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

My Photo
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.

Monday, August 27, 2007

So Long, Gonzo!

And good riddance.

OK, so he gets out of impeachment. We could only impeach him when he was still holding office, because the only effect of impeachment is removal from office.

But now we can indict him!

And the inner circle at the White House grows even tighter. Infamously the most closed and secretive administration in history, there used to be only a dozen real decision-makers at its height, but Karen Hughes, Andrew Card, Donald Rumsfeld, Scooter Libby, Harriet Miers, Karl Rove, and now Alberto Gonzalez have done the "rats off a sinking ship" trick, and the inner cabal is down to a mere handful.

I reiterate my previous point: We outnumber these guys! We can designate a couple of dozen members of the US House of Representatives as our attack dogs. They get to spend the next 17 months coming up with new and interesting ways of keeping the BushCo Crime Family tied up in procedural knots — with hearings, depositions, subpoenas, discovery motions, testimony, and endless endless endless planning sessions on "What do we do next to respond to today's demands on our time?".

We can take up their every waking moment and many of their sleeping ones with one overriding, inescapable, all-consuming subject: impeachment! We can fix it so they can't unzip their flies without having impeachment running thru their heads. And we can do it with only a fraction of our troops, while the rest of the responsible members of Congress go about the adult business of government.

And if, by 2009 January 19, we still haven't come up with an actual bill of impeachment, we can always say "Too bad. So sorry. We're done with you now. Please go away. Oh, and you might wanna avoid The Hague.". In the meantime, we'll have kept them from coming up with any new mischief, because they'll have been too damn busy to think of any.

I've heard it said that defense wins championships. Screw that. Let's go on offense. I want Bush, Cheney, et alii to be as nervous and unable to concentrate as a Michael Vick pit bull -- and for much the same reason.

Do I smell blood in the water? You bet. Don't you? Chow time!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Stuff That Always Chokes Me Up

We had a terrible thing happen here in Madison yesterday. We've been having lots of rain -- wettest month ever in the history of the city. A young mother and her 2-year-old dotter were trying to board a bus on the north side and stepped into a puddle. Unfortunately, moments before that, lightning had hit a nearby power pole, and the 4000-volt live wire had dropped into the water. The mother and dotter were instantly zapped and fell over. A young man on the bus jumped off to help, and he too was electrocuted. The driver tried to get out to help, but the shock knocked him back onto the bus, where he had the presence of mind to close the doors to keep anyone else from making the futile effort to rescue the victims.

All 3 victims died pretty much instantly. Quick action by the bus driver kept it from becoming a horrifying chain reaction.

As I listened to this grim story on the TV news, I started to mist over, partly out of misery at the senseless loss, but partly out of admiration for my fellow human beings and their willingness to risk life and limb to help total strangers.

This got me to thinking about other things that always choke me up. I'm not really much given to heights of joy or depths of despair, being more of a thinking than a feeling kind of guy. But there are some things that always get to me. Curiously, some of them are paradigms of sadness and loss, while others are exaltations of glory, but they both seem to have the same effect -- reducing me to a blubbering, inarticulate mess.

There are the top 5 guaranteed to always choke me up:

 • The Statue of Liberty

 • The 4th Movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony

 • The last act of "Camelot"

 • Kids & books

• And the last is a story that I read years ago, so help me Freud, in "Reader's Digest". It affected me so deeply that it's almost as if it actually happened to me. I repeat it here, as best as I can, as if it HAD happened to me.

I was back in town after college, visiting the 'rents, when they invited me to join them for an open house at my old grade school, just a couple of blocks away. The clincher for me was that I'd get a chance to see my old 1st-grade teacher, Miss Johnson. After all my years of schooling, she was still my favorite teacher. I could always remember her sparkling eyes, her beautiful smile, her pleasant voice, the way she always had a kind word for everybody. She was just wonderful, and I was very much looking forward to meeting her again and telling her how much she'd always meant to me.

Of course, I expected that she'd be much older by now. She was a young woman when I was in her class, but that had been nearly 20 years ago. What I wasn't prepared for was the jolt of seeing the awful keloid scars on her face. She had obviously been very badly burned, and she was shockingly disfigured.

I stammered thru the meeting as best as I could, but it wasn't at all what I imagined it would be. As we were leaving the school, my folx remarked that I seemed a little strange. They were sure that meeting Miss Johnson would have perked me right up, and instead it seemed to have had the opposite effect.

"Yeah, I know," I said. "It was just such a shock. I mean, Miss Johnson was so beautiful, and now she's got those awful scars."

My folks stopped dead and looked at me in confusion. "Why, Dick, whatever are you talking about?", my mom asked. "Miss Johnson has ALWAYS looked like that!"

Damn, just did it to myself again.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Attack on the Bill of Rights

I'm participating in a local group of peace activists which is working for the impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. One tactic we're using is to get our local units of government to pass resolutions calling on the US House of Representatives to commence impeachment proceedings. Both the Dane County Board and the Madison City Council had such resolutions introduced. The county has already adopted its resolution, 20-3; the city's turn is coming up in early September.

In order to maximize our effectiveness, we wanted to testify before these bodies just enuf to make all of our major points, but no more than that — so we didn't start to turn people off with repetition. Nobody likes long meetings at the best of times.

I signed up to be the clean-up hitter. The plan was that I'd testify at the end of the line and use my time to refute the arguments of those who opposed impeachment (finally putting my high-school debate experience to good use). But, if there weren't any opponents, I had another pro-impeachment speech prepared, just in case.

As it turned out before the County Board, there were indeed some ardent admirers of Dear Leader who wondered how we could possibly be so disrespectful of one of the greatest presidents in US history, so I got to ad-lib my response and didn't get a chance to give my prepared remarks. But here's what I would have said ...

The Attack on the Bill of Rights
How Does This Affect YOUR Constituents?

About the only serious objection raised to the impeachment resolution is that it's not county business, and therefore you shouldn't be spending your time on it.

I contend, on the contrary, that it is county business -- and your business in particular -- because of the adverse effect it has on the citizens of Dane County, including your constituents.

I'll let other people deal with the most tangible effect, the drain on our money supply that means there's never enuf for roads, clean water, schools, and so on, but always enuf for another troop surge or load of bombs.

Instead, I'll focus on citizens' rights, the rights supposedly guaranteed by the same US Constitution that you took an oath to support.

• The 4th Amendment guarantees us the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure, and requires warrants to be based on probable cause. 7 years ago, your constituents all had this right. Today none of them do. Nor, for that matter, do you. Agents of the federal government can not only wiretap your phone, they can find out what books you check out from the library, what videos you rent, and what sites you visit on the internet. They can enter your home when you're not there and poke around to their heart's content. And they never have to tell you they're doing it, because they're allowed to operate in secrecy.

• The 5th Amendment guarantees us the right to due process of law before we can be deprived of life, liberty, or property. 7 years ago, your constituents all had this right. Today none of them do. Nor, for that matter, do you. You can be jailed at any time on the say-so of the president, who operates on the basis of god-only-knows what kind of information -- but clearly not excluding the kind that he used to invade Iraq.

• The 6th Amendment guarantees us the right to a speedy and public trial and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusations against us. In the absence of such accusations, we can use the ancient right of habeas corpus to demand our release. 7 years ago, your constituents all had this right. Today none of them do. Nor, for that matter, do you. You can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial -- without the government even having to inform your family of where you are -- strictly on the say-so of some informer.

• The 8th Amendment guarantees us the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, also known as torture. 7 years ago, your constituents all had this right. Today none of them do. Nor, for that matter, do you. You can be subjected to everything from excruciating pain to mindless boredom at the hands of US government employees, our so-called "public servants". To the extent that they ever experience a twinge of conscience, they can ship you off to the professionals in Egypt, who are guaranteed not to be nearly so soft-hearted.

If you knew that a crime ring was operating in Dane County, and that it had so far stolen $100 from every man, woman, and child in your district, wouldn't you be up in arms about it? Wouldn't you think that their actions deserved your attention?

Well, a crime ring is operating in Dane County, and what it's stolen so far is far more important than a hundred bux a head — but nowhere near as important as what they'll do if you keep letting them get away with it.

Act now to protect your constituents and the Constitution that you swore to support. Nobody's expecting you to have all the answers. All we ask is that you do what you can.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

More on Katrina

I'm going to use this posting to consolidate my responses to a variety of comments I've received regarding my previous remarks on Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and where to go from here. Most of those comments occurred as replies to 2 postings on my blog ( on August 4 and 9.

Other Reactions

First, tho, I refer one and all to the responses that other people had to "Why New Orleans Still Isn't Safe", the cover story in Time 2 weeks ago that prompted my initial post. The letters to the editor that worked their way thru the culling and editing process to see publication are available here. (Mine is not among them; I didn't expect it to be, since they'd recently run one of mine on a different subject.)

In addition, Time gave a synopsis of letters they'd received, including the unpublished ones:

 • 61% -- Funding won't protect New Orleans; it's an untenable location.
 • 39% -- New Orleans could be saved, but corruption and poor engineering will do it in.

Now, I understand that Time has chosen to simplify things to fit 100% of the letters into only 2 categories (which is how they report reactions to their cover stories), but I find it telling that a 3rd alternative -- "We have to do everything we can to restore New Orleans to just the way it was before." -- evidently didn't draw enuf support to deserve a category of its own.

The Scale Problem

Several of my critics have made much of the fact that I got my scale wrong. One commenter (Kurtoons) had pointed out that the country needs a major Southern port to connect to the Mississippi River. I agreed but questioned why it had to be in that particular spot. Here are my exact words:

New Orleans is already, what, 25, 30 miles upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi? It didn't park its ass right on the shore (the way that, for example, Miami or Galveston did). The ships already sail some ways upriver to get to the port. Apparently the idea was to build at the lowest conceivable point that wasn't absolutely soggy year-round, so as to minimize the distance the ships had to sail.

Well, we've seen how poorly that idea worked, especially since the only places available for expansion off the little bit of solid ground that was the center of the original city was to go down into the bogs.

If we need a port (and we do), it should be another 5-10 miles upriver, where there's solid ground ALL around.

Now, the fact that I was quoting these distances offhand should have been apparent from my use of "... already, what, 25, 30 miles upriver ..." and "some ways". Instead, this on-the-fly guess was pounced upon as evidence of my total ignorance on anything and everything to do with the subject:

[Slave Driver:] No, Dick, New Orleans is 110 miles up the Mississippi river from the Gulf. The reason why it didn't "park it's ass on the shore" is because, until recently there were miles and miles of wetlands that acted as protection from storm surges....

Boy do you have your head up your ass! You go five or ten miles upstream from New Orleans and you've got nothing but low lying swamp land. These two statements show that you know NOTHING of what you speak. Once again, I expect better arguments, better knowledge of facts, from you, Dick. Know your geography before you embarass yourself with you ignorance.

and, later, from the same person,

You also made some statements that you obviously know nothing about, like New Orleans is already 25 to 30 miles from the mouth of the river. You also said that five or ten miles upstream there is plenty of dry land where New Orleans could be relocated to. You have your facts WRONG. First of all, New Orleans is 110 miles from the mouth of the river and secondly there isn't any solid land 5 or 10 miles upstream. You can even go 90 miles upstream to where Baton Rouge is and it's still not all solid ground, the swamps and wetlands go on for miles and miles. I'm telling you this because I know it to be true. I live there! I drive these areas all the time, I know what I'm talking about.

So, all I'm saying is if you're going to sit there and armchair quarterback from a thousand miles away, could you at least do a litte research and get your facts straight? ... Well when you make some of the claims you did about New Orleans that were flat out wrong, that's exactly what I did, I told you you were full of shit, because you were.

and, from another person,

[Intelligentrix:] Really, Dick? Solid ground all around a mere 5-10 miles upstream? What were those silly people thinking then? Gosh, too bad they didn't have you around to set them right from the beginning!

who later added:

It would be impossible for me to continue to try holding a reasoned debate with you on this subject as your ignorance on the economic, historical and cultural significance of the city and its placement knows no bounds. I don't have the time required to correct your errors on why New Orleans is where it is, the hydrological facts of the delta area, the importance of the river in commerce, the reasons the port cannot be farther up the river, the billions of dollars in infrastructure not only still standing but in service, the meteorological history of the gulf region, ...

You do not have enough facts to draw the conclusions you draw. Your argument is not logical, it is mean-spirited and foolish and armchair quarterbacking at its worst.

Well, let's look at this. I have consulted my good friend, Mr. MapQuest, who informs me that the distance from New Orleans to Venice is 75 miles. So my admitted guess was low by a significant amount.

Does this invalidate my basic point? Au contraire, Pierre, it reinforces it. Here's a challenge that Slave Driver presented to me:

How would you, or anyone else in Madison like it if I tried to tell you, from a thousand miles away the layout of Wisconsin? What if I said Madison was only ten miles from Lake Michigan? You would tell me I'm full of shit, right?

Let's run with this. Suppose I said, "It's easy to walk from my house to downtown Madison, but harder to go all the way to Lake Michigan, which is a whopping 10 miles away." And the critic would then point out that, in fact, it's more like 90 miles away, as if that somehow makes it easier to walk to Lake Michigan.

My basic point, quoted above in the original, compared the idea of building on solid ground to building on glorified swampland. If you wade ashore at Miami or Galveston (2 other cities I cited), and walk another several hundred steps, you are on solid ground -- "a piece of the continent, a part of the main", in the words of John Donne. Not so in the case of New Orleans. I wrote that you have to sail "what, 25, 30 miles" to get to solid ground. No, as it turns out, lots farther.

And, I went on, there's undoubtedly more solid ground somewhere upstream. I guessed 5 or 10 miles. Evidently wrong. Does that mean that there's no solid ground, firmly attached to North America, anywhere upstream? Not at all. It merely redoubles my original point. I had operated on the (evidently mistaken) presumption that New Orleans was at the tip of a peninsula of solid land protruding off the southern rim of the continent, surrounded west, south, and east by bogs and swamps. Now, as it turns out, it's more like an island, with bogs and swamps to the north as well. This makes it an even less desirable spot to build.

So, upon closer examination, I understated what turns out to be an even stronger case than I originally made.

So Why There?

I had offered the above observations as an explanation for why New Orleans was built where it was. Slave Driver disagreed:

Why is New Orleans loceated where it is today? BECAUSE OF THE RIVER, ASSHOLE!

Again, consulting the Internet so as to get my facts straight, as advised by my critics, I find that the Mississippi River is 2,320 miles long. So if "because of the river" is the correct answer for 1 of those miles, why is it the wrong answer for the other 2,319, which do not have a major port located along their banks?

It's due to the fact that the correct answer is not "because of the river" but rather "because of the land". As I wrote originally "Apparently the idea was to build at the lowest conceivable point that wasn't absolutely soggy year-round, so as to minimize the distance the ships had to sail."

Is this idea wrong? I have yet to hear any of my critics address it directly. They prefer instead to harp upon my errors of scale.

Why Not Somewhere Else?

I had suggested an alternative to rebuilding New Orleans on ocean bottom. I wrote that we should look at doing our rebuilding upstream, in Baton Rouge, for the population, and building a huge pier jutting into the Gulf of Mexico from Slidell, for the oil and other goods that require a port. That way the ships wouldn't have to sail upriver at all; they could just dock at the pier (or stand off of it if the weather is bad). And I proposed high-speed rail to get the workers from Baton Rouge to Slidell. This struck me as a good way to accommodate both the people and the economics, while having the salutory additional benefit of freeing the Mississippi from its concrete banks and letting it get back to its normal business of delta-building.

Slave Driver didn't think much of the Baton Rouge idea:

How stupid! What you don't know is that almost half of the people who haven't been able to return to New Orleans are already in Baton Rouge, and the people of Baton Rouge are not pleased by that at all! Why don't we just relocate the whole city to Madison? How would you like it if your city were to suddenly increase its population by 200,000 overnight? While were at it, do you think Madison could handle everyone in San Francisco and L.A. too? I mean, after all they're due for an earthquake anytime now. Why not relocate those places before the event actually occurs.

This conveniently overlooks the fact that we're going to have to rebuild somewhere to accommodate all the people displaced by Katrina. Why is New Orleans preferable to Baton Rouge? Slave Driver does not say.

Where would the refugees like to live? Apparently some of them would like to live in Baton Rouge.

And, if the people of Baton Rouge aren't happy having a ton of escapees dumped on them now, what makes you think they'll be any happier about it when (not if) it happens again in 10 or 20 years?

OTOH, virtually every city I've ever heard of is delighted to proclaim itself as a growing community, a hotbed of economic development. And every one of them would be absolutely thrilled if someone else was paying for it. Would I want to have a hundred thousand new people in Madison? Hell, over the last 20 years that's exactly what's happened in Madison. The Chamber of Commerce couldn't be prouder.

So ask yourself, what is it that the citizens of Baton Rouge could possibly be objecting to. Population growth? New construction? An infusion of capital?

Or might it just possibly be the strain of having to deal with a ton of property-less escapees, landing all at once, sucking up municipal services, and contributing very little to the community?

And which of us is more interested in coming up with a way of preventing that from happening again, the one who wants to remove potential victims from harm's way or the one who wants to send them back there?

Is That Pier Idea Any Good?

Well, since I invented it after about 5 minutes of looking at a map, it's obviously not something that has any details fleshed out. But I still think it's got potential and should be one of the ideas in the policy mix.

As to how the goodies would get from the pier to the river, a quick glance at a map make it look like Lake Pontchartrain and canals would do the trick. Of course, we'd have to periodically re-aim the canals to keep up with the meanderings of the river, but that's gotta be a smaller engineering project than trying to manhandle the entire river to match the canals.

The point is, I'm actually trying to figure out a reasonable solution. Don't like mine? Come up with your own, one that doesn't put hundreds of thousands of people and billions of dollars at risk.

Can I Really Be That Cruel and Heartless?

In my original letter to Time I wrote:

It isn't the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers but rather that of the residents of New Orleans themselves, who consciously choose to live below sea level, knowing all the while that Mother Nature wants that area to be a lake -- and won't stop until it is.

Now, despite the clear-cut qualifier "who consciously choose to live below sea level", several of my critics have chosen to misread me as saying that 100% of the population of New Orleans needs to clear out, so the government wrecking balls can come in and level the entire city, Superdome and all. Despite my repeated admonitions that these folx should read what I actually wrote, not what they seem to imagine I wrote, they continue to castigate me for an argument I never made and have since explicitly disavowed, as in "Of course, there are parts of New Orleans that AREN'T below sea level. I've got very little problem with that. Such buildings don't display conspicuous idiocy.". (I won't bother quoting the entire wearisome dialog; it's all available with datestamps and everything on the blog.)

I do wish, however, to explicitly address the comment of the very 1st person to reply to my original posting, one "Anonymous", who wrote under the subject heading "Shameful":

And how many of your fellow Americans are you willing to abandon to death? LA has lost 1500 square miles of coast in the last 50 years. It will lose another 1000 square miles in the next 50 years if America continues its "It is not my problem" attitude. You may not care about your fellow citizens, but you will care when your gas price doubles and you will care when you can't get that seafood you eat.

This is all too typical of the "head in the sand" attitude I've been getting on this subject. Let me make it perfectly clear, beyond any shadow of a doubt (not that there should ever have been any in the 1st place): I utterly abhor needless death and destruction!

It is for that precise reason that I oppose sending more potential victims back to the swath of ocean bottom that constitutes over half of New Orleans, so they can await the next disaster.

Indeed, as long as we're in the business of hurling insults here, why is it that the pro-rebuilding advocates favor more death and destruction, which will follow as surely as night follows day if they get their way?

Want a few more trigger words? Why do you hate black people and poor people, who are gonna be the primary victims of the next one, just as they were of the last one?

See, it's a game 2 can play. But I'd rather not play it. As I said on several previous occasions, I think it's a disastrous policy error to build human habitations below sea level. (For the inordinately picky out there, yes, I'd make exceptions for underwater research facilities, none of which will ever amount to a major population center.)

To be more specific, I think it's the height of human stupidity to spit in the face of Mother Nature like this. If this doesn't qualify as stupid, the word is meaningless. If you don't like "stupid", what else would you call it? Wrong-headed? Senseless? Ill-advised? A big, fat mistake? Failure to learn from experience? Whistling thru the graveyard? OK, I can buy that. It's all of those in addition to stupid.

I've already cited the I-35 bridge disaster to support my point about New Orleans. I now quote from another tragedy, the Utah mine disaster. Mining is an inherently dangerous activity, but a necessary one, and it's possible to take extensive precautions to minimize (tho we can never eliminate) the risks. But the Crandall Canyon mine apparently experienced something that nobody had anticipated, a "mountain bump" strong enuf to register as an earthquake. It caused a cave-in, trapping 6 miners. During the frantic rescue efforts, another bump occurred, and 3 tunneling rescuers were killed. The authorities, shaken, called off further rescue attempts, except for the drilling, which wouldn't put more people in danger.

There are limits to how far we can go to fix problems. There are different limits to how far we should go or can afford to go. But there are limits. It is delusional to think that New Orleans is immune to them.

Dueling Parables

Slave Driver recently tasked me for insensitivity with this analogy:

Dick, if someone raped your mother or sister and tried to kill her, but failed, and I said to you, "I think the guy ought to come back and finish the job he started," wouldn't you be upset? Any normal person would be enraged. When you make a statement like, "I think we should let mother nature finish what Katrina started," that's what you're saying to someone who lives in New Orleans, it's that personal. Some of your arguments are not entirely wrong, but for chrisake man if you can't find a better way, a less offensive way to express them you're not going to get many people to listen to you, and you might even get your lights punched out.

Bad analogy. I'm not the one proposing to dress Mom up like a hooker and station her on a street corner in the red-light district, just asking for it. I'm the one saying "I'd rather move my family to a safer part of town.". I'm the one trying to prevent Mom from being killed, not close my eyes and hope or pretend it can't happen.

Let me counter with an analogy of my own. Say you're a sweet little old lady whose husband has died and whose kids have grown up and moved out. You no longer need that big rambling house, so you move into a condo and rent the old family homestead out to tenants. But you keep getting bad reports from the nabors about loud parties and trash on the lawn. You call, you send letters, and you stop by in person to talk to them, but they won't listen to you and won't let you in. You inform them by registered mail that you don't want to rent to them any more and they'll have to leave, but they just laff at you. Finally, you decide you have to evict them. The deputies show up to serve the notice, but a huge fight ensues, the cops call in back-up and the end result is that 3 of the roomers end up in jail and 2 more in the hospital. You survey your old home and discover it's been trashed, partly by the fight but also by the lifestyle of the inhabitants. The next day you get an angry visitor at your front door, demanding to know why you had her brother beaten up by those neo-Nazi stormtrooper pigs.

In this parable, the little old lady is Mother Nature, the squatters are the people camped out on her seafloor despite all the warnings, and the angry visitor corresponds to the people in denial about who's really at fault for the ensuing mess.

Does this seem harsh? In my experience, some people won't listen to anything less.

Friday, August 17, 2007

New Spam Techniques

Well, they're new to me, anyway.

(1) Backdating the message so it shows up at the top of my unread-mail list.

(2) Taking advantage of the nice people at Blue Mountain and eCards by piggybacking on THEIR services to send out spam purporting to be a card from "A Friend", "Your Classmate", or just "A Mate".

These people are despicable scum. And they don't care.

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.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Why New Orleans Still Isn't Safe

2007 Aug. 4

Letters to the Editor

Re: Why New Orleans Still Isn't Safe

Michael Grunwald is right when he calls Hurricane Katrina "a man-made disaster". But he's got the wrong man. It isn't the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers but rather that of the residents of New Orleans themselves, who consciously choose to live below sea level, knowing all the while that Mother Nature wants that area to be a lake -- and won't stop until it is.

We gape in amazement at the stupidity of anyone who would build a summer home on the slopes of Mount Saint Helens or a nuclear power plant atop the San Andreas Fault, but somehow we're supposed to excuse the equally stupid intransigence of those who stubbornly return to buildings where they have to look UP to see the ships sail by?

You can almost understand why they do it, tho. The rest of us, like enablers supporting alcoholic spouses, continue to make excuses for their denial of reality while shelling out big bux to support them in the addictive lifestyle to which they've become accustomed.

Grunwald got another thing right, too. The free-spending bozos in Congress are the biggest enablers of them all.

For my money (and it IS my money!) the smart ones were the diasporans who left and plan never to return.

= = = = = =
Richard S. Russell, a Bright (
2642 Kendall Av. #2, Madison WI 53705-3736
608+233-5640 *

= = = = = =
Homeopathic logic: the belief that minuscule or even undetectable amounts of reason can solve a problem.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bush's Decency

Bush’s Decency

Back in June of 1954, Senator Joseph (“Tailgunner Joe”) McCarthy (R-WI) was called before his own Subcommittee on Investigations to review some charges he’d been making in his anti-Commie witch hunts. McCarthy had been trying to browbeat the Army into according special treatment to one of his former aides, an unwilling draftee named David Schine (whom McCarthy’s current aide Roy Cohn called “a good friend”), and had been bad-mouthing generals and the secretary of defense to try to bully them into admitting they were part of the vast Red conspiracy he imagined pervading America.

At one point, on national TV (the 1st televised hearings in American history), McCarthy tried the same Red-baiting tactics on a young attorney who served as an aide to the Army’s lawyer, the highly respected Boston attorney Joseph Welch. Before McCarthy had gone very far, Welch rebuked him for trying to besmirch the character of the young man: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness.…”

McCarthy tried to continue the bullying tactics which had served him so well up to that point, but Welch cut him off again: "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator.... You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

At this, the gallery spontaneously burst into applause. It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy’s infamous witch hunt. In December of that year, his fellow senators voted 67-22 to censure him for his activities. An object of scorn, McCarthy’s effectiveness was ended. He crawled back into the bottle he was so fond of and died of acute hepatitis in 1957, at the age of 48.

Cohn went on to become an unscrupulous (tho successful) attorney in private practice and a vicious homophobe before it was revealed, shortly before his death (in 1986, at 59, of AIDS), that he himself was a closeted gay man.

Schine, a wealthy, privileged, and good-looking young man at the time of the hearings, got out of the Army and the public eye, became a success in business, married a former Miss Universe from Sweden, and had 6 children. He and his wife both died in 1996 after 40 years of marriage. He never commented publicly on his role in McCarthy’s spectacles.

Which brings us to today.

As you may have heard, a major 4-lane bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis during evening rush hour on Wednesday, August 1. The following morning, our only president, George W. Bush, convened a press conference, ostensibly to discuss the tragedy. He stammered and stumbled thru some awkward comments acknowledging the event, as if it were something he’d read about (or, more likely, been told about) in history class.

He’d just gotten to the part about how the federal government was getting set to ride to the rescue when I found myself groaning and thinking “Oh, no. Not FEMA again! Haven’t those poor people in Minneapolis already suffered enuf?”.

But then I mentally rebuked myself. After all, I thot, the president is not only the leader of the government and the titular leader of his own political party, he’s also the head of state. In that capacity, he serves as a symbol of national unity, much as the queen does for England. And, indeed, it was in that capacity that he had his finest moment as president, when he voiced exactly the right sentiments after the attacks of 9/11.

So I chided myself for thinking ill of the man, expecting that he would make a sincere effort to live up to his self-proclaimed ideal to be a uniter, not a divider, by serving as national spokesperson for the collective sense of shock and grief that we all felt after this sudden and shocking tragedy.

Yeah, right.

That lasted for just a few seconds before -- quicker than you can say “Jack Robinson” -- he doffed his ”impartial head of state” hat, firmly slapped on his familiar and clearly more comfortable “petty partisan politician” hat, and started harping on how the Democrats in Congress were getting set to take the month of August off (this from a guy who spends more time on vacation, usually at his ranchette in Texas, than any other president in US history) and how they really needed to tend to business, like the transportation budget.

Did you catch the segue there? Bridge goes down, Dems soft on transportation spending?

And, bit firmly between his teeth, he was done with the stammering and mumbling and went resolutely about the mean-spirited, partisan business of bashing the Democrats in Congress.

Now, we’ve known for some time that Bush has no sense of empathy. I watched Lyndon Johnson on TV going thru the tortures of the damned over the mounting death toll in Vietnam. You could see that every casualty weighed on him and that he daily re-evaluated whether he was doing the right thing, whether the benefits were worth the terrible cost of the war that he obviously believed was the right thing for the country to do (even tho he’d inherited it from John F. Kennedy). But it ate at him. He felt all those casualties personally. The chant “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” obviously got to him.

Bush, not so much.

Oh, he says all the right words, but then he gets that little smirk, hunches over, and goes “heh heh” and you realize he’s made no connection at all to the grief and suffering. (Son of wealth and privilege, sheltered, coddled, and cultivated all his life by his daddy and his daddy’s rich buddies, he’s never had to deal with real suffering.) He notoriously has NEVER attended a funeral for any US service people killed as a result of his invasion of Iraq, and hasn’t even bothered to take a quick trip across town to pay homage to the flag-draped caskets that are relentlessly flown back from the war zone. Never. Not once.

He tried to claim that he sympathized with Scooter Libby when he commuted his sentence, but obviously Cheney had told him he had to do it, or Libby might start telling the truth just to get out of jail. So Bush put on his best game face and tried to claim he was doing the humanitarian thing. (This from a guy who, as governor of the STATE of Texas, authorized more executions than any NATION in the world except China and Saudi Arabia, usually after no more than a cursory 5-minute review of a briefing paper his consigliere, Alberto Gonzalez, had put together for him.)

So, no, we’ve come to expect zero empathy from Bush.

But maybe, just maybe, in the face of another national tragedy, he’d be able to work up the same sense of decency he displayed atop the pile of rubble at Ground Zero that fateful week in 2001. Maybe he’d be able to rise above partisan politics just once more in his abysmal and pathetic presidency and truly just focus on the pain, suffering, anxiety, and sense of loss. Maybe he’d just do the decent thing, even if it was only because Cheney (and maybe Laura) told him it was what people expected of him.

He wouldn’t use the occasion of a national tragedy to take political potshots, would he? Even Bush wouldn’t stoop that low. Would he? Would he?

But that would have required some tiny kernel, some actual seed of decency to begin with.

Have you, George W. Bush, at long last, no sense of decency?

Here’s a hint, in the words of your attorney general:

I do not recall.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Tragedy in Minneapolis

I've been following the tragedy in Minneapolis, where I have many friends and fond memories. I'm a tad too distracted at this point to be able to concentrate.

I keep telling myself "Every day in Iraq is like this, and you don't let it get to you. Why now?". I dunno. Something about seeing it happen to a bridge that I've personally driven over countless times brings it closer to home, I guess.