Wednesday, May 31, 2006

On life and history...

I spent most of my life being a historian - teaching, practicing, and writing history as well as advocating for history and the historical profession. In recent months I've been trying to leave the "work" part of that life behind me, but friends inevitably call with ideas or I read something here or there that sparks my interest.

Today two things happened.

First, I got a call from Dan Berman at the California PUC, co-author of Who Own's the Sun, which by pure coincidence was published 1997, the same year as my book, Energy and the Making of Modern California. Dan is an indefatigable advocate for public power, working hard today to facilitate the extension of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to Davis, Woodland, and West Sacramento. The public power election comes up in November.

Back in the day, when I was writing a lot about energy history, he had me up to give a talk to the PUC staff. Now he called just to say he still looks at my book - got important stuff in it that you just can't find anywhere else. Dan made me feel pretty good about myself, which is a hell of a nice gift for someone to give someone else.

When he asked if I'd been doing more, the best I could do was point him to a little essay on the history of energy on the Franklin Institute website.

The second thing that happened today was my being reminded by Richard White, a fellow historian just up the road at Stanford University, that "History is a habit of mind and not a collection of facts." In a piece entitled Border Crossing, about the immigration debate and what historians might contribute to it (or not), he observes: "Except for the immigrants themselves, the current public discussion usually involves the usual suspects and is idiotically simple. It is about principles: secure borders and punishing lawbreakers on one side and economic justice and the rights to citizenship on the other. Or, alternatively, it is about economic calculations: immigrants do or do not help the economy." The problem, says White, is that the past contains "a nuanced and complex world [that appeals] to practice more than principles."

"A public debate more informed by the complexity of family stories and actual practices of our past would be a better debate, but settling for that is a cliché. If ... the take home lesson for historians was that we should be presenting the public with the facts about past immigration laws and the experiences of past immigrants because this would lead to more informed and better decisions, then [we] would come perilously close to what I have come to think of as the Millard Fillmore fallacy. Whenever I hear someone complaining about Americans' ignorance of history, I think of Millard Fillmore. Would this be a better country if every American knew about Millard Fillmore? I may be going out on a limb here, but I don't think so.

"But we might be a better country, and better citizens, if we spent less time thinking about easy principles and more time thinking about complicated practices. The best source of complicated practices is the past. History is a habit of mind and not a collection of facts. ... The hard part is figuring out how to put this knowledge into collective public practice."

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Enron and the law...

Back in 1970, Yale law professor Charles A. Reich published a best-selling and very controversial book, The Greening of America. While some of his work rightfully deserved criticism, perhaps even ridicule, his analysis of the anatomy of the corporate state in America was particularly insightful.

Law, he pointed out, began as "a codification of those lasting human values which a people agree upon." With the rise of corporations in the early twentieth century, however, and particularly during the 1930s, "the law was gradually changed from a medium which carried traditional values of its own to a value-free medium that could be adapted to serve 'public policy,' which became the 'public interest' of the Corporate State." Law supported the needs of administration rather than protecting the individual, and it proliferated thereafter. In the end, Reich concluded: "If 'law' means a general rule to govern a community of people, then in the most literal and precise sense we have no law; we are a lawless society."

Almost two decades later, the Enron case illuminates Reich's view. Here was a case in which almost everyone agreed that Skilling and Lay probably were not "ethical" in their behavior and actions, but they had not actually "broken the law." Why? Because the law served their needs; it was administrative in nature. The law had trumped ethics, or if you will, the "general rule" by which people live, the "codification of those lasting human values."

The law, I fear, is too administrative in its nature, a plethora of infinitesimal rules riddled (by design, too often) with loopholes that are aimed at serving the friends and allies of those who write them. But today, in Houston, the people rejected a defense that was built on that law and reached back, I think, to the law as a general rule of human behavior. It is something we all should applaud.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A week on the bay...

How often do you promise yourself something and find ways to avoid fulfilling it? For the last two years, I’ve been promising myself - or threatening myself, I’m not sure which - that I would sail away on Dog Days for a week on some corner of San Francisco Bay. You know the excuses - working and can’t quite get away, a spate of rainy weather, projects at home and, unique to my situation, not having the appropriate tender for the boat.

The truth of it: I was just nervous about doing it - not quite comfortable enough with my sailing skills, wondering would I really enjoy a week alone - you know, just generally insecure.

But this year, with lots of practice anchoring and mooring and driving dinghies on charter trips, with my dink Pup built and ready to be employed as Dog Days tender, I really had no more excuses. So, after sailing with Deb’s son Brett on Spindrift on the weekend, I drove back up to the marina Monday morning to start my adventure.

Day one. I’d hoped to Dog Days ready by mid-afternoon so as to motor to Clipper Cove on Treasure Island for the first night, but checking batteries, anchor rode, getting provisions, and such ate up the day. So I spent the first night in the slip (sort of like being in an anchorage when a neighbor decided to trouble shoot his Atomic Four engine at 22:00 hours).

Day two. Turned out to be just as well, because when I awoke to make coffee, I discovered I’d forgotten to get alcohol for the stove! So, a little last minute provisioning, and then out of the slip, over to the pump out station, and then to the Jack London fuel dock, and I was off around 10:30.

This was a test for Pup. Would she behave well under tow? Her builder John Tuma and I agreed that some ballast under the seat might be a good idea, so I put two cases of 12 oz. water bottles in her. As I motored out the Estuary, she followed easily. The test would be crossing the Bay to Angel Island – through the ever windy Slot, where cool air from the Pacific gushes through the Golden Gate as the interior heats up. Twenty-five knots is common on warm afternoons.

I started across at 12:30, but the wind beat me. I’d estimate the wind at 20-25 knots, but Dog Days did well with one-reef in the main, moving at 6.4 knots over ground, and Pup bobbed along behind as though the crossing was meant just for her to show her stuff. When we lost the wind behind Angel Island and I pulled in Pup’s painter to see how much water she’d taken on, I was surprised to see no more than an inch in the bottom (barely up to the floor board).

We arrived at the Corinthian Yacht Club guest dock in Tiburon at 14:30, and after checking in, I rowed Pup over to Sam’s Anchor Café for a late lunch, walked around in Tiburon for a bit, and then rowed back. After Pup took some very nice compliments from a couple of Corinthian sailors, and I stretched out for some reading and napping, and ended with a nice barbecued a steak and some vegetables and a phone call to my Princess. … A very nice first day, traveling 12.9 nm and getting a good test in on Pup.

Day three. Up early with an “uppy-time” call from the Princess, who didn’t want me sleeping when she had to go to work. Coffee, then into Tiburon for breakfast at the New Morning Café, then ready to embark at 10:00. Putting up the sails in Belvedere Cove, I found the shallow spot in the middle of the cove, which didn’t stop me but turned out to be a harbinger of things to come.

Motor-sailed over to the Sausalito water front and watched the fog endlessly pushing across the coastal range, retreated wing-on-wing back through Raccoon Strait, and then up toward Red Rock. Half way up the wind shifted to a broad reach and I went forward to remove the whisker pole. Oops! The back-winded headsail acted like a bow and nicely shot the pole right across the starboard rail, so I got a nice “man-overboard” test. It took two passes to retrieve it, one under sail, the second with the motor running.

A nice broad reach took me up past Red Rock and under the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, following a course that took me to the starboard side of the San Pablo Bay. Had to go wing-on-wing again to head up the bay, past The Brothers Islands and lighthouse, and then past the entrance Pt. Pinole, scarred with old oil docks. About even with the Sisters Islands on the other side of the bay, I turned toward China Camp and sailed a nice 6 knot beam reach across the bay, getting the anchor out and flaking out sufficient rode along the way.

Arrived at China Camp at 15:00, took the sails down, and picked a spot to anchor south and even with the end of the old wharf. I was going to row ashore, but the wind and river currents seemed a little strong, so I decided to take a nap, read, and finally cook dinner aboard. Overall, I made 14.4 nm, and got a lot of sun.

Day four. One way that sailing San Pablo Bay is different than the main bay is that the tidal currents are combined with the downstream river current. At China Camp, these two factors tend to move you around a bit at anchor. It’s one of those places where you wish you had chain anchor line instead of rope. I awoke around 04:30 and noticed that Dog Days had dragged anchor. Since I was alone in the anchorage, there was no threat of hitting another boat, but I watched off and on for an hour to make sure I didn’t drag further, and then slept until 07:30.

I thought that I had accounted for the low tide when I anchored, but, alas, I discovered on waking that I had not judged very well, or at least had not taken into account that the heavy rainfall this season had brought a lot more silt into the bay. In any case, Dog Days’ keel was stuck in the mud and would be there until the tide rose again.

Low tide (about -.8) was not until just before noon, and I became concerned that wind waves and current might push me more toward shore when the tide started to rise. So, I decided to pull in the anchor, take Pup, and row out further from shore and reset it. Pulling up the anchor revealed that the chain had gotten wrapped around the Danforth anchor’s prongs – no wonder it dragged – and now was encrusted with mud. I pulled it up to just below the bow, got in Pup, washed as much mud as possible off the anchor, pulled it aboard Pup, and rowed offshore. This maneuver accomplished, I climbed back aboard Dog Days, went forward and set the anchor.

I called my friend Bruce in Vallejo and told him my predicament. Long-time sailor that he is, Bruce empathized, suggested I try to kedge off the mud with the anchor, but, alas, I knew I was in too deep for that. Patience was the order of the day, and he promised to get me a spot on the Vallejo Yacht Club guest dock for the evening.

I spent the afternoon polishing Dog Days’ stainless steel, washed the mud off Pup and stowed the oars, read and relaxed. Watching the tide come in when you’re stuck in the mud teaches patience. Every thirty minutes or so, I pulled in the anchor line a little, gradually kedging a bit off the mud as the tide rose, but the movement was ever so slight; I aimed at just not letting Dog Days be pushed in further toward the shore.

At 16:00, with the depth meter reading between 4.2 and 4.4 feet, I decided to try and break free with the auxiliary diesel. Several tries combined with kedging in the anchor were not successful. But a wind, although light, was coming off the starboard beam. Just as I was considering raising the sails to lean Dog Days over, which might help float her, Bruce called to check in and encouraged me to try the sails. First, up went the headsail, but it wasn’t enough. Up next went the mainsail, and now with full sails and the engine Dog Days broke from the mud.

With the tiller tamer holding the tiller in position, I went forward and tried to raise the anchor, but it was so well set that I couldn’t budge it out of the mud. It finally dislodged, after I motored backwards and forwards over it a couple of times, and as Dog Days motored slowly away from shore, I managed to pull the anchor aboard and stow it. (Pulling it through the water washed almost all the mud off of the anchor, which at least made stowing it not so bad.)

We left China Camp at 16:30, and sailed a lovely beam reach all the way across San Pablo Bay to the entrance of the Napa River and Vallejo. Turning up the river, briefly wing-on-wing, and then back on to a beam reach, Bruce waved at me from his waterfront condo and then drove down to the Vallejo Yacht Club to meet me. We were both impressed at my time across – 13.5 nm in just over two-and-a-half-hours, for an average speed over ground of about six knots. Top speed 7.2 knots.

The treat at the end of the trip: dinner at Bruce and Gail’s, meeting Bruce’s fraternal twin brother, Jerry, and his wife. What a fun evening, swapping stories, sailing and otherwise.

Day five. After cooking up a couple of eggs and coffee, the day began with Bruce coming down to the marina to show me his newly fixed Gary Mull Custom 30, Pretty Penny. One of four built, this one was the work of well-known bay area sailor, Hank Easom. She was plainly meant for racing, with the engine mounted dead center in the salon; it presently awaits the building of a motor box. The interior is sparse but well balanced, presenting Bruce and Gail with innumerable projects. But, she’ll be a great day sailor and good for over nights once the interior’s finished off.

No sun this day. A low-pressure system started moving in over night, but, undaunted, I embarked from Vallejo at 09:30 for the long sail back to Alameda. Bruce and Gail waved me off from their balcony as I reached down the Napa River, and once on San Pablo Bay, with the wind out of the Southwest and the ebb with me, I made six long tacks on a close haul to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. At marker #10, I hit 9.0 knots for about a quarter mile, and probably averaged around 7.0 knots to the bridge. The wind seemed around 20 knots, maybe a bit more, and although it got a bit sloppy in the middle of San Pablo Bay – no worse than the Slot on a windy day – Dog Days never rounded up, so I kept up a full mainsail. And, again, Pup handled every wave and swell thrown at her without a problem.

Below the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, the wind shifted so that I made a beeline to the lee side of Treasure Island, sailing a close reach to Angel Island, and then sailing a beam across the Slot and under the Bay Bridge. Coming into the Estuary, the wind died, and I dropped the headsail just as Klaus Kutz, a fellow yacht club member and yacht broker, drifted by on the way out with a couple of customers on a C&C.

On the way in the Coast Guard Cutter Munro passed slowly by, and launched a skiff while underway. Quite a sight and watching took my mind off the intermittent showers that were starting up. But right after I lowered the mainsail and literally as I turned into the slip, the showers turned to real rain, and I tied up as quickly as I could to duck in the cabin and dry out. I ended the day at the piano at the Encinal.

The day’s journey was 32.3 nm, completed in 5.5 hours, for an average speed of about 6.0 knots. Overall during the four-days, I covered 73.1 nm, learned a whole lot more about sailing, read two novels, and had a lovely time. I liked the experience a lot, enough to do it again sometime, but even more fun will be doing this sort of local cruising with my Princess.

Day six. Spent the day cleaning Dog Days, rowing Pup around the marina, down to the Encinal for lunch, and then putting her to bed. Deb arrived at about 16:00, and we drove over to Jack London Square, where we got to go out for an evening cruise on Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential yacht, the USS Potomac, in celebration of friends 25th anniversary. It was a great way to end the week!

More photos.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Searches & seizures...

USA Today reports that the National Security Agency has been collecting records of tens of millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls, all without warrants. The President's response defending this makes clear he approved it.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, house, papers, and effects against unreasonbale searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probabl cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the placed to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Well, now then!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Bittersweet Spring...

My partner's father died last Friday, in her arms, surrounded by her family. We spent the last eight days of his life keeping watch and comforting him. It was, as Deborah said, a life affirming and bonding experience. She and I became so much closer, as did all the members of her family. And, as John's life ebbed, the northern hemisphere's Spring flowers reached full bloom and life flooded forth everywhere. What a joy it was to come home to our garden.

Meanwhile, friends who cruised to Tiburon and gathered on the docks of the Corinthian Yacht Club for a party on Saturday; they were in our minds. John's family gathered in the family home in Los Angeles, but if there were really a wake for John, I'd have wanted it on the docks. I'll bet he'd have liked it, too.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Idiocy is bipartisan...

The G.O.P. really did it again with the Great Gas Rebate! And, despite the idiocy of their plan, even some of the Dems wanted to grab credit for it. It really shows how out of touch with the people the Washington politicos are.

I can't recall ever agreeing with anything from right-wing talk radio, but Rush Limbaugh, as quoted in the NY Times got it right: "What kind of an insult is this? Instead of buying us off and treating us like we're a bunch of whores, just solve the problem."

Rush may not want to solve the problem the way I would - imposing a couple of buck gas tax, mandating really high mileage requirements, and investing real dollars in alternatives to petrol - but Rush is spot on about the rebate idea. It's just a marketing attempt to buy votes for the fall elections, no matter which party it comes from.

God save us from the stupidity of politicians and the people who support their idiocies.