Only in American English is “socialism” a four-letter word

You’d think we were back in the middle of the Cold War, what with all of the talk of “socialism” from the McCain-Palin campaign lately. Aside from the fact that, absent the bad word itself, if you described to the average American the major tenets of socialism, you’d probably encounter little resistance, and mostly outright acceptance.

Beyond the false pejorative, you have the greater problem that, well, Barack Obama’s ideas just simply aren’t socialist, at least not any more socialist than the way things already were in this country before George W. Bush took office.

Hendrik Hertzberg has (yet again) an outstanding commentary in this week’s New Yorker, discussing the matter. Some relevant highlights:

“At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives,” McCain said the other day—thereby suggesting that the dystopia he abhors is not some North Korean-style totalitarian ant heap but, rather, the gentle social democracies across the Atlantic, where, in return for higher taxes and without any diminution of civil liberty, people buy themselves excellent public education, anxiety-free health care, and decent public transportation.

No, please! Don’t improve the schools, treat health care as a right, and make it easy for people to get around! Actually, it would seem a significant number of Republicans, of all economic classes, do seem to think this way, to which I simply have no retort. You can’t reason with the fundamentally unreasonable.

He continues, and here it’s worth repeating the entire paragraph:

The Republican argument of the moment seems to be that the difference between capitalism and socialism corresponds to the difference between a top marginal income-tax rate of 35 per cent and a top marginal income-tax rate of 39.6 per cent. The latter is what it would be under Obama’s proposal, what it was under President Clinton, and, for that matter, what it will be after 2010 if President Bush’s tax cuts expire on schedule. Obama would use some of the added revenue to give a break to pretty much everybody who nets less than a quarter of a million dollars a year. The total tax burden on the private economy would be somewhat lighter than it is now—a bit of elementary Keynesianism that renders doubly untrue the Republican claim that Obama “will raise your taxes.”

Right. Under Obama, our tax burden will soar to the unheard of rate of… well, slightly less than what they were 8 years ago.

And now, the best part. For those of you who don’t know, Alaska’s oil resources are collectively (yes, collectively) owned by the state, and oil companies are taxed for their use of the oil-rich land. Those taxes not only fund all state government activities, but provide enough of a surplus that each citizen of the state (including children) receives an annual check in the thousands of dollars. Did somebody say “redistribution of wealth”? No, no, of course not.

A few weeks before she was nominated for Vice-President, [Sarah Palin] told a visiting journalist—Philip Gourevitch, of this magazine—that “we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.”

Who’s the socialist again? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Special thanks to JW for tipping me off to this article via Facebook. I would have seen it eventually anyway, of course… when my print copy arrives a week after everyone else’s, as usual.

Impotent campaigning

About two weeks ago, someone decided SLP needed to be convinced to vote for John McCain, or so it would seem. She got a number of “robo-calls” and, over a period of three days, three different McCain (or, really, anti-Obama) mailers.

At first we were both rather frustrated and annoyed by this. Who did we know who had, as a prank, signed her up on the McCain mailing list? I myself had gotten a few emails from the McCain campaign a few weeks prior, but I had removed myself from their mailing list and hadn’t heard from them again.

But today, reading a Huffington Post article about McCain’s tactics in Wisconsin, I came to a new realization. The article features some quotes from a Sun Prairie woman who, like SLP, is beyond extremely unlikely to be swayed to the McCain side. It suddenly became clear: the McCain campaign is not well-organized; it cannot differentiate between potential supporters and complete wastes of time. As a result, the campaign is squandering its resources in a futile attempt to persuade the unpersuadable.

Obama FTW!

Please, somebody, just tell me how to turn it off!

Yes, I drank Steve Jobs’ Kool-Aid a long time ago. I lined up at 4:30 on Friday outside an Apple Store to wait for 90 minutes for my copy of Mac OS X Leopard. I had read lots about it before it was released, so I knew what was coming. And yet, as much as I like most of the new features (especially the new Finder), and can put up with the things I like less (such as the cluttered-looking new Dock), I simply cannot stand the translucent menu bar.

Since I installed it yesterday, 90% of my computer time has been spent online trying to find out what I can do — whatever it takes — to just get back to a normal-looking, opaque menu bar. Why, oh why, Steve Jobs, can you not cede one tiny millimeter of interface control to the user? (OK, maybe I’m just bitter because I’ve spent the last week in the nirvana of user customization that is Ubuntu Linux.)

Judging by a Google search, it looks like I’m not alone in my frustration. But so far the only fixes I’ve seen are a hack app that only worked with the beta, and the somewhat obvious but equally lame option of incorporating a proper menu background as a band at the top of all of your desktop pictures.

Unfortunately, it looks like I won’t even be able to take the “somewhat obvious but equally lame” route, as it appears that Photoshop 7 (yes, it’s pitifully out-of-date, but it’s the version I own) doesn’t work in Leopard. D’oh!

Some more searching revealed a plausible, inexpensive alternative called Pixelmator. Of course, I am always dubious when someone posting on a forum or a blog comment says “this $59 shareware program can do everything Photoshop can do.” Um, yeah. Right. For less than 1/10 the price it was worth at least investigating though, so I downloaded the demo. It’s definitely a nice program, but it looks like the one thing I need most in Photoshop for the work I do, its layer effects, are completely missing from Pixelmator.

Update: Finally an elegant (if still fundamentally hackish) solution has presented itself, in the form of a little app called Opaque Menu Bar!

A Virtual Tour of the Salton Sea

I’ve always been fascinated with maps, and with studying all of the intricate details of various random places on the planet. Perhaps the one place that has provided me with more morbid fascination than any other, though, is the Salton Sea.

Most people who know me well have already been regaled with tales of the bizarre origins and even more bizarre current state of the nation’s largest cesspool. I’ll leave it to you and Google to learn more on your own. I do hope someday to get around to scanning the photos an old California acquaintance took for me there, though: countless dead fish washed up on a foul beach; the rusted-out shell of a half-submerged bus; and more scenes too depressing and/or disturbing for words.

But back on the topic of Google, one of the great wonders of “Web 2.0” (the quotes aren’t part of the name, but they should be) is Google Maps, particularly the satellite image feature. While I find it somewhat disturbing that Google makes available to any lunatic with Internet access a fairly detailed aerial photograph of my house, I love being able to use it to vicariously explore areas that would either be too expensive or impractical to visit for real.

Sadly, it’s too late for vicarious exploration of the Salton Sea, at least parts of it. My curiosity got the best of me (and SLP), and I actually dragged her along on a day-long trek to that God-forsaken hell hole back when we lived in Southern California in the late 1990s. But we only explored the eastern shore, specifically the Salton Sea State “Recreational” Area (quotes mine) and the “lovely” village (quotes no one’s) of Bombay Beach. The bitter remnants of foolhardy land developers’ shattered dreams in the western shore towns of Desert Shores and Salton City are far superior in their desolation. (That said, there was still a moment in Bombay Beach, while driving along the nearly abandoned waterfront, where I was on the verge of a panic attack after being overcome with dread and foreboding.)

Here’s good place (Fig. 1) to start our virtual aerial tour of Desert Shores. Both Desert Shores and Salton City present some indication of the scope of those aforementioned shattered dreams in the form of pointless grids of unused dirt roads stretching a considerable distance inland from the shore.

Figure 1
Figure 1.

But the waterfront is still the most fascinating — and terrifying — place for me. Note the artificial peninsulas jutting into the water, perfectly designed for primo waterfront property with boat access. Oh but wait, most of the peninsulas are completely featureless, save for the discolorations left behind by the mobile homes (Fig. 2) that, at some time in the distant past, had once been there. (Mobile home footprints are pretty easy to figure out… but I have no idea what the hell happened here [Fig. 3].)

Figure 2
Figure 2.
Figure 3
Figure 3.

Of course, some hardy souls won’t be dissuaded so easily by the fear of others, the lack of any semblance of a viable local economy, or the putrid stench of decay that blankets the area. Here we see a (relatively) thriving street (Fig. 4) with three lavish compounds, one with a swimming pool (why?) and another with a tennis court.

Figure 4
Figure 4.

And what can I even say about this image (Fig. 5)? Here, at the end of the most miserable stretch of waterfront property in the known universe, it appears someone has parked their car for some nefarious purpose. My theory is that it was a suicide, perhaps decades ago, and I may be the first person since the event to notice that the car is even there.

Figure 5
Figure 5.

See how depressing this place is? I’m 2000 miles away and it’s making me lose the will to live.

Moving on… on a lighter note, I believe I’ve found the thriving commercial hub of Desert Shores (Fig. 6). (The Sea and Sun Motel is likely nearby.) Just off the four-lane (I know, I can’t believe it either) highway that skirts the western edge of the town, I see several cars and a few semi trucks. And a large building with two large, empty parking lots. But there’s a lot of activity across the street to the south! Oh wait, I think that’s a junkyard.

Figure 6
Figure 6.

There is one segment of the tourist market that is drawn to the area: the kind of people for whom this sort of landscape (Fig. 7) inspires excitement. Much of the desert wasteland of inland Southern California — south of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree, north of the heavily irrigated Imperial Valley agricultural area (an artificially lush area whose early and ongoing development were largely responsible for both the initial and accidental creation of the Salton Sea and for its perpetually increasing putrescence), and east of any place a rational person would ever care to venture — is designated for recreational use of the kinds of loud, heavily polluting, generally obnoxious all-terrain vehicles that are rightly banned throughout the vast majority of civilization.

Figure 7
Figure 7.

So, let us conclude today’s lesson geography lesson on this positive note: for every crazy place on Earth, there’s some crazy person who will like being there.

For instance (you knew I couldn’t just leave it at that): Moving a hundred miles or so to the northwest, here we have a look at an interesting stretch of the Cajon Pass (Fig. 8). You’ll notice four distinct bands of pavement here. The two on the right — four lanes in each direction — are Interstate 15, the main route connecting the greater Los Angeles metro area to the High Desert cities and on to Las Vegas. The two on the left are “Historic Route 66,” now San Bernardino County Road 66.

Figure 8
Figure 8.

But wait, look closely! Back before I-15 was there, Route 66 was a divided 4-lane, but now that’s clearly superfluous, and San Bernardino County has decommissioned half of the road and turned it back into a 2-lane. I once drove this stretch on a return trip from Las Vegas to Los Angeles where I decided (insanely, as it turned out — almost worthy of a resident of Desert Shores) to eschew the Interstates and see if it was still possible to make the trip entirely on alternate routes. My idea was that I’d follow Historic Route 66 as much as possible, but I discovered somewhere in the vast stretches of desert east of Barstow that while the road technically still existed, it was no longer maintained. I also discovered just how much damage scorching desert sun can do to pavement in a couple of decades. So before long I was back on I-40, but as soon as 66 was passable again, I exited the Interstate. So here it was in the Cajon Pass that I discovered the curiosity that is the decommissioned half of Route 66. The pavement is still in relatively good condition, albeit overgrown with weeds. The maintained 2-lane is excellent and a joy to drive compared to the exercise in anxiety that I-15 poses (with speeds averaging 85 to 90 MPH in the slow lane, and perpetually heavy traffic). But the decommissioned half is far more interesting. There are many median crossings, and although the road is no longer open to traffic, the county makes no effort to keep people off of it. I noticed a surprising number of sad looking old men sitting alone in their parked cars in shady spots, staring up at the trees… the mountain… the sky… the drifting memory of an idealized past, gone forever.

A note on the images contained on this page: These are screen captures from Google Maps. I realize these are copyrighted, and I am making no attempt to pawn them off as my own. The only reason I’m including them instead of just linking to Google Maps (which I am also doing) is because as I learned when I sent one of the links to a friend, the image on Google Maps is cropped to the size of your browser window, so despite the coordinates I’ve set, what you see may not be exactly what I was intending for you to see. So, in other words, yes, I copied these images from Google Maps, but it’s their own fault. And they should also remember that the only money I make off this site, pitiful as it is, comes from their own ad service, so they’re making money here anyway… surely more than I am.

A note on the Salton Sea itself: I’ve just learned that there’s a documentary out now called Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer and narrated by John Waters. I have not seen it but it looks interesting, and is probably more enlightening on the nature of the place than spending an hour looking at satellite photos. I just hope it includes a visit to the site of Figure 3. (The link to the trailer on the official site doesn’t seem to work, but I found it on YouTube.)

Addendum (October 30, 2006): While there is (obviously) plenty to talk about just within the Desert Shores area, I would be remiss if I neglected to give more than passing mention to the saddest and most incredible area of the land surrounding the Salton Sea, that being Salton City itself, an extensively planned yet sparsely developed area (have a look — zoom out and pan around to see just how expansive it really is… or would have been) that one could envision having developed into a metropolis to rival a reeking version of Palm Springs.