Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Hammer Sandwich

The wingnuts are already busy trotting out the old saw that a good DA could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Yeah, maybe. If there was a great deal of evidence that the ham sandwich had broken the law.

Tom DeLay was indicted today after months of investigation. He and the rest of the Republicon faithful will make sure that the media gives credence to the line that the indictment is a political vendetta. And maybe it is - maybe DA Ronnie Earle set his sights on DeLay like Ken Starr went after Clinton. Regardless of Earle's motivation, though, one fact soars high: the evidence that DeLay broke the law is strong.

A DA would not indict someone in a case like this if he didn't think he had an odds-on chance of winning in court. Many of the big contemporary corporate scandals have ended up with CEOs in prison precisely because their indictments have been preceded by meticulous investigations.

Though DeLay is within his rights to maintain his innocence until he gets sent up the river by a jury, this indictment will stand up to scrutiny - the evidence is darn compelling that he laundered money illegally, and the prosecution is prepared to meet its burden of proof. Tom DeLay is not a ham sandwich. He is one of the masterminds of a massive criminal syndicate that is defrauding the American people out of trillions of dollars, and he finally got caught playing his corrupt game. He will stand trial, and he will probably be convicted.

I hope they sell plenty of mayo in the prison commissary.

Monday, September 26, 2005

NPR Parodies Journalism

I don't have the exact quote on this one, because I was being an uber-liberal and driving into New York City to see a foreign film at the NY Film Festival, but an NPR report on Saturday morning nearly caused me to swerve off the road.

NPR was reporting on the demonstrations in Washington that were about to start. One demonstration was the movement inspired by Cindy Sheehan, which was attended by at least 100,000 people and perhaps a quarter million, making it one of the largest demonstrations yet against the Iraq war. The other demonstration was a counter-demonstration with about 400 people.

Astoundingly, the NPR piece was almost entirely about the counter-demonstrators, with a brief mention that many people were also in DC to join Cindy Sheehan's protest. It was as though they had covered an Apollo launch and focused on the kids launching model rockets in Daytona, and then mentioned that, coincidentally, NASA had also launched a rocket from nearby that was successfully sending men toward the moon.

I'm sure the administration's overlords at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were delighted.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Yes, Blame the Republicons

No, George W. Bush didn't cause Katrina and Rita. The administration is at fault for gutting FEMA, for not paying any attention to increasing warnings of the threats that massive storms would cause to our nation, and for a response to the disaster to which future lexicographers will refer when they seek to define "inept," but all of W's huffing and puffing didn't blow the levees down.

Instead, the levees were blown down by the entire Republicon party.

Let's look at some facts. (Facts are those things that we in the reality-based community like to gather in order to form conclusions.)

1) Human activity has caused increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. You would need the IQ of a potatoe to fail to understand that extracting carbon from underground, burning it, and releasing it into the air would alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Here's a simple science experiment that doubting wing-nuts can try at home: take a sack of coal, preferably strip-mined, and dump it in your bathtub (making sure that no sentient beings are in the house while you do this). Close all the windows, doors, and vents. Douse the coals with lighter fluid, strike a match, and touch the match to the coals. After the fire has burned for a while, compare the amount of carbon in the air to the quality of the air before you started burning the fossil fuels - you should be able to note the change when you see the air getting darker. Your eyes will also start to get red and irritated, and you might have some difficulty breathing. If you are still not convinced that human activity causes atmospheric change, keep the fire burning until all unintelligent life forms in your bathroom become extinct.

2) Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have led to increases in average global air temperatures.

3) Increases in global air temperatures have led to increases in ocean temperatures. Although ExxonMobilHalliburtonGOP has managed to hire a few "scientists" to claim that facts 2 and 3 haven't been completely absolutely totally proven beyond any hint of a shadow of doubt, those scientists who do things like sophisticated computer modelling and sticking thermometers in the ocean year after year after year have all concluded that global warming is a fact.

4) Increased ocean temperatures are leading to increases in the severity of hurricanes, as recent research confirms. Dude, hurricanes feed off of warm water. The warmer the water, and the more warm water available, the more severe the storm. This is something that climatologists have been warning about for years. And something that certain people have spent years telling us not to worry about. Which leads directly to:

5) Who has refused, point blank refused to do anything about climate change caused by human activity? Let's see... The scientific understanding of the effects of human activity on the global climate started to be understood in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president and George H.W. Bush was VP. More was understood during the reign of Bush I. And those Republicon administrations refused to address the problem. During the Clinton years, efforts were made to address the problem - not enough, and I'm not going to claim the Dems were all saints on the issue - but the Clinton-Gore folks were blocked in any efforts to get too ambitious by the Republicon congress. Even before Newt gained control of the House in 1994, the Dems knew that doing the things necessary to protect the environment would get them tarnished by the brush of being big-government types who would therefore be unelectable. The 90s were lost to more effective efforts to combat climate change because such efforts would have been political suicide for the environmentally-minded, because, yo, protecting the environment costs money up front while desecrating the environment won't cost money until a little later. And then W came into office, the biggest polluters/ GOP donors literally started writing the environmental laws and regulations, and any glimmer of a science-based approach to environmental governance was tossed into the incinerator.

I repeat, the Superfund disaster that is the Bush Presidency did not cause the hurricanes. No, the hurricanes were as bad as they were because of human activity that has been greatly exacerbated by more than two decades of Republicon hostility to any sort of rational, conservative environmental policy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Tsunami Memories (as not seen in the New Yorker)

While watching the news the other day I saw some footage of crews cleaning up along the hurricane-ravaged beach in Mississippi. I've grimaced when I've heard comments like, "This is Louisiana's tsunami" (no it wasn't - this was a slow disaster that unfolded over many days, while the tsunami was a single unexpected catastrophe that hit at 600 miles an hour, literally the speed of a jet plane, and killed 100 times more people), but the image of people piling debris onto a tarp and hoisting the contents of the tarp onto a trash pile on the beach brought back memories.

As it happened, I was in southern India soon after the tsunami, and spent the one free day I had on the beach lending my hand to cleanup. During the trip home (Chennai/Madras to Delhi to Amsterdam to JFK, about 30 hours) I wrote a piece about that day. I envisioned it as New Yorker "Talk of the Town" item, but their editor didn't share my enthusiasm, so the article has never seen the light of day.

With Katrina fresh in mind, I'll post it now. One caveat - the piece was trying to strike the semi-detached narrative tone of the magazine section for which it was submitted. Clearly I didn't nail the landing, or you would be reading this as a link to a published article instead of seeing it on an obscure self-published blog...

A Day At the Beach

Five weeks after the massive wave hit southern India, about forty people milled around the Auroville Tsunami Relief Centre waiting for the morning transport to the disaster zone. A short orientation talk for the uninitiated explained that on this day they would be going to a village that the ad hoc international clean-up crew had not yet visited. The volunteers loaded themselves into three small buses, piling around work gloves, yellow plastic tarps, and crowbars. Twenty bumpy minutes later they came to a stop under some coconut palms, normal-size waves crashing on the beach ahead of them.

The area between the beachfront and the village was strewn with refuse. Much of the mess was vegetative, mixing palm fronds and oceanic flora in a soggy, sandy mass. Tarps were spread on the ground, armloads of organic garbage were dumped on the tarps, and small groups of four would soon coalesce around a full tarp's corners to pick it up and carry it to near the high-tide line. Soon a small hill of trash had formed, and after a while a new pile was started a dozen meters away, and later still another. As each tarp-load was dumped, often with a running start and a big swing to try to get the garbage to the top of the pile, one person would end up carrying the empty tarp back to the work zone. The group would disperse as each member saw another task that needed attention.

A few younger men had grabbed shovels and started digging deep holes in the sand. A middle-aged woman from France filled gunny sacks with bits of Styrofoam floats, plastic sheeting, and any other non-burnables she could scavenge, and lugged her garbage to the holes to be buried. Others found their own specialties - salvageable wood in one pile, bricks from a collapsed house in another. An American college professor on a brief visit to India spent some time wrestling with an endless plastic fishing net that had wrapped itself five times around the base of a coconut palm. An Indian professional set about gathering the fermenting coconuts that made the area smell a little too ripe.

A roar went up from the middle of the clean-up zone, and a dozen men from the village, joined by some of the visitors, began sliding a blue open fishing boat toward the beachfront. Some pulled on ropes, some pushed on any available hand-hold. A few minutes later, a red and white boat was hauled toward the sea. The wave had carried all the boats that had survived (the village lost five fishermen at sea) over or through the coconut palms and deposited them by the houses at the edge of the village proper. A yellow boat had to be dug out from under the thatching of the house that it had smashed into, looking like it might never float again, but it too was slid clear of the palms, to the part of the beach where boats belonged.

People from the village joined in the work, after having avoided stepping foot in the devastation for more than a month. They collected bits of nets into piles and cleared rubble from houses that had partially disintegrated. With a word from an elder, several boys scurried up the coconut palms. A few minutes later, all the visitors had their own fresh coconuts prepared for them, first to drink the sweet juice and then to eat the sticky meat inside.

Several American students, from a cadre in India for a semester abroad, began destroying an intact house that had been condemned. The dismemberment began by ripping straw and coconut fronds off the roof, then prying apart the roof's wooden framework. Great piles of debris were stacked on tarps and hauled to the mounds at the water's edge that would be set ablaze after the work crew drove away. When the roof was gone, the students began smashing bricks off the structure. One young man put a crowbar between an ornate entryway door frame and the wall next to it. "Save the door!" called the professor, and ran to the destruction site. He was handed a crowbar and began banging away the soft bricks above and around the door frame. With a push, the frame started to fall forward. Hands appeared to stop it from crashing into the ground. A beaming homeowner helped the professor carry the door frame to safety, then clutched him tightly to pose before a digital camera that a British woman had pulled out. The professor, who had begun the day fretting about tsunami tourism, was now thoroughly absorbed in the task at hand. He and a few younger men went back to demolishing the house, and cheers arose as each wall yielded to prying and smashing. The visitors were concerned that a wall would collapse onto the house next door, but the residents signalled that that house too was to go. With a push the wall toppled over, smashing half the house next door as it fell.

The stretch between the waterfront and higher ground was much cleaner than a few hours before, and work was declared done for the day. A few visitors ran to rinse off in the ocean while others guzzled clean water and wolfed down miniature bananas. The guests climbed into their buses, and were soon rewarded at headquarters with a lunch of rice, dal, tandoori chicken, and locally-made cheese and baguettes. A few village men began to inspect their fishing boats, and the other residents went back to their homes or temporary shelters. In a day or two the visitors would arrive again to confront the next hundred meters.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Crossing the finish line at the Iron Horse Half Marathon. The company that clicks the pics during the races charges truly bizarre prices for their photos, so this screen capture of their "proof" shot is all I can afford. When you've just run 13.1 miles on a hot summer day, the victory wave when they call out your name as you cross the finish line just sort of happens!
Here is a photo from the Iron Horse Half Marathon in June, probably at about mile 12. The company that clicks the pics during the races charges truly bizarre prices for the photos, so screen captures of their "proof" shots will have to suffice :-)

Sweat and Glory

The official results haven't been posted yet, but according to my stopwatch I finished the 20 km New Haven Road Race in 1:40:19. That's about 14 minutes faster than the last time I ran this race, in 2003, and 3 minutes faster than my 34 year old legs did it in 2002! It's about 8 minutes slower than my first time running New Haven four years ago, but I have a lot more grey hair now, so I'll take it.

I also picked up my pace from the Iron Horse Half Marathon that I ran in June - only about 7 seconds per mile faster (by way of this cool pace calculator), but over 12.43 miles that adds up to a sweet 90 seconds gain. My average was 8:04 minutes per mile, so I'm getting close to the magic 8 minute miles that I'd like to see for at least the first half of the Hartford Marathon next month (though I doubt I'll ever again see the 7:24 splits from my younger days).

Now I've got about 35 days to get ready to double the distance of these races. Last week I ran a 14.4, and I'd like to bump that up by about a mile per run, running twice a week. If I can put myself through 20 miles about a week before Hartford, the marathon itself will be in sight.

Why go through all the pain? Well, in part because the pain is pleasurable. In part because being in shape increases the odds of living longer, and having a better quality of life during those extra years. In part because running a marathon is a challenge, a goal that passes from impossibility to reality only through constant effort. In part because married life and multiple jobs have put 25 pounds on my belly since my last marathon 4 years ago - now that my regular training run is 13 miles or more, I can drop a half pound every time I lace up my shoes.

And in part because the project that I started 10 years ago is about to run out of funding, and I really need raise funds to keep it afloat. The project gets better and better, and is headed toward being the tool that anybody on earth can use to learn any other language (in the long run - right now we're still perfecting the platform that will make the larger ambition possible). By running the Hartford Marathon I hope to raise the $14,550 that is necessary to meet the requirements for matching funds for a grant to which we recently applied, which will really push the project toward fulfilling multi-lingual dreams. I'm putting my body on the line in the hopes that people will sponsor my run and thereby raise the funds the project needs. If you haven't sponsored me, please please please click on my Marathon page and chip in what you can. Every little bit really does help, and the long term benefit of a free, high-quality educational resource is, I hope and believe, worthy of your support. So thanks in advance!

I won't use much more of this blog space to ramble on about running - but while my heart was still pumping from the race, I thought I'd digress from my usual rants. For now, though, it is definitely past time for a shower...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Throwing away the script

What is happening in New Orleans right now is astounding - days after Hurricane Katrina, the city has become a lake, people are starving and ill and turning violent or desperate. This is something that we haven't seen in the US, and therefore something for which we are totally unprepared.

What we are witnessing is not beyond human imagination, however. Jose Saramago wrote a brilliant novel, captivating in its darkness, about what might happen when a catastrophe of these dimensions befalls a city. Read Blindness and you will feel much more a part of life in New Orleans today.

The Confederacy of Dunces, by which I mean both the media and the government, is nevertheless completely shocked by the things that are taking place. Why? If we are witnessing human behavior that has already been written about in excruciating, exquisite detail by a Nobel laureate, why aren't we just a little more prepared for such things happening in a real-life disaster?

The answer lies with the script. By now we know what a hurricane, or an earthquake, or a tornado, or any other natural disaster is "supposed" to look like. For a hurricane, we get a few days of stories speculating about the track the storm is going to take into the United States, and maybe a few stories showing the bad things that happened to some brown people as the monster wiped out their island. Then we get some exciting coverage of the storm moving in - lots of wind and rain, and the reporter clutching his hat while palm trees bend toward the road. The storm moves north, and the camera crews move in to the beachfront town. We get pictures of roofs lifted away, crumpled houses, boats that have landed inside restaurants. Some interviews with the distraught survivors. Maybe some funerals, which can stretch the coverage out for a few more days. And then we're on to the next story.

The problem with New Orleans was that Katrina didn't dance to the right music in the Big Easy. We weren't ready (except for the scientists and engineers who have been predicting this for years) for the rules to be broken, for the script to be tossed aside. After the hurricane, the water is supposed to go away, damn it! The part where a lake empties into a city that has been built below sea level just doesn't fit our expectations.

The government "leaders" had, of course, followed the same script. Why the hell wasn't the president in the situation room when all hell was breaking loose on the Gulf Coast? Why was he playing pretend guitar in Los Angeles? He wasn't in the situation room because nobody in the White House thought that we were facing a "situation." When we think of leadership, we think of Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive":

Alright, listen up, people. Our fugitive has been on the run for ninety minutes. Average foot speed over uneven ground barring injuries is 4 miles-per-hour. That gives us a radius of six miles. What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles. Your fugitive's name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him.

Had the president been sitting in the White House making phone calls, gathering information, and giving orders, we would have seen every Greyhound bus, school bus, city bus, and minivan from a 500 mile radius driving to New Orleans 2 days before the storm, picking up the 35% of the city's population who didn't have their own transport, and getting them to a place of safety. We would have seen food and water pre-positioned in the places where people assembled. We would have seen all available emergency personnel from every state in the union on standby to go save lives the minute the winds dropped enough for them to safely enter the affected areas.

Instead, we saw the president leisurely deciding it might be a good idea to wrap up his vacation and fly slowly over the devastation zone, showing all the grace of Vladimir Putin at his dacha while the Kursk sank to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and slowly suffocated more than 100 sailors. After all, his script said that everything would be all right in a day or two. Condi Rice was in New York shopping for thousand dollar shoes two days later - she had read the same script, and figured the cleanup would be already underway.

The reasons why the residents of New Orleans didn't have the good sense to get out of their city also have much to do with the script. Many residents couldn't get out because they didn't have private transport and lacked where to go. Others were stuck, in nursing homes or wherever. But a good many (probably a minority of those left behind) had probably seen the coverage of other hurricanes and knew that, according to the script, they would have some wild and wooly tales to tell and would then be the first to pick up the pieces and get on with their lives. How many Hollywood tales have you seen where you know the basic outlines of the movie after the first ten minutes of watching the plot get set up? Fault those people if you choose, but it is the media and the government leaders who really should have had the greater perspective to understand that the script would not necessarily apply. Alternate endings were not only possible but likely, and for those the people in command of public protection should have been in greater command of the realities faced by New Orleans and surrounding areas.

One other thing. We also all know the script when it comes to earthquake coverage. After the unpredicated initial event, after the shock of seeing buildings crumple and bodies crushed, we know that we have about 10 days during which rescue crews arrive from around the globe, put their stethoscopes to piles of rubble, and pull out "miracle" survivors who had managed to stay alive 4, 5, 8, or even 10 days after the catastrophe. Such stories should also be coming out of New Orleans right now. At this moment, 5 days after the storm hit, there are probably still people who are alive and trapped in their attics, people who will not be alive tomorrow. If they are alive tomorrow, they will not be alive the day after, or the day after, or whenever it is that help finally makes it to them. There are also people who are dead today - TODAY - who were alive yesterday, or the day before. If rescue personnel could have gotten in yesterday, these people might have lived. If the levee breach could have been fixed sooner, and pumping could have started sooner, some of the people who are dying NOW would instead live to tell the tale. We weren't watching the Earthquake script, though, where rescuers arrive en masse and save the survivors. We were following the Hurricane script, where you either die during the storm or you make it out alive. It will come as little consolation to the thousands of Americans who have lost family members - or whose loved ones will die in the next few days - that their suffering was caused in part because the media was broadcasting on, and the leaders were watching, the wrong channel.