Sunday, August 31, 2008

More Links ...

For bicyclists, a widening patchwork world
As oil prices rise, U.S. lags behind two-wheeled boom in rest of world

Peds, bikers, joggers out in full force to enjoy first Sunday Streets

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Montana Governor Schweitzer Speaks at the DNC Against Petrodictators

Former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production plant, near Denver

Governor Brian Schweitzer, of Montana, might as well have screamed from the podium at the DNC in Denver yesterday: Stop driving cars!

Think about it: the human population has exploded (largely due to fossil fuel inputs into the soil) and humanity has taken over habitats that were formerly uninhabitable before we learned how utilize fossil fuels -- first coal, and then oil and natural gas -- on industrial scales. But since 1859, many geologists think we have used up about half of the world's petroleum reserves (and that includes its tar sands in Alberta and Venezuela). And besides that, we're dealing with global warming from burning all these fossil fuels on a massive scale. And contrary to what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says, natural gas IS a fossil fuel ...

Some of my friends and family members recommend reviving nuclear power as a transitional energy source until we get our solar, wind, and hydrogen systems in place. I don't know where Gov. Schweitzer is on nuclear, but I know just about all the other Democrats are caving to the siren call of the nuclear power industry. However, to me reviving nuclear power is just another way of externalizing environmental problems onto future generations.

My proposal is daunting, but don't think we have an option: move.

That is, move close to your place of work, move into smaller houses, move into just two or three rooms of your house during the winter, move in with other people, move on bicycles and your feet, move to a farm and learn how to grow food, and so on. But move. What other realistic options do we have?

Here's a picture of the defunct Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production plant outside Denver. I took this picture from the train on the morning of August 7. And here's the link to a press release about environmental problems created by the plutonium-processing plant.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Train Travel v. Air Travel

North Station; Boston

There's a discussion going on in an online a group that I participate in, Carfreeliving. It's about the efficiency of train travel, and it's bringing out the true train fanatics in us. It started when one guy linked this story about Amtrak and its efficiency compared to travel by plane:

The conclusion of this article was that with driving and flying down due to high fuel prices, Amtrak ridership is up, making Amtrak nearly 18 percent more fuel efficient than flying. That was disappointingly low to the person who posted the story, so someone else came on and excerpted a British study on rail travel that arrived at the following conclusions:

* Electrified trains performed better than diesel trains (Amtrak, except in the Northeast Corridor, runs diesel trains, and North American trains are almost twice the weight of their European counterparts)
* electric trains generally performed better than buses
* Buses and trains performed significantly better than private cars or airlines
* The Eurostar (a high speed train) consumed more energy than conventional intercity trains; however the Shinkansen (a Japanese high speed train) was more energy efficient than British intercity trains, despite its much higher speeds.
* The number of passengers on board makes a huge difference in efficiency; however, buses and trains with 20-40% of seats occupied still far outperformed airlines with 70% of seats occupied in grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre.

The study is in PDF format and you can see it here:

The fellow who posted this item went on to talk about the precision needed in the tension of the wires for electric trains, and welding and curvature of train tracks and the relationship between those factors and energy efficiency.

We're all trying to figure out how to live lightly on the planet and reduce our carbon footprint. At least the people participating in the online discussion and I are. Eventually, even most trains will probably become obsolete as we are forced to reduce the amount that we travel all together.

That's the Big Dig bridge behind the "Downeaster" Amtrak train in the photograph. But more on the Big Dig and the rest of my train trip later.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day Three, Part One -- The First Amtrak Summit on War Crimes and the Restoration of the Rule of Law

Eastern Nebraska
I didn't take any pictures of this part of the trip -- going to the East Coast or coming back. It just isn't very remarkable, though some would say it is beautiful in its own way. Flat, endless fields of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, what-have-you, with the train tracks paralleling the Platte River. Something like that. Strangely, if you Google "Eastern Nebraska Farmers," the first thing that comes up on the list is "Environmental Epidemiology of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in Eastern Nebraska." What's that all about?

Anyway, I traveled coach, as I always do, and on my second night, from Denver to eastern Nebraska, I had two seats to myself, which meant I could stretch out a little. I awoke the next morning around 7 or so and made my way to the dining car for breakfast. In the dining car, the crew members take your name or give you a number (from Chigaco west, the crew members treat you like family and tend to take your names -- and sometimes they even remember your names). And they seat you with others, southern family style.

On this particular leg of the journey, I was seated across from a large, middle-aged man with a bushy beard and long, kinky, graying blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. The word "peace" was printed across his t-shirt. (A Dead Head, I thought to myself.) Next to him was a very ordinary, middle-aged woman. Next to me was a middle-aged man with short, curly brown hair.

You know how first encounters are. Before you get talking, you look at these strangers with a combination of suspicion and disdain. And then you start talking and you all realize how great you all are!

That is exactly what happened with me, "Charlene," her husband "James," and "Don." Ok, so I thought James was a Dead Head, right? Turns out he and wife, Charlene, were both Lutheran ministers from rural, western Kansas. Don was a sculptor.

As we got talking, Don made it clear that he believed that the conspiracy to attack landmarks with planes on September 11, 2001 went beyond Al Qaeda. He suggested that we all watch the documentary Zeitgeist.

I have never seen this documentary, but I think I know what its theme is: some kind of connection between the Bush family, Dick Cheney, Saudi Arabia, and Al Qaeda to ensure that another Pearl Harbor happened to the country, putting Americans in a state of shock and fear, so that Cheney and others could pursue a decades-long desire to consolidate power in the executive branch and launch a "Pax Americana" on the world, one in which a few multi-national corporations would own most of the world's resources and control most political power.

But I confess I'm not totally convinced. If 9-11 was the result of a broad conspiracy, then why the need for two legal memorandums, one issued by the United States Department of Justice and the other by the Pentagon, to pave the way to the supposedly legal practice of torture on members of Al Qaeda and/or of the Iraqi insurgency? I don't get it. If Al Qaeda is the ally of Dick Cheney, then why torture its alleged members? Maybe someone out there can illuminate me a little more.

James, who was quite verbose, described him and his quieter wife, Charlene, as Christian socialists serving Christian fundamentalist congregations whose members read the Left Behind series. I get messages about those books in my spam box, but never knew what they were until James and Charlene explained them to me. James told us they are about Armageddon, the Apocalypse, and rapture.

Ok, everything I know about Christianity I learned from Jesus Christ, Superstar -- yeah, the rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber. And rapture? Rapture means two things to me: 1) laughing really hard because of some unexpectedly ironic punch line; and, 2) orgasm. Need I say more?

James's own opinion? The Left Behind series has totally misrepresented the Bible and the Book of Revelations. Nowhere in the Bible is the word "rapture" mentioned, he said.

I asked James rhetorically, "Do Christian fundamentalists see any difference between their own belief in 'rapture' and the beliefs of some Muslim fundamentalists that 72 virgins will await them in Heaven when they die a martyr's death?"

We moved on to a discussion of the 2000 election. I said that Al Gore should have stood up on the night of the election and said, "I won," and he should never have backed down. I said that five members of the United States Supreme Court wanted George W. Bush to be president -- and they made him president. Charlene added that she couldn't believe that my representative, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is blocking impeachment efforts. You know that's what they (the Republicans) would be doing if it were the reverse situation and they had the majority in both chambers of Congress, Charlene said.

Someone speculated about Obama's pick for VP. Hillary Clinton? Naw ... probably a tough guy, I suggested, mentioning Jim Webb, the Virginia Senator who is a Vietnam War veteran, though he opposes the Iraq War. Don mentioned Bill Richardson, but we didn't think he had any vote-getting value other than coming from a swing state. None of us predicted Joe Biden.

Carbon Footprints
We talked about the "high" price of gas. I came right out and said, "I'm for that." Don concurred, adding that Americans should be paying at least what they pay in the rest of the world -- $6, $7 per gallon or more. James and his wife seemed to agree -- but I'm not sure. James mentioned a parishioner who has big car which she bought out of fear, though James tried to reconnect her to her faith ...

Not being a faith-based thinker, he lost me there.

Lost Opportunities
We all agreed that September 11, 2001 was a lost moment. We have never explored why the attacks happened, letting George W. Bush lower the level of discourse to "They hate our freedom." Certainly, the 9-11 participants were brainwashed. Al Qaeda recruited and served -- and recruits and serves -- giving passion and meaning to life in otherwise repressive cultures. What hope for self-realization do you have, after all, if you are some kind of non-conformist born in Saudi Arabia? But here's the other thing: we are an occupying force, and we have had military outposts there protecting our access to oil for decades. And if some nation, say Australia, were occupying our own land, wouldn't we be similarly resentful?

War Crimes
Charlene then brought up the concept of war crimes. I showed the three of them my copy of The Dark Side, by Jane Mayer. James mentioned that Jane Mayer had recently been on The Daily Show, with John Stewart.

Thinking of the passive complicity of most Americans in the crimes of the Bush administration, I added that our nation needed to go through the self-examination and cathartic processes, similar to what Germany and South Africa went through after their periods of darkness. James mentioned "truth and reconciliation." I mentioned something that a friend of mine has been researching in San Francisco -- the possibility that American towns and cities could bring war crimes charges against George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and others. The people of Brattleboro, Vermont, in fact, have passed a resolution directing their town attorney to investigate bringing war crimes charges against these guys. And people in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush family has a summer compound, are investigating bringing war crimes charges against Bush and others.

The U.S. Constitution
We discussed the Constitution and how it needs to be refined, at the very least. James started with the Second Amendment, mentioning that we already have the "well-regulated militia" part in place in the form of our local and state police forces and our national guard. I added that the Constitution says virtually nothing about the vice president -- which is how Dick Cheney has been able to get away with defying Congress when Congress attempts to get him to testify or turn over documents or something. I went on and mentioned treaties -- the Constitution, through the Supremacy Clause, requires the Senate to ratify treaties negotiated by the executive branch and designates ratified treaties the law of land, making each one of us, as citizens, bound to abide by treaties our nation has adopted. But nowhere does the Constitution say that the Senate must sign off on the abrogation of treaties. That needs to be fixed. (The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 had an abrogration clause that George W. Bush used when he ditched that treaty in June 2002.)

The First Amtrak Summit on War Crimes and the Restoration of the Rule of Law
We sat there long after all the other diners had left -- and finally one of the crew members swept by us and in a friendly manner indicated that we really should get going so that they could get ready for lunch. Before we departed, we thought we should give a title to our discussion. I can't remember if we came up with anything as a group, but on my own, I came up with this: the First Amtrak Summit on War Crimes and the Restoration of the Rule of Law.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Day Two, Part Two -- Balance of Power, the Bill of Rights, and the Supremacy Clause

West of Denver

Ok, remember that the members of the "War Council" were David Addington, Tim Flanigan, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and Jim Haynes. And remember that in the hours, days, weeks, months and years after September 11, 2001, they were busy, very busy, finding inventive ways to reinterpret the Constitution, the laws passed since its adoption, and treaties to which the United States was – and is – a signatory.

But Jane Mayer, in The Dark Side, says that some of them had been busy working on this agenda prior to the events of September 11. "Conventional wisdom," she writes on page 55, “held that September 11 changed everything, including the thinking of Cheney and Addington. But a close look at the 20-year collaboration between the two men suggests that they had long imagined that many aspects of the program they put in place after the terrorist attacks. Cheney’s writings and speeches suggest he had been laying the groundwork for years.”

In particular, both Cheney and Addington believed in a strong executive branch and were appalled by the post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War laws passed by Congress in the 1970s and 1980s to restrict the power of the presidency and shift power to Congress. Mayer does not mention any specific laws passed by Congress, but I can imagine some: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) -- albeit passed in 1966, before the Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), the Presidential Records Act of 1978, the War Powers Act of 1973, and the 1980s Boland Amendment, among others.

"‘[T]he idea of reducing Congress to a cipher was already in play. It was Cheney and Addington’s political agenda,’" she quotes conservative constitutional lawyer and scholar Bruce Fein.

Along comes September 11. We know that some people conspired to pull it off, and we are pretty sure that those people are associated with Al Qaeda (however, let’s never lose sight of the maxim “innocent until proven guilty”), but we don’t know if the conspiracy to make the September 11 attacks happen was broader than Al Qaeda. And in this post, I’m not ready to speculate on that.

But here’s something I’m pretty sure about: after September 11, 2001, the members of the War Council were like boys, mischievous little boys with their hands in the cookie jars, stealing cookies, and not even getting their hands slapped. Except perhaps that’s too innocent an analogy.

Because look at what they were actually stealing: the underlying basis of all our laws: a) the principle of balance of power; b) the rights of all Americans embodied in the first through tenth amendments to the Constitution; and c) the rights of all human beings, as embodied in the treaties that we have signed, which are, according to the Supremacy Clause of our Constitution, the law of the United States of America.

I actually took this photograph of the mountains west of Denver on my return trip.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

I'm Back ...

I'm back, and hope to continue the story of my travels -- and the Bush administration descent into torture -- as soon as I get access to my photos.

In the meantime:

No room for bikes at the 'greenest convention in history'

Electric cars and the electric grid
I've heard the argument made in this commentary before -- that electric cars will not add significantly to our demand for energy because they will, for the most part, be recharged at night. But this neglects some significant problems: 1) there is no infrastructure yet for people who park their cars on city streets to plug in their vehicles at night; 2) the batteries that electric cars are expected to run on do not have charges that last long yet and are thus not considered realistic replacements for internal combustion engine vehicles; and most importantly 3) electric cars are still cars. Most of the problems of ICEs are problems of electric cars as well. Those problems include the energy involved in the manufacture of cars, habitat destruction due to the access permitted by our car-based culture, and disposal of cars and their parts.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Taking a Break

Be back on August 9th or 10th.

Day Two: Part Two -- The Justice Department Torture Memo

Ok, there were more than two memos, but here I'm just talking about two, and in this particular entry, only one, the August 1, 2002 one penned by John Yoo and signed by Jay Bybee. Remember, John Yoo was the deputy chief of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel. Jay Bybee was the Assistant Attorney General, serving under then Attorney General John Ashcroft.

John Yoo was primarily responsible for writing the August 1, 2002 memo that said what you did to another human being to extract intelligence was not torture if you were not intending "to inflict suffering 'equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.'" Huh?

Of course, someone who is depriving you (in this case, imagine you are Guantanamo Bay Detainee 063, Mohammed Al-Qahtani) of sleep for weeks on end, and then dumping water on your head and forcing you to stand in order to keep you awake -- and giving you enemas and in other ways humiliating you -- does not want to be accused of committing torture in violation of long-standing international law, such as the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the CAT). The CAT, to which the United States is a signatory, categorically outlaws torture no matter the circumstances (war, rebellion, or public emergencies are examples).

The narrative is that Alberto Gonzales, then the White House Counsel, sought an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department because there were questions about how to treat the growing number of detainees at Guantanamo Bay (remember, the White House had already ditched the Geneva Conventions) -- and thus the infamous August 1, 2002 Justice Department Torture Memo.

But how much conspiring happened beforehand? Mayer writes in her book that "Yoo was a charter member of a self-selected, secretive, five-man club that called itself 'The War Council.'" Also in the 'club,' she writes, were David Addington, legal counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney; Alberto Gonzales; Tim Flanigan, another lawyer in the White House Counsel's office; and Jim Haynes, general counsel to the Pentagon (and a David Addington protege). In the moments, days, weeks, and months after the attacks on September 11, 2001, these guys were busy, very busy, coming up with creative interpretations of all kinds of laws that were on the books. ...

Isn't this a pretty photograph of some place in Colorado?

Day Two: Part Two -- Who Needs TV?

The Observation Car

I probably took this picture in Utah, but I have gotten my photographs out of order. No matter, the man in silhouette was traveling between southern California and somewhere in Colorado. On the table in front of him was a cowboy magazine -- literally, a cowboy magazine. Across the front cover was written the name of the magazine: Cowboy.

He was not reading the magazine. Instead, he was staring out the window, looking at the scenery. He had never taken the train before, and I believe he became a thorough Amtrak convert. I can't remember the exact words he spoke, but he expressed a sentiment along these lines: "After being on this train and seeing what I have seen, who needs TV anymore?"

Friday, August 1, 2008

Day Two: Part Two -- Two Memos

Approaching Denver

During the train ride, my attention wandered between the views outside and Jane Mayer's book, The Dark Side. Prior to reading this book, I could only make generalizations about how the Bush administration came to accept torture as a legitimate means for gathering intelligence, generalizations such as the following: George W. Bush is an intellectual lightweight and a scion of privilege who believes the laws do not apply to him, and Dick Cheney is dangerously paranoid. Jane Mayer's book provides details that explain how these two men, and others, came to embrace torture.

In the chaos of the days following the attacks on September 11, 2001, members of the Bush administration scrambled to come up with a plan, according to Mayer. The plan they eventually settled on involved attacking Afghanistan to uproot the Taliban and capture or kill members of Al Qaeda. Captured suspected Al Qaeda members would be transported to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and designated "enemy combatants." Detention at Guantanamo and designation as enemy combatants would hopefully put the detainees beyond the legal jurisdiction of American courts and international law -- to which the United States is a signatory -- regulating prisoners of war. Members of the Bush administration thus thought they were free to create their own laws regulating the detainees. Over the course of the following months, the Bush administration abandoned the Geneva Conventions regulating treatment of prisoners of war in war time, and produced two memos that redefined torture and essentially gave license to agents at Guantanamo and elsewhere to ... well ... work through "the dark side," as Dick Cheney put it, in order to extract intelligence from detainees.

Day Two: Part Two -- More Scenery


The image on top is a little blurry, but if you look closely, you can see the opening to a canyon in the middle and a cut into the bedrock coming outside to the right of the opening. The Amtrak train had just emerged from that canyon along the tracks in the cut in the bedrock. The photograph on the bottom is a little further along the tracks.

Day Two: Part Two -- A Black Bear

Somewhere along the Colorado River after we had crossed the border into the state of Colorado, I saw a large black object on a grassy ledge on the other side of the river. It was at a point in our travels where the river was extremely narrow and the distance from the train to the other side of the river was maybe 200 feet, if that -- much narrower than the distance in this photograph. The black object on the other side of the river moved. I jiggled Pamela's arm and said, "Look!" It was a black bear, a very black bear, with long, sleek black fur, and a bulbous, almost yellow, nose. The glimpse lasted all of four seconds, if that, and my camera was not at the ready. I later asked a crew member of the train if she had seen the bear. She said she had been doing the California Zephyr route for 20 years and not once had she seen a bear. She missed seeing the bear on this trip also.