Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


I'm going to talk a little bit about 3 disasters -- starting with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis -- but 1st I want to use a couple of establishing shots to fill in some of the scenery.


In Jasper Fforde's latest novel in the Thursday Next series, First among Sequels, he posits a British government that has managed to rule for a decade using good common sense, solid planning, and a devotion to the public welfare. The upshot is that there has been a dangerous build-up in unspent stupidity. Thursday notes:

"Unlike previous governments that had skillfully managed to eke out our collective stupidity all year round, the current administration had decided to store it all up and then blow it on something unbelievably dopey, arguing that one major balls-up every ten years or so was less damaging than a weekly helping of mild political asininity. The problem was the surplus [stupidity] had reached absurdly high levels, where it had even surpassed the 'monumentally dumb' mark. Only a blunder of staggering proportions would remove the surplus, and the nature of this mind-numbing act of idiocy was a matter of considerable media speculation."


From the Computer Risks on-line forum:
Date: Sat, 04 Aug 2007 17:08:49 +1200
From: Sidney Markowitz

I decided to look up some numbers to see how close the I-35W bridge disaster is to the 1:16 ratio in the adage about ounces and pounds [presumably "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."]. For good measure, I did some unit conversions to bring numbers in the millions and billions down to small ones that people find easy to visualize.

This is all approximate to get the right order of magnitudes, based on new reports that you can find through Google, so I'm not including links.

Congress allocated $250 million to Minnesota for emergency repairs of the bridge. Other news reports quote an estimate of what would be needed to repair failing bridge infrastructure in the US of over $9 billion per year for 20 years, based on a figure of $188 billion total required to repair the estimated 73,533 "structurally deficient" bridges in the country. That comes out to an average of about $2.5 million per bridge in repair costs. Currently only $2 billion per year is being spent on such repairs.

On a separate topic, the Congressional Budget Office said that the Iraq war has cost about $500 billion so far, or about $10 billion/month or $4000/second.

So it would have cost a little over 10 minutes of Iraq war expenditures to have repaired the I-35W bridge before it collapsed, and now it will cost about 100 bridges worth of preventative maintenance to repair this one bridge after the fact.

That doesn't add in the cost of loss of life, injuries and their aftermaths, destroyed cars, and the economic effect of the disruption to traffic with a major urban bridge down.


The most recent issue of Time had a cover story entitled "Why New Orleans Still Isn't Safe". I wrote a letter to the editors pointing out that New Orleans still isn't safe -- and will never be safe -- for none of the reasons mentioned in the article. The real reason that (much of) New Orleans will never be safe is blindingly obvious: It's below sea level. It's inherently unsafe and always will be, because the waters of all the world's oceans are predisposed by the laws of nature to flow into the area and drown it.

I shipped out copies of that letter to many of my friends, relatives, and listservs and also posted it on my blog at:
where it has engendered quite the lively discussion. Much of that discussion comes from 2 friends of mine who live in New Orleans and take me to task for a variety of perceived sins. Their latest comments indicate the depth of their emotional commitment to the Big Easy they knew and loved:

 • One basically stuck her fingers in her ears and said "Not listening any more. Not listening. Look, fingers in ears. La la la la la la la. I can't hear you!"

 • The other called me an asshole and offered to punch me out.

Mind you, these are friends of mine!

They took particular offense at the way I characterized the desire to rebuild New Orleans in exactly the same location as before. I called it stupid -- stupidity on an order of magnitude comparable to what Thursday Next described. They seemed to think this was an insult. I disagree. I think it was an honest assessment of a disastrous policy option. On the basis of their comments, it has become increasingly clear to me that those who favor that option do so not out of any realistic assessment of the costs and benefits involved but out of some highly emotional gut instinct.

Such instincts probably trace back to those among our primitive ancestors who chose to fight to the death when threatened by external forces. Those among our potential ancestors who didn't have that reaction succumbed more quickly and didn't pass on their passive proclivities to any descendants. Meanwhile, those who obsessed over death and destruction probably weren't very good providers and suffered a like fate. So we evolved to respond quickly and frantically during calamities but then revert to normal, calm, go-aboutcher-business placidity after the crisis has passed.

But there's another option available. They don't call that big adrenaline rush the "fight or flight" response for nothing. To quote King Arthur from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Run away! Run away!". In my book, cowardice is a sadly underappreciated virtue.

Thus my policy preference for New Orleans: run away!

So let's take another look at that word "stupid", which I used a lot and which I continue to stand by. If a little kid puts his hand on a hot stove, that's normal curiosity. If he does it again, that's being a slow learner. If an adult does it, that's stupidity.

If the word "stupid" is to have any meaning at all, it has to include repeatedly engaging in self-destructive behavior, especially after the destructive nature of such behavior has been clearly, graphically, and unmistakably demonstrated beyond any possibility of doubt.

And what do I mean by "repeatedly"? I refer not merely to today's mistakes being perpetuated in the future but also to those same mistakes themselves being reruns of the past. Having forgotten what Hurricane Betsy did in 1965, the city is now all too eager to forget what Katrina did 4 decades later in its haste to laissez les bon temps rouler.

Still don't like the word "stupid"? Try this on instead. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results has been called "insane". Feel better now?

I likened the portions of New Orleans built below sea level to a summer home on the slopes of Mount Saint Helens or a nuclear power plant atop the San Andreas Fault. None of the people who took issue with my conclusions leapt to the defense of these equally idiotic policy decisions -- probably because they weren't emotionally invested in those particular situations.

But, like alcoholics or crack addicts, they continue to engage in denial about New Orleans: (1) There's not really a problem. (2) If there were a problem, it's somebody else's fault. (3) Nobody understands the hardships we face. (4) My familiar things help me cope. (5) Go away and leave me alone.

Classic stuff. Often followed by "By the way, can you spare some change?".

Conversely, we have the I-35 situation in Minneapolis. As tragedies go, it was on a much smaller scale than Katrina, but it was so sudden and unexpected (without the week's advance warning the National Weather Service gave) that it struck the public consciousness almost as hard.

But the situations in the 2 cities are fundamentally different. Nature wasn't out to get Minneapolis the way it was New Orleans. The Twin Cities experienced a failure of human engineering. And it's a failure that Minnesotans are determined not to repeat. They intend to rebuild the bridge, yes -- but not in the way that New Orleanians want to rebuild their city. The Minnesotans want to rebuild using a new design that avoids the mistakes of the past. At the other end of the Mississippi, they want to repeat the mistakes of the past, only bigger, "better", and more expensively.

This is where Sidney Markowitz's comments come in. Turns out that an ounce of prevention is worth not just one but actually quite a few pounds of cure.

Which brings us to Disaster #3, about which I have so far been silent.

Louisiana's 2 US Senators, Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) have asked for $40 billion (with a "B") to be added to the budget for the US Army Corps of Engineers specifically to build bigger levees, floodwalls, and containment corridors for the Lower Mississippi (by which they mean the part that runs thru their state). According to the cover story in Time, this is 10 times the amount allocated to the corps for the entire rest of the country combined. Almost all neutral observers call the request bloated and unrealistic.

It's 160 times what it will take the Twin Cities to rebuild the I-35 bridge.

And yet it's only 1/12 of what we've spent on Disaster #3: that godawful, motherfucking fiasco in Iraq -- money spent not on building but on destroying.

To avoid future disasters, let's decide now, as a nation, to stop throwing good money after bad.

And let's start with the place which is sucking up the most money and doing the most bad stuff with it.


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