Archive for May 2011

Memorial Day

Today is the day we are suppose to spend celebrating the lives of those who died defending our country.  I have to warn you that I am not in a reverent mood as I said goodbye to one of my best friends on Friday and then woke up Sunday to find that my nephew had suddenly passed away.  Death steals from us those we hold dear and I rail against it.  But it does make life so very precious and it gives new meaning to living each day to the fullest.

So with that in mind, I have some irreverent thoughts about some of the images I am seeing today and the words we are saying that have no meaning.  First of course is the crass political use of the day.  Sarah Palin is riding on the back of motorcycle to use the celebration to promote her face and increase her earning power.  This is not a partisan thing, they all do it.  Think about how we glorify war so we can sacrifice more men and women to the alter of battle.  But in more mundane ways we see the veterans wearing their vests with the buttons and medals, and this is their day to be somebody.  Was the the high point of their lives?  Was there something special about the war experience that makes you a man/women?  Is this some sort of right of passage?  If so, why do so many commit suicide or spend their lives with PTSD?

Then there is the, “He/She died defending liberty and freedom”.  Really?  Did the 58,000+ names that are on the Vietnam War Memorial defend liberty or did they die in another frivolous military adventure?  Remember we lost that one.  But we did get all those WMD out of Iraq, right?  Anybody really think fighting in a civil war in Afghanistan is making the world safe for Democracy?  If they did, wouldn’t they be willing to sacrifice more instead of paying for it by borrowing money and putting the whole load on a voluntary military that keeps getting recycled into the war zone?

I am not trying to lessen the sacrifice made by those who take up arms when their country asks them.  They paid the ultimate price for their love of country and sense of duty.  But I am trying to point out that to ask our citizens to make this sacrifice, we should set the bar very high.  Instead what I see is a society that uses war and the glorification of war for many less noble purposes, including political and personal aggrandizement, war profiting (one of the largest industry in the country), and ideological/religious agendas.  We say they are defending liberty when the reality is the war itself is trampling on it.   In honor of those who have paid the ultimate price, we should question those who seem to wallow in it.  It is a day for reflection, not celebration.  War takes a horrific toll on our claim to be human and civilized.

I was asked once to speak to a group of high school youngsters about my experience in the Vietnam War.  I wanted them to understand what society is really asking of them and the questions they should be asking before they embark down war’s dark road, instead of some right of passage to true wisdom and meaning in the world.  So I asked how many had been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and looked at those 58,000 plus names carved into cold granite who would not ever again feel the sun on their face, smell the ocean, or hold their love ones close to them.

Then I said, “Turn left and look down the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial, where President Lincoln fought a war that on one weekend in Gettysburg  killed as many as were on that wall before you.  One war and the sacrifice was to keep the nation whole, and the other was for what?  We need to ask these hard questions and look deeply into motives before we sacrifice what is most dear to us.  It is not about what movies and TV tells us it’s about.”

This day should not be about glorifying war, but looking into the depths of our souls to make sure that when we ask for this sacrifice, it is truly worth it  All their lives are so very precious and what I see around me today is a very cavalier and hypocritical attitude when we ask for this sacrifice .  Or said another way, not everyone in a uniform is a hero and maybe we should be asking ourselves how these attitudes facilitates war instead of respecting those who fight them and die for us by asking if what we are asking of them  is really defending liberty.

Vine/Wine Friday (Saturday)

It is Saturday again and it has been an average of 10-15 degrees blow normal and nothing is happening in the vineyard.  The growth is so slow as to be unmeasurable.  We are at least a month behind normal development.  Yesterday was Mike’s funeral and so just to keep a short story shorter, I would like to carry on Mike’s tradition and pass  on to the rest of you who read this blog his wonderful toast which became so much more poignant  during his fight with cancer:   Good weather, bad weather, good crop, bad crop, I must remember to cherish the moment,  my friends, and that


Thank you for that Mike.  A good friend will be missed.

Who Said It Best Today: Timothy Egan

Republicans are quite a bunch.  But as Jim Croce once sang, you can’t spit into the wind, and in the Republican’s case, you can’t reinvent reality to suit you.  Nature is just a bitch as one of my engineering professors use to say after putting up an elegant formula and then announcing that things in the real world are just not that neat.  Timothy Egan called out the Republicans and their ideological driven belief system today in his commentary, Twister’s Tale:

Earlier this year, Republicans in a congressional panel declared, by a majority vote, that climate change caused by humans does not exist. The majority of the House then voted to get rid of federal funding for the world’s finest scientists in the field to study the changing earth, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Blink, blink, just like that — our representatives wished away the future.

The twisters, floods and fires of this year have another say, and remind us that some political gestures are no more relevant than a lone pair of lips flapping in the wind. Of course, among atmospheric scientists there is ambiguity, at best, about whether global warming has anything to do with the worst tornado season in modern times.

But the consensus of fair-minded research — ignored by those who assume to know better in the Republican Congress — is that an earth warmed by an excess of man-caused carbon emissions will cause more weather extremes. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air — that’s an axiom that a congressman with a set of talking points paid for by Exxon cannot wish away. Torrential flooding in all parts of the world could easily be part of a new phase brought on by just a few upticks in ocean temperatures. The forecast is simple: You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

They were just a wonderful group to put in power.  What the hell was the nation thinking?

Vine/Wine will be tomorrow.

Democrats and Medicare

You really have to wonder about politicians.  Reminds me of the commercial about the dog food with bacon in it, with the dog totally focused on the dog dish thinking “bacon, bacon, bacon, bacon, bacon….”.  Well today’s equivalent is Democrats on Medicare.  “Medicare is off the table, Medicare is off the table….” (the Republican equivalent is “tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts…”).  Except that is not the answer and it will not sustain them.  The counter to this that will worry the Republicans who voted blue in New York’s 26th district, is that at present levels of funding, Medicare will go in the red in 13 years.  So the real message is people want their Medicare, and you have to find a way to sustain it instead of just saying it is off the table.

If you are going to keep Medicare there are really two issues, how to fund the growing costs, and how to control the growing costs so they are fundable.  Up to now the Republican answer (Ryan plan) is to offload it to the states and seniors, basically cut benefits.  The Democrats seem to also want to cut benefits or look at a way to decrease eligibility (Note Bill Clinton’s (he also wanted to cut Social Security benefits) warning to Democrats and wanting to talk with Ryan (Clinton Warning to Democrats)).  Well I will give you two interesting thoughts (from others) to think about.

The first is from Dean Baker (Beat the Press), co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research pointing out that the growth in Medicare costs per year (as a percent of GDP) is roughly 1/5 the growth of Military spending which we have been happily funding:

The Medicare Trustees put the projected shortfall at 0.79 percent of payroll, which is approximately 0.27 percent of GDP over the program’s 75-year planning horizon. By comparison, the increase in annual spending on the military between 2000 and 2011 was more than 1.6 percentage points of GDP. This increase in spending did not cause serious harm to the economy, therefore increased spending of one-fifth this size will presumably not be a major problem.”

So the first thing to consider is could we afford it and would it bankrupt us if we did nothing and the above says we could.  The second consideration is how do we reduce the costs of Medicare down to what other countries pay.  To me this is solved by two approaches.  First, as describe in the Op-Ed piece in the NYT’s, Squandering Medicare’s Money, we spend a ton of money on procedures that are ineffective and when spending tax payers money, we should end it.  That would require a task force that would recommend and rate effectiveness of treatments, but as the author, Rita F. Redberg, points out:

“Changing the system would be relatively easy administratively, but would require a firm commitment to determining whether tests and procedures truly benefit patients before performing them. Unfortunately, in a political environment in which doctors providing end-of-life counseling are called death panels, and in which powerful constituencies seek to preserve an ever-increasing array of procedures and device sales, this solution remains hidden in plain view.”

The answer to this problem is to change the way we pay for Medicare.  Instead of fee for service reimbursement incentivizing more and more services, the government should negotiate a yearly fee with health care providers (Kaiser Permanente comes to mind) and let them innovate ways to provide provide health care within that budget.  In other words, then let the market place hold down costs.  You know there will be a a rising tide of protests on this one because many small private providers can’t compete with the big boys like Kaiser.  Think about it this way, should only the rich have cars because we can’t let livery stables and farriers go out of business?

Certainly we want to keep Medicare, but that can’t be the whole political campaign.  Politicians are going to have to come up with programs that allow us to maintain it.  If the Democrats go into the 2012 election seasons thinking they can just stand pat on the status quo, they will once again slip to the “tax and spend liberals” in the minds of the independents and Republicans who voted for them this time.  It is time to start thinking outside the box and proposing solutions that aren’t smoke and mirrors (The Ryan Budget).

Still Not Making Sense

I was listening to a reporter today reporting on the budget negotiations and he said something like this:  “Insiders report that the negotiations will cut over a trillion dollars on the budget.  But that is really only a small portion of the budget so where are the big cuts coming from?  And they are not even addressing the need for jobs.”  Um, are these two things kind of mutually exclusive?  Well not in Republican la la land where cutting will unleash the confidence fairy and business will start hiring and investing even though no one has any money to spend.

But in the real world where the rest of us live, either the government starts spending (hopefully smartly) to create jobs, or they cut, cut, cut to solve the deficit problem.  Knowing the wishy-washy Democrats, they will try to both and neither will be effective.  So we have this schizophrenic message from our media that doesn’t ever look at the underlying confusion of their narrative and then is it any wonder Americans are confused or buy into Republican free ride narrative (cut taxs and everything will be fine).

In this mix, throw in the latest Medicare vote in New York.  The message here is very simple.  In some things socialism is required.  We like it.  Medicare is a government run program and we love it.  The vote reflected what most people know:  The government does a better job of providing health care for our aging population than the private sector.  Having said that, you know what the attack is going to be.  We can’t afford it so we need to find ways to cut it.  It is just another form of the argument that the deficit is out of control and we can do nothing till we reduce the deficit.

So we want Medicare, we are afraid it will break the bank, we want to control the deficit by cutting (including Medicare which we won’t cut), and we need to start creating jobs.  Got a headache yet?  Well here is the real question:  Can we ever do anything about the deficit if we don’t start creating jobs to increase the tax base?  Well the answer is of course not.  We are focusing on the wrong problem which is actually an effect of the problem, an economy that is lack luster and tax cuts that emptied the treasury.  But the conventional wisdom in the media is the debt is everything or a schizophrenic view describe above.

But there is a voice out there beside me and other Econ 101 “A” students who are starting to raise the question about the deficit and how big a problem it really is.  That would be Sally Kohn who asks all the right questions to make you start really thinking about your assumptions about the debt problem (USA Today op-ed: “Don’t Believe the National Debt Hype”).  To quote Sally:

Critics of government often say public institutions should be run more like efficient, profit-driven businesses. In that case, it’s time to end the ideological attacks on our federal debt and let our government borrow the same way America’s best businesses do. The dividends will come back to all Americans — not just in dollars but also in better schools, better health care and retirement, new roads, safer streets and greater prosperity for all.

In the meantime, the only interest we should worry about is our national interest.”

My thought is that we need to decide which way we want to go soon.  Our schizophrenia has paralyzed us and we need to pick a path and get on with it.  For my money there is only one path that will work, and that is investing in our future.

Random Thoughts

Netanyahu is in Washington saying nothing new and politicians are fawning over him for the Jewish vote.  Meanwhile the leader of the Palestinians is going to the U.N. to ask to be recognized as an independent state.  Yet their posturing never changes.  I am 65 years old and all I remember is the Israeli/Palestine conflict.  Nothing ever changes.  Maybe instead of welcoming either party we should throw them both out of our country and tell them to settle it.  All the old posturing and violence is getting you nowhere and wasting countless lives and lifetimes.   See Tom Friedman’s column, Lessons from Tahrir Square.

If I were going to live in the mid-west or south, I would make sure my house had a storm cellar and if it didn’t, start digging one.  Here in California, if we had those kinds of tornadoes, wine sales would be up because we would all have an excuse to build wine cellars and then we would have to fill them. Of course we are waiting for the big one here (earthquake) and most of us don’t have earthquake insurance so I guess we shouldn’t throw stones.  See, we are all in this together.

Republicans are still looking for a good candidate.  Wrong search.  They need to look for new ideas since the old ones have failed us miserably.  Obama got elected in 2008 because he represented a new approach.  When he did not deliver, the Republicans were swept back into office with the voters demanding change.  Republicans misread this as a mandate for their failed policies instead of getting us off the dime of same old, same old.  Hence the election in New York yesterday of a Democrat in a very red district.  American’s want jobs, not ideology and the party that provides that will be the new king.

Here in California Gov. Jerry Brown is actively negotiating a budget deal with Republicans while conservative activist Grover Norquist roamed Capitol hallways urging GOP leaders to hold the line against taxes (Sacramento Bee).  No taxes has worked so well for us.  It is like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  You keep doing the same things and expecting different results.  We are gutting education and government services, but this mantra never ends.  The present embodiment of the Republican Party is a scourge on society.

Just one more little note:  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor warned disaster victims that unless cuts are enacted in the budget, you can forget relief aid (Washington Monthly).  I wonder if middle America is awake.  Republicans are always shocked, shocked, shocked when the consequences of their ideology is inflicted on them.  They had no idea…..

Who Said It Best – Paul Krugman

Best quote of the day came from Paul Krugman’s blog, Debt Arithmetic,  “As I’ve often written, we’re in a strange state now where people who actually take textbook economics and simple arithmetic seriously are seen as dangerously radical and irresponsible, while people who believe in invisible bond vigilantes and confidence fairies, who claim to know what the market will want even though there’s no sign of that desire in current asset prices, are viewed as Very Serious.

In other words we are talking nonsense about our economic future.  The stuff that really drives me crazy is the assumption that we can’t afford Medicare.  It would seem that the pundits tell us two things.  First, people don’t want to give it up so it is politically unpopular to attack it, and then second, tell you that Paul Ryan is really brave and bright to present a plan that recognizes the reality that we have to reign it in.  As Professor Krugman pointed out in his Blog (The Ryan Mistake):

“What I hope regular readers of this blog understand by now is that the Ryan plan is, in fact, a self-serving piece of junk. It doesn’t add up — in fact, it would probably make the deficit bigger not smaller. And far from representing some kind of sacrifice of political interests in the service of the greater good, it’s a right-wing wish-list on steroids: sharp tax cuts for corporations and the rich, savage cuts in aid to the poor, and a gratuitous privatization of Medicare. And again, it’s technically incompetent along the way.”

Yet the discussion is how this proposal is somehow a responsible Republican approach to our deficit and an out of control Medicare entitlement.  In fact we are mired in this discussion about how to cut our spending with absolutely no discussion of whether this will really help. The problem is quite simply a massive transfer of wealth to wealthy with no benefit to the rest of us.  I have made this argument in detail in my blog, Some Common Sense.  All of the Republican proposals have one thing in common,and that is they tell you that the problem is spending, and then maintain or enhance this transfer of wealth by further cutting.  Nothing changes except life for most of us gets more austere as the cuts fund further wealth transfer and the deficit grows.

What is not being discussed  is how to deliver Medicare more economically with the understanding that health care is basic right.  Republicans will tell you that government is the most expensive way to do this, yet the numbers belie that.  The government provides health care at about 20-30% cheaper than the private sector, and that is using our existing inefficient  system.  But I digress.  The real discussion is whether or not health care is a basic right, it is, and then how do we make sure it is available to everyone most economically.  Other countries do it and they are not going broke.  Why can’t we have this discussion?  Simple.  Republicans don’t believe that the masses deserve health care.  If you deserved it, you could afford it.  There by the grace of God does not go them.

More Failures in Logic

Tonight on the news they were reporting that in New York they were going to make smoking in public places illegal.  Then of course they interviewed smokers and they were appalled at the infringement of their rights.  Kind of like interviewing Republicans when you ask them to pay their fair share, but I digress.  One of the smokers said, “They are taking away my rights and I am not hurting anyone.”  Oh really?  What about the rights of those who choose not to smoke and have to breath your second hand smoke?  What about the rights of people who don’t want to get cancer while you enjoy your right to foul their air?  And most importantly you hurt all of us because the care and treatment required by your addiction to tobacco, driving up everyone’s insurance costs.  But no one should infringe on your rights because their yours, right?  Screw the rest of us.

Then there was the 60 Minutes story about Lance Armstrong doping and this giant investigation to get him.  Of course he doped (and took performance enhancing drugs), they all did.  That is how you were competitive because they were all doing it.  It was the same as baseball.  So who is to blame, the athletes or the system?  They were all in on it and some stupid jihad against Lance Armstrong will just waste precious resources when the real issue is to clean it up now .  But we would rather punish the guilty.  It has worked so well on the war on drugs.

Oh, and speaking of punishment, I am sure there is going to be a huge outcry when they find out that the guy who shot Congresswoman Gifford and others really is a fruit loop and can not stand trail.  I simply cannot understand how you think you get closure by revenge.  Let’s see, the next fruit loop who is having delusions will think twice for he does something like that?   Focus on trying to prevent people like that from acting out in the first place instead of lynch the sucker after the act.

Our mindlessness is boundless.

Goodbye Mike

Mike and his Wonderful Family as We will Always Remember Him

In your life you meet a few special people and Mike Ward was certainly one of the most special.  Today the troubles of the world are no longer Mike’s problem.   Cancer took him way too soon.  Chelsea, his daughter called us.  Mike had a big list of friends, and as hard as that must be for them, they wanted to personally give the news to each and every one.  That is just the Ward way.  It must be devastating for them.  I just cannot imagine a world without Mike.  I can’t imagine a Christmas eve, a summer evening having lamb and good wine on the patio, and trips to Monterrey and the Russian River Valley without him.  It just won’t be the same.  The man loved life and fought every day to hang on to it.  He did not go into the night quietly and tenaciously held on to his life to the very end.  Today his battle is over.  A few days ago, I sent Mike my goodbye. I had to tell him what he meant to me,   So here is my goodbye to Mike:

Mike, you are about to embark on a journey that the rest of us are going to follow, sooner rather than later at our ages.  I can’t think of any of my friends who I would rather have leading the way and breaking the trail.  You are an amazing person whose heart and soul, and most importantly, your kindness, never ceased to amaze me.  I get mad at the unfairness of it, but life is unfair.  What I can say about you my friend, is that you did what only the rest of us could hope for, you lived life well.  You will leave each of us better off than we were.  I will miss you, but I will not let grief overcome me because I will remember your most important message to all of us, “It is a good day to be alive.”  The world will certainly be a little emptier without you my friend, but I will never forget your message and I will cherish each day and each person in my life.  Thank you for that gift Mike.

So here is to you.  It is a good day to be alive even though today it seems a lot emptier.  God, I’ll miss you..



Vine/Wine Friday

Last Sunday Morning - Challenges of Growing Grapes at 3000'

Vine: Here is the status last Sunday morning and it snowed intermittently all day, but the temperature hovered around 34 and there was not a hard freeze that night.  Monday it rained and most of it was washed away.  Today it is suppose to 75 degrees.  So did it hurt the grapes?  Probably not.  There are two really fragile times for the plants.  The first is the initial bud break (See Vine/Wine 7 May for pictures) when very tender and fragile leaves break out of the bud.  If they freeze and they are quite susceptible to freezing, say goodbye to the bud.  Then you have to wait for a secondary bud to pop, but it will be later so your crop will be smaller and later which adds other risks like fall rain.

Monday Morning before it started to Rain again.

The other really touchy time is when the plant “flowers”.  Yes, grapes flower, but the flower is very tiny.  When it happens here I will post some pictures.  Now it is all about pollination.   Generally speaking, at this point fears of freezing up here are long gone, but heavy rain, wind, or hail could really impact how successful the pollination is and whether you will have grape clusters or whether they are shattered (puny thin clusters).  Needless to say high winds and hail can damage the plant any time by breaking or damaging shoots, but as the plant matures, the chance of that is less and less.

So did my plants get hurt?  I don’t think so.  Those that had budded out were well on their way to producing shoots and were out of the really fragile state.  The exception was my Mourvedre which was still hiding in the bud waiting for warmer weather, and they seem to be budding out fine now.  So we will see.  Once again, like last year we are at least a month behind where we normally are, but then maybe this is the new normal.  Late means some real risks in the fall as we wait for the grapes to ripen (sugar up, acids down, tannins past bitter).  The further into fall you get, the more the risk of rain and powdery mildew, or that with cool weather, they will never get there.

This morning with a true spring day yet still about 10 degrees below normal for this time of year.

As far as chores in the vineyard, they are all put on hold.  I have been walking around pulling out obnoxious weeds by hand.  The wet ground makes that fairly easy.  I still need to burn my last pile of pruning debris, and I need to start weed eating along the rows to control cover crop growth around the plants.  I may get that started this weekend.  Next up is to start pushing the shoots up through the wires and removing unwanted shoots, probably in the next couple of weeks.  The cover crop is starting to turn from green to yellow and go to seed, so then there will be the mowing, all within the next 30 days I hope.

Wine: There was an interesting article in the SF Chronicle last Sunday about Pinots in the Russian River (Russian River faces crossroads). I love a good Pinot but the point is, what is a good Pinot?  Well the point I am going to try and make is that no one should tell what you should like.  We all have our preferences and we all fall prey to some wine snobbery, but what makes the world really a wondrous place is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I do believe that as your palate matures, you look for more complexity (I will talk about that in a minute) but if it makes you happy, who is to say.  Okay, having said all that, the article was about some early releases of some Russian River Pinots.  Because of the cooler and more challenging growing season, Pinot grapes with a longer ripening season could expect to be really good.  As the article describe them, “brimming with flavor without falling back on power.” And they did find some, but most they described them as “too much oak, too much heat, too much overripe fruit.”

Now this is one of my major complaints about Syrahs from the area (Napa).  This whole discussion is about style and what some of us like.  To me a Pinot, done right, has a complexity defined by its tannins, not hidden by too oaky of a flavor from using too much new oak barrels, with a crispness that comes from grapes that are picked when they still have sufficient acid, and have not been hung too long to develop the jammy over the top flavor that disguises everything else.  By the way, the “heat” is the alcohol content because the grapes where hung to long with too high a brix (sugar) therefore, too mush alcohol in the fermented wine.   One of the reasons some wine makers make this jammier wine is because that is what Robert Parker and others kind of pushed on us from their rating system for Cabs.  It also is easier to mass market.  And if you like it why not?  But for me, the great ones start fruity, have subtle oak, lots of complexity that builds across the entire tasting experience, and finishes with a crispness that makes you want to just savior it for a few minutes.

But fear not.  As one disgruntled reader and wine lover wrote (Charles Olken): “Russian River Pinot Noir suffers not at all. It is performing exactly the way it has always has in its early releases….Many of them are simple, direct, lacking in complexity and short on the lovely, rich patina that Pinot can get once past its gawky youth. The early release wines of many vintages follow that pattern. Even in 2007, the finest Pinot Noir vintage in my memory, the early release wines were rarely possessed of grandeur.”  Then he listed some of my favorites that have not been released yet and you might want to try to get a really good feeling for what a good Pinot is:  Merry Edwards, the Siduris, the Bjornstads, the Dehlingers, Williams Selyems, Peays, Evening Lands.

So go enjoy and do not get hung up with us wine snobs.  We do know better, but we can’t help ourselves.  Carpe Diem.