25 September 2009

Moving On

This site will remain active for the foreseeable future, but most if not all of the action will be migrating over to the new and hopefully improved larrylivermore.com. Please feel free to stop by and check it out!

22 September 2009

You Don't Miss The Water...

Sean Hannity, that crusading champion of the poor but honest workingman, was at it again last night, using an hour of prime time on the Fair and Balanced network to slam the pointy-headed bureaucrats and malicious tree-huggers for turning off the water to California's Central Valley for the sake of "a few fish" and thus throwing thousands of tomato pickers onto the tender mercies of the Food Bank.

Yes, it's true that the Valley is in danger of turning into a desert, not that it was ever far removed from one until the California Aqueduct, one of the 20th century's greater feats of engineering, brought billions of gallons of fresh water cascading down from the North and turned an arid valley into America's Salad Bowl. At one point - and it may still be true - 50% of the country's fresh produce came from a few counties in Central and Southern California.

The story Hannity is peddling is a good one, a touching one, and one that people can and should get angry about, except that it, like most of what Hannity peddles, is a noxious admixture of exaggeration, distortion, and plain old fashioned lies. There is a conflict over how much water should be allowed to flow to the sea in Northern California for the sake of enabling the fish population to survive and how much should be diverted to the Southland for agricultural irrigation and to fill the swimming pools of Greater Los Angeles.

Water, as anyone familiar with California history will know, has been a contentious issue for nearly as long as the state has been in existence. There's no surer way to get a Northern and Southern Californian snarling at each other than to mention some of the machinations that enabled the Southland to get its thirsty tentacles into the North's once-plentiful water supply, and if I betray some bias there, it's understandable; I lived in the North for some 30 years. However, I'm not rigidly ideological about it; I accept that both Los Angeles and Central Valley agriculture are not only established facts, but also that they are fundamental components of the nation's socio-economic structure. The fantasies of some Northern Unabomber types notwithstanding, we can't, nor should we, pull the plug on Southern California's water supply.

But by the same token, even if all the fish were to be left gasping their last in the sort of arid streambed that the Los Angeles "River" has become, it's not simply a matter of opening the taps and delivering all the water needed or wanted by the Southland. It's not simple at all, in fact, which is why Hannity's simplistic demagoguery is so offensive - and so dishonest.

People have been warning that California's water supplies are not limitless - a point which should be obvious to anyone who's lived through one of the state's not infrequent droughts - for decades already. I myself was writing about the coming water crisis in Lookout magazine almost 25 years ago, and I was far from being the first to raise the alarm. When the California State Water Project got underway, the state's population was only slightly more than 10 million and it was probably hard to imagine that the torrents of water cascading through the northern mountains - and often flooding whole towns when too much rain came at once - could ever be insufficient to California's needs.

But now there are 38 million Californians, and the majority of them live in areas of the state that would, if it were not for the importation of water from the North, be straight-up desert. You'd think this would make them conservation-minded, but it's turned out quite the opposite: largely oblivious to where their water comes from or how it's delivered from hundreds of miles away, they tend to take a rather cavalier attitude toward water use, namely, as long as it keeps coming out of the tap, we'll use it.

In addition to the North-South component of the water wars, there's also an urban-rural divide. The farmers feel the city folk are hogging it all for their landscaped gardens, their swimming pools, and now, for those damned fish. The metropolitan types, if they think about it at all, suspect the farmers of wasting vast quantities of the precious resource by emptying it out on the parched and baking Valley.

There's some truth to both views, and room for a great deal more conservation in both camps, but Sean Hannity's fulminations notwithstanding, there isn't enough water - not nearly enough - to sustain present levels of consumption, let alone those that will be demanded by future development. This doesn't mean that agriculture has to come to a halt, or that Los Angelenos need to start showering with a friend, but it does mean that both urban and rural users will have to start using water more sanely and reasonably if California is to avoid becoming a 21st century dust bowl.

Is there enough water to continue producing fruits and vegetables in the Central Valley? Absolutely. But only if big agriculture stops treating water as a limitless resource and squandering it on crops that are completely unsuitable for California's climate. I'm talking mainly about cotton and rice: both require the sort of water supplies you would find in a tropical or semi-tropical region. Yes, you can grow them, and grow them very well in California, as long as the water keeps flowing. By the same token, you could build and maintain an igloo village in Death Valley, provided you're willing to pay astronomical sums for the electricity needed to run a giant freezer compartment in the hottest place on earth.

Cotton also requires massive use of pesticides, which combined with the buildup of selenium and other salts as a result of irrigation, are gradually turning once-fertile Valley soils into a toxic soup. On so many levels, growing cotton in the Central Valley is insane, and yet it's also very profitable. Not, however, because it's meeting the demands of the market, but because the federal government - i.e., our tax dollars - subsidize it. If there were a free market in cotton, there would be little or no cotton grown in California, and it would instead be produced in more suitable climates, Africa being a prime example. However, because big agribusiness and its lobbyists have steamrollered Congress into granting these subsidies, African farmers are being forced out of business and California's - and America's - prime agricultural region is being slowly but surely turned into wasteland.

So there you have the real story: Sean Hannity was not there in "The Valley That Hope Forgot" because of his deep, abiding concern for the hard-pressed tomato pickers of the world; quite the contrary, with his "Drill baby drill" approach to water consumption, he's (as always) shilling for big business and for policies that, if followed to their logical conclusion, will ultimately dispossess those tomato pickers of their land and their livelihood.

Water is like oil in some respects: the world is in danger of running out of both. And just as with oil, the Hannitys and Palins of the world are responding to the looming shortage by urging us to use more of the stuff. But while science will eventually find new sources of energy to replace oil, it's a bit harder to come up with a substitute for water. We can - and ultimately will - learn to live without oil, but insufficient supplies of fresh water have spelled death for past civilizations and will no doubt do the same for ours if we don't change our wasteful ways. "They have made a desert and called it peace," Tacitus famously said; Hannity's Corollary could -should - read, "They have made a desert and called it highly profitable."

20 September 2009

The Nerve Of Some People

The classic illustration of chutzpah is of course the guy who murders his parents and then begs the court for mercy on the grounds that, "I'm an orphan, your honor."

But not far behind in the "have they no shame?" department is the cavalcade of Republicans denouncing Obama's health care proposals (and pretty much anything else the President has tried to do) on the grounds that it will increase the deficit. Particularly odious are the ones who claim, "Well, it would be nice to do something about health care, but we just can't afford it. The country is broke."

They do have a point; by conventional standards, we are broke, or very nearly so. But thanks for noticing now, Republicans; a shame it escaped your notice when you - that's right, YOU - were busily bankrupting us.

Not everybody has such a short attention as to have forgotten that President Clinton handed the federal government over to George Bush with not just a balanced budget, but a surplus that stretched as far into the future as prognosticators could prognosticate. Within two years Republican policies had turned those surpluses into not just a deficit, but, by the time the Republicans had been turned out of office, the biggest deficit in history.

Where was all this talk of fiscal responsibility when the Bush administration pushed through the tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the richest Americans and saddled all Americans with generations of debt? When a lying and/or delusional President led us into a mostly pointless and - even considering the merits of removing Saddam Hussein - an incredibly mismanaged and wasteful war? We can't afford to provide even the most basic health insurance for all Americans? Oh, but you had no problem passing that colossal unfunded liability masquerading as a prescription drug program for seniors but which in reality functions as a means of funneling hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate welfare to our poor, struggling pharmaceutical companies.

Now we've even got the teabaggers, rabble rousers and hatemongers attacking Obama for spending or at least lending jaw-dropping amounts of federal money on trying to stabilize the economy, bail out the financial system, and ameliorate the pain of millions of Americans who've been thrown out of work. Never mind that at least half the money involved was committed before Obama even took office, and that it was the loony-tunes wackonomics of a couple generations of right-wing "thinkers" that landed us in the soup in the first place.

I'll be the first to admit that the deficits we're currently running up are making me nervous, not least because it won't be that long before I myself will be at least partially dependent on the fiscal soundness of the Medicare and Social Security programs. But the way I see it, we don't have much of a choice other than to commit the resources, even if they're only borrowed against years of future earnings, to put the country back on a sound footing. Roosevelt had to do it in the 1930s to combat the Great Depression (which the Republicans, just as now, said we couldn't "afford" to do anything about). In the 1940s, virtually nobody questioned the necessity of going massively into debt (even greater debt than today when expressed as a percentage of GDP) because they recognized that having a balanced budget wouldn't do us much good if we lost the Second World War.

We're in a similar situation today. The economy isn't quite as bad as it was in the Depression - yet - and the threat posed to global civilization by a total financial collapse isn't as serious - yet - as that posed by the Nazis, but things could get a whole lot worse in a hurry if those in power miscalculate. I don't have total faith in Obama, and I have considerably less than that in many Congressional Democrats, but considering what the Republicans have done to our economy and what they continue to do to our body politic - i.e., tear it to bits for short-term political gain - I'm far more inclined to trust a rational and idealistic young President over the jabbering idiots and slavering jackals who were running this place before he took office.

And in answer to your next question: yes, even if my taxes have to go up. It's a bit galling, no, strike that, it's very galling indeed to accept that those of us with moderate incomes will almost certainly have to pay more to repair the damage done by those who got incredibly wealthy in the course of looting the American banking and securities systems, but we're the ones who - whether through apathy or insufficient resistance or, in some cases, voting for Ralph Nader - who let the foxes into the henhouse, and whether it seems fair or not, we're going to be paying - probably for quite a long time - to clean up their carnage.

19 September 2009

Life, And The Value Thereof

I was cutting up a pineapple this morning when I suddenly found myself reflecting on the life cycle of said fruit, and the various twists and turns of fate that had brought it to rest on my kitchen counter under the relentless onslaught of my carving knife.

When the pineapple tree first gave birth to her little fruitlet (let's assume for the sake of discussion that the tree was female or at least mother-like), did she envision him journeying across the ocean to be hacked up and devoured by a man she'd never met? As our little pineapple friend ripened and grew under the warm tropical sun, did he have visions for the future, of what destiny life might hold in store? Being brutally ripped from his mother's sheltering arms, thrown into cold storage, and delivered into the hands of someone only interested in the flavor he might contain can't have been foremost among such visions.

Of course when you get down to it, what is the destiny or purpose of a pineapple? No points for those of you who answered "a tasty treat." As with any form of life, the ultimate purpose of a pineapple is preserve its DNA and pass it on to future generations. Being a food source for other species is entirely incidental, and, in the event that pineapples are capable of sentient thought, almost certainly not something any self-respecting pineapple would aspire to.

Of course people, and vegans and vegetarians in particular, prefer not to think in terms of fruits and vegetables having thoughts or feelings, because that would negate one of the major premises of their refusal to eat meat. So they come up with cutesy formulas like "I don't eat anything with a face," completely overlooking the fact that you can discern some fairly complex expressions emanating from a head of broccoli or cauliflower. If you're stoned enough, anyway.

But ok, you can't get too worked up about the widespread slaughter of the planet's fruits, vegetables, roots, seeds, etc. (to tell the truth, neither can I), try this one: I'm about to get in the shower when I notice a smallish spider struggling frantically to escape from the growing pool of water that's gathering on the floor of the stall. Every time he starts to climb up the wall and out of the deathtrap my shower has become, a new ripple of water rolls over him and drags him back down into the maelstrom. I figure it's only a matter of time before he's swept down the drain and into The Great Cobweb In The Sky, but I wait because I don't particularly want to share the shower with him, and I especially don't want him using my leg as an escape route.

Then, against all odds, he makes one last superhuman, er, superarachnid lunge and breaks free of the rising tide. He stops to rest on the rim of the shower stall for a moment, before trundling off in search of a new home somewhere else in my bathroom, and I, still filled with admiration for the little bugger's struggle, suddenly realize that I don't really want him living somewhere else in my bathroom. When I was a hippie, I used to be more tolerant of spiders, until one bit me in my sleep, causing my arm to become so badly infected that I nearly had to have it amputated. I give a quick flick with my fingernail and little Mr. Spider is back in the drink and off into oblivion.

I feel pretty bad about this, though not as bad as I would feel if I were shaving or using the toilet a couple days from now and discovered Mr. Spider crawling on me. I also feel more guilty than I might otherwise because just the other day I watched a friend, confronted with a similar situation, pick up a spider by a strand of his web and gently carry him outside and set him free. Free to get eaten by a bigger predator or to freeze to death in the oncoming winter, the cynic in me argues, but nonetheless, my friend did go to considerable effort to give that spider another chance, whereas I would have been more inclined to swat it with a newspaper or a shoe.

What's that, you say? It's "just" a spider? Very true, but we have no way of knowing what kind of spider he might have gone on to be, what sort of spider destiny might have been cut short. What if, for example, it was this spider who was about to make a breakthrough in webweaving technology that would have revolutionized life and insect catching for his entire species? What if he was the missing link in the next stage of spider evolution? (I will have to note here that if the next stage of spider evolution looks anything like those eight-foot high monstrosities that confronted the hobbits in the last of the Rings trilogy, I'm very glad to have done what I did.)

Or one last example: I was sitting at my computer trying to write, and suddenly a mosquito is buzzing around my face. With Obama-like precision my hands snap out and crush him. I'm completely elated, because in my book, mosquitoes are the embodiment of pure evil in physical form, and killing them is always a Good Thing. This is especially true around here, where the little bastards frequently carry the West Nile virus. Nonetheless, there are those who would condemn me for taking it upon myself to kill any living thing. There are people so devoted to the cause of doing no harm that they breathe through a cloth so as not to inadvertently inhale any small insects, who sweep the path ahead of themselves so as not to step on any such creatures.

But most of humankind unhesitatingly kills for food, for pleasure, for convenience, or just for the hell of it, and as long as none of the creatures being killed are human, little notice is taken of it (apart from PETA and its ilk, of course). Which leads me to wonder: if it is so patently clear to most rational beings that it's impossible to live on this earth without a significant amount of death and destruction, why do the rules undergo an immediate and drastic turnabout for the every-fetus-is-sacred (or the even more fanatical every-sperm-is-sacred Catholics, who would condemn the use of any sort of birth control apart from abstinence.

This is not a pro-abortion argument; I think abortion is violent and ugly and to be avoided if at all possible. Still, only a complete fanatic would argue that it was feasible, let alone desirable, that every zygote should grow to maturity. Were it not for birth control, abortion, disease, war, etc., and in the absence of any effective predators, humans would long since have been crowded every other species off the planet before proceeding to eat themselves out of house and home.

And hey, it still could happen, but this isn't an environmental argument, either, or even an argument at all. I'm just curious as to how we arrived at a world view where every other form of life is disposable while human life is meant to be inviolate. It can't just be the Book of Genesis, with its grant of "dominion over every living thing," because human chauvinism cuts across all cultures and belief systems. And it's not just the normal self-preservation instinct; all species possess that, and will presumably kill and/or eat anything that gets in the way of survival, yet it seems to be only humans who have elevated themselves to the level of the sacrosanct.

At the same time, you've got humans raising money to save the polar bears or the sharks, i.e., animals that prey upon humans, and what other species takes up collections to benefit its natural predators? It's never happened yet - at least not to my knowledge - but I honestly don't think I'll be surprised if one day someone knocks on my door with a pamphlet explaining why we've got to Save The Mosquito. In other words, I don't have any idea how it gets decided which forms of life are sacred and worthy of preservation and which are wholly disposable, and I'm not sure I ever will. I just know that I hate mosquitoes with a passion, spiders are not welcome in my house, I will probably go on eating pineapples, and any polar bears that come prowling around Brooklyn can expect no mercy from me.

13 September 2009

That Damned Exclamation Point

Got my advance copy of Gimme Something Better by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor. It's a magnificent compendium of information and opinions, delivered in oral history form, covering 30+ years of the San Francisco Bay Area punk rock scene.

I'll have to admit that I preferred the original title, which was to have been Journey To The End Of The East Bay, but the project expanded beyond the authors' original imaginings to include the history of the West Bay scene as well.

Being the crazed egomaniac that I am, I immediately flipped to the pages featuring myself and my friends, and almost as quickly got caught up in the predictable cavils of "Oh no, he didn't say that about me, did he?" and "She's crazy; I was right there when that happened and it was nothing like the way she's describing it." The old saw about the committee of blind men attempting to describe an elephant comes to mind.

But once I took Aaron Cometbus's advice and tried reading the book from the beginning, it became far more compelling and fascinating. I'm only about a quarter of the way through, provided you don't count (and you probably shouldn't) the fairly intense skimming I gave to to the latter chapters covering the Gilman and Lookout scenes.

But speaking of Lookout, there is one glaring error that makes me very sad, and though it will probably seem like a minor detail to most of you, it bothers me every time I see it. And because this book will almost certainly become the definitive guide to Bay Area punk rock history, the error will - hell, it already pretty much is - become the accepted version, despite any and all efforts on my part to correct it.

I'm talking about - how would you say it? the misspelling? the mispunctuation? how about the misrepresentation? - the way Lookout Records, the company I co-founded and ran for ten years, is wrongly rendered as "Lookout! Records." There are not sufficient words to express how much I hate the sight of that usage. It looks really, really stupid, true, but more importantly, to me at least, is that it's just plain wrong.

Think I'm making a big deal about nothing? Suppose you started a magazine, or a business, or, for that matter, gave a name to your firstborn son. And then, despite all your protests to the contrary, people kept insisting on misspelling it. Would Aaron appreciate it if he kept reading about Cometbus! magazine? Although in their current circumstances they might be able to use the extra pizazz, I rather doubt GM would appreciate being renamed General! Motors. And neither you nor your son Jason! would likely be too fond of strangers inserting an exclamation point into the middle of his name.

But that's what's happened to Lookout Records. I'm not blaming Gimme Something Better for starting this trend; they're just following what has increasingly become established usage. If there's a real villain here, it might be Wikipedia. For about a year I fought a hopeless battle with them, going in regularly to edit their entry on Lookout Records by removing the offending punctuation mark, but each time, within days if not hours, it would be changed back, and finally they attached a note stating that "The exclamation point is part of the name and should not be changed."

Oh, really? I tried arguing back that I was the one who NAMED THE COMPANY IN THE FIRST PLACE, but to no avail. I suppose I could have forwarded them copies of our incorporation papers, our tax returns, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, all with the correct spelling, but at that point I gave up.

Which was probably a mistake, as I suspect that whoever did copy editing on Gimme Something Better used Wikipedia as a corroborating source, since they also let slide another Wikipedia-perpetrated error, the misspelling of Tre Cool's name as Tré (although I'm generally credited with naming him as well as Lookout Records, he actually was already nicknamed Tre from early childhood; I just added the Cool).

It's true that we often used an exclamation point in some of our logos, so perhaps the misunderstanding is, er, understandable. Also, the new owners of the label were apparently very keen on the exclamation point, and went to some lengths - apparently successful - to get it established in the public mind. To me, unfortunately, it tarnishes the legacy of a once great label almost as much as some of the crappy bands they signed (sorry if that sounds - is - intemperate; they signed some really good bands, too). Ah well, if I'd wanted things to stay the same, I guess I should have stayed there and run the label myself.

Ok, that's my bit of venting for today. If you're a copy editor or a journalist, please, PLEASE, at least consider dropping that hateful exclamation point next time you write about Lookout Records. For all the rest of you, please don't let my fit of dyspepsia discourage you from checking out Gimme Something Better. And while the book isn't officially out for a couple weeks yet, you can go to their website to read (and comment upon) excerpts, including some that had to be left out of the book because of space constraints. Lots of great photos, too.

I'll be back with more opinions once I've read the whole thing. In the meantime, bear in mind that despite what Jeff Ott says on page 329, I did not get caught "pouring gasoline all over" my school. It was my college, and seriously, there was no gasoline involved; otherwise it might actually have burned down.