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Monthly Archives: September 2014

Yes, Again, and Again….

History repeats itself, it just does, as we have been told by everyone from Cicero to Santayana, not to mention Mark Twain. Even in my journal, emerging on an old computer:

12 Jan 09 …Meanwhile, 17th day of slaughter in Gaza. Drove across bay to Fillmore St. to see film Waltz with Bashir, which shows that some Israelis have doubts about wiping out Arabs.

27 December, 2008, Israeli strike called Operation Cast Lead, intended to halt Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel and arms smuggling into Gaza. Heavy bombardment of Hamas bases, camps, and offices, moving on to mosques, schools, medical facilities, and houses. Israeli officials said that the civilian buildings were used by combatants, and/or as weapons warehouses. Palestinian deaths estimated between 1,166 and 1,417; Israelis, 13 (4 from friendly fire). By March 2009, international donors had reportedly pledged $4.5 billion in aid for the Palestinians, mainly for rebuilding Gaza.

Fast Forward Five Years 8 July, 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. The rocket fire had begun after an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. On 17 July, the Israeli military operation was expanded to a ground invasion directed toward destruction of the Gaza tunnel system. Seven weeks of Israeli bombardment, Palestinian rocket attacks, and ground fighting killed more than 2,200 people, the vast majority of them Gazans, some 75% of them civilians. Casualty figures are fungible, but nobody would deny the massive disproportion of Palestinian to Israeli losses.  But why, I have to wonder, is it never noted that ten times more Syrians have died in their recent civil war than Arabs and Jews in any Gazan conflict?

26 August, 2014, Hamas and Israel declared an open-ended cease-fire. In September, Palestinian children returned to school, many of them run by UNRWA, the United Nations refugee assistance program. news_article_9606_14336_1410695178 Some $16 billion will be needed to rebuild the devastated region. It is alleged that Israeli contractors are favored to do the highly profitable reconstruction of what their efficient army has destroyed.  Work delays are expected, due to elaborate precautions against using any of the tens of thousands of bags of cement to restore the Palestinian tunnel network.

But back to the last lines of my curiously germane (yes? yes?) journal entry of January 12, 2009: Sunday morning, call from [friends in Budapest] where the temperatures were below freezing because the Russians had decided to pull rank by closing the gas line through Ukraine. Later in January 2009, the prime ministers of Russia and Ukraine announced a settlement of the gas dispute that had drastically reduced supplies of Russian gas to Europe for nearly two weeks. Vladimir_Putin_and_Yulia_Tymoshenko-2 Vladimir Putin and Yulia Tymoshenko (the one with the blonde braid) agreed that Ukraine would begin paying for Russian gas at the much higher European price from the following year. Russia in turn would pay more for the gas to travel through Ukraine. The EU had been receiving about one-fifth of its gas supplies through Ukraine, and many other people besides our dear Hungarian friends suffered in that winter’s below-zero temperatures as a result of the Russo-Ukraine gas stoppage. The more provident European nations, such as Germany and Norway, have since developed their own gas supply lines as well as alternative energy sources. The Hungarians for their part are cannily reinforcing “an increasingly positive business relationship with Moscow,” according to a “senior government official.” A case in point: Russia had just been awarded a 10-12 billion euro contract for updating and expanding Hungary’s only nuclear power plant. It might be noted that this project costs only somewhat less than that of rebuilding the whole of war-torn Gaza. The no-bid contract, however, is questionable under the EU bloc’s rules of competition. Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban does not play by the rules, or makes new ones. In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine crisis over territory, he made the ill-timed observation that Hungarians in Ukraine should have greater autonomy. Given the complex and conflicted history of the region, Hungary’s neighboring states have substantial Hungarian minorities, and Orban’s interest in their well-being appears to some as sinister. In much the same way as Putin has cracked down on the activities of non-governmental organizations in Russia, Orban has set up a parliamentary committee to monitor civil society organizations, NGOs, receiving funding from abroad; he views them as paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests in the name of preserving democracy. Russia and Ukraine were at odds well before Orban came on the scene. Ten years ago the Orange Revolution brought the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, to power. Moscow was not happy about his energetic push for Ukraine to join NATO and the EU.  It’s a bit hard to keep straight, but Yushchenko was the one who was poisoned and survived with a horribly pitted face, not Viktor Yanukovych, who had to abandon his post in an unseemly hurry after virulent street protests against his rule.  Just hours after Yanukovych departed, his opulent presidential retreat was opened to the public so that Ukrainians were able to see for themselves the gilded plumbing, the sauna and private zoo set in 345 acres of private gardens. Hundreds of documents were found in a nearby river, revealing lavish spending and alleged corruption. They were dried off in the presidential sauna for later consultation. Braided Yulia was Yushchenko’s sidekick, until she wasn’t; they were known for a while as Beauty and the Beast. (As I am half-Slav, I might reasonably be expected to be embarrassed by the colorful excesses of Yulia Tymoshenko and her cohorts, not to mention her marketers, who advised the blonde coronet for an image remake after her involvement as a brunette in some shady business deals. But, as print journalists used to say, she’s such good copy. ) In 2007 Yulia went to Washington, where she met with Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Stephen Hadley, and—in a not entirely subtle affirmation of Ukraine versus Russia—had a photo op with the outgoing President. 320px-GeorgeBush-Juliia_Tymoshenko_(2008)-Ukraine But after many other misadventures, long story short, Yulia was released from prison in 2014, just months before the latest Russia-Ukraine conflict erupted. “She [Yulia, quoted by her daughter Eugenia] said she was glad to be here in the new Ukraine made by the Ukrainian heroes, and she’s proud to be Ukrainian.” Although she didn’t do at all well in this June’s elections, surely we shall be hearing more from Yulia Tymoshenko.

But here’s the end of that shred of timely  text from 2009:

…Restless warm northeast winds blustering through the weird assortment of trees along our driveway…rampant bamboo, scraggly oaks, single dessicated redwood next to parched lemon, across from confused birch and tree ferns. Mid-January, 79 degrees yesterday afternoon. California returning to the desert. Walked along East Bay trail in the hallucinatory midday brightness, low tide baring rough glass shingle next to the bone-dry grasses…

Gloss: The  California drought of 2007-2009  was, broken by the very wet year of 2010, but reprised in 2011. For some surprising figures on agriculture and unemployment during the drought of 2007-2009, see the reliable report of the Pacific Institute available free: Impacts of the California Drought from 2007-2009). Spoiler alert:  California’s agricultural output during that period was actually a bit above normal, due to the farmers’ recourse of pumping large amounts of ground water for irrigation. Moreover, the number of agricultural jobs actually grew 2% between 2003 and 2009, although all jobs in other sectors dropped dramatically due to the recession. The poverty rate in the southern San Joaquin Valley, consistently above 20% for a decade, clearly has very little to do with wet and dry years. (For a much less reliable perspective on the most recent California drought, see my post of 4 September 2014, which I keep meaning to update.)   640px-Shasta_Lake_low This is Lake Shasta, not a lake at all, but a huge, rather ugly man-made reservoir which we used to cross every summer en route to our family cabin in the Siskiyous–actually an old gold mining claim, now taken over by a hostile cousin, but that’s another story. The water level is about 37 % of normal for this time of year, and a wildfire has decimated the nearby town of Weed, California where we used to lay in groceries for our stay–beer, beef, chocolate, marshmallows, and corn, always lots of corn.

California Drought, Further notes on.

Finally we are getting serious about conserving water around here. If you see water dripping unattended from one of the hanging pots of pink and purple petunias installed by the Downtown Berkeley Association, there’s a number you can dial. Water running across a sidewalk from university landscaping can—and surely will–be reported by concerned citizens.

Local response to the drought emergency is merely the latest link in a long chain of responsible civic activism. For decades now, we have staunchly declared Berkeley, California a Nuclear-free Zone, ignoring the japes of those who point out that the atomic bomb was conceived, if not born, in our very city. Moreover, the brilliant composer, John Adams, of “Doctor Atomic,” the opera, still lives in our zipcode, or in one very near it.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab still sits on the slope above campus, on Cyclotron Road. Their recently published research includes the comforting news that Pacific coastal areas contain no dangerous radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown of March 2011, despite various scare stories in the less responsible media.  Research methods included collection by students of rainfall samples around the campus, and measurement of toxicity in the weeds of the principal investigator’s backyard. Nothing you would think would require a cyclotron, or that you would write an opera about.

The lab (LBNL) is also currently involved in a study of the impact of fracking on California land.  Fracking could, according to more, or less, responsible media, result in pollution of ground water as well as seismic events such as earthquakes. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is hovering impatiently for a go-ahead so that they can begin to issue fracking permits to all the energy companies champing at the bit to get at the oil in the southern San Joaquin Valley.  Less responsible media say that the BLM has become the tool of energy interests rather than the guardian of the public interest. But no opera there, I think.

The research into Fukushima’s radiation began as a result of the concern over the Chernobyl nuclear reactor’s fallout in 1986, in the Ukraine. Drought also plays a role in the escalating conflict between eastern Ukraine and Russia. Given the prospect of world war in the region, international investors may very well hesitate to enter into new contracts for Ukrainian wheat. Still, dicey as the political and military situation is, the real concern for the new wheat crop in Ukraine and southern Russia, as in the U.S., drought.

In the California drought of 1977, we saved our gray water by opening all the drainpipes under basins and sinks and letting them empty into big pails that we lugged into the garden. A friend visiting from London looked around at our Edwardian wainscoting and hydraulic innovations. “How long do these wooden houses generally last?” she asked. Of course the English on their soggy green island cannot be expected to conceive of drought.

California has the world’s eighth largest economy and produces nearly half of the country’s fruits and vegetables, including 95 percent of the broccoli, 81 percent of its carrots, 92 percent of its lemons, and 99 percent of its artichokes, almonds, and walnuts. The drought will dry up thousands of agricultural jobs and will probably push U.S. food prices higher, as with the short-grained California rice preferred in some Japanese sushi and Korean dishes.

While California rules in lemon production, Florida accounts for about 70 percent of total U.S. production of oranges, and naturally Florida growers will happily fill in for California’s drought losses in all citrus categories. Although the California drought may not be Florida’s fault, let’s not forget which state’s votes helped elect the man who brought us Iraq, if not Syria. And what state his younger brother governed for eight years. And how their father single-handedly handicapped broccoli futures. Anyway, Florida runs more to hurricanes than droughts.

One of the more famous California droughts was the fictitious one in the 1974 film “Chinatown,” directed by Roman Polanski (yes, still alive and living in France).  The film  evokes unforgettably the power of water to those who can manipulate its supply. A brilliant movie, it ends, of course, badly.

In Berkeley we fill empty Florida orange juice bottles with water and sink them in our toilet reservoirs to conserve a half gallon per flush. In 1977 we used bricks to displace water, but they produced undesirable sediment. Then and now, there remains the “mellow yellow” strategy of not flushing liquid waste at all; this makes some of us feel quite daring.

The California drought in 2014 looks far and away the worst on some of those comparative infographic maps. However, in Syria during the five years before 2011, when the country exploded into civil war, the worst drought in modern history struck more than 60 percent of the land. Not only was there no rainfall, but Assad’s government had been subsidizing water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton, and using antediluvian irrigation technology to boot. Perhaps Assad had spent too much time in England. In any case, farmers and herders in northeastern Syria lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere—in already blighted urban areas like Dara’a, where the civil war began.

So, Syrian pistachios, not to mention olives and dates, will probably become black market items. Other Syrian exports such as crude oil were not coming to the U.S. even before ISIS ruled the northeastern desert plains. An Al-Monitor news feature, fairly recent, described ISIS’s less violent pacification efforts, highlighting the efficient production and distribution of bread to hungry Syrians.  This story has probably been withdrawn, along with Vogue magazine’s glamorous profile of Asma Assad.



Syrian Hamster

A little-known export of the Syrian desert is the golden Syrian hamster (mesocricetus auratus) first identified scientifically in 1839. But already in 1774, Friedrich Gabriel Sulzer, a boon companion of Goethe, had penned a whole academic monograph on hamsters. In it he used the hamster to document the equal rights of all beings, including Homo sapiens. (Due to the daunting array of resources on mesocricetus auratus I have been unable to follow that link.)
In any event, one single brother-sister pairing of the Syrian hamster produced the entire population of pets and laboratory animals we know today. The incestuous forebears were captured and imported in 1930 from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, by a zoologist from the University of Jerusalem. Decades later, Syrian hamsters have become one of the most popular pets and laboratory animals in the U.S.
Although hamsters and guinea pigs would seem similar in many ways, they should never share a cage. Hamsters are fiercer and more territorial. How else would they survive in the Syrian desert, especially during a drought? Our family had an amiable guinea pig named Toby who may have succumbed from dehydration in a California bedroom. Or it could have been old age: he was getting on.

In Peru, guinea pigs, plumper and more tractable than hamsters, are not pets but protein. Sixty-five million of them are consumed every year. In a pretty courtyard restaurant in Cuzco, I dutifully ordered cuy (coo-ee) which tasted (pace Toby) a bit like rabbit. A reproduction in a Cuzco church of da Vinci’s Last Supper shows Jesus and the twelve apostles sitting around a platter of cuy.

Peru, too, has water shortages. My son did field work years ago in an Andean village named Tunnel Six, named for the irrigation ditch that ran along the mountain above it. The family that he knew best in Tunnel Six was eventually able to move to a favela in a coastal city where running water and some education could be had. My son’s godson, born in Tunnel Six but schooled in Piura, recently friended me on Facebook.

Peru has had many water wars.  Five thousand acres of asparagus require more water than is usually available without a pipeline to the Amazon.  Nations go to war over water less often than they do over oil and gas supplies. Where water is the issue, they are more likely to cooperate, however reluctantly, on some plan.

Hungary and Slovakia were getting fairly shirty over damming the Danube some years ago, but they left judgment to the International Court of Justice. Some fifteen years later, the court finally ruled, but the real result was based on attrition. Slovakia completed their part of the Gabickova waterworks because it was in their interest, while Hungary has thus far successfully delayed building their part downstream for the same reason.

Berkeley citizens confronting the California drought with little more than their wits and an empty bottle of Florida orange juice, might, as so often happens,  take a leaf from Walt Whitman:

‘Sail forth–steer for the deep waters only.”imgres


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