorado Elementary School on Pacific Avenue, a very nice two-story school with a large playground built in 1916, for kindergarten through grade five.  From the first grade on, I walked to and from school every day, carrying my lunch in either a brown bag or lunch pail.  In the fifth grade, I was a boy cop crossing guard, with a red jacket and cap, signalling the cars to stop at nearby crosswalks, both at lunch and after school.  I can't remember any incident involving police in the years that I attended El Dorado.

Two weeks ago, Stockton declared bankruptcy, unable to reach an agreement with creditors over a $26 million deficit in the city budget.  Really?  $26 million in a city of almost 300,000?  Why not just raise property taxes?

It turns out that the issue is a lot more complicated.  In 1978, California passed Proposition 13, an  initiative constitutionally limiting property taxes to a maximum 1% of assessed valuation.  As the result of falling house prices during the current downturn, property taxes fell.  Even though homeowners started paying far less than previously, Stockton was prohibited by Proposition 13 from raising the tax rate and maintaining revenue.  The city cut services, but increasingly  was unable to balance the budget and service their debt.  Consequently, they filed for bankruptcy.

The neighborhood around El Dorado School when I lived there was probably moderate income, middle class, and well-maintained.  Economically and socially, it appears to have declined. 

Shooting near El Dorado School, February 2012
Checking the status of El Dorado School, I discovered that on a academic achievement scale of 1-10, it rates a 1.  90% of the kids qualify for the free lunch program. The school's highest concern appears to be safety.  In February, there was a gang-related shooting on the south side of the school, at an intersection where I was once a crossing guard.

During the current recession, Stockton's  unemployment rate rose to nearly 18%. Currently, it stands at about 15.4%, nearly twice the national average.  The neighborhood, once almost entirely white, is now more than 50% Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white has declined to 15%.  Possibly, it has been impacted more than other neighborhoods by declining employment, particularly in occupations such as construction.

Somehow, sixty years of supposed U. S. economic growth and increases in opportunity haven't been realized in Stockton, at least not here.       

Monday, June 25, 2012

Game of Life

I saw John Conway's Game of Life on Stephen Hawking's "Grand Design" on Discovery Channel.
The game is played on a cellular grid.  Each cell may be living or not.  What happens to it depends on its neighbors. 

If a living cell is in contact with only one or two other living cells, it dies of loneliness.
If a living cell is in contact with four or more other living cells, it dies of overcrowding.
If a living cell is in contact with two or three other living cells, it survives.

If a non-living cell becomes contacted by three living cells, it is born.

The population may start small, grow, die out, become static or oscillating.  If an "immigrant" is added to a static population, it may grow again or be destroyed and disappear.  Static populations may consist of isolated groups, which may be energized by adding "immigrants" and recontact each other. The population may survive many generations of growth and depletion, before becoming dormant or dying out.

It's called the Game of Life, because of the many parallels to natural populations and the suggestion that human thought patterns may operate the same way, based on simple rules, with many repetitions of the same pattern. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Alan Bock  (1943-2011)

Al Bock  was a fraternity brother of mine at UCLA, whom I lived with from 1962 to 1965.  His career included being an editorial writer for the Orange County Register for thirty years, writing from a libertarian perspective.  Yesterday, checking for recent commentaries by him,  I discovered that he had passed away last year from cancer.

On November 22, 1963, having just returned to the house from an English literature lecture on The Great Gatsby , someone said that he had heard that President Kennedy had been attacked in Dallas.  Initially, this  was greeted with incredulity and dismissed as a joke.  Al then came down the stairs with a radio, and said quietly, "He's dead".  I still have a vivid picture of his giving us this news.

At the end of the fall term of 1963, post cards with final grades arrived.  Going through them (looking for our own), we saw that Al had several Grade "A", with the admonition, "Please see us. You are not enrolled in this class". It turned out that he had been in a dispute with ROTC (mandatory at UCLA) about having his army uniform cleaned before he could return it.  He refused to pay for dry cleaning and subsequently had not been allowed to register for the fall term.  He took courses anyway, but didn't get credit towards his degree.  (You could see the libertarian strain coming out.)

One night we were fooling around in the living room.  Al put his hand through a pane of glass in the outside door and cut it badly.  We raced him to the UCLA Medical Center.  He had severed two tendons and afterwards wasn't able to close his ring and small fingers on the hand.  Surprisingly, he didn't have his registration card with him at the Med Center.  (We were still unaware of his non-registration.)  They fixed him up anyway.
Al wrote four books, The Ecology Action Guide (1970)The Gospel Life of Hank Williams (1976)Ambush at Ruby Ridge (1995), and Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (2000), which gives an idea of the variety of his interests, including environment, music, and politics.

In addition, he was a frequent contributor to and a critic of U. S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his final column published two months before his death, he wrote:

“I remain convinced that the cause of individual liberty is the most noble and constructive political cause around. Albert J. Nock noted that there are two ways for people to relate: through honest exchange and mutual agreement or by one party imposing its will on the other through force, the threat of force, or fraud. He called these the economic means and the political means.

“There are plenty of things more important than politics: your family and friends and treating them right, the search for spiritual meaning in an often confusing and ambiguous world, art, music, science, simple enjoyment of the good things in life, struggling to make good choices rather than destructive ones, and supporting your children in their intellectual endeavors and at soccer and softball games. All these challenges, however, can be handled better – not necessarily easily, but better – in an atmosphere of personal liberty and freedom to make one’s own choices than in a repressive regime that makes choices for you and forces them on you.”

Tributes to Alan Bock may be found at this site: 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bail and American Justice

In the fall of 1970, I was volunteering with the United Farmworkers Union in Delano, California.  One morning another volunteer informed me that my friend Bob had been arrested by the Delano police the night before and was being held in the Delano jail.  He had been walking home early that morning when the police picked him up and charged him with the attempted break-in of a variety store.  (I've never had any idea why they did this.)

We found out that his bail was $100.00, but being volunteers and without funds, we didn't have the money to pay it.  After visiting the bail bondsman, we needed $20.00 for a bond ($10.00 plus 10%).  After scraping this together, I went over to the Delano jail to check that they had Bob and to inform them that we were arranging bail.  This was about 11:50 am.  When I returned to the bail bondman's office, he had gone to lunch and the office was closed.   At 1:00 pm, I arranged for the bail. The bail bondsman walked over to the jail (across the street) and then returned with the news that Bob had been taken to Bakersfield, thirty miles away, and that I would have to go there to pick him up.

Although I was pretty angry at this, we drove to Bakersfield and eventually got Bob (already in his orange jail uniform).  I don't know what eventually happened in the case, but suspect that the charges were dismissed.    

What reminded me of this was the bond hearing yesterday of George Zimmerman, accused in the death of Trayvon Martin. His bond was set at $150,000.

Presumably in the United States, a person charged is innocent until proven guilty.  Unless he is a flight risk or a danger to the public, shouldn't he be released until his trial?  Why should his freedom depend on the amount of money he can raise?  In my friend's case, he was being held for the lack of $100.00 (or $20.00 bond).

The United States has more people in jail than any other country.  One of the factors in their release is the quality of defense.  Right or wrong, good lawyers get their clients off (or no jail time); with an inexperienced lawyer, the defendant is at the mercy of the prosecution.  Making the ability to pay bail another condition which advantages the wealthy (and keeps the poor in jail), also seems to compromise the idea of  "equal justice".  

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pension Perils (2)

In February, 2011, I complained here about coming changes to my BC Public Service Pension Plan.  Medical benefits were being reduced and contributions were being increased.

Today, I received my first bill from Revenue Services of British Columbia, requesting that I start paying $116.00 per month for Medical Services Plan premiums.  Until this month, $64.00 of this amount has been paid by the Pension Plan, and the MSP payment had been made through monthly pension deductions.  A number of years ago, my employer stopped paying increases in the premiums, but the residual "subsidy" had been continued.  Now the Pension Plan says that it can no longer afford to pay it.

Also beginning next month, the Pension Plan will no longer pay for Blue Cross Extended Health benefits for  member's dependents.  They rationalize by saying that the value of benefits will then be the same for all  members, regardless of spouses or other dependents.  This means an additional $48.00 per month (with a $250.00 deductible) to provide for my wife.

The reason given for the reduction in benefits is a loss to the Pension fund of $2.5 billion in 2009, as a result of the global recession.  At the time, the fund was reduced from $17.5 billion to about $14.0 billion.  Since then, it has recovered well to $18.7 billion, due to improved returns and increases from employee contributions.  I guess reducing pension benefits is about sharing the pain.

In some ways I shouldn't complain, because the Plan seems healthy.  In fact, with 36,000 retirees and another 64,000 members on their way to retirement, the Plan is ten times better funded on a per member basis than either U. S. Social Security or Canada Pension Plan, (although CPP is only a part of Canadian federal pension benefits).  The U. S. Social Security Trust Fund is due to run out of money in 2036, unless changes are made; CPP is rated as "robust" until at least 2075.  My pension plan is also more generous in its payments than Social Security or CPP.  Somewhat questionable to me is a payroll tax cut this year in the U. S., which reduces contributions to the Social Security Trust Fund.  I guess it's "pay me now or pay me later", and the U. S. is opting for "later", at least in an election year.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Kent State

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students on the Kent State campus.  Nine other students were wounded.  All were unarmed.  Some had been demonstrating against the U. S. invasion of Cambodia; others were just walking to class.  No one was ever convicted of a crime.

White House  May  9, 1970
I was living in Toronto at the time.  I borrowed Jerry Brown's van and with four other friends headed out for Washington, DC, the following Friday to participate in a demonstration being organized in protest.  We arrived in front of the White House at about 8:00 pm that night.  Buses ringed the President's home. Someone with a loudspeaker was blaring, "Fuck Richard Nixon", over and over again.  I thought it was strange that possibly the most powerful man in the world was being held a seeming captive.

Jane Fonda   May 9, 1970
The demonstration the next day (May 9, 1970) attracted about 100,000.  I remember Jane Fonda speaking.  A march through the streets was so packed that I started wondering what impact a canister of tear gas would have, feeling that we would go down like a wave and be crushed.  Fortunately, there was no panic.  Otherwise, we walked around the Washington Monument, watching the mounted police watch us.  Everything remained peaceful, as did almost all anti-war demonstrations that I ever saw.

Arriving back at the Canadian border at midnight, we were not allowed to cross, because the van had U. S. plates, and I wasn't the registered owner.  We had to wait until morning for Jerry to come down in my car and bring the van back into Canada.

I am reminded of this period by Laurel Krause, a Facebook friend, whose sister Allison was murdered by the National Guard at Kent State.  Forty years later, she is still trying to find out why her sister was shot, who gave the order, and whether it was premeditated. Recently, surviving victims and witnesses have been giving their stories as to how the events unfolded:

Of course, if you have a close family member who dies in war or domestic conflict, a parent, child, sibling, it changes your life forever.  It's not something you prepare for.  It never seems fair.  Some choose the adventure of war, the chance to be "all that you can be".  Most are just victims of its cruelty.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is taking criticism over his decision to grant pardons to over two hundred convicted persons, some of whom have committed murder.

Generally, I agree with granting pardons to people, especially those who had limited offenses, perhaps committed when they were young, and have had a period of  "good citizenship".  Of course, pardoning those who have committed premeditated murder raises other questions.  Weren't they sentenced to life?  What's the criterion for a pardon, or is it just that the Governor decides to smile on a few people?

Governor Barbour states that crimes of passion are usually one-time events and unlikely to be repeated. I wonder what the data is on this? Most of us probably haven't spent enough time around murderers to have an opinion.

My wife's nephew was a convicted murderer.  He was a heroin user, and another user was stealing from the group.  He and a friend took the guy to Stanley Park and executed him.  The Crown Counsel suggested leniency, but the judge sentenced him to fifteen years.  He spent the rest of his life in prison, dying at Matsqui Institution in his early 50's of liver disease.

Over the years I got to know Jack, as he received escorted leaves from prison and had periods at half-way houses.  Unfortunately, there is no real support for persons in his situation.  When someone gets released, they usually gravitate back to the same neighborhood, associate with the same friends.  One time he ran away from the half-way house, spending about a year living with a girl friend.  I don't think the police made much of an effort to find him, and when his girl friend's money ran out, he turned himself back in.  Of course, this extended his sentence.

Jack treated my wife well. She was one of very few who ever visited him in prison. He made her a nice lamp in the prison shop.  He was always very polite.  He once told me, "Vince, you're an accountant.  Me, I'm a criminal", as though that was a fate he couldn't escape it.  Maybe if his father hadn't died young of cancer; or if he hadn't been shuttled between foster homes as a kid; or if he hadn't been started on morphine after he injured his ankle, his life might have been different.

Hopefully, Governor Barbour's pardons will make it easier for those receiving them to find jobs and live normal lives.  The prison system doesn't seem to work in the U. S.; trying something else might.