What it means to be a liberal

In Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov, published in 1994, he explained why he was a political liberal:

“I wanted to see the United States changed and made more civilized, more humane, truer to its own proclaimed traditions I wanted to see all Americans judged as individuals and not as stereotypes. I wanted to see all with reasonable opportunities. I wanted society to feel a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless.”

Then, Asimov surveyed the political landscape over his lifetime:

“I was only thirteen when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president and introduced the ‘New Deal,’ but I was not too young to get an idea of what he was trying to do. … I disapproved of Roosevelt only when he wasn’t liberal enough, as when, for political reasons, he ignored the plight of African Americans….

“Liberalism began to fade after World War II. Times became prosperous, and many blue collar people … turned conservative. They had theirs and weren’t willing to discommode themselves for those who were still down at the bottom….

“And eventually we came to the Reagan era, when it became de rigeur not to tax but to borrow; to spend money not on social services but on armaments. … Rich Americans grew richer in an atmosphere of deregulation and greed, and poor Americans — But who worries about poor Americans except people branded with the L-word that no one dared mention any more?

“It makes me think of Oliver Goldsmith’s lines:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

“As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.”

Asimov wrote that a quarter of a century ago, and things have mostly gotten worse since then. Perhaps there have been modest gains in people being judged as individuals and not stereotypes, most notably in the legaization of same sex marriage; but we have also learned from Black Lives Matter and #MeToo that far too many persons are victimized because of their race or sex. But when it comes to “a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless,” we have arguably regressed since 1994: Bill Clinton eviscerated aid to poor people, George W. Bush spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq while cutting social service spending at home, Barack Obama put more effort into bailing out banks during the Great Recession than helping the poor, and Donald Trump now promotes open contempt of anyone who is not wealthy.

I continue to be a deeply patriotic American, but we are growing less civilized and less humane, and we are departing wildly from our proclaimed traditions. As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.

Happy Independence Day.

The Great Recession

Geographer Richard A. Walker, in his 2018 book “Portrait of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area,” writes:

“The Great Recession has been calamitous. The official U.S. government designation of a two-year lapse in growth 2008-2010 minimizes the reality….things are worse than that. The Great Recession won’t go away — regardless of the soaring stock market and falling unemployment. By any measure, recovery from the Great Recession was the slowest from any crisis on record, including the Great Depression of the 1930s [emphasis mine]. U.S. productivity remains poor overall, aggregate demand is weak because wages have barely budged, and corporations are not investing with any gusto. Loose talk of full employment by mid-decade ignores the fact that so many Americans have dropped out of the labor force entirely.” (pp. 64-65).

Two conclusions for congregations: (1) Expect fundraising to be an ongoing challenge, since many households have not recovered from the Great Recession. (2) Expect the need for congregationally-based social services such as food pantries and supporting homeless shelters will continue to be robust. In other words, we will have to continue to do more with fewer resources.

Plastics pick-up

People are starting to pay increasing attention to the dangers of plastic waste in the environment. I think children and teens are ahead of many adults in their awareness of the dangers of plastic waste — a six year old of my acquaintance asked for her sixth birthday party to be a plastics clean up on the beach. Now admittedly most of the children and teens that I know are from Unitarian Universalist families, so perhaps they are slightly more aware of plastic waste; but I think while many adults have gotten locked into a narrow focus on stopping further global warming, the children and teens I know seem more aware of the many interlocking aspects of looming global environmental disaster: global warming, plastic waste, toxics in the environment, habitat destruction, etc. And the kids I know quickly make the connection between all these problems and human overpopulation.

On the last day of our church’s Ecojustice Camp, we did a clean-up of the campsite where we spent the last night of camp. This was a well-maintained and relatively clean campsite, yet we found quite a bit of plastic waste:

The campers and counselors found on the order of 200 pieces of plastic waste, along with some degradable trash such as paper and metal. That’s a lot of plastic….

Biomass-burning camp stove, pt. 1

For some time, I’ve been thinking about making a lightweight portable stove that burns biomass instead of fossil fuels. Search the Web, and you’ll turn up lots of plans for such stoves — tin can rocket stoves, Canadian candle stoves, etc. But most of the plans I looked at seemed overly complicated and not particularly elegant. Then I stumbled on a video titled “How To Make a Wood Gasifier Stove”: it showed how to make a stove that was simple, even elegant. So tonight I made one.

The basic principle for the “wood gasifier stove” is the same as for a rocket stove: the solid biomass fuel (wood) burns at the bottom of the stove, with another combustion area higher up where rising gases are enabled to burn further. This is supposed to extract more heat from the fuel, and additionally the more complete combustion should result in less crud going into the air and into your lungs. However, where the rocket stove has been tested for greater efficiency by scientists, I know of no such studies for this design; we’ll just take it on faith that this design is probably more efficient than an open fire.

The biomass-burning stove
The biomass-burning stove with a fire in it

The stove requires two “tin” cans, one larger than the other: I got a 15 oz. can of pears, and a 29 oz. can of peaches. The smaller can, nested inside the larger can, is where you build the fire. Ventilation holes at the bottom of the larger, outer, can line up with ventilation holes at the bottom of the smaller, inner, can. The smaller can also has a row of ventilation holes near the top; this is where additional air is injected so to make rising gases can burn. If you look carefully at this photo of the stove I made, you can see the upper ventilation holes, with jets of flame coming out where the injected air is igniting rising gases.

Upper ventilation holes in the stove
Upper ventilation holes in the lit stove

I completed the basic stove in about an hour (including the time it took to eat the pears). The stove is reasonably practical, particularly for car campers or ordinary backpackers (i.e., not those crazy ultralight backpackers). And the stove is environmentally responsible: it’s made with recyclable materials, and it burns biomass instead of fossil fuels like white gas, butane, or propane. Plus, since it’s homemade, it doesn’t feed consumer consumption; and consumerism is a major contributing cause to the pending global environmental disaster.

I still have to make a potholder, to keep the cooking pot a couple of inches above the flames, where the greatest heat should be — but I have to wait until I eat another can of pears. Once I get the potholder made, I’ll post a photo showing something cooking on the stove (and I’ll add a sketch showing how to make one).

Goat finale

Today, the owner of the goats came to pick them up. He and his helper backed the goat trailer up to where the goats were penned in. While the humans were dismantling the electric fence, they let the goats munch on a few last weeds. The herd dog stayed in the goat trailer, waiting until he might be needed.

Goats getting ready to go home. Photo courtesy Carol Steinfeld.

But the goats, being goats, wanted more to eat. The electricity had been turned off in the fence, and the goats found a small opening they could sneak out of. Carol looked up from her laptop and suddenly saw a couple of goats in the small cemetery parking lot. We went out to see what we could do, but the goats paid no attention to us. Then more goats came out. Pretty soon, all the goats were out. Carol called the cemetery superintendent so the superintendent could call the goatherds on their cell phones. By now, the goats were moving in a bunch across the cemetery, cropping grass as they went.

Soon one of their humans showed up, and he got the herd dog. Between the two of them, the human and the dog got the goats moving back towards the trailer. The goats would try to break away — all that lovely grass, just waiting for them! — but the dog would run quick as lightning and head them off, with his human partner cutting off any chance of retreat. At last the goats broke into a trot and ran towards the trailer.

Goats on the loose
Goats in retreat. Photo courtesy Carol Steinfeld.
Goats in retreat
Goats breaking into a trot. Photo courtesy Carol Steinfeld.
Goats heading back to trailer
Goats heading back to the trailer. Photo courtesy Carol Steinfeld.

Carol watched the action from inside the cemetery, while I and one of the cemetery gardeners stood in the parking lot, both to try to keep the goats from escaping into the streets of San Mateo, and to make sure any visitors who drove in didn’t run over a goat. We weren’t really needed, though; the herd dog and his human quickly had the goats under control.

Soon enough, all the goats were back in a fenced-in area, ready to be loaded in their trailer. Carol and I went back inside, and opened up our laptops. It didn’t last long, but the goats’ breakout provided a dramatic finale to their stay at the cemetery.

Wasp

This evening, I went out to look at the paper wasp nest that is well-hidden in the native plants garden at the church. I’ve learned that in the hour before sunset, the founder wasp rests herself on the nest, between the nest and its supporting twig, just below the petiole. And that’s exactly where she was when I got out there.

My camera is a good tool for getting a close look at her without getting too close; I have a healthy respect of wasps and have no desire to provoke her into stinging me. Looking at the photos I took of her, it looks like she has added some cells to the nest. The light began fading rapidly while I was taking photos, and it wasn’t long before the camera would no longer focus on the nest; as a result, I didn’t get any photos looking into the ends of the cells, so I’m not sure whether the cells contain any eggs or larvae.

Goats

St. John’s Cemetery, where we live, owns a strip of land between the actual cemetery and an adjacent residential neighborhood. This strip of land, while attractive, has gotten overgrown with undesirable plants like Russian thistle and poison oak. As an environmentally friendly way to control these undesirable plants, Kathy, the cemetery director, brought in Green Goat Landscapers.

The goats arrived this afternoon, and I went out to look at them this evening. They are safely installed behind a temporary electric fence — the fence not only keeps the goats in, it also keeps any roaming mountains lions out (and yes, mountain lions have been seen in the cemetery).

I found it very satisfying to stand and watch the goats. Perhaps I had distant ancestors from Eurasia who herded animals, and I still have some ancestral memory of that. More likely, it’s just that herd animals and humans spent a lot of time with each other, and while we humans domesticated goats, the goats for their part also domesticated us.

Eventually computers will domesticate us in different ways, but at the moment we humans are still closer to goats than to computers. I stood watching the goats eat the thistles. They didn’t seem to mind the prickles on the thistles; their facial expressions showed no signs of pain; only contentment.

I stood watching the goats for quite a while, and had a brief fantasy about being a goatherd. But goatherding is even less remunerative than being a children and youth minister, so I went indoors to check email.

Polistes

Nancy saw a paper wasp beginning to build a nest. We watched it for a few minutes. The nest is still small, with perhaps 16 cells. We saw one adult, who sat quite still on the nest for more than a minute at a time; then she (presumably it was a female) would fly off and return after a minute or so. I wondered if she were working on building the nest; but she was working on the underside of the nest, and the nest was located where we couldn’t see the underside without disturbing her, we could not confirm my conjecture. I did, however, manage to take two photos with Carol’s phone:

I feel fairly confident assigning this individual to genus Polistes, a genus which includes dozens of species of paper wasps. The online “Bug Guide” of the University of Iowa’s Department of Entomology says of genus Polistes: “Predatory on other insects (predominantly caterpillars) to feed larvae.” Nancy left the nest there so the wasps could serve as a biological control on voracious caterpillars and other herbivorous insects.

Odorous house ant

It’s that time of year: the Odorous House Ants (Tapinoma sessile) are sneaking indoors to get out of the rain. At least I think that’s what they are: they’re the right size and shape, and when you crush one it smells vaguely floral (some people describe the smell as being like cocnout sun tan oil). One of the ants paused on the edge of our sink long enough for me to take a photo that’s only slightly blurred:

More about Odorous House Ants from Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants, on the School of Ants Web site.