Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Five Years Ago

I realize that my post on Monday was critical of Barack Obama and in particular his decision to allow a Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, to work for his reelection. Some friends have commented that this might not be the time for a a supporter to be criticizing the President during the Republican primaries, but it is hard to keep the faith when that faith demands blind followers. I want a candidate who is accountable to his/her constituents and willing to talk and listen to their feedback.

I have never met President Obama and know no more than his books and our objective media reveal (yes – intended!). But something in his grassroots campaign resonated with me: the hope, the honesty, the optimism.

That campaign kicked off five years ago last week. This might be a good time to remember why we got energized half a decade ago.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Don’t read this. You might become indoctrinated. – Tom Rossi

With Rick Perry and Herman Cain out of the hunt for the 2012 nomination, the Republican race has lost a lot of its pathetic charm. The entertainment value we had come to know and love has given way to irritating nonsense.

Recently, that tower of philosophical wisdom, Rick Santorum, spoke about how American universities “indoctrinate” students into liberalism and away from religion. As evidence for this, he cited data from a study, done by religion researche rs, that found that 64% (I think he got the number wrong) of students that enter college end up significantly curtailing their churchgoing after graduation.

This, of course, was just the kind of cheerleading chant that would ignite his audience at the First Baptist Church of Naples, Florida. In Rick Perry’s absence, Rick Santorum has become the front-runner for my least-favorite Republican candidate for 2012 (although Newt is still in the running).

Santorum said that this liberal indoctrination is the real reason that President Obama “wants every kid to go to college.” He just wants everyone to be liberal. Where do I start? President Obama said, “I want every child to have the opportunity to go to college.” (emphasis added). If you read something sinister in this, you’re probably the one who’s been indoctrinated… maybe by Glen Beck.

Wow. Just... wow.

The misconceptions held by so many Americans about higher education just blow my mind. These are all assumptions based on the fact that educated people are likely to disagree with simplistic world views. While studying neurobiology at Colorado State University, I was “indoctrinated” into exactly one way of thinking: not to take anything at face value.

The other students and I were not at all led down a path. Instead, we were given the intellectual tools with which to dissect ideas, scholarly articles, and even accepted paradigms. Not one of my professors ever scoffed at me for questioning what was “accepted.” They would ask me what was giving me my doubts… what was my internal logic. Then we would discuss it and usually it would lead to an idea for some new research that might fill in a missing piece of some puzzle.

Higher education teaches people to think, not in a certain way, but with thoroughness and logic. Rick Santorum got his JD (law degree) from Penn State. I guess the “system” doesn’t always work. It didn’t turn him into a liberal and it didn’t teach him to think before he speaks, either.

Nor, evidently, did he learn to read. That same study found that 76% of people who never went to college cut down on their churchgoing in the same way. So much for teaching logic. I conclude from this that one of two things happened. Either Santorum didn’t bother to read the whole paper (or just didn’t care what it really said) or he knew full well what the real conclusions were and just went ahead anyway, in order to fire up the “troops.”

So, is Rick Santorum stupid? Or is he just typically unethical, politician style? I’ll let you decide.

Oh. Almost forgot. Happy “Make Greeting Card, Flower, and Candy Companies Rich” Day! Let it not be said that I’m un-romantic.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Super PAC, Super Disappointment

I have been following the Republican primaries with righteous indignation, just the ticket on the commute to work over the fog-hugging Bay Bridge. Today (Wednesday at the time of writing), Mitt Romney is confident that, despite losses in key states to Rick Santorum, he will win the primaries, because he has the money to buy TV ads.

Really? Not because he attracts the party faithful through his stirring speeches, articulate exposition of policy, his vision and personal principles?

But this seems to be a glimpse of the future political landscape, where money rather than grassroots support, will decide who rises (or floats) to the top.

Those of us on the moral left will point out that our candidate won the elections against considerable odds by rallying hundreds of thousands of people to donate $25, a meaningful contribution for many. We rallied on street corners, in town hall meetings, and across the Internet.

So I am rather upset to hear that President Obama has sanctioned the forming of a Super PAC – Priorities USA Action. Campaign Manager, Jim Messina essentially told us that the President doesn’t like flip-flopping like this, but has to be realistic and anticipate the media assault waiting for him when the real election campaigning begins.

I know that there is a mixed reaction among the faithful. Many are relieved that reality has kicked in before it is too late. Better to accept the future scenario now and do what must be done to ensure four more years.

But other, myself included, have sighed deeply. Did it really have to be this way? Can we not have the courage of our convictions to believe that we will win because our message is right, our vision in tune with what needs to happen, and that Americans are smart enough to treat this like a general election and not a reality show.

Matea Gold and Melanie Mason, have written a great article in the LA Times: Obama’s embrace of ‘super PAC’ will test his base of donors. Worth the read.

I stand as one of the disappointed, but it won’t stop my commitment to reelecting President Obama. I know what the alternative is (whether Romney, Santorum, Paul or Gingrich), and I begrudgingly know how they can win.

I remain stunned that so many people, only a few months into President Obama’s first term, were actually blaming him for the state of the economy, as though none of the economic carnage and greedy abuse happened prior to his election.

Super PACs have no place in politics. They should remain on the Comedy Central where they belong.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Criticizing Critique Groups

I’ve recently read two interviews/articles with authors who were negative or detrimental about writers or critique groups. Neither would have fazed me, but having read both at one sitting, well, it irked.

I have facilitated the Berkeley Writer’s Group for more than five years now. There is a core group and a larger transitional crowd who join for a period of time. It is a working group – if you are looking for a social meeting, this is not for you.

Usually, 8-10 individuals will read, receiving 15 minutes to share about 1,200 words (if fiction), or a few poems, article etc. Before they read, they can ask for feedback on a specific aspect and we also write comments on the manuscript copies that they distribute. When they finish reading they shut up and listen unless asked a question (this is the hardest part!). We try to be constructive but honest and there are occasionally bruised egos.

For the past 6 months, I have been reading my YA epic fantasy: Wycaan Master / At the Walls of Galbrieth (I still can’t decide between the two). No one in the group (until a woman recently joined us) were fans of fantasy and, given that they had helped me with two social-justice themed novels, were not happy with my change of direction.

As I near the end of the manuscript, I feel a great appreciation for the group. Certainly, it has not been easy and there are times that I would love to be sharing with people who understand the genre, but there is something incredibly refreshing in their comments, as readers who can look down from 10,000 feet, with perspective.

I recently mentioned that I have changed the teacher figure. He was very much a hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Brom and Gandalf and my group found him formal and predictable. The agent who is coaching me also commented on this and urged me to turn the character on his head.

He transformed and became a funny and unpredictable woman. She aged, but still had the strength and energy necessary; it just didn’t always come easy. I feel this has had a fundamental impact on my novel, particularly where there is often a middle sag, and added a richer layer, while also distinguishing the book from comparables in the genre.

This, and much more, came from people who, while not experts, care about their craft and also about mine. They are not a replacement for the professional editor, but s/he will receive a cleaner manuscript and I will have a richer story.

I often hear from people who speak derogatory about writer’s groups. Usually, they have had a bad experience or two, and so their attitude is understandable. But a good writer’s group is about mutual support, not fluffing or shattering someone’s ego, but it is above all a group communicating in a very honest and artistic way.

And we do it all face-to-face, with no screen in between. A last bastion of a dying culture?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Interesting Dirt – Roger Ingalls

Most of us don’t think about dirt or topsoil but we should. Without it we don’t exist.

photo from popsci.com

The diameter of the Earth is approximately 8,000 miles which is equivalent to 506,880,000 inches. That’s roughly a half a billion inches across. Now, this next fact is something we all should think long and hard about; only the outer two to eight inches is suitable for plant life. Look at your hand…precious dirt (topsoil) is only as deep as your hand is long. That’s an amazingly thin layer of life giving material.

We treat dirt like…well, dirt. We wash it away, pollute it, sterilize and kill it. Yes, natural and healthy topsoil is a living ecosystem full of beneficial microbes and fungi that can be killed with manmade synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Did you know that a tablespoon of healthy soil has more living critters than there are people on Earth? The invisible creatures help feed the plants. Microbes or beneficial bacteria break down minerals into elements the plants can uptake and the fungi pump water and nutrients onto and into the plant’s roots. The plant roots, in turn, give sugars (carbohydrates) to the bacteria and fungi which they use for food. It’s a symbiotic and sustainable relationship.

Plants will grow in dead dirt or lifeless sand if they are treated with manmade fossil-fuel fertilizers, pesticides and a lot of water. However, they will not be as nutritious as plants grown in living soil because they lack nutrient density.

Improve your health and save the soil…eat local, eat organic.

Better yet, grow your own.

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Roger Ingalls is well-traveled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

Juvenile Decision Lifetime Sentence

Erik Jensen made a mistake. At the age of 17 years old, he walked in as his best friend, a 16 year old who had been continually abused physically, sexually and emotionally, killed his abusive mother.

Erik had tried to help his friend over the past year and, along with a third young man, helped to clean up the crime scene. After his best friend was caught, Erik was arrested and charged with accessory after the fact.

Erik and his mother

The third friend then made a deal with the prosecution which implicated Erik in the murder and subsequently walked free. Erik was charged with first degree murder alongside the abused young man.

“Erik’s trial was held a few months after the Columbine massacre, where two young men from the same area in Colorado, as well as the same age as Erik, killed several classmates at their school.  This act greatly influenced the country, especially Coloradans, view of kids and violent crime.  Needless to say, Erik was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole along with Nathan.”

Even if he had been involved more in the murder, the question arises whether a crime committed by a juvenile should be life without parole. Even when extenuating circumstances are involved such as abuse, is it correct to impose no possibility of a second chance?

Erik Jensen has been in prison now for over 10 years. He is described as a “model prisoner” and “a tremendous human being.”

Should he receive a second chance? Isn’t there a better solution than for a young man, not yet an adult, than to spend the rest of his life in jail? 

Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

If you are interested in getting involved, there is a Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and a California chapter.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Simple Republicans – Tom Rossi

Continuing the discussion (one-sided, though it may be) from last week, we are looking at the question: Are conservative patterns of thinking (Me Tarzan. You Jane. Taxes… bad.) the result of “dumbness”?

Conservative views are not necessarily the result of dumbness (although I can certainly believe that racism is). They are often based on attractively simple ideas, and in fact the human mind tends to gravitate toward parsimony. For example, what feeling do you get when discussing politics with someone and he or she says, “It’s all about the money.”? Does that not almost make any other point moot? An idea like that can bring an end to further analysis because it just seems pointless.

The fact is that simplistic ideas are certainly not automatically wrong. It is all (at least mostly) about the money. But some ideas are not only overly simplistic, but they signify an underlying tendency toward scapegoating and selfishness – blaming “the others” or “the outsiders” or those who are different in some way when things aren’t as they should be. An example of this is blaming immigrants for the current state of our economy, even after a pointless war and various Wall Street entities have done trillions of dollars worth of damage.

It’s easy to give in to simplistic explanations through the process of induction, the opposite of the “deduction” made so famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his “Sherlock Holmes” novels. Induction is the process by which you apply an observation to the larger group: Joe likes pizza, and from that you might assume that most people probably like pizza. It can also lead you to make the cognitive leap from seeing a black man wanted for robbery on TV, to the conclusion that black people are thieves. Or, when you hear about some people cheating the unemployment system you conclude that the program should be eliminated.

The desire for simplistic logic can lead to resentment of complication or people who see the world as complicated… even if complication is inevitable in a world of 7 billion people, over a billion computers, and almost a billion businesses (those last two are consensus estimates).

It’s actually quite difficult to correlate IQ (an imperfect measure of intelligence anyway) with political views. This is because IQ is not broadly measured. The most practical substitute (although still far from perfect) is the highest education level that a person has attained: high school, college, graduate school, etc.

With the help of a graduate-level statistics professor, I actually did some research (technically a statistical meta-analysis much like Hodson’s study appears to be) on the link between education and political party affiliation. The research is unpublished, of course, because if I actually ever accomplished something in the real world, my father would have a heart attack. I simply will not be responsible for that. The research was based on the General Social Survey, conducted semi-annually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and the results were pretty interesting.

The higher the level of education attained by a person, the higher the probability that that person will self identify as a Republican… up to a point. That point is a Bachelor’s degree. The relationship then reverses for people who go on to acquire a post-graduate degree such as a Master’s. People who complete a Bachelor’s degree and go no further are often those whose main purpose in college is to get a jump-start on a career – in order to earn some money.

And therein may lie the biggest clue. It seems that the more a person prioritizes money, the more likely that person is a conservative. But it’s not nearly that simple.

In fact, this topic is complex enough that it’ll probably take me another post to sort it all out and settle the issue. Riiiiiiight. Maybe we’ll revisit this mess another time. For now, suffice it to say that I believe that conservative principles are too simplistic to define or govern the modern (1400 A.D. to present) world. If it seems like I’ve left a few loose ends here, it’s because all of this makes my head hurt.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Another Empowering Women’s Organization

I read almost every solicitation that I receive from a non-profit. I can’t help it. A lot of my time is spent raising funds for San Francisco Hillel, the Jewish Student Center, and I send out my fair share of letter campaigns. 

Women for Women caught my eye for their very personal letter. This is an organization that helps women who have lost everything, often both material and personal, through violence and war. Their primary focus is on women from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and others.

Women for Women are able to :

– offer direct financial support for medicine and food

– provide job training skills and business training

– teach an empowerment program about their rights as women and citizens

The Woman for Women website offers many stories and testimonies. Warning – they can be tough to read. One interesting set of facts that I read includes the following data:

– women reinvest 90% of their income into their family and community compared with 30-40% of men (World Bank study).

– women hire at least one person to help with their businesses and train or mentor on average 4 other women.

– women are 70% of the world’s farmers, produce 90% of the world’s staple food crops, but own less than 2% of the land.

Finally, in the words of one of Zainab Salbi, Founder of Women for Women: “…it’s the Butterfly Revolution in action.  You make a gift of $20 and the impact of your decision is felt thousands of miles away, by a woman whose life has been devastated by war and conflict…

“The Butterfly Revolution is a metaphor for the concept that even small actions…like the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings…can have far-reaching effects. I believe that by taking action, every one of us have a major impact on making the world a better place for women in need.”

Please consider joining me with a $20 gift. You can click here and don’t even need to leave your chair.

Thank you.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

YA Market and the E-book Revolution

I have entered my Young Adult epic fantasy novel into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. My plan is if I do fall at some point to send submissions to about 20 agents and try to publish in the conventional way.

If this does not succeed, I assumed that I would then join the e-book revolution and hope to create enough splash to be picked up in the footsteps of Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath. I have read closely John Locke’s successful business model and would love to try it.

But today something hit me. Do young adults (10-18 year old) – my primary market for my epic fantasy series – read their books on e-Readers?

recently wrote: “The children’s and young adult e-book market faces special challenges not shared by the adult market, new research shows. And teens are slow to adopt e-books, in part because they do not see e-books as a social technology and they think there are too many restrictions on sharing digital titles.”

She reached her conclusion based on two online surveys commissioned by  PubTrack Consumer towards the end of last year who surveyed 1,000 teenagers and 1,000 parents of pre-teens. The details of the survey can be found here –  “Children’s Publishing Goes Digital.”

There are some interesting theories and statistics here. Firstly, youngsters are extremely social and want to share their books with friends and e-book technology is perceived as too restrictive. I thought that perhaps the teens did not have access to comfortable e-book readers. The majority has cell phones, but I am not including this. 60% of those surveyed receive technology from their parents as the latter upgrade.

makes another excellent point It is not just young adults propelling YA books like the Hunger Games trilogy onto e-book bestseller lists:

– 30-44-year-olds constitute 28 % of YA print book sales and 32 % of YA e-book sales. -18-29-year-olds buy the most YA books, purchasing 31% of YA print sales and 35% of YA e-book sales.

Making a decision to invest in the YA fantasy e-book market doesn’t look as attractive as for genres aimed at adults, but this is going to change as more young people receive the necessary devices. Also, the realization that the YA market goes not from 12-18, but 12-44 year olds make for a more encouraging prospect.

A final interesting point is that this age group is more likely to buy a book because of a recommendation on a social network.

Now, please excuse me, this 47-year-old is going to read The Hunger Games, recommended to me by my 13-year-old son.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Protesting by Lawsuit: Politicians and Wall Street Sued – Roger Ingalls

Middle-class America has taken hit after hit for the past thirty years. It’s time to fight in a manner recognizable by the political liars and financial bullies. Perhaps we should protest by suing (en masses) congressmen, presidents, banks and related financial institutions.

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AMERICAN MIDDLE-CLASS HOUSEHOLDS

Plaintiffs,

v.

UNITED STATES CONGRESSMEN (from 1980 to Present), UNITED STATES PRESIDENTS (from 1980 to Present), ALL BANKS RECEIVING BAILOUTS (from 2007 to Present), and MAJOR CREDIT RATING AGENCIES

Defendants

CAUSE of ACTION

  1. Since 1980, plaintiffs’ wealth has transferred to Wall Street, big businesses, the rich, banks and other financial institutions due to legislation enacted by Washington politicians.
  2. Since 1980, Presidents and Congressmen have breached campaign promises and oral contracts presented to plaintiffs during election cycles.
  3. Presidents and Congressmen have created legislation favoring Wall Street, banks, big business and similar entities as compensation for heavy campaign financing.
  4. Since 1980, Congressmen and Presidents have enacted legislation deregulating the financial industry.
  5. Banks engaged in reckless business practices that caused the financial crisis starting in 2007 to present. These reckless practices had a negative and catastrophic impact on the worth of plaintiffs’ assets.
  6. Banks and credit rating agencies established relationships that enabled faux-positive grades on toxic financial products.
  7. As a result of defendants actions referenced in items 1 through 6, plaintiffs’ owned assets and ability to grow wealth have greatly diminished.

WHEREFORE, plaintiff demands judgment against defendants as set forth below:

  1. Compensatory damages of $10,000,000,000,000.00;
  2. Cost of suit; and
  3. Such further relief as the court may deem proper.

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It would be interesting to see how the financial industry and elected officials respond to this type of political activism.

Any law professors or students out there willing to take on a project like this? Facebook and Twitter are a great way to spread the word, gather plaintiffs and get public endorsement.

Let’s send a message they understand.

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Roger Ingalls is well-traveled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

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