The Daily 750

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Philip Roth: Fact and Fiction

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Saturday musing. The Upper Left Edge was under a high-wind warning from 9pm last night to 8am this morning but the winds never arrived.

Sometime in the 1980s I all but quit reading fiction because there was so much I needed to learn -- history and current political events, mostly. Now that I no longer keep company with senior government officials and scholars in America, Europe and the former Soviet Union, I find I have more time for a good story in print. For that I know I can count on Philip Roth.

In his latest, The Plot Against America, aviation hero Charles Lindbergh has defeated Franklin Roosevelt's attempt to win a third term as president and is making peace pacts with Hitler and Hirohito, causing much alarm to American Jews, including one particular family in Newark, New Jersey.

For Roth, the details matter. When describing a character or a place once sentences alone can tell entire stories. Here's a random example, from page 45 of the hardback:
Alvin was twenty-one in 1940, renting a furnished room upstairs from a Wright Street shoeshine parlor just around the corner from the produce market, and by then, working almost two years for Steinhem & Sons, one of the city's two biggest Jewish construction firms -- the other was run by the Rachlin brothers.
I'm guessing that not once again will Roth mention Wright Street, the shoeshine parlor, the produce market, Steinhem & Sons or the Rachlin Brothers. But all those places and people are now in my head, creating the Newark of the narrator.

Fact and fiction. Perfect.

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Hold the Pickle: Harriet Miers' Nomination

Friday, October 14, 2005

A Radical Centrist always enjoys a meeting of the Left and Right, as with the controversy over Harriet Miers’ nomination to the SCOTUS. I oppose Harriet Miers' nomination and can add nothing to the debate. If you’re curious, you can find me standing over there with those folks who abhor cronyism and value competence in Presidential appointments. One hopes that by the time a person can launch a respectable run for President of the United States, the candidate is friendly with a good many very smart people who have the competence and will to carry out their ideas and who will follow their President to Washington. But no one has enough friends to cover all the bases. It’s fine for, say, a movie director to work with his pals, but I can’t imagine a situation in which the movie fails and it affects me. When government fails, I can be in a pickle.

Oregon’s AFL-CIO president of the past six years is resigning to look for work with national unions. (Doesn’t he know it’s easier to find a job when you have a job? And if he were really any good, wouldn’t he already have been courted by a national organization? But nevermind.) He says, “The more you probe for answers at the local level, the more it leads to questions at the national and global level.” True enough, and the same thing can be said in reverse: The more you probe for answers at the national and global level, the more it leads to questions at the local level, where we all get our beginnings and most have their end.

The judges and the district attorney of our county have been lobbying for several years for the state to provide funding for a third Circuit Court judge. Names were immediately floated as candidates in the May 2006 election, including the husband of one of the sitting judges. The man is a good civil lawyer and generally the brightest head at the city council table, where he serves as a councilperson. But unless his wife is going to resign, I hope he will not consider running. How could it possibly be good for one county of 30,000 people to have two of their three judges literally in bed together?

In communities of any size it’s likely that a judge’s friends in the defense bar are representing the criminal defendants, simply because many more judges are appointed from private practice than from the prosecutor’s office. In smaller communities those attorneys often represent clients who are neighbors of the judge, or children and friends of neighbors.

My objection to the councilor's potential candidacy isn't based on a stereotype of a husband and wife who aren't independent thinkers. A few years ago I wanted to moderate a panel and town hall on public safety issues for our public radio station. The station manager wouldn’t allow it because I am the wife of an elected public safety official. The station manager at the time was a very independent woman who completely understands that a woman can love, like and respect her partner without sharing all of her partner’s philosophical ideas, even on big issues. Still, she was concerned about the perception of my ojbectivity within the community at large – and as the manager of a community radio station she had her point, even if I was the most qualified person she knew for the job.

We invest much more trust in and expect quite a bit more from our judges (or at least we should). They’re human too, after all. What to do when your neighbor’s 20-year-old son, who babysat for your kids before he went off to college, gets drunk one night during Christmas break and severely injures another motorist in an automobile accident? Oh yeah, and the neighbor is the long-time, honored mayor. Stand ground and refuse to give the son some sort of break and you live with the wrath of your neighbor and his many friends whom you run into daily – at the grocery store, at the movie theater, at the high school football game. You may have to stop going to your two favorite restaurants (in a town with maybe five good ones) because they’re individually owned by the mayor’s friends. Too much pressure.

Supreme Court cases begin right down the street at your local courthouse. Not all states allow for the election of judges, but if yours does it’s worthwhile finding out who stands for what (otherwise, vet your governor who will do the appointing) and to elect competent, independent minds. Judges come in all persuasions at all levels, from SCOTUS to traffic court, and the society we live in is in great part designed by the philosophies they hold and the guts they have to stand by them.

It’s tempting to say that small towns have bigger problems with cronyism, but the nomination of Harriet Miers and the appointment of Michael Brown as FEMA director prove that so obviously untrue. Maybe it’s more a problem of small minds.

PS: About yesterday’s essay, two readers wrote that they didn’t know who Warren Tare was but he sounded interesting. Another thought I meant "wear and tear." The entire essay was, then, a “failed experiment”, as my friend the newspaper editor kindly said. Warren Tare is meant to be a play on the phrase “war on terror,” pronounced the way Bush tends to say it. I'll have to do some work on it, maybe change the spelling of the name a bit. I'm determined to bring Warren to life. Among other things, he's the entertainment at our next party: We'll play a version of "To Tell the Truth" with him as the guest.

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LNG: The Warrenton Vote

Last night, Warrenton's planning commission voted 4-3 to recommend to the City Council that it rezone 40 acres of shoreland as I-2, for industrial use, for the Calpine LNG facility.

Opposing the decision were chair Gillian Maggert, Colleen Keenan and Barry Smith. Voting in favor of the rezoning recommendation were Steve Hawks, Chris Hayward, Tommy Johnson and Vince Williams. Hawks is quoted as saying, "Otherwise, we're going to have a bunch of retirees and a bunch of people pumping their gas."

Well, there are a growing number of more palatable alternatives. One example: Dr. Sonny Park and his partner (and nurse and wife) Mary are days away from breaking ground on a second medical building. This one will be twice as big as the one they built four or five years ago, providing jobs for perhaps 15 doctors and more than 60 nurses, technicians, and assistants. The facility is likely to outlast any industrial plant and has none of the associated problems. Indeed, the building will be a nice addition to the area, replacing a large patch of weeds and a quonset hut that once housed a business. Many of the jobs can be filled by local residents as soon as they are available; parents can look forward to their children return to the coast as doctors or nurses or medical technicians. Taxes, granted a three-year deferral, will kick in and begin contributing to the county years before Calpine gets its final permit to begin construction.

I shake my head. The planning commission's recommendation requires the approval of ODOT and the Dept of Land Conservation and Development, neither of whom have yet to receive the required information from Calpine. ODOT, according to the Daily Astorian's report, "specifically asked the commision to continue the hearing until another date when ODOT had signed off." Citizen opposition at the meeting ran more than two to one against the recommendation.

Once again, the first concern of opponents appears to have been a terrorist attack. Can we please stop talking about this exceedingly low possibility and start talking about the actual problems and challenges, including these, listed at the end of the Daily A's report.

The lack of an outside expert to evaluate the costs and benefits or safety reports from the police and fire chiefs;

The federal government’s ability to regulate LNG terminals;

Decreases in public enjoyment of the Skipanon Peninsula;

Interference with fishing vessels and cruise ships;

Decline in housing values;

Cost of security for the plant;

The location of the pipeline that would transport LNG to Portland and effects on landowners;

Three years of construction traffic;

Air and water pollution;

Problems for the estuary.

Resident Peter Huhtala said Calpine has never built or operated an LNG terminal, and several people questioned Calpine’s financial status, the possibility it would sell the land to another energy company and its general trustworthiness.

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Warren Tare: Man With A Thousand Faces

Thursday, October 13, 2005

[note: Warren Tare's name is pronounced the way Bush pronounces "war on terror."]

Notice in the job site
Warren Tare: Man With a Thousand Faces
Immediate availability
Will relocate worldwide
International and local projects
Fluent in all languages
Salary negotiable (pro-bono accepted)

Yesterday I rambled on about roses not always smelling so sweet and how a name is not just a name. The roses – the gardening – made me think of Warren Tare. I’d put Warren Tare in the rampant weed category. With a bit of tough, consistent work you can get rid of him for a while, but he’ll continue to pop up in unexpected places.

This morning I googled Warren’s name and was shocked, frankly, to find a current “Job Wanted” posting. Warren Tare has a strong and continuing relationship with the Bush administration, along with consultancies in several other countries and cities. His most recent work was highly profiled in New York City, where he spent several days advising Mayor Bloomberg, the NYPD and the New York Transit Department on issues regarding subway travel and personal belongings.

Warren Tare is a frequent visitor to the Upper Left Edge, as an advisor to the committees who are opposed to the siting of a liquefied natural gas facility along the Lower Columbia River. In fact, Warren Tare gets the bulk of the credit for illuminating the dangers an LNG facility presents to a community, particular in terms of the damage and deaths acts of sabotage might cause. This is an excellent example of Warren’s ability to work both sides of an issue. I’ve heard Warren Tare dismissed with great disgust as something of a flim-flam artist by many of the same people who have now hired him for their cause, but on this issue they have given him great credence.

I’m of two minds about Warren Tare myself. There’s no denying that he possesses a number of excellent and necessary talents. Think of his early work in Afghanistan, for example. He has simply gone too far. He’s everywhere. I except him to show up here at the house this weekend, just as my husband is getting dressed to clean out the basement. Doorbell will ring, I’ll hear footsteps and some low talk in the foyer, and the next thing I’ll hear is, “Honey, gotta put the basement off. Warren Tare’s here.”

And when he’s not just showing up, people are calling on Warren Tare for absolutely everything. He’s the palliative singing of kumbaya and the new Hitler all in one. Got a problem you can’t handle in, say, Louisiana? Call on Warren Tare. Think your boss is an idiot? Focuses on his best friend Warren Tare’s excesses and others might too.

I weary of the simplistic invocation of Warren Tare’s name and I think his work here is little more than a diversion. It certainly seems highly unlikely that the Upper Left Edge is ever going to be high on his list of priorities. Still, people get all excited about preparing for Warren Tare’s next visit and don’t pay enough attention to everyday challenges.

I guess we’re no more going to be rid of Warren Tare than we are of Donald Trump. Just be on the lookout in your own neighborhood. Once he gets in, he's hard to control.

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LNG: The Hermiston Plant

In 2002 Calpine opened a 600-megawatt, natural-gas fired power plant in Hermiston, Oregon. (Six hundred megawatts would power 600,000 customers every day.) The plant sells power into the Pacific Northwest and California and has tremendous support within at least some sectors of the community, with the Chamber of Commerce nominating it for a Governor's Gold Award in 2003 based on its community support activities.

The industrial culture in Hermiston is not like Astoria's. For one thing, there actually is an industrial culture. The new Calpine plant was built adjacent to a 450-watt PG&E plant; the Umatilla Indian Tribe is also seeking to build another plant in Hermiston, and there is little local opposition.

Others have written elsewhere about this plant and the workforce with which it was built. What caught my interest were the amendments to the site certificates requested and granted after both the Calpine facility and the adjacent PG&E facility were in operation.

I wonder: Is there anybody in the Lower Columbia who knows enough about LNG facilities to anticipate post-operational amendments and ask questions about them?

Here are the summaries of some of the amendments, copied directly from the Oregon Energy Facility Siting announcement site.

"The Council approved Amendment #5 of the site certificate for the Hermistion Generating Project. The amendment would allow the facility to build a pipeline and discharge wastewater that comes from the cooling tower blow-down and clarifier draw-down ("reclaimed wastewater") directly to Madison Farms."

"At its meeting on September 27, 2005, the Council approved a request by the Hermiston Power Partnership for Amendment #5 to the site certificate for the Hermiston Power Project (HPP). The amendment would reduces the amount of financial assurance funds necessary to restore the HPP site to a useful, non-hazardous condition when the facility is retired."

"The Council approved Amendment #4 of the site certificate for the Hermiston Power Project. The amendment allows the use of duct burning to increase the power output of the facility. It also allows an increase in water use and a change in the route of the transmission line."

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What's In A Name: Sandia Laboratories

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Juliet: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet."
Romeo: "I take thee at thy word."
Romeo and Juliet

So romantic. Such a load of bull from a cute girl. And he fell for it! And look what happened!

Anyone who has ever grown roses know that some smell sweet and some smell not at all. You can't just drive over to the nursery, buy the bush with the prettiest flower on the label, plant it in your backyard and expect it to come up smelling sweet next spring. You've got to do a little homework to find out which roses smell, and whether they smell sweet or citrusy or like cloves or vanilla or tobacco. And if you want Teleflora to send a sweet-smelling bouquet to your Sugarplum, you’d better send Oriental lilies because the long-stemmed roses florists sell have been bred for their long stems and tight buds, which seems to have wiped out any ability for the plants to produce any smell at all. Take a deep whiff of a florist’s rose and you’ll smell the truck they were delivered in.

Oh well. Juliet was only 14 and Romeo was, by all accounts, the Sexiest Man Alive in 1594. And a rose might in fact have been a rose back then.

Out here on the farthest reaches of the Upper Left Edge, a corporation and its citizen supporters have in mind to plant a liquefied natural gas facility, a general picture of which you can find here, on land that is currently home to blue herons, wild Chinook and Coho salmon, and passing sea lions. The first and most oft-repeated objection to this facility is that it could be subject to terrorist attack or accident that would blow up the facility up and atomize or at least singe half the Upper Left Edge. Not the best argument because it is about as likely as your dying from the next aspirin you take.

Not to bore you with too many facts, but let’s have just a few. LNG facilities (currently about 60 terminals and 150 ships) have been in operation for 40 years. In that time there have been over 80,000 carrier voyages, resulting in a total of 15 marine incidents, seven of them resulting in rather small spillage of LNG. There have been five facility accidents, none of them causing damage beyond the facility itself. And do ya think Osama bin Laden even knows where the Upper Left Edge is? I’m not worried. My complaints are limited to lighting, zoning, financial capabilities, future operations and other mundane details.

But here’s my beef for today. Supporters of the facility wave off this concern by this constant phrase: “I don’t know much about it but the very excellent” – adopt a deeper, magisterial tone now – “SANDIA LABORATORY study” – return to normal voice – “states that the risks are very minimal and could be reduced even further.”

Oooo, San-dee-ahhh. Feel the power in the very word itself.

Alright then, what is Sandia Laboratory. Anybody?

Actually, there are two Sandias, one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and one in Livermore, California. The labs are what is known in Washington, DC as a GOCO: a government-owned, contractor-operated company. The contractor is Lockheed-Martin, an advanced technologies corporation providing products and services in aeronautics, space systems, and information technology (including energy services). The government agency is the Department of Energy, whose last two secretaries, Spencer Abraham and (currently) Samuel Bodman, have put out a worldwide call to action to “get new terminals up and running, to develop new fields around the globe, and to come together in partnership on mutually beneficial, long-term agreements.”

Is it possible that Sandia is not a completely independent source of information? And anyway, the facility didn’t write the report. The report was written by individual employees and is only as reliable as the people who wrote it. (Not to mention: the group studied the impact of LNG spills over water, saying little or nothing about on-land facilities. But that's another essay.) If you’ve ever held a job in a large company you know that your company employees some smart people and some not-so-smart people, and that the most dangerous of them all are the people who are very smart and have a very definite agenda.

How often have you heard someone say “The New York Times said” blah-blah-blah, as if it must be right if it was written in those hallowed pages. Once again, the building didn’t write the story. A reporter wrote the story. Anything the Times’ foreign correspondent John Burns writes from the Middle East or Europe I believe, because I worked foreign policy for those areas for over two decades, I’ve been reading his reports for about that long, and I have found him to have nearly impeccable integrity.

Not so everyone else. On a subject on which I have in-depth, behind-the-scenes knowledge, I’ve found that most reporters have the story about 60 percent right – enough for me to take an ideological and somewhat emotional stand on the issue but not enough for a principled, informed decision.

It's easy to define worst-case scenarios, easier to fund studies about them, even easier to scare people with them, and easier still to invoke the study as a means of calming the masses. (It may be no coincidence that the local voice of the LNG company is a former preacher.) The devil is in the details, and for those we have yet to see anything.

I have no more ability to judge the reliability of the information provided in the Sandia report than I do to judge the reliability of the latest newspaper article on stem cell research or the politics of Zambia. I hope first that explosions will not consume the time and energy we need for the more mundane concerns I listed earlier. And that when safety and security are considered, we will all remember that there is much in a name.

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What Would Gen O Say? Why Liberals Can't Make a Case

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My friend David is 54 and used to call me and argue politics once or twice a week. His knowledge is more than headline depth and usually includes a number of facts and some syntheses that I hadn’t retained or seen, and he’s a dedicated liberal. I mean that his arguments regularly begin with a bash of Bush and other unnamed “right-wing religious conservatives”; that about halfway through Karl Rove is revealed as the evil mastermind of America and any country that might be a friend of America’s; and in the end there’s so much spin I feel the room revolving.

Our conversations are lively and envigorating. Sometimes I'll put off a walk until I've recovered from them. They remind of my old foreign policy days, some of them spent reading Communist propaganda. The Commies were terrific at hooking citizens into their stories with modest proposals and moderate language, waiting several pages before taking a hard left turn, then returning to moderate language as if nothing had happened.

Where do you think Orwell got his best ideas.

Lately, David has started quoting his son Emmett. Emmett is 15 and the product of Los Angeles private schools and entertainment industry parents, both smart, voracious readers and one of them a writer. Emmett is bright. Maybe very, very bright. He talks fast, like everyone of his generation. (Empirical evidence leads me to believe that SciFi writers who portray advanced civilizations as needing no words to communicate have gotten it right. Whole conversations are now reduced to: “And he was like, you know, and I went like, whatever. Know what I’m sayin’?”

Emmett’s agile young brain, so far as we know not yet polluted by booze, drugs, cigarettes or sex, retains everything. It’s hard to have a conversation with him because either he knows everything and you can’t get a word in edgewise, or he’s totally uninterested and walks off. Emmett’s into politics.

According to David, Emmett’s been reading George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, a 500-page text in which the professor of cognitive science at Berkeley tries to explain the “unconscious worldviews” of liberals and conservatives. Tedious. No wonder he wrote a shorter, perkier version – except for the title -- Don't Think Of An Elephant!/ How Democrats And Progressives Can Win: Know Your Values And Frame The Debate: The Essential Guide For Progressives.

Lakoff uses models of Conservative and Liberal parenting as the premiere example that meets his three “adequacy conditions” for valid comparison. I am neither parent, conservative nor liberal, so I am left to wonder if it's really possible to pigeonhole parents in such a way. It seems he doesn't think it's possible either, since the main qualities that he ascribes to both he goes on to say are vital to the other worldview as well.

Lakoff’s most interesting and important concept is this:

“If this analysis is right, or even close to right, then a great deal follows. Liberals do not understand what unifies their own worldview and so are helpless to deal effectively with conservatism. Not only is there no unified liberal political structure, but there is no overall effective liberal rhetoric to counter the carefully constructed conservative rhetoric. Where conservatives have carefully coined terms and images and repeated them until they have entered the popular lexicon, liberals have not done the same. Liberals need to go beyond coalitions of interest groups to consciously construct a unified language and imagery to convey their worldview. This will not be easy, and they are 30 years behind.”

So I wrote my friend David and asked if he had read Lakoff and what did he think of Lakoff’s parental example. I asked if Lakoff went on to explain WHY liberals don’t “understand what unifies their worldview” or offers explanations about how they might come to such an understanding.

David referred me to Emmett.

Lakoff’s premise is that the Conservative model values parental authority over all else; while the Liberal model emphasizes the child’s own values. Now, I don’t mind being shunted off to have a conversation with a fast-talking, fact-filled, scholarly 15-year-old. I like Emmett. He was my best friend until he turned 11 or 12 and stopped having adults as best friends. But could it be that one reason why liberals are having such a hard time stating their case is because they’re leaving it to their children?