The fires this time- having the luxury of a distant perspective

My friend and not too distant neighbor Doc Searls posted a geological outlook on the ecosystem here in fire plagued California. And he looks both past and present in doing so. Doc is always a good read.
And inspired my comment, which I re-post here.

People come to California to reinvent themselves, free from the constraints of ‘home’. Yet they don’t adapt to the physical reality of where their psychic freedom is achieved. Only since jurisdictions started enforcing building codes have we seen the end of shake roofing in southern California. Our past is pretty clear- when there is death and suffering, we’ll respond.
As my very smart sources in “Proof or Propaganda” told me- we are a very clever species. How much suffering will occur before we adapt the laws of humans to the facts of chemistry and physics is yet to be seen. Nearly 80 years since Fuller pointed out we could feed everyone, we still haven’t. Global television makes that suffering very available and yet not compelling.
Short of the most extreme asteroid hitting the planet or nuclear holocaust scenarios, humans are likely to persist and prosper.
While millions of Mayans may have starved over a decade or so of that society’s demise, there wasn’t global telecom to show those who were sharing the planet at the time. We really don’t know what will happen on so many levels. We seem to be able to watch Darfur and keep our selves under control.
Geologic perspective can be misleading too. Humans have succeeded to this level because we have had geologic and climate stability for 10- 15,000 years. Will the lessons learned from those successes be available in the future? While we have built seed repositories, will those who find them be able to make use of them?
“The little ice age” was a challenge to emerging agriculture, but previous ones only prove that we can survive as hunter/gatherers.
We started burning wood, and went to coal and oil because they were easily available and convertible. Governments subsidized that transition heavily. Given what we know about the risks of continued burning, to say nothing of the increasing costs-security as well as monetary- and lack of availability to bring another billion people into even third world middle class standards of living, borrowing against the future to own the clean coal price generation of kilowatts is a good bet.
Betting on human nature to change without widespread pain and suffering is probably not as good a bet. We may be decades away from those painful possibilities. That gives those who benefit from those coal trains crossing the continent plenty of time and money to make sure that things change over as long a time frame as there is still coal easily and cheaply available.
The very successful memes of the individual are currently much more effective than those of the collective. Unless the balance shifts toward collective benefit,only the efforts of enlightened capitalists offer promise.
That said, it was a beautiful humid day in Santa Barbara. I’m looking forward to more.

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Are we ashamed yet?

As pointed out by Mona Gable on Huffingtion Post, white people are going to meetings and behaving badly. From comparing our elected representative with Nazis for things they haven’t even suggested, much less done, to having the lack of self awareness to not realize the irony of showing up to scream down a health care discussion while obese, a certain set of people are showing us just how to stop things from happening. Things like an earnest and honest discussion, or a full exploration of alternatives.

Fortunately I am so conditioned by advertising and my time in the last century to know that those are ‘my people’ even though I can certainly see white in my hair. I know that I’m not like them because I haven’t tried to shout down anyone since my kids got out of preschool and I gave up being a referee for AYSO.

The whole health care ‘debate’ is a sorry excuse for public discourse much less democracy. What’s happening in Iraq looks more honest and authentic Where are all those smart young ground troops that helped elect Obama now? It looks like the party in power put the freshman team on the field and they’re getting their butts kicked by the other sides sympathy alumni (didn’t even attend or graduate) pickup squad.

And Mona’s absolutely right. Their behavior isn’t called for. A single person whispering into the microphone “We don’t trust you” would be more compelling, especially if it was somebody’s grandma. At the heart of the resistance to much of what is being proposed right now is our lack of confidence in any government to do a decent competent job. Any and every person that gets an income from a government should be looking in the mirror right now and asking “am I part of why they don’t trust government?”

Between six hundred dollar toilet seats, $150 hammers and weapons systems for threats that don’t exist, and education systems that can’t produce mediocre results much less world beaters while spending more than half a state’s budget (California educators this means you), the people of this country have reason to doubt that a government role in health care is a good thing.

Now lest you think I’m ranting, or am still riding Reagan’s “government is the problem” bandwagon, I never thought it was “morning in America”. I am a former board member of my labor union, and I still support the right to collectively bargain as being equal to, and part of, the individuals right of self definition. I recently completed a government contract with a program at NOAA , and found the competence and quality of everyone I dealt with to be extraordinary. In fact I tell people that if only all of us taxpayers could meet and work with the members of the US Global Climate Research program, we would be of the opinion that our taxes are producing great results.

But that billion dollar annual success gets wiped out by one pallet of cash that disappears in Iraq, or any of a dozen or so no bid defense deals. It certainly doesn’t make up for the fact that Swedish and Korean kids get more time on math and science instruction. And it clearly hasn’t made me forget about the fact that a few manipulative interests can twist even a really good idea like paying someone to counsel you once in a while on your rights when you are a patient in the health care system into ‘death panels.’

Why these old fat white guys ( they aren’t all fat or white by the way) would rather have a private sector profit participant decide they should have their plug pulled than a government bureaucrat beats me. I haven’t seen anybody yet who can convince me that we don’t have rationed health care already. It’s who’s doing the rationing that we ought to be concerned about.

Do we really like horror movies and monsters all that much? Why do we keep inviting them to our discussions about important topics? Whether the topic is health care, product safety or the climate, the people who are trying to scare you aren’t interested in your best interest., much less society’s. Their looking out for their own skin, and more than likely pockets. I’d like to see the Vegas line on whether a competent journalist can draw a line from those screaming faces at the town meetings to insurance company lobbyists. Then at least we could blame the media for illuminating something besides a lack of civility.

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It doesn’t matter if you are black or white….

Earlier this week I posted on an analysis of the powerful influencers upon the climate bill that narrowly passed Congress last Friday. In spite of the enormity of this and other events of the past few days, the dominant news story as been of Michael Jackson’s death. Today my clock radio woke me with the morning show’s hosts going on about the imminent population explosion to take place in the county due to an estimated quarter million visitors expected to pay their respects to Jackson at Neverland Ranch Friday and Saturday. That number represents a 60% population growth virtually overnight for Santa Barbara County, which was already anticipating tens of thousands of tourists for the holiday weekend. How such a crowd will flow through the pair of two lane roads that access the 2600 acre ranch, much less all have adequate water food or housing are among the challenges for local authorities, hospitality vendors etc. The 30 car motorcade expected around noon Thursday to pass through the South Coast on the 101 freeway will probably cause widespread disruption of normal activities. It is another once in a lifetime event here this year in my neighborhood. And I have to wonder what kind of attention is appropriate. What is there for one to take away from this wonderment and attendant circuses?

There are some who are rightfully questioning the extent of attention the death of a celebrity is gathering. Most seem to discount the importance of culture; however it manifests itself, to our daily lives. Belief is clearly the most powerful influence on humans after nature itself. Once we have food and water, warmth and comfort, humans have focused on rituals around belief and culture to both maintain and increase our sense of security. Those beliefs, whether secular or spiritual, are the foundations of our nations and religions. They are also the source of the longest running conflicts in this world.

Michael Jackson, regardless of one’s taste in music, or views on family beds, or race or whatever, derived his status, celebrity and power from a unique source- talent applied with fervent dedication. The emotional reasons and unique history that produced that talent also have been widely written about. I want to highlight the distinct difference between this source of power, and that exerted in Congress, or in the courts, or hallways of schools, business or homes.

While the world has had popular singers- Frank Sinatra and Elvis have been mentioned in trying to place Jackson in the firmament of stars- none have been as influential as broadly over various sectors of society or time as Jackson. While Bing Crosby came to dominate US culture in mid 20th century, and be a part of revolutionizing industry and commerce with his technology investments, and breaking new ground with his golf based philanthropy, Jackson’s legacy in redefining music multiple times, breaking the color line in pop, on MTV, with his own skin, turning fashion repeatedly, making half time of the Super Bowl a higher rated program than the game, redefining charity with “We Are the World” and ultimately becoming a completely new book of weird were all beyond any previous ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’.

It is hard to imagine in the networked fragmented niche based media world that is emerging that anyone will ever have the opportunity, much less the creative juice, that Jackson squeezed out of his several turns in the harsh bright light of world attention.
Power like this generated a lot of money, but was not derived from it. Jackson was not a business average, nor have been the many who have had the position of managing him. His talent drew other talents like Quincy Jones, who we can say is a brilliant and significant multiplier of others, especially Jackson. Whatever his estate’s value, Jackson himself manifested and riveted our attention at a scale that rivals a terrorist’s fondest dream. But his talent was that he did it with song, dance and style. That’s power folks. And while plenty of pundits said he couldn’t do it again, his London shows were sold out to people who were willing to bet their money and time he was going to do it all again.

It’s truly humbling to think that as we struggle with our daily existence, trying to figure out how to make a difference, change consciousness or just our weight, Michael Jackson was really way, way out there in so many directions, showing us just how radical and extraordinary humans can be.

There will be millions reflecting on Jackson’s influence on their lives this week. There will be those attempting to cash in on his celebrity whether by selling overpriced water along the road to Neverland, or broadcasting the reflections and comments of D list celebrities. It will be easy to get inundated by the junk.

While we might go out to the overpass to see his cortege pass by, or watch the news to see if chaos is breaking out in the Santa Ynez Valley, my true lament and mourning will be for the loss of a single weird white black man who could make us all stop and look when he got up to sing and dance. It really doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. We are the world, and we are not going to see the likes of this person again.

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows-

Today, the fifth day of the Jesusita Fire, there is a marine layer over the area. We are blanketed with a light fog. Neither the ocean nor mountain views are available.
There is very little activity in terms of trucks or helicopters.
As the fog breaks up, blue sky makes it possible to see that the burning in the West Fork drainage of Cold Springs is either out or so low as to not make any visible smoke. What fire trucks go by are full of men with smiles and peace signs. One truck is going door to door and seeing how people are. From Buena Park they have little to go on. They asked about the burn areas around my house, and whether or not this is from the current fire.

It feels like the disaster and crisis is over. With nearly thirty thousand people evacuated or warned to be ready, authorities are under pressure to let people back into their homes. Those whose homes were most challenged Tuesday through Thursday are especially eager. While it is highly unlikely that the fire can return there, letting people in creates a whole new set of challenges for a fatigued force of sheriffs and police.

The Tea Fire was a fast violent explosion that took days to clean up from. This fire has been more like a slow breathing beast. Each afternoon it would exhale hot air from above and create havoc reaching down toward the densely populated town. Each night it would inhale and the flames would go uphill often raking ridges and rises where people have built for views. During its retreats it would burn the remote areas, something we actually want to have happen, so inaccessible that only helicopter drops are safe and effective.

Since late Tuesday I had thought that only a set of extraordinary events could create a threat to my home, and by Friday at 7:30am, those things had all taken place to the extent that mandatory evacuation for my neighborhood was put in place. While we had prepared what we wanted to take away, it seemed premature to actually take the steps. By mid morning we had moved vehicles, loaded up and my family set off. My wife took the dogs to the Humane Society. The cats were not cooperative so remained with me.

It was a lovely day in the neighborhood. Sunny and warm, with a light but consistent cooling air off the ocean. Each time a puff of stronger stuff would touch me, I would turn my face to it and find myself looking at the ocean. I spent the time piling everything flammable in my yard in a couple of stacks and arranging sprinklers to wet them. I replaced the cardboard filler in the front door with a piece of wood. We are still reparing things from the Tea Fire -the stained glass in the door having been broken by firemen rushing through. It gives the entry a bit of riot zone look.

Someone emailed and asked if things were as bad as the news looked. Well, yes and no. Depending on where your home is, and where you are, and which way the wind blows, you might be enjoying a beautiful south coast day, or an exhausting nerve wracking set of stomach twisting events all as variable as the breeze.

Having the benefit of experience, I was fortunate to be one of the former, but only because I have been one of the latter. Learning the fire lexicon, doing the things that make a home defensible and understanding how the public safety apparatus thinks and works become important life skills, if you are to live in a fire area. Clearly more education in this area should be added to the local welcome wagon.

So thanks to all of you who have expressed concern, and held me and mine in your thoughts. From noon yesterday to this point, we can consider this effort well spent and productive. You have all been brilliant in creating the weather we needed. Keep it up!

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Throwing out the baby with the bath water- why ala cart is destructive

As a consumer, I totally relate to the frustration that Doc Searls articulates in his post last Friday. Pay tv, whether it arrives on a wire, via a cableco or a telco, or through the air via a sat service, is a lot of money for a limited set of what you want.

As a producer, though, without stable pricing and cash flow, the media market becomes even dicier.

The current system may put a lot of garbage at your beck and call, but as the old saying goes, one’s garbage is another’s treasure. I haven’t ever spent a minute watching a shopping channel, but clearly there is an audience for it. I have watched Spanish language television, but mostly to watch sports I couldn’t get any other way. (The Olympics were especially rich thanks to those channels). I have no use for many other of the selections available to me.

Yet if we had ala cart, the selection would be reduced even further. The costs to market every single show, especially to those who are not online ( the least prosperous among us) would prevent most shows form finding an audience.
Right now, with theis system, the majority of programing created never gets to positive revenue. Even a low budget cable show needs to reach a second season to be actually paying people’s mortagages and living expenses. Steady work in production is precious to generating a skill pool that has a career much less supports families and communities

So yeah- the big pipe is full of sludge. The bell curve says it always will be. Humans do not just fall in the top half, even in Lake Wobegon.

I would suggest that the alternative is emerging by buying directly from the author, much like in music. If you really want to get off the duopoly, write/call your favorite producers and offer to buy direct. Ask for an encrypted uniquely watermarked file that could be traced to you if you share it outside your household. Tell them which window of release (time frame) you want to watch in- ie. Would you want a ‘first release’ premier (watch the Super Bowl live) ?Or would you be happy to get it later ( maybe six months later)? Would you want it when it was also in the public library or on YouTube, but in HD?

Let’s find out how much your favorite shows cost then. Or better yet how much one of those shows you don’t know about yet, but you see in rotation on Comedy Central by accident when you are skipping the commercials during the Daily Show, costs you for the first sample. IF producers are successful enough, you’ll get free samples, hoping to hook you like a drug dealer. If not, you’ll get much less selection, much less alternative, and even more LCD (lowest common denominator) on your LCD. We all want change, but every change in every curve is experienced as a disruption by somebody. How much disruption are you willing to deal with?

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Normal and customary

Last Friday, the Santa Barbara District attorney announced her decision to charge the ten people who had a bonfire in the Tea Garden the night before the Tea Fire destroyed over 180 homes, with misdemeanors.
In the three months since the fire, there has been a constant calling for making the names public, speculation as to why not and generally a lot of venting, particularly in the News-Press. For the many people whose lives are forever changed by the fire, the need to assign blame and see ‘justice’, if not actually ‘make someone pay’ for this event and its consequences, this decision is a disappointment.
Craig Smith’s Blog: DA’s Decision Leaves Many With That Empty Feeling does a good job of detailing the legal reasoning for how this decision could be arrived at.
Just as significant though is how we humans seem to go through life always looking at the responsibilities of others. Fact is, all of us live somewhere with a natural vulnerability. Here in the foothills of coastal California, wildfires and mudslides visit destruction and death far more than the leas frequent and massively more powerful earthquakes. You might live with the threat of tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms or flooding. The real issue is have we taken account of where we live, the risk these circumstances put us and our loved ones in, and prepared ourselves for dealing with that reality?
It is just one of the problems we have in the modern world-thinking that the environment or natural world is ‘over there’ or ‘someplace else’ as opposed to recognizing that even in deepest Manhattan, we are all in effect of natural forces. All of us are dependent on the water and food cycles and systems that support our daily life. Yet how many of us are ready for them to be disrupted?
As a person whose home and family survived the fire, but whose lives are never going back to what was normal November 12, I would like to see those who are negligent and ignorant of broader understanding to be sanctioned. But the fact remains that had it not been this cause, something somehow would have caused this area to burn.
As was said to me by the local fire captain over a decade ago when I asked for advice about the location of my home “when the fire happens, it won’t matter how or why” and he also emphasized “when, not if”.
Living anywhere pretending we are somehow masters of our world may be the usual MO for modern western civilization. For most people, most of the time, we get away with it. And when something happens to prove us wrong, we want someone to blame, someone to hold responsible. Even more rarely, we sometimes do. But I doubt even the largest settlement check seems worth it. It is hard to imagine that the ten young adults in this case would have even a fraction of the half billion estimated losses in this fire to contribute in their entire lifetimes. The justice available would be fleeting and mostly empty.
What would be better is that we acknowledge our fragile place in the natural order, and seek to be as prepared as possible.

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Breaking windows- changing our thinking to change the world

Over the weekend my sometime neighbor and constant thinker, Doc Searls posted on two aspects of our current energy paradigm- taking fuel for our economic engines from below.
His photo of ‘coal ranching’ in Wyoming illustrates the challenge we have in accepting that full costs of how we live. In the comments section, RBM laments that “affluence seems to be able to delay the inevitable pain”.
On the second post, Doc points at the LA Times editorial endorsing the failure of an unprecedented collaboration of an oil company and the famously strong environmentalists of the Santa Barbara Channel GOO (Get Oil Out).

There are, in the posts, the comments, and the issues themselves, a lot of fallacies, false choices and misstatements of the situation. First, the full costs of how we live are present all the time. While we live in the fantasy of Adam Smith’s economics, where externalities are something you don’t pay for, the physical fact is that there is no externality, no ‘downstream’ and no ‘away’. The pain is present in the poison in the fish you can no longer safely eat, the degraded health of millions, and the fact that your body right now carries and deals with various chemicals and compounds that your great grandparents never could have encountered. The only thing affluence enables is denial of these physical facts.

Second, there is more kinetic energy available on the planet right now than even ten billion of us living at western middle class standards can use. Sun, wind, and wave energy on the surface of the planet exceed our current needs. For instance the daily US energy need is equaled by the sun that falls within a one hundred and ten square mile area. Unfortunately, the current best technology we have for gathering solar requires nearly ten thousand square miles of PV glass ( not even enough to put shade over every tenth parking place nationwide) and appropriate cost effective transport and storage of such energy (other than dams for hydro) need to be developed. The amount of energy available in wave and heat differential in the oceans of the world dwarf the needs of a fully built out planet. It is estimated that just a ten square mile kinetic capture operation would supply all of California’s current energy needs.

Third, Doc sounds a note of fatalism when he says that some successor species will mine our cemeteries. Far more likely is that after some cataclysmic die off, humans will mine our land fills and junkyards for all manner of spare parts. Short of nuclear or biological warfare on global scale, or the big asteroid nightmare popular on YouTube and cable end of the world shows, people will adapt whether it be to the “Waterworld” landless conditions or the Star Wars ice planet Hoth.

Lastly, on the political front, the failed accord between an oil company and the local environmental community was exemplary example of the new world we want to live in. The oil company was going to realize a return on investment, and the community was promised an endgame to oil drilling off their shore. There were benefits to both. The state Lands Commission voted against it mostly because they didn’t believe the oil company promise to end operations in 2022. We need to study, and emulate both sides of the matter, while encouraging, nurturing and coaxing the fearful to move forward, as well as learn from their mistakes (keeping some aspects of the deal secret).

Science, as evidenced in every field today, is increasingly multi disciplinary. People crossing boundaries of every sort, coming together and talking about what they know, and what they can agree upon, is how we undo 160 years of design ignorant of the fact that the earth is a closed system. The opportunity to redesign our society to be sustainable is the biggest since the industrial revolution. It will be realized by those who break down antiquated categories and separations, and work towards common goals.

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New Years Eve Surprises – You have to be there

New Years Eve Surprises-

Sometimes, at the last minute, something happens that shifts things. There was the October Surprise, originally Henry Kissenger’s cynical statement that “peace is at hand” and more recently Osama’s 2004 threats that supposedly boosted Bush’s support. And there are those late game heroics in sports that turn a game, and sometimes a season.

This past Wednesday evening, a surprise came in the form of a phone call invitation to attend the 95th Rose Bowl. Not only did the offer include a ticket, but one that allowed me to include a child of mine, as well as a ride. Instantly a day that would have been consumed with lazy bookkeeping and television sports became one of six hours minimum time in a car, with something like four hours of being in a crowd expected to be about 90,000.

Logistics of adequate chip supply shifted to when to leave and just how bad is the parking in the relatively narrow canyon that holds the stadium. The lots, which on most days are fairways, open at 4AM. Given the expected million or so folks who camp out along the nearby parade route, which ends just hours before the game, it is reasonable to figure that half the trip could be spent within a mile or two of the destination.

Just the same, what an opportunity! The game is always a spectacle. Though USC was making its fourth straight appearance and thus taking some bite out of the intended economic boost that a second traveling population would bring, the match up of the 4 and 5th ( or as low as 9th depending on whose poll you read) ranked teams in the country added interest.

So off we went. There was no traffic to speak of. In fact until we were on the off ramp to the Arroyo, we didn’t even see other people that might be considered fans of either school. Once on the surface streets, which flowed nicely into the lots, there were plenty of cardinal and gold adorned vehicles and people. On the grounds, there were many encampments with satellite televisions, in addition to the expected portable cooking devices. We walked about five holes to get to the stadium. Except for the numbered balloons above each lot, there was little sense of progress, as the building itself was not visible until one is quite close.

As luck would have it, we timed things pretty perfectly. The gates had just opened, and although there were two hours before game time, it seemed very relaxed to pass through, wander around and acclimate to our seats ( among the Penn State fans), scout the food stands, bathrooms etc. We watched the teams warming up and doing their pregame rituals. Eventually festivities commenced, which were mostly a bit of each band playing, the head of the Tournament of Roses for this year parading with his family ( a platoon that included grandchildren) across the field in what must be a reward for years of thankless volunteer tasks and contributions of all kinds, and eventually the presentation of the flag, and national anthem.

This was, it would turn out, the most memorable part of the day. The sky was clear, with the San Gabriel mountains just peaking over the rim of the stadium. The colors of the teams, the field and even the crowd were crisp and brilliant. If there was a pastel visible, it was as good as invisible. At the end of the fine arrangement played by the USC marching band, there was the now traditional flyover.

Why you have to be there

While I have been at events where all sorts of aircraft have passed overhead, including biplances, fighter jets and even B-52s, I had never been in the crowd when a stealth plane was the featured vehicle. In this case a lone B-2 from Missouri passed over the Rose Bowl. It’s triangular dark shape does nothing to minimize the 172 foot wingspan (about the width of the field) . The effect on the crowd was immediate and surprising. Where most flyovers signal the end of the vamp and the beginning of the event, and are greeted with whoops and hollering, the low flying B-2 provoked the largest gasp and sigh I have ever heard or participated in.

The B-2 is quiet, ominous, and graceful. It isn’t like anything else you have seen in the sky, even if you have seen a flying saucer. At an estimated cost of over $2 billion per plane ( the original run of 170 was reduced to 20 thanks to the collapse of the USSR) one would expect something impressive, and it is. Just watching it turn and bank off toward the east was a surprisingly evocative experience.

This is not to downplay the game. Its just that there are lots of big games in college football, and you can watch them every fall and winter. B-2 bombers are rare ( only 19 now) and unless you live near the Whiteman base in Missouri, or more recently near a target in Iraq or Afghanistan, you aren’t likely to have seen one in the air in person.

The game, expected to be a defensive struggle pitting two of the leading defenses in the nation this year started out to be just that. Each team traded possessions, with USC fumbling in its own territory with Penn State recovering. The player causing and recovering the fumble had lined up offside, and just like that the pattern of the game was cast. The Trojans took the second chance and went the length of the field on solid running, and crisp middle depth passing.

That Penn State’s offense then responded in kind was the next surprise. Looking very much like they had figured out the USC defense scheme, the visitors from Happy Valley made play after play to tie the game. In the second quarter, USC’s offense exploded, and Penn State’s seemed to have lost the key. Repeated mistakes by Penn State were then exploited quickly and powerfully by USC’s offense. Great efforts and accomplishments by Penn State were negated by penalties or in the most damaging instance, a fumble in the latter minutes of the first half. USC extended its lead to 31-7 and the team had the kind of jumping pile of players celebrating on the sideline that is normally before the game or after. Their sense of having taken control, if not having already won, was a defining moment for people present. While I am sure that this was shown on television, there is no way that the full scope of the event fits inside what a lens sees.

And this too was a present. The power of witnessing things in person is under emphasized in today’s well wired world. The ubiquity of the video from almost any and every noteworthy, and even not barely of interest, occurance has made it seem that we can be anywhere, even though we haven’t gone much of anyplace. Our desk or couch is a sufficient journey to get us a sense of being worldly, experienced and sophisticated in our knowledge of things. Even in what passes for journalism today, the importance of first hand accounts is missed, as we often get as much opinion and analysis from secondary sources as those who were actually at the scene of something.

The Rose Bowl is a great example. While most of the writing about the game has said that it was not as close as the score indicated, my sense of the game, being in the stands, and watching the players, was that USC was much closer to losing its lead and possibly the game, than the attitude of commentators and pundits have expressed. Other than the dominating second quarter, and one three minute burst by the offense to respond to Penn State’s second touchdown, the second half was all opportunity for Penn State. Unfortunately the pattern of talent undermined by random mistakes, occasional defensive brilliance by the Trojans ( as opposed the continual intense attack mounted in the first half) continued. Penn State could not muster effective coordinated offense, relying instead on a number of brilliant individual efforts to scratch out ten more points against a USC that was already losing focus celebrating. USC handed Penn State chances even in the last minute on a bad snap over the punter’s head. Just a few plays executed by Penn State and USC’s premature celebrations would have been the story.

While some say that this is a team equal to other top ranked programs this year, USC failed to keep its intensity and focus past halftime, with the exception of one drive in the third quarter. A team intent on arguing that it deserves a higher ranking would have put up another 21 points before expending efforts on coordinated conga lines on the bench.

Other aspects of personal witness are lost on those who only see through the camera and editing of the live director. The energy and spirit of the fans of both teams, the call and response of the bands, the chance to focus on the interactions between the linemen of both teams ( which both showed a very high degree of respect and sportsmanship throughout ) as well as watching the action away from the ball are all reasons that the experience of actually going to an event needs to be part of everyone who feels that they participate in anything.

I can’t help but feel that being in the hearing room is far more illuminating than watching the CSPAN coverage of our government. No amount of courtroom live coverage is going to bring you and I the insights of a person sitting in the room for the duration of a case. And no full immersion virtual reality helmet and suit are likely to recreate, much less generate, the sense of awe and wonder felt by nearly 94,000 people present to a B-2 flyover at the Rose Bowl.

There is a lot of prognostication about 2009, about the economy, and what we can all expect. But if the rest of my year is like the last hours of 08 and the first day of 09, then I look forward to the surprises and unexpected gifts that being present and open provide.

Best wishes to you for the new year!

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Nothing Normal Here- Get to work.

Yesterday I attended a ‘wake’ for a house- one of the earliest built back when my county had no code. The adobe blocks that survived the fire will be taken down, hopefully at a demolition party. The solid tiled floors will probably have to be broken for soil tests.

Meanwhile I got a chance to look around at the wider world. Listening to the radio, or watching television, one would think that civilization is in near collapse over the confidence crises. While there is a lot of detailed and complicated business that has led to this, the bottom line is that since large internationally significant institutions put themselves in the position of not actually knowing the precise amount of their exposure to risk, those and other large internationally significant institutions have been holding instead of moving their money. As a result, others, both institutionally and individually are also now holding instead of moving their money.

Wall Street suits have prospered for over a century making financial transactions more complicated, and along the way invented a bunch of new ways to create wealth. Some of that has turned into the largest benefits of the industrialized world. Some of it has been hot air which has filled numerous balloons that pop and we are all impacted in the following collapse with whatever real assets were created.

When that boom balloon was the internet, we got left with a really great new way to do almost everything, especially communicate ideas. What we have in the housing bubble bursting is a lot of empty houses that will eventually become homes again. Unfortunately the related derivative bubble only has left us with a surplus of private jets, overpriced luxury goods, and too many MBAs in suits that lack practical skills.

The fundamental thing is best illustrated by a story Jerry Garcia used to tell about living in Haight Ashbury in the late 60s. There could be only five dollars on the street, but if it moved around then everybody got to touch it and everybody felt prosperours. If somebody held it, then nobody got to touch it, and everybody felt broke.

Well that is the state of things right now. Except even those holding the $5 are feeling broke. They don’t feel like they can do the things they were doing just months ago. Demand has dropped across the economy. What you see and hear is a flailing, both from people like Hank Paulson, who is supposedly in charge, down to educated thoughtful comentators and observers. From calls to do something right now or face even worse cicumstances, to recent calls to do nothing, the absence of clarity is striking.

What is required is pretty much the same both at the highest levels, and here on the ground in the wake of the Tea Fire. Whether it is “Grab a shovel and wheel barrow” or “Issue those permits” everybody needs to figure out their purpose, and do what needs doing.  In order to rebuild this community or the economy, the criteria for policy should be the same. If it puts people to work, its good. That work should produce shelter and food first, and employ as many people as possible.

So when you read someone like Paul Krugman (congrats on the Noble man) all you need to ask is “will that put people to work?” and “does it make life better for how many people?” The ideas that promise ‘yes’ and ‘alot’ we should do. The rest need to be reworked if not tossed. Suits pushing paper, whether in courts or on Wall Street need to get reaquainted with shovels and wheel barrows, metaphorically if not in person.

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Tea fire- things I am not ignorant of anymore…

Miracles and hard work.

Luck, randomness, or when geography meets physics.

It has been almost 45 hours since I smelled the smoke. The ‘Tea fire” as they have named it, ignited a quarter mile from my front door. Within a half hour my household of six evacuated as the embers rained upon us, the flames now just fifty yards away. The only consolation as I drove away was that my property was surrounded by the vehicles and personnel of the Montecito Fire Department. Just the same, by the time I had driven the mile to the other end of my street, I had embraced the idea that my house and all of the bits of our lives that it contained would be a pile of ashes within minutes, if not, hours,

While I have slept twice, and sat to relax once, there hasn’t been any real rest or reflection time. All manner of aircraft cycle overhead as they continue to fight the fire which is now mostly in the back country just the other side of the ridge from where we live and the fire started.

I am, and my family is, incredibly fortunate. While I certainly don’t want to discount the apparent randomness or unpredictable nature of natural forces like fire, I am uncomfortable with people’s protestations of luck. One neighbor described the fact that although our little enclave of homes, the most immediate to the origin, were saved, a ‘miracle’. And in the relatively quiet area it is today, this could seem like the appropriate interpretation of events. But all about is the evidence of hard dangerous work having been performed. Scattered about my property are burnt plants, branches, and blackened tree trunks. Across my neighbors walls and fences are many hoses describing the action which took place time and again last Thursday night.

On Friday, after having been able to return home without encountering any authorities, I was working in my yard, putting down hot spots, when the professionals returned, doing it much better than I and with better tools. One asked me how I was doing.

“I’m great, thanks to you guys.”
As he dug his shovel into a smoking bit of my yard, he replied “I was here six times last night. It kept heating back up.”

Across Mountain Dr. the last through street in the area in front of the wilderness, destruction and divine good fortune are spread oddly. In some areas, the hand of fate has hop scotched down one side of the street, taking every other house, while on the other side taking three at a time, and then skipping three. Another curve on the street and one comes across the clean and untouched structure owned by the landlord owner who cut everyone’s mail box down last spring, while all around her all the neighbors homes are gone. Turn another corner and it is a moonscape, all white and shades of grey punctuated by black spires of burn trees, or the remaining posts of a foundation. Occasionally there is the single standing wall of a house, with every edge, internal as well as external, burnt to charcoal.

The flames that leave these results are incredible. When I first saw the tea fire descending the hillside above my house, flames were already 20 to 50 feet tall. The line of fire was a hundred yards across and descending as rapidly as it was widening. I attempted to pick out two landmarks and count the time the fire took to traverse the distance between, but was distracted by the first arriving truck. I was told to evacuate by the first firefighter off the vehicle. By the time we had gathered the dogs, the essential papers firebox, some cursory sundries, and a few bits of art (our family pictures have been in storage since the Zaca Fire last year) a half hour had passed those flames were not only nearing a hundred feet, but they were on the property across the street, maybe fifty yards away.

The experience is visceral. It makes people cry spontaneously. That there are people who look into those flames and think clearly, make decisions that save lives, to say nothing of the actual work, is one of those demonstrations of human adaptability and training that are difficult to grasp, unless you have looked into such a wall of molten destruction yourself, and felt the natural fear and urge to flee.

So the drama and excitement that media allots these events is justified. It may be exploitative and show like as opposed to journalistic and professional. At the opposite end of my street is the local elementary school, and I spent most of Thursday evening in the parking lot or at the fire station across the street listening to the multiple radio channels calling in to the command. When the clock passed nine, many of the television news trucks pulled up there to preprare there ten or eleven o’clock reports. As I went from truck to truck asking for who might have driven by my house, it was apparent that the standards of reporting are varied. One truck pulled up and as the driver hopped into the back of the van to edit the footage, the talent proceeded to primp in the mirror, apply make up and brush her hair. Later I saw this woman do her remote report in high heels, stockings, a short skirt and a fire jacket. To be fair, she might have been called from dinner and a party in LA to come to our corner of the state. But as she was about to go on air, she called out “what street is this?” making it clear that she had not done even the fundamentals of knowing where she was.

I don’t know what the ratings were of the many people I met, some of whom are very familiar to regular news watchers, but I know who I would want reporting anything of real significance to me. One of the people I asked was a young woman who kept hanging around the command truck listening and asking questions of service people who weren’t occupied doing something else.

“where do you live?” she asked back.

“Opposite end of this street” I answered pointing.

“Do you have an old timey car?”

“I have an old fifties car, yes.”

“I just shot an interview there. I have footage of your house.:

“Can I see it?”

“Can I interview you?”

Seemed a fair trade and we went to her truck. Her Spanish born cameraman was reviewing with the editor in the van. They brought up the footage without the sound. The young fireman was clearly tired and dirty, but his energy and dedication was apparent. For whatever reason, he had defended my car from the flames. The footage didn’t really show my house, which meant that is was dark, as opposed to lit by flames. I figured that if my old classic car looked that good, my older home had been defended successfully as well.

The sense of relief was huge. All the thoughts of lost assets, fiscal, emotional, and illusory, lifted. The weight of the challenges of rebuilding the fundamentals of modern existence- a home, clothing, transportation, tons of documentation, was avoided. The many uncertainties from how to handle a life trauma for oneself and children. Having had to sue an insurance company in the past to receive contracted benefits, having this possibility alone removed was a feeling that is difficult to share. Complicating it was the knowledge that lots of my neighbors were losing those assets and more.

As I waited to be interviewed, my son Eric called to say he had just seen the Chrysler on TV. I thanked him and told him to keep watching.

So when the inevitable interview question was delivered, I got to say I felt very fortunate, relieved, and I could thank my interviewer for knowledge that first responders couldn’t give me. So while media may be twisted, let’s give the adrenaline junkies who have to deliver on a broadcast schedule credit. The authorities give press fairly unrestricted access to dangerous situations, and their bosses really can’t be concerned with anything other than getting the story on time.

As soon as it was over, my cell phone was jammed. A little broadcast exposure can do that.

I wanted to go home then. But the fire had spread to Westmont College, about a half mile down hill from my home, and the ashes and smoke were too dense to get through, to say nothing of the police roadblocks.

A little later I decided to drive to the home of a friend where the rest of the family was sleeping. As I drove out of the area it was striking in contrast to the chaos of my street. Traffic was low. Lights were on in homes. Things were normal, smoke free, and pleasant. It was so spooky that I decided to drive back up the hill and loop back toward my house. Dodging around one unmanned barrier, I was able to head west across the windy street that traverses the foot of the hills from the area. In the area east of the fire, there was no smoke, no flames visible. It was strangely quiet. As I got closer, I turned up the small valley the local creek flows in. On the opposite ridge I could see the house three down from mine. The lights were on, and it seemed normal. It was that way all the way to the turn to cross the creek, where suddenly the canyon wall was a quilt of red embers towering above the road. Less than two hundred yards from my back gate, the fire was burning trees, freeing rocks to fall on the road below. It was impassable I was told, and I had to go.

It was not a good nights sleep. We dressed and left early and were able to drive into our street and up to our house with no control. Our house stood as we had left it. At both the east and west ends, fire had burned right up to parts of the structure. In our yard, broad swaths of hedges, scrubs, were black skeletons. Ground I had never seen in twelve years of residence was bare and black. Smoke rose from many places, including a gravity retaining wall a foot from the guest house.

Most striking is the Chrysler. It had been housed in a canvas covered structure. The pipe frame and a few panels of the canvas remained. One wide white wall is blackened by fire, but holds air. While dirty, the paint appears unmarred. Charred wood is on all sides. Just beyond is a totally blackened corner where the two streets that surround our house meet. A dense stand of aloe vera, a water dense succulent, is reduced to black sticks.

The sense of relief was now reinforced by the seeing is believing experience. We spent most of the rest of the morning exploring our neighborhood. Each corner on the walk revealed another staggering vista. Whether moonscape of total destruction or seemingly inexplicable random survivals, remarkable details of spared plants or isolated bits of furniture, the sights were transformative.

What those transformations turn out to be, only time will tell. Tonight I get to sleep in my house, secure that the threats of fire negligible. Hopefully tomorrow, with the power now on, authorities will be open to having grandmas and children return to the homes that await. I look forward to having them all together for the first time in several tumultuous days.

What I do know is that it isn’t just good fortune. It takes miracles and hard work. And possibly, in our little local way, the Tea Fire is a model for what we all face as a nation and world. We need both. And we need to do everything we can to make sure that if we are lucky, having worked hard will put us in position to make the most of it.

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