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Preview: SFGate: Jon Carroll

Jon Carroll

Updated: 2012-02-06T21:42:54Z


The truth is out there. But where?


“60 Minutes” is a self-mythologizing institution that features stories on splashy technological innovations (heavy on the medical science, because we ain’t getting any younger), national security and defense issues, celebrities who have achieved iconic status in New York, plus the occasional “Gee whiz, look at what the kids are into” feature. There are a lot of stories exposing flaws in our defense system, always with the “our country’s secret peril” angle. [...] prominent is fact-challenged reporter Lara Logan reporting on how the military is wonderful and handsome and charming, and how the Islamic State hates Christians. Nothing better than to get conservative Christians on board with the disastrous hawkish fantasies Logan has been promoting all along. The show is government company line all the way. In Sunday’s program, in a segment on flaws in security clearances, correspondent Scott Pelley went out of his way to slime Edward Snowden, based on utterly no evidence. The latest show also had a piece on CERN, the gigantic collider in Switzerland that sends protons rushing into each other at insane speeds. There was also a little educated chat about string theory, multidimensional universes and dark matter. How many Republican presidential candidates care about this stuff? The ethos of the commercial Internet, the scrambling quest for eyeballs at any cost, means that mitigating factors are ignored. Who cares if it was one study following 13 people for six months, if Science Proves Potatoes Cause Cancer can generate website traffic? Who cares if Jeb Bush is visiting his ill housekeeper at her home, if Bush’s Secret Love House gets 20 million unique viewers? [...] they weren’t. According to the GOP, information is just a liberal trap.

A baby or more money: Can I have both?


After the child was born, Mayer and her husband took up residence in the penthouse suite of San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel. [...] Yahoo (along with most other American corporations) was under fire for failing to provide adequate leave time for expectant parents. In other words, you can take your silly old parental leave if you want, but the real forward thinkers in this organization will be chatting up investors until just before the episiotomy. Some people were unkind enough to suggest that it was easy for someone with a net worth of $300 million and a support staff of 26 (real number not known) to make such a decision. Shall I fully participate in an often life-altering process of love and nurture and concern, or should I go all out to ensure maximum return on the investment of some creepy old Libertarians who live in Los Altos Hills? Do I serve humanity in its hour of need, or do I stay home to protect and care for my infant son? Yahoo is just a company trying to ride the tech boom like every other company, looking to make a bundle before the bundle business dries up. [...] like: unique opportunity for fulfilling life experience and deep unconditional love, or Yahoo? People are weeping at their desks so that Amazon can produce ever more efficient ways to buy grill forks. Consumers, like the sentient slime of science fiction novels, are coddled by bots and programs designed to extract maximum cash in whiffs of pink perfumed smoke. Mayer might have said, “I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, except this time I’ll be getting up every time the babies cry and singing desperate lullabies at odd hours and walking slowly through the park, and I urge each of you to do exactly the same, and don’t worry about Yahoo at all.” Wouldn’t that be lovely? A nice smell of grilling fish in the evenings, the light of the long winter evening reflecting off the lake, the sound of the bluethroat calling in the trees.

William Denali — it just doesn’t make sense


I think I speak for all citizens of Ohio when I say that we are outraged. Yes, from Cleveland to Cincinnati, from Toledo to (southeast Ohio — look up), the entire state stands ready to defend its honor. Which has been besmirched. By Obama. Of course. Let me explain about William McKinley Jr., the son of William McKinley Sr., who was an iron maker, a Methodist minister and the inventor of the lightbulb — a credit that has been denied to him by Thomas Edison, the same man who drove Nikola Tesla to an early grave. OK, not an early grave — Tesla lived to be 86. But certainly a sad grave. Plus, Tesla didn’t kill any elephants. William McKinley Jr.

It’s perfect for tourists! Except, no tourists


The people surrounding you on the boat are all geared up, some with T-shirts or caps more than a generation old. The ferry slips along beside huge container ships, then accelerates into open water, the big bridge on your right, the green-black swells disappearing into a curled white wake, the city ahead, with its receding stacks of high-rises and the tendrils (yes, I said tendrils) of fog melting between the buildings. Stand at the rear and watch the ballpark, now a beacon of light for the entire city, slowly recede in the distance as downtown becomes more and more visible. There was more blue than you might expect — usually it’s a sea of orange and black — but the Cubs have a nationwide following, a fellowship of despair, heartbreak and dashed hopes. Put on some relish, walk back toward my seat. A 22-year-old Cubs left fielder named Kyle Schwarber launches a Bondsesque home run into the seats in right center. There is a protocol to conversations at routs, learned by every child at their parent’s knee, or knees. The conversations can be wide-ranging and discursive, but the participants must always keep an eye on the game and give out perfunctory cheers or groans as needed. Among the topics we discussed: the Sacramento River Cats; the phrase “catcher’s indifference”; a baseball pitcher nicknamed “The Big Unit”; his theory that the number of baseball player first names starting with “y” had to do with a fascination in Cuba with the exploits of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin; the significance of the vowels in the word “abstemious”; various meanings of the word “insubordinate”; the unseasonably hot weather in Riga, Latvia; the unstable situation in Venezuela; the location and pleasures of a town called Boulder, Utah; living in Redwood City (him); living in Chicago (me); plus, of course, Donald Trump. The Giants eventually made a game of it, sort of, but the outcome was never in doubt. Didn’t matter, really; there was still the ferry ride back home and the aforementioned fairyland. On the boat back, I got into a conversation with a young woman about, well, Donald Trump. “Well,” I said, it used to be that right-wing Christians wanted a moral, churchgoing man as their leader.

In which the cat plays a long game


Five minutes ago, my cat mewled at me. I was minding my own business, staring at the computer screen and cursing its terrifying whiteness, when he sat down by a pile of books (“All the Truth Is Out,” “Funny Girl” (the Nick Hornby one), “Men We Reaped,” “Books to Die For,” all bound for the Oakland library), tilted his head and did it again. “It’s not remotely time for food,” I said. “Not even close. Get a life.” I enjoy insulting my cat. He doesn’t speak English, so as long as I don’t shout, he has no idea. It’s perfect. He got up, walked around, sat down and made the noise again. “OK, I’ll let you out,” I said. I went into the next room and opened the door.

Why Google needs more volcanoes


Apparently, people are still worried that Google needs “adult supervision.” It’s actually hard to know what that means. Google’s market capitalization stands at $454 billion. It is estimated to have $50 billion in cash reserves. Let those numbers roll around for a bit. By contrast, the state budget of California is $167 billion. Google could fund the entire state for a year and still have just less than $300 billion for walking-around money. So what exactly is Google supposed to have done wrong? Oh, yeah, here it is: Their stock price just hasn’t kept up. The market is up, up, up, and Google shares are down a little bit.

A neighborhood e-mail list, just like yours


A neighborhood e-mail list, just like yours Welcome to the neighborhood list of Marblehead, in Alta Baja, Calif. Marblehead includes all of the Richland neighborhood north of Warren Presley Blvd. Three men in pickup driving slowly down the street. Garden tools in back, a ruse often used by criminals. [...] remember, leaf blowers harm the environment. Very gentle and loving, but wary of strangers. Just use my private e-mail and tell me where she is. Three bed slats, a box of children’s books (including many by Dr. Seuss), crockpot (hardly been used), Mark 350 Exercycle, toilet seat (small crack). Don’t open your door to strangers! Willing to sell men’s suits, ornamental silver shaving kit, Laz-E-Boy recliner (brown leather), BMW car cover and a whole batch of really stupid CDs from the ’80s. Processor Heights home invasion was a hoax. Woman says it was a joke on her boyfriend who was making things with Popsicle sticks instead of getting a job. Slowness of police response because of high crime weekend. Children’s books and toilet seat all gone, rest still available. Have added two trays for round ice cubes and a poster saying “Gratitude Not Attitude.” Mr. Wonderful also left golf clubs. White with black markings on her feet. Home assaults are not a joking matter! First the giveaway to Ortega Mining, now they want to spend Who says it’s not beautiful right now? Please attend a public meeting to show solidarity with neighbors! Two “little” girls walking on the street with boxes of cookies. [...] the guy who bought the golf clubs for $40, please return the clubs and I will give you your money back. Never, never ever use water for ornamental purposes. “Stop the Spa” signs available.

Deep political wisdom for both parties


All Republican presidential candidates Last time, Mitt Romney seemed to working the old two-step pretty well, but then he said some unfortunate thing about how 47 percent of the country are lazy drunkards who are freeloading off the people who really create the wealth. Except you, Donald, because you’re going to say what you’re going to say, and since you don’t plan anything ahead of time, why should we even bother? [...] after the convention, we run back to the left, where the normal people live, the ones who by this point may not be entirely convinced that low tax rates for the rich mean increased prosperity for all of us. [...] sadly, they don’t. [...] always remember to leave yourself a little wiggle room. Say “I am not a scientist” rather than “Climate change is a hoax perpetuated by homosexual scientists.” Say “it is my opinion” that, say, Barack Obama is a Kenyan terrorist who eats fried babies, rather than stating it as actual fact. Later you can say that well-meaning people can have a political dispute without becoming rancorous about it. Because you’re a uniter, not a divider. The American people like uniters, although they spend almost all their time in divisive political camps. All Democratic Presidential Candidates [...] sorry, but this is really to Hillary. The whole “just another plutocrat wearing convenient clothing” is a viable line of attack. Anything? [...] honestly, the whole grandmother thing is getting a little stale.

Why we like sin so very, very much


Some have criticized Wilson’s second wife, Melinda, for pushing a particular interpretation of events (in the movie she’s played by Elizabeth Banks, unfailingly kind and smart and fierce and always radiantly beautiful). The movie is edited with jagged bursts of energy punctuated by languorous coastside beauty shots representing at first sun and fun, later despair and isolation. The talented person (pick your talent) who rides a meteor of creative fervor to the top; through some combination of addiction or bad brain chemistry or bad luck or even bad juju, falls into some sort of fearsome pit; then recovers his/her strength and talent to blossom! Audrey had a lot of strikes against her, and she heard those shouts a thousand times: too short, too young, not very smart, borderline personality disorder. [...] she came back from all that, yes, she did, and today she’s the best danged 14-and-under girls soccer player in the whole danged league. Somewhat dodgy vice president, defeated for California governor and hurled into outer darkness, then all the way back as the president! [...] Garland never kicked her habit, so we got a sad ending in spite of all her can-do spirit. There are people who just died too young, skiing accident or car crash or shot by a jealous spouse, but the stories that stick are the ones about the “pursued by demons” sort, Janis Joplin and Karen Carpenter and Amy Winehouse (whose documentary biopic is tearing up the art house box office, more proof that we do love “there but for the grace of God” tales). What should we do with Keith Richards, whose fine autobiography, “Life,” makes it pretty clear that he got through everything (numerous detoxes from alcohol or heroin or whatever; longer or shorter terms in jail; harrowing automobile journeys; constant repeat offenses in all of the above) without apparently drawing any conclusion at all? A lot of religions contain high-profile redemption narratives, including the old Redeemer himself, arrested and taunted and stripped and murdered, only to reappear sitting on the right hand of God, which is a good example of failing upward.

Because we really need more bureaucracy


Because we really need more bureaucracy [...] I agree that politicians should address that situation, should try to examine the causes of the scars across our community. Alas, the answer to institutional racism is complicated. [...] even if government could facilitate a change — an unproven assumption right now — it would take a lot of momentum, momentum that does not exist at present. A recent paper by Stanford researchers, published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, found wide disparities in income and net worth between neighborhoods in every large metropolitan area. Everyone in city government already accepts the notion that poverty and segregation are important issues. Oakland is a very left-wing city, and everybody here believes that the remedies of liberalism — more social programs, smarter neighborhood policies, recognition of the contradictions — are the answer. Black people tend to want to live with black people, even in neighborhoods with bad schools and criminal behavior. The black community has always been self-sufficient, creating its own institutions to provide for its citizens. Nothing like having a department you invented weighing in on policy decisions. Another voice in housing decisions? Because 26 voices is just not enough. The road conditions are awful all over Oakland (but particularly in the flatlands), and I bet $617,000 could fill an awful lot of potholes; people without enough money for auto suspension work would thank you.

Awe and beauty and wonder: Yeah, I’ll take that


Me, I’d never heard it — my education in serious music is spotty, to say the least — but the concert last week at Davies Symphony Hall gave me a chance to rectify that. There was, I regret to say, some distracting multimedia stuff going on, a way of “opening up the piece,” as they often say in all performance disciplines. The projections on the rear screen above the orchestra and chorus contained most of the dopey stuff. There were some stars, and some vaguely nude males wandering in a fog, and little drawings of Jesus that varied from “Map of the Constellations”-style pictographs to a really scary Jesus with glowing eyes and a Dylan-dream-level gaunt radiating face. The distractions consisted of moving singers, striding up and down the aisles, sidling into each other on the podium, facing rear, slowly turning frontward, then unaccountably making for the exits. The boys were cute and sang like angels — why banish them to an upper balcony half the time? Why do anything to lessen the power of the chorus, an overwhelming instrument, a thing that can only be experienced live? After the awe, the beauty, the timeless, tumultuous ambition, my overwhelming emotion was gratitude. Gratitude to Beethoven for writing this stuff two centuries ago, gratitude to all the musicians who carried it forward from then to now, gratitude to Thomas for bringing it here. Speaking of gratitude, I want to take a moment to note the passing of David Littlejohn, the author (“The Big One”) and critic (the Wall Street Journal, most recently) and teacher at the UC Berkeley journalism school. He encouraged young musicians and followed their careers avidly. [...] he kept stretching his own boundaries — a few years ago, he managed to get to Burning Man to look at the art, which he adored. [...] after dinner, we’d do some choral singing of our own, mostly songs that Littlejohn had loved in college.

The secret of living well, outlined simply


The secret of living well, outlined simply Once you start fiddling with your phone, you blend right in. There were people all around me, and one by one they were identified by the physician’s assistants who came out from behind the implacably closed door. Every time the door opened, I looked up, a hopeful expression in my eyes, only to have the assistant pick out another person in the lounge area. I had finished texting everyone I could think of and was now surfing Facebook. [...] 45 minutes later, I went up to the desk and described my plight. Years of spiritual work, I think, coupled with intense therapy and practice of anger-softening techniques. Some people have described embracing maturity as a way to hasten personal growth; that, sadly, doesn’t work for me. Whenever I open my mouth to say something intemperate, I hear the ghostly echoes of one of those notes that copy editors routinely send along. Latterly, it’s come to mean either (a) a person (usually male) who abuses his power in sundry unscrupulous and creepy ways, or (b) what used to be called a 'cad’ or a 'bounder.’ The idea for the health plan was not original with Henry J. Kaiser, who was better known as a shipbuilder than as a paving contractor. [...] he was hardly 'jumped up’; when the Kaiser Permanente health plan was started, he’d been in business almost 35 years. [...] all that begs the question of whether you’re a soulless cyborg’ is meaningless. Try the direct, forceful statement: 'You are a soulless cyborg.’ [...] by the time that tape stops running through my head, I am halfway to the elevator, brilliant whimsical rejoinders lost in a maze of formalistic objections. [...] yet I am happy — every time a copy editor has talked me down from the edge of malice, it’s been a good thing. Really, I always try to put patients first. Thank God I have a copy editor perched somewhere in my brain stem.

The end of New York? A searing special report


Inspired to new heights of diligence by the article, I have prepared my own look at one of the great unfolding tragedies of our time. Scientists blame global warming. Two hundred miles to the north, Martha Duvall, 45, stands in the sheltering cool of her apple trees and looks at the line of suburban housing on the ridgeline in the distance. Scientists blame global warming. [...] both Swofford and Duvall are victims of the most pressing problem ever to hit the Empire State: the great land drought. The oceans are inexorably rising, and New York has many low-lying communities, including the island of Manhattan itself. Estimates are that 50 percent of New York’s current shoreline will be gone by 2050, creating new beachfronts farther inland and a rise in real estate prices. The amount of land available for agriculture is dwindling — and much of the remaining acreage is taken up by highly profitable vineyards and organic carrot farms. Despite years of warning, it was only last January that Gov. Andrew Cuomo took steps to deal with the emerging crisis. A fund will be started to buy endangered land and sell it to farmers at well below market rates. Scientists noted that the ocean has been placed under no such restrictions; it is permitted to take as much land as it wants, “just because it’s the ocean,” an activist noted. [...] the new regulations fund the building of a series of dikes patterned after a similar network in Holland, where everything is just plain better than it is here.

Virtual reality: Real reality, only different


Oh, we have people who take that stance and mention that the austerity movement as a whole has been disastrous for the European economy. The New York Times did reveal that the new Greek president attended a jovial meet-and-greet with a similarly populist Spanish leader, and they embraced to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.” First you have to know that you’re interested in the Greek election. Anyone with a smartphone can point its camera at a conflagration of some sort, and it’s direct real-time data. No media outlets can do that; they can only sample. [...] the mosaic effect is stronger, a unique vision of the whole formed by incorporating individual eyewitness reports. Every public historical event of the last 10 years has been informed by Twitter and Facebook. People with good reliability records on those sites — that is, people who have not lied or misinterpreted before — produce reports far more influential, and far closer to the ground, than almost any media source. “Empowers people” sounds like a good thing, but social media also empowers a bunch of idiots and ideologues. Sturgeon’s Law (named for science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon) is that “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Most of the clutter is commercially produced, and is targeted to our interests because our personal profiles are widely available to advertisers. [...] people who complain about people with their noses always in their phones seem not to understand what a rich emotional landscape is in there. Links follow links follow links — you can always find an unexpected path through the storehouse of human knowledge.

Ghostly visitations bedevil local homeowner


Ghostly visitations bedevil local homeowner If I’m going out at night, I keep certain lights lit and turn off the rest. Standard stuff. Yes, I have maintained perfectly normal human relationships. The play ran its 80 minutes and then it was over. Tracy, who was sick over the New Year’s weekend (and two more weeks after that; it’s the crud that’s going around), has taken a sudden interest in football. [...] we talked about the show, and about whether our plans to watch the Super Bowl somehow indicated a diminished sense of social responsibility. [...] the light I always leave on in the living room was not on. The back porch light was off. The bulb outside is one of those light-sensitive ones that go off in the day and back on at night. The door was locked, but the key was missing. Maybe some weird burglary? Nothing was missing. Indian burial grounds, perhaps, or some unexplained natural phenomenon, just living out its electromagnetic destiny. “At any rate I’ll never go there again!” said Alice as she picked