Moving

Carol and I have decided that it’s easier to move a thousand or more miles away, as we have done four times now, than it is to move two miles away, as we are doing right now. When you are contemplating a long distance move, you know you have to plan everything well in advance. When you’re moving two miles up the street, you think it’s going to be easier, so you relax.

But a move of two miles is not much easier than a move of two thousand miles. Friday, while we were in the middle of schlepping boxes, Carol looked at me and said, “This is traumatic.” OK, maybe “traumatic” is too strong a word; it certainly is extremely unpleasant.

Housing solution

I wrote recently about how insanely difficult it is to find housing in the Bay Area. Since then, the East Bay Times reported that high housing costs have contributed to recent job losses in the Bay Area:

“The Bay Area’s job losses stem from two distinct phenomena: Some employers are slashing positions, and others are unable to hire. Some economists attribute this second problem to structural barriers posed by skyrocketing housing costs. The lack of affordable places for workers to live appears to have hobbled the region’s ability to fill jobs as briskly as in prior years.

“‘Housing is the chain on the dog that is chasing a squirrel,’ said Christopher Thornberg, principal economist and founding partner with Beacon Economics. ‘Once that chain runs out, it yanks the dog back.'”

High-cost municipalities like Palo Alto have been experiencing a net decline in population for over a year now — while housing costs continue to rise. It will be interesting to see how this trend plays out. I suspect that changes in policy will have much effect on rising housing prices; this suspicion is based on what Jay Forrester wrote in his 2009 paper “Some Basic Concepts in Systems Dynamics”:

“People seldom realize the pervasive existence of feedback loops in controlling everything that changes through time. Most people think in linear, nonfeedback terms. … people see a problem, decide on an action, expect a result, and believe that is the end of the issue. [This is] the framework within which most discussions are debated in the press, business, and government.” Yet the world does not really work in a simple, linear fashion. Instead, says Forrester, “we live in a complex of nested feedback loops.”

Another way of saying this is that we human beings like to think of the world in terms of simple, linear, cause-and-effect relationships. Linear thinking provides a reasonably good model for most of our day-to-day actions, and we like to think it will work in all situations. A better model is to think of the world in non-linear terms, as a complex of interconnected feedback loops.

However, in practice it has proved very difficult to get most people to adopt a non-linear model of the world. I see this all the time in my work life. For example, when I’m doing pastoral counseling with people, I see that people often shy away at understanding their personal, spiritual world in terms of nonlinear feedback loops; they prefer to think that a personal, spiritual problem is easily addressed using linear cause-and-effect solutions; and those linear solutions may work in the short term, but after short terms gains there are typically feedback loops in the family and in other social relationships which tend to draw the person back to their original equilibrium.

In another example from my work life, congregations try to solve their problems using linear cause-and-effect thinking. If a congregation wants to increase membership, for example, they will typically find a linear cause-and-effect solution like improving their Web site or doing other advertising to draw new people in the door. One common result of this kind of linear “solution” is that there is a brief influx of newcomers, and a brief increase in attendance, but then within a year various feedback loops bring the congregation back down to the size it was before the advertising campaign.

So the reason I see little hope for policy solutions to the housing crisis in the Bay Area is that most policy efforts are driven by linear cause-and-effect thinking. Build more housing and housing prices will drop; implement rent stabilization measures and housing prices will at least be stable; — both these measures will fail because they don’t take into account the complex of feedback loops that are driving high housing costs, including availability of a range of jobs, transportation infrastructure, national and world forces bearing on the region, etc.

We have managed to solve our own immediate housing crisis. After the landlord sold the building we live in, we spent a month looking for housing and yesterday we signed a lease. We will be living in a cemetery — I kid you not — in a nice two-bedroom house that had been built for a caretaker. We solved our immediate problem with a linear cause-and-effect solution; but we have not solved the longer term problem of how two people who are not earning those six-figure high-tech salaries can afford to live in Silicon Valley.

Obscure Unitarians: Alice Locke

A writer, feminist, and pacifist, Alice Elizabeth Locke Parke was born Feb. 2, 1861, in Boston, Mass.; her father, John Locke, a lawyer, was from New Hampshire and her mother Harriet was from Nantucket.

She graduated from Rhode Island Normal School in 1879. She taught in the public schools in Cumberland, Smithfield, and North Kingstown, R.I., in 1880-1882.

She married Dean W. Park, Sept. 27, 1884, and they had two children, Carl J. (b. Oct. 13, 1885, Colo.) and Harriet (b. Feb. 7, 1887, Colo.). Dean was a mining engineer and graduate of M.I.T., and the family lived in a number of places, including Montana, Colorado, Mexico, and Texas, following his jobs. Alice moved to Palo Alto in 1906 while her children were attending Stanford Univ.; Dean died in Palo Alto May, 1909, in a bicycle accident.

In 1910, Alice gave her occupation as “writer” for “papers, etc.” She was active with the California Equal Suffrage Assoc., and participated in the successful 1911 campaign for women’s suffrage in California. Subsequently, she continued to be active in suffrage work outside of California.

She was branded as a “subversive” by the New York State Legislature, which noted that she belonged to the National Women’s Suffrage Party, and branded her a “sympathizer” of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 1912, she wrote a letter to the editor of Pacific Unitarian in support of the IWW.

She later said that she could not remember when she became a pacifist, and called it a family tradition. She opposed the Spanish-American War, and displayed a peace flag on her house during the First World War. She helped form the Palo Alto branch of the Women’s Peace Party (WPP); Jessie Knight Jordan, wife of David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University, was also involved with the WPP. In 1915, she went to Europe on the Ford Peace Mission. With the entrance of the U.S. into the war in 1917, the Palo Alto branch of the WPP disbanded; Park then joined the American Union Against Militarism, and began holding meetings of the Palo Alto branch in her house beginning April 16, 1917; and when the Palo Alto branch publicly supported conscientious objectors, she was threatened with arrest.

She went to meetings of the People’s Council in San Francisco (of which Rev. William Short, formerly minister of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, was an officer); she was presiding at a meeting in August, 1917, with David Starr Jordan on the speaker’s platform, when the meeting was raided by police. She continued her pacifist activities throughout the war, sometimes enduring illegal searches by the police. After the war, in 1919, she planned a meeting at the Palo Alto Community House (which Edith Maddux, another Palo Alto Unitarian, helped organize) to call for the release of all political prisoners.

She was an early member of the Women’s Alliance of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, joining before 1910. However, she and Marion Starr Alderton withdrew from the Palo Alto church in June, 1920, in protest against “the attitude taken” by the church in the First World War.

She described her religion thus:

My religion is humanity — humanitarianism — confident that the present time is all that we are sure of and our duty, our progress and our usefulness are all here and now — If we think earnestly of the present and try to do all we can right here and now — we are at least sure of immediate results. My religion is boundless — Nothing human is alien to me. (quoted in Eichelberger; see Notes)

She died Feb. 17, 1961, just after her hundredth birthday.

Notes:

Notes: 1900, 1910, 1920 U.S. Census; Birth, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States, town clerk office, FHL microfilm 592,869; Thomas W. Bicknell, A History of the Rhode Island Normal School, 1911; “School Officers and Teachers in Public Schools, 1880-1881,” Twelfth Annual Report of the Board of Education…of Rhode Island, Providence, R.I.: E. L. Freeman & Co., 1882, p. 9; “School Officers and Teachers in Public Schools, 1881-1882,” Thirteenth Annual Report of the Board of Education…of Rhode Island, Providence, R.I.: E. L. Freeman & Co., 1883, p. 9; Class of 1884 M.I.T.: 25th Anniversary Book, Boston, 1909, p. 114; “Dean W. Park” obituary, The Mining World, Chicago: Mining World Co., May 22, 1909, p. 991; Eunice Eichelberger, “‘Hearts Brimming with Patriotism,’” ed. Robert W. Cherny, California Women and Politics: From the Gold Rush to the Great Depression, Univ. Neb. Press, 2011, pp. 321-332; Pacific Unitarian, July, 1912, pp. 271-272; “The Ford Peace Party,” Revolutionary and Subversive Movements Abroad and at Home, Albany: N.Y. Legislature, 1920, p. 98 (for the meeting of the People’s Council that was raided, see also San Francisco Daily Call, Aug. 9, 1917); Board of Trustees minutes, archives of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto; Nancy L. Roberts, American Peace Writers, Editors, and Periodicals: A Dictionary, Greenwood Press, 1991, p. 216.

Park deserves additional research (though such research lies outside the scope of my current research interests). Sources for further research include the Alice Park papers at the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. (mssPK 1-338), and the Register of the Alice Park Papers 1883-1951 at the Hoover Institution, Stanford Univ. There is a Masters thesis on her, written by Paige G. Greenfeld: Yours for Women and Peace: The Feminism of Alice Locke Park, San Diego State University, 2003.

Guteel

In a Tlingit myth, Guteel was a being who lived on human blood. He was larger than humans, and semi-divine, so in English translations of the myth he is referred to as a “giant” or a “monster.” I found a few different versions of the myth — as you’d expect with an oral tradition — but the central plot remains much the same: Guteel is killing too many humans, so the humans figure out a way to kill him. As they destroy him, he prophesies that they will never kill him completely. The humans burn his body, but the ashes turn into mosquitoes which suck blood from humans, thus rendering Guteel’s prophecy true.

At Sitka National Historical Park, there is a Mosquito Legend Pole carved before 1900, which once belonged to Hattie Wallace of the Kaigani Haida village of Sukkwan. Even though it was in a Haida village, the pole shows the Tlingit Mosquito Legend. The traditional Watchman figure is missing from the top of this pole; so now Guteel sits at the top, a giant with a beak that looks like a mosquito proboscis.

We probably would not include monsters or giants like Guteel in the category of deities. Yet a being like Guteel is in some sense a lesser deity: he is immortal, he is powerful, he is part of the order of existence. Not all deities are benevolent.

More information:

Info about the replica Mosquito Legend Pole at Sitka National Historical Park

Versions of the Tlingit Mosquito Legend: a brief versionversion with photos of old totem poles

Tlingit myths and Texts

Mount Edgecumbe

Carol and I are here in Alaska to participate in the Alaska Sacred Harp Convention, and we have been singing every day, and we attended a “singing school,” pretty much as you’d expect. But our gracious host Kari also arranged for those attending the convention to go on a whale watch trip. Over the course of an hour and three quarters on the water, we saw more than twenty humpback whales — and the scenery was spectacular as well. I particularly enjoyed looking at Mt. Edgecumbe, a long-extinct volcano. At this season Mt. Edgecumbe is snow-clad from it summit about halfway down to the sea, making it look like something out of a classic Japanese woodblock print, only more dramatic.

Housing

We’re looking for a new place to live — our landlord is finally selling the duplex where we live, so he can use the money to enjoy his retirement. We’ve been looking for most of a month now, and it has not been easy. The average rent for an apartment around here is ridiculously high; the Bay Area has some of the highest housing costs in the U.S. In some cities in the Bay Area, you can make over $80,000 a year and still qualify for affordable housing options.

We refuse to spend more than a third of our combined gross income on rent, and we would prefer to spend only a quarter of our gross income. The apartments we can afford are either tiny, or shabby, or sometimes both tiny and shabby. To make matters worse, competition for these relatively affordable, tiny or shabby apartments is intense. All this combines to make our search for housing into an unpleasant task.

The ridiculously high cost of housing, and the shortage of affordable housing, are problems that will not be solved any time soon. Build more affordable housing? Recent news stories carried by Bay Area media outlets make it clear that demand will outpace supply of new affordable housing for the foreseeable future. Impose rent control? Most local rent control initiatives have failed, under intense pressure from the real estate lobby. Leave the Bay Area? That’s the answer for many people; several cities in Silicon Valley have lost population in the past few years. Live on the streets? The homeless population in the Bay Area continues to grow.

I don’t have any answers. But I do know that we here in Silicon Valley have a front row seat for watching the growth in income inequality.

Smoke

We were awakened Sunday night by the smell of smoke. We got up in the dark and tried to figure out where the smell was coming from. Maybe the neighbors left a fire burning in their fireplace overnight, and the slight breeze was blowing it into our house? When we got up on Monday morning, we read that thousands of acres were burning about 70 miles north of us; we had smelled the smoke from those fires.

The wind shifted yesterday and the air cleared, but today the smoke returned. It appeared to be an overcast day, but it was smoke, not clouds, blocking the sun. Over in the East Bay, Ms. M.’s spouse saw ash falling out of the sky in Oakland. I stayed indoors with the windows closed.

In the afternoon, Carol found an apartment for us to look at over in Half Moon Bay. We drove up Highway 92 into the hills west of San Mateo. The smoke reduced visibility so that from the flats where we started out, the tops of the hills looked blue and misty.

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In Half Moon Bay the air smelled clean; the line of hills to the east, and an onshore breeze, kept the smoke away. But we could see the smoke above us, a wide plume about a thousand feet up. As the sun got low in the sky, the plume of smoke turned it into a lurid red glowing ball, like a huge red traffic light in the sky.

In addition to global climate change…

In the United States, there’s this stereotype that different human populations worry about different environmental catastrophes. College-educated white suburbanites, so the stereotype goes, worry more about global climate change — perhaps because they are more aware of how much energy it takes to power their many automobiles, and to heat their large homes. Communities of color and working class whites, so it is said, worry more about toxics in the environment — perhaps because people of color and working class people are more likely to be exposed to more toxic substances in the places they live and work.

College-educated white people have tended to be dismissive of the threat of toxics in the environment, at least in comparison to the threat of global climate change. Global climate change has the potential to cause another “great extinction” and to decrease human chances of survival, whereas toxics in the environment don’t have the potential to do as much damage.

But I think we all should start worrying more about toxics in the environment.

According to a BBC article titled “Pesticides linked to bee deaths found in most honey samples,” a recent study published in Science shows that neonicotinoids have been found in three quarters of honey samples from around the world (from every continent except Antarctica). The widespread presence of neonicotinoids is especially troubling, because they were found in places where the chemicals have been banned for several years.

When asked by the BBC to comment on the article, Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, said: “Entire landscapes all over the world are now permeated with highly potent neurotoxins, undoubtedly contributing to the global collapse of biodiversity.”

The collapse of biodiversity is bad enough. But consider, too, that if we humans kill off major pollinators, there’s a potential cascade effect that could drive many flowering plants towards extinction. So if you’re looking for a cause of the next “great extinction,” or if you’re just looking for another reason to lie awake at night and worry — look no farther than toxics in the environment.