Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Gay Side of Jon Stewart

Gosh, I've been quiet.

I can't resist sharing this, though. AfterElton is a pro blog produced by the gay cable channel Logo covering gay and bi men in entertainment and the media. They just did a terrific piece featuring clips from "The Daily Show" called "A Look Back at Jon Stewart's Greatest Gay Moments." Gay topics can be a great source for humor, especially pieces on "family values" conservatives getting caught - literally - with their pants down. But what comes through is how Jon Stewart, a straight guy, clearly feels a deeply personal sense of outrage at anti-gay policies and practices. Sometimes he drops the humor entirely and just lets his anger through.

The whole series is worth seeing, but I cannot resist sharing this particular clip. In November 2003 there were news reports of rumors that at some point in the past, one of Prince Charles's male personal aides had been rendering services a little too, umm, personal.

Because of strict English slander laws, we over here were actually getting more information than the British. So Stewart dispatched Stephen Colbert, who had not yet spun off his own show and was still a Daily Show reporter, to see how things looked from over there. The resulting segment, the legendary "Banana episode," was pretty damn funny, if salacious. It also offers the rare pleasure of seeing two consummate television professionals, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, totally losing it.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Shoggoth Party

Hmm. I think I've found my political home.

More to the point, an official bid for the presidency has been declared by Fred Thompson, the former actor/senator, if there's a difference. Now here's an interesting exercise. Go to Frederick of Hollywood's campaign website, Read his official biography, what he wants you to know about him and his career. While reading, keep this question in your mind: When has this guy ever been the boss?

Manager of someone else's political campaign doesn't count, as the boss is the candidate. Lobbyist doesn't count, as the boss is the client. Actor certainly doesn't count. Even if you're the star, which he never has been, the boss of the set is the director. His private practice as a lawyer? Can't tell, as he doesn't say whether he was boss of his own firm or just a junior partner in someone else's. (Actually, if he'd had his own firm, you'd think he'd say so, wouldn't you?) Senator? OK, he was a committee chairman, so he could certainly boss the committee staff around. But when policy was decided it was decided by the whole Senate, not by Fred Thompson, alone in his office with the burden of history on his shoulders. Only when he was running for office himself has he ever really been the boss, and the record shows that winning the race was all he really cared about. Doing the job of Senator he found a bit of a bore.

So when has this guy, who wants to lead the United States, ever sat behind a desk with a sign on it saying "The Buck Stops Here"? As far as I can tell, never.

Haven't we had enough of amateurs trying to wing it?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Video: "Jesse"

"Jesse" is the first major American song & video release by gay Israeli singer Ivri Lider. He's highly popular there.

I think it's lovely, winsome, and very sweet.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Perspective on the 35W

So many outsiders were continuing to talk about the flooding of New Orleans as if it were an unavoidable weather event that I began using an analogy that I hoped would help them see it as the engineering failure it was.

You expect bridges to hold up when you drive across them, don't you? Well, the faith you put in those concrete and steel structures is the same faith New Orleanians put into the concrete and steel the federal government erected and promised would keep the water out.

To say that we should have known better, that we should have expected to drown, is like saying that motorists who want to get from one side of a body of water to the other are reckless.

Wednesday evening, a Mississippi River bridge in Minnesota fell down during the Minneapolis-St. Paul rush hour. It was unknown Thursday afternoon how many people had died.

What is known is this: They shouldn't have died.

-- Columnist Jarvis DeBerry, New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 3, 2007

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ol' Glowing-Red-Eyes Is Back

I had no idea we had such a talented Vice-President.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

It Just Gets Worse

"The odds of us still having a republic in anything but name only by January 2009 grows more remote every day."

That's Nightshift at Shakesville, writing about this peachy new executive order released by the White House last week. Like him, I can't understand why the news media aren't calling more attention to this, unless it's simply fear. Nightshift's analysis is better than anything I could do, so let me quote it:

Under this order, the Executive Branch can ’starve out’ a person by completely freezing their [economic] assets, without trial, without the need to present evidence, and without appeal. The Treasury Secretary has sole discretion to determine who is in violation of this order, in ‘consultation’ with the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State. That last part is verbiage; Treasury has the power per this order. Even better, the Secretary of Treasury has the explicit authority to delegate this decision to any flunky or flunkies of his choice per Sec. 6. This order applies to all persons within the United States. If Treasury declares that a person is a ‘SIGNIFICANT RISK’ to commit violence in Iraq, or a ‘SIGNIFICANT RISK’ to support violence in Iraq in any way, or to have assisted in any way a person who is a ‘SIGNIFICANT RISK’ to do so, all their assets are to be immediately frozen.

It is a further violation of the order to make a donation to such a person whose assets have been frozen. (I was being literal when I said ’starve’ them. Such a person would have no legal means of acquiring food, clothing, or shelter. They couldn’t buy it with frozen assets, nor accept it as a gift, and stealing is already illegal.)

Furthermore, those assets can be frozen with no warning, after no judicial proceeding, if someone in Treasury is of the opinion that it should be done. There's nothing like a habeaus corpus provision requiring them to show any cause for this action, much less prove their case. Technically they're just freezing your assets, not seizing them, so they're not bound by the requirement to justify their action or compensate you for your loss. Of course, if you cannot use your assets, you might as well not have them.

So Bush has given himself the power to declare any person or organization an economic unperson any time he wants to, for any or no reason. I suppose he could decide that merely disagreeing with his Iraq policies might constitute "undermining efforts to promote ... political reform in Iraq," so there's no reason Treasury couldn't take action against me for writing this post. Depending on how draconian they're feeling that day, as an unperson I could not receive so much as a sawbuck from my dad to buy a meal without making him and the restaurant into unpersons too. And in case you think this is a spoof or a joke, here's the link to the official announcement by the White House.

Now doesn't that make you feel all comfortable and secure?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Joe D. Calls It

When I lived in Los Angeles in the 80s I was privileged to know jazz clarinetist Joe Darensbourg. He was born in Baton Rouge in 1906. He told me of hearing brass bands that had come up from New Orleans to play parades, bands featuring incredible teenage cornet prodigy Louis Armstrong. He was impressed. Joe had a great career, playing with Jelly Roll Morton, Fate Marable, Buddy Petit, Kid Ory. In the 50s he had a national hit single with "Yellow Dog Blues." He came full circle when he toured the world as a member of Louis Armstrongs' All-Stars.

He was a fine clarinetist, but his true art form was storytelling. Man, could he talk, about the people he'd known, places he'd gone, things he'd seen and done. His stories tended to blossom like flowers as further details, you know, came to him. His friends all knew this, and just enjoyed the show.

I was thinking of him watching the political coverage from Washington. I videotaped a 2.5 hour interview with Joe in 1982, which I later transcribed and published in the journal New Orleans Music. Talking of Jelly Roll Morton, another great musician and great, err, storyteller, Joe said:

Well, Jelly was a great prevaricator, or liar to be exact.

We need phrases like this in modern political discourse.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mary Poppins. Fear her.

You grew up with the Mary Poppins movie, didn't you? Of course you did. We all did. I may have even seen it in a theater when it was released. I'm not sure, but I would have been about eight, so it could be.

But we all saw it on TV at least when growing up. And what a dark, twisted influence she was on us all. Evil. Terrifying. Corrupting. Drawing us into the lightless realm of malign power, ruthless domination, and the unspeakable horror of children being swept up into demonic influence by those they are supposed to trust.

I mean, cummon. Just look at the trailer for the movie.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Guitar -- Whoa!

Xuefei Yang is 30, born in Beijing, China. For many years Asians have been getting really, really interested in Western music, often Classical music. And sometimes truly amazing performers emerge.

Paganini is best known as the first superstar violin virtuoso. During his lifetime he was equally renowned for his performances on guitar, and he arranged many of his incredibly difficult showoff pieces for guitar. Like his Caprice No. 24, popular and well known.

So what this young woman does in performing it is like ... day-umm ... holy shit ...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Chapman Stick

I'd heard of this thing long before I heard it played, but I didn't know much about it and wasn't much interested. But a few years ago I went into a place on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans that was part of the Satchmo Summerfest evening fest, the Satchmo Club Strut. It's a fun event, with a wonderful variety of musicians and bands playing, for everyone to enjoy in the clubs and on the street.

One club, I don't remember which, had a guy playing jazz on a Chapman Stick with a drummer, and it was amazing. I was transfixed, fascinated.

The Stick looks like a wide electric guitar fingerboard with strings, but with no other instrument body. As I understand it, playing it is like the "hammering on" guitar technique, hitting a string with a left hand finger behind its fret to make the note sound without plucking the string with your right. Unlike a guitar, the Stick's pickups are so sensitive that this is the standard mode of playing it, with no need to pluck any strings, and therefore both hands can finger notes, and with great gentleness and subtlety. This lets the Stick be strung so that one player can cover bass lines, chord fill-ins, and the lead melody.

For me, it's fascinating to watch, and this guy Rob Martino shows how beautiful it can sound.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Who's tamed who?

Firedoglake was discussing this news about Mitt Romney. Whatever their politics, a lot of people do not at all like the story of him loading the family dog into a cage strapped onto the top of the car for a long road trip.

Well, that's Mitt's problem. But a commenter at FDL quoted this from a New York Times article:

Unlike other domestic animals, which were tamed by people, cats probably domesticated themselves, which could account for the haughty independence of their descendants.

My thoughts on that:

It’s now thought that when a species of animal is domesticated, over time and many generations its brain shrinks a bit. If the critters no longer have to search for food because humans are feeding them, the “search for food” function of the brain atrophies. This is normal. Evolution. Life adapts.

Paleontologists are finding evidence showing that when wolves started hanging with humans and turning into dogs, both their brains AND ours shrank a bit. Each species specialized in tasks the other couldn't do as well, like sniffing out prey (dogs) or hitting it with a spear (us), and life adapted. We both changed.

In other words, dogs and humans simultaneously domesticated each other. We are two symbiotic species, and neither would be what it is without the other. I look at my dog sleeping on my expensive leather couch, and not only does this not surprise me, but I suspect I know who got the better end of the deal.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Subpoena Time!

I see that congressional subpoenas are going to start arriving at the White House, especially in the Office of the Vice President. Sen. Leahy's running out of patience, and it's about time. Keep yer popcorn handy, cause the legal fireworks are about to start.

Of course, it would be nice to subpoena Tricky Dick v.2.0 personally, drag his ass in and make him testify. But to do that, you'd have to find Mr. Undisclosed Location and actually serve the papers on him, and I don't think Cheney will be inclined to cooperate. In fact, I think it might go something like this:

[h/t CHS at FDL]

Squirrels Don't Let Squirrels Climb Drunk

Some pumpkins were left outside for a while in a Minneapolis neighborhood. Fermentation occurred, as daytime heat caused naturally occurring yeasts to process the sugars in the pumpkins into alcohol. A hungry squirrel came along. He got more than he bargained for.

The report is that he was fine the next day, but SQUIRREL what a hangover!!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Get It Right, Jesse

There's not much sadder than people who have historically been victims of prejudice embracing it wholeheartedly. Bishop Harry R. Jackson is a prominent black clergyman, founder of the High Impact Leadership Coalition. He certainly knows all about the bitter history black people have suffered in this country. Yet in his article Why Do Gays Hate Religious Freedom? he lies outright about S-1105, the Matthew Shepard Law now before the Senate, which proposes to include gays as a protected group under federal Hate Crime laws.

Now, you can have legitimate doubts about Hate Crime laws, especially since intent has always been a legitimate concern when prosecuting a violent crime. But the point is that someone has to actually commit a violent crime before the laws come into effect, thereby adding extra severity to the punishment. In no way do they "muzzle" anyone, prevent anyone from expressing his or her opinion, as this charming ad implies they do. So long as you're not expressing your opinion by committing violent crimes -- and I trust, Bishop Jackson, that you are not -- they don't apply to you. (Read the text if you want to check me.)

But these people are simply fanatics, who have left reason far behind. Another black pastor, Rev. Gregory Daniels of Chicago, announced from the pulpit, "If the KKK opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them." Yeah, that's gonna work out real well. Even Jesse Jackson, who should know better, has opposed gay marriage by trotting out the "I'm A Bigger Victim Than You" card, saying, "Gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution."

Now hold it right there. If you're going to drag in that outdated provision -- it's in Article 1, Section 2 and was repealed by the 14th Amendment -- at least try to understand it. Most assume that in counting a slave as 3/5 of a free man, slaveholders and their political allies were expressing their hatred and contempt of their black chattels, not even affording them the dignity of being a full human being.

Wrong. Slave states actually wanted slaves to be counted as full human beings, 5/5 of a free man. The free states wanted to count them not at all, as 0/5 of a free man. Why? Because the relative political power of the states, embodied by the number of seats each state had in the House and in the Electoral College, was determined by the number of persons in each state as determined by the census. Not the number of voters, or even citizens. Persons.

If slaves counted as full humans, that would increase the power of the slave states relative to the free states by upping their census numbers and giving them more seats. If they counted not at all, the reverse would be the case, which is what the opponents of slavery wanted. They had quite a battle about it at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and the eventual compromise, 3/5 of a free man, actually favored slave states a little more than free states.

Of course, if everybody understood this it would deprive orators of a nice rhetorical flourish. But at least I wouldn't be rolling my eyes so often.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Middle East: Is Somebody Finally Thinking?

I've become quite fascinated by Firedoglake recently. What caught my attention was their liveblogging some months ago of the Scooter Libby trial, which was absolutely fascinating. For the first time a team of bloggers got press credentials, so they could be in the press rows of the courtroom. In the press room near the courtroom they had staff typing furiously, making rough transcripts based on the live video feed, giving minute by minute reports of the trial. It was more detailed than anything from the regular media, and it got noticed. I imagine productivity in law offices across the country dropped badly, attorneys glued to their screens, since there were torrents of comments from lawyers expounding on every detail of the trial.

Firedoglake was founded by a lawyer who's been a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and a mother. That's one tough lady. It's core team is a handful of very intelligent, experienced, and talented people, who are sometimes quite interesting characters. For example, Trex is a 60 million year old, 60 foot therapod with six-inch teeth, tiny grasping forearms, and a huge thrashing tail. He's looking for a boyfriend. Pachacutec, the Inca king, reveals that he didn't really die in the 15th century but, with the aid of certain herbs (usually smoked) he hid out in the jungle and is still around making pithy and incisive comments. He already has a boyfriend.

Of course, these may be pseudonyms, but it doesn't matter as they both write excellent political commentary. One could hardly expect less from such as these.


I was very struck by this piece today, about the insanity of the US policy in the Middle East. It strikes me as admirably non-ideological, willing to recognize the virtues and vices of all sides. It also makes clear that the US policy is completely ideological, a posture that assumes US = GOOD and THEM = BAD. This is not a realistic basis for forming wise public policy.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tragedy and Memory

It's hard to find anything to say about the horrific events at Virginia Tech. As information comes out, it's looking like one of the hardest things for the families to cope with is that it seems nobody - except the killer - really did anything wrong. And when something this horrible happens, it's natural to not only want to find out who's to blame, but to punish someone for what happened. And the killer has placed himself beyond our reach.

It's been asked why they didn't shut down the campus after the initial shootings. Well, anyone who watches Court TV can tell you that in the case the cops first saw - two dead, a young woman who could have been the target and a young man who just got in the way - the first thing you ask is, Did she have a boyfriend? Her roommate told cops she did, a student at a neighboring college. Not only that, he was a gun owner. They'd all gone to a shooting range recently.

Of course they had to follow that up at once, as the most likely situation was that a fight with her boyfriend had gone horribly wrong. 99 times out of a hundred, they'd be right; the boyfriend / girlfriend / spouse / lover is always the most likely suspect. Within two hours they had actually found the boyfriend and were interviewing him, with every possible reason to believe the situation had been stabilized. Then the reports of carnage started coming in from Norris Hall. It's just a horrible coincidence that one of the few times correct police procedure led in the wrong direction it was the day a guy filled with deranged fury decided to take as many people with him as possible.

This is enough to make anyone shocked and upset, but for me it's done more; it's dredged up terribly painful memories from ten years ago. On December 1 of last year the Times-Picayune ran this article:

On a Sunday morning in December 1996, 10 years ago today, a former employee still bitter about getting fired and two accomplices -- one who had gotten a job as a dishwasher only 10 days earlier -- conned their way into the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen Restaurant near the French Market before opening time. Armed with a .357-caliber Magnum and makeshift potato silencer, they took money from a safe before fatally shooting a manager and two employees as they kneeled in a walk-in cooler.

Dying in the cooler that morning were manager Cara LoPiccolo, 28, and waiters Santana Meaux, 25, and Michael Witcoskie, 24.

I knew all three of them. I was working at the Old U.S. Mint, and my office opened directly onto a courtyard facing the Pizza Kitchen across the street. I was a lunchtime regular and knew all their faces, though not their names until the horrible morning I saw their pictures in the paper. They knew me too. Regulars mean a little bit more to restaurants in a high traffic tourist area. With all the hordes that pass through, familiar faces are nice to see.

It was incredibly difficult to get through that December. The entire French Quarter community was shocked, as a hit on a business like this was unheard of. The restaurant was closed, of course, and people immediately began coming to lay flowers and messages of sorrow against its walls. This became a sort of shrine to the fallen, which just grew and grew until it took up most of the block, not just flowers but mementos, pictures, statues of saints, candles tended around the clock. This made it harder for me, because I just couldn't get away from it. I couldn't put it out of my mind as I had to walk past it every day. Others who worked at the Mint, and who had also known the victims, could at least get to their offices by entering at the other side of the building. I couldn't.

I obsessed about it. I couldn't stop myself from going out several times a day to stare at the shrine, see what had changed. I think I actually became a bit unbalanced for a bit, to the extent that some of my co-workers were starting to worry about me. One Security officer, a good guy named Shelby, came by several times to talk to me, make sure I wasn't coming too unglued. I eventually did see a psychologist for a while, and he helped me find a way to memorialize them in my own way, put them to rest.

After a month or so the shrine was quietly taken down, and some months later the Pizza Kitchen reopened under new ownership. I eventually went back to being a regular, but it was never the same.

I haven't thought much about this for years, but Virginia Tech brought it all roaring back with a vengeance. For a while I was obsessing about it almost as much as I was about that shrine, watching TV for hours and scouring the web. I am getting over it. But I feel so keenly for all those kids, not just the ones who died, but the ones who will carry the scars of this forever. I think I know the feeling, at least a little bit.

Oh, and about the Pizza Kitchen killers:

A fourth victim was shot in the neck but survived. Damien Vincent, 34, played dead, then later crawled to a phone and called police. He was able to identify one of the suspects. Within 12 hours, all three of the attackers were captured.

The triggerman is on death row, and the other two will likely never get out of prison. That's something.

Monday, March 26, 2007

What A Horse!

Dressage is something we don't know enough about in the US, though it's been an Olympic sport since 1912. It is the training of a horse and rider for show performance to the highest possible level, emphasizing athleticism, precision, style, grace, and the horse's sheer love of showing off. So, from the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, here is Blue Hors Matine and her -- I won't say rider, I'll say partner -- Andreas Helgstrand in the Grand Prix Freestyle finals.

Dressage is sometimes called horse ballet. But I never thought I'd see a horse dancing disco. Enjoy.

[h/t Andrew Sullivan]

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Coming Hydrogen Economy

Ain't gonna happen.

Here's a fascinating article by engineer Robert Zubrin from the journal The New Atlantis that explains in detail why the vision of cheap, efficient, clean hydrogen-driven cars humming down our highways is a pipe dream at best, a hoax and swindle at worst. And, as Zubrin says, "Incredibly, the Bush administration swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker."

The crux of the matter is that while hydrogen can be used as a fuel, it is not an energy source like petroleum. Burning petroleum returns so much more energy than it takes to extract that it's basically free energy. Technically I suppose oil could be seen as millions of years of sunlight from eons past stored in the earth for us to find, and in chemistry the energy scales always balance. But on any human scale it's just free energy waiting for us to find it.

But there's no natural source of pure hydrogen on earth. It has to made, and any known process consumes much more energy than you get back when you use it as fuel. So it's hopelessly wasteful compared to oil in energy terms, and then there's the practical problem of distribution. Hydrogen is dangerous stuff, as some zeppelin passengers found out in 1937. Accordingly, the economics of any conceivable hydrogen fuel system quickly becomes ludicrous. Would you want to pay $1,000,000 for an inefficient car that was likely to go up like the Hindenburg at the first fender-bender?

We do desperately need to find a solution to our energy problem. But hydrogen isn't it.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Rachmaninoff = Big Hands

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the concert hall . . .

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Scenes from New Orleans

Broadmoor is a residential area in the heart of New Orleans, just a few miles up Napoleon Ave from where I live. It's one of the lowest lying areas of the city, so it was very severely flooded after Katrina struck and the levees failed. The residents are fiercely loyal to their neighborhood, though, and are absolutely determined to recover. "Broadmoor Lives!!" is a sign you see all over.

The predominant style of architecture is not what most think of as "classic New Orleans." Broadmoor was developed mainly in the 1920s, and most houses were built in the Bungalow style, which originated in California around 1910 and became widely popular throughout the country. The Bungalow style emphasized simplicity and comfort, houses that were easy to live in, and was well suited to mild climates like Los Angeles or New Orleans. (The house I grew up in, in Berkeley, CA, was classic Bungalow.)

The original developers were not unmindful of the flooding threat, however, and raised Bungalow houses were common, with a half-floor giving an extra two or three feet of elevation above street level. Since Katrina, some homeowners have taken the "raised" aspect to new heights, determined, like this fellow, that their homes will never, ever flood again:

(As always, you can click on the photo for a better view.) A typical Bungalow house is fairly modest in size, but this one is substantial and clearly worth going to great lengths to save. The bottom of the exterior, where the light colored stucco breaks off, would have been sitting directly on the ground, originally; it's now about twelve feet off the ground. The blue front door probably had three or four steps leading up to it; now it will probably have about fifteen. This example of drastic raising is pretty dramatic, but it's not the only one I've seen, far from it. It's quite a project. You have to cut all the utilities, separate the house from its foundation, and jack it up inch by inch, adding structures of wood pilings to hold it up. Then, with the house hovering over your head, you pour a new foundation and whatever support pillars are needed, eventually removing the pilings very carefully! Finally you build new access stairs, reconnect the utilities, enclose the lower area, and stucco it to match the original.

It's a huge job, but you can be very sure that this house will never flood again.

To illustrate the scale of the task, note this guy working near the front corner pilings:

Friday, February 23, 2007

How The Other Six-Billionth Lives

On a lighter note, it's amazing what you can learn from listening to podcasts. NPR has a weekly satirical news quiz show called Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me. It's worth listening to, and pretty funny. I've been catching up on previous shows, and one revealed this story.

Roland Mesnier, who was pastry chef at the White House for 25 years, retired and published his memoirs, All The Presidents' Pastries. (I'm not responsible for that, I just report.) The book tells this story. In the 80's, Prince Charles came to the US on an official visit and called on President Reagan, who received him in the Oval Office where tea was served. Specifically, a fine porcelain teacup filled with steaming water and with a teabag next to it was set before the prince on the coffee table, as he and the President sat on the couch to talk.

After a while, Reagan noticed that Prince Charles had done nothing with what had been offered, and asked politely if there was a problem. The Prince said, "I'm sorry, I just didn't know what to do with that little bag."

Reflect on that. Prince Charles, about 40 years old at that time, had never seen a teabag before and had no idea what to do with it!

Man. By comparison, the silver-spoon Bush clan are raging populists.

Monday, February 19, 2007

What A Disgrace

You've heard of FEMA? The Federal Emergency Management Agency? Here in New Orleans that's a four-letter word, and nastier than most of the familiar ones. In a competition between the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levees that failed, and FEMA, which couldn't deal with the resulting disaster, it's neck & neck which is despised most by Orleanians. Mardi Gras is tomorrow and the parades have been running for ten days, and the parade Krewes that feature political satire have been hitting those two hard.

But there's plenty of blame to go to the White House, as spelled out in this New York Times Editorial. FEMA's distribution of federal funds in response to a disaster is governed by the Stafford Act, which requires matching funds from states to get federal moneys. The basic standard is that the state supplies 25%, and the Feds supply the rest. This is reasonable, for ordinary problems, like localized flooding from a bad rainstorm.

When the damage gets worse the standards change, and the basis is the monetary loss per capita, the cost of the damage spread over every member of the state. When the amount goes over $110 per person in the state the state portion drops from 25% to 10%. And if the damage is really severe the federal government, at the direction of the White House, can waive the matching funds requirement entirely. Since 1985 this has been done 32 times, when per capita damage was high and especially when it was a high profile incident.

In 1992 Hurricane Andrew hit the US, first in Florida and then in Louisiana. While four people were killed in Louisiana when it arrived here, the worst damage by far was in Florida with massive property damage and about sixty deaths. The federal matching fund requirement was waived. The per capita damage amount for Floridians was $139.

The horrible terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon cost 3,000 lives, traumatized millions, and seared our minds forever. The physical damage in New York, though, was limited to a fairly confined area of lower Manhattan. But recognizing the magnitude of this disaster, the federal government again waived the matching fund requirement. The per capita damage amount for New York state residents was $390.

The Katrina disaster zone, augmented by Hurricane Rita's, is orders of magnitude beyond these. The flood damage zone just within the city limits of New Orleans is nearly eight times as large as all of Manhattan Island. The actual damage zone extends over much of two states. Thousands of people have died, and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes, many never to return.

One bitter fact is that the true death toll will never be counted, and not just because of the bodies that were swept away in the storm. We here all know stories of those who managed to evacuate out of state to safety but simply could not rally. These often were people ill and elderly, ripped from their homes, sometimes the only home they had known, with no hope of going back. Many simply gave up and died, and I count in this group a very dear friend of mine whom I will always miss. But since these people did not die in Louisiana they will not be counted as victims of the storm, though we here all know that they were.

So in the face of all this what has been the federal policy? Have they waived the matching funds requirement, to help us out like they did Florida and New York?

They have not. The per person damage cost here is not $139, as it was in Florida after Hurricane Andrew. It is not $390, as it was in New York after 9/11.

It has been estimated at $6,700 per person in Louisiana. And they will not give us a waiver.

Imagine that.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Now this is cool

There is an extraordinary thing called Project Gutenberg. It is an amazing, huge, non-profit project which aims to put as much of the world library on line, in searchable form, as possible. Here's what they say about their origins:

In 1971, Michael Hart was given $100,000,000 worth of computer time on a mainframe of the era. Trying to figure out how to put these very expensive hours to good use, he envisaged a time when there would be millions of connected computers, and typed in the Declaration of Independence (all in upper case--there was no lower case available!). His idea was that everybody who had access to a computer could have a copy of the text. Now, 31 years later, his copy of the Declaration of Independence (with lower-case added!) is still available to everyone on the Internet.
Hart essentially invented the e-book at that time, long before anyone but defense researchers at DARPA had heard of the Internet. As of now, they have about 20,000 books online, available to all, totally free. They range from ancient classics to history to Sherlock Holmes to early 20th century writings. The only requirement is that they be public domain. They have online writings in Chinese, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Tagalog. That's just the major languages, with more than 50 titles each. The minor ones include writings in Afrikaans, Catalan, Frisian, Mayan, Napoletano-Calabrese, Romanian, Sanskrit, and Welsh, to name but a few.

They take the best available copy of each title and scan it. They also work with Google, which is engaged on a similar and highly publicized project, that of scanning the total contents of many major libraries, and making at least a sample of them available online. By sticking to public domain materials, Project Gutenberg is avoiding the nasty copyright fights that Google is already getting drawn into. I'm afraid the re-thinking and re-definition of copyright is going to be THE biggest and nastiest issue of the developing online information world.

Anyway. This original scan really just produces a photo of each source page, which is not machine readable, not searchable, meaning search engines like Google can't find the data in them. So they use the best Optical Character Recognition software available and have it make a transcript, one that can be edited like an ordinary text file, and can be accessed and indexed by search engines. But even the best OCR software is not perfect, especially when dealing with odd typescripts or old microfilm. Its output has to be reviewed by an intelligent mind that can recognize letters obscured by smudges and piece things together from context.

That's where we come in.

There is an affiliated project, called Distributed Proofreaders. It's a clearinghouse for volunteer proofreaders who want to help Project Gutenberg prepare texts for final release on the Web, and I'm helping them out. Every text goes through several stages. First is basic proofreading, which is all I've done so far. A split screen shows you the image of the original scan and the best OCR transcription. You compare them, and correct the transcript. Once you've got it done as best you can, you click a button, the page is saved and sent onto the next stage, and they send you another page. There are later stages of further proofreading, then formatting, and eventually HTML versions are created for the Net.

I just LOVE this. It's not just a service to civilization, by my standards, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. It's similar to the pleasure I took at dealing first hand with collections materials at the museum. It's so cool to know I may be the first person in over a hundred years to really read this stuff. Things like:

  • A literary and social journal published in London around 1838, containing a memoir of the legendary actor Edmund Kean playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, as well as a review of the latest from Mr. Thackeray. Also were some gossip notes from a young American lady visiting Paris. She wrote of her visit to an elderly exiled Polish prince and his young wife, who made exquisite embroidery and sold it at an annual bazaar to benefit other Polish exiles. She also wrote about visiting an archive where she examined plans of French fortified towns, including the one where Napoleon's nephew was imprisoned.
  • An essay from a scientific journal of the 1880s, inquiring into the precise definition and determination of death, by exploring suspended animation, namely how close animals could be taken to true death and then revived. Remember that this was a major issue at a time when you you could not scan for brain activity to settle the matter, and many people were terrified of falling ill, becoming unconscious, being pronounced dead, and then buried, only to wake up imprisoned in a coffin to die of suffocation in terror. This was important.
  • A collection of speeches by Bertie, the Prince of Wales, in the 1880s and 90s, before his mother Queen Victoria died and he became King Edward VII. A lot of routine speeches -- the anniversary dinner of the Royal Geographical Society, opening a hospital -- but intriguing at this distance in time, at least to me.
  • An issue of Stars and Stripes, the US Army newspaper, published in France in 1918, during World War I. Lots of letters and articles complaining bitterly, and from experience, of the incompetence of the people who designed and manufactured the uniforms they had to wear and the weapons they had to fight with. Also ads about how to wire their wages back home to their families via Wells Fargo.
Is this cool or what? I'm having a ball doing this. It can be disjointed, it's not like reading a book or an article straight through. You get presented with pages out of sequence, due to other proofreaders working on the same project when you're offline. But when the final version is published on the Gutenberg Project, you can read it if you wish, straight through.

I think this is great fun, and a great thing to do for a civilization that needs all the help it can get. And if I were offering advice to somebody like -- oh, I don't know, a nephew or someone who might need to find a good senior project in a few years -- I'd say he could do a lot worse than to check this out.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Get Ready

The most salient fact about the Katrina destruction in New Orleans is that it was not a natural disaster. The storm was, but the flooding was due to the failure of the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers. Their design was inadequate to the need, and their construction was inadequate to the design.

What too many people forget is how much of the country is just as dependent as New Orleans was on levees designed and built by the Corps. So it's not good to hear that the Corps has identified 142 specific levees around the country that are in serious danger of failure in a major flood. 42 of them are in California, which suggests the Sacramento river area, a large agricultural area between Sacramento and the Bay Area, flatland heavily dependent on levees to control flooding.

Now, I have a lot of family living in that area, so I'd really like to know just what levees are at risk, and just what areas are in danger. But there's a problem. The Corps won't tell us. They will not identify the specific levees.

What does this mean? Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry knows from first hand experience what it's like to lose a home due to the incompetence of the Corps. In his excellent column in today's paper he offers a little perspective:

This, America, is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in action. This is the agency that told New Orleans we had a level of flood protection we did not have. This is the agency culpable in the drowning deaths of more than 1,000 New Orleanians. This is the agency that knows of more than 12 dozen suspect levees nationwide and feels justified in keeping their locations secret. This is the agency that's supposed to be protecting you.

Feeling safe?