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What's Behind the Sale of the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office? (News Analysis)

By Thomas Lord
Tuesday July 31, 2012 - 12:45:00 PM

The Berkeley downtown post office, formally the "Downtown Berkeley Main" station, is set to close and be sold off. There is concern about town regarding the fate of a historic public building occupying incredibly valuable municipal real estate. There is more to the story, though. Congress, it turns out, is waging war against the postal service, or so it seems:

Tomorrow, August 1st, the post office is required to make a $5.5 billion payment to a fund for retiree health benefits. In September, another $5.6 billion is due. The postal service has announced that it will not make these payments. (source: Business Insider (July 31, 2012): Post Office Nears Historic Default on $5 Billion Payment)

It's odd that the Postal service owes $11.1 billion to the health care fund and here is why:

According to the Postal Service Inspector General, the postal service has overfunded its pension fund (not the retiree health care fund). Pensions are funded at 105%. (source: Office of the Postal Service Inspector General (June 18, 2012): Pension and Retiree Health Care Funding Levels: Management Advisory Report)

Did you catch that? Pensions are over-funded by $13.1 billion. Retiree health care is under-funded by $11.1 billion.

Why not, then, simply move $12.1 billion from one fund to the other? Problem solved, right? And with each fund winding up with an extra $1 billlion.

Why not? Because Congress won't let them. The Inspector General writes (emphasis added): 

The Postal Service has funded its pension benefit obligations at nearly 105 percent and is currently overfunded by $13.1 billion. The law does not allow the Office of Personnel Management to alter the contribution formula for the Postal Service, nor can it refund current or future surpluses. Although the Postal Service continues to implement changes to align costs with revenue, action is needed now to use the current and future surpluses to remain a viable business.
Congress hasn't stopped there. The Inspector General continues: 

Further, the Postal Service is required to fully fund its future retiree health care benefit obligations. Currently, the Postal Service has funded nearly 50 percent of that obligation.

Which brings us to the punchline: 

Currently, the Postal Service has funded nearly 50 percent of that obligation. As an alternative to the annual prefunding payments, which has been difficult, we estimate the Postal Service’s fair market value of real property totals $85 billion and would be enough to cover the remaining unfunded obligation of $46 billion. Recognition of these assets that could be applied to the liability, if ever needed, could prevent the prefunding payments from increasing Postal Service debt.
Simply put, the Post Office shouldn't be considered in default, says the Inspector General, for missing the $11.1 billion in payments. They're good for the money as soon as they sell off a lot of real estate. To their credit, the Inspector General and the Postal Service management aren't in favor of selling the real estate. Rather, they would prefer Congress give the postal service greater freedom to manage its services in a way that it can stay in the black. So far, Congress is steadfastly refusing, and "so sell the buildings" it is.

Surely some extremists in Congress are driven by anti-labor and anti-government sentiments. The prospect of privatizing prime municipal real estate, the post office's financial services, and indeed even the delivery of mail create giant opportunities for our capitalist elites. The Business Insider article cited above notes, as just one example, that Wall St. banks stand to gain handsomely if more people are forced to make payments electronically rather than by mailing checks.

Indeed, it is Eric Cantor (R-VA), not John Boehner (R-OH) who has announced that a Senate bill to let the Post Office get its house in order lacks enough support to pass in the house. Instead, Cantor and Darrell Issa (R-CA) are putting together a bill that, in the event of a (congressionally forced) default, the Postal Service would come under direct federal control with authority to override management decisions and break union contracts. (Source Federal Times (July 28, 2012): Is D.C. takeover a model for the U.S. Postal Service, via Salon (March 14, 2012): Congress' war on the post office)

The postal service, it seems, is being "drowned in a bathtub."

A closing note. You might want to send a letter to Representative Cantor asking him to reconsider his position. He publishes his contact information in Washington D.C. with this qualifier: 

The contact information for my Washington, DC office is listed here. You are welcome to call me or send me a message through the U.S. Postal Service, but please note that postal mail is the slowest method for contacting me. All postal mail sent to my offices must be scanned for security purposes, which means it will take an additional two weeks for my staff and me to receive it.
Of course it is.

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The Berkeley Letters Mailing List is for civil discussion of topics of
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Political topics of local significance are particularly welcome.

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Press Release: ALKO Office Supply Closes Downtown Berkeley Retail Store, Cites Decreased U.C. Berkeley Purchases

From Gary Shows, President, Cliff Radston Company, Inc. dba ALKO office supply
Tuesday July 31, 2012 - 09:49:00 AM

Cliff Radston Company, Inc., DBA ALKO office supply will be closing its store at 2225 Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley once a suitable buyer has been found for the building. This location has been a stationary/office supply store continuously since 1908 when it was founded by Clifford B. Radston. It has been operated by its current ownership since 1972. Its current business entity was formed in 1954. 

Three reasons why this closure has become necessary: 

  • 1. Major decrease in sales to the University of California
  • 2. A false perception by many local commercial offices that national chain stores are more economical
  • 3. Changes in the shopping demographics of downtown Berkeley

We sincerely regret disappointing loyal retail customers. We are appreciative and grateful; there just are not enough of them to sustain us. 

Until a buyer for the building is found, our store will remain fully stocked and open for business. Once sold, it is our intention to keep our business open to serve our commercial and internet customers, but house it in a less costly location.


By John Curl
Friday July 27, 2012 - 04:32:00 PM

Copyright © 2012 by John Curl. All rights reserved. 

This is the sixth in a series of excerpts from John Curl’s long article about Mayor Bates and his effects on the city. The article follows Bates and the progressive movement in city government from its beginnings to today, based on extensive quotes from Bates’ own oral history and interviews with other players in the political events. This excerpt consists of Assemblyman Kenneth A. Meade hiring Bates as his aide at the beginning of his career, how they had a falling out, and Meade’s account of why he fired Bates. You can download a pdf file of the entire article. 

The two friends had worked almost seamlessly during two electoral campaigns, so Assemblyman-elect Meade offered Bates the job of running the district office in Berkeley-Oakland as his administrative assistant, while he would work primarily in Sacramento. But almost immediately conflict arose, revealing aspects of Bates’ character and ambitions. According to Meade, “The morning after, Tom and I met in the campaign headquarters. I said, ‘All I have to offer, Tom, is the administrative assistant’s job, and of course it’s yours.’ Tom said he would take the job under one condition, that I would go to Sacramento, that I vote, introduce laws, and do that, but that he have complete control over everything that we did politically in the district. Who we endorsed, what contributors we solicited. I didn’t go for that. I said, ‘Why do we have to delineate this like this? Why can’t we go on as we worked together before?’... He wanted this delineation and I did not go for it. I said, ‘Take the job, we’ll work it out.’ So he did.” 

Bates described the same awkward interchange differently. According to Bates, “Then I went to work for Kenny as his assistant, and the idea was, it was romanticized in my mind, that I would run his office in the district, and we would be co-partners. That even though he was elected, it had been that way in the campaign where we really shared everything, we were sort of equals. Even though he was the member of the legislature.” Bates was now sorely disappointed and they were on their way to a painful falling out. 

* * * 


Ken Meade and Tom Bates tell diametrically opposed stories of how they parted ways. 

According to Meade, a number of incidents led him to conclude that Bates was double dealing him against some of his constituents and supporters. So Meade fired him. The most salient incident that led to the break, according to Meade, went like this: 

“At the state Democratic convention Eleanor Fowl, the sister of Alan Cranston, was running for Northern California chairman. Progressive, great lady. I should be for her, I want to be for her. Her opponent was Jack Brooks, investor with the Oakland Raiders football team. Cigar smoking, businessman money. I’m saying I’m voting for Eleanor Fowl. Tommy tells me, ‘You can’t. You’ve got to vote for Brooks. He’s in your district, he’s got money, you’ll alienate somebody we’re going to need down the line.’… It took some doing to get me to switch, and I did under that influence. So I went around the convention giving these speeches for Brooks, and I didn’t even know this guy. And he wins, I think. There had been an elderly lady in my campaigns named Martha. I encountered her and a few of her friends at the convention. She came up to me and said, ‘Kenneth, how could you do that?’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘I’m so disappointed in you for having supported this guy Brooks over Fowl.’ I said, ‘Martha, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to but Tommy thought it was really important, and he is from my district.’ I gave all the reasons. She said, ‘That’s not true at all… I was in the voting line with Tom, and he told me how disappointed he was in you.’ So we had a meeting in the district office a few days later. I said, ‘Tommy, tell me this is not true.’ He didn’t deny it; he didn’t say he did it. I was so wounded. I told him, I said, ‘Tom, you’re going to have to find another place to go.’” 

Why would Bates manipulate his boss like that? The explanation probably lies in Tom’s own political ambitions and methods of operation. But Mr. Bates tells a different story, which includes an angry denunciation of Meade. 

Bates claims that Meade did not fire him, but that he quit in December, 1971 because Meade “had betrayed all the things that we were fighting for… my best friend turned out to be bad…” 

* * *  

Meade actually had a very respectable and generally progressive career for three terms in Sacramento… By 1975 he was badly burned out and disgusted with politics. He decided not to run again in 1976. 

At that time Meade heard that Bates—who had become an Alameda County supervisor—might be interested in running for his seat and, despite their falling out a few years previously, Meade put it behind him and told Bates, “If you do run, you can use my name.” Meade would not hear Bates’ harsh words about him until this year. 


John Curl is the author of For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, with a foreword by Ishmael Reed. 

Press Release: Clean Up Berkeley Iceland Now!

From Tom Killilea
Friday July 27, 2012 - 02:46:00 PM

Berkeley Iceland has been closed for over five years. For the majority of this time, the current owners, East Bay Iceland (EBI, Richard Zamboni, President) has allowed their historic property to be defaced, trash to collect on and around the building, and landscaping to become a receptacle of garbage. Complaints are ignored and the garbage keeps piling up, becoming an eyesore and potential hazard to the neighborhood. A group of SBI volunteers, having seen enough of the total neglect, spent Saturday morning cleaning the front the best they could without trespassing on the property. 

Berkeley Iceland Before and After Cleanup 

The before and after pictures of the cleanup show what even a small group can accomplish within the limited scope and with basic equipment. It wouldn't take much more to make significant improvements in the appearance of the building - some fresh paint to cover the worst of the tagging; bleach and power washer to clean up the terrazzo in the entry; more thorough efforts to trim and clean up the landscaping; elbow grease and paint remover to clean the doors. SBI has made the offer in the past and it remains open - we will help organize efforts to maintain Berkeley Iceland in cooperation with the owners. This offer has been turned down in the past, sometimes with a temporary cleaning. Whether the owners choose to let us help or not, we are committed to maintaining the front of the building and will clean up trash on a periodic basis in the hope that the owners will commit to maintaing the rest of the site.

Based on history, this will not happen unless a lot of people make their voice heard. It is apparent that the owners believe that letting the appearance of Berkeley Iceland deteriorate will aid their efforts to get public approval for Sports Basement's plans. Almost everyone agrees that a big box retail store in the Berkeley Iceland building is not a very desirable use, especially when the opportunity to return a public community ice rink was an active possibility. Cynically, the owners use the condition into which they have allowed the building to fall as an argument to first fight historical designations and now assist Sports Basement in their efforts to remove the possibility of an ice rink returning. They hope that the Berkeley community will accept a bad use as the only way to get the eyesore cleaned up.

East Bay Iceland has shown no respect for Berkeley and our City leaders have failed to defend our community. While it is understandable that EBI sees it in their interests for Berkeley Iceland's appearance to degrade, why has the City of Berkeley taken no action against them? Where is the Mayor's outrage over the out-of-town owners letting their property become a blighted mess? Why, in the five years of degradation, hasn't the Council member for the neighborhood called for a cleanup or penalties against the owners for the eyesore his constituents have had to endure? Regardless of what use you want to see for Berkeley Iceland, there is no excuse to allow this to happen.

SBI calls on East Bay Iceland to clean up their historic property and Berkeley leaders speak up and take actions to make EBI clean up Berkeley Iceland. We stand ready to help and will continue to clean the front as best we can. In six weeks our City leaders will be taking action to determine Berkeley Iceland's future - the appeal of Sports Basement's permits is on the agenda for the September 11 Council meeting. The condition that EBI has allowed Berkeley Iceland to fall is one indicator of why they took no consideration of the needs of Berkeley in their decision to promote the first big box store in our community. The City Council should seriously include this as part of their decision.

Help us deliver this message to them!

Contact Information: 

City of Berkeley Public Works "Clean City" Program 

City of Berkeley Elected Officials: 

The mailing address for all Berkeley elected officials is 2180 Milvia Street, Berkeley, CA 94704 

East Bay Iceland [Current Owners]: 

  • East Bay Iceland - Richard Zamboni, President [rzamboni@zamboni.com] 7212 San Ramon Rd., Dublin, CA 94566

Press Release: JVP Asks UC President to Table Biased Report on Jewish Life on Campuses

From Cecile Surasky
Friday July 27, 2012 - 02:41:00 PM

Jewish Voice for Peace calls on University of California President Mark Yudof to table a recently released report on Jewish student campus climate and to disregard its controversial recommendations until a methodologically sound and even-handed report can be conducted. 

The report, co-authored by Anti-Defamation League national education chairman Richard Barton and NAACP California president Alice Huffman, is coming under heavy criticism by a number of groups, including many Jewish students and faculty members, for poor methodology and bias.  

Cecilie Surasky, Jewish Voice for Peace Deputy Director: “Rather than offering a genuine exploration of a range of Jewish student life issues—which we would support — the report reads like a blueprint for limiting pro-Palestinian activism and further marginalizing the growing numbers of students, many of them Jewish, who are critical of Israeli policies." 

The report does not reveal the names of individuals or groups who were interviewed or why many meetings were by invitation-only; offers no quantitative data to substantiate anecdotal evidence that the campuses are hostile places for Jewish students; and conflates pro-Palestinian activism with anti-Semitism. While it claims to explore all aspects of Jewish life, it devotes the bulk of column inches to pro-Palestinian student activism and makes recommendations that will have negative impacts on academic freedom for all students.  

The report does accurately note that Jewish opinion on Israel and Palestine on campuses is extremely diverse, however it only offers anecdotes about the discomfort of students who support Israel policies, and omits numerous reports of harassment or intimidation experienced by Jewish students and staff who support Palestinian and Israeli rights, many of whom belong to progressive groups including Students for Justice in Palestine, J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace. 

Cecilie Surasky: "The UC system is a key battleground for groups that seek to limit criticism of Israeli policies. They are terrified of losing the unconditional support of the next generation and see UC as a testing ground for efforts to silence debate that include intimidating students and professors, making unsubstantiated claims of anti-Semitism against those critical of Israeli policies, encouraging legal action against schools and student protestors and so on.  

There is no question that some Jewish students feel uncomfortable with public criticism of Israeli policies, whether articulated by other Jews or non-Jewish students, but that does not make that criticism anti-Semitic. The answer is more speech and enhanced communication, not limiting speech in order to avoid the discomfort of some students." 

Jewish Voice for Peace is one of a growing chorus of individuals and groups with similar concerns including: 

UC Ad Hoc Committee on Jewish Campus Climate, a broad group of Jewish students, faculty and alum who have written an extensive critique of the report and are calling for it to be tabled (see signers at link): 

"...the report and recommendations it includes omit the experiences of many students and faculty in the Jewish community, grossly misrepresent educational initiatives focused on Israel and Palestine and political organizing in support of Palestinian rights, and threaten academic freedom on our campuses."

The National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, the San Francisco Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and seventeen Arab, Muslim, Palestine and Palestinian rights activist organizations at the University of California, (UC) issued a statement:  

“While claiming to be motivated by a desire to introduce greater civility in campus discourse on these issues, UC may be on the verge of adopting unlawful policies limiting speech critical of Israel due to political pressures,” said Carlos Villarreal, Executive Director of the NLGSF.

Jewish Voice for Peace is a national grassroots peace organization dedicated to promoting a US foreign policy in the Middle East based on peace, democracy, human rights and respect for international law. With offices in Oakland and NY, over 115,000 online activists, 35 chapters and a Rabbi's Council, JVP’s board of advisors includes Judith Butler, Tony Kushner, Ed Asner, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Eve Ensler and others.

Arlene Sagan: 1928-2012

By Ken Bullock (from SFCV, with permission)
Tuesday July 31, 2012 - 09:51:00 AM

Arlene Sagan, 84, died on July 5 in her Berkeley home, where she lived since 1955. She was music director emeritus of the 180-plus voice Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra (BCCO), which she directed from 1988, when it was a 30-voice group, until her retirement last year, and of Bella Musica Chorus — just two among many Bay Area musical groups and projects with which she was deeply involved.

With the news of Sagan’s death, members of Bella Musica gathered at her home to sing in commemoration of her life and work. Ann Callaway, Bella Musica composer in residence, remarked: “When we all got together, we went up to her room where she was lying and sang for her, and the words to Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia Hymn,’ about ‘love’ and ‘community,’ seemed so ... her. ... We even managed to do ‘How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place’ from the Brahms Requiem.”

Tributes and memorial statements poured into the organizations Sagan led, recalling (as Callaway put it) her “very deep personal connections with people through music, her dedication to music” itself, and her longtime, firm commitment to include amateur singers, including many who couldn’t read music or who’d never sung before, in practice and performance of “major, difficult choral works, such as Brahms’ Requiem and Orff’s Carmina Burana.

[read the rest on San Francisco Classical Voice]



All That Can Be Said About Another Assault Weapon Tragedy

By Becky O'Malley,Carol Polsgrove, Dorothy Snodgrass, Ron Lowe, Romila Khanna, Jagjit Singh, Bennett Markel, Carol Hamilton
Friday July 27, 2012 - 11:45:00 AM

This week we’ve had a number of letters from readers around the country about the latest incident of mass murder by assault weapon. In a variety of ways, they cover most of what needs to be said, for all the good it will do. 


From Carol Polsgrove in North Carolina: 

Since you've written so eloquently on the problem with guns, you won't want to miss this bit of the New York Times story on the Colorado shooting: 

“Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who has waged a national campaign for stricter gun laws, called on President Obama and Mr. Romney to address more concretely the issue of gun violence in their campaigns. 

‘You know, soothing words are nice,’ Mr. Bloomberg said during his weekly radio program, ‘but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country.’ “ 


Dorothy Snodgrass in Berkeley agrees: 

I'm a great admirer of President Obama. I find him a man of keen intelligence, compassion and strong moral values. His eloquent talk following the Colorado massacre moved me to tears. But I do wish, however, that he would take on the NRA, limiting the sale of guns and ammunition. It appears that only New York Mayor Bloomberg has enough guts to oppose this loathsome organization! 


Ron Lowe, of Grass Valley, isn’t fooled by the excuses politicians make:  

Don't tell me there is no solution to murderous rampages and guns blazing! Japan, Europe and the rest of the civilized world know there is a solution that prevents Aurora, Colorado type killing fields. Gun control laws that keep assault weapons and Glock semiautomatic hand guns out of society's way. 

Republicans claim guns are for hunting. Do you need assault rifles or a .04 Glock hand gun to shoot a rabbit or deer? You don't. The gun culture has created an image that plays on the ego and this image is used and perpetuated by the weapons industry to sell more of their product. 

The problem of ever more guns and the constant barrage of killings in America can be laid at the doorstep of the gun lobby, NRA and Republican Party, which have been complicit, even zealous, in the passage of more ridiculous and permissive gun laws. 

The truth: The killings in the theater in Aurora, Colorado could not have happened without guns. It would be impossible for one person to kill and wound that many people without guns. And the NRA's answer, arm all Americans to the teeth and this will not happen. And chickens won't lay eggs. 

The NRA and its surrogate, the Republican Party are making it ever easier to have a gun, claiming that guns are for hunting and self-protection. Somebody forgot to mention that to James Holmes or any of the others who have gone on wild killing sprees. Guns are used for killing, whether its animals or humans. 

Countries that have gun control laws don't have the problems America has: over 100,000 people were killed and injured with guns last year. And you just know there are others out there already planning to one-up James Holmes. How will they do it; Guns, Guns, Guns. 

The gun fetish writers are at it again telling us the Aurora tragedy would have been averted if an audience member had been packing heat (gun). 

Of course this gun-toting member of the audience would have had armor-piercing bullets, since the suspect wore full body armor. And like the shooter he would have needed a gas mask to avoid the tear gas. 

Most people have trouble even finding their seats in darkened theaters, so our armed audience member would have needed night vision goggles. 

Obviously hitting a moving target with a handgun across a panicked, darkened, tear gas filed theater is a bit challenging, so the audience member would have to be a world-class marksman or a Rambo. 

We don't need more delusional spin from the "guns everywhere" crowd; semi-automatic weapons need to be banned from society. 


Romila Khanna in Albany challenges the constitutional theories that are used to justify gun violence: 

Once again? Untimely deaths brought on by someone's craziness? No place safe? Not even a movie theater? 

What was the fault of those who wanted to spend an evening watching a newly-released movie? In my view, they died because our country lacks strong gun control laws.

I hear some people saying, "The Second Amendment of our Constitution allows people to bear arms." I would like to ask our lawmakers: How shall the rest of us be saved from the sort of violence unleashed in Aurora, Colorado? Can our laws be changed so that it becomes very difficult for ordinary people to own guns?

I wish we would think about bringing rational and meaningful changes in our Constitution for the safety of all citizens, including those who might forget to pack a pistol for a night out at the local movie theater. 


Jagjit Singh of Los Altos is even more specific: 

The horrific terrorist attack in Aurora, Colorado should reignite the national debate on gun control. The alleged shooter was able to purchase more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition online and a high-capacity "drum magazine" large enough to hold 100 rounds and capable of firing 50 or 60 rounds per minute – all with a few clicks of a keyboard mouse. How can we allow our highly paid, Rip Van Winkle legislators to stall pending legislation that would have prevented such mayhem? President Obama and president wannabe Mitt Romney both chose to avoid calls for tighter gun control. Such is the power of the NRA gun lobby who vowed to ' take down any legislator in an election” if they campaigned against the interests of the lobby.  

The country is awash in guns and assault weapons of every description. 

According to FBI statistics there are over 200 million privately-owned firearms in the U.S. 

It is time to jettison the Wild West mentality of our nation and challenge the archaic laws of our nation. The second amendment of the US Constitution “A well-regulated militia, . . . the right to bear arms shall not be infringed. “ is an anachronistic obscenity and must be repealed. We already have well-regulated militias; we call them law enforcement agencies. 


In case we forget, Berkeley psychiatrist Bennett Markel’s poem reminds us that we’ve been here before: 

A shoot um-up in a movie house in Colorado,
Twelve people die.
The country seems to come to a halt.
President Obama and Candidate Romney run to the scene,
And speechify.
Shock and surprise!

Wait a minute.
Wasn’t there Columbine?
Wasn’t that in Colorado?
And what about Waco?
And Oklahoma City?
And those students in West Virginia?
And wasn’t there some playground in Stockton?

We are living in mad times.
This last joker, called himself THE JOKER, and seemed to be
Under the influence of a movie.
Of course, he wasn’t doing well in graduate school,
Or well enough.

The FBI, the CIA, Home Security, the whole
Protect America industry are called in.
Of course, the NRA (National Rifle Association) is busy
Explaining something or other.
Why should NRA even be in all of our vocabularies?

Let’s be clear.
This is not tragedy.
It’s farce.

You want tragedy?
People are violent.
Man is a suspicious, willful, grandiose, power-seeking mammal.
He wants to be special.
Numero Uno – not some one who fails as a neuroscience graduate student.
Man is a dangerous beast.

There you have to be joking.
There is no place for them.
Maybe in an amusement park. 


And finally, Carol Hamilton in Pennsylvania bitterly satirizes the farcical excuses which are used to justify assault weapons : 

In the wake of the latest Colorado massacre, pundits are leaping to their keyboards to argue against gun control. 

On CNN James Alan Fox wrote: 

“Mass killers are determined, deliberate and dead-set on murder. They plan methodically to execute their victims, finding the means no matter what laws or other impediments the state attempts to place in their way. To them, the will to kill cannot be denied.” 

Urging us to wait until our heads have cooled. Oliver Burkeman reminded his Guardian readers: “some people will go to extreme lengths to do unthinkably terrible things.” 

I leap to my keyboard to agree and elaborate. Because if a homicidal maniac is determined to commit mass murder, he (and I do mean “he”) is going to figure out a way. 

Suppose we banned assault weapons and automatic rifles tomorrow. We might still wake up to the following horrific headlines: 



An unidentified white male dressed in camouflage clothing burst into a movie theater tonight and assaulted the audience. Armed with four crossbows, three strapped over his shoulders, he launched his deadly bolts at the stunned and frightened crowd. Reloading swiftly, he mercilessly picked off victims as they cowered in the rear of the theater.  


Students were assembled peaceably in the cafeteria of Aaron Burr Junior High today, eating lunch and texting, when a fourteen-year-old boy armed with a slingshot burst into the room. The boy, who has not been identified because he is under age (although he will be tried as an adult) got off twenty-two rounds before the football coach rushed from the field and subdued him. “I was studying for my geometry exam,” wailed one student. “I was so scared. I hid under a table but I got a really bad bruise on my leg.”  


Hurling watermelons from a corporate booth, into which he had gained improper access, 22-year-old Paul Walter Smith decimated an unsuspecting crowd, crushing dozens of baseball fans and staining the clothes of others. Smith had apparently smuggled the watermelons up in an unguarded, unsupervised freight elevator. “They always find a way,” sighed a police officer. “It’s just useless to take precautions.”  

So I’m just sayin’: guns don’t commit mass murder. Very well-prepared and determined lunatics commit mass murder. And they’re going to do it even if all they have is a pointed stick or a banana. Chew on that, Mayor Bloomberg! 


I don’t have much to add to these eloquent voices. 

I simply can’t understand how Americans can deny the abundant evidence that assault weapons like those used in the recent Colorado tragedy and all those which preceded it have no purpose except to kill human beings.  

The last time I wrote about this, I got irate letters parsing the subtle distinctions between guns, revolvers, automatic, semi-automatic etc. etc, etc. Some people just don’t get it: there is absolutely no use for any devices of any kind which are designed to rapidly fire numerous deadly projectiles which kill people—or for the ammunition used in them. None. 

Americans seem insanely capable of deep denial of easily observable facts. After all, don’t we lead the supposedly educated world in numbers of citizens who “don’t believe in” climate change? But that’s a topic for another day. 







The Editor's Back Fence

Oakland Planning Commission Approves Safeway Expansion on Berkeley Border

Friday July 27, 2012 - 03:33:00 PM

As expected, Oakland's Planning Commission, which unlike Berkeley's Planning Commission has the power to approve projects, approved Safeway's planned expansion of its neighborhood-serving supermarket at the corner of College and Claremont into a much larger mini-mall with added retail storefronts and a parking garage. Almost all speakers at the hearing were opposed to the project, but it was clear to observers that the deal had already gone down. The fact that the planned structure does not conform to Oakland's just-completed zoning plan for the area was not even discussed by the Commission.  

Opponents plan to appeal the Planning Commission's decision to the Oakland City Council. If the Oakland Council denies the appeal, a lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act challenging the Environment Impact Report which accompanied the approval is the most likely next step. 

The Berkeley City Council has overwhelmingly disapproved of Safeway's plans until now. The company has already offered to pay for some traffic light changes on Alcatraz, College and Claremont in an attempt to mitigate the negative impacts on Berkeley. If Berkeley concludes that the mitigations are inadequate, its next recourse would be to initiate or join the EEQA lawsuit.


Odd Bodkins: Breakfast (Cartoon)

By Dan O'Neill
Friday July 27, 2012 - 02:07:00 PM


Dan O'Neill


Bounce: Einstein's Ear (Cartoon)

By Joseph Young
Friday July 27, 2012 - 02:28:00 PM


Joseph Young


Public Comment

Open Letter to BART Re Civil Rights and Public Space

By David G. Carlisle,Legal Intern, East Bay Community Law Center
Friday July 27, 2012 - 02:06:00 PM

My name is David Carlisle and I am a legal intern at the East Bay Community Law Center’s Neighborhood Justice Clinic. For eight years the NJC has worked with Alameda County residents on issues of civil rights, use of public space, and consumer protection.

I am writing to request that you remove a sign posted on the exterior of the Downtown Berkeley BART Station at the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street (see attached photograph). The sign reads “No Loitering, Begging, Soliciting, Open Containers” and lists several state and local ordinances (P.C. 602.1(b), P.C. 647(c), P.C. 602.7, BMC 13.36.070, BMC 13.36.015, BMC 12.70.030, BMC 10.12.110, and B&P 25620(a)). 

The sign is deceptive and chilling of people’s First Amendment right to peaceably assemble in Constitution Square, the plaza which is directly adjacent to the Downtown Berkeley BART station. Except for the ordinances prohibiting open alcoholic beverage containers (BMC 13.36.070 and B&P 25620(a)) the listed statutes do not, individually or collectively, prohibit the specified actions.  

• P.C. 602.1(b) prohibits intentional interference with the business of a public agency by “obstructing or intimidating” the public. Loitering, the passive act of lingering in one location, begging, and soliciting have little in common with affirmative obstruction or intimidation of the public. 

• P.C. 647(c) prohibits one from accosting people in a public place for the purpose of begging or soliciting. This ordinance has been interpreted to prohibit “walking up to and approaching another for the purpose of soliciting…the manner of approach is thus pertinent [emphasis added].” Ulmer v. Municipal Court, 55 Cal.App.3d 263, 267 (1st Dist. 1976). The Ulmer court specifically notes that “the statute does not extend to one ‘who merely sits or stands by the wayside.’” Id. 

• P.C. 602.7 prohibits the selling of any “goods, merchandise, property, or services of any kind…on the property, facilities, or vehicles…of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District.”  

• BMC 13.36.015 prohibits individuals from lying on the ground or gathering more than 2 stationary dogs on commercial sidewalks from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm.  

• BMC 12.70.030 prohibits smoking in specified public and private establishments including restaurants (12.70.030(a)), healthcare facilities (12.70.030(c)), sports arenas and outdoor theaters (12.70.030(j)), other enclosed spaces generally open to the public (12.70.030(h), (n), (o)), and commercial zones (12.70.090(w)).  

• BMC 10.12.110 prohibits the hitching or tying of animals to fire hydrants, electrolier standards, or shade and ornamental trees throughout the city.  

It is unacceptable that BART would post such a misleading sign. Neither the City of Berkeley, nor the state of California, have passed blanket bans on loitering, begging, or soliciting. Loitering, begging, and soliciting may make some individuals uncomfortable, but they are not illegal. Particularly due to the sign’s chilling effect on the public space, it should be removed immediately.

Who's Fooling Whom?

By Jimmy Holliman
Friday July 27, 2012 - 02:39:00 PM

Why is it the bankers and bureaucrats, the ones who have proven themselves to be the worst of all credit risks, are the ones who determine the loan borrowing rates and terms for the rest of us? It is a very simple, straightforward, and timely question that begs an answer. 

Let’s be honest here. The bankers and bureaucrats have bungled financial matters in this country very badly for the past few decades, like three (3) of them. They’ve developed a free-rent financial system for themselves that has resulted in bailout and scandal after bailout and scandal. They’ve created a financial system that constantly requires special accounting rules to be devised so that they can mark their financial assets to “make believe” numbers to magically manage their balance sheets, and imagined liquidity and solvency. What’s really remarkable is that the bankers and bureaucrats have needed continuous bailouts while borrowing unlimited sums of money at rates that they set for themselves. Not enough consideration? No worries. Need refinancing? Special refinancing program available to all insiders.  

It’s a truly incredible deal if you can get it. Incredulously, the bankers and bureaucrats have the audacity to ask the rest of us to place confidence in this same financial system and to trust them. Who’s fooling whom? Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us many times, we are the fools.  

And, they wonder what ails the economy.

Ten Other Things a Mayor Could Do in the City of Berkeley

By Carol Denney
Friday July 27, 2012 - 02:16:00 PM

I salute Kriss Worthington’s “practical people’s platform” of things a Berkeley mayor could accomplish. But a real people’s platform, I’m sure Councilmember Worthington would agree, must come from people, not politicians. In that spirit, here are some additional suggestions: 

1. No more targeting the poor with anti-panhandling, anti-sitting, or anti-belongings ordinances. The next mayor of Berkeley should move quickly to eliminate any such laws on the books and dedicate himself or herself to honest, practical solutions. 

2. Institute a vacancy fee for commercial districts. Property owners who choose to keep inflated rents so high that their storefronts and buildings remain an empty burden on a commercial district should be fined accordingly. 

3. Vow to address pressing low-income housing needs as a first priority. The scarce opportunity sites left in town should be dedicated to low-income, long-term housing, not glorified mailboxes for college students or high-end condos for the wealthy. This is the real way to maintain our diversity. 

4. Eliminate the use of pepper spray, wooden and rubber bullets, and tasers in our police force. These are not, as they are often called, non-lethal weapons, and should be removed from the escalating ladder of force until such time as they can honestly be called safe and effective. 

5. Re-institute and strengthen protections for our city landmarks. Our next mayor should recognize that preserving and re-purposing older buildings is the greenest course, and require the University of California and other developers to petition the city and the Landmarks Preservation Commission before destroying or altering our landmark heritage. 

6. Vow to honor neighborhood concerns with an honest process and opportunity for involvement. Citizens of Berkeley are justifiably disgusted with having only a last-minute opportunity to comment on plans which may destroy their businesses, their homes, the livability of their neighborhoods. There is no reason why plans such as the “West Berkeley Project” should pulled like a rabbit out of a hat right before an election. It may take time to be inclusive, but it is worth doing. 

7. Require our police officers to participate in public police review. The current state law eliminating public police review as an employee privacy violation does not preclude the City of Berkeley from asking more from its police force, which is better paid than most. Police officers unwilling to participate in a public review process should find work elsewhere. 

8. Require all merchant associations to have open meetings under Brown Act rules. Some of the merchant associations in Berkeley operate like a shadow government, even writing legislation which surfaces later at the city council. This is not what democracy looks like. 

9. Eliminate discriminatory patterns and practices of enforcement of laws and codes. It makes no sense to argue that a poor person’s backpack is “blocking” passage while allowing a merchant to put out sandwich boards, tables and chairs, etc. on a public sidewalk, or enforcing commercial district smoking regulations only against the poor. Let’s be fair. 

10. Vow to encourage honest support for the arts. Let’s begin a culture of firmly encouraging merchants, merchant organizations, and event organizers to pay musicians. Well-funded groups such as the Downtown Berkeley Association should be ashamed of, for instance, getting a special “eternal” permit for the prime busking territory near the BART station while paying the musicians who use it nothing at all. This, and a commitment to long-term, low-income housing, will ensure a healthy creative community. 





THE PUBLIC EYE:Renewing Democracy: Shifting the Paradigm

By Bob Burnett
Friday July 27, 2012 - 01:42:00 PM

Thomas Jefferson believed in renewing democracy by regularly shifting the dominant social paradigm. Jefferson argued that constitutions should be rewritten every generation, declaring the “dead should not govern the living.” That explains why contemporary Americans are so fractious: we’re overdue for a new paradigm. 

In computer technology the dominant paradigm has shifted approximately every twenty years. In 1954 IBM introduced a mass-produced mainframe computer, the 704. In 1977 the personal computer era began with the introduction of the Commodore PET. In 1996 Nokia introduced the modern era by introducing the 9000 Communicator, a personal data assistant. 

Not every company can adapt to change. In December of 2000, Microsoft stock shares were worth $119.94; it was the most valuable corporation in the world with a market capitalization of $510 billion. When the paradigm shifted to the personal data assistant, Microsoft didn’t adapt but Apple did. In October of 2001, Apple introduced the Ipod – a digital music player. Apple followed with the 2007 release of the IPhone and the 2010 introduction of the IPad. Today Microsoft’s stock is worth $29.15 per share and its market capitalization is $244B. In twelve years, Apple’s stock increased in value from $8.19 to $574; its market cap rose from $4.8B to $538B and it became the world’s most valuable company.  

In the last eighty years there have been two social paradigm shifts. In the thirties, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ushered in “the New Deal” in response to a catastrophic depression. “Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth... I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.” The New Deal featured “three R’s”: relief, recovery, and reform; it provided a safety net for all Americans.  

For forty years conservatives attacked Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1980, the dominant paradigm shifted. Ronald Reagan demeaned the safety net concept and convinced Americans they no longer needed financial regulations. (The Chicago School of Economics promoted deregulation by arguing that markets were inherently self-regulating and no matter how severe the setback, markets would quickly return to equilibrium.) “Reaganomics” promoted the cancerous notion that helping the rich get richer would benefit everyone else, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” 

Thirty years later, it’s clear that Reaganomics has failed and once again America needs to supplant the dominant paradigm. The US economy is broken. The Reagan conservative ideology assumed that rich folks buying yachts and vacation homes would catalyze the consumer economy, but that didn’t happened. Belatedly, Americans recognized a healthy economy depends upon steady consumption by the middle class. Unfortunately the current recession has devastated 99 percent of working Americans and benefited only the richest one percent. 

A second reason why the paradigm needs to shift is because, under Reaganomics, corporations and the wealthy acquired too much power. They bought the Republican Party and used their wealth to flood the mainstream media with conservative propaganda. Corporations plundered our natural resources, while the richest one percent moved trillions of dollars out of the US economy offshore into tax havens.  

Finally, the social paradigm needs to shift because, as a consequence of Reaganomics, serious problems are being ignored. The US economy will not function unless determined efforts are made to bolster the lives of working Americans. Until there’s a sea change in perspective, many other vital issues will continue to be ignored, such as global climate change, energy usage, and infrastructure deterioration

We need to shift from Reaganomics to a social paradigm that renews democracy. The first step is recognition that the real strength of America is its people, not its corporations. Leveling the playing field requires limiting the power of corporations. Democracy has to take priority over capitalism. And restoring the economy means redistributing wealth by means of an equitable tax system. 

Renewing democracy requires that Americans plan for the future. One of the most debilitating aspects of Reaganomics has been its short-term perspective; Thomas Friedman characterized the conservative ethos as IBG/YBG: “Do whatever you like now, because ‘I’ll be gone’ or ‘you’ll be gone” when the bill comes due.” But it’s our moral responsibility to plan for the next generation; we have to confront long-range problems such as the lack of meaningful jobs and Global Climate change. 

The 2012 presidential election offers a stark contrast between Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama. The men have different backgrounds and philosophies. Most important, they represent different social paradigms. Romney defends Reaganomics – he wants American to continue to do business as it has for the past three decades, to continue with a system that is broken and destructive, to remain in the age of dinosaurs. Obama wants something better – he wants to reinvigorate “the New Deal” and renew democracy. But Obama needs to articulate a more coherent alternative to the dominant paradigm.  

That’s the challenge for Liberals in 2012. We must help Obama formulate an alternative to Reaganomics, a new vision the 99 percent can identify with. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at bburnett@sonic.net

DISPATCHES FROM THE EDGE: Cultures Of Resistance Review

By Conn Hallinan
Friday July 27, 2012 - 02:32:00 PM

When we think of “resistance,” what mostly comes to mind is guerrilla warfare: Vietnamese closing in on the besieged French at Dien Bien Phu; Angolans ambushing Portuguese troops outside of Luanda; Salvadorans waging a war of attrition against their military oligarchy. But resistance doesn’t always involve roadside bombs or military operations. Sometimes it is sprayed on a Teheran wall, or rapped in a hip-hop song in Gaza. It can be a poem in Medellin, Colombia—arguably one of the most dangerous cities in the world—or come from a guitar shaped like an AK-47. In short, there are few boundaries or strictures when it comes to the imagination and creativity that people bring to the act of defiance.

That art can be powerful stuff is the central message that Brazilian filmmaker Iara Lee brings to her award-winning documentary “Cultures of Resistance.” Her previous films include “Synthetic Pleasures,” about the impact of technology on mass culture, and “Modulations,” on the evolution of electronic music. Her most recent film is “The Suffering Grasses,” about the civil war in Syria. 

Lee began “Cultures” in 2003, just before the Bush administration invaded Iraq, and her six-year odyssey takes her through five continents and 35 countries: Burma, Brazil, Rwanda, Iran, Burundi, Israel, Nigeria, the Congo, and Liberia, to name a few. In each case she profiles a grassroots movement that embodies the philosophy of non-violent resistance to everything from political oppression to occupation. 

Lee, a co-founder of the Cultures of Resistance Network, is a social activist in her own country, where she has aided Amazonian Indians resisting the destruction of their lands and organized against the reign of violence—from both criminals and the police—in Brazil’s slums or Favelas. She is also a member of the Greenpeace Foundation, a member of the advisory board of the National Geographic Society, and a part of the world-wide campaign to ban cluster munitions. 

She was also on the MV Mavi Marmara in 2010, the Gaza-bound Turkish ship boarded by Israeli commandos. Nine human rights campaigners were killed in the confrontation, and Lee and her crew managed to smuggle out video footage of the incident. However, U.S. media outlets refused to air it. Lee’s view of the world is not the sometimes distant lens of many documentarians, but the prism of an activist. 

“Cultures” is a surprising film. Lee is a strong supporter of non-violence, but “Cultures of Resistance” is hardly about how hugs will free us all. She recognizes that resistance in the face of oppression—or indifference—can spark anger. The film begins with a remarkable segment on the Amazon’s Kayapo tribe resisting the construction of the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River. At one point the Indians’ frustration boils over and they attack an Eletrobras official—the company is the largest utility company in Latin America—with clubs and fists, tearing off some of his clothes and sending him off in bloody retreat. The unspoken point of the segment is that if non-violent resistance is ignored, things can turn ugly. 

This is a lovely film, but there is darkness in it as well, some of it quite disturbing. Racks of skulls line a hut in Rwanda, where some 800,000 people were massacred in 1994, and a deserted church in that country is filled with piles of clothes, invoking the memory of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But the message of the segment is not death, but life, and how post-genocide communities are coming together to rebuild. 

Many of the profiles come from Africa: Nigeria, where local people are up against international oil cartels and their own corrupt government; The Congo, where a civil war over minerals has killed more than five million people; Liberia, where former child soldiers are being integrated back into post-civil war society. 

But Lee casts her nets widely. The “Teheran Rats” are graffiti artists who wage clandestine war with spray cans in Iran. Hip-hop artists in Israel say they “sing rap for people who don’t listen to rap.” Poets from around the world gather in Colombia: “Poetry does not overthrow governments, but it does open consciousness and hearts,” one poet says. 

Lee has an eye for beauty and drama. “Cultures” has a clear point of view, but it is not overly didactic, preferring to use juxtaposition and interviews—and lots and lots of good music—to make its points. A simple black and white shot of a very young child holding a semi-automatic pistol does a much better job of highlighting the problems of violence in the favelas than would some expert pumping out numbers. Not that the numbers are not there, just that Lee first gets the viewers attention through the art: information follows. 

One of the films messages is that cultures of resistance—those that have the audacity to say “no”—have things in common. Leadership is not something that resides in one group of people or in a given country, but is everywhere that people dig their heels in and fight back. The Buddhist monks that challenged the military dictatorship in Burma share common ground with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Israelis opposed to the occupation of Palestinian lands, and Palestinians resisting the spread of Israeli settlements, meet in the medium of rap. 

“We don’t have planes, missiles or white phosphorous” Lee told journalist Lisa Mullenneaux, “but we have our freedom to resist oppression. To sing, dance, and express how we feel about world politics. Global solidarity is the only thing that can promote real change.” 

In a sense, Lee turns Emma Goldman’s slogan “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution” into “dancing can be revolution.” 


Cultures Of Resistance

Directed by Iara Lee

73-minute documentary

Caipirinha Productions

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com 

WILD NEIGHBORS: Six-legged Guerillas

By Joe Eaton
Friday July 27, 2012 - 01:42:00 PM
Long-horned eucalyptus borer, an early suspect.
D. Hobern, via Wikimedia Commons
Long-horned eucalyptus borer, an early suspect.

Those of you who don’t listen to NPR either may have missed an intriguing story about the insects that have been attacking California’s eucalyptus trees, and how they may have gotten here. 

My thanks to Rusty Scalf for passing it along. 

Some background first. A couple of years ago I did a piece for another venue about butterflies in the East Bay Regional Parks. That led to an interview with park naturalist Chris Garcia at Ardenwood Historic Farm, where monarch butterflies roost in a bluegum eucalyptus grove every winter. 

“The trees are not in great shape,” she said. They’ve been attacked by waves of insects: first the long-horned eucalyptus borer (Phoracantha semipunctata), an Australian beetle; then the redgum lerp psyllid (Glycapsis brimblecombei), a scale-insect-like creature; most recently a couple of tortoise beetles (Trachymela sloanei and Chrysophtharta m-fuscum). “We’ve been dealing with that for many years,” Garcia added. “We had to cut down a whole bunch of trees. We’re also planting a lot of eucalyptus; we’re the only park in the District that plants them.” The Park District has attempted biological control: “Someone from Davis released a natural parasite, a wasp that attacks the larva of the long-horned borer. We got it under control. The psyllid, the one the kills the trees the most, came later.” 

According to the NPR story, at least one entomologist suspects the sequential arrival of those insects, all Australian natives like the eucalyptus, is no accident. His name is Timothy Paine, a professor at UC Riverside. He told the reporter he had begun to notice California eucs dying around 1985, and fingered the initial suspect: “We were working on the long-horned borer, and then another would come in, and another one would come in.” Paine has documented the arrival of 16 eucalyptus-pest species over the last 25 years. 

“If you see something one time, you accept it,” he said. “If you see another pattern, you wonder if it’s a coincidence. If you start seeing five or six different patterns that all point in the same direction, then you start to raise questions.” Paine’s question: were these insects deliberately introduced to California to kill eucalyptus trees? “We can’t imagine that it was done for any other reason.” 

It’s not difficult to identify a motive. Eucalypts, particularly the bluegum, have been called “giant weeds” by native-plant advocates. They’re highly flammable (bluegums and Monterey pines fueled the 1991 East Bay Hills fire); they’re messy; they discourage understory growth; their leaves smell like cat pee, which may be a desirable quality in a Sauvignon Blanc but can be annoying in a whole grove of trees. Even their timber is considered useless, although I’ve seen some handsome eucalyptus cabinetry. 

Over the years, federal, state, regional, and local agencies have promoted eucalyptus removal from public parks. Every such effort has drawn fire from euc advocates who grew up with the trees and think they look natural in the California landscape, wherever they might have come from originally. They are not without habitat value for native wildlife, as witness the Ardenwood dilemma. Raptors also roost and nest in them. 

But a guerrilla campaign to eradicate them by releasing six-legged saboteurs? Paine admits that he hasn’t found definitive proof: “You can find alternative explanations for all of this, no question about it. This is something we think is likely to have happened, but we don’t have a smoking gun.” 

Patterns are a tricky thing. We’re a pattern-perceiving species. Our brains are wired to connect the stars into dippers (or ploughs, or oddly long-tailed bears.) Seeing the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich or an oil stain is called pareidolia. Seeing sinister links between apparently unrelated events? Welcome to the happy world of the Truthers, the Birthers, the Intelligent Designers, the UFO abductees, and other conspiracy theorists, for whose worldviews paranoia is not too strong a word. (See Hofstadter’s classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics, which traces the phenomenon back to the Anti-Masons.) And paranoia can be comforting in a perverse way. Hey, the universe is not totally random after all! It’s out to get us, but there’s a structure, a plan, an order to it—even if it’s an evil order. Paranoia was a gold mine for Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and a whole slew of other writers, not to exclude Dickens. 

I’m not saying Paine is clinically paranoid, of course. Science advances by recognizing patterns. Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Watson and Crick all saw previously unsuspected patterns, and made the paradigms shift. The difference is that they had compelling evidence. 

Personally, I suspect that secrets are harder to keep than most conspiracy buffs will admit. What are the odds that a Johnny Bugseed who had been broadcasting Australian insects statewide for at least two decades would not have bragged about it somewhere on the Internet? But you never know. 



ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Living with Low-Level Symptoms

By Jack Bragen
Friday July 27, 2012 - 03:02:00 PM

With many medical conditions, doctors and patients seek the "magic bullet" that hypothetically cures the illness and allows the patient to live happily ever after. In some instances it is found, such as with penicillin and the various types of infections that it cures. Another example is treatment for cataracts, in which vision is restored without much likelihood of complications, and with a relatively simple and relatively painless surgery. 

In the 1950's when Thorazine was discovered to have uses for psychiatric patients, it was thought to be just such a cure. It allowed people who were otherwise hopeless to begin on the long road back to normality. 

Prior to the Thorazine, psychiatrists mainly performed lobotomies and electroshock, and also performed insulin shock as a treatment. None of this worked very well, and when it did work, the outcome of the person being treated resembled a zombie state. 

Thorazine and medications that came later seemed like miracle drugs, since they offered restoral of people who were very far gone and when nothing else worked. However, taking an antipsychotic turns out to only be the beginning. Thorazine and other medications didn't solve all of a person's problems. The person on medication is often left with low-level symptoms as well as numerous life issues. 

Even today, the medications that we have work imperfectly, and they produce numerous side effects that range from physical discomfort to a dire health risk. A person with paranoid schizophrenia or another mental illness must often deal with residual symptoms on an ongoing basis. The newer medications that have been introduced to the market in the last twenty years, surprisingly, are stronger and block a greater amount of brain function. This can be a good or bad thing. The question arises of how much "good" brain function are we sacrificing in order to put down the psychosis, mania or depression? Even though the newer medications block more brain function, the psychiatric consumer is almost always left with some amount of residual symptoms. 

An exceedingly stressful situation can trigger a resurgence of symptoms for a person with mental illness in spite of he or she being medicated. A treatment practitioner or family member should not assume that we will be fine in all situations just because of taking medication. 

For someone with schizophrenia, what this looks like is someone who is operating out of partial paranoia. The person may become unusually cautious, may exhibit abnormal fears, and may behave strangely and in an inexplicable manner. Low-level psychosis could sometimes mean that the person is headed for a worse relapse unless corrective measures are taken. In other instances, the person "recovers," meaning their illness is again under control, a while after the stressors in the situation have been removed. Stress can also have a delayed effect. The return to a person's individual normal, upon removal of stress, can also be delayed. Most people, mentally ill or not, require recovery time after a difficult situation. 

Partial paranoia, a term I am adopting but which I haven't heard used, means to me that someone hasn't split off from reality but may have some irrational fears, and may sometimes act on those fears. 

In my case, the irrational fear has taken the form of agoraphobia in recent years. It's fine to have that if you want to be a writer, but makes things difficult if one wants to have a life apart from that at all. If going to the grocery store is a challenge, imagine trying to get a job! 

* * * 

Just a reminder: I can be contacted with your suggestions or your stories at bragenkjack@yahoo.com. Should your letter be used, I will first ask permission and will change names and descriptions to maintain your privacy unless you specify otherwise. Also, my books are still for sale at LULU.com and at Amazon.com. If you purchase my books, some of the profit will help me to continue writing this column that brings a unique perspective on mental illness to the community.

Arts & Events

AROUND AND ABOUT THEATER: William Bivins' 'Education of a Rake' at Central Works

By Ken Bullock
Friday July 27, 2012 - 02:02:00 PM

A male Congressman's trying to get the ERA resuscitated and passed—but he has skeletons in his closet. Is he a feminist--or a scalliwag? William Bivins--who's been one of the more noticeable Bay Area playwrights of the past few years (Virago staged his 'Afterlife of the Mind' a couple years back)--wrote 'Education of a Rake,' directed by Central Works' co-founder, Jan Zvaifler, opening this Saturday after previews. Central Works continues to be one of the very most--and consistently--interesting--theatrically interesting--small companies in a Bay Area with hundreds of small theater companies. 

Thursdays-Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 5 through August 26 at the (Julia Morgan-designed) Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue (near the UC Campus). $25 reserved, sliding scale ($25-$14) at the door (with previews and August 2 and 9 pay-what-you can performances). 558-1381; centralworks.org

THEATER REVIEW: 'Noises Off' at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley

By Ken Bullock
Friday July 27, 2012 - 01:18:00 PM

"I hope you enjoy the remains of the evening."

Dropped lines, dropped contact lenses onstage, false entrances and exits, feuds raging onstage and off ... Michael Frayn's 'Noises Off' may not be the definitive farce for a small theater company to put on—but it's the definitive put-on of a small theater company staging a farce—and the mayhem that outdoes the slapstick. 

Frayn came up with the idea while standing backstage during a production by some friends of a mediocre doorslammer. "What I saw backstage was funnier than what was onstage." Act One of 'Noises Off,' the knock-down-and-dirty dress rehearsal of the first act of 'Nothing On,' is upstaged by Act Two, the mostly pantomime brouhaha backstage at a performance of the same—and then there's Act Three, from the audience's perspective, as the company, once on tour, unravels and disintegrates on the boards ... 

Actors Ensemble takes on this difficult number—everybody's playing two parts, actors and the characters they portray (the director and his stage manager "protegee" are just as duplicitous), the set must be revolved 180 degrees (twice), the company that's falling to pieces must perform as a real ensemble—and comes through with flying colors, thanks to director Colin Johnson, in his debut at Live Oak Theater, and his valiant cast of nine: Cynthia Roberts, Avi Jacobson, Laura Peterson, Vince Faso, Jordan Michele Kersten, Nick Dickson, Annika Bergman, Theo Adams—and that old hand at East Bay theater, Norman Macleod, trained in theater in York ... 

Not to mention the designers: Brian Quackenbush revolving set, Helen Slomowitz's ever-accurate costumery and Alecks Rundell's lights—not to mention AE board member Jerome Solberg, producer and program designer (a kind of Post-Dada/Constructivist collage on the cover). 

As the stepped-on lines (and feet), the gaffes in "communication" as well as theatricality, the mistaken relationships, the bruised egos of little theater all add up and spill over, the show becomes more and more—literally—hysterical. The less said about it, the more the surprise—though the cliff it's sliding towards is inevitable—and the greater the fun, whether you've seen this chestnut-of-a-chestnut hammer or no—see it now, a perfect summer comedy, right smack in our backyard, with lots to watch, from crossed signals to slapstick, and shake your head over, laughing ... 

Friday/Saturdays at 8, Sunday at 2 (August 12 only), Live Oak Theater (in the Park), 1301 Shattuck at Berryman (just past the Gourmet Ghetto, North Berkeley). $12-$15. 649-5999; aeofberkeley.org