Monday, September 26, 2005

You read it here first

Saturday, September 24, 2005

What's so hard about logistics?

Many defenders of the government's response to Katrina point to the logistical difficulty of getting resources to where they needed to be. In the great Random Fluctuations tradition of oversimplifying complex problems, I thought I'd take a look at the question of how hard it would have been to get water to all those people in the Superdome. (Food is much ligher and easier to transport than water, so I'll assume that if you can get water there, you can get the food there too.)

Assumptions:

One 2-liter bottle of fluid per day is enough to greatly alleviate the suffering of one person.

There were 23,000 people in the Superdome that needed water.

A standard Chinook helicopter can carry 26,000 pounds, and would have been able to land at or very near the Superdome.


Given these assumptions, we see that the Superdome required two liters of water times 23,000 people times 2.2 pounds/liter, or about 10,000 pounds of water. This is four trips from a helicopter per day.

Let's take this a bit further... a Chinook's range is 230 nautical miles or approximately 260 miles. Looking at Google Maps, Port Arthur (say) is less than 260 miles away from New Orleans, and wasn't badly damaged by Katrina. A Chinook flies 143 knots or 160 mph. So say we had just one Chinook available to ferry supplies from Port Arthur to New Orleans. It'd take roughly two hours to fly to New Orleans, say an hour to unload, two hours to fly back, and one last hour to reload and refuel. Six hours total, so it could make four trips in a day. In short, one helicopter could do the whole job of keeping the Superdome supplied with water.

How could this be a logistical impossibility? I'd be the first to admit that I know nothing about helicopters or logistics, but as long as the water bottles were stockpiled somewhere in easy-to-handle crates before the storm hit, I don't see anything complicated about this. Either my assumptions are screwed up, or the government is. Even if my assumptions are screwed up, I don't see how they could be so screwed up that the job couldn't have been done by, say, three helicopters. And I'm pretty sure this nation has more than three helicopters available to it.

So anyway, the logistics excuse seems pretty weak right now. But if someone out there actually knows something about this subject I'd love to hear about it.

Climate science made simple

I constantly see discussions (or should I say "discussions") of global warming which portray climate as some incredibly complex system which is impossible to understand or make meaningful predictions about. One problem (of many) is that the media does a poor job of distinguishing what parts of science are solid and widely agreed on, and what parts are still controversial. So while yes, climate is complicated, the basic logic of global warming is pretty simple.

1. Carbon dioxide traps heat. This is fairly basic physics--not something explainable in a blog to the general public, at least not without going through a lot more work that I'm willing to put in, but a senior in a good physics or chemistry program should be able to understand what's going on. In short, it's not an advanced or controversial statement. No one would ever argue about this in any context except climate.

2. Mankind has greatly increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This, too, is not (or should not be) a controversial statement. When you burn things, carbon dioxide is produced in predictable ways. Industrial society burns a lot of stuff--oil, coal, etc. If you add up all the stuff we burn, and compare it to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, you see a significant contribution. (Predictions are that that we will have doubled the atmosphere's carbon dioxide levels in the near future.)

So given those statements, it's logical to at least provisionally conclude:

3. Mankind's activities are causing the atmosphere to trap more heat, which will cause the earth to warm.

You can do some pretty simple calculations that show that without an atmosphere, earth's average temperature would be around -20 Celsius (give or take a few degrees). The actual average temperature is about 15 Celsius. So the atmosphere warms earth by about 35 degrees Celsius. If you drastically change the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, you ought to expect to see a change in the atmosphere's effects, too. A 10% change in atmosphere properties whould, to first order, lead to a 3 degree change in earth's temperature.

I'm not going to go through all the evidence for global warming here, nor will I pretend to have adequately captured the debate. Obviously climate really is a complex system, and you get all sorts of feedback mechanisms that make it hard to predict what, exactly, the effect of a major atmospheric change would be. People have long debates over the details. But the basic picture is really not that hard to understand. Given how solid statements 1 and 2 are, it would be pretty surprising if 3 wasn't true as well. I certainly haven't *proven* 3, but the burden of proof shouldn't be on scientists to prove 3 beyond a reasonable doubt, it should be on skeptics to show how 1 and 2 don't lead to 3. Statement 3 isn't surprising. If statement 3 was wrong, that would be surprising and counterintuitive.

More simple logic applies to a topic that's been in the news recently, that being hurricanes:

1. Hurricanes are stronger and more frequent in warmer waters. Without delving into hurricane physics, you can see this just by looking at a map.

2. If earth gets warmer, oceans will get warmer too.

3. Therefore, if global warming occurs, it will increase hurricane frequency and intensity.

This is not to say that you can blame any particular storm on global warming, just that you can expect more and larger hurricanes as the earth warms. Again, I certainly haven't *proven* 3 beyond a reasonable doubt, but you can see that if 3 is wrong it would be surprising.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

"Static is easy to understand," he says...

A weird problem involving static electricity delayed our lab for a day.

No carpets were set on fire.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Why is disaster relief so badly done?

In the wake of Katrina, everyone has their favorite politician to blame. Bush, Blanco, Nagin, Brown, Arthur Lawson, etc. Correctly affixing blame is important, but if you want that, there are dozens of other blogs you can read. Instead, I want to spend a bit of time thinking about structural reasons why disaster relief is so bad. Politicians come and go, but the system remains.

Leon Fuerth, Al Gore's foreign policy advisor, is blogging guest-blogging on this subject at Kevin Drum's place. He's hit the rather obvious point that government focuses on the short-term rather than the long term, and says we need the public to start telling politicians to pay attention to the longer term. This seems to be ignoring the hard part of the question, which is of course *how* you change the public.

Furthermore, it's not at all clear that you even want public pressure to be the dominant force providing incentives for long-term planning. People don't know much about disasters. This is partly due to the abysmal state of science reporting in this country, as I've been harping on recently. But more importantly, this is rational ignorance--the cost to the individual of, say, researching levee failure mechanisms, or reading about engineering buildings for eathquake safety, far outweighs the benefit. So even if the public did pressure politicians to do long-term planning, we would expect to see symbolic fixes for problems that people happen to be worried about, rather than fixes for problems that are most likely to do damage. Airport security costs increased by several billion per year after 9/11, while levee funding in NOLA fell. I would guess that a large fraction of the money spent on airport security upgrades was unnecessary, and levees... well, no more need be said about them.

So if the public can't bail us out, let's look at the government. What is it about its current design that makes it work badly in this area?

We can start with the fact that politicians have suboptimal incentives, as pointed out by Tyler Cowen.

Are democratic governments simply not very risk averse when it comes to very bad, low probability events? The model behind this conclusion is simple. Politicians would have to spend the money on protection no matter what, and lose the benefits of spending that cash elsewhere with p = 1. The chance of reelection goes up only with a small probability, namely if the bad event happens and voters can tell their representatives were suitably cautious. Why not instead spend the money with a higher chance of boosting reelection prospects? The key stylized fact is that if a politician messes up very badly, there is no penalty worse than removal from office, which is a penalty (roughly) fixed in value. And since the value of holding office may not fall in proportion to the suffering caused by the disaster, politicians' utility maximization will not bring optimal spending either.

Giving proper incentives to politicians is obviously a big part of the problem. Another way of looking at this is that there's a time lag between the disaster-causing political action and the actual disaster. If (say) levees are allowed to decay over decades, most of the politicians who allowed that decay will no longer be in office when they finally fail. The mayor of New Orleans didn't have a good plan to evacuate NOLA, but he didn't inherit one from his equally unprepared predecessors either. Thus most politicians avoid even the modest penalty of losing political office.

Also, the presence of term limits means that lame ducks don't run for reelection. People who (say) blame Bush for running FEMA as a political patronage operation can't punish him at all.

How can we redesign government to get around this? Unfortunately, I can't think of any solution that doesn't cause even greater problems. Can you? Everything I can think of leads back to the solution I bashed earlier, namely, depending on "the people" to hold politicians accountable.

Another issue is federalism. Disaster relief is handled by state, local, and federal agencies, all with overlapping areas of expertise and responsibility. As anyone who's worked in a group knows, overlapping responsibilities are a good way to ensure that nothing gets done. Everyone does as little work as possible, in the hope that someone else will pick up the slack. No one has a complete picture of the situation, so they can't tell what's really needed. Coordination is difficult. And blame can easily be shifted around, as anyone paying attention to politics post-Katrina can see. It seems to me that bringing all disaster relief responsibility to the federal level might be helpful. (Not the state or local level--that would lead to wasteful duplication.) However, I think this is a subject where actual knowledge of the structure of the various government agencies involved is necessary, so I should shut up.

I have a few more thoughts on the subject but I've got to go grade papers. Yech.

Friday, September 16, 2005

More bad science reporting

With all my talk about how the problems with science reporting are similar to the problems with other kinds of reporting, it's worth pointing out that science reporting has its own unique problems. The most important of these is reporters' complete ignorance of the subject matter, as exemplified by this Reuters story, along with their unwillingness to actually learn anything.

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian man built up a 40,000-volt charge of static electricity in his clothes as he walked, leaving a trail of scorched carpet and molten plastic and forcing firefighters to evacuate a building.

Frank Clewer, who was wearing a woollen shirt and a synthetic nylon jacket, was oblivious to the growing electrical current that was building up as his clothes rubbed together.

When he walked into a building in the country town of Warrnambool in the southern state of Victoria on Thursday, the electrical charge ignited the carpet.

"It sounded almost like a firecracker", Clewer told Australian radio on Friday.

"Within about five minutes, the carpet started to erupt."

Employees, unsure of the cause of the mysterious burning smell, telephoned firefighters who evacuated the building.

"There were several scorch marks in the carpet, and we could hear a cracking noise -- a bit like a whip -- both inside and outside the building", said fire official Henry Barton.

Firefighters cut electricity to the building thinking the burns might have been caused by a power surge.

Clewer, who after leaving the building discovered he had scorched a piece of plastic on the floor of his car, returned to seek help from the firefighters.

"We tested his clothes with a static electricity field metre and measured a current of 40,000 volts, which is one step shy of spontaneous combustion, where his clothes would have self-ignited," Barton said.

"I've been firefighting for over 35 years and I've never come across anything like this," he said.

Firefighters took possession of Clewer's jacket and stored it in the courtyard of the fire station, where it continued to give off a strong electrical current.

David Gosden, a senior lecturer in electrical engineering at Sydney University, told Reuters that for a static electricity charge to ignite a carpet, conditions had to be perfect.

"Static electricity is a similar mechanism to lightning, where you have clouds rubbing together and then a spark generated by very dry air above them," said Gosden.


This is very obviously a hoax. Unfortunately, people who don't know any science trust it because, understandably, they trust Reuters not to print hoaxes.

There are so many things wrong with this story. Most important, however, should be personal experience. Do YOU think you could set yourself on fire by walking around with a nylon jacket? Of course not. After a static shock, your finger isn't even a little warm. So the logical question should be, "why is this guy different"? The reporter never bothers to ask that.

The reporter, even if he knew *nothing* about science, should have at least been suspicious about the reactions from the people involved. When you get a static shock from touching a doorknob or something, it hurts. You notice it. Yet we're supposed to believe that some guy was walking around and setting things on fire and didn't even realize what was happening?

There's the bogus use of meaningless numbers. The report says that the fire officials measured a "current of 40,000 Volts." The reporter should have asked himself, "how big is that?" and maybe compared to current drawn by other household items, like light bulbs. If he had bothered to do this, he would have found that current is measured in Amperes, not Volts, and that the phrase "current of 40,000 Volts" is meaningless. It's like saying "a car weighing 40,000 inches."

I could go on (and on, and on), but you get the point. Reporters and editors, it seems, are willing to just turn off their critical thinking skills when it comes to science stories.


UPDATE: My first thought was that I wouldn't bother with actually calculating why this is so ridiculous. If you know E&M, you shouldn't need the calculation, and if you don't, it wouldn't mean anything. However, a lot of people have taken E&M courses and have just forgotten most of the material, so here's the refresher.

Your body's "capacitance" (ability to hold charge) is about 100 pF. So C=10^-12 Farads (1 pF=1 picofarad=10^-12 Farads.)

The energy stored by static charge is given in Joules by U=CV^2/2. V is voltage, 40,000 Volts according to the story.

So U=10^-10*40,000^2=0.08 Joules.

This is really tiny. For reference, one Joule can heat a gram of water by about 0.2 Celsius or roughly half a degree Fahrenheit.

The point here is that 40 kV is not that outrageously high. But your body's capacitance is so low that it hardly takes any energy (or charge) to get you to that voltage. And no, there's no way this guy just happened to have a super-high capacitance--from electricity's point of view, we're all just big bags of salt water. A very large person could hold a *little* more charge, but not a lot.

(If you're mixed up about the differences between current, charge, and voltage, the "hydraulic analogy" is pretty good. Imagine a plumbing system. Water is charge. Voltage is pressure. And current is flow. "Capacitance" is the size of a chamber in the system. So if you have a really tiny chamber (low capacitance), you don't have to put in much water (charge) before you hit a really high pressure (voltage). Well, sort of.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Busy week

Posting will be light (read: nonexistent) for a little while longer. I'm TAing a laboratory course this term, and that means I have to actually do all the labs before the students get to them. Needless to say this is very time-consuming.

Friday, September 09, 2005

It's all fun and games until thousands of people die

This Michael Brown person is just unbelievable. This blog, and every other blog on earth except for Powerline, has already asked how someone so completely unqualified could ever have been appointed head of FEMA, especially after 9/11. It turns out even his meager qualifications were partly made up.

Bad Science (reporting)

Bad Science is a column in the Guardian, written by Ben Goldacre. This isn't something I generally read: however, Clifford, a physicist writing at Cosmic Variance does, and links us to the a recent column about bad science reporting.

I have some thoughts, but as an aspiring scientist I'm all about standing on the shoulders of giants, so go read Clifford's thoughts first.

I agree with most of what Clifford, and the article, said. However, I think the many of the problems with science journalism are exactly the same as problems infecting other types of journalism. It's striking the extent to which a lot of the complaints about science reporting mirror complaints I see about regular news, most obviously with political reporting. For example, this issue is pretty universal:

So how do the media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence? They use authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures. “Scientists today said … scientists revealed … scientists warned.” And if they want balance, you’ll get two scientists disagreeing, although with no explanation of why (an approach at its most dangerous with the myth that scientists were “divided” over the safety of MMR). One scientist will “reveal” something, and then another will “challenge” it. A bit like Jedi knights.

I've seen literally hundreds of complaints about this. Candidate A says something about candidate B (ie "my opponent's plan will nationalize health care"), candidate B denies it, and the media "impartially" cover the story by seeking quotes from partisans on both sides, without ever going through the trouble of actually reading candidate B's plan to see if "nationalization" is an accurate description. If reporters won't bother to figure out the truth with simple factual issues like this, it's no surprise that they won't probe deeply into scientific controversies either. He said/she said reporting is one of the media's greatest vices, and is one that's actually encouraged within journalism. Even when it really would not be hard to get at the truth, but reporters simply don't do it, whether out of concern for "objectivity" or laziness or something else.

I think another important part of the problem is that the media actually thinks that dumbed-down science is actually more interesting. It's not that they think the reader won't get it--it's that they think that the reader enjoys reading about conflict and controversy and not boring old facts. Again, let's look at political reporting. Political reporting is full of "horse-race" coverage. How many times do we see something like: "In an effort to appeal to union workers, John Kerry gave a speech about his health care plan in Ohio today," followed by quotes that boil down to, "I like it!" or "I don't like it!" All the frickin' time. How often do we read an analysis of how Kerry's health care plan would actually affect those union workers? Practically never. And we expect these people to discuss the content of a scientific controversy? Why should they, when it's so much easier to just pile a bunch of quotes together and call it a news story?

I don't mean to imply that this tendency is something exclusive to political reporting. It's just most pronounced there.

There are other similarities. The "scare" story that Goldacre complains about is easy to find outside of the science pages--seen any abduction stories lately? Or shark attack stories? Of course you have--and the complaints raised against it in the "regular" news are just as valid. The risk is hugely distorted in order to sell papers to an alarmed public, and scared people take unnecessary or counterproductive measures to reduce their perceived risk. Even the "breakthrough" category, which at first glance seems to be pretty specific to science reporting, has a lot in common with your typical nonscience reporting. First, the indictment of "breakthrough" stories:

these stories sell the idea that science, and indeed the whole empirical world view, is only about tenuous, new, hotly-contested data. Articles about robustly-supported emerging themes and ideas would be more stimulating, of course, than most single experimental results, and these themes are, most people would agree, the real developments in science. But they emerge over months and several bits of evidence, not single rejiggable press releases.

What gets more press, a few murders or the fact that the crime rate is dropping? Minor disputes about trade, or the steady rise of the Chinese superpower? Grisly photos of traffic accidents, or trends in auto safety?

I don't want to get carried away here: science journalism really is much worse than other journalism. It has some unique problems, the most important being that reporters don't understand science. I don't really have much to say about that beyond what Clifford wrote. But we scientists should be aware that many aspects of the problem transcend science journalism.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

More cosmic mysteries

Another fun article from Scientific American here. A very old form of Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves stabbing the patient with needles in order to redirect the flow of Qi, or life energy, within the body.

Some scientists decided to test the effect of acupuncture on migrane sufferers, and found that trained acupuncturists are actually able to have a dramatic effect on people's headaches over time. However, they also found that "sham acupuncture," which involves poking the subject with needles at non-acupuncture points, has an equally strong effect. So the ancient Chinese theory of Qi is nonsense, but we don't have a theory to replace it with yet.

There's also a very serious set of articles in the magazine about the "bottleneck" of the next half century, in which humanity will either make its civilization sustainable, or decline dramatically. I'll read those sometime over the next couple days.

Cosmic mysteries

In this month's Scientific American, there's an article stating that "the mechanisms underlying ice cream headache are not fully understood."

However, there is hope! "There have been no reports of any ice cream adaptation studies, but there should be no difficulty in finding willing volunteers."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

What was he thinking?

I don't understand the mentality of people like FEMA head Michael Brown. He had to know he was completely unqualified to run the agency. He had to know that thousands of lives depended on his job performance. Was he so clueless that he genuinely thought he could do a good job? Did he just not care about the potential victims?

Here is the latest on Brown's incompetence.

UPDATE: I just remembered this article.

People who do things badly, Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities -- more confident, in fact, than people who do things well...

One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence.


Clearly, the skills needed to get a job in the Bush administration don't have much relationship to the skills required to perform that job well. The Bush appointees for head of FEMA were, successively, his 2000 campaign manager Joseph Allbough and Michael Brown, who got the position by having been Allbough's college roommate.

SECOND UPDATE: The same question about incompetence applies to FEMA's number 2 and number 3 men, both Bush cronies.

Unspeakable urban ultra-violence underwhelms

As far as I can tell from searching Google News, not a single New Orleans policeman or National Guardsman or aid worker was killed by violence. Surprising, isn't it? Makes you wonder about all that supposed chaos and anarchy and the "waves" of violence sweeping the city. I was going to investigate further, but Matt Welch at Reason beat me to it with an article suggesting that most of the rumors of "unspeakable urban ultra-violence" are flat-out wrong.

If this is true, that would mean several things. First, the article title: "Did the rumor mill help kill Katrina victims?" Aid efforts were slowed by the fear of violence. If these fears were unfounded or exaggerated, then the answer has to be yes. Even before this, it was clear that FEMA and DHS had dreadfully poor information--the head of DHS was completely unaware of the thousands of people stranded at the Convention Center and only fo und out about it when a reporter asked why they hadn't been helped. (At which point he chided the reporter for listening to rumors! The irony...) In the absence of reliable information leads to bad decision-making--in this case, stopping the flow of aid unnecessarily, which undoubtably led to deaths.

Second, we could at least partially ditch the blame-the-victim mentality that's running rampant on the right half of the blogosphere. Failures to bring aid to the city can't be blamed on violence. You've got to lay the blame on the various organizations involved (federal and local response). I guess you'd have to blame them *anyway* since they should be able to deal with civil disorder, but this takes one more excuse away from them.

Finally, notice how the media storyline--"we tried to help these poor black people, but they screwed it all up"--is *exactly* the same as the usual storyline about poor black neighborhoods, or poor black schools, or African governments, or Reconstruction. It's hard to resist the conclusion that people are primed to assume the worst about groups of black people.

Monday, September 05, 2005

A new source of oil?

The United States has by far the largest fossil fuel deposit in the world. The Green River Basin in Colorado contains several times as much oil as Saudi Arabia, but it's in the form of oil shale, a mix of rock and organic compounds from which it is very difficult to extract the useful oil.

According to this extremely optimistic column in the Rocky Mountain News, Shell has come up with a way to extract this oil that will be profitable at $30/barrel. (Oil is currently almost $70/barrel.) It supposedly yields 3.5 units of energy for every unit consumed. Here's how Shell says it works:

Shell's method, which it calls "in situ conversion," is simplicity itself in concept but exquisitely ingenious in execution. Terry O'Connor, a vice president for external and regulatory affairs at Shell Exploration and Production, explained how it's done (and they have done it, in several test projects):

Drill shafts into the oil-bearing rock. Drop heaters down the shaft. Cook the rock until the hydrocarbons boil off, the lightest and most desirable first. Collect them.

Please note, you don't have to go looking for oil fields when you're brewing your own.

On one small test plot about 20 feet by 35 feet, on land Shell owns, they started heating the rock in early 2004. "Product" - about one-third natural gas, two-thirds light crude - began to appear in September 2004. They turned the heaters off about a month ago, after harvesting about 1,500 barrels of oil...

And we've hardly gotten to the really ingenious part yet. While the rock is cooking, at about 650 or 750 degrees Fahrenheit, how do you keep the hydrocarbons from contaminating ground water? Why, you build an ice wall around the whole thing. As O'Connor said, it's counterintuitive.

But ice is impermeable to water. So around the perimeter of the productive site, you drill lots more shafts, only 8 to 12 feet apart, put in piping, and pump refrigerants through it. The water in the ground around the shafts freezes, and eventually forms a 20- to 30-foot ice barrier around the site.

Next you take the water out of the ground inside the ice wall, turn up the heat, and then sit back and harvest the oil until it stops coming in useful quantities. When production drops, it falls off rather quickly.

That's an advantage over ordinary wells, which very gradually get less productive as they age.

Then you pump the water back in. (Well, not necessarily the same water, which has moved on to other uses.) It's hot down there so the water flashes into steam, picking up loose chemicals in the process. Collect the steam, strip the gunk out of it, repeat until the water comes out clean. Then you can turn off the heaters and the chillers and move on to the next plot (even saving one or two of the sides of the ice wall, if you want to be thrifty about it).



Obviously this could be great news if it was true. I'm still somewhat skeptical. If the project was really as far along as the article implies, I would have expected to hear about it from larger, more significant news sources than a column in the Rocky Mountain News. On the other hand, we've been completely overwhelmed with news these past few days and it's certainly plausible that it would be ignored in the frenzy surrounding Katrina, the Rehnquist retirement, etc.

The article also doesn't look at all at what potential problems with the process might be. For example, one failure of previous oil shale extraction technologies was that they required a lot of water, and American shale is all located in a very dry part of the country. You can't tell from the article whether the Shell process is less water-intensive than previous processes. There's also the environmental problems--how hard is it to clean the water once you're done with it? It would probably be a mistake to think that these problems have easy solutions just because they're not mentioned in the article.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Heads need to roll

I'm trying to relax for Labor Day weekend, since it's the last free time I get before I start teaching for the semester. But I've gotten to the point where I can't read hurricane news without wanting to punch something. The incompetence here is breathtaking.

Heads need to roll. Whose heads I'm not clear on quite yet. But we can comfortably start with Michael Brown, the head of FEMA. He was appointed because he was a Bush crony, and had no previous experience in disaster management. His previous job? "Before joining the Bush administration in 2001, Brown spent 11 years as the commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association, a breeders' and horse-show organization based in Colorado."

Think that's outrageous? Well, "Brown was forced out of the position after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures."

He can't manage a horse-show organization and Bush thinks he should be put in charge of the government agency responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of people from disaster? The mind boggles. Mr. President, if you have to pass out political favors to your friends, can't you at least put them in agencies where lives don't depend on their job performance? The Department of Commerce, for example. ANYTHING but FEMA.

Kevin Drum has a few quotes showing just how out-of-touch the people in charge of disaster management have been. I'm sure this is not exhaustive, but it will get us started.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Empathy for looters

I'm getting tired of self-righteous condemnations of looting. *Of course* looting is horrible. But it took three days before order started to really break down. Three days of living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, seeing no aid coming, three days of hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, fear, heat, illness, perhaps mourning for dead family, or perhaps watching your wife or children slowly die because of lack of basic medical care, seeing the bodies of your friends and neighbors eaten by rats, finding death as far as the nose can smell, several days thinking that you were being left to die, because government never gave a damn about you since you were poor and black, and why should it start caring now.

It's far too easy to watch the chaos on CNN while eating our hot dinners and say that of course *we* would be better. Almost everyone thinks they'd be better. No one thinks they'd be the sadistic guard in the Stanford Prison Experiment. No one thinks they'd help incinerate Jews in a Nazi death camp. Statistically, most of us are wrong. The fact is, you likely aren't as good a person as you think you are. You don't know how you would act if you were there. It would be nice if people acknowledged that.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Don't worry, be happy (nuclear waste edition)

John, guest-blogging at Battlepanda, is writing an interesting series on energy and Peak Oil. In his latest post, he discusses various alternatives, and makes the standard point that nuclear waste is an "essentially insoluble" problem.

I've never agreed with this. As long as you aren't exceptionally stupid with it, nuclear waste isn't dangerous to society. The problem with nuclear waste is that we set ridiculously high standards for its disposal. People are complaining that Yucca mountain isn't guaranteed to store the stuff safely for 100,000 years. Come on. This is one problem we should clearly leave to our descendents, who will have much greater technology to deal with it than we will. Let's just procrastinate. Put the stuff into storage in a couple guarded warehouses somewhere for a hundred years. When our descendents address the problem in 2100, they'll do a much better job with their spaceships and robots than we will with our technology.

This is not to say that the current system of storing nuclear waste in sites scattered across the nation isn't stupid. But we're making the storage problem much harder on ourselves than we need to.

The points here were made at greater length in the cover story of last December's Technology Review, but for the record I'd come to this conclusion long before reading that article :)

Unacceptable risks

There's a bit of a debate in the blogosphere between folks at Redstate and the Daily Kos about whether the diversion of funds from New Orleans levees to the Iraq war caused the levees' failure in the hurricane. It seems to me that this debate misses the point. Whether or not you can ultimately trace the blame for the levee break to some particular funding cut is irrelevant to assigning responsibility here.

The Iraq war indisputably led to cuts in funding. Because of this, long-term projects that would have strengthened the levees were shelved or delayed. No one argues with this.

It's also quite clear that cutting a few million dollars of hurricane funding was a very, very poor choice. But the badness of that choice doesn't have anything to do with the fact that a hurricane happened to hit this year. The administration couldn't have known that a hurricane was going to hit in 2005 as opposed to 2015. That was just chance. But the administration knew the Big One would come sometime. By cutting levee funding in 2003, the administration greatly increased the chance of a flooded New Orleans later. It was willing to risk the outcome that has been so horribly illustrated for us, for a few million bucks. That is what matters here.

So sure, maybe the engineers will go in and their analysis will show that the levees failed in a way that was entirely preventable given just a little bit of extra work last year. Or maybe they'll show that none of the projects that were cut would have made any difference by 2005. Regardless of the answer, it won't change the fact that cutting funding for profoundly vulnerable areas is a stupid thing to do, and that Bush did it.