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economy, 'technology', public space, San Francisco past and present, class, books

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Bees and Bombs

Some personal news and photos below, but wanted to start out ruminating a bit on the recent coverage of the collapse of bee colonies. Elizabeth Kolbert writes about it in The New Yorker, which wasn’t quite up to her climate change writing in terms of sharp clarity and getting through the mysteries to basic facts. Much better is an article in our wonderful local quarterly magazine, Terrain, which is published by the Berkeley Ecology Center. Terrain just gets better and better, and is becoming a real regional and political ecological magazine, which we sorely need in the Bay Area. Gina Covina does a great job of discussing the collapse of bee colonies as a precursor to a more generalized agricultural collapse, at least in terms of the absurd industrial structure of food production. Her insight is to suggest malnutrition as a key element in “colony collapse disorder,” noting that the honeybees that are key to the pollination of all primary agricultural crops are shipped all over the country on trucks, and while stuck in boxes in transit are fed a strange solution of corn syrup and soy protein (both probably GMO, and the GMO crops contain insecticide-like genes!)… the bees that have been found in the collapsing colonies are usually beset with multiple ailments, infections and parasites, apparently suffering a general collapse of their immune systems. The main effort of USDA and agribusiness is to identify the virus or bug that is causing the problem, imagining that by eliminating the cause the system can be maintained. As a stopgap they are importing millions of bees from Australia. But as Covina eloquently argues, it’s the system of agricultural production that is breaking down, for which the bees are merely the canary in the coal mine. (How little we are aware of! Did you know it takes ALL commercially rent-able bee colonies in the U.S. to pollinate the huge California almond crop every year?) Just as we are becoming aware of how bad diets dependent on corn and its derivatives are, wild bees are used to feeding on dozens of different nectars. Commercial beekeepers move their bees from monocrop to monocrop and feed them that ill-advised serum in transit… bad diets lead to bad lives! and dead bees!

So that’s pretty worrisome, but I just finished John Robb’s excellent “Brave New War,” and started in on Mike Davis’s recent “Buda’s Wagon.” I’ve had Robb’s excellent blog listed in the right column here for a while. Brave New World is a great compilation, summary and extension of his ongoing work there. In a nutshell, he’s arguing that the globalization and technological changes of the past decades have permanently weakened the nation-state and its ability to control its traditional responsibilities, especially war. The new generation of global guerrillas are faster, smarter, more innovative, and so small and inexpensive that the lumbering war machines of the state cannot keep up. He’s writing from the point of view of wanting to alert U.S. war planners (originally) and then the population at large (now) to the coming breakdown of modern society that proliferating super-empowered individuals and groups can (and almost surely will) bring about. Since his book was published the inexpensive but hugely effective attacks on “systempunkts” have arrived in Mexico. He argues that the vulnerable and highly centralized energy and communications networks that we still depend on will be attacked eventually, and that the augmentation of the state’s repressive capacities is not only not a help, but makes it worse. Davis’s book details the history of the car bomb, starting with an anarchist bombing of Wall Street in 1920, and following it through the 20th century to its crazy expansion in the recent decades. Corresponding to Robb’s analysis of the steady drop in cost to mount an attack, and the emergence of an open-source logic to armed dissent, the car bomb is the quintessential “poor man’s airforce”. Timothy McVeigh’s attack in Oklahoma City was a great example of how easy it is for anyone to bring down vulnerable targets.

So we should redouble our efforts to re-localize our energy, our food, our water. This is Robb’s advice, to build on a platform logic to increase density and complexity of networks such that major attacks, which cannot be absolutely prevented by any means, can be absorbed with some resilience and flexibility.

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Home and Away

Critical Mass was as fun as usual this past Friday. As I was imbibing my usual pre-ride gin and tonic someone reminded me it was the 10th anniversary of the mini-police riot that Willie Brown unleashed in 1997. Quite a contrast these days, with the police a very small presence, and sometimes actually helpful with corking and cooling down irate motorists. We somehow went up and down Lombard, the dumbest way up (from Van Ness straight up) but going down the other side was blissful as always…

Here’s everyone walking up:

Here’s a guy who wanted me to see how happy he was, a bit before we came to Lombard, still on Van Ness here:

Unlike New York, or Portland, where the police have been really petty and brutal and have reduced participation through aggressive punitive tactics, we’re still enjoying something of a golden era of Critical Mass openness here in SF. Check out this cool video of the 3rd birthday of Brooklyn NY’s (my birthplace!).

I’m happy to report that my book, Nowtopia, will be published by AK Press in April 2008. I put a lot of hours in to writing the second draft this past month, so I’m naturally delighted that the AK folks like it. My other big push of the past few weeks was assembling the “Towering Ideas” Fall/Winter Talks series at CounterPULSE. There’s a version, not quite final, online at that link, but we’ll have another beautiful Hugh D’Andrade poster in print soon. So a somewhat frenetic July has led to some good work that will bear fruit for months to come–always satisfying!

While absorbed with rewriting the book, I had a pang or two induced by critical comments from friends, regarding my incessant criticism of work and wage-labor, particularly my focus on the inherent alienation of selling time for money. Some people argued that actually it’s quite satisfying to be paid to do work they care about… ok, fine. I cannot rebut someone’s lived experience, and it’s not my intention to instruct people how to feel about work. Still, I was glad to come across a review article in the August 16 New York Review of Books called “They’re Micromanaging Your Every Move” by Simon Head. (Sorry they charge $3 to get it)… Head reviews several books, including Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch (that I also utilize as evidence in my book) that detail the rise of Enterprise Software and its role in radically intensifying work, productivity, and profits (and insecurity, emptiness, and anomie). I won’t go into detail, but my new book has a long-ish synopsis of class history in the U.S. that also leads to a discussion of the “revolt against professionalism” that this review does a nice job of giving the groundwork for…

In the news recently was the sad, horrifying story of the man whose 11-month old son died in his car, forgotten by the father as he went to work. How could such a thing happen? The bereaved father, who was not charged with negligence, apparently had just started a new work schedule at the medical equipment company where he works. He drove straight to work with his son strapped in the child seat in back, forgot to go by the childcare center, and when his wife called at 3 in the afternoon, he ran out to find his son dead in the back of the closed, boiling hot car. So sad. Can this be a fatality we can attribute to the stupidity of modern work? I’d say it’s a reasonable explanation.

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Summering

I’m back in something approaching a ‘normal’ groove, happily reconnected to lover, friends, and family. The expensive housing prices here cover the cost of this amazing free air conditioning in San Francisco, which runs all summer long. Here’s the daily flow of cooling pouring over Twin Peaks a week ago (it’s been with us every day lately):

All you folks sweltering in some true summerish hell with temperatures and humidity over 90, eat your hearts out!

Most of us locals get pretty sick of being chilled all summer and have to go somewhere for real summer heat at least for a few days or weeks, but since I had a good dose in Turkey, Hungary and Germany already, I’m very happy to be back in the perfect temperatures of San Francisco!

Summer brings a weird combination of too much to do and some version of entertainment doldrums too. At CounterPULSE we’re having trouble booking our theater this summer, which is also true of many other small-ish venues in town. This weekend we showed Peter Watkins’ remarkable 6-hour film “La Commune/Paris 1871” over two nights to celebrate Bastille Day (We also served about 50 fresh crêpes and several folks brought good French champagne, so it was a fun party). Our pals at AK Press have this amazing DVD box set, which includes also a great documentary on the making of the film, at a reasonable price.

The always bombastic and worth-avoiding July 4 in San Francisco also features the opening day of the annual SF Mime Troupe show, called “Making A Killing.” I’m going to stick to the old adage, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. (I hated it!)… but I think it’s a telling contrast to compare this show, which is basically a predictable and cliché-ridden musical that replays the characters, jokes, and sensibilities that the Mime Troupe has staged for 5 or 6 straight years now, to a weirdly whimsical and surprising new movie, also a musical, called “Colma: The Musical.” I heard a lot of people buzzing about this movie and some good friends really raved about it so I went to see it, not knowing what I was in for… It’s a story of three 18-year-olds just out of high school in Colma, which is the cemetery-filled suburb near San Francisco where all the dead bodies are buried, literally (1.5 million dead, about 1,200 actual residents). The funny take on life, the hilarious send-up of getting a job at the nearby Target, the interaction between the gay Filipino, the fag-hag(ish) gal, and the stiff and straight-ish assimilating “latino” guy are spot-on. The songs are hilarious, occasionally poignant, but the real success of this film is its ability to capture the feeling of life right now in 2007, something very real about what it’s like to come of age in this political and social void… in a way it’s far more politically on the mark than the vapid leftism of the Mime Troupe…

Getting further afield from the formal performances of stage and cinema I attended the annual Heavy Pedal Cyclecide Bike Rodeo yesterday. It’s a very San Franciscan treat, semi-punk, semi-mechanic, semi-Burning Man, all zany and ‘at your own risk’, in a junkyard just off Bayshore… They had their usual motley assortment of pedal-powered carny rides, a bevy of punk bands and periodic live runnings of the life-size MouseTrap, with human mice and hardhatted crew all scurrying about amidst the ornately beautiful rendition of the classic plastic board game. Here’s some shots for your enjoyment:

Not atypical of San Francisco, to get to the Cyclecide event, we walked over Bernal Heights and took the pedestrian bridge down to Bayshore. On our way to the pedal-powered insanity, we encountered this, which I believe passes for “normal” in this country:

Overlooking this normalized lunacy is an advertising billboard pitching alcohol, the most common coping mechanism for people who spend too much time in such situations. On the billboard though, the confusion thickened, as the name of the liquor corresponds to the normal activities of pedestrians, but as you can see, the art indicates that it is somehow emerging from gears, much like a bicycle chain! Talk about mixed metaphors!

And back in San Francisco during the summer means lots of cycling around. By now I have quite a library of images of favorite spots, including this one, the Tennessee Hollow restoration in the Presidio. Here the Park Service removed a dump that had filled in the creek as early as the 1880s, and after some vigorous volunteer labor planting native species, the Hollow is coming back to life. Here are two shots, Oct. 05 and July 07…

Lastly, I’m frantically trying to plot out the entire Fall/Winter Talks at CounterPULSE right now, so the calendar can be printed in about 2 weeks. One event we’ve decided on for the Nature in the City side of the programming will be about Birds in San Francisco, so I’ll leave you with some shots I love. First, a hawk devouring a pigeon on Thanksgiving Day (talk about your Thanksgiving bird!) at Dolores and 19th in 2003 (photo by Tristan Savatier); then a big ol’ owl I’ve seen a lot at the top of the Esmeralda Steps on the Bernal Heights ring road, this photo taken about a week ago; and last another shot of a hawk perched on an electrical tower near Billygoat hill at the end of Castro on 30th Street.

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