On politics, money and the death penalty

The death penalty – telecommunications money – Donald Sterling – corruption – shifting politics – even abortion access – it was all in a day’s conversation for the popular Week to Week political roundtable at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club today. But audience members, at social gatherings before and after, spoke of how the lively discussion – fueled in part by some pointed questions from the audience – indicates the widespread nature of citizen concerns in the information age.

“You can keep up with the basics of everything through social media,” said one thirty-something woman in a chic business suit, “but that makes you want events like this to dig a little deeper.” An older woman in the same small group added, “Well, I still read newspapers. And online magazines. But having a chance to hear real, live journalists discuss what they’re writing about is important.”

The program featured Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle columnist and “Token Conservative” blogger; author and former columnist Joan Ryan, Media Consultant for the San Francisco Giants; and Carla Marinucci, Senior Political Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Roundtable host is John Zipperer, Vice President of Media and Editorial for the Commonwealth Club.

Discussion of embattled, racist L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling quickly led to talk of what crimes and misadventures do or do not affect aspiring politicians. “Neel Kashkari is in fifth place behind a registered sex offender (Glenn Champ) who’s in third place,” Saunders commented; and Marinucci added that California Senate candidate Mary Hayashi denied having shoplifted $2,500 worth of goods from Neiman Marcus in 2011 despite having been convicted of the crime. All of which leaves open the question of whether people in public positions are, in fact, judged by what they do (Marinucci invited everyone to watch the video of Hayashi’s meeting with the Chronicle editorial board) or, as Saunders pointed out about the Sterling case, what they say.

On money and politics, the panelists were in agreement that telecommunication dollars killed the kill switch bill CA State Senator Mark Leno now plans to reintroduce. The bill would mandate software on smartphones that would enable owners to lock their devices remotely once they are lost or stolen. With smartphone theft rampant and law enforcement strongly backing the bill it might seem a win-win… except that, as Marinucci pointed out, replacement of phones and tablets is a $30 billion business for the wireless industry and no small business for replacement insurance companies.

There was less agreement on the death penalty, and the recent botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett, convicted of a horrendous crime in 1999. Saunders, who favors keeping the death penalty in California, suggested that some of the talk about individual cases and issues is not unlike abortion opponents using legal means to achieve extra-legal ends, as in passing state laws which effectively deny constitutional abortion rights. The panel did not take on that issue.

But Ryan, who strongly opposes the death penalty, stood her ground. She pointed out that the problem with securing proper drugs is that countries which could supply them have long since abandoned the death penalty and are incredulous that we still have it. “Do I mourn him (Lockett)? Not at all. But we have the ability to lock him up forever. I am against the death penalty because we are diminished by it.”

Zipperer wound up the event with the traditional Week to Week news quiz on current events ranging from local to international. In this audience, nobody answered wrong.

Cellphones, antennas, towers… radiation happens

cellphone antenna pole in Wimsheim, Germany
Image via Wikipedia

Radiation from the A-bomb test witnessed by my then-Marine husband in the early 1950s was registered on a small badge worn around his neck. They double-timed from foxholes toward the site of the blast. As far as we and the U.S. government know, all of those guys went on to lead long and healthy lives — and we went on to deadlier bombs anyway. We do now know a little more about those sorts of radiation damage.

We don’t know much about the tiny emissions from cellphones, iPhones, cellular antennas, texters, Skypers, whatever. The suggestion that any of those cyber-issues could possibly cause harm draws scoffs and derision and denials, but the truth is we simply don’t know. Some folks would still like to find out; maybe even find out before harm is done rather than after. An ongoing mini-battle in San Francisco is typical of such citizen struggles everywhere:

The increasing popularity of smart phones is pitting companies looking to expand their coverage against city residents concerned about the dangers presented by a growing number of cellular antennas.

Nearly every week, the city Planning Commission hears from a company looking to add to the thousands of cellular antennas already in the city. And, like clockwork, local residents turn out to fight the plans.

“These towers should be away from residences, away from schools and away from other vulnerable populations,” said Doug Loranger, who, as founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union, has been fighting the cellular companies for a decade.

That’s not easy to do in a city as densely packed as San Francisco, where hills and tall buildings have long made radio transmission a challenge.

The crowds that jammed local stores looking to buy the new Apple iPhones last month demonstrate another part of the problem. San Francisco has a reputation as one of the most tech-savvy cities in the country, and the people buying the various new smart phones want fast and easy access to the Internet on their handheld devices, which means more demand for service.

This demand for service drives the rush to install more antennas and modify the existing ones. As long as they meet emission standards set in 1996, they are deemed fine, and cannot be challenged on the basis of health, a frustrating reality for potential challengers. Because that actually is the issue: whether — or at what point — emissions can indeed become damaging to one’s health. And though radiofrequency radiation emitted by the antennas has not been proven to have any damaging effects, activist Beverly Choe, whose children attend school near one such installation says, “it doesn’t seem prudent to add more radiation until we’re sure of the effects.”

“People want service where they live, where they work and where they play,” said Rod De La Rosa, a spokesman for T-Mobile. “We’re trying to roll out more high-speed data transmission by increasing the size of the pipe and not just for voice.”

T-Mobile is just one of the service providers looking to boost their presence in San Francisco. Just last week, Clearwire, a new company providing wireless data service only, came to the Planning Commission with requests to add antennas to existing sites in Bernal Heights and by San Francisco General Hospital.

“Starting last year, we’ve had a big increase in requests for modifications (of existing sites) and for new antennas,” said Jonas Ionin, who oversees cellular antenna requests for the city’s Planning Commission. “What we’re finding today is that the increases aren’t necessarily based on voice traffic, but on data downloads.”

The city already is home to 709 cell sites, some with as many as 12 separate antennas. Although many of the recent requests have been for upgrades and additions to those existing sites, there is also a growing call for new spots for cellular antennas, which means more battles to come.

Those continuing battles have one interesting aspect that other battles can’t always claim. No one is waiting to find out who’s right. “The funny thing is that people call me on their cell phones to complain about the new installations,” said Diego Sanchez, a city planner. We may all be addle-brained from telecommunicating before we find out where it’s coming from. A lot of us grew up in asbestos-infused schools and homes, and we’re probably all eating mercury-infused seafood (not to mention drinking petroleum-infused water); life is hazardous to one’s health.

Tension over cellular antennas mounts in city.