Friday, December 30, 2016

Lighting Up the Darkness: Chanukah's Journey from Winter Dark to Hopeful Light

Imagine a world without light. In our modern setting we are surrounded by light. We flip a switch to repeat the miracle of “let there be light” — whenever and wherever we want it. We have to drive miles from our urban homes to experience the truly dark night sky.

But for most of human history people have lived in what the historian William Manchester described as “a world lit only by fire.”

For our ancestors who lived without modern electricity, the growing shortness of mid-winter days was of profound consequence. There is always the fear that maybe — just maybe — old Sol will continue to shrink into complete blackness. So it is not surprising that all cultures have midwinter festivals where light and dark figure as central symbols.

Christmas has the star of Bethlehem, Divali has its rows of lighted lamps, Kwanzaa its seven candles representing the seven principles. Northern Europeans celebrate St. Lucy’s Day on Dec. 12 with young St. Lucy Queens in candle-lit crowns.

The Chanukah Menorah certainly shares light and flame with these holidays, but Chanukah also brings a sense of movement and liberation to the mid-winter celebration that is unique.

Chanukah celebrates the victory in 176 BCE by an army of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, over the tyrannical king of the Selucid-Greek empire, Antiochus IV (also known as "Epimane" – "madman") who drove the Syrians out of Judea. 

Upon their victory, the Macabees returned to the temple in Jerusalem to rededicate it and relight the Menorah. They could find only one small flask of oil, enough to light the Menorah for just a single day.

But miraculously the oil did not run out and the lamps shone brightly for eight days. The following year, the festival of Chanukah was officially proclaimed as an eight-day celebration, some say symbolizing the victory over persecution. One candle of the Menorah is lit each night of the celebration.

And that is where Chanukah brings movement to the mid-winter. Chanukah begins in the dark with the lighting of one candle. By the eighth day, all eight candles burn in a domestic world daily growing brighter. And the larger world will soon grow brighter as we pass the longest night and day begins its journey to overtake night.

During the ancient Romans' winter solstice celebration, the Saturnalia, the freeman’s hat was worn by freemen and slaves alike. On the first day of the seven-day festival the bonds that tied the feet of Saturn’s statue were removed to symbolize the god’s liberation from his underworld domain. The New Year was called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – day of the unconquerable sun.

Victories over modern oppressors begin with lighting a single candle. And that goes well beyond any single tradition or religion.

Right now the world seems darker that it has for decades. Democide – a word coined by political scientist Rudolph Rummel in the 1970s – is the best descriptive of the unspeakable catastrophe that has overtaken the Middle East. Vladimir Putin has reintroduced Pan-Slavist ideology to the world. Americans may be facing an object lesson of Plato's theory of the stages of government from oligarchy to populism to ultimate tyranny.

Yet, in our lifetime we have also seen events like the fall of Berlin Wall that tell us that no tyranny is forever. Not Vladimir Putin's. Not ISIS'. Not even one that many fear Donald Trump may bring to the U.S. on January 20. 

An old gospel hymn says, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” Asking readers' pardon in advance for so freely mixing religious metaphors: As it happened more than 2,100 years ago in Jerusalem, and as the Gospel of John philosophically expressed the victory of an eternal light, "The light shines the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."

A version of this essay first appeared in the Santa Clara WEEKLY in Dec. 2004.

We all value Wikipedia as a source for background information on almost every subject. Please consider donating to the Wikipedia Foundation to keep this light shining. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

From Here to Oblivion: A Holiday Gift Guide

By Carolyn Schuk

It's that time of year again, when we come down to the holiday gift-giving wire empty-handed. As  a major-league waster of time on the Interent, I can help you answer that question. I've culled the twilight zone of cyber space to bring you the crème de la crème of gifts that will make you unforgettable – and possibly an anathema – to the recipients. 

Although many Millennials eschew wristwatches for smartphones, the right wristwatch can be a useful social asset.

Think Geek's ( Back to the Future Flux Capacitor Wristwatch tells you the time, sort of. But the real plus of this timepiece is its time travel feature and the LCD that tells you what year you've landed in. Write from the future when you find work.

Big Bang Theory fans on your list will thrill to Uncommon Good's ( equation watch. When the conversation wilts, just tell folks what time it is, and find out how many people in your intimate circle remember what the absolute value of i is. 

The gal in your life will thank you for this handy-dandy swiss-army-knife of a barrette, also sold by Think Geek. It's a wrench! It's a bottle opener! It's a screwdriver! It's a nail file! And the best part is that you don't need a pocket to keep it in. When it's not in use, just use it instead of that bobby pin to keep your hair out of your eyes. 

Novelty holiday wearables is a gift category that never fails to yield a rich crop of new offerings annually. The Oriental Trading Company ( is one of our favorite places for unique holiday items and, once again, delivers the goods.

Nothing says "Don we now our gay apparel" like OTC's Christmas tree hat, which comes complete with ornaments, tinsel and a tree – head? – top star. Plus, cover with black felt, add some green face paint, and you're all set to masquerade as the Wicked Witch of the West next Halloween.

The holidays wouldn't be complete without that adventure in ornamental excess, the holiday sweater. OTC's Chanukah sweater, shown with the ever-popular necktie t-shirt, will light up eight nights all by itself.

Honorable mention in the holiday sweater department goes to our friends at  Think Geek, whose holiday sweater suit was a hit with us last year.  This year's featured sweater looks like the kind of cozy snowflake design your granny would knit for you. But look closely. Those snowflakes are actually spiders. Knitters, make your own with's spider-cable sweater pattern.

Holiday sweaters aren't just for wearing. Bring that over-the-top meme to your holiday décor with OTC's holiday sweater ornaments. In four different eye-crossing red and green patterns, these ornaments give the extra gift of making guests think they've already had too much to drink, encouraging them to stop drinking your 12 year-old scotch and go home early.

Outdoor décor is another holiday favorite. This year let Santa know exactly where to land with this lit-up TARDIS lawn ornament from Think Geek. (That's "Time And Relative Dimension In Space" machine for those of you not versed in Dr. Who lore). With its special invisibility feature, perhaps it can effect your escape from this year's dreaded holiday conversational gambit, "Boy, this election was really something!"

And speaking of the election, one thing we all now share is a feeling that civilization as we know it is doomed. Trump voters felt like that before the election, while Clinton voters found themselves infected in the early hours of Nov. 9. Here are some gift ideas for the onset of Armageddon.

Nothing says, "I care about you" like the gift of NukePill's ( Radiacwash Family Radiation Decontamination Kit. With everything you need to decontaminate a family of four, the kit is packaged in a patented Indestructo box, designed to survive the blast.

Urban Survival's playing cards offer 52 tips on surviving the collapse of civilization These strictures offer clues to the worldview of the apocalyptically-inclined. "Keep quiet about your level of preparedness," and "Light, sound and smell can attract desperate neighbors," "Monitor/join [groups] as they're being formed to avoid being a target." "Pull this deck of cards out at your next poker night and see where the conversation goes!" says the manufacturer, which is also an NRA business partner.

There's no better way to wrap a cornucopia of apocalypse than Just Camo's ( camouflage gift wrap, which comes in four seasonal patterns as well as white (for artic maneuvers). Matching ribbon and bows available.

So don't let the radioactive rain dampen your holidays. As songster Weird Al Yankovic wrote in his cold war-era holiday satire, "I'm gonna duck and cover/ with my Yuletide lover/underneath the mistletoe."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Silicon Valley's housing crisis: Why we have it and what it costs us

Bob Dylan said you don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Likewise, you don't need a degree in political science to know that the controlling majority on the Santa Clara City Council is making a u-turn on housing development -- surrendering public policy to the anti-development faction because that's the one that yells the loudest. By micro-managing Irvine's Mission Town Center proposal into a risky venture as far as the developer was concerned, the Council all but assured that our housing crisis will get worse. Now instead of 400 new apartments -- not much compared to the dimensions of the problem, I grant, but it was something -- we have ... nothing.

And this, I've been told without sarcasm, is responsive government in action.

Our children, young educated professionals, aren't here to yell. They took jobs in Dallas, Portland or Pittsburgh where they can afford to buy a house, according to Carson Bruno at Real Clear Markets. So they don't care if Silicon Valley slowly fades into the economic sunset. They're willing to pay higher property taxes (and they do) for a decent home rather than share a $3,000/month one-bedroom apartment with four people to pay the rent.

Council Members would strenuously deny the charge of being anti-development and say they're all for the right development. The beauty of the "right development" is like J.K. Rowling's wizarding world -- it's development that's invisible to the rest of the world.

As that's an impossibility here in the reality-based world, we continue -- and will continue for the foreseeable future, I'm betting -- to enjoy the quaint charm of mid-century strip malls and used car lots on El Camino.

But I wander.

As we know, Silicon Valley has a housing crisis. And the reason is pretty simple: we haven't built enough housing. Not only that, we're make things worse by building even less housing than we did as recently as a year ago.

Joint Venture Silicon Valley's 2016 "Silicon Valley Index" reports that the number of new residential construction permits dropped more than 50 percent between 2014 and 2015 -- from 11,000 to slightly less than 6,000. The percentage of multifamily construction dropped 20 percent. In that time, Silicon Valley built only 22 percent of the needed moderate income housing but 130 percent of the high income housing target, according to the Assoc. of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).

This isn't some kind of inevitable catastrophe like a tsunami or an earthquake. It's  largely of our own making. Only one factor, limited land, has passed out of our control. The rest are in our power to change.

First, there's the California Environmental Quality Act -- an equal opportunity tool for obstructing development and a lucrative revenue source for specialist attorneys with no end of tricks up their sleeves for using CEQA to the advantage of developers, unions and NIMBYs.

In a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences, CEQA is most effective at obstructing its ostensible goal of improving environmental quality.

The most frequently challenged projects are transit-oriented, urban infill, those using renewable energy and housing, according to Elana Eden at Panetizen. Then there's local governments' preference for commercial development with its higher revenues and lower service needs. And last but not least, are vociferous self-absorbed NIMBYs who, quite simply, want to freeze time in an imagined past -- agriculture is very picturesque to those who never had to do the backbreaking work and face the financial risk.

The cost of obstructionism is our economy.

In a 2015 California Legislative Office report, the LAO laid out the causes and costs of California's stratospheric real estate prices and rents in this infographic.

There's a simple answer: build more housing. In won't be politically easy, now that the opponents of development have captured the spotlight. But what's worse: the noise from 100 complainers now or being judged 'guilty' by history for smothering the goose that laid the golden silicon eggs? 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Howling by Sarah Palin

This has been gestating a while....

Howling by Sarah Palin
(with apologies to Allen Ginsberg)

I am the worst mind of my generation, squirmishing the grammar, thawing hysterical refudiation
preening for TV cameras at primetime looking for an angry comb-over
lamestream media heads spinning for the hallelujiah going rogue left and right in the machinery of night,
you right wingin’ bitter clingin’
proud clingers of our guns we’re not going to chill, it’s time to drill, baby, drill down bloating budgets contemplating redheaded Sasquatch for Jesus
you rock ‘n rollers and holy rollers
hands that rock the cradle bared your second amendment to go kick ISIS ass
you teachers and teamsters
we are mad, and we’ve been had status quo has got to go
you cops and cooks
pro-lifers hallucinating Wasilla among the political class for ever and ever now or never
you hard-hats and the steel-toes and Joe six packs
footin’ the bill for these nations fightin’ each other yellin’ “Allah Akbar” on Jihad joyrides
you Trump and his trumpeters
stop the self sabotage bust it up self-destruct help’s on the way in submarine light of Russia
you guys sounding angry who bust up political correctness suicide vest you deserve the best send a message to the rest on the windows of their media ratings
I’m here with you in Iowa
 In my dreams I’m in it to win it stump with trump and wear the issues that need to be spoken debate on his sleeve

God bless Trump Tower and the art of the deal.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Conspiracy Con R.I.P. -

Some people are fascinated by conspiracies. I am fascinated by conspiracists. Part of that is a sociological interest in subcultures. Part of it is the charm of the bizarre and the outrageously bad. (See Joe Queenan, "The Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon").

For three years I followed the annual conspiratorial confab, Conspiracy Con, held at the Santa Clara's Marriott. It could hardly be accidental that it was here. St. Clear, the Winchester Mystery House, and the rocket-like statues at City Hall -- they all pointed to a center of mysterious cosmic gravity. The conference in 2012 was the biggest ever -- perhaps it was because the world hadn't come to an end May 12 and the faithful needed new guidance on that point.

That turned out to be the zenith, and in 2013 ConspiracyCon moved to Milpitas. Like all infatuations, mine faded.

I knew all the details of the Sept. 11 false flag operation and exactly when the clock stopped which proved that things didn't happen as we were told. I knew about the reptiloid space aliens and their Martian wars. I knew that the Bilderberger Group was planning to abolish money and embed the mark of the beast on us with mobile phone payment systems. It became yawn-making.

Or maybe it was the new locale -- there's no mystery about Milpitas.

Suddenly, in 2014 ConspiracyCon closed down. Founder and organizer Brian Hall had been "had" by fraudsters, but the details "must remain confidential." That was three years ago, but there are no updates.

In the meantime, ConspiracyCon's predecessor, UFOCON, is back is business. Scheduled for next October, it features many of the same cast members and promises a visit from the Big Kahuna of conspiracism himself, George Noory. I'll keep you posted.

Here are my ConspiracyCon posts from 2009-2011.

Conspiracy Con 9 - The Live Blog: First Contact

Conspiracy Con 9 - The Live Blog: Initial Probe 

Conspiracy Con 9 - The Live Blog: The Worshipful Master

Conspiracy Con 9 - The Live Blog: Descent into the Maelstrom

Conspiracy Con 10 - Illuminati Beware

Conspiracy Con 10 - Conspiracy Cocktails - or - Absinthe to the Ready

Conspiracy Con 2011 - The Live Blog: Think Like a Conspiracist

Conspiracy Con 2011 - The Live Blog - True Otts and Conspiracy Gaming

Conspiracy Con 2011 - The Live Blog - In Xanadu Did Kubla Khan Satanic Mass Decree

ConspiracyCon 2012: Good Morning, Good Evening Santa Clara: George Noory Hosts Annual Event in Santa Clara