Flirting With Disaster

My sister-in-law is a firefighter in Contra Costa County, what we call the East Bay. Her unit, like most others across California, was called in to fight the Wine Country fires to the west of her and the north of us. She texted that she’d spent two days in Santa Rosa “watching the world come to an end.” She is not prone to hyperbole.

San Francisco Skyline

Alcatraz and San Francisco from Angel Island, Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The sky this week looked and smelled downright apocalyptic. The sun cast strange apricot shadows even at midday. The San Francisco skyline was mired in haze that wasn’t fog. It looked like one of those really hideous pictures of Los Angeles shrouded in smog.

Just as someone’s passing reminds us of previous deaths, current disasters bring memories of past tragedies. For me, it’s mostly how I’ve skirted them. I remember walking out to my car in Seattle one day in 1980 and running my finger through a grimy layer of ash from Mt. St. Helens. (Coincidentally, I was on a weekend jaunt with a high school friend in southwestern Washington, not far from the volcano, the morning of the eruption; to my eternal annoyance, I didn’t hear the boom because I was in the shower.)

In 1989, I worked for a magazine whose publisher had season tickets to San Francisco Giants baseball games. In one of the sweetest gestures he ever made, he distributed his playoff and World Series tickets to the staff. That was how I happened to be at Candlestick Park the evening of the Loma Prieta earthquake. When I returned to my Palo Alto apartment, the extent of the damage was a toppled lamp.

Now out of the Wine Country comes phrases like “cluster fires” and “zero containment,” phrases we are not used to hearing. The air here in the South Bay, just 90 miles away, intermittently smells as though our next door neighbors have a fire roaring in the fireplace. Despite the cancellation of weekend hikes we’d planned, and the potential postponement of this weekend’s football games, our lives continue unabated. Yet the smell is a constant reminder of others’ lives disrupted and discombobulated – and not just this week, but for years to come, given how much the Wine Country relies on tourism. Though much of it is untouched, who wants to drive through a moonscape on vacation?

It’s not that we’re immune where we are, I know. The foothills, full of dry brush and trees, are only a few miles away. So is the San Andreas Fault, for that matter. Our time may yet come. We sit here wondering how much time we might have, what we would save, and how the heck to corral feral cats that won’t even let us pick them up into carriers. (We’ve done it before, so I’m confident we’ll figure out how to do it again.) I wrote earlier this year about my brushes with death, and wonder if others are yet to come. I sniff the acrid air, and wonder.

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The Upside of Obsessions and Compulsions

PassportObsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) doesn’t run in my family; it sprints. I once lived in an apartment with a back door leading out of the kitchen. There was a light switch both at the back door and at the doorway that lead into the living room. If I was at the door to the living room and I needed to turn out the lights, I would use the switch that would ensure that the lights were off and both toggles were down, because that was the appropriate position for off … even if it meant crossing to the back door to do it. That, my friends, is OCD at its best.

You would have thought that retirement would have relaxed me a bit. Oh, so not true. Ever since the moment two years ago when a United ticket agent at the Buenos Aires Airport regretfully informed me that my reservations were for the following evening’s flight, I’ve tried to be very careful. I appreciate airlines and hotels pinging me 24 hours before my travels, notifying me that it’s time to check-in, but it doesn’t help. Even knowing that my boarding pass is on my phone doesn’t calm me down.

I don’t know why travel puts in me in such a tizzy. It may date back to the time I landed in the Cayman Islands as a wholly dysfunctional travel editor, only to find that the tourist office had forgotten I was coming. No one was there to pick me up, and I had no idea where I was supposed to be staying. If not for the Cayman Airways employee who was far calmer than I was, I’m not sure what I would have done. Several years ago, preparing to fly to Vancouver for an Alaska cruise, I dutifully put our chosen flight into my calendar but neglected to call the airline to make reservations. That was fun when I realized my mistake (but we did get to fly to Vancouver first class, since those were the only seats available).

So until I have my butt in the seat of the aircraft, I worry. I worry about having an accident on the way to the airport. I worry about other people having an accident on the way to the airport, and creating a traffic tie-up. I worry about security lines, even though, as a TSA Pre member, I rarely see one. I worry about my seat being double-booked.

As we began on our recent jaunt to England, the car service was taking us to San Francisco International Airport, with plenty of time to catch our flight, even though we were leaving on the front edge of rush hour. First I dug my phone out of my carry-on to make sure that the flight was really departing at the time when I thought it was. It was, and I put the phone back.

Then I checked to see if the passports and our Global Entry cards were still in my carry-on, even though I’d shown them to my wife before we left the house. This is a condition of actually leaving the house, the confirmation by two parties that we have our documentation. (In database technology and distributed systems, this is known as a two-phase commit; I don’t know what it’s called in the real world, but it’s really, really important.)

Then I dug my phone out of my carry-on again to make sure the flight was really departing that day, and not the following day (or worse, the previous day). It was, and I put the phone back.

Each time I chastised myself for being such a worry-wart … right up until the moment we got to the check-in counter in the international terminal at the airport, where I was vindicated. In front of us was a couple frantically arguing in a foreign language. As near as I could tell, based on what the husband said to the ticket agent, his wife had left her passport at home. Given the rush hour traffic, there was no way she could get home and back without missing their flight to Taipei. Who the hell leaves home for a flight to China without making sure they have their passport? Clearly, these two had never heard of a two-phase commit.

Call it karma, call it kismet, call it whatever you want … I felt better about my OCD right then and there.

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Welcome To Code Blue

It’s time for the change of seasons, but instead of moving from summer to fall, when the leaves shift from green to amber, we’re shifting from scandal fatigue to disaster fatigue. For those of you keeping track at home, there are record-high temperatures and fires in the west; hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean; and earthquakes in Mexico. Fox News is reporting that locusts are on direct approach to the Midwest, but that may be more appropriately be spelled Faux News (still pronounced the same way).

What this brings to mind is nothing more than Patient Earth approaching terminal status. It started with increasing temperatures (fever) and is manifesting itself in sweats (flooding), shivers (earthquakes), and severe burning sensations (fires). If I didn’t know better, I would think that the earth is doing its level best to divest itself of these parasites it calls humans. Like any body under attack from overdevelopment and undernourishment, it’s fighting back the only way it knows how.

Like an aging smoker and overeater, the Earth is no doubt feeling its arteries clogged with plastic and its lungs clogged with pollutants. Does it sense that specific parasites – identified by scientists as Trumpium and Pruitticium – are working to exacerbate these maladies? The patient has been feeling so good for so many decades – less pollution, no more lakes catching on fire, more recycling – that it’s probably wondering why things are suddenly taking a turn for the worse. It’s not age-related, because the earth has been around too long for that. No, these are external maladies. No wonder the patient is working so hard to eradicate the cause of its discomfort.

The only question that remains is whether we’ll come up with ways to minimize the symptoms (oh, say, like not paving over a city built on a bayou so that it actually has some drainage capabilities when a hurricane hits, or not warming the oceans so much that melting polar ice caps start drowning people). If we’re not part of the cure, we’re surely doomed to be the disease.


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Nonsense and Sensibility, Public Sector Division

As a liberal, I’m still trying to figure out what happened last November. I don’t want to be one of those people who repeats the past because they forgot what happened. What happened, of course, was this: almost 63 million people preferred a misogynistic, ethically challenged, inexperienced braggart to a seasoned politician.

Think about what that really means. Hillary Clinton had her drawbacks, no doubt, and for many of us, they paled in comparison to Trump’s.  Yet tens of millions of people trusted someone with no experience in government over someone with years of experience in government.

This wasn’t solely just a factor in the presidential election. Republicans have a majority in the Senate and in the House. Just a few short years after many of us thought changing American demographics would doom the Republican party, or at least severely minimize its effectiveness, they’re in charge – dominantly. I’m trying to figure this out.

Of course, I have a theory. I wouldn’t be writing about this if I didn’t. It comes down, as the Republicans love pointing out, to one thing: money. Citizens don’t trust the government to do what it’s supposed to do. As I’ve said many times before, it’s not a question of big government or small government; it’s a question of efficient government. And citizens don’t see that – probably because it’s not there. The government spends billions on homelessness – and there are still homeless. The governments spends billions on law enforcement – and there’s still crime. The government spends billions on transportation – and there’s still gridlock.

Even a liberal like myself can easily come up with examples of how the local, regional, and state governments routinely misuse my money.

Item: One Saturday in our cul-de-sac, a tree branch fell. SIX city workers showed up to analyze and rectify the situation, all of them probably on overtime. The branch needed no more than two people to deal with it.

Item: Several years ago, the county spent billions of dollars building a light-rail transportation system – except it didn’t go to the airport; it was deemed too expensive. No one remembers the part about the money now – they only know that they have a public transportation system that doesn’t work vert well.

Item: Just this weekend, we were on a state highway and saw a caution sign reading, “Left lane closed ahead,” following by one communicating the same sentiment graphically. There was no lane closed. The road workers had either forgotten or were too lazy to remove the signs, which caused a slowdown while drivers prepared for the imaginary merge.

All of these are just everyday, ongoing reminders that government (like corporations) are really only out for themselves. If you had a contractor who’d bungled a job and then came back and asked for more money, you’d throw him out on his ear. And that essentially is what American citizens have done. They’ve looked at the Democrats and decided that the party has never seen a government program it didn’t like. They’ve concluded that because the extant government programs don’t seem to serve the public, there’s no reason to believe that any new ones will. So they’ve turned to the party which – even though it has some rather bizarre and contradictory notions about things like say, keeping the government out of private lives and outlawing abortion, which is as private as it gets – promises to save them money.

What’s the answer? In my mind, it’s for government has to stop acting fat and sassy and start being more productive. Start serving its constituents first. I’m not saying it should be run as a business – that’s not possible. I don’t want to have to call the police department the same way I call United Airlines, with my credit card handy. Governments need to be more accountable. They need to start explaining a little more clearly what they’re doing, why we’re doing it, what it costs, and show some tangible evidence that yes, they’re actually trying to budget and disperse taxpayers’ money as if it were our own.

That is the only way liberals can overcome anything the Republicans throw at us, from gerrymandering to voter restrictions or anything else. We have to create something that runs so well, people stop noticing it, like a great movie soundtrack. Then and only then will citizens stop listening to the people who want to starve government and start listening to the people who want government to be a healthy contributor to everyday life.

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Who Paved The Way For Donald Trump?

There’s nothing like finding an old movie that just reeks of prescience. The most prominent example is Network (1976), which not only imagined more than three television networks, but the idea of combining news and entertainment. My favorite, however, is an HBO movie about the 2008 election called Game Change. (Though it takes its name from the book by political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the movie actually only focuses on the Palin campaign; don’t buy it thinking you’ll get a more in-depth version of the movie.)

The movie is most well-known for Julianne Moore’s Emmy-winning performance as Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. But every time I watch it, it becomes clearer to me: That election was really the precursor of the groundswell that became the Donald Trump presidency – that is, the election of someone whose charisma exceeded his capability. Even Obama himself presaged Trump. On one of his campaign stops, he said, “You understand that in this election the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result.”

But what’s glaring is the comparisons between the candidates in 2008 and the one who was elected in 2016. As political consultant Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) says in the movie about Obama, “A man of no accomplishment has become the biggest celebrity in the world. What we need to do is ask the American people a very simple question: do you want a statesman to be your next president, or do you want a celebrity?”

But who did the Republicans select for the vice-presidency but someone who could bring that kind of celebrity to their campaign? Schmidt frequently refers to Palin as a “star,” “a red-light performer” (as in, when the camera comes on, so does she), and “the best actress in American politics.”

Even though the ticket lost, it’s no surprise that the incipient desires that gave us Sarah Palin kept bubbling up and gave us someone who is – as Palin is portrayed in the movie – unqualified, emotionally unstable, and plays fast and loose with the truth. 2008 was just the dress rehearsal for 2016.

Item: CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said about her intelligence: “It’s not that she doesn’t know the right answer. It’s that she clearly doesn’t understand the question. This is way beyond anything we have seen from a national candidate.”

Item: During an exchange between Palin and a reporter when he asks her about Troopergate, she says, “I was thrilled to be cleared of all wrongdoing,” to which Schmidt later says, “You can’t say that, because you weren’t! You’ve got to stop saying things to the press that are blatantly untrue.”

Item: This quote from John McCain (played by Ed Harris): “There is a dark side to American populism. Some people win elections by tapping into it.”

Do those statements remind you of anyone?

Keep in mind that this movie was released in 2012. Donald Trump didn’t announce his candidacy until 2015. But the movie foretold the future best when Schmidt, knowing the Republicans had lost the election, lamented, “This wasn’t a campaign. It was a bad reality show.”




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Dave FlackIt’s funny how things turn out.

Back when I had first entered technology publishing, in the 80s, I was hired for a job for a very specific reason: the editor-in-chief hated talking to vendors. Unfortunately, talking to vendors is part of the landscape of technology publishing, because the publisher always wants vendors to turn into advertisers.

This editor, whose name was Dave Flack (left), had a brainstorm: why not hire an editor whose job it was to talk to vendors? Voila, the products editor, and not long afterwards, voila, me. Products became my raison d’etre. I contributed monthly on a new single product; a round-up of traditional products; and listings of new products. I also wrote the occasional product feature.

For the round-ups, I covered the incredibly prosaic: uninterruptible power supplies, disk drives, Ethernet boards (yes, there used to be something called Ethernet boards). And in the new products section, because I was making the publisher so happy, Dave pretty much let me do almost anything I liked. That was how the new products listings ended up with descriptors like this:

Forget Your Troubles, C’mon Get HLLAPI [an IBM terminal emulation protocol]
Send in the Clones [PCs running Unix]
Driving Miss ESDI [a Maxtor disk-drive interface]
Acceleraiders of the Lost Ark [technology to speed up processors]
Yes, Sir, DAT’s My Baby [digital audio tape drives]
Hi-Ho, The Merry-O, The Unix in the Dell [Dell’s first PC running Unix]
It SIMMs We’ve Met Before [optional plug-in memory]

Dave probably thought he was banishing me to the third level of hell, but I thrived on that job. For someone who had only recently gotten into technology, it was like getting a master’s degree in every single component that not only went into a computer, but into a computer network. I wrote about stuff that most people never had a chance to delve into.

But our relationship was more than professional. Dave, as a recovering alcoholic, helped me in numerous ways as I was dealing with my own co-dependent recovery. I had a deep fear of speaking in public, and was horrified one day when he asked me to represent the publication on a conference panel. “What if they ask me a question I can’t answer?” I gasped. “Like what?” he said, in that calm, annoying Socratic voice of his. “I don’t know!” I fairly shrieked. “Well,” he replied, “there’s your answer.”

Ours was not a perfect relationship. When the executive editor resigned, I naturally and arrogantly assumed that I would be the logical person to take over the position. Neither Dave nor the publisher agreed with that assessment, and they hired someone with a background in newspaper publishing. When the newspaper guy left for a tech publishing start-up, I was once again passed over for the job – except the newspaper guy soon called me and asked if I wanted to bring all that product expertise I’d gained to his new publication.

In his desire to avoid vendors, Dave had inadvertently given me the foundation for an amazing career in technology publishing. At any subsequent job interview, when someone asked if I’d written about a particular product, I could say, hell, yes. I owe Dave Flack all that.

And so Dave and I remained friends. He and his wife even eventually joined my church, and we enjoyed a new phase of interaction. Last year we toasted their 50th wedding anniversary. By then, we had known each other almost thirty years.

But the problem with being this age is that sometimes the happily-ever-afters go awry. Dave died today after a bout with pneumonia. I sit here enjoying a fantastic retirement, its roots nurtured by far more people than just that ambitious, arrogant products editor of so many years ago. I sit here basking in the afternoon sunshine, in great part because Dave Flack needed someone to talk to vendors. And I was lucky enough for me to be that someone, and for me to be his friend forever after.

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The Strangest Place I’ve Ever Been

Sometimes I write about travel. Sometimes I write about politics. Sometimes I have the unique opportunity to combine the two.

Last month we took a National Geographic tour of Cuba. We wanted to get there before Havana turned into Miami. Somehow, that seems unlikely. Cuba is a very strange place unto itself, and highly resistant to change.

The closest metaphor I can offer for Cuba is one that Kurt Vonnegut created in Slaughterhouse Five: the precept of being “unstuck in time.” Vonnegut’s hero, Billy Pilgrim, if you remember, finds himself sliding between World War II, present day, and a future in space. That’s Cuba, and more.

Like most places in the western hemisphere, Cuba has a territorial history. Spanish explorers came in, decimated the indigenous peoples, and colonized away. Sit down in the central square of the city of Trinidad, close your ears to the car motors, and you could imagine being back in the 19th century.

Or sit down in Parque Central in Havana and open your eyes and ears to a different century. Swirling around you on the streets are the vaunted output of 1950s Detroit in a rainbow of original and not-so-original colors. IMG_1255As Jimmy Buffett sang, “you’ve got fins to the left and fins to the right.” It was like the streets of my childhood.

Except that interspersed between those American behemoths are a remarkable number of AvtoVAZ-built Ladas from Russia, representing the halcyon days in the 1980s wheIMG_1039n the Soviet Union was Cuba’s primary trading partner and responsible for bolstering its economy. And then there are the Transtur buses everywhere. These are the state-owned buses that transport the new influx of tourists everywhere. That’s the 21st century sliding by. They all combine to create some sort of weird time-travel confusion like the scene in Ghostbusters where the Titanic disgorges its passengers.

There are other reasons why Cuba struck me as strange. For one thing, the people are very happy there. Even the ones who have the ability to occasionally jump the straits and shop in the Florida hardware stores dutifully come back. They love their free health care and education. They ignore the fact that their infrastructure is crumbling around them; you walk past buildings in downtown Havana, look up, and see there are no roofs there. IMG_0962They are not willing to forego the advantages of their socialist system for the disadvantages.

To my mind, they’ve been brainwashed, both about their own government and ours. In America, they’re told, there are gangs and lawyers. The gangs hurt you illegally and the lawyers hurt you legally. Question: if there’s no crime in Cuba, why are there chain-link fences in front of so many houses and bars on so many windows? There may be no violent crime in Cuba, but that’s what happens when only the police and the military are allowed to carry guns. Any dictator can keep you safe, if that’s the kind of safety you want. As much as I’m in favor of gun control, I also believe there really is a reason for the Second Amendment in the Constitution.

The much-repeated response about crime is only one facet of the intellectual dishonesty that seems rife among Cubans. They love their government, but they’re frequently looking for ways to subvert it. There’s a saying: “Cubans always find a way.” If you think American ingenuity is something, try Cuban ingenuity. Those finned American wonders only run today because of a whole lot of finagling and jury-rigging. It’s a wonder they run at all. When we toured a cigar factory, the workers closest to the tourists had the advantage of offering us boxes for sale, but only when the supervisors weren’t watching.

If the American government really wanted to screw the Cuban government, it would lift the embargo tomorrow. But as long as the Cuban government can tell its citizens that it can’t serve their needs because the Americans won’t lift the longtime embargo, it’s safe. Without the scapegoat of the embargo, I suspect Cubans would begin to see that it’s their government that’s causing most of the citizens’ problems. Only one Cuban was willing to speak the truth about the socialist political system, and even then only sideways: “Without ownership, there is no honor.”

The greatest irony of the trip – given that we wanted to go before Havana turned into Miami – was that before our flight back to San Francisco, there was no water in the Miami Airport for five hours. No flushing toilets, no coffee, nothing. There were a lot of people trying to fix it, many of them speaking Spanish. So while it seems doubtful that Havana will become more like Miami anytime soon, it seems that Miami is already becoming more like Havana.



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