Archive for 2012 April

“I will not walk away from the promise of green energy”: Obama

This year, despite the failure of the solar firm Solyndra, to which a half-billion dollars of Federal aid was guaranteed, President Obama reaffirmed his support of green energy. He said so in January, when the right was stirring on pot of this issue, reminding one and all of a lost $535 million. The Prez confronted the issue directly and appears to have put it to rest with his declaration that I will not walk away from the promise of green energy. (It doesn't hurt that green energy consistently polls well, from North Carolina to California and all across the country, by huge margins

Brings to mind this instant classic from Joel Pett. 

Climate better world cartoon[1]

If only we had such problems! 

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Winner of Ventura county climate action award: 2012

Yours truly doesn't often win awards — it's been since college, actually — so when I won an award for my climate reporting (cited was Drought-Proofing Ventura County) it's news worth posting here.  

I was up against fellow reporter and friend Zeke Barlow, who unfortunately for the county has taken a job in Virginia, and an professor. Here's a link to a picture (bottom right) of the winners: I'm standing (for the curious) on the lower far right, between two men, two supervisors, in dark suits.  

Here's the plaque. 


In sustainable bamboo. Yes, I'm happy to be called a hero for once. 

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The feminism of The Hunger Games: Katha Pollitt

It's cultural news when an esteemed writer/critic/poet goes head over hells for the latest in pop culture. Expresses his or her love for a work's artistry, even if a million other people love it too, even if it's making a gazillion dollars. To a believer in democracy, this ardency speaks for itself.

Philosophers such as Plato and Kant say that's wrong, but I say the human response to an artistic offering deserves to be a part of the weighing of its worthiness, if not the only part. 

So let me turn this space over to Katha Pollitt, who in The Nation marvelously explores The Hunger Games. After gushing for a moment about the book and the movie, she turns to well-accepted interpretations of the story: 

There are many ways to analyze The Hunger Games. You can see it as a savage satire of late capitalism: in a dystopian future version of North America called Panem, the 1 percent rule through brute force, starvation, technological wizardry and constant surveillance. The Games exemplify these methods: as punishment for a past rebellion, each of the twelve districts of Panem must sacrifice two teenagers, a boy and a girl, to come to the Capitol (sic) and compete in a televised ritual of murder and survivalism until only one is left. Tea Partiers can imagine an allegory of oppressive Washington, and traditionalists can revel in the ancient trope of the moral superiority of the countryside: the district people are poor and downtrodden and wear Depression-style clothes but they live in families, sing folk songs and have a strong sense of community. In the Capitol, which has the dated-futuristic look of a fascist Oz, the lifestyle is somewhere between the late Roman Empire, the court of Louis XVI and the Cirque du Soleil. You can also read the book as an indictment of reality television, in which a bored and cynical audience amuses itself watching desperate people destroy themselves, and the movie plays this angle for all it’s worth.

Much to unpack here, but note how she catches the movie's ability to avoid taking sides politically. To reach young and old, leftists and Tea Partiers. And that's not even mentioning its feminism:

The element that is the most striking to me, though, is Katniss, portrayed in the film by the splendid Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss has qualities usually given to boys: a hunter who’s kept her mother and sister from starving since she was 11, she’s intrepid and tough, better at killing rabbits than expressing her feelings, a skilled bargainer in the black market for meat. No teenage vegetarian she! At the same time, she’s feminine: never aggressive or swaggering, tenderhearted and protective of the defenseless—when her little sister Prim’s name is chosen for the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place; during the games she risks death to protect the lovable girlchild Rue (Amandla Stenberg). Not to get too literary about this most popular of popular fiction, you can see Katniss as a version of the goddess Artemis, protectress of the young and huntress with a silver bow and arrows like the ones Katniss carries in the Games.  


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The heroism of the lonely PhD

Deep in a magnificent USA Today team investigation last week was hidden a revelation: How a PhD doctoral candidate doing historical research discovered — and publicized — a massive threat to public health.

From Ghost Factories:

In April 2001, environmental scientist William Eckel published a research article in the American Journal of Public Health warning about the dangers of old smelting factories. While working on his Ph.D. dissertation, Eckel had identified a historical smelting site unknown to federal and state regulators and wondered how many other sites had been forgotten over time, their buildings demolished or absorbed by other businesses.

Eckel used old industry directories, which he cross-referenced with EPA databases, to come up with a list of more than 400 potential lead-smelting sites that appeared to be unknown to federal regulators.

Eckel confirmed that 20 of the sites' addresses were factories — and not just business offices — using Sanborn fire insurance maps, which detail the historical uses of individual pieces of property. An additional 86 sites were specifically listed in directories as "plant" locations. He paid to have soil samples tested from three sites in Baltimore and five in Philadelphia. All but one of the samples exceeded the EPA's residential hazard level for lead in areas where children play.

Eckel's article warned that the findings "should create some sense of urgency for the investigation of the other sites identified here because they may represent a significant source of exposure to lead in their local environments." The research indicates "a significant fraction" of the forgotten sites will require cleanups — likely at state and federal expense — because most of the companies went out of business long ago.

The study points the finger at the EPA.

Of the 639 sites, 170 (27%) were listed in the US EPA Facility Index System database; 469 sites were not listed. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, US EPA regional offices reported having files on 14 additional sites (2%). After these 14 sites and 16 “officeonly” locations were eliminated, approximately 435 of the 639 sites identified in the literature search (68%) were apparently unknown to the US EPA. A further 5 sites (all in Massachusetts) were listed by state authorities among the 8 states with the largest number of sites, which left about 430 previously unrecognized potential sites (67%).

The EPA, perhaps due to a lack of resources, hasn't done much. But give credit to USA Today for its huge follow-up. The LA Times in the past has claimed to be the best at "gang-tackling" reporting, but in this case it clearly has competition. Amazing story.

Here's an image from a fire in a smelting factory in Philadelphia in l952 that "sickened dozens." . 


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Elizabeth Taylor: The accidental feminist

A new book titled The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We were Too Distracted by her Beauty to Notice argues that the movie star's explorations of gender in (National Velvet) desire (in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and rage (in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) changed our understanding of women and men. 

It's occasioned a lot of wonderful commentary, such as this open from Larry McMurtry: 

If one is attempting to judge the depth and force of a woman’s feminism—the woman, in this case, being the American actress Elizabeth Taylor (1932–2011)—surely the first thing to do is to determine exactly what feminism is. The most succinct opinion I’ve seen is the famous doormat quote from Rebecca West:

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.

And in BookForum, Rhonda Lieberman brings examples:

 In National Velvet(1944), Liz is a "twelve-year-old warrior against gender discrimination." A Place in the Sun(1951), in which Liz is the ultimate dream girl, Lord says, "is hard to view as anything other than an abortion-rights movie . . . [dealing] with the tragic consequences of stigmatizing unwed pregnancy."… In Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Liz's character crusaded against lobotomies for inconvenient women. (If that sounds far-fetched, Lord offers as context the appalling story of Rosemary Kennedy, who in 1941, at the age of twenty-three, was lobotomized at the request of her parents, Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., for being "disruptive.")

Elizabeth taylor by becil beaton

I'm convinced. 

[Taylor in l954, photographed  by the best studio still photog, Cecil Beaton]

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Not everyone on the right likes Marco Rubio: Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher, a true conservative who holds some crunchy values (such as a faith in local foods, architecture respectful of traditional values, and nature) has sharp words for Marco Rubio, the young Florida senator who at a glance seems to be the veep choice most likely to help Mitt Romney:

This guy, Rubio, is supposed to be the great hope of the GOP? If a man with this foreign policy view, a conservative who cannot bring himself to acknowledge the Iraq debacle and its lessons for going forward, is chosen to run with Mitt Romney, I think we’ll know pretty much all we need to know about the wisdom of voting Republican this fall. It’s like the last 10 years have disappeared down the memory hole. The same people and same thinking that led to this mess still run the Republican Party; look at Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbon monarchs, so too we should say of the GOP: “They learned nothing, and forgot nothing.” 

Meanwhile Karl Rove, one of the architects of the Iraq debacle, posts an electoral map strangely favorable to the Prez. More spin from the Turd Blossom? Seeting up a GOP "comeback?" 

Roveelectoral college
via Slate's Dave Weigel. 

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Condors recover, feast on roadkill near Ojai

In an Earth Day editorial this past Sunday, the Star noted that the captive breeding program that brought the California Condor back from near extinction has become so successful that condors in Ventura County are no longer even newsworthy: 

It was 25 years ago this month that the last free-flying California condor was plucked from wild and taken to join the 26 other remaining members of his species in a captive-breeding program.

The condors once soared in great numbers over the Western Hemisphere, but their population dropped dramatically in the 1900s due to poaching, lead poisoning and loss of habitat.

However, the captive breeding program has proved a phenomenal success. So much so, it is no longer big news — as it once was — when a condor chick hatches.

Today, the species' population hovers around 390, including more than 200 of these gangly birds known to be living in the wilds of California, Arizona and Mexico's Baja California; the remaining condors are in zoo breeding programs.

Clearly, the story of the California condor delivers a message of hope as one can now envision the continent's largest bird soaring over the backcountry of Ventura County.

It's true! And it's not just the backcountry — they like roadkill just fine. Believe it or not, I saw a young condor — with its characteristic red head — consuming a dead skunk by the side of the road today not more than a couple of miles from home in Upper Ojai. I did take a picture, with the phone, and in it you can see the characteristic spread of the primary feathers. 


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Country music helps mourner find father’s ghost

If there's one thing you learn working with story ideas in the movie industry, as I did for many years, is that people, ordinary people, desperately want to hear from the realm beyond life. ("The undiscovered country," as Hamlet memorably put it, "from whose bourn no traveler returns.") 

Here's a spooky, memorable example from PostSecret


This is the kind of ghost I could believe in: spooky, and not all-powerful. 

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Condors vs. wind turbines: Wildlife vs. green energy

Here's my story on this fascinating topic from the Star on Sunday, which my editor liked and nicely smoothed out for the centerpiece of the front page. Always interesting, watching a good editor at work. 


Great pics, too, from personal fave Juan Carlo.

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Drought-Proofing Ventura County

How a water district is trying to shelter 600,000 people in Ventura county from the potential for drought or disaster; how the first attempt went awry, and how the second one will work — we hope. (Climate change is in the background of this story, but I didn't get into the projections — no time.) 

Drought-Proofing Ventura County

And here's the architect of the $300 million plan, Calleguas' director Susan Mulligan.  

Susan Mulligan

I was very impressed with Susan, her plan and her willingness to answer difficult questions. Doesn't take much to charm a reporter. Just answer his questions directly, really. 

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