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 “May, 2012”

A Little Good News – Roger Ingalls

Every few years I hear this song by Anne Murray and it makes me realize what’s happening today isn’t any different than what was going on years before. All the madness we see and hear about the bad economy, middle-east fighting and third-world killings were also troubling us ten, twenty or more years ago. Here are the lyrics to the song written in 1983.

I rolled out this morning
Kids had the mornin’ news show on
Bryant Gumbel was talkin’ ’bout the fighting in Lebanon
Some senator was squawkin’ ’bout the bad economy
It’s gonna get worse you see, we need a change in policy
There’s a local paper rolled up in a rubber band
One more sad story’s one more than I can stand
Just once how I’d like to see the headline say
“Not much to print today, can’t find nothin’ bad to say”, because
Nobody robbed a liquor store on the lower part of town
Nobody OD’ed, nobody burned a single buildin’ down
Nobody fired a shot in anger, nobody had to die in vain
We sure could use a little good news today
I’ll come home this evenin’
I’ll bet that the news will be the same
Somebody takes a hostage, somebody steals a plane
How I wanna hear the anchor man talk about a county fair
And how we cleaned up the air, how everybody learned to care
Whoa, tell me
Nobody was assassinated in the whole Third World today
And in the streets of Ireland, all the children had to do was play
And everybody loves everybody in the good old USA
We sure could use a little good news today

It’s amazing! Thirty years later and nothing has changed. My first thought when I heard this song again three days ago was, “man…this is pathetic, we hope, push and fight to make the world a better place and we get nowhere…how depressing”. I take a deep breath, think a little more and try to tell myself that this lack of progress is OK by saying, “most of us are still alive and getting by, maybe this is how it’s meant to be…it’s just the circle of life repeating itself”.

But here’s the problem; I want a little good news (the song), if not today then tomorrow. I want an evolving humanity. Why can’t we have world peace, clean air, healthy free people and children playing without fear?

Think positive, be progressive.

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We’ll Never Have That Receipe…Ever – Donna Summer RIP

Earlier this month, Donna Summer passed away, may she rest in peace. I was never into the disco scene; rather I saw it as a (generally unsuccessful) opportunity to pick up a member of the opposite sex. Compared to today’s analytical on-line dating, what we did in the 70’s and 80’s seems practically cave man.

Disco music often seemed superficial as though it’s sole aim was to get you strutting your funky stuff out on the discothèque floor. Coming from a guy who was headbanging to Led Zeppelin and Rainbow, or trying to find his place in the punk music of the day (Boomtown Rats anyone?), I admit this is somewhat ironic at best.

But there was one Donna Summer song that resonated with me as I left England, the country where I was born and had grown up. It occasionally rains in England and this song offered a finality that has stuck with me in everything to do with my birthplace (family and soccer apart, of course).

I really don’t know much about Donna Summer and resisted lifting snippets of other people’s articles on her life and personality. Ms. Summer gave me a gift that traveled with me through three decades and three continents. MacArthur Park resides in my all-time Top Ten. For that reason alone, I want to take a moment and honor her life.

Donna Summer – R.I.P 1948-2012.

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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).

Nature’s Fate? Or Ours?

It’s been over a week since I returned from my most recent trip to Yosemite National Park, and I’m still benefitting from its effects on me. As I enter the park boundary, or escape the world of concrete in one of many other natural areas, I feel my blood pressure drop, as well as my shoulders. My eyes stop aching. The anxiety drifts away. The stench of the anthropogenic world is replaced in my nostrils by the cooling, calming, yet invigorating scents of the forest or the desert. I am home.

 

No, I wasn’t born in the jungle and raised by wolves. But I do feel the pull of the habitat of our long-lost ancestors.

 

In my studies, I have made it my goal to ignore aesthetics and any kind of “warm and fuzzy” values. I want to get to the bottom line in black and white. I often say I want to convince the Dick Cheneys of the world that nature has real value – economic value that can be seen on a balance sheet – and that that value is enormous.

 

I’m certainly right about all that. Lots of great scientists and economists have laid the groundwork for the inevitable and inescapable conclusion that we must manage The Earth and its resources more sustainably, lest we degrade its value and the value of its material and process gifts to us beyond the point of no return.

 

The Earth provides us with literally everything (except the light and energy that come from the sun) we need for life. It also provides raw materials with which we may “improve” our lives and our surroundings. I’m not actually sure the improvements really always work, but nature provides us with the options. And whether God, or Mother Nature, or some stochastic process have led to this world doesn’t matter. It’s here. It’s wonderful. And we must, for so many reasons, take good care of it.

 

The Earth also provides a miraculous process, akin to the flushing of a giant toilet, in the form of waste processing. We can put a lot of junk into our air and even our water and it gets filtered, digested, diluted, or incorporated into something else.

 

These sources and sinks, as they are known to geeky scientists and policy wonks like me, are themselves the source of an infinite amount of wonderful numbers, facts, and figures. I could put you right to sleep with all of it, I’m sure.

 

But I don’t really want to forget about the sights, the sounds, the smells, nor the feelings that I experience when I leave the concrete jungle behind, if only for a weekend. It’s true that I can make cold, hard, black and white arguments for nature and sustainability. But I have to admit that it depresses me that I have to.

 

I always feel, deep down inside, that all a person needs to do is open his or her eyes and he or she will see the path. We came from The Earth. We partner with The Earth. And if we so choose, this relationship can last far into the future… to our benefit and enjoyment.

 

-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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To Our ‘Gay’ President

Dear President Obama,

I have to admit you are full of surprises. As I am sure you are aware from your daily perusal of our humble blog, I am critically supportive of you. I worked for your election, cried when Jon Stewart called the election for Obama as part of The Daily Show and Colbert Report’s special live coverage of Indecision 2008, keeping the live show going a few more minutes in order to announce your/our victory, and praised your Obamacare, even if it was far from perfect.

I didn’t expect you to be so deadly cool and take out bin Laden like you did, when many hawks would be squawking at their roosts deciding if to or not.

Still, you will excuse me if I don’t jump up and down on your decision to support gay marriage, or the tribulations that have followed. You see, Mr. President, you simply did the right thing. That’s it.

I appreciate you having the guts to do it in an election year, but the President should do the right thing. You are the President of everyone – the blacks, the Jews, the Hispanics, the whites, the card-carrying NRA members, the religious and the secular. And you are the President of the gay community. You did the right thing.

So to thank you, here is a song that was brought out when it was difficult to come out as gay in Britain, sung by a singer who is not (I think) gay. But Billy Bragg wanted to be a representative of all progressive people and so he challenged us all with this song.

By the way Mr. President, I chose this version because it features the late Kristy MacColl who tragically died 12 years ago.

Thank you for reading this, sir. Always a pleasure. Here’s to another four years.
Alon

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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).

Speaking Today

I am speaking today (Saturday, 05/26) at the California Writers Club in Fremont on the Devry College campus, 6600 Dumbarton Circle,(rm 223) . All are welcome. I think I’m talking about  The Accidental Activist and why I see ‘Fiction as a Vehicle to Social Justice.’ But you never know!

The meeting starts at 2pm and I speak at 3pm. Maybe see you there?
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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).

Writing to be Read, Speaking to be Heard

I am speaking tomorrow (Saturday, 05/26) at the California Writers Club in Fremont on the Devry College campus, 6600 Dumbarton Circle,(rm 223) . All are welcome. I think I’m talking about The Accidental Activist and why I see ‘Fiction as a Vehicle to Social Justice.’

Often, however, the talk turns at some point to craft and book promotion. Last Friday I offered a list of books that colleagues have highlighted as being instrumental in improving their craft as writers. One of the groups that I facilitate is the monthly California Writers Club – Berkeley Branch Marketing group. We come together each month prior to the general meeting and focus on a topic that one of the members has prepared.

At one of those meetings, a businesswoman suggested that we each decide on a marketing model that suits our books and our own personalities. I’ve read a number of books and they definitely change with the times. I would like to point out three which. apart from anything else, are very recent and most up-to-date with an industry that changes almost monthly.

Get Published Today! An Insider’s Guide to Publishing Penny C. Sansevieri.

I have often shared my enthusiasm for reading from my kindle, but this time I must admit to feeling frustrated. I don’t seem able to flick forward or refer back with ease. This might be me, and if you are an e-reader expert, please share a few tips in the comments below.

Ms. Sanservieri comes from the industry but is astute enough to acknowledge the inevitable changes happening all around us. She does this with commendable objectivity, and also approaches Print on Demand in a similar way.

How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months John Locke

This book has inspired me. The guy comes with an attitude, but he has valid claim to having earned it. He writes very clearly and succinctly and shares his model in simple step-by-step methods. Be warned. Despite the title, I do not believe this is a get-rich-quick scheme, and have no doubt that Mr. Locke works hard and invested money to expedite the process. Still if I only sell a million books in five years, I will be very appreciative of Locke sharing his success.

Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (Smashwords Guides) – Mark Coker

If anyone understands eBook business it is Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, one of the few successful publishing stories of recent years not to include ‘Amazon’ in its title.

All three books have been published in the past 12 months,and can be purchased for less that $15 together (eBooks). Not a bad investment for a burgeoning business.  Now please excuse me. I have some books to read.

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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).

America Gets Punk’d – Roger Ingalls

Have you ever wondered why so many federal laws are passed that favor large Wall Street-partnered corporations while little gets done to protect or improve the well-being of real people? Essentially, it comes down to who is drafting the bills that get introduced to Congress.

Most Americans have a very rudimentary understanding of how an idea or proposal becomes law unless they’ve extended their studies on the subject. A few may remember the simple sidewalk diagram, shown below, that steps us through how a bill becomes law; however, many more of us will recall getting educated by the cool Schoolhouse Rock song I’m Just a Bill.

The process of how a bill becomes law isn’t an issue. Our real focus should be on who is behind the introduction of a new bill, who is writing it and where do they come from. These more pertinent issues (questions) aren’t normally discussed in school or often mentioned in mainstream media. We wouldn’t want the general populous becoming too educated, now would we?!

Below is an interesting flowchart describing how a bill is written in today’s corporate-dominated political climate. Call it Bill Drafting 101.

This flowchart highlights one of many reasons why we need campaign reform. Aides that have worked for or associated with a corporation should not get hired by politicians that have accepted contributions from that corporation or its funded special interest group (PAC, Super PAC or similar). There should be a five year conflict of interest waiting period.

American Idol finalists Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez getting Punk’d by Ashton Kutcher on MTV would be funny but Americans getting punked by politicians and their financial sponsors is criminal.

China and Human Rights Pt. 2

Following on from my blog post on Monday, I have been thinking of the threat China holds over the US. This is not about tanks and nuclear weapons, but money. The US owes China over $1 trillion – I can’t comprehend a number that size.

US companies are falling over themselves to business with China and the government is happy for the revenue.  Ironically, these companies are often collaborating on projects that provide effective tools to quash protests and free speech. A while ago my colleague, Tom Rossi, wrote that corporations exist solely to make money, not to better our society.

Installing surveillance cameras

Here are some examples I provided in an earlier post:

– Cisco Systems (among others) are creating the biggest police surveillance system in the world through a government contract in the city of Chongqing.

– Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, still censors searches in China. Earlier this month, it agreed to provide search results in English for Baidu, China’s leading — and heavily censored — engine. This is taking place 18 months after Google, to avoid aiding the government with such censorship, pulled its search engine out of China.

The Consequences:

1) Shi Tao sits in prison for a 10 year sentence after Yahoo provided copies of his emails to the government.

2) In May 2011, Cisco was sued by Chinese practitioners of Falun Gong who accused the multinational of abetting  the Chinese government through the creation and maintainable of the so-called Golden Shield system. This surveillance system targets and then follows dissidents communicating online, which has led to the detaining and torturing of Falun Gong practitioners.

Cisco took issue with the accusation. The company claims that it does not design it’s programs or equipment to aid the government censor content, intercept communications or track users. It sells the Chinese government standard-issue general network equipment.

In fairness, some of the multinational corporations did begin to take steps after Yahoo’s debacle regarding its role in Shi Tao’s arrest and convictionYahoo, Microsoft and Google joined in the Global Network Initiative which tries to create guidelines to protect “the freedom of expression rights of their users when confronted with government demands, laws and regulations to suppress freedom of expression.”

But these commitments are voluntary. Should the government take a role in clearly setting boundaries? It happened following the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre when companies were barred from selling such technology. Quite rightly, it has been pointed out that effective anti-spam and hacking technology could be adapted to aid repressive regimes.

One executive from Hewlett-Packard, who are bidding for a stake in the Chongqing surveillance project told The Wall Street Journal: “It’s not my job to really understand what they’re going to use it for.”

Really? Is there no responsibility beyond the profit line? Coming from a multinational, probably not.

Which is why, if the United States truly sees itself as the leader of world freedom, it needs to create not guidelines or principles, but laws preventing American technology helping totalitarian regimes. However, we may discover that since our government cannot even get these companies to pay their taxes, it might have little power over such huge economic conglomerates and their powerful lobbyist allies.

Even scarier is the fact that we are confronting a country that is not only strong militarily, but outdoing us financially and to whom we owe over $1 trillion.

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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).

Yosemite and Ron Kauk – Tom Rossi

Last week, some members of my family and I visited that most beautiful of American landmarks, Yosemite National Park. I’ve been there well over ten times, but I never get tired of the rivers, streams, trees, birds, and of course… the three-thousand foot, sheer rock cliffs.

During my trips to Yosemite, I mostly stay outdoors. In fact, I don’t want to listen to the radio, watch TV, or even drive. But this time I saw that a movie about rock-climbing icon Ron Kauk was playing at the Yosemite Conservancy Theater. It was called, “Return to Balance: A Climber’s Journey,” and I had seen a small part of it before, somewhere, so I knew it was really good.

A buddy and I went to the movie and, lo and behold, there was Ron Kauk himself. I hadn’t realized that he would be presenting the movie himself and doing a little talk, as well.

The movie features fantastic cinematography of Kauk climbing and of Yosemite, itself. Kauk’s ascents of (evidently) well-practiced routes were like a ballet – smooth, artful, and graceful. It was enough to make quite an impression on my friend, who had never done any rock climbing.

The beauty of this movie (the first 5 minutes can be seen by clicking here) is certainly reason enough to see it. But Kauk didn’t stop there. In his soft-spoken, humble way, he told us, both within the movie and in the talk, about the way he relates to the natural world.

Kauk sees himself as a part of nature, not an external force, bending nature to his will. He appreciates everything around him when he’s out in the wilderness. He realizes that he has been extremely lucky to be able to spend his life out on the rocks in Yosemite (mostly). He also said he can’t walk past a cigarette butt without picking it up and throwing it away.

The movie shows Kauk in various, Yosemite settings – sometimes climbing, and sometimes just taking in and enjoying his surroundings. His climbing and his quiet times at the top of some huge rock have become quite meditative.

Several years ago, when I was climbing (badly), my climbing partners and I would find ourselves behaving in a similar way to what I think most climbers do. When we reached the top of a rock or sometimes a mountain, we would just sit, without speaking much, and survey the world from our new perch. There is a feeling of accomplishment, to be sure, after completing a challenge. But it was much more than that. The reward for the climb was a new viewpoint and a new perspective on the surrounding area and all that was in it.

Years ago, Kauk was actually on what some would consider the wrong side of an argument about altering rocks with protection bolts and similar gear. The argument was with another legendary climber (and purist), John Bachar. I don’t really know the result of this conflict, but listening to Kauk today, it seems that he has evolved from someone who just pushes the limits of climbing to someone who places great value in the canvas on which he creates his art.

This is a controversy only within the climbing community as the metal bolts in question would probably only be noticed by climbers and maybe photographers. I wish I had known about this in time to ask Kauk how he had been affected.

I did ask Kauk if, as he got older, he would turn more to advocacy for protecting nature. He said yes and explained a few ways he already does a lot like taking foster kids out on trips and so forth. So Kauk’s advocacy might not take the form of Washington lobbying, but I’m sure it will accomplish a lot.

If you’ve never been to Yosemite, you owe it to yourself to go. Just don’t go on Memorial Day or anything – too crowded. Of course, there are many other incredible National Parks. Pick one! Make it a priority to visit. Your spirit will benefit much more that it will from almost any other vacation.

-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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Revisiting China and Human Rights Part 1

There has been a lot written about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, the blind ‘barefoot’ lawyer, who after sitting in prison or house arrest for advocating to change the way China forces abortion and sterilization to implement its one child policy.

It is difficult to understand whether Mr. Chen coming to the US as a student is a victory or not, or rather for whom it is a victory. Mr. Chen was clear from the outset that he had no desire to leave China. He wanted to live free of intimidation and continue to advocate for what he believes in.

The US, once again the lone voice in a human rights dispute, seemed more embarrassed than anything else. The fact that Mr. Chen forced his move while Hilary Clinton was on a high-profile visit was an obvious tactical move.

It seems as though the winner might actually be China, who might feel that they have off loaded another angry activist, destined after a few weeks of interviews and media attention to be buried under the next latest news item – and all this during an election year.

Part of me can’t help wondering whether the Chinese didn’t architect all this from the beginning. China excels in surveillance and strong-armed tactics. How does a blind man escape house arrest, avoid security and make his way to the one place in China where there are probably more cameras and surveillance than anywhere else in that country.

Chinese dissidents have a hard time in the US. There was a great article earlier this month, but I can’t find it here about these challenges. An ABC article offers some light on this, but there are a number of cold realities that these dissidents face.

Many of these men and women do not hold qualifications that enable them to enter the job market. There is a foundation that helps them financially. For a proud leader, however, this cannot be an empowering experience.

Often, they did not want to leave China, or at the risk of being clichéd, have left their hearts and family there. They risked their lives to change China, not live in the US. And they are faced with never being able to return.

While their short-lived celebrity status might garner a speaker tour during the first year, they are often not articulate in English and can’t sustain the speaker tour necessity to receive invites back the following year. The tough personalities that such brave people need in a totalitarian state might be difficult to process in the West.

Finally, their ability to influence what is happening in China is extremely limited. The world-wide web isn’t quite as world-wide as we would like to think. Hopefully these dissidents helped train their successors and, with thousands of miles and Chinese surveillance between them, they will find that their positions in the human rights organizations have been replaced.

China has discovered an effective way to neutralize a freedom activist. Send them to freedom and see how they like it there. And all along, the US has been  a compliant if unknowing partner.

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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).

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