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Take Five for Dave Brubeck

3:45 pm in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

Innovative Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck has died, one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

Though the melody of Take Five, arguably his most famous recording (featured above), is credited to his quartet’s saxophonist, Paul Desmond, it is Brubeck’s love of uncommon time signatures that lays the foundation for one of the most iconic musical works of the 20th Century.

But Brubeck wasn’t just a crusader for rhythm. During his service in World War II, Brubeck was spotted playing a Red Cross show and ordered to form a band. Brubeck chose a racially integrated lineup, a rarity for military acts. During the 1950s and ’60s, Brubeck is reported to have canceled appearances at venues that balked at the mixed racial makeup of his quartet.

Brubeck was also said to have been upset when he was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1954 (only the second Jazz musician so honored), believing that the selection was influenced by race.

Though he disbanded the quartet in 1967, Brubeck continued to compose and perform into his 90s. He was the recipient of numerous accolades and awards, including a Kennedy Center honor and a Grammy for lifetime achievement.

George McGovern, The First Candidate I Ever Worked For, Dead at 90

5:50 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat who ran for president in 1972 as a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and a strong advocate of economic equality, died early Sunday in Sioux Falls. He was 90.

In the fall of 1972, I was only 10, but even as a 5th-grader, I was moved by McGovern’s anti-war, pro-social-justice message. I had a “Come Home America” pin that I would wear everyday to school, and after school, I would go to the local campaign office to stuff envelopes and lick stamps.

At the crack of dawn on Election Day, I went with my father to hand out flyers to arriving workers at Litton Industries. I remember the flyers explained that you were allowed time off at the beginning or end of work to vote, and then, inside, made the pitch to working Americans with the headline “How in the Hell Can You Vote for Nixon?”

History, of course, shows that many found a way. There are a lot of books and essays on all the reasons why, and though there is much to be learned from McGovern’s struggles in ’72, this is not the time to despair over that loss, but to recall with warmth and amazement that a candidate like George McGovern was once the presidential nominee of a major national party.

The speech I have included here–McGovern’s acceptance speech at the 1972 Democratic National Convention–was considered by those that saw it as one of the greatest of the Senator’s career, and perhaps one of the greatest by any modern presidential candidate.

I say “by those that saw it” because so few did. Conventions then were not the carefully scripted infomercials they are today. Incessant wrangling by old-guard Democrats and McGovern’s main challenger for the nomination, Hubert H. Humphrey, slowed the floor vote for McGovern’s running mate and delayed this acceptance speech till the wee hours of the morning. To this day, it amazes me that convention organizers let this happen.

You may not have been awake back then–hell, you may not have even been alive–but do the Senator from South Dakota the honor listening to him today. Then imagine, maybe even dare to hope, that someday you might hear a national candidate speak like this again.

I lost my “Come Home America” button at school at some point on election day. I remember how much that upset me and my mother, but of course, by the end of the evening, there was something that upset us all so much more. Maybe George McGovern was not a great campaigner, and neither was he a wholly perfect politician (as I grew older, there were certainly issues where he and I would have had to disagree), but I cannot think of a presidential candidate who has moved me as much since.

Senator McGovern, you will be missed.

Update: My mother just sent this along:
George & Me

(A version of this post appears at capitoilette.com)

Barry Commoner, The First Guy I Ever Voted For, Dead at 95

8:45 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

I have been remiss in not writing this sooner. . . .

Dr. Barry Commoner, scientist, activist, educator and one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, died on September 30 at his home in Brooklyn. He was 95.

Commoner, raised in New York and educated as a biologist at Columbia and Harvard, spent a lifetime combining his grasp of science with his love of humanity, translating seemingly arcane concepts into basic principles that could inspire insight and action. He recognized early on the unexpected consequences of many post-World War II technological “miracles,” and was prescient in articulating connections between struggles for social justice and environmental health.

I met Dr. Commoner in 1980, when he brought his third-party campaign for US president to my university. Running as the candidate of the Citizens Party, which he helped found, Commoner didn’t command an auditorium (remember this was 1980, when Ronald Reagan sucked up most of the oxygen and Rep. John Anderson’s absurd “heart on the left, wallet on the right” rhetoric captured many young politicos’ third-party zeal). Instead, Commoner sat in what I remember as a smallish classroom, discussing the state of the world with an egalitarian equanimity. He knew he wasn’t going to win the election, but he had things he wanted to explain, and a level of participation he wanted to motivate.

(Years later, Commoner recalled his favorite moment of the campaign, when he was asked by a reporter, “Dr. Commoner, are you a serious candidate, or are you just running on the issues?”)

Even in that less-than-grand setting, it was still heady for a college freshman, for Commoner was not only a candidate on the national stage, he was a recognized activist and a public intellectual.

I was familiar with Barry Commoner before I got to college. As a national topic debater in high school, I had often encountered the neo-Malthusian arguments of Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. It was common to hear that an unpleasant consequence of a supposedly beneficial plan was a drop in mortality, and so a spike in population, causing resource shortages and environmental degradation. As a debater, I had occasion to argue both pro and con, but when it was my turn to refute Ehrlich, the evidence I pulled out of my ox box was most often from Dr. Commoner.

Commoner had himself debated Professor Ehrlich in the early 1970s, noting that the high birthrates in poor communities were a form of social security, and that, in turn, those communities were poor because others were so rich. Dr. Commoner argued that rather than blame the developing world for the coming “population bomb” and the disasters it would trigger, we should focus on the wealth and resources the developed world had taken from the underprivileged:

As Commoner argued, it is rich nations that consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. And it was their systems of colonialism and imperialism that led to the exploitation of the Third World’s natural resources for consumption in the wealthy nations, making the poor even poorer. Without the financial resources to improve their living conditions, people in developing countries relied more heavily upon increased birthrates as a form of social security than did people in wealthier nations.

As Commoner wrote, “The poor countries have high birthrates because they are extremely poor, and they are extremely poor because other countries are extremely rich.” His solution to the population problem was to increase the standard of living of the world’s poor, which would result in a voluntary reduction of fertility, as has occurred in the rich countries.

Or as it was explained elsewhere:

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RIP San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, 1968 – 2012

8:45 am in Uncategorized by Gregg Levine

San Onofre

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the twin-reactor power plant that spread its isotopic glow across coastal communities from Los Angeles to San Diego, was declared dead last week. SONGS, as it was affectionately known, was 44, though many of its parts are considerably younger.

Originally conceived as a single Westinghouse pressurized water reactor in 1964, San Onofre was officially commissioned on January 1, 1968. Two additional units were brought online in the early 1980s. The original Unit 1 was closed permanently in 1992, and stands as a radiant monument to nuclear’s 20th Century aspirations.

With its proximity to seismic fault lines and a history of accidents, security breaches and safety complaints, SONGS has long been deemed one of the most difficult siblings in its nuclear family. Units 2 and 3 have been offline since January of this year due to a leak of radioactive steam from a heat transfer tube. Subsequent inspections of the tubes–completely redesigned and replaced when SONGS got an extreme makeover in 2010 and 2011–revealed alarming rates of wear previously unseen at any similar facility. Both reactors have been considered too damaged to simply restart since the initial discovery.

Though multiple scientists, engineers, public interest groups and government agencies diagnosed San Onofre’s troubles as terminal early in the year, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, SONGS’ “guardians” held out hope (or more likely just put on a brave face for the sake of family and friends–also known as “shareholders”) that their beloved ward could be revived. A decision last month to remove the nuclear fuel from Unit 3 made it hard to maintain that façade, and news late last week that the utilities were planning for a 2013 summer without any power produced or transferred by San Onofre made it clear that even SONGS’ oldest friends understood it was time to “pull the plug,” as electrical types are wont to say.

San Onofre is survived by its California cousin, Diablo Canyon, and 100 other frail and faltering nuclear reactors nationwide. At the time of this writing, funeral arrangements have still not been made official.

* * * *

And there’s the rub. While it is the present reality and the obvious future, the final shuttering of San Onofre has not been made official. Not by its operators, and not yet even by the California Public Utilities Commission. Acknowledging the nuclear plant’s demise would trigger a review process that would result in rate reductions for Edison and SDG&E customers. Those reviews will kick in automatically in a couple of months because SONGS has failed to generate a single kilowatt of electricity from February on, but the owner-operators of the plant have fought to drag the process out to its longest legal limit, despite the widespread understanding that a restart of even one reactor is at best very far off and likely just never to be.

The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Allison Macfarlane, has asked for a letter from Edison detailing the “root causes” of the leak and tube degradation. Edison said that letter would be delivered by the end of the first week in October. That letter will not contain any kind of a plan for a restart of Unit 2 (no one is talking about restarting Unit 3), and the NRC will have to review Edison’s report for months before there is any possibility of repair work (realistically, there should be no possibility of repair to Unit 2, since its damage is comparable to the essentially condemned third unit, but this is how these things play out, and, sadly, stranger things have happened).

Meanwhile, Edison has announced it will cut San Onofre’s workforce by one-third (730 jobs), another clear signal that nothing like a restart will be happening any time in the predictable future.

With this reality universally understood and effectively acknowledged by all parties, the NRC should stop wasting resources on any plan for a restart, and start asking the tough questions about decommissioning SONGS. And it borders on corrupt that SCE and SDG&E are still charging ratepayers $54 million a month for service not rendered, with no promise that it ever will be. The California PUC should remove San Onofre from the utilities’ rate base now.

Shockingly, some on the CPUC are looking to make this scandalous situation worse. Over the life of San Onofre, utilities customers have paid into a decommissioning fund–and though the balance in that account now approaches $3 billion, it is still considered underfunded by at least 25 percent. And now, one commissioner, Tim Simon, a former securities industry attorney, is publicly advocating lifting limits on how that money could be invested, arguing that riskier bets would yield higher returns. This suggestion was voiced last week, after the decision was made to remove the fuel from Unit 3, after the NRC made it clear that a restart of Unit 2 was far from guaranteed, and, of course, over eight months after SONGS stopped generating power altogether. It also comes after the NRC announced a delay in any final decisions on relicensing until the government developed a new radioactive waste disposal scheme, a process expected to take at least two years.

Consumer advocate Matt Freedman of The Utility Reform Network (TURN) sees this idea for what it is–socialized risk, privatized return:

“It‘s a maxim of retirement planning that as you get closer to your own personal retirement, your investments get more conservative,” Freedman said, “not more risky. But in this case, Commissioner Simon is suggesting that as these units near their retirement, that we should begin to invest more of the money in very risky investments.”

Freedman said the proposal on the table appears designed to benefit investment managers who would charge higher fees for new categories of investments. He said without a lot of time to ride out market fluctuations, ratepayers could be left on the hook for any depletion of the fund caused by market drops.

Naturally, San Diego Gas & Electric finds Simon’s idea appealing, but in the same breath, the company notes such a move means higher fees–fees that could be passed on to ratepayers with CPUC approval. It appears to be another sign that the utilities are looking to cash in before San Onofre officially is forced to check out.

But in times of trouble, responsibility ultimately rests with the family (aka the shareholders) to confront the hard truths. Owners of Edison and SDG&E stock should demand that the boards of these companies stop wasting shareholders’ money and everyone’s time and get on with divesting from their dirty, dangerous, and expensive involvement with nuclear power.

A public wake–also known as a public meeting–will be held for San Onofre by the NRC on October 9 from 6 to 9:30 PM at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Hotel in Dana Point. Mourning attire optional.

Photo of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station courtesy NRC.gov