Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Cats

This is Franklin.  He's the cat who showed up days after I left the country in 2012, had a name within 24 hours, and has been part of the family for a year and a half.

And this is Duncan.  Duncan was a stray kitten who followed Franklin home during the monsoon season, as a pretty nasty storm was arriving.  Although I dimly understood the risk I was taking, I could not leave a kitten out in the rain like that, so she came in for the night.  And the next morning the kids had named her and well, you know.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Happy birthday, Mr. Scrooge

My relationship with the Deming Headlight is that I write a column once a month as a volunteer.  I enjoy writing, and writing 600 words once a month is really no burden.  The paper appears to operate on no budget, neglected by the corporation that owns it, and generally the editorial page consists of free submissions and clips from around the nation.  Those of us who share the "Desert Sage" column do so because we wish to see more local writing in the, um, local paper.

This month there was a need for a second column, which I gladly wrote.  As posted to the paper's website, it contains errors that were not part of the text I submitted.  This is difficult for me because I care about grammar, and these mistakes make my own work look sloppy.  To begin with, I never write the headlines, and would never have submitted "Dickens' Scrooge..." which is what the Headlight wrote

The correct use of the apostrophe in that context is: Dickens's.  Yes, truly. 

Also, in this piece I state the title of Dickens's novel twice.  When I submitted my piece, the title was italicized as is proper.  For some reason, the italics disappeared when it went to print. I hope it is correct in the print edition and this is just an error on the website. 

Here is the piece as I submitted it. 


It was on today’s date in 1843 that Charles Dickens published his short novel, A Christmas Carol.  It told the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, his long life of heartbreak and bitterness, and his redemption by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. 

This Edwardian tale has been adopted into American folklore, and is far better known through numberless adaptations in children’s storybooks, radio and stage plays, movies, opera, and more, than the original novel itself.  The story and its characters have escaped from Dickens and belong to the ages.

Indeed, the story is so formative that you will hear people speak of the Scrooge of their childhood, the performance of the story that first gripped their imaginations.  For one generation it was Lionel Barrymore.  For the next, it was Alastair Sim, and then George C. Scott.  Sir Michael Caine played a wonderful Scrooge, too -- though his lovely portrayal was sadly upstaged by a cast of muppets. 

Ask most people what this story is about, and the answer comes that it is about greed.  Ebenezer Scrooge is a miser who hates Christmas, whose heart is turned toward generosity by the spirit of the season.  We think of Scrooge buying turkeys for the hungry and giddily donating money for the poor at the end, making up for lost Christmases by giving away as much as possible.  Purses and coins fly, and the actor playing Scrooge goes hoarse from laughing and cheering, maybe even stealing a kiss from Mrs. Cratchit (who has been busy feeding a family of five on pauper’s wages).

It is a lovely fable, but it was originally a work of literature.  Dickens was famously outraged by the social conditions of the Industrial Revolution, its pollution and social conflict, and especially the misery and servitude of the poor and working classes – which included child laborers.  In novel after novel, Dickens vividly recorded the political economics of his time. 

Some of Scrooge’s most famous words (other than “Bah!  Humbug!”) come from his refusal to help the poor:  “Are there no prisons?  And the Union workhouses?  Are they still in operation?  The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?”   Dickens was referring to the “Poor Laws” of his time, when poverty was treated as a moral failure rather than the failure of an economic system; a world of debtors’ prisons and workhouses where conditions were purposefully harsh and inhumane to discourage people from seeking assistance.  When Scrooge refers to the poor as “surplus population,” he is echoing Thomas Robert Malthus and economists of the time who portrayed the poor as sexually profligate moochers, breeding limitlessly and leeching off the “more industrious and more worthy members,” to quote Malthus. 

These views have found their place in American politics and conversation, despite the popularity of A Christmas Carol.  Because so few of us read the actual book, we inherit an Ebenezer Scrooge who is merely a selfish grouch -- a Scrooge without sociology.  We tell the tale of Scrooge yet elect politicians who think like him. 

Dickens did not argue for the overthrow of capitalism, but his Scrooge was a vivid warning of what we might become: walled-up hearts, indifferent to our own suffering as well as the suffering of those around us. 

With Christmas, however, there is renewed hope; new life in the midst of winter.  There is, after all, that other famous story about Christmas.  In that story, God is born as a human being to redeem the whole sorry lot of us.

Merry Christmas, then.  And what story shall we write with our lives in the next year?    

Thursday, December 12, 2013

On Sock Monkeys and Security Theatre

Today's installment of the monthly "Desert Sage" column for the Deming Headlight


His name was Rooster Monkburn, and he entered the security checkpoint at the St. Louis airport with a gun. 

Luckily for all the innocent citizens preparing to board, Monkburn was spotted by an officer of the Transportation Security Administration who disarmed the suspect before he could board his flight to Seattle. 

Perhaps it is most reassuring to hear stories like this during the holiday travel season, as the masses are flying hither and yon to see their families.  Crowded terminals and planes stuffed with passengers are irresistible targets for evildoers.  We have learned to be obedient and not question airport security.  Most people bear these impositions with a shrug.  For the less cooperative, there are guns and tasers.

After Monkburn was intercepted by the TSA agent, it was discovered that his gun was fake, and so we can rest easy that no one was ever really in danger.    There are other factors that de-escalate the situation.  For one, the fake pistol was about the size of a chickpea.  For another, Rooster Monkburn is a sock monkey. 

Rooster’s companion was Phyllis May of Redmond, Washington, who told her story to television station KING.  The TSA agent, upon discovery of Rooster Monkburn’s pistol, reportedly exclaimed, “This is a gun.”  When it was pointed out that it was a part of a monkey doll’s costume and could not be confused with an actual weapon by anyone with an ounce of sense, the agent begged to differ, saying, “If I held it up to your neck, you wouldn’t know if it was real or not.”  Faced with a real possibility of arrest, Ms. May could only acquiesce to the TSA agent’s professional opinion.  Rooster Monkburn, wisely, made no comment whatsoever. 

It is an absurd story, but what is absurd when the absurd has become normal?  Since the September 11 attacks, Americans have patiently suffered the ratcheting impositions of a “security theatre,” something that conveys a feeling of security without actually enhancing it much.  On the rare occasions when the TSA has attempted to relax the rules, politicians have overreacted to sensible adjustments of security policy, crying out against “reduced vigilance.” 

My first lesson in security theatre occurred at LAX, when a TSA agent confiscated a passenger’s bottle of water ostensibly because it could be filled with liquid explosive.  He then disposed of the potential bomb in a nearby waste basket, right next to the line of people waiting, like cattle, to be ‘processed.’  The line, incidentally, extended outside to the curb, where fifty people would have been vulnerable to a well-timed car bomb.

What does security theatre conceal, besides a highly profitable industry?  It has been argued by dispassionate experts that the attacks of September 11 could have been thwarted but for failures by our intelligence agencies.  If that is true, then we already had what we needed to stop that attack - and simply failed.  Rather than admit error, we have built a monolithic and authoritarian maze around our tragedy, deluding ourselves that our safety is in the hands of a system that can’t distinguish a sock monkey from a terrorist.

It is rather sad, what has become of us.   However, here is a tip from the theatrical trade:  sock monkeys can make anything funny.  Consider the gift of a sock monkey at Christmas, and remember to travel with it.  Provide it with a passport.  Give it a little laptop, and remember to open it!   Or dress it in a TSA uniform.

If resistance is truly beyond us, perhaps in the new year we should just smile and join the madness.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Social Security, Compromise, and the Great Boondoggle

Lee H. Hamilton, Director

The Center on Congress
Indiana University
1315 E. Tenth Street, Suite 320
Bloomington, IN 47405

Dear Mr. Hamilton,

Our local paper, the Deming Headlight, frequently runs your editorials and so we benefit from your perspective, as someone who served in Congress for more than three decades and won the respect of both of our dominant political parties; as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission; and as a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Today’s editorial concerns the budgeting process and, in particular, the irresponsibility of sequestration as a substitute for a rational budget. It is bad enough to see the routinization of continuing resolutions, for all the reasons you describe, instead of a deliberative and productive budgeting process. It seems to me that we have depressingly low standards, if any, for the performance of our representatives in Congress. You, of course, have the perspective of one who has been there.

 I am moved to respond to two points, both occurring in the ninth paragraph of your editorial calling for a budget agreement. These are nitpicks, I admit, but given the dearth of quality reporting on economic issues in the American news media – a gap filled all too readily with deliberate misinformation – I believe diligence and clarity are very important.

You wrote, “The country needs gradual deficit reduction that avoids disrupting the economy or harming the vulnerable.” While I have no quibble with that statement on the surface, it requires some context. Most people – certainly here in New Mexico’s second Congressional district – do not realize that the current administration established a record of deficit reduction even before sequestration went into effect this year. Indeed, one of the objections to sequestration was that it would increase deficit reduction to a degree that would endanger recovery from the “Great Recession.” Indeed, most readers do not grasp the difference between short- and long-term deficit analysis, which leads to contradictory theses and much confusion.

In the same paragraph, you write, “It [the country] needs reforms to Social Security and Medicare that put them on a solid footing for decades to come.” This sentence, unfortunately, contributes to a misunderstanding about (1) Social Security’s relationship to the budget and (2) its current fiscal health. As I am sure you are aware, misinformation abounds about Social Security (for the moment, I leave Medicare aside), and one of the popular myths (happily repeated by those who would like to see it privatized) is that it is already bankrupt, or on the cusp. It is also widely believed that Social Security contributes to the deficit, because it is so often mentioned in the context of deficit reduction. It needs to be made clear, and repeated more often than the misstatements, that Social Security does not contribute a single dime to the deficit because it is financed separately and cannot – as per the Social Security Act – spend beyond its own revenue stream. It cannot draw from the federal budget, and is therefore irrelevant.

What is also not clear to most is that Social Security is, if we leave it alone, capable of fulfilling its promised benefits for another two decades; and at that point, projections say, it would be able to pay reduced benefits. There is a long-term problem here, but not an eminent crisis.

While I am grateful to you for promoting increased revenue as a desirable solution – via increased contributions by higher-income citizens – I deeply regret that you also include the C.P.I. boondoggle which dresses up benefit cuts in technical language. Those who esteem compromise must understand that the “chained C.P.I.” solution is an austerity policy offering cuts without revenue. It is no compromise, it is a giveaway – by the poor, to the rich.

It is my privilege to write for this same local paper, and more often than not it is all I can do to debunk the myths about Social Security, which serve to obscure the efforts of those whose political purpose is quite simple: to dismantle Social Security as a public institution and appropriate that revenue for the private sector. Let us not play into their hands and call it compromise, for that is capitulation.

You have indulged me thus far, and I will close wishing you wonderful days in this coming new year.

Warm regards,

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


Lately, I've had some time to play in the kitchen.  This means I've been chopping and peeling a lot, and that means making stock.

One of my most cherished books is Tassajara Cooking.  Edward Espe Brown, the Soto Zen priest who was head cook and a manager of the Tassajara Zen Center , wrote it.

It is, I believe, a first-edition copy of the book, which was a follow-up to his famous Tassajara Bread Book.  The edition I have is a paperback, dated 1973, given to me in 1998 by Rebecca when I took ten precepts at Providence Zen Center.

It's a lovely thick paperback book that shows signs not only of age, but of being used in kitchens. 

The book has a distinctly home-made feel about it, even including some of Brown's handwriting.  It has a lovely introduction by a young Baker roshi, before all the trouble; a prose poem about cooking, and a beautiful section about caring for kitchen implements entitled "Good Friends."  There is a section on caring for knives, and a guide to good chopping; some words about different cooking methods.  There are no recipes, in the form we recognize from typical cookbooks.  There are very brief sections about various vegetables, fruits, other ingredients, soups, sauces, and so on.  It makes some suggestions but sends the reader on their way to experiment, pay attention, and learn from direct experience.  Like zen practice.  In fact, this is better than a whole lot of beautiful zen books.  There aren't even photographs, except for one lovely hippie picture of the author and his family at Green Gulch farm.  There are hand-wrought illustrations throughout. 

And since I've been making vegetable stock lately, here is a taste of this book, from its advice on making stock.

vegetable scraps: almost anything -- ends, tips, tops, trimmings, roots, skins, parsley stems, outside cabbage leaves, limp vegetables.  Go easy on the green pepper centers.  Some people find a large amount of onion skins or carrot tops makes too strong a flavor.

water to cover

Place all the vegetable scraps, which may be chopped up first, in a saucepan or stockpot and cover with water.  It's important that this brew simmer rather than boil.  Simmering means a few wee bubbles are popping gently to the surface -- a quit, subdued leaching process, while bouiling means that the entire surface is in turmoil, bubbling and frothing.  Vegetables do not endure boiling very well, soon yielding their more rank flavors and aromas, so bring the stock to a simmer and then turn the heat down low enough to keep it there, or you will have a harsh-flavored stock.

Let the stock simmer an hour or more, and then strain out the vegetables, squeezing or mashing out the last juices.  Use in place of water for soups, or for cooking vegetables, grains or beans.  If not using immediately, leave uncovered until cool, then cover and refrigerate. 

To make the most of your vegetable trimmings, make this stock every day.  Start it while you are preparing the meal, adding all the trimmings as you go.  Use a little water from the stock to rinse out each pot.  Simmer through the meal and then strain it afterwards.  This kind of stock will keep indefinitely if it is simmered (with new additions) at least once a week.  To give it a lift add a few onion, garlic or ginger slices.  

The whole book is like that.  This is the kind of book I would give to anybody wanting to try cooking for themselves.  It is written in just the right kind of voice, with just the right amount of information, without leaving any crutches.

Monday, December 02, 2013

On Cyber-Monday, a Letter to Amazon

Last night, and just in time for "Cyber Monday," Amazon CEO Jess Bezos surprised a CBS interviewer by revealing a prototype robot -- an "octocopter" -- that Bezos says he hopes will be able to make deliveries to Amazon customers within a few years.  Today, the media is full of talk about small flying robots delivering products to consumers within a half hour of their online purchase -- a great story with which to open the holiday shopping season!

And, as James Ball argues in The Guardian, it just might be a publicity stunt.  In particular, Ball writes:

Bezos' neat trick has knocked several real stories about Amazon out of the way. Last week's Panorama investigation into Amazon's working and hiring practices, suggesting that the site's employees had an increased risk of mental illness, is the latest in a long line of pieces about the company's working conditions – zero-hour contracts, short breaks, and employees' every move tracked by internal systems. Amazon's drone debacle also moved discussion of its tax bill – another long-running controversy, sparked by the Guardian's revelation last year that the company had UK sales of £7bn but paid no UK corporation tax – to the margins. The technology giants – Amazon, Google, Microsoft et al – have have huge direct reach to audiences and customers, the money to hire swarms of PR and communications staff, and a technology press overwhelmingly happy to incredulously print almost every word, rather than to engage in the much harder task of actually holding them to account.

Whether it's a bunch of hooey or a sincere plan (albeit not yet practical), I thought it was worth a letter.  As you'll see, it's really about people, not robots.

Mr. Jeffrey P. Bezos
410 Terry Avenue
North Seattle, WA 98109

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Last night, in a television interview for the program 60 Minutes, you revealed a research and development project at Amazon. I refer, of course, to your “Prime Air” initiative, in which small, unmanned vehicles (called “octocopters”) would deliver merchandise to consumers within minutes of placing an order.

As your customer, let me say thanks for your interest in making our shopping experience unique, and completing orders quickly using new technology; and having said that, please allow me to share my concern about this initiative and suggest an area of investment that would make me feel much better about shopping on Amazon -- far more than flying robots with cameras showing up at my house.

While “Prime Air” is certainly novel, how necessary is this technology? While Amazon offers a staggering array of goods for sale, I cannot imagine what a consumer would need from Amazon so urgently as to justify aerial delivery within minutes. It’s not as though we will be ordering blood for transfusions. Are you considering a move into pizza delivery? Aren’t “Amazon Prime” and Amazon’s music download service fast enough for non-perishable merchandise? My mailman does a splendid job finding my house and I have no wish to take work away from him, as exciting as it might be for a novel to get dropped on my doorstep by a drone.

The truth is, I have long had concerns about Amazon’s business model, particularly with respect to labor. It concerns me greatly that Amazon’s warehouse workers are not represented by a union, that many if not all are employed indirectly through a staffing agency, and are now facing further automation (to whatever degree “Prime Air” delivery becomes a reality) and reduced employment. You would be reducing your own labor costs at the expense of regional economy and effective demand for the economy as a whole.

Let me proceed to an area of investment that seems, to me, far more necessary and beneficial to Amazon. Instead of sending robots to my house, I would like to see some investment in your human staff. Periodically, I read reports about conditions in Amazon’s “fulfillment centers,” which in straightforward English we call warehouses. Most of us do not see these warehouses, but we know that human beings work very hard in these places, in shifts longer than eight hours, and there are several worthy investments in this area that Amazon might consider.

  • Expedited warehouse security procedures. There are reports that security checkpoints take as long as half an hour or more, which comes at the end of an employee’s shift (which are sometimes as long as 12 hours), and it is not compensated time. Requiring an employee to remain on site for an extra half hour without pay constitutes wage theft. The procedures should either be reorganized so that employees can clear the checkpoint quickly, or the employees should be released from their shifts early to accommodate the process while they are still on the clock. 
  • Lunch facilities for warehouse workers. Although an eating area may be provided, the distance employees must travel on foot to reach the facilities sometimes consumes half their allotted break time, leaving them insufficient time to eat, much less rest during a long shift. It would be humane, and beneficial to morale, to alleviate this problem. If the warehouses cannot be redesigned to bring break areas closer to employees, what about golf carts or shuttles? You win bonus points if the shuttles run on batteries charged from solar power, or a non-petroleum fuel. 
  • Climate control in all warehouses. I am sure you are well aware of what went on at your facility in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania. In that case, Amazon invested $52 million in order to provide appropriate air conditioning. That is a lot of money but it was well spent – in terms of the welfare of your employees as well as your reputation among your customers. Has Amazon conducted a review of climatic conditions at its other facilities, and made improvements as appropriate? 

There are more suggestions I could make, but I think this gives you the gist. Without cynicism, I would also recommend that you publicize these investments so that your customers – and other large companies -- see Amazon making investments in the welfare of its employees. You might even consider deepening your investment in personnel by increasing direct employment at appropriate living wages, and relaxing your objection to union representation. I understand that rapid delivery is part of your brand, and there may be concerns about compromising that service, but I truly believe your keys to maintaining that signature service is not just technology, but also human morale.

Your company has made a point of not commenting on these matters for the press, and I don’t expect a response to this letter either (although one would be welcome), but I hope it is read – if not by you, then by someone with the authority to consider these concerns and bring them up in an appropriate venue. Amazon has ample opportunity to use its considerable capital to set a whole new standard of how large companies operate. I am optimistic that Amazon can lead the way, if it wishes.

 Most sincerely, and with best wishes for your holiday season,