Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Turner and Kawasaki at ContentNow Blog

Martine Paris has nice things to say about the recent appearance at The Club of Ted Turner and Guy Kawasaki. Read the post or check out her entire ContentNow blog.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rhonda Becomes Invisible

Try sitting on the sidewalk. The rhythm of the noontime San Francisco foot traffic is steady on the corner of 2nd and Market, and the skies have been graying on the verge of rainfall. Businessmen and tourists stroll by and hover over you. This is the epitome of power, like Cassius Clay looking down at a destroyed Sonny Liston.

From this vantage point you become invisible. You don't really see more than shiny loafers and stylish pumps skitter across the cold concrete. This angle doesn't allow for much eye contact, either way. For a homeless woman named Rhonda this arrangement makes her disappear. Her obscurity lets passersby off the hook. I don't see you and you don't see me. People like Rhonda are easily forgotten.

Rhonda has made her home on 2nd Street for 10 years or as far as anyone around here remembers. John, the shoeshine man on Market, remembers her that far back, and the manager at the Men's Wearhouse, whose wall Rhonda uses as a backrest, agrees. "She thinks that's her home," says John, who is has been a fixture on that corner for 20 years. Members of The Commonwealth Club may have passed her by on their way to a fanciful speech on the downfall of our society, or something like it.

Rhonda's spot is quite large. She lies sideways on the sidewalk. Her elbow propping her body up against a few worn blankets -- a homeless Cleopatra without consorts. To her left is a large cart filled with a sleeping bag, cardboard boxes, half of a broom, a sheet of plastic to shield the rain and various sundry items. "Nothing I have is worth anything," she says.

Rhonda herself is a large African-American woman, though the the multi-layers of shirts, coats and sweaters makes her look rounder than she really is. She says she is 72, but like a lot of what she will tell you, this is subject to debate. The upper bridge of her teeth is gone, along with a few on the bottom, and she tugs a dark blue knit cap to her eyebrows and covers her ears. She's listening to her radio with her earphones. She likes R&B music with a little jazz. She listens to KBLX and sometimes the news to pass time.

There is no denying that Rhonda is one of many homeless people suffering from mental illness. Our conversation devolves into a jumble of non sequiturs and delusions of grandeur, but in between she realizes her life is not what she once imagined.

"I don't want to live like this -- like some wino -- or some dope addict," Rhonda says, "I don't want to be one to beg the streets. I don't want to be a panhandler." By all accounts, she does not ask for money, though she wears a small button on her coat saying donations are welcomed. She says she typically receives $5-$10 per day. She does, though, beg for food, saying "I love to eat."

On this day, she was nibbling on graying pieces of chicken presumably from the Subway two doors down. She would not say whether the sandwich shop gave the food or she found it in a garbage can. With Thanksgiving around the corner, Rhonda says she might visit a local soup kitchen or get in line at Glide Memorial nearby.

"Everybody who loves me helps me," she says, "There's a lot of people who hate me and do nothing."

John says there's a woman who visits Rhonda every day and gives her food and other necessities, but Rhonda doesn't want to talk about it. She calls her "just a friend."

Having survived on the streets for over 10 years, Rhonda has seen awful things. She says she was stabbed early on when another homeless person attempted to steal her purse, and she says she has been in the crossfire of numerous gunfights. Her meager possessions are also always in danger. "You can't leave nothing. You can't even close your eyes with all these vagrants and dope addicts around," she says.

Like many of the downtrodden among us, Rhonda is prone to alcoholism. "I love to drink liquor, especially gallons of liquor," she says, "I hate to even drink if it isn't a gallon."

John has seen her go on binges and notes "when she drinks, she gets the good stuff," but also says she doesn't bother anybody. The manager at the Men's Wearhouse agrees and says it is that fact that justifies not bothering her in return.

"She cleans up after herself. She sweeps her spot. If she would be throwing chicken bones all over or using it as a bathroom it would be different," he said.

Before I leave, Rhonda shakes my hand and blurts out, "I'll probably be locked outdoors for Thanksgiving." As I rise from a kneeling position next to her, my face floats out of her view and our line of eye contact is broken. All I become is just another pair of black shoes walking away from her and Rhonda becomes invisible again.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Presidential Transitions


As President-Elect Barack Obama moves with unusual speed to select and present the cabinet for his incoming administration, a great deal of attention is being focused on his possible and actual choices.

Today, Obama presented his economic team to the country. In coming days, we expect to hear about his foreign and domestic policy teams. Clues about the team and its goals can be found at the transition team's web site.

To provide some perspective on transitions past and present, we present Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria C. Duffy's most recent "InSight" column from The Commonwealth magazine. The column, called "Transitions," explains why a slow transition can present a danger to the nation. For a full-sized image of the column, click on the picture to the right of this posting.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mukasey's Back on His Feet


Attorney General Michael Mukasey told reporters he was feeling "excellent" after an apparent fainting spell last night at an address to the Federalist Society.

Mukasey, who replaced embattled former AG Alberto Gonzales, made a memorable appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California in late March of this year when during the question-and-answer session he defended the Bush administration's use of wiretapping and remarked on a little-known Al Qaeda phone call placed from Afghanistan to the United States.

We shouldn't need a warrant when somebody picks up a phone in Iraq and calls the United States," Mukasey said. Before the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, "we knew that there had been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn't know precisely where it went. You've got 3,000 people who went to work that day, and didn't come home, to show for that.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald took a detailed look at the alleged 1999 phone call from Afghanistan and wonders why the 9/11 Commission never knew about it.

In the meantime, the 67-year-old Mukasey says he ready to get back to work.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Steve Fainaru and the Private Warriors of Iraq

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Fainaru speaks tonight about his new book, Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq, tonight at the Commonwealth Club of California.

Here's a sample of some of the articles on the use of private security contractors in Iraq written by Fainaru for the Washington Post. The collection led to Fainaru winning the prestigious award in international reporting this year.

The title of the book is a reference to soldiers behaving however they please or no rules, whatsoever.

Fainaru is also the coauthor of The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream. He lives in El Cerrito, California.

Fainaru will speak at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco today at 6 p.m.

Ted Turner Sings an Old Tune


Media mogul Ted Turner spoke at The Commonwealth Club twice yesterday, first in conversation with San Francisco Chronicle's Phil Bronstein in San Francisco, and in the evening in conversation with Club CEO & President Dr. Gloria C. Duffy in Palo Alto. Both times, he was full of opinions and humor and good-natured orneriness.

But he sang at only one of the events, after he boasted to Bronstein that he could sing, and promptly began his song. (He followed up the song by reciting poetry.)

How many businessmen can carry a tune? Bronstein's blog includes the above video, from Dickson Louie, of Turner's Old Kentucky Home rendition. Not a bad singer, eh?

Turner Tells Old War Stories; Reveals Little About Ted

When Dr. Gloria Duffy, the Commonwealth Club's president and CEO, began a question to Ted Turner with "Mr. Turner," the cable news revolutionary deadpanned, "Call me Ted."

That, of course, is the title of Turner's autobiography slated to debut at number eight on the New York Times bestseller's list.

The humorous retort was emblematic of an evening featuring Turner's thoughts on the economy, foreign affairs, his children, ex-wife Jane Fonda and pet projects such as nuclear disarmament and global warming.

When asked why he had little involvement in the dot-com boom of the late 90's, Turner said facetiously, “Has there ever been anybody who ever led more than one revolution in one lifetime? Martin Luther King had civil rights, but that’s all he did. Alexander the Great conquered the world, but that’s all he did.”

Turner, who turned 70 Wednesday, sounded at times like an elder who claimed to have forecast every important event with the aid of hindsight.

On the demise of newspapers: "It's obsolete technologically. I saw that 40 years ago."

On the automobile industry: Turner said he "studied the situation" during the 1974 energy crisis and begrudgingly purchased a compact Japanese car.

On the rise of digital photography: Turner said he realized film was in trouble when he tested digital cameras 15 years ago.

It is undeniable, though, that Turner's wild-eyed vision of a 24-hour cable news network changed the media landscape forever. In some of the most interesting moments of the hour-long conversation, Turner described with wonderment how the Big Three networks failed to see the potential of cable news.

He described the network's vast infrastructure as being "1,000 times bigger than mine" and furiously worked to build the network from scratch without arousing the attention of the networks.

“I figured they were like a pack of hounds and I was going to be like a rabbit. I had to stay out in front of them because if they ever caught me they would tear me apart like a pack of hounds do a rabbit,” Turner said.

Calling himself a "global worrier," Turner mixed humor with real concern for the economic well-being of the country. At one point, he said people should welcome children back to the nest if the economy continues to spin downward.

“I’m really worried that we’re going to have a meltdown," Turner said, "But, I’m already thinking in terms of offering my children to move back into my house with me. If you remember "Sanford & Son," you know Lamont and Fred seemed happy.”

When asked if he believed the automobile industry should be bailed out, he said, "I don't think so" and instead offered his own idea for a bailout of the restaurant industry. "You can’t go more than three days without eating.” said Turner who owns Ted's Montana Grill with 50 restaurants in 18 states.

Turner believes the economy will distract president-elect Barack Obama's attention from other pressing issues like global warming, poverty and nuclear weapons.

He also agreed with Obama's desire to talk with our enemies, in particular, Iran. “I would meet with them and see if I could make them laugh," Turner said, "How can you sit there with a straight face? We’ve got 12,000 nuclear weapons and we tell Iran they can’t have any, but it’s okay for Israel to have them. They look at Israel as a danger. I think we all got to get rid of them or we’re all going to have them.”

Similar to numerous reviews of his book, Turner focused very little on his early years. The suicide of his father and abuse and the death of his sister to Lupus were touched upon but Turner offered little or no real insight, despite Turner's belief that you cannot know someone without understanding where they came from.

Turner did speak about his famous ex-wife Jane Fonda who wrote a section of the autobiography, revealing warts and all. “I’m good with that," said Turner. "I mean, after all, what’s she suppose to say? We got divorced. There must have been some problems.”

Despite the breakup, Turner indicated the two still share a good relationship. Fonda attended his birthday bash last Saturday featuring Burt Bacharach.

“She came to my birthday party. I talk to her just about every week to get my dose of humility," Turner said, "My father use to say that a few fleas were good for a dog, they reminded him that’s what he was.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

For Hillary, the Second Cut May Be the Deepest


An anonymous former adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton, speaking on the likelihood of her former boss's secretary of state ambitions, told the New York Times this weekend, “I can’t believe they would have her schlep out there with all this publicity unless they were real about it.”

It sounds logical until you consider that president-elect Barack Obama has an exit strategy in the name of Bill Clinton's potentially iffy post-presidential dealings around the world.

Alex Koppelman at the Salon's War Room blog writes that the Clinton's may be using their old, yet ineffective bullying tactics or riding a wave of inevitability into the State Department. That old wave did not quite reach the shores of the Potomac unfortunately

In the meantime, rumors and spin are swirling around whether Clinton is a shoo-in, somewhat interested or merely a trial balloon about to deflate.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that President Clinton is willing to cooperate in the vetting process of his financial dealing around the world and reported that Hillary may have to pay off $7.6 million owed to vendors from her failed presidential campaign before she could accept a place in Obama's administration.

Politico, though, reports that Hillary may not actually want the job and the New York Times published an even more peculiar article pointing toward Clinton withdrawing her name from consideration.

It was unclear if Sen. Clinton’s stated hesitation was part of a bargaining tactic as the Obama team weighs whether to appoint her secretary of state, a genuine moment of indecision or, perhaps, a signal that she was preparing to withdraw from consideration.

Both articles contain remarks about Clinton being "torn" between the cabinet position and finishing her work in the Senate. A bit of political posturing may well be going on between the Clintons and president-elect Obama, which leads to the question of who is next in line?

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was an early rumor. While his name has not dropped from the rumor mill, it also has not gain much momentum.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has gained a modicum of attention in the last week after taking a meeting with Obama last Friday. During the Democratic primaries, many pundits joked both Richardson and vice president-elect Joe Biden were running – not for president, but for secretary of state.

When Richardson visited the Commonwealth Club of California in June of 2007 to talk about his presidential campaign, he gave some insights into how he would handle foreign affairs. Calling himself a "little rough around the edges," Richardson said that "the essence of governing is diplomacy. It's talking. It's dialogue. It's mediation. It's not, first, seeking a military solution." (See video above.)

Nearly taking a page out of Biden's strategy of splitting Iraq into three separate countries, Richardson said he would use diplomacy to urge the Iraqis to form a coalition government that would split oil revenues. "I would tell them we are going to divide your country into three entities – not three states," Richardson said.

Mimicking Obama's plan to approach hostile nations in the Middle East, Richardson said he would try to find "common ground" with Iran and Syria, while proposing an all-Muslim peace-keeping force in Iraq.

As a former Ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, Richardson said he recognizes the usefulness of the U.N., but does not favor using it in issues pertaining to Israel. "I believe there are times when you shouldn't use the U.N. – [for example,] the Israeli-Palestinian issue – they just basically get in the way because Israel is outnumbered," said Richardson.

The prospect of Richardson as secretary of state has some backers and a few detractors, without mentioning the possibility of greatly expanding the rift caused between Richardson and the Clintons over his support for Obama in the primaries.

Robert Guttman, blogging at The Huffington Post, likes Richardson; though he would seem to like anybody but Clinton at State. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, though, has some really harsh words for Richardson. (Watch the video here.)

Eagleburger slammed Richardson Tuesday on MSNBC, "I don't want to beat everybody to death, but I have very little respect for his intelligence and his knowledge of foreign affairs."

How might Richardson perform as secretary of state? Maybe a bit more aggressive than you might imagine. Click here and here.

Ted Turner on Nuclear Disarmament


In the above video excerpt, media mogul Ted Turner explains that his professional focus has changed from being a media entrepreneur to taking on the big issues, such as nuclear disarmament.

It was part of a wide-ranging (and often humorous) discussion he had with the San Francisco Chronicle's Phil Bronstein at The Commonwealth Club November 18, 2008.

Please forgive the low-quality video; we'll post a full video when our video partners at ForaTV make it available.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

McGovern's Plan for Hunger Is Gaining Traction, Again


Since Barack Obama's victory, everyone on the left is adding their pet causes to the presidential wish list.

Get rid of Guantanamo. Vigorously strike down torture. Reduce global warming. Bring the troops home. Appoint Paris Hilton secretary of the interior (designing) – well, maybe not. But, one idea put forth by former presidential candidate George McGovern is noteworthy.

During a 2005 foreign policy speech at the Commonwealth Club of California (see photo above), McGovern laid out a plan to combat world hunger that is gaining some traction since the election of president-elect Obama. (Read a transcript of McGovern's speech here.)

McGovern, referring to the then-$5 billion monthly cost of the War in Iraq, believed a portion of that expenditure could be spent on feeding people worldwide.

We have about 300 million hungry kids going to school; they trudge off in the morning after a makeshift breakfast, if they are lucky, and sit for five or six hours with nothing to eat. How do you educate a youngster under those conditions? Out of those 300 million, 120 million have dropped out of school or never started, mostly girls, because of the favoritism towards us males in most societies. But when you start one of these school lunch programs, school enrollment jumps. Girls come as well as boys. Academic performance goes up, athletic performance goes up, general health improves. And a third thing happens: These little illiterate girls that stay at home in those mud huts, they start getting married as early as 10 years of age.

The meshing of hunger with education and women's rights is the most intriguing aspect of McGovern's plan. In an interesting Q&A in the current issue of Gourmet, he again returns to this idea with a finer point.

When you start a school-lunch program, both the boys and the girls come. And the parents discover that their kids can get a free meal every day, just by turning up at the village school. So they get both the boys and girls out of bed in the morning and shoo them off to school. It leaves more food for the people at home — mom, dad — and it pulls these girls into school, as well as the boys.

The idea is gaining some traction. In the Dec. 1, 2008 edition of The Nation, the editors call for the appointment of a "hunger czar" within Obama's first 100 days in office, urging him to cut hunger in half in 10 years.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind) introduced a bill Sept. 22 touches on many of McGovern's ideas of recognizing the connection between health and education, while hoping to stimulate U.S. farming communities and providing a better network for quick response on food distribution during emergencies. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations with no action to this date.

The seeds of McGovern's battle against hunger first sprouted during the 1960 presidential election, when he urged John F. Kennedy to use growing crop surpluses to help feed people in other countries. Kennedy liked the plan for its moral qualities, but also for its appeal to Midwest farmers and their votes.

Though nourishment trumps nearly all basic human desires, the political reality is that funding is tight in the current economy and other projects may trump any hunger initiative.

This is a reason why some leaders such as Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (D-Mo.) believe this issue needs to be spotlighted by the new administration.

“That’s why we need to have a food czar in the West Wing,” said Emerson.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Jesse Jackson's Words Ring True 34 Years Later

The image of a teary-eyed Jesse Jackson was one of the most memorable moments of this past election night. It evoked the pain of the Civil Rights struggle and the new hope that Barack Obama represents to millions of people.

Rewind back to Aug. 1, 1974, and here is what a prescient Jackson, sounding Obama-esque, told a gathering at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco:
Speaking before a group such as this group, marvel not that I say that fundamentally America needs to be born again. We come at a period approaching the bicentennial of this nation where we assess where we have come from, and we assess where we are going. And I argue that the most fundamental need in America today is to be reborn - the rebirth of a nation. Not to deal with just being 200 years old and starting all over again. We were once born of the water, and a baby in its mother's womb is in water. So all of us have already been born of the water. America's already been born as a nation 200 years ago, but there's a rebirth of the spirit of the nation that must take place again. There's nothing wrong with our money and our matter and our established institutions theoretically, except there's something terribly wrong with our attitude.
On election night, Jackson told ABC's Robin Roberts he had not slept much the past two night because, "it was almost like 1862, December 31, you knew the next day the Emancipation Proclamation would be signed and people couldn't sleep."

The final question of the Q&A portion of the program in 1974 asked Jackson whether there was a qualified black candidate for president in 1976. Little did Jackson know 34 years later his response would contain the seeds of what occurred Nov. 4.

I would hope that in a rebirth, that in a reassessing of people in this country, that we would no longer penalize people for being born of the female sex or being born of a particular ethnic group other than white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but rather would deal in ideas, rather than race and sex.

Click here to listen to the speech and read the transcript here.

Did Latino Voters Really Turn Red States Blue?

Conventional wisdom says Latino voters greatly helped Barack Obama become president-elect, but do the numbers back up such an assertion?

Frederico Pena, the former secretary of energy under President Clinton and mayor of Denver, told the Associated Press earlier this week that battleground states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida would not have been won by Obama if not for the Latino voting bloc.

Poll numbers show voters backed Obama over Sen. John McCain by a 2-to-1 margin. McCain's 31 percent was significantly lower than the 44 percent President Bush garnered in 2004.

But, Mark Krikorian, writing "The Corner" blog at National Review, has an alternative view of the Latino vote's tangible power in this year's election.
According to the usual suspects, the benchmark in garnering Hispanic votes for Republicans is Bush's 40 percent showing in 2004. So what would have happened if McCain had matched Bush's performance, instead of the 31 percent he actually got? Based on CNN's exit polls, McCain still would have lost Nevada, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, not to mention, say, California and New Jersey. Conversely, even if Obama had won 90 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas, instead of 63 percent, he still would have lost the state. With the possible exception of North Carolina, where the results were close but the number of Hispanic voters is too small to register in the exit poll, there doesn't seem to be a single state where the Hispanic vote was critical to the outcome.
If the Latino vote didn't sway a single state one way or the other, what gives? Why are Latino leaders patting themselves on the backs and Republicans stressing over the loss of a group perceived to be "conservative-ready"?

The importance of Latinos voting in greater numbers for Democrats, along with their demographic growing larger and tending to be younger, in general, could portend great discomfort for future conservatives trying to win not only presidential electoral politics, but governorships in the West and seats in Congress.

An article at U.S. News indicates Latinos' switch toward Obama may have been part of an overall disillusionment by all demographics from eight years of President Bush.

Economic factors are on the minds of most Americans but may have hit Latinos harder. According to the article, Latinos are twice as likely to receive high-interest loans than whites, putting them at risk for financial upheaval in this tumultuous financial climate.

Disproportionately higher unemployment for Latinos may have also changed perceptions, as did the relative absence of gay marriage (excluding California and two other states) and abortion as issues to stoke latent conservative values Latinos tend to possess.

Luis Ricardo Fraga, an associate provost at the University of Washington and former Stanford University professor, will share his insights on the role of Latino voters in the 2008 election and the history of Latino voting patterns from 1960 to present, in a speech to The Commonwealth Club on November 19 at Morris Dailey Auditorium on the campus of San Jose State University.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ted Turner: Man of Mystery


Ted Turner once called audience members with crucifix-marked foreheads “Jesus freaks” one Ash Wednesday and believes global warming will ultimately cause humans to become cannibals.

Yet there is more to Turner than his propensity for raucous hyperbole and politically incorrect jest.

In his new book, Call Me Ted, according to reviews, Turner wants to tell you about the rise of CNN, his sporting adventures retaining the America's Cup and winning the World Series with the Atlanta Braves, the inner-workings of the infamous deal with Time Warner and ill-fated merger with AOL. But save for intimate details of his divorce from Jane Fonda, there is little new information about his life, and that seems to suit Turner well.

According to a New York Times article, writer Bill Burke wrote a flattering and lengthy magazine article entitled "Leadership Lessons I Learned From Ted Turner," which resulted in Turner immediately offering Burke the job of writing his memoirs. Burke has never written a book before.

What did Turner get by choosing Burke rather than an author with more gravitas for the autobiography (for which Grand Central Publishing paid an advance of $5 million)? Turner's agent Morton Janklow seems to indicate that, despite worries about Burke's inexperience, Turner's comfort with the author was a fair trade off for the lack of a big-name writer.

A review in the San Francisco Chronicle gets to the heart of Turner's entrepreneurial spirit, comparing him to other contemporary tech visionaries who stumbled once their dream was established.
Turner is a perfect visionary for a start-up; a leader who might make mistakes, but who will always be ready to work harder than the next guy and turn a crazy idea into a successful organization. But once the idea is realized, the charismatic visionary can be out of place.
The hard-charging Turner can be seen here in a 60 Minutes segment on the 1977 America's Cup.

In a dispute over the purchase of sails, Turner tells Walter Cronkite if his competitor is winning by the end of the race, "We'll sink them," before adding, "That would be unsportsmanlike conduct, I'm sure."

The irascible Turner continues to be the philanthrophic man of mystery thoroughly romanticized in American culture. A sort of gap-toothed, free-wheeling Bruce Wayne of cable news who still thinks you should try some bison meat.

Turner will appear at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco Wednesday, November 19 at noon and in San Jose.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What's "The New Paternalism"?


The Commonwealth Club's media and public relations team sends word with additional information on the November 14 speech by David Whitman: Secondary Schools that Succeed:

Veteran journalist David Whitman will share his ideas on how a new generation of inner-city schools is closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. The common, yet rarely discussed ingredient these new schools share, says Whitman, is the practice of "new paternalism," a benevolent form of interaction where schools become “warm, caring places and teachers and principals form paternal-like bonds with students.” Whitman will discuss this historic achievement and how other schools can replicate this model.

Whitman covered social policy for U.S. News & World Report for close to two decades from 1985-2003. Prior to 1999 he served as the newsweekly’s chief correspondent covering social policy for 14 years. Whitman’s articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, the Atlantic, The New Republic, and numerous other publications. Whitman has also taught at the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. He received a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in 1978.

Part of the Koret Foundation's Principles of a Free Society series.

To purchase tickets to the event, visit The Club's web site.

Members of the press interested in an interview, attending the event, or other information, please contact Riki Rafner, The Commonwealth Club's director of media and public relations.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Experts: After Spill, Local Bureaucracy is Still Lagging Behind Clean Up

Though the ill-fated cargo ship Cosco Busan trudged through the San Francisco Bay one dense, foggy morning a year ago today, the consequences of the oil spill still reverberate not only ecologically, but at all levels of government.

Despite a bevy of bills signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a far greater amount of awareness about the issue, critics complain that the region is still not sufficiently prepared to deal with another large-scale spill.

California Assemblyman Jared Huffman along with an environmental activist and local emergency manager, speaking today at the Commonwealth Club found that problems still exist in the areas of response.

Huffman, who represents Marin County, which suffered oil damage to the coastline at Bolinas Lagoon, wonders whether private contractors are the best choice for clean up. “Is it a good idea to rely on folks who wold make more money if the spill is allowed to worsen?” said Huffman.

He also questions whether the proximity of such responders, nearly all unfamiliar with the terrain and surf of the Bay Area are best equipped to handle situations.

Some out-of-state responders needed to be rescued from the ocean by volunteer fire fighters, he said.

“They have adopted at the Federal level this system of private contractors." said Huffman. "I think we ought to be questioning the effectiveness and the efficacy of relying on contractors who may be very good at what they do but are not located nearby when you need them."

Also problematic to the panel is the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that, in effect, gives ship owners the first right to cleaning any spill.

"It is the culture of the oil spill response community to make best use of primary resources -- contractors that specialize in oil spill response. They have elaborate mechanisms and pieces of equipment as well as highly trained personnel that specialize in how to get heavy black stuff off the water into the boat," said Chris Godley, manager of emergency response in Marin. "That said, though, there are other resources that may be useful for such a response that are available from local and even state governments that were initially declined.”

These include the use of aviation, communication systems and local volunteers.

Godley noted the throng of volunteers itching to help clean Bay Area beaches was unprecedented in the United States. Most places where oil spills occur are in areas away from large metropolitan area as opposed to the leak in the greater Bay Area.

“Someone literally poured oil on your doormat, you’re going to want to go out and take care of it,” said Godley.

Sejal Choksi, the director of programs at Baykeeper, a local group striving to preserve the bay waters, believes the key to preventing a large scale disaster is too work quickly after the initial accident.

(For more, read Choksi's article in the opinion section of the San Francisco Chronicle.)

One problem facing the bay's unique geography is that technology does not yet exist to clean up some local coastlines. According to Choksi, the current in Bolinas Lagoon is too swift to operate safely; Angel Island is too rocky; and both Richardson Bay and the mudflats near Emeryville are too shallow to protect.

In the big picture, though, the speakers said that everyday pollution is a more manageable and growing problem than shipping containers floating in and out the bay.

"Oil spills are not the biggest threat to the bay," said Choksi. "They are a tremendous threat to the bay, but our everyday activities do pose more pollution problems for the bay’s health and water quality.”

Though he said that local officials were not ready to respond to the oil spill in the bay a year ago, Godley thinks some of the measures taken since then would have lessened the damage to the ecosystem. “Things may have been different had the provision now in place as a result of the Cosco Busan been in place at the time of the event.”

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Six Cosco Busan Crewmembers Still Held One Year Later

Tomorrow marks the one year-anniversary of the Cosco Busan oil spill, which released 53,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay. (Click here for a slideshow of the accident)

An Associated Press article this morning details that six Chinese sailors are still being held as material witnesses. Two of the six have admitted to forging documents after the 900-foot cargo ship slammed into one of the Bay Bridge's support columns.

Do not worry, this isn't Guantanamo West; the six Chinese nationals are detained but free to travel about the city. The AP article adds:
Living rent-free in apartments and hotels, they are permitted to roam San Francisco and the surrounding area. They continue to draw their salaries, and each also receives $1,200 per month in witness fees, more than the monthly salary of at least one detained seaman.
Also, San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter Jane Kay provides an interesting piece in today's paper illustrating the damage done to the bay's ecosystem and how it has improved.

On Nov. 7, The Commonwealth Club will host, "One Year After the Oil Spill: What Has Changed?" featuring California State Assemblyman Jared Huffman, Baykeeper and Program Director Sejal Choksi, Manager of Emergency Services, Marin County Sheriff Office of Emergency Services Chris Godley and moderated by David Lewis, Executive Director, Save the Bay.

Ifill in the Running for Meet the Press Post


Gwen Ifill, the host of PBS' "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" may have a new job.

The New York Times reported Ifill, who is scheduled to speak at the Commonwealth Club Jan. 28, has been contacted by NBC News regarding replacing the late Tim Russert as permanent host of "Meet the Press."

The article points out NBC News has gained criticism over a lack of promoting minorities in high profile positions at the network.

The website is protesting the network's lack of women and minorities, noting all five Sunday morning public affairs programs are hosted by white males.

While the group does not advocate any one journalist, it does offer CNN's Campbell Brown, NBC's Andrea Mitchell and the aforementioned Ifill.

Speculation on Russert's replacement has raged for months, with names such as the bombastic Chris Matthews, NBC political analyst Chuck Todd and former White House correspondent David Gregory topping the list.

Ifill's name, though, has been bandied about for months.

On his blog at, Matthew Yglesias, speculated in June that Ifill would be a great choice for the Sunday spot if NBC chose to hire someone outside the network.

Controversy followed Ifill during the lone vice presidential debate held Oct. 2 when conservatives claimed her forthcoming book called, The Breakthrough: The Politics and Race in the Age of Obama would cloud her objectivity.

Michael Crichton, 1942-2008


Author Michael Crichton passed away on Tuesday, dying of cancer at the age of 66.

Best known for his science fiction novels such as Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and Congo, Crichton was also a film and television creator/writer/director, having given the world the blockbuster medical drama "ER" and having written and directed 1973's Westworld. And if his writing wasn't necessarily great art, Crichton's writing in the worlds of science fact and science fiction were immensely popular, with his books selling a mind-boggling 150 million copies around the world.

Crichton's biggest professional success might have been that he was not categorized as a science fiction writer, despite the fact that he wrote about robotic societies, dinosaurs brought back to life, and communication with intelligent gorillas. A traditional definition of science fiction is a story extrapolating the effects of some scientific advance. (There's a never-ending dispute, of course, between purists who stick to that definition and others who want to include under the science fiction banner everything from a space fantasy such as Star Wars to magical fantasies such as Harry Potter. We'll spare you that discussion.)

Crichton, despite escaping the definition of a science fiction writer, stuck pretty close to the traditional definition of SF, producing stories exploring how people reacted individually and en masse to scientific developments. He certainly wasn't correct all the time in his predictions, but his career suggested a serious attempt to meet head-on the challenges that come about from our scientific progress (and occasional scientific transgressions).

In a famous speech delivered to The Commonwealth Club on September 15, 2003, Crichton attacked climate-change theorists as adherents of a new religion. (Read the entire speech.) Delivered as a defense of sound science and a critique of emotion-fueled pseudo-science, his speech has long been a milestone in the debate between people worried about the effects of man-made climate change and people who questioned the assumptions behind the other group's claims.

Crichton is survived by his wife and other family members.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Check the Results

In California, we know the joy not only of voting for the big political offices, but we also have the more arguable joy of voting for a long series of referenda on everything from renaming sewage plants to regulating family life.

If you're curious about the results in any of the California races, check out a handy elections results page over at KPIX TV (CBS 5).

Yes, there were San Francisco propositions stretched all the way down to the letter "V".