Category Archives: Politics

Dummies history

I slagged European History for Dummies a little bit in my last post. In their defense, I offer this quote from the end of a section on the Holocaust.

Don’t forget that thousands of ordinary people were involved. The cattle wagons the prisoners were loaded into had to be booked with the railway companies, firms were contracted to supply the barbed wire or the gas chambers or the ovens. People filled in order forms for gas crystals, or simply delivered the guards’ beer, food, and cigarettes. All these people played their part in helping one of the greatest crimes in history to happen.

European history

Wilfried’s able leadership of our tour of Germany last month whetted my appetite for more of the story of how things got to be the way they are. In short, the history of Germany.

I found a book at the library called The Concise History of Germany which was ok but filled with a lot of big words. I’ve got nothing against big words except when they are used to obfuscate. When I started swimming in sentences 20 or more words long, I gave up on it.

Again at the library: European History for Dummies. OK, better. Not so many big words plus short sentences. I’ve made it through almost to the end. Honestly, it’s pretty depressing. I get that the history of human affairs is largely about control of one group by another and that that is usually accomplished by violence. The Dummies brand of books is designed to go over a subject in a breezy, often humorous, tone. It’s exactly what I was looking for, actually.

But having such a litany of violent things set in front of you in such a lighthearted way is weird. I’ve had the book at my breakfast table and thus read it in 15 or 20 minute chunks. Sometimes, I stay at the table for a few extra minutes but more often I have to just walk away from it. Will we never learn?

I’m sure there are many books out there about this subject – repeating the cycle of violence, not history per se – so I’m not sitting here thinking I’m going to find some solution. Humans are pissers, whether it’s driving on the highway or running a company. When I start to think about larger organizations of humans, I find myself in dangerous shoals of definitions: what is a country? What is influence? What is power? When a ‘country’ ‘takes over’ a city, what does that really mean? The Dummies book throws those words around a lot but I believe it’s worth asking what their core meaning is.

To me, it comes down to power. How does one person have ‘power’ over another? There is always an exchange, although it is not always balanced. I agree to go to work of a person or organization in exchange for money. I can use that money to get other people to do things for me: supply me with food, clothing and shelter. If my ‘boss’ at work asks me to do something for him/her, I will accede to that request because it is within the realm of what i have agreed to do in exchange for that money.

But what if it isn’t? What if my ‘boss’ asks (or tells) me to do something that will injure another person? Or myself? Presumably, this is something that is not part of what was originally agreed to in the definition of this job. Suddenly, money is not the exchange medium. It becomes more elemental. How does my value of self preservation compare to my ethical value of not wanting to hurt another person? Perhaps I can make myself safer at the expense of another person coming into danger.

I believe it is this transaction writ large which has driven human history. Some humans are able to rationalize this transaction and others can’t. And some humans have a need to dominate while others don’t.

The whole family went to England in 2000 for two weeks. We really had a very nice time. We walked across Abbey Road and among the stones at Stonehenge. We walked along the Thames and on the cliffs of Dover. We went to museums and castles. Perhaps too many castles. Because by the end, I felt about history as I do now: why is it all about killing? Someone wants ‘power’ and is willing to step on other humans to get it.

The Pianist

When I got divorced, I let go of many things from my married life. One of those things was having a lot of books near at hand. Moving from a house to an apartment involved a lot f downsizing and I realized that books could be had at the local library. It wasn’t the same as having them in my living room, but it was good enough.

I kept my science fiction books, my Apollo books, some baseball books and a few music books. Among my music books was a water-damaged copy of The Pianist by Wladislaw Szpilman. Some may remember this book from seeing the movie of the same name. In fact, we only got it after seeing the excellent movie.

I actually got it out before I left, but I didn’t open it until Saturday. I’m not sure why I had it in with the music books. It really has very little to do with making music. It is the story of a musician, though. A Jewish pianist, caught in Warsaw when the Germans came in 1939.

I’m including this as a Zach story because I associate this book with Zach. I don’t remember where I was when I saw the movie, or who was with me, or where we got the book, but I remember Zach telling me he had read it and at the time it surprised me. The printing is 2003 so Zach would have been a freshman or sophomore in high school. I believe he even had it in his room although I don’t remember that for sure either.

So somehow I associate it with Zach and I was thinking of him when I picked it up. He was moved enough by the story to keep it near him. Perhaps he even read it more than once. If he kept journals in those days, I haven’t seen them.

Reading it myself now, I am struck by the thought that evil is everywhere. Here in America we tend to have the belief that we are morally superior to everyone else in the world. When someone does something odious in the political world, we often brand him or her with the epithet of Hitler. I try to remember that Hitler didn’t kill all those people by himself; many people did his bidding. Szpilman’s story is told in simple, unemotional prose. The most horrific things happen. They are done by Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, even Jews.

They could be done by Americans. It could happen here.

Norman Mailer

Many people reading this are aware that I have an interest in the 1960s era Apollo space program. I probably have 25 or 30 books on the subject and have read an equal number more. One of them that I own is Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On the Moon. It’s in paperback, of course.

A month or so ago I was in a bookstore and saw a book called Moonfire credited to Norman Mailer. It turned out that some people took a selection of Mailer’s words from the earlier book and added a bunch of pictures. What hooked me wasn’t the writing – I already had that – but the pictures. Many of them have not been seen before, even by aficionados such as me. So now I’m reading Mailer again.

Mailer’s writing is like nothing else I’ve read on the moon program. He is intensely interested in the astronauts as men but not in the sense of what so many were writing in the newspapers and magazines of the day. The pictures give a reminder of that, as many of them are staged shots done for Life Magazine whose mission it was to make heroes of the astronauts. See Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff for more on that. Mailer is interested in drilling down to the core of their being.

One of his paragraphs struck me as funny given that my career has been dealing with amplified sound in theaters. Check this out:

 . . . They are in a modern movie theater with orange seats and a dark furrowed ceiling overhead, much like marcelled waves in a head of hair, a plastic ceiling built doubtless to the plans of one of the best sound engineers in the country. Sound is considerably ahead of smell as a fit province for scientific work, but since the excellence of acoustics in large and small concert chambers seem to bear more relation to old wood and the blessings of monarchs and bishops than to the latest development of the technical art, the sound system in this movie theater (seats 600) is dependably intolerable most of the time. The public address system squeals and squeaks (it is apparently easier to have communication with men one quarter of a million miles away) and one never gets a fair test of the aural accommodations, and so far as one can tell, the tone is a hint sepulchral, then brightened electronically, finally harsh and punishing to that unnamed fine nerve that runs from the anus to the eardrum. As the sound engineers became more developed, the plastic materials provided for their practice by corporations grew acoustically more precise and spiritually more flattening – it was the law of the century. One was forever adjusting to public voices through the subtlest vale of pain.

Perhaps ironic is a better word than funny, because sound systems have improved a great deal in the intervening time, while space travel has stagnated in Low Earth Orbit.


Tim Wilson

I just read this article and tears are in my eyes. Tim and Deanne Wilson were good friends of ours during our time in San Francisco at the Opera. They were passionate, caring people then. The article clearly shows that that hasn’t changed.

When we went away, we didn’t stay in touch with Tim and Deanne. We really didn’t stay in touch with anybody at the Opera but that’s another story. I worked Opera in the Park a couple of times after I came back to SF and said hello to several members of the orchestra who knew me. In the brief conversations we had, no one mentioned Tim and I don’t remember asking.

Now he has glaucoma and other health issues that are serious enough to make him quit his job – again! What makes me sad is not just that Tim is ill or that I’ve ignored a friend for so many years. It’s that our society – our country – values music education so little that heroic efforts like this are needed.

OK. I’m resolving right here to get back in touch with Tim and Deanne. Meanwhile, I’ll put up one picture. It’s Tim, but you can’t tell. He’s showing Jeremy and Sarah how to make pizza from scratch. I’m pretty sure it was vegetarian, too.

ghost bikes

A couple of weeks ago I re-posted a picture Micah had put on Facebook. It’s in this blog post.

Then last week I saw an article in the SF Examiner about ‘ghost bike’ memorials. You can read it here. What caught my eye more than the headline was the picture.


Now I understand the lineage of what Micah (or Jake) was doing. There are a lot of important issues facing Americans these days and maybe this isn’t the most important but it’s important to me. Almost every day I see drivers doing dangerous things. They run the gamut from changing lanes without using turn signals to running red lights. I mean really red. I often see drivers rushing to be first on merges, too.

It all stems from people thinking they need to get somewhere now. Really, folks, what’s the rush? Three quarters of the time I see a guy (or woman) slide through the red right turn from Linda Mar to Highway 1 without stopping – or sometimes without even slowing down – I pull up along side then at the next light. Are you late to work? Late to getting the kids to school? Going to the grocery store? Hurrying home with your Chinese take out?

Whatever it is, it it worth killing someone? Yeah, I know, you’re a careful driver. I’m sure Shawn R. Allen would have said he was a careful driver before November 14th last year. Maybe he still thinks he is.

the morning after

This blog is never going to be a political blog, but politics affects us in all parts of our lives, whether we like it or not. Time will tell if last night’s results are historic or a blip. I feel that it is neither. Conservatives have been trying desperately for decades to reverse trends that may be irreversible but they have been spectacularly successful. Liberals, or progressives as I like to characterize myself, have tended to feel that their goals are so good that they are self evident and have so far not gone to the mat to defend or promote them.

I spent a few minutes this morning going through Facebook and reading the wails of despair. For the most part I agree with them but I believe we all have to recognize that there are lots of people who don’t see the world as we do. With social media such as Facebook, it is easy to select sources of information that reflect our biases. After a while, we come to believe that reality.

I will post a link to this post on Facebook because it is the best way to publicize my blog and I want more people to think on the human issues I speak to. I call on everyone to make the effort to broaden their horizons and reach out to people – enemies even! – and make common cause with their humanity.

first responders

There’s lot on my mind as usual so choosing a topic this morning is hard. The first thing that comes to mind is Jeremy. His and Ashley’s wedding anniversary was yesterday and I was able to have a Skype session with them. Rosalie has a little cough but was in good spirits.

Jeremy just got back from a quick trip to Seattle for a job interview with a suburban Seattle department. He would still be a first responder but hopefully not be surrounded by so many ignorant people. He was particularly hopeful since this fire department spends a lot of time doing outreach in the community which would fit well with his experience and outlook.

A couple of months ago we were talking and he expressed fear that so many of his colleagues were Trump supporters who were making noises about the election being rigged to the detriment of their guy. He characterized them as rural, poorly educated white people with guns. He had just gotten back from a nearly all night vigil near the state capitol where some demonstrations were going on. I think he had a vision of more of the same in the months to come.

Now Trump actually said in a national forum that he will not accept the results of the election if he loses. This is more real. The situation is developing as I write this but it worries me more since Jeremy saw it coming.

One of the things I’ve been saying for years has been that the terrorists won. We have to go through elaborate security checks now to get on airplanes and many other aspects of our lives are subject to surveillance. Overseas, our military is killing people in the name of national security with seeming impunity.

Now here at home the ideals that we thought were American are being frittered away by a combination of attacks on legislation by the 1% and general apathy. Our tendency to view politics as a contest to win has allowed us to only look at the entertainment aspects of this Presidential campaign. We are all poorer for having a buffoon like Trump representing a national party.


I really don’t want this site to become mired in politics. Perhaps ‘mired’ is too strong a word. Let’s put it this way: I’m going to post a link that has political implications. As always, I invite comments. I’m not sure if I want to glorify this with a category. I’ll see how I feel when I’m  done.

Two weeks ago I was at Mom & Dad’s just visiting. Dad has a subscription to The Economist and I usually glance at the back issues laying around. Dad subscribed to Newsweek for many years and sometime in the last ten years or so switched to The Economist. I know I asked him why but I don’t remember now. It doesn’t matter.

I remember feeling that The Economist was generally more conservative than Newsweek which surprised me since Dad has been a reliable liberal for his whole life. I haven’t really done a careful comparison (nor am I going to).

One of my hobby horses is that the Main Stream Media (MSM) is basically quite conservative. In the inimitable phrase of Eric Alterman, alson known as the So-Called Liberal Media (SCLM). Interested readers can do their own homework. Eric Alterman probably has a book but I read him in his occasional column in The Nation. (Thank you Teresa for the gift subscription you have maintained for many years!)

Anyway, the September 10th issue has a cover with the headline, ‘Art of the Lie, Post-truth politics in the age of social media.’  One of the ideas I keep coming back to in the political debates I’ve had in the last few years is trying to get all parties to agree on what the facts are. I always thought it was interesting that even those who denigrate the government rely on government statistics to make a point.

I’ll stop now. I found this article worthwhile. Perhaps it is because it confirms my own biases. I invite you to check it out.

I can’t let this go without a shout out to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). They put out a weekly email with examples of the MSM playing fast and loose with facts.