Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A Brief Tour

As I've started getting reoriented to living in a drastically altered New Orleans, I've been taking pictures as I drive around. I'm going to start sharing some of them right here. You can click on any picture to get a closer look. Let's start in my immediate neighborhood.

This is a pile of trash in front of a house on my block, waiting for the city to get around to picking it up. This is a fairly small pile, as the house was not significantly damaged. There are piles like this all over the place.

The park in the next block where I walk my dog. When we left for Jackson, these trees were all standing straight up, and looked alive. Neither now, it seems. Note that branches are not broken by any impact. Nothing hit them to knock them over. Only wind.

Remember, this is the part of town that got off easy when Katrina came through.

The steeple of St. Stephen's Catholic Church, directly across the street from my house. It used to be completely sheathed in copper. Not any more.

I wonder who got the copper?

I've been driving around the city as well. This is a street in an area known as Lakeview, which lies between the Orleans Ave. canal and the infamous 17th Street Canal, the one that broke open.

Not one house on this street is habitable. There are hundreds of miles of streets like this in New Orleans.

On the walls of the house in the background you can see a horizontal line, with the wall appearing slightly lighter in color above it and slightly darker below it. The line would be right about at eye level of someone standing in the doorway. This indicates the flood level, the maximum height to which the water rose. To visualize what really happened it helps to picture the space between the house and the house seen at the right edge filled with water to that point. Now extend it. Imagine the water extending towards you at that height, then away from you, then right and left, for miles. That's a lot of water.

You can also see on the front wall a spray painted inspection marker. It's a large X with the top and bottom quadrants being the most important. The top indicates the date of inspection, in this case 9/29. The bottom indicates the number of dead bodies found inside, in this case zero.

The car, on the other hand, has written on its door "Abandoned / owner dead / no title / haul off." No one has, yet. As the flood level marks on the house indicate it was completely submerged when the water came, no one has bothered to try stealing it either. What would be the point?

Cheerful stuff, isn't it? More to come.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

LOTR: The Inside Story

I absolutely adore Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I fell in love with the books when I was a teenager, and can't guess how many times I've read them. Because previous attempts to put them on the screen had failed so miserably (Ralph Bakshi, urgh) I was very wary when I heard someone was shooting a live action version, in New Zealand of all places. So I was thrilled when I saw the first still publicity shots that were released, of Frodo and Bilbo in Rivendell; they clearly had come up with a look for the films that was magnificently done and damn near perfect. The first internet teasers that were released got me so excited I couldn't stand it. And when I finally saw Fellowship, I practically cried tears of joy that someone had cared enough to do it right.


Nothing, or at least very little, is so sacred that it can't stand a little mockery. In fact, the stronger you are, the better you can take it. So I was fascinated and delighted to find that each of the characters, Aragorn, Legolas, and so on, had kept Very Secret Diaries as events progressed. It is interesting, it truly is, to find out some of the real motivations and off-screen detail, the stuff that Jackson just didn't have time to share with us. Such as that the balrog's rather over-the-top behavior in Moria was the result of festering anger from a bad date with Gandalf back in the Second Age (the balrog got stuck with the check). Or that, while it really shouldn't have worked since everyone knows it already, Boromir was still able to get some with that old "Hey, wanna blow the Horn of Gondor?" line.

Read and enjoy. You pervy hobbit-fancier.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Lights: Pedal to the Metal

We're in that peculiar hang time, where Christmas Day is past but Christmas isn't really over, not until New Year's Eve and New Year's Day wipe the slate clean. We can still talk about holiday things without it being totally tacky, as it would be seven days from now.

So I can still talk about this guy without violating natural law. Using 25,000 lights and a computer driven music synchronization system, Mr. Carson Williams of Deerfield, Ohio, created the most jaw-dropping Christmas light animated display ever to adorn an ordinary suburban house, synchronized to a track by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. His neighbors supported him whole heartedly, not least because there was no noise; the soundtrack was broadcast on a low-power FM transmitter so passing viewers could pick it up on their car radios.

Sadly, he felt he had to shut it down after only two days. He always said that if his display caused any problems he would pull the plug, and after learning that the traffic he had drawn had delayed cops getting to a no-injuries fender-bender he decided, ain't gonna risk it.

But you can still see it here. Adjust settings as necessary.

Why I Love The History Channel

Without question, my favorite cable channel is the History Channel, though the Food Channel runs a close second. Switch on the History Channel at any time of day or night, and you're more likely to find something truly interesting being shown than anywhere else. (Occasionally, I have to admit, they do run shows that bore me to tears, but then I just change the channel and watch someone preparing barbecue. MM-mmm.)

One of their best series is the show Modern Marvels, which focuses on the achievements of the 20th century and on into the 21st. The subjects range from the fascinating, like the development of modern hi-tech weaponry, to the terrible, like great engineering disasters (I can think of one for their next season), to the delightfully absurd, like the evolution of breakfast cereal.

Before each commercial break, they throw up a text card, read out by the announcer, with some intriguing bit of trivia about the show's subject. A couple of days ago they were running a show on popular kids' toys, always appropriate for Christmas Eve, and one pre-commercial card told this story. That some years ago, a group calling itself the Barbie Liberation Organization absconded with several hundred Talking G.I. Joe action figures and several hundred Teen Talk Barbie dolls. They switched the voice chips and snuck the toys back onto toyshop shelves. In the course of events, many a little girl had to ponder a Barbie that snarled, "Eat lead, Cobra!!", while little boys had to cope with a G.I. Joe who squealed, "Let's go shopping!!"

See what I mean? My life is richer for knowing that.

[Note: confirming link is here.]

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Brokeback Breakdown

There's an amusing post at announcing the Gay Blogger Alliance for Straight Indifference to Brokeback. The author is fed up with straight people wildly overreacting to Brokeback Mountain, even sometimes overreacting to the very existence of the film. I've noticed that too. A lot of (presumably straight) movie reviewers seem to be almost dislocating their shoulders while patting themselves on the back for giving it a good review. And a lot of bloggers and blog commenters seem to be desperately trying to establish their heterosexual bona fides by loudly stating how freaked out they'd be seeing a movie with a gay sex scene in it.

For what it's worth, I haven't seen the movie, though I've read the story it's based on, as it hasn't opened in New Orleans yet. But I'm looking forward to it because, back-patting aside, the reviews indicate it's a terrific film. And all that straight squeamishness is edging over into "the lady doth protest too much, methinks." From what I hear, the sex scene is explicit but not pornographic, and anyway is only about thirty seconds of a two hour film. The movie is about these guys' emotions, after all, not their sex lives. I've put up with longer and steamier straight sex scenes in movies often enough without complaint, so stuff it already.

So what the hell, I've joined the alliance.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Empty and Overcrowded

When I came back to New Orleans I was very unsure of what I would find. The media, who have been models of hysteria since this whole thing started, had waxed apocalyptic about how never in American history had a major city been virtually abandoned overnight, yada, yada. Even allowing for exaggeration, that's pretty much what I was expecting.

I was not expecting the place to be so damn crowded! The traffic is so congested it takes half again as long to get about as before the storm. It's not just all the street repairs and construction, though those do throw an added randomness factor into your commute. Even the restaurants are stuffed, and reservations hard to come by, and they're not fixing potholes inside Felix's Oyster Bar.

The reason is obvious. New Orleans currently has about a sixth of the population it had before Katrina, both natives and out-of-town workers in construction and cleanup. But it has considerably less than a sixth of its land space unflooded and undamaged, available for living on a daily basis. Much of what still goes on here is being squeezed into a much smaller space, and that has its effect.

And it's not going to change any time soon. I'm going to have to find a whole new set of shortcuts.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

New Subject

I'll post more later about how badly this city got whacked, when I've looked around a bit more, but for now a change of subject. Today Stephen Green was noting with amusement that George Will was writing about amorous caribou (and by golly he was), but the real subject was drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR.

I read a post on some blog a few years ago, one that I cannot find, that made a fascinating statement about drilling in ANWR, one that comes to mind every time the subject comes up. The guy who wrote it said he had years of experience in the chemical industry as a plant manager, though not specifically the petroleum industry. I don't know if what he said was true, but I thought the small group of family and friends that are my devoted readership might know something.

Now, when people stage protests shouting, "No drilling in ANWR!!!", I suspect what they are visualizing is based on those old photos from Southern California in the 1920s, during the great petroleum boom; 100 foot derricks every 500 feet for mile after mile after mile. A truly hideous sight that ought to make anyone shudder.

But what this guy said was that, like most technology, drilling technology has made a few improvements since 1923; to wit, we're no longer restricted to going straight down. We can angle the wells out from a central location, maybe even changing direction as we drill. I don't remember the numbers he gave, but the impression in my mind is that of being able to access all the oil under hundreds of square miles of terrain from a facility the size of a suburban house.

If true, this naturally changes the whole tenor of the debate. It raises the possibility of getting the oil out and preserving the environment on the surface. (Which anyway is not as pristine as some would have us believe; see the George Will article.)

If true, this is a big point in favor of drilling, and supporters of drilling should be hammering this point home whenever possible. But they're not. If untrue, then opponents should be conjuring up images of all those derricks in the 20s to support their side. But they're not doing that either.

Anybody know anything?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Back Home

Drove back home to New Orleans from Jackson yesterday. We got off later than we'd planned, so it was after dark when we got to the city. Coming in on the I-10 from the west you pass first through the suburbs of Kenner and Metairie, and they looked pretty much normal.

But you cross into the city proper by passing over the 17th Street canal, very near to the infamous levee break that took out the city, and there you meet with sobering reality. Lakeview, a vast area of land that should be filled with street lights and lighted windows, all of it pitch dark.

Of all the times I've seen the Superdome at night, this was the first time it was not brightly lit up with floodlights. It just hunkered there in the dark, looking as if it was ashamed of itself for existing.

But the house was in good shape, though I'd forgotten how messy we'd let it get. High priority will be getting it in shape again.

Drove around a little this morning looking for a newspaper, and even in areas that didn't flood there are mounds of debris everywhere. Three months after the storm and you can see signs of it everywhere you look. Tree branches, and lots of piles of housing material piled up along the streets. Roof tiles, damaged or soaked drywall, all sorts of stuff. It looks like anything that won't rot if you leave it there gets low priority for removal.

More later.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Floods

Since Katrina, my neighbor Tommy Zander, who is also president of our condo association, has taken it on himself to keep us all informed about the state of the building, what's going on in the city, and so on. This didn't surprise me. He's a retired United pilot who captained 747s around the world, and is quite comfortable assuming command.

Today he sent around something truly interesting, from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. (Incidentally, I think the T-P should be awarded some sort of special Pulitzer for service above and beyond the call of duty, even if one has to be invented for them. Their service throughout this crisis has been nothing less than heroic.) Their website has a .pdf file that is a map of the city showing just where the flooding was, and how deep it was at the worst, the worst being rated as 10 feet and up. Click here to see just what happened. You may need to be patient. As it's a detailed graphic it's a pretty big file, and for those of us still in exile here in dial-up land, it takes a while to load.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Cry Me A River

On the news tonight I have just been treated to the most jaw-dropping, risible, arrogant bit of chutzpah I have ever heard. Live! from Baghdad! (or perhaps, secret undisclosed location) Saddam Hussein, on trial for crimes against humanity, is threatening to boycott his trial. And why? Because it's not fair. Yes, indeed, Saddam Hussein is upset because he's not getting a fair trial.

Gee, "Saddam Hussein" and "fair trial", those just naturally go together like peaches and cream, don't they? Gosh, it's just so mean of them to allow prosecution witnesses, like the woman who described being tortured and gang raped by Saddam's buddies with no trial whatsoever, to testify from behind a screen. Who cares if she still lives in terror? Keeping her face off TV deprives Saddam and his functionaries still at large of their RIGHT to target her and her whole extended family for immediate murder.

And yes, it is entertaining to characterize a notorious arab leader with a fine old Jewish/Yiddish term. What do you bet that, if he could read this, that would upset him the most?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Going Home

Yesterday I was trolling the blogs when I got a perverse urge to peek back at those days when Katrina was about to change everything, and see what some of the bloggers I like were saying about events at the time. I went to the archives of one of my favorites, Stephen Green’s Vodkapundit, and started reading forward from about August 25. I was quickly swept up – or swept back, whatever – into the experience, struck by the immediacy of it all, as of course Stephen and his commenters were writing in the present tense about ongoing events. I was truly moved by the shock and horror and deep sympathy shown by all; Stephen’s co-blogger Will Collier said he felt like he was watching an old friend dying.

And I suddenly realized that if I didn’t stop reading right now I was going to throw up.

It’s been three and a half months since we fled uptown New Orleans for Jackson, MS, literally running for our lives. I don’t know what I was thinking, going back to read those posts. I guess I thought that the overwhelming emotions of that time, the shock, the disbelief, and the deep, deep feelings of grief, they had all faded away. But they hadn’t. They’d only gone dormant, gone underground, waiting for something to wake them up again. Once awake, they had lost none of their power. (Though fortunately I did stop reading in time.)

None of which would be worth mentioning except for one thing: it’s time to go back. Three and a half months is long enough, in fact it’s too long. We would have gone back already, but were waiting for more of the medical infrastructure to come back online. A week from today, or if delayed, the next day, we’ll be going back. At least we have somewhere to return to. We’re very, very fortunate that the flooding came no closer to the house than about five or six blocks, and others in our condo complex report that our unit is OK.

But that still leaves plenty to be very, very apprehensive about. What is it going to be like, walking back into that house that we left so quickly months ago? What will it be like, picking up the newspaper that dropped from my hand on the way out the door? Or the book I was reading three months ago and left behind on a table? I don’t know for sure, but I expect it will be very, very weird. Like being an archaeologist breaking into your own tomb.

I know a lot of restaurants and grocery stores and gas stations are open, feigning normalcy, but what will it really be like, living there? Can a city be a real city if it has no children in it? Having gotten off relatively easy, but knowing how so many lost everything, how am I going to feel about those people as they try to come back and salvage something? And how will they feel about us?

And I know now I must be prepared to deal with all those feelings that jumped up and bitch-slapped me yesterday, only worse and stronger. All the reports from the city say the same thing; you just can NOT believe the magnitude of the disaster until you see it with your own eyes. It will be rough. But I guess I’m glad I know that now, with a week to prepare myself, rather than being overwhelmed by emotion at the wheel of a car driving on the interstate.

So I guess I’m glad I went back to the Vodkapundit archives, painful as it was. The experience was a wake-up call, and a warning.