Archive for September, 2005

The Thinker

Some more thoughts on blogging, and its future

In a couple months, I will have been blogging for three years. In Internet time, this is practically a lifetime. Many will try blogging but few will keep it up. No wonder. Even if your blog is just a stream of consciousness mostly for the amusement of you and your friends, it still takes time to put the words down and publish them. In my case, since I set a high standard for myself, most entries require quite a bit of thought, research and editing. This means they take considerable time. Since I also have a full time job and duties as a husband and father, (Wednesday, for example, was Back to School Night) finding the time to put together a good blog entry even every other day is challenging.

Thus I am somewhat in awe of those who can spew out lots of very good content on a more frequent basis. I am not sure where they find the time. I figure they are either independently wealthy, have a part time job, unemployed, or single. On the other hand, in order to blog perhaps they steal a lot of time from their employer. I do not do this. Aside from the ethical implications, I simply do not have the time. My job is very much a full time occupation. It could easily consume the rest of my personal life if I let it.

To write an excellent topical blog entry usually requires constantly sniffing through the blogosphere. In addition, I assume the best bloggers are reading lots of news articles and opinion pieces online and in print. These are necessary habits for those who want to be taken seriously. Perhaps these habits become second nature if you are a journalist, which I am not. All of these necessary activities take even more time. This makes it all the more remarkable when a blogger can put it altogether and consistently write excellent blog entries.

This is why I admire Billmon. I have written about the power of Dailykos.com. Kos is a huge progressive political site but to call it a blog is ridiculous. I know its owner Marcos keeps touting it as a blog. Sorry, it is not. It is better described as a “megablog”, allowing pretty much anyone to post one of two “diaries” a day, each of which amount to a blog entry. It is also a discussion community. Without allowing people to comment on stories and diaries, it would be a practically useless site. In short, Kos exists for the progressive blogosphere to talk about issues of the day.

Occasionally it actually goes beyond talking and generates real and effective action. Cindy Sheehan is one result of the Kos phenomenon. Cindy is the antiwar mother who lost her son Casey in Iraq. She spent August in a ditch outside of Bush’s ranch in Texas, and was encouraged and empowered by the Kos community. I do not think she would have done what she did without so many of us cheering her on. Cindy like the rest of us hangs out regularly on Kos, and most days posts a diary discussing her concerns and feelings. She often replies to people who leave comments on her diaries.

While Kos and some of his other authors often provide insightful diaries, they often feel rushed and not very well thought through. That is not true of Billmon and his site “The Whiskey Bar.” Billmon will also put out short blog entries, although he tends toward fewer and longer blog entries. I, and most of his barflies, hang around for the longer entries. His political analyses are just jaw dropping excellent. He can write not just coherently, but in a way that engages and amuses the reader. I hit many political blogs and Billmon stands by far above the crowd. He is truly a blog phenomenon. In fact, he is better than any political columnist I have read. If his entries were perhaps a touch less snarky then he could easily find himself as a columnist syndicated worldwide. He is that good. In addition to his essays, he is also a Photoshop whiz. His entries are often adorned with clever Photshopped images, many of which are hysterical.

If these attributes were not enough, his mind seems to be an encyclopedia. Billmon remembers quotes going back decades and can juxtapose old and modern quotes in a way I have never seen before. He sees patterns that most of us cannot see. While I am sure he makes frequent use of search engines like Google, using search engines effectively also requires a deep understanding of the problem domain. Billmon has it.

Blogging thus has the potential to liberate otherwise unheard of voices and give them some prominence. Sadly, many good bloggers get almost no readers. Content alone is no guarantee someone can jump out of the blog pack. It also requires people to find your blog and recommend it to others. I do not expect this blog, however good that I hope its content is, will get beyond a backwater blog.

Huffingtonpost, Arianna Huffington’s blog community, is pointing to perhaps a new blogging model for others to emulate. It is a collection of blogs, with the common theme being that posters are friends or friends of friends of Arianna. Arianna, of course, is rich and has prominent liberal friends including politicians and celebrities. Getting them to put out their own stories straight to the public makes a lot of sense. (I suspect that many of her authors are wise enough to have their works edited by others before posting.) Many of her celebrity bloggers already seem to have tired of blogging, but that is okay. It was sufficient to launch her site, and now it has its own buzz, as well as a fair amount of news.

While there are blog aggregator sites out there like blogspot.com, the bloggers there have nothing in common. Blogs on such sites range from excellent to dreadful. A choosy blog consumer like me would prefer to go to one site where we know the blog authors will be first rate. That is why I think Billmon should set up a megablog site like huffingtonpost.com. It should consist of only the best of the best bloggers. Billmon would be the lead blogger, of course, and its feature attraction. However, he could host a much larger community of top rated bloggers, all of whom have demonstrated his unique gifts of eloquence and insight.

Such a megablog should, in my opinion, not be strictly a political blog site. It should include areas that offer insight into the whole range of human experience. For example, I have a significant metaphysical category on my blog, the result of a lot of thought and a fair amount of reading. I do not think I am the best blogger in this area by any means, but such a megablog would include perhaps a couple premier bloggers in the metaphysics area.

With this model, consumers would get a simpler way of finding excellent content. I also think that bloggers, or at least those that rise to the top, would have a means of making a living off their hobby. Because this proposed site, like Kos, would either support targeted advertising or allow users to pay to opt out of advertising.

I am not sure how bloggers would be chosen for such a site. Perhaps criteria would include user input, existing page views and a committee that examines potential contributors. The criteria though should be very high. If the blogger cannot write coherently then they should not be hosted. Indeed, they need to be able to write very well, use authoritative sources and have expertise in their domain. For example, Juan Cole and Josh Marshall both have gravitas in their spheres of influence, and can speak with some authority. Both would be logical choices for contributors to this megablog.

I do not think this would kill the rest of the blogosphere. Technorati will still be out there. However, just as The Well was, at one time, an oasis of sanity in the online universe, so one of more megablog sites could also be useful, easily separating content worth our time from the dreck that sadly comprises much of the blogosphere.

As for Billmon, if you have not read him you are missing a real treat. While I think I may occasionally write a better entry than Billmon, and while I certainly tackle a lot more on this blog than just politics, no one does progressive political blogging better. Moreover, I doubt anyone else will. I just hope Billmon can keep it up. He is a blogging treasure.

 
The Thinker

The Futility of Porn Enforcement

Oh geez, the buffoons are at it again. I thought we were done with this foolish business of trying to stamp out pornography. As if we needed more ways to squander the taxpayer’s money. We build bridges to nowhere. We waste hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq for a war based on lies. We give subsidies to oil companies, already enjoying record profits, so they maybe might find some new energy sources. We waste billions of dollars in largely futile attempts to interdict illegal drugs crossing our borders. The list is seemingly endless. Now we can add another item to this long list. Yes, the porn squad is back and it is going to (cough cough) keep us safe from pornography.

Okay, perhaps it is just a token effort meant to appease the tiny percentage of Americans affiliated with the so-called American “Family” Association. The Justice Department, as part of a top initiative by our new attorney general Alberto Gonzales, is hiring ten FBI agents to protect us consenting adults from the “evils” of pornography. That is perhaps a couple million or so dollars a year, just a tiny fraction of the money (a billion dollars, folks) that we, oops, let an Iraqi official steal from us. Therefore, perhaps in this case, money is not the issue. (I am old fashioned enough to think that a million dollars is still a heap of money.) The issue is more than the money; it is the futility of the endeavor and the rank hypocrisy of the whole thing that bugs me more.

If you think our guns are precious to Americans, try taking away our pornography. We are addicted to pornography, as we always have been. However, unlike alcoholism, drug addiction or some of society’s other addictions, this one is not one that cannot nor should be “cured”. We love pornography because it is natural for us to enjoy it. After all, pornography predates prostitution. Cavemen found ways to put pornographic images on cave walls. You can go back to the dawn of civilization and you will find pornography. Not convinced? Spend some time in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and you will find numerous examples, including ancient dildos. Or if you prefer, spend some time in New York’s Museum of Sex at Fifth Avenue and 27th Street. ($5 off admission if you visit their web site!)

Earth to the Justice Department: humans are sexual creatures. We have always been that way and we always will be that way. Sex creates new life and feels incredibly wonderful, so of course we are intensely interested in anything related to it, particularly words or images that enhance these feelings. Some of the pious among us might like to pretend otherwise, but we can no more stop being sexual creatures than we can give up breathing. Even children are sexual creatures. Many babies discover masturbation about the same time they learn to use their fingers. And why not? It feels good and they are too innocent to think anything that feels good must be bad. This is one of many behaviors that parents feel their children must unlearn. It just would not be right sending junior to day care and to have him seen playing with his penis.

Yet it is not just infants. It is all of us. Heck, it is even old folks. What are many people in the last stages of life doing in nursing homes? As long as they have fingers that work, many of them are masturbating. It brings pleasure and it brings relief in a place where it is in scant supply. I am a sexual creature. If, when I die, they find me dead with an erection, at least I was being true to my species. Heck, I hope if I make it to a nursing home and cannot care for my sexual needs, some nurse’s aide will remedy the situation. For me sexuality is like food and I am not quite a full human being when I am deprived of either.

When real life cannot or will not provide us with the sexual stimulation we need, pornography offers a convenient and safe means to help us scratch our natural itch. For some, fantasy alone is sufficient. However, most of us need something more concrete to latch onto. Pornography is preferred because it is more vivid than something we can make up ourselves. Typically, women prefer the written kind of pornography. It is unlikely though that this new porn squad will be going after erotic literature. So women like my wife, who writes slash, are likely safe. (She is hoping she will be arrested by the porn squad. So here’s your invitation, Alberto Gonzales. Just be careful. The female slash community is huge. Take it from me, you don’t want to mess with these women.)

Nope, the porn squad is likelier to go after the visual kind. Because apparently visually capturing explicit human sexuality must somehow be destroying America’s moral foundations. Put junior in front of the computer for five minutes and oh lordy, he might see a naked woman. Naturally, let us not think through the issue of why the picture of a naked woman is somehow unhealthy. If a parent is concerned, there are solutions, like supervision. We have laws that prosecute those who market pornography to children. However, pornographers are not marketing to children. If children are seeing pornography, it is because their parents are deliberately, tacitly or are inadvertently allowing them to. So okay FBI, go after any pornographers who are targeting children. Good luck in finding them though.

Clearly protecting families is not the FBI’s major focus. Rather, it is initially targeting “manufacturers and purveyors” of pornography, i.e. those who provide a product and market it for adults. They may find prosecuting such “crimes” difficult, given that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld that consenting adults have the right to possess pornography. They will have to convince jurors in backwater states that the material meets standards nearly over thirty years old. They will have to go back to 1973 when in Miller vs. California the Supreme Court last set obscenity standards:

The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether the average person applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Of course, pornography has now become mostly electronic. Choosy consumers now prefer to consume pornography downloaded from the Internet. They have the perfectly reasonable expectation that in the privacy of their own homes, even in conservative communities, they can view all forms of pornography except the few that are specifically excluded by law, such as child pornography. The Internet has demonstrated, if nothing else, its resilience to regulation. Trying to regulate content on it is futile, and we are too dependent upon it now to do without it. (You would think though that we would at least be promoting the .xxx domain to help isolate pornography on the web, but we cannot seem to even do that. Perhaps this is because if we do, we are admitting that it is a problem that will never go away.)

Which means this effort is one that will simply spin its wheels until in 2008 when the next administration dumps it. It will have no effect on our consumption of pornography. It may put a few pornographers or distributors out of business, but the profits of pornography are even more alluring than its content. Others will doubtless pick up the slack. The good news for the FBI is that more and more Americans are becoming overweight. There are few things more effective at suppressing our sexual desires than adult diabetes. Because that is this is really about. It is not about pornography, it is about being a small minority that is currently in power being uptight that they are intensely sexual and sensual creatures too. It is about trying to make everyone conform to their misguided ideas of how human beings should behave. It is so pointless. We will never, ever be that way. It is counterproductive and harmful to even try.

No wonder FBI agents are not rushing to join the porn squad. No wonder they think it is a waste of their time and resources, particularly when we are supposed to be fighting a war on terrorism. I am not surprised then that an administration that has repeatedly proven itself wholly detached from reality will also waste our tax dollars on this pointless and quixotic exercise.

 
The Thinker

Our unstoppable energy

I am a creature of habit. My weekends are normally sacrosanct. After a full week of work, I have a hard time just getting up the energy to pay bills and shop for groceries. Nevertheless, yesterday I found myself drawn, as if by magnetism, out of my bed and into Washington, D.C. for the large antiwar march.

I had an idea what to expect. In 2000, I took a number of junior high students down to the National Mall to protest at a gay rights rally. We paraded down Constitution Avenue and proudly held up our Unitarian Universalist banner to the cheers of many and the jeers of a few. One man carried a large wooden cross across the Mall. He lectured us on the evils of homosexuality. Whom would Jesus hate? I wished him a good therapist and wondered what twisted upbringing had caused him to hate so many people.

Yesterday the weather looked chancy so I brought an umbrella. The Metrorail train was filled with antiwar protestors. Activists were busy handing out flyers on the train. An obviously very young communist was informing us that we needed a revolution. He went on to say that there were many good things about Josef Stalin. I bit my lip and wondered if this naïve man knew that Stalin had killed as many men as Hitler, and maybe more.

This rally was sponsored in part by International Answer. They had their own agenda, and getting troops out of Iraq was just one part of it. I do not know whether to loathe or love International Answer. Most likely, the rally would not have happened at all without them. Usually, it takes the energy of the fringe to organize massive rallies like this. For this, the antiwar people should be grateful. However, half of their rally consisted of speeches on causes having little to do with the war on Iraq. Yes, I want to end racism but no, I am not for socialism. I was definitely sympathetic to their call for Palestinian rights. Yes, I think we should end our subsidy of Israel, much of which is used to oppress Palestinians and confiscate their land and water. On the other hand, when they wanted us to chant “Intifada forever”, I decided I had been at the rally too long. While I understand why armed resistance occurs, I do not support violence as a solution to oppression.

However, most of the speakers were good, although they added little illumination to the issues. Antiwar rallies are not about articulating subtle aspects of foreign policy. They are about demonstrating political power. There were plenty of simple chants and lots of noise. I worked my way to within fifty feet of the stage. Among the celebrities who spoke were the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Cindy Sheehan. The most coherent of the bunch was Ramsey Clark, our attorney general during the Johnson Administration. He called for Bush’s impeachment. Indeed, many in the crowd toted Impeach Bush! signs. Clark made a convincing case for impeachment. However, he was clearly pissing into the wind. Bush has no chance of being impeached by this Congress. In the unlikely event that Congress turns Democratic in 2006 then we can talk about it.

Amtrak trains from the northeast were delayed by suspiciously timed electrical problems. There were also delays on some of the Metrorail lines. Consequently, the organizers of the rally delayed the march, to the disgruntlement of many in the crowd. “We came here to march!” many of them hollered. Instead, we got one speaker after another from the increasingly lunatic fringes of ANSWER. The crowd at the rally began to notice that marchers were queuing up on Constitution Avenue. So eventually, most abandoned the rally and joined in the queue. All the while overhead, a Navy helicopter kept circling us. I am not sure what they feared. One speaker remarked that the helicopter should be down in Texas or New Orleans helping hurricane survivors rather than keeping a paranoid eye on a peaceful crowd. Indeed.

So the rally left something to be desired. I was beginning to wonder how many people would actually be in the march, because we had filled up The Ellipse but not much else. The clouds were getting darker and we occasionally were spattered with rain. It turned out that the rally itself was a sideshow, and the march was the main event.

My fears of an undersize crowd did not materialize. I do not know where all the protestors came from all of a sudden but they were everywhere. I waited for about an hour in a line just to get to a point where I could participate in the march. I picked up one of the many free signs and plunged in.

While the march was peaceful, it was still an angry crowd. I did not see anyone giving flowers out to the police officers. On the other hand, with no violence the police officers had little to do but observe. I got the feeling that, unlike during the days of the Vietnam protests, they were on our side. There were so many people that the march moved very slowly and often stopped altogether.

While we were certainly angry, there was still a lot of humor. Billionaires for Bush made a hilarious appearance on Pennsylvania Avenue. Many of the signs were not only barbed, but also funny. Some were even obscene. There were sideshows along the march route, which went up 15th Street and across Pennsylvania Avenue right in front of the White House. Where were all these people coming from? When we approached 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, I was able to look down Pennsylvania Avenue see other marchers going south on 12th Street, queuing up to protest. Buses lined the roads, but lots of others were coming from the Metro, or had walked in from Union Station.

The volume of marchers was truly staggering. D.C. Police Chief Ramsey said that he believed there were 100,000 marchers at least, and would not be surprised if there were 150,000 altogether. It could well have been more than this. It was hard to measure, but six hours of marching is a lot of marchers. The march continued into the night, long after I had returned home. Whatever the turnout, it was an awesome number of protestors.

The march was very much a cross section of America itself. From grandmothers to toddlers, from Buddhist monks to starry-eyed teens, they were all there. I was proudest of our youth, who were there in large numbers, vocal and full of energy. They needed to march in large numbers because unless policy changes they will be the ones most likely to pay with their lives for Bush’s lies.

Naturally, both our President and Vice President managed to stay out of town. However, our message was unmistakable: our war with Iraq is based on lies and has turned into an unwinnable disaster. It is not going to get better, so we need to bring home our troops home now before more lives are lost. As one sign put it, “Troops for the Gulf States, not the Persian Gulf!”

Our administration will, of course ignore this protest. Nevertheless, members of Congress had better wake up and smell the coffee. Reputedly, Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove calls the antiwar movement non-existent. If he still holds to this position, he is a fool. Even the few pro-war folks who stopped to heckle us must have left the march chagrined. Our overwhelming size and power can no longer be snippily dismissed. Moreover, we will keep at it until we have our troops home and our country back in the hands of people who have some clue how to govern.

I took my protest sign home with me. As I was exiting the Vienna Metro station, a middle aged pro-war protestor harassed me. “Do you know that you are helping Osama bin Laden kill American soldiers?” he lectured me. Goodness! Imagine that! That Bush would invade a country illegally and result in the deaths of nearly 2000 of our service members and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis did not seem to bother him at all. I guess our troops are safer in Iraq than they are in the United States. I did not engage him in conversation and he was soon onto heckling some other antiwar protestors.

This was a sad end to a day full of energy and excitement. If you were at the rally then the power of the people was palpable. We were one large unified mass and our beat rang out across Washington and the United States. Our current government is now riddled with major fissures, and we created another one yesterday. The people are already with us. It is inevitable that we will win. As the situation continues to devolve and the 2006 elections approach, congressional representatives will realize which side their bread is buttered on, and will find a way to end this pointless war.

 
The Thinker

The telephone transformed

My web cam arrived today. I ordered one for myself, along with a headset. Both plug into the serial ports of my computer. Since I am a manager, I also ordered sets for my whole team. The time has come to say goodbye to the telephone.

My team, like many nowadays, is geographically disbursed. I have three employees working with me in Reston, Virginia, with others in Portland, Oregon, Helena and Anchorage. As you might expect we already do a lot of our work using the ubiquitous telephone system. At a minimum, we have two conference calls a week, each lasting at least two hours.

Until now, the telephone system has been an essential collaboration tool. Its simplicity can be a virtue, particularly when the network is experiencing hiccups. However, the reality is that we cannot do our work solely by telephone. Like all knowledge workers, we cannot be efficient without standard Internet technologies like email and instant messaging. IM was theoretically prohibited for years in our agency, but we found we could not do work without it. The AOL Instant Messaging (AIM) program somehow ended up on all our desktop computers.

Until about six months ago, our conference calls worked like this: everyone looked at the same web page that had our agenda on it. The scribe would take notes, and save them periodically. We would refresh the web page with our browser to verify the notes and take down our action items.

About a year back, my team leader and I started playing with Microsoft NetMeeting. This Windows program lets two or more people share their computer screens live and in real time over the Internet. We found that it worked great and began using it with our conference calls. Since that time, my agency has invested in hosted virtual meeting solutions that are a bit easier to use. We have joined the numerous list of Webex customers who meet online. Note pages are no longer static. We watch the scribe as he or she types up the notes in near real time. Sometimes the scribe will switch to another application, like Microsoft Project, and we can all see the project schedule and give input to it. To work efficiently, these “live” virtual meetings depend on our fat pipes to the Internet.

The fidelity of telephones, to put it mildly, sucks. Companies like Skype are taking advantage of the Plain Old Telephone System’s (POTS) drawbacks. They figure millions of people are already sitting in front of their computers all day and many also have headsets and microphones. Therefore, Skype lets them “phone” each other over the Internet. As long as their bandwidth is high and the network latency is low, the voice over Internet experience is dramatically better than using a telephone. It is like hearing someone sitting next to you, instead of hearing a voice through a walkie-talkie. Skype offers this service for free to those who are comfortable with computer to computer voice communication. They will also be glad to connect you to someone on a landline if necessary, but that is when their meter starts running.

Skype’s business model seems to have attracted attention. Ebay is planning to purchase Skype. It recognizes that there is an emerging market for voice over the Internet. It is hardly alone. There are all sorts of companies in variants of this business. Vonage is one of many. It offers what appears to be a regular telephone service, but all conversation is done digitally over the internet.

Services like Skype suggest that we may be paying too much for telephone service. Indeed, Skype seems to be saying voice over Internet to anywhere in the world should come free with Internet access. Increasingly our computer networks are becoming faster, cheaper and more reliable. At some point in the not too distant future, the landline will become obsolete. In fact, many people have already replaced their landlines with a cell phone.

Yet even cell phone networks may be obsolete in a decade. If phone calls can be made over the wired Internet then why not over a wireless internet too? While it is possible to see web pages using a cell phone network, it is not necessarily the best way to do it. Using a cell phone network to access the web is sort of like using 9600-baud modems to access the Internet. Just as voice lines were not designed to carry data, cell phone networks are not optimized to deliver Internet content. However, a new wireless Internet infrastructure is emerging. Verizon Wireless Internet, for example, claims to be accessible to more than a third of all Americans. Of course, you need to be near a metropolitan area. With Verizon Wireless Internet, you do not need to find a local hotspot to get online. As long as you are in a broad service area, you can get 400-600 kilobits per second wireless internet access. This is comparable to DSL speeds.

In the office, where 100 megabits per second is standard, 400-600 kbps is pokey. With this kind of bandwidth, voice and even video over the network is viable. That is why I ordered computer headsets and web cams for my team. Why not? I am sure my agency pays a heap of money for our data network infrastructure, but probably does not pay for the amount of bandwidth used. VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technologies deliver voice over the Internet, but in a way that guarantees no noticeable delays. (The Internet is a packet switched network, and was not designed for synchronous communications.) Since my agency does not yet have VOIP services, voice over the Internet may at times be a bit choppy. Until VOIP arrives, we still have POTS that we can still use if needed. Nevertheless, I believe that we will prefer voice over the Internet instead, because latency should be minimal and we will appreciate the better voice quality it provides.

The web cams we purchased will also come in handy. I can use them to find out if someone is at their desk or has someone in the office. I can even see their body language. This is impossible with voice only networks.

Both web cams and computer headsets are cheap commodities. Therefore, purchasing them seemed a no-brainer for me. The web cams and headsets have not all come in yet. Once installed I anticipate that we will improve our productivity and lower our costs too. As for POTS, it is already disappearing. In fact, most long distance POTS telephone calls are already turned into a digital format for transmission. At the local telephone exchanges, the digital calls are transferred back to the familiar analog signals that Alexander Graham Bell first used.

The Baby Bells, sensing the end to their reign, are busy putting fiber optic networks in place for next generation data services. Telephone and Internet services are converging, but telephone services will simply become another feature that will be transparently handled over the Internet. The flexible and efficient digital nature of the Internet is bound to win this battle. The telephone as we know it will soon fade into obsolescence, as puzzling to the next generation as typewriters are to Generation Y.

Suits me.

 
The Thinker

God eyes Crawford, Texas and she is pissed

I am spiritual and not really religious. Nonetheless, if I were religious then I would be wondering about the message of Hurricane Rita, which looks like it will hit the Texas coastline with its full fury on Saturday. Where it makes landfall is anyone’s guess. However, I did notice that, at least at the moment, that its projected path would take the center of Rita right over Crawford, Texas. Hmm.

Crawford, of course, is our president’s official home away from home. It is also about two hundred miles in from the coast. Therefore, even if Rita makes landfall as a Category 5 hurricane, it would lose a lot of its punch by the time it hit Crawford. Still, according to the news, only three category five hurricanes have ever hit the U.S. mainland in recorded history. Even the hurricane that killed 6,000 people in Galveston, Texas in 1900 was not a Category 5 hurricane. So this hurricane could prove to be even more destructive than Hurricane Katrina. It is possible that Mr. Bush himself may choose to apply to FEMA for some disaster relief. If so, he and Senator Trent Lott would have something new in common. Perhaps sometime after the storm and subsequent repairs they will visit each other’s houses and sip mint juleps on their new porches. Doubtless, they will be discussing their bravery for hunkering down hundreds of miles from the event and making sonorous statements at press conferences about how they feel the pain of the displaced. (Do not call them refugees!)

It seems like Bush spends more time at the Prairie Ranch than he ever does at the White House. With Rita bearing down on it, he is unlikely to spend this weekend dallying at his ranch. No, of course he will be elsewhere, most likely at Camp David. Anyhow, Bush doesn’t do weekends in Washington. This weekend in particular he has incentive to stay away. Antiwar protestors (including the woman who sat outside his ranch during most of August, Cindy Sheehan) are coming to Washington on Saturday. If Bush holds true to form he will be safely absconded in Camp David where, thanks to its blessed remoteness, antiwar protestors are never seen nor heard.

Perhaps with his poll numbers in the toilet he will deign to skip his regular bike ride. Instead he may hover somewhere near the edge of the hurricane zone and engage in some desperately needed photo ops. This time Karl Rove should be astute enough to make sure that there is plenty of time for him to been seen hugging evacuees and perhaps giving them bottles of Perrier. This looks much better than strumming the guitar with country western singers when hurricanes are approaching our coasts.

If I were a believer in God influencing the course of natural events, I would be struck by a few observations. First, Rita grazed the Florida Keys. It is like sending a warning shot to Bush’s younger brother that God is coming, and she is pissed. Second, Rita is hustling toward Texas, and picking up new energy on the way. If God is the vengeful God so popular in the Old Testament and channeled by religious conservatives, whipping up what may be the most massive hurricane to hit Texas just a few weeks after our botched response to Hurricane Katrina (Category Four) and pointing it directly at Crawford … well it would suggest she would be sending a message.

This is one of the reasons that I do not believe in a vengeful God. Because although Texas is a bright red state, and although it has been millennium since God got formally into the genocide business, no one with half a brain, Republican or Democrat would wish this kind of misery on anyone. Nevertheless, since so many of the people who voted George W. Bush into office apparently are believers in this kind of deity, what is the message? Why does God hate lawful, God-fearing, obnoxiously Christian, obscenely low tax Texans? There is hardly sufficient time for some of these citizens to load up their essentials into their Hummers and beat it into Oklahoma. They are probably thinking, why us God? Why us when there are so many other tempting targets? Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston would have made excellent targets instead. Many of these cities are rife with homosexuals, wiccans, pagans, transvestites, gun control advocates, and (shudder) Unitarian Universalists.

Besides, many of these devout Texans believe the end is near. Yes, the apocalypse is right around the corner. You can tell because God has been ordering them to buy read all those Left Behind books. When the apocalypse arrives, the good book tells us that the heathens are going to Hell. The God-fearing, morally upright Christians, populated en masse along the Texas coast, get rapture and eternal life instead. But, but after Hurricane Katrina, even good religious conservatives have figured it out: surviving a hurricane is no rapture. It is more like living in hell. I mean, it might even mean living in a shelter with poor black people. That alone might cause a stroke.

Now is the time for prayer. I am not a praying man, but I will make an exception. I will pray that some greater force of nature stops Hurricane Rita. I want it to dissolve into a wimpy little storm that leaves a few sprinkles along the Texas coast. Yet somehow, I expect that God will not be listening, or if she is, she will have no change in heart.

On the other hand, maybe bad things just happen, and God stays studiously hands off. Maybe God expects us to use that body organ called the brain to build our gardens of Eden on firmer ground.

Oy, these things are meant to try us. The god-fearing and not so god-fearing residents of Texas look like they will soon have to deal with nature’s bountiful wrath. Meanwhile, California, a big and bright blue state has much of its population adjacent to the San Andreas Fault. Those who believe in a vengeful God will be positively giddy when a big one strikes over there. When this happens, they will doubtless see the hand of God at work. Meanwhile, they will have to ignore this little theological boat anchor dropped on their lap called Hurricane Rita.

As for me, I will keep sending my checks to the American Red Cross. In addition, I will urge my fellow citizens in these unsafe areas to move somewhere less likely to have natural disasters. Nature has been giving us a wakeup call the last few years. Are you listening?

(P.S. Of course, Rita has nothing to do with global warming.)

 
The Thinker

Review: March of the Penguins

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. If you do not have any respect for the other species inhabiting our planet, the documentary March of the Penguins should provide it. No matter what problems you may have the dating, mating and parenting process of the Emperor Penguins, intimately documented by French director Luc Jacquet, will make your problems seem trivial.

Filmed entirely in Antarctica, the film begins with penguins emerging from the ocean and beginning a fifty-mile journey into the continent to a place where the ice is thick and the predators are few. A fifty-mile journey, for a bird that cannot even fly, sounds arduous enough. For a penguin, this is just the start of a reproduction process that lasts more than four months in the coldest spots on the planet.

There is something endearing about watching penguins. They seem cuddly and almost human like. So it becomes impossible not to feel for them, particularly since the camera takes us right into their colonies and gives us such an intimate look at their Herculean journey. Keeping an egg warm during the winter months in Antarctica is a daunting prospect. It is largely left up to the male penguins to keep the egg warm while the females hurry back to the ocean to feed. The females return months later with a belly full of food for the hatchlings. Meanwhile, the dutiful male penguins hang together for their mutual survival and the survival of the eggs they hold between their legs. For months, they hang together, endlessly shuffling around, back and forth, from the center of their group to the edges. It is one for all and all for one. With temperatures around a hundred degrees below zero Fahrenheit, they must all work together to ensure their joint survival. Along the way, these male penguins must endure more than four months without food.

Penguins, we learn, are monogamous, but only for one season. It is endearing to watch them go through their courtship ritual, and the great care they take maintaining the egg. One would almost accuse penguins of being stoic except they often seem noisy. Perhaps they cry to relieve frustration, or simply to stay warm. Yet when their job is finally done and the hatchlings have made it to the sea, it is “see you later kid, nice knowing you”. Mother and father quickly split and will likely choose new mates the next year. The hatchlings get to wander around the ice flows until they discover the sea and eventually learn to swim and find their own sustenance.

It is hard to know for whom to feel sorrier: the penguins, or the humans who survived such extreme conditions to bring this story to us. This film has little in the way of fantastic scenery to take our breath away, although the accompanying music helps tug at your heartstrings and Morgan Freeman’s narration adds to the film’s poignancy. The film does not really need spectacular scenery or terrific camera work. The penguins’ story more than suffices and is altogether riveting.

It is hard to watch natural selection at work. Some eggs of course do not survive. Older penguins that cannot mate and are left to die. We watch a bird prey on the baby chicks, and a seal having a mother penguin for lunch. Despite these hard facts of life, the emperor penguin seems indefatigable. Though their mating time is measured in months, their devotion during that time is obvious and heartwarming.

This true to life film is something of a low-level movie phenomenon. It is not often that a documentary hangs around in a theater for more than a few weeks. This short film obviously touches a primal spot in us. Perhaps it allows us to channel a more distant past when we humans too had to battle enormous odds in order to survive. March of the Penguins gives an appreciation for both the difficulty of survival and the miracle of life itself. Though the world of the penguin is hard for us to understand and appreciate, we can nonetheless feel tenderness for these creatures and root for their survival.

If you enjoy this film, I can also recommend another French documentary for your enjoyment: Winged Migration. In many ways, this is an even better film. Winged Migration follow birds on their migration from northern to southern climates and back. Like March of the Penguins, it is astonishing in its intimacy. Somehow, the cinematographers managed to be next to the birds as they fly. (I assume they were using some sort of ultralight airplanes.) Both films provide intimate glimpses into the natural world from a hitherto unseen perspective. March of the Penguins is still easy to find in theaters. If you can find Winged Migration in your video store, you will find it equally compelling.

 
The Thinker

Cognitive dissonance strikes again in the West Wing

Will someone please put this administration out of its self-inflicted misery? One would hope that after the disaster inflicted by Hurricane Katrina that something might have changed in the Bush’s skull where he is alleged to have a brain. Surely walking around the detritus of New Orleans and passing over hundreds of miles of utter devastation in Bush’s presidential helicopter might have made something of an impression.

Alas, no. It is now to clear that Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina is more of the same cognitive dissonance that we have come to expect from this administration. The administration at least seems to be mindful that it has a big problem on the Gulf Coast and it must be fixed. However, they cannot seem to step outside the boundaries of their ideology in order to do so.

I am reminded of a Dilbert cartoon from many years back. The Pointy Haired Boss throws some new assignments on Dilbert’s desk, both of which must be done immediately. Dilbert replies that it is impossible to do both, since logically he can only do one thing at a time. Which assignment will it be? His boss’s brilliant response: do them both at the same time!

While laughable on the comics page, it is excruciatingly embarrassing to see this played out in real life by our president and his administration. So let us review the story so far:

  • We are currently embroiled in an unnecessary and illegal war in Iraq that will cost us at least $250B. We will have to cough up more money for the war soon, but we have no viable exit strategy. Iraq is in a defacto civil war. Iraq will continue to bleed us dry in terms of both money and soldier’s lives for years to come.
  • Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and a significant portion of the Gulf Coast. We are spending about $2B a day on hurricane relief. In addition to spending for day-to-day needs, Bush plans to spend whatever it takes to rebuild the area. It looks like we will spend at least as much rebuilding from this natural disaster as we have spent so far in Iraq.
  • Rather than cutting discretionary spending, as you might expect from a Congress controlled by Republicans, Congress keeps piling on the pork, passing hugely expensive prescription drug legislation for seniors, transportation and energy bills that naturally do little to address these problems but of course reward favored corporation with billions of our tax dollars.
  • Congress is set to repeal the estate tax and is pushing for other tax cuts.
  • Bush keeps signing into law spending bills that violate his own spending ceilings. He has yet to veto a single bill.
  • Now Bush says that we will pay for the costs of Hurricane Katrina by cutting discretionary spending, even though Congress has yet to show any willingness to do so. Congress in fact has loaded up discretionary spending.

If I were a lender to the United States government, this would be the last straw. I would be pulling the plug. I would be cashing in my T-bills. It is clear the lunatics are running the government. They haven’t a frigging clue how to manage anything. They are incapable of making hard choices. When hard choices are even suggested, like former President Bill Clinton’s suggestion to roll back the Bush tax cuts, they are conveniently ignored. No one is held accountable for all this massive borrowing and mismanagement.

As I remarked before, it is the guns and butter administration. It is the “no sacrifices ever” administration. Nothing, not even our nation’s largest national disaster, means any rethinking of policy. Heaven forbid, there must be no new taxes to compensate for this spending, especially on those who can easily afford to pay them. In fact, we must keep cutting taxes. Meanwhile promise the residents of Mississippi and Louisiana the moon, even though they chose to live in an area prone to national disasters. Why should they be held accountable for their choices when the Bush Administration will not be held accountable either? Instead, we will spend whatever it takes. Somehow, we know, we know, that we can make it up in cuts to discretionary spending that we have never found the will to actually implement.

Bush’s father had the right words for this: voodoo economics. He should feel chagrined that it is being championed by his son.

If we are lucky then when we start charging the $200B plus in new spending to the national charge card our lenders won’t bolt. If we are even luckier, our foreign creditors will say that we will not loan you another dime until you either increase taxes or cut other spending elsewhere. If that happens then finally the conversation that Bush has avoided for five years might happen: making real choices about what is important in government.

For now, though Bush is our pointy haired president running the show. We will do it all even though it is logistically and fiscally impossible. What this amounts to is we will keep borrowing and we will pray our lenders will not cut off the credit.

In addition, if this were not enough, Bush sees this disaster as yet another opportunity to demonstrate the virtues of neo-conservative group think. The only proper way to respond to this disaster seems to involve setting up lots of free enterprise zones and turning over bought and paid for federal land to homesteaders for zilch. Moreover, in the short term it means dropping federal wage laws and suspending environmental regulations in affected areas.

It apparently does not mean having a conversation on national priorities, or involving the Democrats in any way, or raising any taxes. Nor does it mean much in the way of accountability. “Brownie” may be gone from FEMA but Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff remains, and he was the primarily obstructionist to a quick federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Instead, we get more of the same voodoo “magic” that over the last five years has kept the stock market flat, devalued wages, allowed more Americans to be priced out of the health care, allowed gasoline to top $3 a gallon, and placed more people into poverty.

It is now unfortunately clear that the real disaster was not Hurricane Katrina, is was the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Bush vs. Gore, which put these bozos into the power. The lunatics are still running the asylum and they just cannot say no to another shot glass of neo-conservative whiskey.

 
The Thinker

Like moving an aircraft carrier with paddles

As you might expect on my forum we have been discussing Hurricane Katrina. Who is to blame? Who is not to blame? Some fault New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin for not having fleets of school buses ready to ferry citizens to safety. Others criticize the Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco for not having an effective response to Hurricane Katrina. (It is harder to be effective when a third of the state’s National Guard is stuck in Iraq.)

Those of us living outside Louisiana are more focused on the response by federal officials. FEMA director Michael Brown dutifully fell on his sword. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff so far seems to be dodging responsibility, but he may be called to account in time. President Bush now says that he takes responsibility for the poor response by the federal government. These are surprising words from him, since he has spent the first five years of his presidency avoiding accountability. Naturally, his admission does not mean that he is planning to resign. Atonement seems to consist of spending in only a few months more money on hurricane relief and reconstruction than we spent so far for the entire Iraq war. Doubtless, his political adviser Karl Rove is pushing him to do so because he is fearful that some otherwise red states may flip to blue. It takes a heap of money to satisfy over a million very angry and displaced citizens, if it can be done at all.

It is human nature to cast blame. In this case, there appears to be plenty to go around. I would like to suggest that perhaps Congress was also to blame by creating the Department of Homeland Security in the first place.

Just in case you are wondering if I hate America and want terrorists to run free, that is not how I feel. I just wonder if creating a centralized cabinet level department, amounting to the largest reorganization of the federal government in fifty years, was the smartest way to protect our homeland. As a long-term strategy, perhaps it made some sense. In the short-term those of us who have been around the bureaucracy a while knew what to expect: a lot of dysfunction and chaos.

The last agency I worked for, the Administration for Children and Families is a typical example of what happens when agencies merge. When I arrived in 1998, the agency was still quite obviously still the two agencies it had been prior to 1991. The reality was that it still acted like the two agencies it had been: the Family Support Administration and the Office of Human Development Services. Each was still doing its own thing, right down to using dissimilar email systems. Sure, they were trying to become one integrated agency but it was still a daunting process. Each agency had a long legacy of doing things their own way. Each had programs that had to keep going in spite of the merger. So merging the two agencies into one agency in reality was something that was very hard to do. It was a little like running and juggling at the same time. It is possible, but most of us do not acquire this skill easily.

By government standards, the merger that produced ACF was not too complex. After all, these were just two agencies that needed to come together, not a dozen. In addition, they belonged to the same department before the merger. By the time I left, thirteen years after the merger, integration finally felt achieved. For one thing, the agency was finally using one email system.

Now look at this new Department of Homeland Security. Pieces of DHS came from the Treasury, Health and Human Services, Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, Defense and Energy departments. It also absorbed portions of independent agencies like the FBI and GSA, and the entire Federal Protective Service. Before the merger, these agencies rarely talked to each other.

Of course, each of these agencies had previous missions that were left largely intact after their consolidation into DHS. While the DHS secretary had authority over these agencies, the reality was that getting them orchestrated was and continues to be a big and frustrating endeavor. To take one example, a new DHS performance based personnel system needs to be created. Meanwhile these agencies are having a tough time continuing their old mission. Why? Because a lot of chaos is being thrown at them. Just because INS became ICE did not mean that immigrants were going to stop coming into the country. Second, they have new or expanded missions directed by the DHS secretary. Third, boundary lines and responsibilities became unclear. They may be there on paper, but working through the low-level intricacies to implement these changes is very difficult. Fourth, they are being pressured to make all these big changes very quickly. The result is that instead of having a dozen or so agencies that in the past were reasonably effective in their individual missions, now there are a dozen or so agencies with reduced ability to carry out their missions. They seem like they are stuck in the tar pit.

There are possible ways around this sort of bureaucratic mess. One way is to have centralized budgetary authority but to continue to let each agency to perform its mission relatively freely. In other words, the DHS secretary could set goals for what needed to be done but leave the strategy and implementation to the individual agencies. The downside is that each agency may misinterpret what they should do, and there may be turf battles. The upside is the things that each agency can probably carry out its individual missions fairly well, since sand is probably not gunking up their engines.

It appears though that DHS, trying to bend to the will of the president and Congress, promised the moon. They would do it all, and they would do it all very quickly. It was a stupid thing to promise of course. However, good civil servants simply salute and do their best to make it so. Unfortunately, their best cannot possibly meet Congress’s unrealistic and stratospheric expectations. Congress always asks for the moon, and they want it yesterday. They expect elephants to dance immediately.

The result is a lot of bureaucratic dysfunction, some of which I believe was sadly but predictably manifest in the response to Hurricane Katrina. It was the idea of homeland security meeting the sad but predictable reality of how fast a new large organization can meet its new mission. Instead of acting like a well-trained police force, we had the Keystone Kops. Should we act surprised if they were never sent to the academy?

Our government is of course very large because it is being asked to manage large, difficult and multifaceted problems. Believe it or not it can do many things very well. I ought to know. I have been a civil servant for over twenty years. My current agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, is amazingly well run and effective. However, it has also largely been left to itself. It retains the same name it had when it was created in the 19th century. As a science organization, it is largely left alone to do its science. I have little doubt that if it were pulled apart and its pieces stuck in different departments that it would devolve into a collection of inefficient pieces.

A new department like DHS can be envisioned like new large aircraft carrier just out of the dry dock. The crew is new, coming on board, finding their quarters and checking out the ship. The crew consists of people who worked on completely different kinds of ships and boats. So right now, the crew is trying to figure out how to get the engines to run and to steer the ship. It will come in time. Nevertheless, for now expecting DHS to move efficiently is like trying to move this aircraft carrier with many long paddles from the flight deck. Perhaps with everyone rowing at the same time even this behemoth ship will move. However good the idea of DHS was in the abstract, do not expect it to be smooth sailing for many years to come. Let us hope those out to destroy our country have many other distractions or are more inept.

 
The Thinker

The Gitmo Scapegoats

At Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, we have been housing “detainees”, most of who were captured in Iraq or Afghanistan, for as much as three and a half years. Most were caught in a battle area without a uniform so they were not granted prisoner of war status. Instead, they have been shuffled into a legal limbo for which there appears to be no exit.

Some of these detainees may very well be terrorists. Many claim not to be. However, it does not seem to matter to our government. They have become persona non grata devoid of any rights or privileges, with no right to a trial or even (some allege) a fair hearing. (If it were not bad enough to do this to non-citizens, a court recently affirmed the president’s right to do it to an American citizen during a time of war too.) Since the War on Terrorism promises to last longer than the War on Drugs, these detainees could well spend the rest of their lives in the cells at Gitmo.

Some have reached the breaking point. At least 128 of them are on a hunger strike, and more seem to be joining the ranks every day. Some have been forcibly removed to the infirmary where they are being kept alive through forced feedings. The hunger strike is now on its fifth week. If not for the forced feedings, it is likely that some of these detainees would now be dead.

I do not know how any American, no matter how patriotic, can read these stories and not feel unsettled and deeply disturbed. These detentions may be legal under our bizarrely interpreted rules of engagement, but they are unquestionably inhuman and immoral. The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, is very clear:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment… Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law… Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Those guilty of crimes deserve to be punished. Those innocent deserve to be free. Nevertheless, no one, not even someone we suspect to be our worst enemy, deserves to be held in prison forever with their ultimate fate unknown. Basic human decency tells us this is true, and the United Nations, which speaks for all humanity, calls us to account.

Perhaps I would be more accommodating to our president if I had some indication that these men were truly dangerous and bent on destroying America. Who can say? No one seems to be in any rush to bring forth evidence against these men. And naturally our president is wholly indifferent to their fate. He says he is protecting America. If in the process he spoils a few perfectly good apples, well that’s the breaks. Nevertheless, when you read stories like this, then even the most rabidly patriotic among us must have some doubts.

A masked teenager in an Iraqi army uniform walked slowly through a crowd of 400 detainees captured Monday, studying each face and rendering his verdict with a simple hand gesture, like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of gladiators.

A thumb pointed down meant the suspect was not thought to be an insurgent and would be released by U.S. soldiers. A thumb pointed up meant a man would be removed from the concertina wire-encased pen, handcuffed with tape or plastic ties and taken by truck to a military base to be interrogated.

Feeling the heat, the military has decided that some of the detainees can go back to their country, provided their host countries put them in local prisons. Perhaps this is an improvement. The medical care at Gitmo may be better but friends and relatives may come by the prison to say hello. Now these detainees live thousands of miles from what they know as home, cut off from their culture, in a foreign climate, caged, controlled, ceaselessly monitored and conveniently out of the public eye.

About a fourth of the prisoners at Guantanamo have said, “Enough.” Give them a fair hearing or they will choose death. Others allege brutality by the guards and interrogators. Some claim that prisoners are segregated based on how well they cooperate with interrogators. Those in orange jumpsuits are considered uncooperative and they claim are singled out for discipline tantamount to torture.

However, apparently we cannot even give them the dignity of choosing their own permanent exit from their hellish imprisonment. So that we will not bear the stain of their deaths, we will keep them force fed against their will. In their case, we will not even recognize their human right to have control over their own body. In effect, these detainees have been relegated to a legal status of something less than human.

What a sorry and sick situation. I doubt more than a handful of these people are true terrorists. They may have been part of the Taliban and were fighting what they saw as the illegal occupation of their country. That by itself does not mean they terrorized other people. Perhaps some were even affiliated with al Qaeda, but it is unlikely that any one of them directly helped in the attacks on September 11th.

In effect, the detainees at Guantanamo Bay have become our country’s scapegoats. Unable or unwilling to capture Osama bin Laden, we pick people who may be vaguely associated with him instead. I am reminded of William James’s book, The Moral Philosopher where he envisioned:

Millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specified and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

That is how the situation at Gitmo feels to me. It preys on my conscience. What we are doing there feels deeply evil and wrong, as evil as anything these people would do to us. I wish we had leaders who felt similarly. However, apparently I must be in the minority. Our president does not care. In fact, he feels great about what he is doing, although the evidence suggests it is just encouraging more terrorists to lash out against us. My two Republican senators and my Republican congressional representative do not seem to care. Moreover, for many Americans, anyone in Gitmo is by inference guilty of hating America anyhow, and we are being oh so humane just by keeping them alive.

What this repugnant situation needs is prompt resolution. Military tribunals strike me as reprehensible, but at least it might amount to some sense of closure for these detainees. Being left for forgotten and perpetually in legal limbo is perhaps the cruelest fate we can inflict on anyone. Better to be dead than to be alive but not to live.

I am afraid it will take a new administration and a new congress to change the situation. I hope that when resolution finally arrives there is something resembling human beings left in the inhabitants of these cells at Gitmo. In addition, I hope that whether they are innocent or guilty, when it is all over these detainees will have the strength to forgive us.

 
The Thinker

The Illusion of Safety

It is not very often that I find myself agreeing with a Republican. Yet it happened recently. Moreover, of all the unlikely people I agreed with, it was Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. Speaker Hastert suggested, at least initially, that the City of New Orleans should not be rebuilt.

Asked whether it made sense to spend billions of federal tax dollars reconstructing a city that sits below sea level and remains vulnerable, Hastert said: “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Hastert since backed off his remarks. How he says:

“My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt,” Hastert said in a statement sent to news organizations Thursday.

Clearly, he soon realized that his remarks were politically incorrect. Naturally, he was pounced on for his remarks. My favorite liberal blog DailyKos.com had numerous diaries and stories pummeling him for the remark. The common thread was that Hastert was being an insensitive and uncaring jerk. Hastert may be that way in real life for all I know. I have never met him. In this case, Hastert may have been blunt, but I also think he was right.

It may be that the kindest act the government can do for New Orleans is to bury it. The city had a great run but Hurricane Katrina should have sobered up everyone. New Orleans is no longer viable as a city in its current location. Perhaps that is why its population has been declining. It will likely decline a lot more after this disaster.

Nearby Bay St. Louis, Mississippi was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969 and subsequently rebuilt. Now Hurricane Katrina has destroyed it again. Bay St. Louis though is comparatively small compared with New Orleans. In addition, it is above sea level. Arguably, after Hurricane Camille, Bay St. Louis should have been rebuilt further inland. However, given its size, it makes no economic sense to rebuild New Orleans. It will suffer the same fate again. No levee can be built high enough to keep the city from its ultimate fate. The higher the levees go the more force the river can apply to the levees, which makes them more likely it is to be breeched. When that happens, more people will die needlessly and it will probably happen much more quickly.

What is needed is some tough love. Yes, we need to help the residents of New Orleans and affected parishes rebuild their lives. We should certainly continue to provide temporary shelter and emergency aid. However, when it comes to rebuilding these residents’ lives, we need to help them do it elsewhere. The government should provide incentives for these dislocated citizens to rebuild their lives inland. It should offer disincentives for rebuilding their lives in New Orleans.

Of course, I know how difficult this will be for the affected families. Many likely have roots in New Orleans that go back generations. While I have never been to New Orleans, I know it has a unique culture, wonderful people and many fine historic buildings. Perhaps these institutions should be preserved. Perhaps the city could become a tourist destination only. Nevertheless, I do not think people should actually live in the city again. The risk for its inhabitants is unacceptable. Those who choose to do so should be required to sign a statement disclaiming the government from all financial liabilities for their decision.

New Orleans is really part of a natural coastal flood plain. Just as development is strictly limited on the Outer Banks of North Carolina (homeowners who choose to build houses there generally cannot afford homeowner or flood insurance) those who choose to live in New Orleans or anywhere along our hurricane coasts have to bear the enormous risks to themselves and their property for their decision. We do not bail out gamblers who lose their fortunes in Las Vegas. Similarly, we should not reward New Orleans residents with low cost loans or grants to rebuild their houses.

The response to Hurricane Katrina was clearly bungled at all levels of government. However, the situation was exacerbated by the folly of having so many people living in such a dangerous area. Clearly more should have been done to evacuate people who did not have the means to leave the city. Clearly the local, state and the federal governments should have done a much better job preparing for huge disasters like Hurricane Katrina. While more lives could have been saved, it is folly to think this disaster could have been prevented.

Since 9/11, in particular we have expected our government to keep us safe. Certainly, the government should do a lot to keep us safe from known threats. However, even a premier superpower like the United States has its limits. When a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hits a coastal area with 140 mile an hour or plus winds, and sends storm surges of twenty feet or more above sea level then all the government can do is wait out the event and pick up the pieces as best it can. If you live along a Gulf Coast and you expect the government to keep you and your property safe from hurricanes, you are deluded. Unless everyone lives in hurricane-reinforced structures like the USGS Hydrological Instrumentation Facility (which I happen to know about through my job) homes are going to be destroyed. (The HIF, by the way, sheltered hundreds of people during the storm and emerged reasonably intact.) Even if you are fortunate enough to live in such a facility, there are still no guarantees. Mother Nature can undo any work of man. If it does not succeed through a calamity, it occurs through the slow but steady march of time.

So here is the sad reality: the government cannot protect its citizens from lots of threats. Even the threats that we want it to protect us from are largely out of its control. After 9/11, we want assurances that similar incidents will not recur in the United States. The government can do a lot to deter such events, but it cannot necessarily prevent all of them. We can do obvious things like screen passengers and baggage entering the country. Nevertheless, with thousands of miles of borders that we have never succeeded in securing, someone with the will and the means can get into our country. Considering our success rate at capturing illegal aliens, a determined terrorist will find a way to get into our country.

We must wake up and acknowledge government’s limits. We cry out to government to protect us from terrorism, natural disasters, crime, unsafe medicines and foods, gun violence, disease and from millions of other things. Fear is our greatest motivator. Politicians have played on our fears to keep them in office. It may be that because politicians could not protect us adequately from Hurricane Katrina that voters will throw the bums out, and put Democrats back in charge. As a partisan Democrat, I certainly hope so. While no government can make life completely safe for everyone, the Democrats have a much better record of these accomplishments than Republicans do.

Nevertheless, if Democrats get back into office by persuading voters that they will keep America safe they too will be guilty of wholesale pandering. It is foolish to promise that the government can keep its citizens completely safe on any issue. All government can do is improve the odds. Arguably, it should have been a lot better in deterring 9/11 and preparing for Hurricane Katrina. Yet life is uncertain. No government, no matter how competent and well funded can make it certain.

However, government act progressively. It can do a lot to minimize future calamities. In the case of hurricanes, it can penalize those who choose to live near the coast and reward those who live away from our coasts. The chances of this happening in our democracy though are slim. We voters insist that our politicians tell us what they want to hear. So we voters need to sober up too. We need to realize that any government has natural limitations. We need to use our forebrains and vote logically. We should not be pulling the levers for politicians who tell us what we want to hear. Instead, we should be supporting those who have realistic plans for those areas that the government can competently manage.

Life is uncertain. We can be alive at one moment and dead the next. We will all die in time. We will all suffer our share of disasters, heartache and misery. Suffering, as the Buddhists (and others) have pointed out, is an unpleasant fact. We cannot wish it away. We can certainly minimize it, and government can do a lot to reduce unnecessary suffering. Nevertheless, we must all suffer. Despite our best-laid plans, some shit is going to happen. We must come to terms the uncertainty of our lives. It is sensible for many of us to take steps to minimize life’s risks. Nevertheless, our lives are like rolling a pair of die. It is foolish to think we will get snake eyes every time.

 

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