04 March 2006

from Juan Cole's blog: Pakistanis greet Bush with a nationwide strike -- does this have worldwide potential?

Derek Wall is a British ecosocialist who shepherded my friend Walt Sheasby around England when Walt was there in November '03. He has a new book out: here is Joan Roelofs' review of it.

Derek Wall

03 March 2006

-- Antarctic ice sheet spreads as Bush regime tightens its grip upon the US --

This from the Washington Post... Empire Burlesque has noticed the charade going on in California with Bruce McPherson... The campaign of Forrest Hill has sent out a sample letter that you can send to McPherson protesting his decision:
Dear Supporter,

Yesterday our campaign sent out a newsletter encouraging you to write Secretary of State Bruce McPherson and ask him to reverse his decision to certify Diebold. Unfortunately, the email address we provided was incorrect.

The correct address is constituentaffairs@ss.ca.gov

Please take the time to email the Secretary of State's office and let them know your concern over the certification of Diebold.

Below is a sample letter you can copy into your email reader and then edit (make sure to sign you name at the bottom).

Again I apologize for the error.

- Forrest

Dear Secretary McPherson,

I urge you to reverse your decision to certify Diebold electronic voting machines in California. Your decision to certify the Diebold Optical Scan and AccuVote TSx (touch-screens) when they don’t comply with state and federal law is a slap in the face to every Californian voter.

Just two months ago, you were "not" willing to certify Diebold voting machines unless the source code was determine to be safe by independent investigators.

You now know that when Diebold submitted the machines to testing by U.C. Berkeley security analysts they found the code did not meet minimal security standards and needed to be rewritten.

Yet you have decided to ignore their findings and put the needs of a private voting machine vendor over the right of every California citizen to know their vote is accurately counted.

As Secretary of State it is your job to ensure our voting equipment provides safeguards against tampering, otherwise public confidence in our elections will be eroded and the results of any election will remain open to question.

How can you certify Diebold machines where they don’t meet state requirements that provide an audible "read-back" for blind and visually-impaired voters? How can you subject out democracy to non-transparent systems that do not use open source code or produce a voter verified paper ballot?

How can you possible go forward with certification without inviting public comment or insisting that Diebold comply with the recommendations of the U.C. Berkeley investigators?

This is completely unaccepted!

I urge you to do the right thing and rescind your certification of the Diebold electronic voting systems. The people of California deserve a thorough, rigorous testing of all electronic voting machines before they're used in our elections ever again.

[Your Name]

02 March 2006

What are they waiting for?

The AP video has Bush completely negligent on Katrina. He and his war are both quite unpopular. The head count in Iraq is up to 250,000. What are they waiting for?

Answer: The elites want Bush in the Presidency, both Democrat and Republican. This is why they have covered for him, through two rigged elections, a failed war, his campaign to crush civil liberties and appoint sycophants and cronies to all high offices. Against the support of the elites, no Bush stupidity will amount to anything.

01 March 2006

Rock formations of the Angeles Forest, near Sunset Peak Road...

Tomorrow there will be a vote in Congress on a bill (HR 4167) that will significantly weaken food safety laws... action memo here.

I've been trying to write my Congressmember via the Internet on this one and I thought this was convenient but unfortunately there are too many error messages. You may wish to use the sample letter though. I suppose you are best advised to go to Google and type "US House of Representatives" to write your own representatives.

also, please support the campaigns of Forrest Hill and Todd Chretien

Went hiking yesterday, should have photos up as soon as I can figure out how to make the adaptor work. Meanwhile, here's an Octavia Butler review I wrote a couple of years ago, revised for your reading pleasure.

Review: Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner, 1995.

Conservative political philosophers often state their affinities with the theories of Thomas Hobbes -- that is, to wit, that powerful state police force and defense functions are necessary because, without the state, the world would exist in a state of bellum omnium contra omnes -- the war of all against all. This thinking has recently been ascribed to the writings of Robert Kagan, whose book Of Paradise and Power supposedly applies the Hobbesian maxim that "only force will insure order" to an argument favoring the Bush Administration's foreign policies against those wussy peaceloving Europeans. Conservative pundits, in the era of 1980, have also attacked "big government" in its welfare-statist functions, which complaining about having to pay the taxes ostensibly needed for the sake of the state's fiscal solvency. Under the last twenty-six years of pro-defense, anti-welfare-statist government, then, the American public has seen two trends, reflective of the two above trends of increasing "defense spending" and reduced welfare-statism. The '80s and '90s have witnessed the increasing militarization, then, of the American landscape: more cops, guns, and prisons, and the increasing insolvency of the Federal government as the national debt cruises endlessly upward.

In Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, the bellum omnium contra omnes has become a grim reality out of Hobbes' imagination, the world of present-day Occupied Iraq brought viciously home to southern California, courtesy of the collapse of the existing system as brought on by the abovestated militarism/ antiwelfarism. The government in Butler's future has collapsed at some point, and the police in southern California are like the police in Brazil today -- just another gang of crooks. The economy is dead, and gasoline and water are in extremely short supply. There's a permanent oil shortage, of course, and everything is hot and dry because of the greenhouse effect. There's this drug called "pyro" floating through the scene that makes people want to set fires and watch them. Gated communities protect whatever shreds of usable wealth are left, shutting out a sea of poverty and an astronomical (and increasing) crime rate. Our protagonist, whose diary tells all, lives in a small suburb called "Robledo" outside of Los Angeles, with a large family that has banded together with some other families to protect what little they've got. Our protagonist's name is Lauren Olamina, and she is a Black female daughter of schoolteachers. Her family has a security system and a night watch and a whole array of guns, concertina wire, weekly target practice, etc. The thieves are increasingly cunning and dangerous. One by one the various family members get picked off, or disappear under suspicious circumstances. A nearby beach town is bought up by a multinational corporation and viciously down-waged -- and everyone in Robledo thinks of going there for a chance to continue living a little longer, though they'll owe their souls to the company store. Eventually a gang of hoodlums sets fire to everything in the protagonist's neighborhood, and a handful of survivors grab some stuff and leave. Lauren winds up being stuck with two other people, a little money and food, and a gun with some ammo. They begin a long trek to northern California to somewhere where they can live. Their group acquires some more members, including one with property in northern California. Eventually they wander up to Humboldt County and find a place to eke out a meager existence That's the plot, in a nutshell -- but it's important to remember that the paramount concern in a science fiction novel, more important than any character, is the setting. In this review, I shall regard the setting as providing the main posture of the novel, and consider its meaning for the "real world." But first, some words about the protagonist and her importance to Butler's concept.

Lauren Olamena is a peculiar young woman. Her mother took this drug "paraceto" which gave her "hyperempathy syndrome" when whe was born -- and what this means for her in her world is that when she kills someone, she gets to feel the pain of their dying. She wants to found a religion she calls "Earthseed." Its main principle is that "God is Change," that God is as impersonal and as violent as are the lives of the people in this story, but that God can be shaped by human action. Earthseed is a very practical religion, but a religion nonetheless.

At any rate, the circumstances of this future seem to demand religion belief as a prerequisite for continued existence. Spirituality must be invoked, since security is not a solid privilege for anyone. One must kill or be killed, and small bands provide the only real safety, especially if said bands can acquire guns and ammunition. Lauren's small band makes a living by killing people who attack them, and then stripping their corpses of valuables. Luck plays a part -- they traverse California without access to machine guns, against which they would be defenseless.

There is still something of civilization in the America of Butler's describing. Money is still respected. There's still a President. Politics, as in the real world, doesn't solve anyone's problems because none of the politicians that are "electable" represents a real solution to the problems faced by ordinary people. Voting devolves into a choice of the "lesser of two evils." It seems realistic to assume that religion would be a better vehicle for life in this future than politics, since religion (in Butler's concept of it) immerses the whole self whereas politics has been set up in America as the hobby of those who have the power and money to control government.

In the last part of the novel, Lauren's group picks up a lot of runaway slaves, so we can discern that slavery is back (in America; anyone who has read Kevin Bales' Disposable People will recognize modern slavery as a current phenomenon). Lauren meets a Black doctor whose last name is "Bankole," and they marry even though he's 57 and she's 18. The Earthseed group founds a commune called Acorn at the end of Parable of the Sower.

There's a novel-length sequel, Parable of the Talents, in which the adherents of the Earthseed religion are enslaved and tortured further. It won a Nebula award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 1998. In the sequel, the US is taken over by a fundamentalist Christian cult, and Acorn is taken over by this cult and used as a concentration camp. The Earthseed people are treated like dogs for 1 1/2 year until a technological slip-up allows them to kill the Christian cultists and burn the concentration camp to the ground. From there, Earthseed experiences an exodus and spreads itself around the world. It seems unrealistic to me to believe that the Earthseed people would not come out of such an experience as brainwashed fundamentalist Christian cultists. The sequel also has some interesting politics -- the President of the United States declares war on Alaska, which has seceded. Why Butler thinks such a war would not end in nuclear holocaust is beyond me. Did the nukes all vanish somehow?

Amidst all of the strong, vital strands of realism that force their way into this novel, Butler seems to cling excessively to themes of violence, torture, and rape. Characters seem to drift from round to bloody round amidst the reader's amazement at their survival. Every page wants to smash you in the teeth. This is the sort of fiction that might be predicated upon the writings of Derrick Jensen, who wrote two important books (The Culture of Make-Believe, A Language Older Than Words) elucidating the deadly nature of the current culture.

And then there are some doubtful aspects of the religion that grows out of Butler's gloomy future. Earthseed preaches that its followers' destiny is to go to the stars. In a series of novels which stuns the eye with its realistic detail, I thought this was one of the least realistic aspects of the Parable novels. Settling Alpha Centauri, the nearest solar system, before settling Mars, seems to me to be unrealistic, given the enormous volumes of space to be traversed and the supposedly near-future orientation of the books. At any rate, it is very unlikely that the US Government is going to do anything in space in a future that has (as Butler describes) descended into chaos.

At any rate, it is worth notice that the current space program, in itself, would tend to defy predictions of a bright, sunny, Star Trek-like future, much less a future that would catapult the Earthseed followers to the stars. The space program today is, besides a few scientific experiments, the militarization of space, which will fatten a lot of pockets but which will (in the end) make access to near-Earth orbit more dangerous for all the space junk it will create. Any frontier deep-space mission will likely have to transport a whole miniature ecology whereever it goes, that will have to stand up to the fifteen years or so it will take to get to Alpha Centauri. And, when the space colonists get there, they may have to be ready to terraform any available planet with the right conditions, since there may be little certain advance knowledge of whether the Alpha Centauri system will have a habitable planet (& in this regard one might consult Stephen Dole's groundbreaking book Habitable Planets for Man). And, of course, if there is a catastrophic accident, there will be nobody to call for help.

Before she died late last month, Octavia Butler hinted at a third novel in the Parable series, in which the Earthseed people had gone out into space, and experienced a catastrophic accident, and forced to turn back. She never finished that novel, and I have to wonder if the original premise didn't make Butler herself turn back. Wouldn't it have been less dangerous to have the Earthseed space colonists go out to terraform Mars, like the colonists of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels, rather than sending it out of the solar system? The "stars" theme seems to compromise the brute realism of Butler's novels.

We might also ask, why a religion preaching escape from Earth? Only a tiny portion of the sum of humanity will ever settle in space -- the overwhelming majority of us will have to take care of this planet, so that that will have to be their religious duty regardless of their dreams. And that's what it will really have to be -- the Church of the Living Earth. It will exist to witness the death throes of the real living Earth, as the capitalist system consumes the last profitable resources of the biosphere. And it will have to be based not upon "the stars," but upon ecosocialism, as described in Joel Kovel's The Enemy of Nature. We can explain the departure from realism as follows: Butler, for all her intentions, was a career science fiction writer, and many of her novels are about intelligent aliens, time travel, and other such unlikely occurrences. Her background doubtless influenced her choices. Our background must point to ours. We can nevertheless thank Octavia Butler, posthumously, for having briefly broken out of the ghetto of space opera to write realistic science fiction.

27 February 2006

Democracy Now reports that dystopian science fiction writer Octavia Butler died after some sort of fall (and maybe a stroke) on Saturday.

Steven Barnes' blog contains a lengthy obituary.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006)

26 February 2006


The Sunday Times/ UK has chosen to publish an article highlighting the fact that increased CO2 emissions are making the oceans sour, and killing off the coral reefs. The coral reefs, mind you, are the world's most diverse ecosystems.