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Friday, April 29, 2011

Death of an affectionate man

by John MacBeath Watkins

On April 22 my father, John Laurits Watkins, died. He was 87.

Somehow, though I knew he was mortal and in ill health, I never could quite imagine my father dying. Somehow, I still expect to walk in the  door at my folk's place and see him working on a crossword puzzle or playing solitaire.

Both of my parents contributed to my love of books, but my father  introduced me to my favorite author, P.G. Wodehouse. My father was, during my youth, the greatest interpreter of the Pogo comic strips,  doing the definitive Albert the alligator, loud, enthusiastic and self-assured as you would expect the character to be

He also introduced me to the sport of sailing when we lived in Maine,  and when as a teenager it was hard to communicate about other things, we could always go sailing together.

Of course, he was also a career Air Force officer who served in B-17s  in World War II and was awarded the Air Force Cross, helped start a school for training Air Force non-commissioned officers during the  Korean War, flew with Strategic Air Command as a navigator/bombardier during the Cold War, and flew on C-130s into some pretty hot spots in Viet Nam, including Khe Shan and A Shau, where the aircraft got shot up a bit and he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for getting  supplies to a surrounded firebase with a precision air drop under enemy fire and in horrible weather. Not long before his death, he told  me a West Pointer came up to him in Viet Nam and remarked that it must be something for "you flyboys to see some real combat." During World War II, the heavy bombers he served in sustained such heavy losses  that among heavy bomber aircrews that completed 30 missions, 71% were killed or MIA. Military Air Transport was surprisingly free of losses during Viet Nam, he felt.

In his effects I found a letter of thanks from the commander of the 817th Tactical Airlift Squadron dated Nov. 15, 1968 thanking him for 416 combat sorties and 568.6 combat hours of service, "with the inherent hardships and dangers entailed." And on one of his trips, while in Thailand he managed to visit a shipyard and buy an 8' camphorwood sampoa, which he stuffed in the C-130 and gave me, my first boat. I don't have that boat any more, but it meant enough to me that years later, when I went to Thailand, I bought a sampoa and shipped it back. It now hangs in the boathouse at the Center for Wooden Boats.

Part of the reason for the safety record of those transports in Viet Nam was associated with improvements in Air Force safety made  during the 1950s. Even in peacetime, losses in training had been too high. One of the improvements the Air Force made was to have officers who were particularly good fly with others in their squadrons and  check on their competence. It was called Stanboard (military speak for standards board) and in the 1960s, when my family lived on Okinawa, he would fly a month in Viet Nam and a month of Stanboard out of Naha  AFB.

He retired from the Air Force after 27 years service, taught school for a while (as he had done for a while between the end of WW II and the beginning of the Korean War), sold real estate for a time, then taught himself the math behind the tables he had used as a navigator, taught himself to program palmtop computers, and started Celesticomp, which as you might guess sold palmtop celestial navigation computers.  Some were used by blue water sailors, some by merchant marine officers, some by navigator/bombardiers doing his old job in SAC, and one by a record-seeking balloonist.

There is a film about military brats which talks about how harsh some  military fathers could be, and all the problems the families sometimes had. My family was nothing like that. My father loved to travel and  loved to take us with him. When we lived in Maine, we would read plays together. Dad's humor, his humanity, and his love for his family were perhaps not exactly the image of a military officer, but then, few officers are that image

He also taught me critical thinking. When we discussed something, his expectation was not that I would meekly accept his authority on every subject, but that I would be able to discuss it intelligently with him. In high school, one of my best friends was riding with us in a car while Dad and I discussed something, and when we got out, my friend, who was a Navy brat, said he couldn't believe I talked that way to my dad. His would never have accepted such debate.

A few days before his death, my dad was still saying things he knew I'd take issue with, to tempt me into a political argument. He liked debating history and politics with me more than he liked being agreed with, and I think he was proud to have a son who could argue him to a standstill. He taught me to be relentlessly reasonable, which is why I've never been kicked off an Internet forum, and he taught me to be sure I had my facts straight and could back up my assertions and my logic. I'll miss his brilliance, but even more his love.

I've known some people who were in such bad relationships with their parents communication completely broke down. There were fathers who said "I have no son," people my age who had completely stopped talking to their parents (or, often, one of their parents.) My father didn't  always agree with his children's choices, but he never stopped supporting us and loving us. His care for his family went beyond us, of course. He organized family reunions, wrote family history, and  kept in touch not just with his brothers and sister but with his cousins as well.

I think much of this came from his father, Amos Watkins, a farmer who  was born in England and came to Oregon as a child. Amos was a gentle, quiet, affectionate man with a wry sense of humor and an extensive knowledge of literature. When he and dad were milking the cows, he would recite poetry to dad. Sometimes, the cows complained because they were so engrossed with the literature that they left the milking machine running too long. He loved his farm animals, and never owned a tractor until his sons went off to war,  preferring to plow with  horses.

One of their favorite poems is also one of mine, Ozymandias, a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Selley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Dad was emphatically not that guy. Perhaps a sneer of cold command would have gained him a higher rank in the military, but the Air Force got a better deal, a man who advanced by knowing how to do things really well.

Once, in Hong Kong, a young Chinese woman came up to him and asked if he was a missionary. He said sorry, no, but why do you ask?

"Kind face," she replied. Some people can just judge character.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Who's afraid of the stakeholders?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Financial reform has brought a bit of a dust-up to the crypts of the undead world of executive pay.

One of the provisions slipped into the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill that really pleases me is one that gives shareholders a right to vote on top executive pay. Mind you, it's just an advisory vote, and the CEO is welcome to ignore the result at his or her peril.

But it is easy to see why CEOs are not too happy with such a provision. For one thing, while it's widely appreciated that employees are stakeholders in a company, it is less widely appreciated that their pension funds are often shareholders as well.

Which means that they can set in motion a vote on the boss's pay, whereas usually only those at the top influence the pay of those below them. In the past, compensation committees have set executive pay, and it has ratcheted up even when lower-level employees are seeing their compensation frozen or even declining, and shareholders are seeing values and dividends decline. Compensation committees have been so ineffective in containing labor costs at the top of the pay scale, they are pretty widely seen as being on the side of management, rather than stockholders.

But management is not without resources. Industry, freed from restraint on campaign spending by the Citizens United decision, are free to spend money on candidates who propose to scrap this provision. Which leads to the next stakeholder/management fight. How eager is management to reveal what they are spending lobbying and campaign money on? After all, they are spending the firm's money on defending management perks, they may be opposing the interest of the stockholders (and other stakeholders.)

It's what's known in economics as the agency problem. How do you know those who are supposed to act as agents of the owners won't drain the lifeblood of the business to slake their own unholy thirst pad their own bank accounts?

Dodd-Frank has at least put a weapon in the hands of vampire slayers stakeholders, but they could lose it to the cold hands of undead, life-sucking corporations lobbying and campaign finance actions of the very managers they employ.

(Sorry, I've crossed out the bits that might appear to show bias.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Face Blindness, Shakespere and Crows

by Jamie Lutton

I noticed that it has been a few weeks since I have written in. A lot has happened. Our store in the University District closing, and business picking up as spring arrives, finally, to Seattle.  I also had a big shock happen. I got diagnosed with face blindness, or prosopagnosia.

What happened was, I was walking to work  one morning about a month ago, and a young man ran up to me, to walk with me, talking to me saying hello. I looked at him and said "Pardon me, I know you pretty well from somewhere, but I can't remember where".  And he said to me "Jamie, I work for you." He then paused and said, 'You must have face blindness.'"

Face blindness is a disorder where a person cannot identify other people by their faces. Sometimes this overlaps to identifying  and recognizing shapes, like cars in a parking lot.

I investigated further, and found this to be true for me.  None of my doctors over the years picked up on this; and I have paid a lot of money out for treatment for myself. So much for Western Medicine gurus. I am pretty upset about this. This disorder has been known about since the 1940's.  All that was said was that I had mania or depression, for the reason I could not identify anyone around me, people I should have known, or find a car in a parking lot etc.

I have had so much shame over this blindness, over the years. I thought I was not working hard enough, or trying hard enough, or that I was not paying enough attention.  So, if anyone reading this can't remember faces or names at all, and are surrounded by strangers every day, try taking the tests on line. There are also a lot of good papers about it, on line, available to anyone who types " face blindness" into a search engine.

The crows seem preoccupied, and there are fewer around in the mornings as I walk to work.  I see less than half the crows I saw a month ago. I suppose they are busy courting, or playing in the spring weather. It is also easier for them to get food this time of year, so they don't feel they have to be front-and-center with me.

I am trying to observe the small habits they have; like how they perch in trees and on wires overhead. They will try to perch on the slimmest branches, which will bob and bend under their weight, as they wait above me, watching me. If they land on a skinny overhead wire, they have to sway  back and forth to keep their balance, as they are too big for skinny wires. On fatter overhead wires, they move around less.

When I annoy a crow by putting a treat down, then by standing too close to it, they will gang up on me to scold me

Recently, I put down a generous handful of peanuts, and then started to talk to a man with a dog, too near the little pile on the ground. two scolded me from the trees, then they landed on a low stone wall, sitting next to each other, facing me, a small distance away. Then they cawed at me in unison to get my attention, as loud as they could, with great emphasis, glaring at me.. I had been talking about bird behavior with the man, and  then pointed out what the birds were doing. I said they were telling us to move along so they could get to the peanuts I had put down. The man was pretty impressed by their behavior; I had just been telling them how the local crows followed me around in the mornings, showing off and begging for treats.

I had rarely before this noticed birds. I have noticed other people's pet parrots, and didn't get their charm. I have a pair of finches who nest on my balcony every year, but they are shy. I hear them, but I do not get to see them, as the male sings away in the mornings or during the day, every spring. But the crows made me notice them. As I said in a earlier blog, one or two crows followed me, wanting to play, or at  least be thrown a treat.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Warm thoughts

by John MacBeath Watkins

Build a man a fire, you keep him warm for the night.

Set a man on fire, you keep him warm for the rest of his life.

Okay, if you know me, there's about a 20% chance you've already heard that joke. I can't do any better, I've been working 7 day weeks since the last week of february and our last day as an open shop was Tuesday. Chuck and Frank are gone, and I miss them terribly, the thrift store from the Methodist Church (oh, those Methodists!) has taken about half the remaining books, and I have a cold. The most intense part of moving out (except for the psychological pain of the cats leaving) is still ahead, my muscles feel like mud and my brain has a strange resemblance to lime jello. I've got too many shelves left and the Methodists benefit from far more books left than I expected. And well they should, some good friends of mine were married in that church, and it's a great asset to the community. I'm agnostic on the subject of God's existence, but not on the subject of the good churches can do.

It is a bit painful, after months of sale prices, to see how many good books are left. I'm still finding books I can list on the Internet for far more than I had them priced in the shop. A couple decades of choosing the best books, culling the rest, had me with excellent stock, but the foot traffic changed, and the customers were going to the Internet instead of the shops, so going Internet only made sense. Especially with Chase Bank being willing to pay me to move out of my space. And this change will allow me to help out my folks, who are getting old, as will we all if we're lucky.

So it's goodbye, University District, I've enjoyed having my shop there, even in the bad old days when there were so many tweakers I once commented that, as Obiwan put it, "you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." That was after a tweaker we'd caught stealing came back that night and used a curbstone to break out a tempered-glass window that had been put in when the jewelry store was in the space and stole some valuable books. The district is better now, and I'll miss the interaction with so many of our delightful customers. I admit that when I realize I'm having warm thoughts my immediate reaction is to leap from the word "warm" to my sometimes morbid sense of humor, but I honestly will miss having an open shop in the city.

The new adventure begins.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

End times

Today is the University District store's last day as an open shop. We'll be operating as an Internet-only store after that. If you catch us in the store through the 17th, we can still sell shelves depending on availability, But Wednesday and Thursday the books are being scooped up for the Capitol Hill store and then the Methodist Church thrift store.

The Capitol Hill store will continue to operate as an open shop, cats and all.

We have a good report of the cats, Frank and Chuck, adjusting to their new home, frightened at first but happy to be petted.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Frank and Chuck have left the building

by John MacBeath Watkins

Frank and Chuck, our shop cats, went to their new home yesterday. They'll be living with a nice family out in Woodinville, with a big house and usually someone at home. I'm sure they'll be very happy there, but it's not the same here in the store without them.

Tomorrow (April 12) is our last day as an open shop. We've still got books and shelves to sell, and a few days after that for people to pick up their shelves.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

China's crackdown: Making the country more like Tunisia to avoid Tunisia's fate?

by John MacBeath Watkins

China is in the midst of a major crackdown. Ai Weiwei, who designed the bird's nest stadium for China's Olympic games, has been detained, his studio has been ransacked and computers taken, and now the regime has announced that he is being investigated for "economic crimes." We can be certain that many less visible activists are being similarly harassed, detained, and as an afterthought, been given the name of a crime to have committed.

I have no doubt that the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern dictatorships have something to do with this. The question in my mind is, does such a response actually make the Communist Party regime more secure? Is it not making itself more like the regimes that have fallen?

In Egypt and Syria, long-standing state of emergency laws were one of the major grievances that led to the uprising. Authoritarian regimes may feel more secure when they have stifled dissent, but in so doing, they have deprived themselves of an important source of information about the countries they rule.

Consider the problem of corruption, which can occur in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. What is happening here is that an official is taking advantage of his or her possession of authority granted by the state to collect rents on that authority, as if it were their property. Of course, it is not their property, which is part of why this is a problem. In collecting these rents, the officials are undermining the state that granted this authority, much as the exploitative landlord in the revolutionary opera, The White-Haired Girl, undermined the system of private property with unjust and onerous rents.

The state needs to know when such an officials are enriching themselves at the expense of undermining the government they are supposed to serve. But if you put in that official's hands the ability to crush dissent, the official can deprive the government of knowledge of his crimes, and continue to undermine faith in the government.

Or consider the spark that set the Middle East in flames. Mohammed Bouazizi, a college-educated Tunisian forced to work as a fruit vendor because the jobs were going to people with better connections, ran into an official who humiliated him.

Bouazizi made only about $10 a day pushing his cart through the city and selling his wares. An inspector named Faida Hamdi is alleged to have seized his scales for weighing fruit and slapped him when he objected to her taking his apples, and Bouaziz's appeals to the government produced no action. No longer able to support his family because of this treatment, he doused himself with fuel and set himself on fire in front of a government building. Hamdi was investigated and cleared, then released from jail, apparently because in Tunisia's system, humiliating people and preventing them from making a living was perfectly legal -- perhaps even expected of such an official.

The incident spoke to the experience of many Arabs in several countries. How was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had the previous October been re-elected for a fifth term as president by the literally unbelievable margin of 89% of the vote, to know how much resentment his system of government was sitting on? Well, if you harass and imprison those who criticize your regime, as Ben Ali did, you've shut off that source of information. When you rig elections so that they can only turn out one way, you've lost another source of information.

Although the political parties in places like America and the United Kingdom compete fiercely for control of their governments, the elected officials only provide steering inputs into the system. Those who control industry continue to do so, and what the British quaintly call Mandarins -- top-level bureaucrats -- continue to run the apparatus of the state. The illusion of instability -- frequent changes in the party in power -- covers a deeper stability. If China manages to make their state more like Tunisia by suppressing dissent, they will instead have the illusion of stability covering a deeper instability.

How can the Communist Party avoid this? One way would be to adopt a Western management technique. Just as entrepreneurs are a creative force in an economy -- a dynamic that helps provide the rapid growth that helps legitimize the Chinese government -- intrapreneurs can provide a creative force within an organization. If the Chinese government fears competition from without the Communist Party, they must have competition within the party. Factions  no doubt already exist in the party, but they function in an opaque way that does not allow them to gather information as efficiently as a separate party, in part because they do not have the information-gathering tool of elections to find out how best to appeal to the Chinese people.

The other route -- keeping the lid on as best they can -- will look stable until it blows up. After all, the paranoia of the Quin Dynasty is one of the reasons it lasted only about 14 years, and was replaced by more moderate regimes. Another reason it lasted for so little time was that it provided no mechanism for removing a bad emperor, a mechanism readily available to democracies, but more difficult for authoritarian states. Allowing the party's factions to compete in public might look like a route away from stability, but could in fact become a source of renewal for the party.

From my standpoint as a liberal, it would not be an ideal solution, but I'm trying to see a path forward for China that will allow it long-term stability without a Tunisia-style crackup, and I don't see a Western-style democratic state in its future. Marxist crisis theory says that the capitalist state will die because the contradictions within capitalism will require increasing repression to keep things together as the contradictions worsen. So far, that theory seems to apply better to the old Soviet Union than to any capitalist state. If China is to find a way forward that does not lead to the fate of the Soviet Union, its leaders must explore options that the Soviet leaders failed to examine.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Scenes through a screen window

I'll be leaving the city soon, closing the store and moving to Vashon Island, where the office for my on-line store will have a view across Quartermaster Harbor. Here's something I wrote a few years back about living in the city, where my apartment has a view of an alley.

Scenes through a screen window

by John MacBeath Watkins
copyright 2005

on my own
in a solitary home
while sirens scream
in emergency streets
and the madmen yell
and bang their heads on
dumpsters of redemption
and try to claim through pain
the clarity of sanity
sacrificed to methedrine
and the desperate gods
of the alleys where the drunken sods
urinate in public never caring
about tourists who are staring
at the rude stream against the wall
while crows watch over their garbage
and comment with a protective caw.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

meowing overhead

by Jamie Lutton.

I have always encountered other animals on my walks to and from work. Mostly dogs. I like dogs; never owned one as an adult. Never had the time. But I like to pet dogs, and like all dogs. Big rottweilers and little chiawawas all. I have favorites; there is a Australian Shepard called Sheila who used to mob me every time I saw her, usually late at night when her owner was walking her.

When I started to carry dog biscuits, the dogs knew. The tolerance they had for my petting them changed to an eager sniffing as they caught the scent of my biscuits. With the owner's permission, I usually gave biscuits out to the dogs. So, my trips to work and home I usually encounter a dog or two, and gave out largess.

There is one dog who does not know me well, the husky who lives above my shop. I see him nearly every day, as he sticks his head out the second story window to watch passers by.  He is as much a fixture of the street as my cat neon sign, which is right by that window. Tourists and locals who snap camera photos of him usually get in the cat neon sign. He hangs his head and his front paws out the window, and makes stink eye at other dogs, as well as just observing the passing scene.  He enjoys watching my crows, but they do not seem to upset him much.

Today, walking to work, feeding a few crows, taking my time as it was a Sunday, I heard a chattering meow.  I looked around, then overhead. There was a cat looking out of the second story window, at my crows getting snacks. The cat, a charming black and white, was making chattering, hungry meowing sounds. I hurried by, so I would not tempt the cat to make a jump.  I trusted the husky not to jump, no matter how tempted he was, but not this cat.

Before I fed crows, perhaps most of my adult life, I walked around in a fog. I woke up when I was at work, handling books, looking at books. But the natural world was a fog to me. I was looking at a crow the other day, perched in a tree near the pet food shop. I suddenly looked up, and up, at the tree. It was some sort of survivor from the days before humans took over this part of the world, and called it Capitol Hill. It was a huge tree, a pine tree of some kind. Hundreds of feet tall. My looking for crows, looking up, as I never did before, made me really see this  tree for the first time. And I had been walking by this tree for over 20 years.   I started to notice other beautiful trees in the neigborhood.

There are three cherry trees in bloom, behind the construction site. They have pink ribbons tied to them. Will they die, be cut down? All the houses behind them are doomed.  I stood beneath them, the cherry blooms all above my head, I mourned for these trees. They were mature; at least 50 years old. Will they die soon, be cut down soon?

The death of flowering trees is a travesty. And yet, I had walked by them or near them for 20 years, and barely noticed them; until their last year on earth.

It is the crows that got me to look up, and out. Instead of looking at the ground, or out vacantly into space, I am looking at the trees more, and the flowering bushes, and the spring flowers.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hatfields and the McCoys

by Jamie Lutton

This morning, I was leaving for work, and I heard a crow call, but could not see it. I was still on my lanai, and I looked right, left and up.

I crossed the street so that I could look up and scan the trees. I didn't see anything at first, until one crow made an appearance. It cawed and cawed; from a high branch, but did not come down lower. A second crow joined him in the spring foliage. They both hopped from tree to tree, cawing at me overhead, sort of frantically. One landed at my feet, not too close. It was a mature crow; fat and bold.  I put down a small handful of peanuts, and a few  dog treats. He landed by the treats, and cawed very loudly. Then, the whole family showed up; another fat crow and a skinny yearling. Must be the whole family.  I walked away, and then another crow landed near me,  about 100 feet away from the other crows. I looked back, to make sure it was not one of those three. No, it was a different crow.  His family showed up, and identical paring of another fat adult crow and a yearling.

When I put an identical pile of treats down, I got to see that, yes, I was right, there was a North and a South family.  They also saw each other, and cawed at each other while they ate.  One of the South nest few away as I walked away, to escort me up the street, uphill, overhead,and get a few more treats.

So, it is one crow  from the North family that flies up to my apartment, and a different crow, one from the North family that walks me up the street.   I am positive, now.

Nice to know I have so many crow friends - and so close to home.

My mother, who was Southern, would have called that friendship "cupboard love". That is what she called my dog begging in the  kitchen for scraps, decades ago.