Tuesday, January 29, 2008

So Cal Winter Wonderland

One of my main qualms with life on the east coast was winter. The outdoors become an inaccessible wasteland for six months each year. This is especially in my home state of Virginia, where the snow is not consistent enough to allow for perpetual skiing and snowball fights. Every January I found myself swimming the greyness of freezing rain and ice storms, fantasizing of greenery. March did not always bring spring. Throughout March and April I would drive along Skyline Drive looking for the arrival of leaves and the odd bear freshly out of hibernation. But they were holding out until May.

Winter in Los Angeles is having your cake and eating it too. The temperatures dip into the 40s at night, rarely dropping below 60 during the day. Rains fall to clean smog from the air and provide enough moisture to ensure against a fire season that would make the PCH a wilderness road.

If temperate winter is not your thing, there are three sets of high mountain ranges ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours away. 10,000 foot behomeths covered in snow stand guard over LA, allowing the Mediterranean loving Angelenos the comfort of viewing winter within the comfort of their own climate.

My good friend Nirbhao and I drove out to the LA/Ventura county line two Saturdays ago for a hike along the highest point in the Santa Monica mountains, at 3,111 feet. We were in the midst of a series of storms dropping heavy precipitation on the region. The desert brown of the past few drought years had given way to grass stubble. We hiked along through chaparral thickets and sandstone canyons.

Two drastically different views flanked each side of the ridge. To the east stood a set of snow bound mountains. 11,000 foot San Jacinto stood as a sentinel 100 miles east. The nearer San Gabriels were completely blanketed down to 4,000 feet. Another thousand feet would have brought snow to the mountains that wind through LA.

To the west lay the Pacific, with Catalina and the Channel Islands erupting from the sea.

With winter a short drive away, I am quite content in the land of daytime temperatures always above 55 F, even in the January. Gone are the days of hibernation.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Perpetual Connection to the Universal Flow

There's not one man who gets up in the morning and feels "God, I am trust with you." Yes, you can say "thank you, God." You can say "bless me, God." You can say, "I pray to you Lord God, help me." But none of you have the guts in the morning to say "I am your God, you are mine, let us have this day together." - Yogi Bhajan

Thursday, January 10, 2008

An Industrial Agricultural Disaster

Hillary pulled an upset in New Hampshire, with a suspiciously large gap between polling and votes...

The food we eat is driven by lobbyists rather than nutrition. This is the idea that underlies the first part of Michael Pollan's brilliant work "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals." The first section discusses corn and how it has lodged itself as the primary ingredient in our food, to the detriment of our health, environment and economy.

With the advent of artificial fertilizers and other technologies in the mid-twentieth century, the yields of corn went through the roof. Acres that in the past yielded 20 bushels now approach 200 bushels. With this amazing productivity, farmers began growing primarily corn. Cattle were moved to feedlots, since it was cheaper to feed them corn as opposed to naturally grazing on grass.

With the tremendous glut of corn, prices naturally dropped. Farm lobbyists convinced the government to cover losses. In October 2005 the price of a bushel fell to $1.45. The government maintains a target price of $1.87 (though it often costs more to produce a bushel than the target price). 42 cents is paid for each bushel grown. The taxpayer spends nearly $5 billion a year covering the gap. Farmers still grow broke even with subsidies.

The world appetite for corn is nowhere near the amount produced. Farmers needed to find ways to utilize this corn. 60% goes to feeding cattle, animals whose digestive tracts contain an organ called the rumen designed to process grass. The corn is often mixed with cattle blood and fat, chicken meal, pork meal, fish meal, or chicken feces. When there is too much starch and too little roughage, the system becomes highly acidic which in turn damages the entire body. Low ball estimates indicate that 15 - 30 % of slaughtered feedlot cattle have abcessed livers.

To deal with this and the inevitable infections resulting from living in crowded conditions while standing on their own feces, farmers fill their cows with antibiotics to keep them healthy enough for human consumption. Antibiotics are given to all cattle, not just sick ones. This massive dosage is leading to many common ailments becoming resistant to antibiotics.

The corn not fed to cattle is converted into high fructose corn syrup, a substance unknown to the human body before the 1980's but now constitutes a massive part of the diet. The average American eats 66 pounds of it a year, in addition to the nearly 100 pounds of other sugars. Many processed foods are clever repackaging projects to get the consumer to eat more corn products. Hamburgers, french fries, sodas, breakfast cereals, etc... are full of corn products.

Much of the cheap corn is exported. Mayans in Mexico and Guatemala believe that God made them from corn. Growing corn in small patches plays a central role in their culture. Now they cannot compete with rock bottom prices of imported US corn.

The empire of corn is highly reliant on oil. Among other things the black gold is needed to make the pesticides, drive tractors and transport the corn. Each acre needs 50 gallons of oil. A feedlot cow needs 35 gallons before it winds up on a dinner table.

And all this information came from the first section of the book. It is a startling read, illuminating how our supposed agricultural progress is in fact destructive on many fronts.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Aquarian Politician?

Barak Obama's decisive win in last week's Iowa Caucus has discredited the notion that Hillary could stroll into the Democratic nomination with little real competition. Barak polled nine points ahead of John Edwards, and ten points above the third place Hillary Clinton.

The success of a black man in a rural, overwhelmingly white state suggests that the American people may be more desirous of real change than otherwise thought.

Obama's message relies largely on a rhetorical shift away from fear mongering. Bickering is the favored form of communication in Washington, with defensive posturing against a menacing world the chief foreign policy. In her 15 years in DC, Clinton has come to embody the Washington establishment in her initial support for the Iraq war, and her bellicose words on the Iranian threat. She has so established herself in this way that in showing a drop of humanity in her suggestion that the issue of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants in New York is complex, she was maligned for breaking from rank. In these ways she represents the "Bush lite" wing of the party.

Bill Clinton rose as the underdog in opposition to the stagnant Washington elite whose Cold War mentality was ill equipped to deal with the new world. 15 years later, his wife stands as the bulwark of the old guard . "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow," the theme song to her husband's 1992 campaign, could be adopted by her chief rival.

In the face of a status quo candidate, the people of Iowa threw their support to a candidate who thinks about issues and who speaks to people's hearts. His vocal inflections increasingly resemble those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the drawbacks to Obama is his relative lack of experience, particularly executive. But we have had plenty of presidents with loads of experience who grossly mishandle their positions. I am of the belief that Washington changes people for the worse, and the less DC experience one has the less prone they are into falling into the Washington mold.

Barak is a populist who is riding a tone of hope in the face of beltway cynicism. Despite his relative lack of executive experience, his message is enough to encourage this cynical Capital Hill born Aquarian foot soldier.