Friday, September 30, 2005

National Geek Day

Ruchira pointed out yesterday, and Scott just reminded me, that today is National Geek Day, as casually declared by Neil Gaiman, as all such days should be declared, in honor of the fact that both he and Joss Whedon have movies coming out today. (That is, Mirrormask and Serenity.) I can't see Mirrormask tonight for eminently good reasons that shall be declared later, but you should go check it out if you can. If enough people go see it in its initial run it might actually get a wide release.
Intelligence in a Vehicle

Anup at the Fuel Consumption Debate
makes notes that Americans might finally be paying attention to fuel consumption when they choose their cars. Of course, they still might think that giant hulking SUVs are safer. It's a common misconception, and he links to a great report from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (pdf here) debunking that notion. The problem is, people compile their statistics on car-class safety averaged over class, and there are some small cars that are just cheap. Plotting driver-deaths per million vehicles sold, aside from family-oriented minivans, some of the safest vehicles are the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry, beating out any SUVs. In fact, debunking a notion that big cars mean fewer deaths on the freeway, the reports authors, Tom Wenzel and Marc Ross plotted deaths of drivers of the other vehicle as a function of the car they crashed into along the verticle axis of their scatter plot--making me wonder if the drivers of Dodge Rams should be required to get special safety training for their license. Anup links to a Wall Street Journal article about how Detroit might finally be catching on.

It makes sense to me that it's not weight that makes one safe, it's volume---crumple-worthy volume. This is one reason why I'm really interested in the Smart Cars that I oohed and ahed over while in Europe: they're pretty darn safe. According to this Wired article I read almost a year ago,
So Smart designers invented the Fortwo's main style and safety feature: a bulky steel cell, visible inside and out, that frames the passenger compartment like a roll cage and absorbs the shock of a head-on collision. What happens if some Detroit-engineered behemoth plows into the featherweight Fortwo? I got a pretty good idea, watching a Smart-sponsored crash test with a Mercedes E-Class: The big sedan crumpled, and the Fortwo ricocheted. In a separate test, by the European New Car Assessment Program, a 40-mph impact with a concrete wall failed to dent the safety cell. They awarded the Smart a three-star crash rating - nothing like a Volvo but better than a Ford Escort, which weighs nearly half a ton more than the Fortwo.
DaimlerChrysler decided the only way to sell such a car in America was to style it as an SUV, due out next year, but a stone's throw across the North Bay from me, Santa Rosa's Zap Car is modifying and importing regular little Smarts. At 70 mpg, that's seems pretty wise.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Loathsome Tree Fungi in Broadcast

Brad DeLong gets snippy:
Bill Bennett is a hypocrite, a loathsome fungus on the tree of American politics, a man who has worked unceasingly to make America a worse place--when he's not publishing the work of others under his own name, or rolling the dice at Las Vegas while claiming that America's poor would be rich if only they had the righteousness and moral fiber than he does. But Bill Bennett is not afflicted with genocidal fantasies about ethnically cleansing African-Americans. The claim that he is is completely, totally wrong.
You loathesome tree fungus, you! I think that deserves a t-shirt. Professor DeLong tells the interesting tale of why someone thought Bennett has genocidal fantasies, and how they misunderstood what Bennett was actually saying. Then DeLong has some good advice about radio:
Bennett is attempting a reductio ad absurdum argument. Never attempt a reductio ad absurdum argument on talk radio. You can't keep exact control over your phrasing in real time, and so somebody is bound to think you are endorsing the horrible absurdity that you are rejecting.
Wow, what non-obvious, but obviously good, advice. That reminds me that this neat dictionary of rhetorical terms--Silva Rhetoricae--might come in handy. Found via Scratchings.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Wheels of Justice Might Be Turning!!!

Wow, thanks, Rhinocrisy, for bringing to my attention some just now filed news---Tom DeLay has been indicted by a Texas grand jury with conspiracy, and has to step down as Majority Leader!! (Google News here.) I hadn't realized how cynical I had become---I had subconsciously assumed there was no way in hell DeLay could be indicted for anything by anyone.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Giant Squid Photographed Alive In the Ocean!

National Geographic Stor
y, with some pictures, here. Sydney Morning Herald has all the pictures on one page too. Poor thing lost a chunk of tentacle. Links from TK.

It occurred to me that I've been meaning to check out SFist for a while now. Of course, I won't really be happy until we have an EastBayIst, but such is life. Scanning the front page, this graf jumped out at me. It's from an interview with new San Franciscan and author of Alcoholica Esoterica Ian Lendler:
When working on this book, did you fall in love with any new drinks?
Sadly, the one I really, really, really wanted to try is no longer around-– Vin Mariani, from the late 1800’s. It was bordeaux wine with cocaine leaves soaked in it. It was so good the Pope gave the inventor a Vatican medal of honor and officially endorsed the drink in an ad. I’ll type that again because it’s so awesome: The Pope! Did an ad! For cocaine wine! Because he drank it so much!

Good times.

Whoa. This would appear to be the ad. This is Leo XIII we're talking about. He lived to be 93. I, uh. . .well, wow. What can you say?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Banned Books Week

Robert Stribley reminds us that it's banned books week and links to an Amnesty International sight reminding us that this is even more serious stuff beyond people freaking out about The Chocolate Wars. Let's take a look at the story of Tohti Tunyaz, who's currently in jail in China for researching the history of his Uighur people:
During his trial, the court referred to documents he obtained in the XUAR, and to a book advocating “ethnic separatism” called The Inside Story of the Silk Road, which he was accused of publishing in Japan. His professor in Japan, Sato Tsugitaka, has asserted strongly that the so-called “state secrets” consisted of a list of 50-year-old documents provided by an official librarian, and that Tohti Tunyaz has not published any books advocating “ethnic separatism”. According to an article published in the January 2001 issue of China’s national security newsletter, Tohti Tunyaz “turned his back on his homeland” by going to Japan to study for his PhD, where he “came under the influence of western liberal thinking” and “engaged in Xinjiang minority splittist activities”. . . .In May 2001, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Tohti Tunyaz’ imprisonment was arbitrary and in violation of his right to freedom of thought, expression and opinion.
I thought it particularly sad that the fact that Tunyaz left China for his Ph.D. was held against him--China famously encourages bright young scientists and engineers to study abroad.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

40,000 Twelve-Year-Olds On A BART Train

All day long, it seemed Live 105 (KITS 105.3 FM, that is) was blasting Green Day songs "live" from SBC park, heralding a concert to start a few hours later. At one point the DJ mentioned that some tickets were still for sale, and I was surprised it wasn't sold out, but later he said 40,000 people were expected to show up. He cryptically referred to a sea of twelve-year-olds wearing red ties and eye-liner, but not having followed either Green Day's 16 year ascent in punk rock nor its current fan-base, I didn't think much of it.

Getting on a train to the East Bay at the Embarcadero BART Station tonight I wished I had paid more attention. I've left San Francisco by BART after huge signature events like Gay Pride, anti-war protests, Halloween and the like. I have never looked at a train and seriously considered just not even trying to get on it. At the last moment I dashed in and felt the doors brushing my back as they closed behind me. I was standing directly under the nose of a man who chastely closed his eyes and kept very still. He was probably terrified of knocking into any one of the handful of adolescents jammed into all sides of him; we were easily the oldest passengers near the door by a decade or more. The quickly depleting air supply stank of fruity perfume and sweat, bubble gum and cigarette smokers, sugar candy and alcohol. Down the aisle two pairs of obviously middle aged parents loudly analyzed the set-lists and bass skills of the three bands while clutching their chest-high children, who were all decked in Green Day gear.

Like I said, I'm only passingly familiar with Green Day's oeuvre, but I do vaguely remember when they were the edgy punk rock friends' cool, somewhat older, college-age siblings listened to, beyond the taste of most high school seniors, let alone freshmen. Live 105 played a clip of lead singer Billy Joe reminiscing on flyering to get people to shows, and describing the band's flavor as a cross between The Ramones and U2. Since when do parents take their children to see a cross between The Ramones and U2?! Isn't that what Kelly Clarkson and Britney Spears are for?

Of course San Francisco also hosted an anti-war protest and the Love Parade today; I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed that none of the sea of children were going home from those events.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Well, the American Red Cross may need more of our help. (Google News on Hurricane Rita.) I don't really know anyone in Houston, but I know people who have close friends and family there (especially Sepia Mutineers like brimful, cicatrix, and Abhi) . As a Californian and a Coloradan, I usually find it my God-given duty to mock Texas whenever possible. I don't have any memories of Houston, nor do I have shared cultural memories, like with New Orleans, except for a soft spot for the Johnson Space Center. But I ate my first rice there, and there I first officially displayed my preference for books. So I hope it gets through this okay.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Peak Oil

The charming Rhinocritic Hedgehog met up with me on Tuesday night and we checked out a talk on Peak Oil by New College's Richard Heinberg. He's written it up quite nicely here, so I'll just summarize the the main ideas. Discovery of new oil fields is slowing down, and of course, we have a finite supply of oil on the planet. Global demand of oil is only growing--increasingly, growing, in fact, because of the developing economies of China and India. Unless something changes, at some point our ability to pump that oil (i.e. the rate at which we can pump oil out into the market on any given day) is going to fall short of our demands excessively enough to drastically change the price of petroleum. The unfortunate bit is that a) nothing is set to change and b) some people think that "some point" is pretty soon.

So first there's the geophysical/petroleum engineering question of how soon is soon, and I'd like to read more about that and consult with my friendly neighborhood geophysics experts and the scientific literature. What's interesting to me right now, however, are the arguments that assume that soon is, in fact soon, but still don't care. Snarkmarket recently cited* a NYT magazine article by Peter Maas (sadly, now behind the Time Select $50 wall) and its supposed debunkment by Freakonomics Economist Steven Leavitt:

What most of these doomsday scenarios have gotten wrong is the fundamental idea of economics: people respond to incentives. If the price of a good goes up, people demand less of it, the companies that make it figure out how to make more of it, and everyone tries to figure out how to produce substitutes for it. Add to that the march of technological innovation (like the green revolution, birth control, etc.). The end result: markets figure out how to deal with problems of supply and demand.Which is exactly the situation with oil right now. I don't
know much about world oil reserves.
I'm not even necessarily arguing with their facts about how much the output from existing oil fields is going to decline, or that world demand for oil is increasing. But these changes in supply and demand are slow and gradual -- a few percent each year. (emphases mine.)
My sister loves to point out that economists sometimes lose sight of the fact that their fundamental ideas are not as strongly tied to reality as they'd like to believe. "Slow and gradual" is a matter of comparison. If demand is growing much, much faster than supply, then change to society is not really slow. Previously Saurabh--another Rhinocrat--blogged about a documentary Heinberg was in:

I asked why we wouldn't expect the same sort of thing we saw in 1973 to happen again - economic contraction, extreme conservation and a resulting drop in consumption. Of course, this time the drop in consumption comes first, but the dependence should be the same. The film doesn't have a satisfactory answer to this, and I think in general this is why Heinberg and his
ilk have such a hard time being taken seriously. Okay, oil prices will go up. The economy will take a spill. Does it REALLY mean the end of life as we know it?
What Heinberg the documentary-star didn't do such a good job of answering Heinberg the patient lecturer better addressed. Certain kinds of demand--demands which are not substitutable and based on slow-moving technology--are sticky. We don't just burn fuel, we burn a particular few kinds of fuel, in particularly important ways. My friendly neighborhood scientists and engineers tell me that the things like biodiesel and tar oil sands of Canada might more than do the trick. Heinberg presented some numbers on why those won't come online fast enough, but I'm willing to accept that peak oil might not be a problem soon after I've seen all the evidence, but I'm not willing to accept that the reason it can't possibly be a problem is that the market will magically take care of everything. It would be a shame to have to wait for a second Keynes to discover that demand and usage is as sticky as prices were during the great depression. The question is how big the spill, and that's a question we're going to have to ask as much of geophysicists, petroleum-engineers, and operations scientists as of economists.

I was really impressed with Heinberg for patiently staying around to answer lots of questions, even somewhat wacky ones about zero point energy and the like. The evening might have been a lot more distressing were it not for the witty company of Hedgehog, who's even more interesting than you'd expect a burrowing creature to be. Cheers for blogs connecting!

*I swear I kept typing "snited" by mistake right there, which is funny, b/c it's kinda almost the opposite. Pretty snarky sounding, really.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Go Bears: CalTV

The young cubs have started a project called CalTV. I like the five-panel flashplayer format--I bet they could extend that more creatively. Link sent by Ruchira.

In sinks (from TK) and with stuff (from Jesty).

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Small Group of Conspirators

Armchair Generalist has a fascinating post on how using the progressive blogosphere to build better strategy---better strategy to win elections, and better strategy to secure the nation.
. . .it's up to us progressive bloggers to figure out how to get the media and the Dem politicians involved in creating our own "perfect storm," at least in developing and articulating a national security strategy, a national military strategy, and a foreign policy that are all distinct and superior to the Repub versions. Many of the left-leaning national security blogs out there tend to focus on foreign policy - We also need a distinct military strategy as well to articulate to the public how we intend to fix the military after Bush is done abusing it. To that end, a small group of conspirators met at Capital City Brewery-Union Station last night to discuss just that issue. (emphasis mine)
I'm not really sure I believe in blogs as substitutes for media any more. Everyone loves to talk about blogs as a threatening new form that takes market share away from old forms. If blogs take market share from any particular form of media, it's books, particularly fiction--I read a lot more magazine and newspaper articles in blogospheric hunts than I did previously, and a distressingly decreasing number of novels. The problem is, people expect blogs to do whatever it is they will settle into quickly, and I don't think that's realistic. Economists apparently wrote off computers as contributing much to national productivity throughout the19 80s, because they just didn't seem to be doing anything. Then the 1990s happened. Airplanes were invented in 1903, but it was a good 50 years before commercial flight became a remotely normal experience. We're not such good prognosticators.

What blogs are good at--much better at than any "old media" or even most websites--is connecting people and building little tiny overlapping communities. Bit by bit I am meeting bloggers whose work I read. I often exchange email with some of you commenters whom I've never met, and there's a growing list of towns across America where, if I visit, I would definitely let you know I was around. I've connected with people in the comments section of other blogs. I know this is all now commonplace among similarly sized blogs--from the crustaceans to the flappy birds to the smaller mammals of the ecosystem. But by naturally getting to know each other in a wide variety of contexts--the contexts provided by the highly variable subject matter of even the most focused blogs--people can find their co-conspirators.

Whether its for politcal action, a social service, or great art, people need others to conspire with. I don't think this is a process that can be rushed or automated, which is frustrating for the CPU-prophets of technology. It's a process that is seemingly inefficient. A lot of seemingly promising conspiracy meetings are going to dry up, a lot of correspondences are going to die. I'm not sure what it will lead to. But if we don't give up on the process--if we stick to it and respect it--I think it will be very interesting.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Ahoy Land-lubbin Shark-Bait!

Avast! Smartly now, down some grog or be a bilge-rat! The ferocious mateys at the S. S. ARRRR Datta remind you to Talk Like A Pirate Today. Or we'll have you kiss the gunner's daughter and visit Davy Jones's Locker.

Otherwise known as blood poisoning*.This cheery topic courtesy of Brad DeLong's quoting Gene Healy quoting Calvin Coolidge on the death of Coolidge's son while Coolidge was the President:
We do not know what might have happened to him under other circumstances, but if I had not been President, he would not have raised a blister on his toe, which resulted in blood poisoning, playing lawn tennis in the South Grounds.
DeLong then asks,
"How much richer are all of us today than Calvin Coolidge, for we don't have to worry about our sixteen-year-olds dying of blood poisoning from an infected blister that developed while playing tennis?"
This leads to some interesting comments. Atanu Dey affirms DeLong's celebration of modernity, citing the view above the clouds so many of us can afford with an airline ticket. theorajones confirms the issue,
This had a big impact on people of that era. When my mother was growing up, every single time she or her sister had a cut, my grandmother would say to them that they MUST run and put mecurechrome on it because, "Calvin Coolige's son died from a blister on his heel. He got it while playing tennis."
marquer is pessimistic, "Given the rate at which antibiotic resistance is spreading, we will very shortly be worrying about that anew." But the really interesting comment, to me, was from 'As you know' Bob (Robert Oldendorf?) who pointed out that at 33,865 in 2002, septicemia is still the #10 cause of death in this country. Bob indicated that this is at least partially the fault of unequal healthcare access, which makes sense since bacterial infections are fairly easy to treat with antibiotics, so the main concern would be not getting the antibiotics in time, or at all. The google search on this is surprisingly unilluminating, however, even when you restrict yourself to the CDC. The numbers are always cluttered by an additional racial or occupational analysis. Makes you wonder why a simple study of causes-of-death versus household-income hasn't been done. Somehow, however, it's difficult to imagine a first-child dying from septicemia today.

Anyway, antibiotics are great, but still, if you get cut, clean it up!

*It's really an infection of the blood--hence the shared root septic--where the germs are doing the poisoning. The colloquial phrase "blood poisoning" always makes me think, mistakenly, of Hamlet's last duel.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Fight! Fight! Fight!

Shark vs. Octopus Smackdown on PBS. Courtesy of Emily Cooper.
Climate Change and Energy

From Geeky Chic 2.0, bad news about the Arctic Ice. It's melting, and it may be too late to save it.

Which reminded me of a link from Rhinocrisy a while back, that Nick reminded me of--the Siberian peat moss is melting and yielding climate change supervillain methane into the air.

Remember folks, one carbon atom in a methane molecule is 23 times worse for climate change than the same carbon atom in a carbon dioxide molecule. We are much, much better off burning the methane than we are letting it escape.

That's is why Strauss Family Creamery's Methane Digester and the Rwandan Prison Waste methane harvester are so great. I try to buy Strauss Family Creamery products anyway because they're organic and tasty, but I've redoubled my efforts after reading about their methane harvesting.

Nick also sent me a couple of articles about Hydrogen storage advances from the Pacific Northwest Lab and Denmark. This is good news because if we move to a hydrogen based transporation economy now, a) we can produce the electricity to make the hydrogen in powerplants, which are more efficient and easier to regulate than cars, and b) when someone does come up with a good way to produce hydrogen cleanly, there will be less delay in switching over, since the switchover will be more centralized. 1 power plant will have to change instead of hundreds of car-drivers. It's not such good news though because we still have to produce the hydrogen, probably with electricity, and most electricity is still generated by burning fossil fuels.

There's always good info at Anup's American Automobile Fuel Consumption Debate, and Climateboy and Rhinocrisy frequently blog on these subjects.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Recovery 2.0

Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine has started a tag and a proposition for a movement: Recovery 2.0 (tagged recovery2)--an attempt to galvanize the digital community into using their efforts to fight disaster. His original proposition post is here, the tagged collection of all his relevant posts is here. A wiki has been created here; a meeting will be held in conjunction with Web 2.0 in San Francisco on October 6, 2005.

I have a lot more to say about this, and I think it's one of the more important things I've blogged about, so please, please, please click on the permalink timestamp to read the whole post.

It seems that Jarvis was at least partially inspired by the work that went into the KatrinaPeopleFinder, and I found out about Jarvis's proposal while reading Ethan Zuckerman's first summary of how that went. A particularly relevant quote to the fundamental idea here, from Ethan,
But when 2,000 people show up and ask for something to do, it’s a great idea to take advantage of their generosity. Estimating that it took roughly two minutes to enter each name into the database, volunteers donated roughly 2,250 hours of time over the past 48 hours to do data entry. That’s a $11,600 in-kind contribution, valuing people’s time at US minimum wage. Could a talented programmer solve the unstructured data parsing problem in 120 hours at $100 an hour? Possibly. Probably not. And 1,999 other people wouldn’t have had the chance to help out and feel good about doing their part. [emphasis mine]
I would add to that that a single talented, paid, programmer would also finish the job 120 hours after the start, unlike the volunteering masses--assuming no sleep. Parallel processing is a powerful thing, and in catastrophes true-speed counts. Most of the current and proposed tasks on the wiki right now focus on databases that kick into gear after the disaster has happened--missing people registries, aid organization registries, relief-organization registries, shelter-finders, needs posting systems.

Chronic problems that are, in total, more harmful than natural disasters, sudden wars, and accidents. But sudden catastrophes are shocks to the system and must be planned for and given special attention as such specifically because they are sudden and surprising. That said, some chronic problems--poverty and other kinds of vulnerability--inform the outcome of disasters a lot. That cannot be overemphasized, but no one should need to be convinced any more, sadly.

The only way to fight that vulnerability is the best way to fight disasters generally.


Preparation, preparation, preparation. It cannot be repeated enough. I've written about it before and I'll write about it again. A stitch-in-time saves nine, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, practice makes perfect, etc. etc. etc. . Some of the commenters on Buzzmachine have said this, but it needs to be said again. Any movement that is convened at Web 2.0 and which proposes to take advantage of the enormous amount of ready, willing, and skilled labor out there wanting to make a difference would do a great deal of good if it can figure out how to use the web to bring those resources to bear on the problem of preparation.

I've blogged previously about a local, East-Bay, non-profit, CARD (Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disaster) which focuses on preparing vulnerable groups (the poor, the elderly, immigrants, pet-owners, etc.) for disasters by working with the existing Community-Based Organizations that already try to serve these groups but are often too overloaded and overwhelmed to provide their own disaster counseling. CARD is part of a Bay Area coalition called PrepareNow, but I don't know of a national analog to this movement. (Full disclosure/bragging: CARD is also largely staffed by my good friend Scott.) The American Red Cross, of course, does a great deal to try and prepare the public for disasters, but that's not its sole focus. (September, by the way, is National Preparedness month.) The preparedness community as a whole could probably use a lot more support from the geek community.

Small groups like CARD and PrepareNow and large groups like the American Red Cross have a host of informatics needs, both in terms of office work that needs to be done and communication and connectivity with target community. Connecting these groups with willing volunteers, as well as extending their mission throughout the country (and, hopefully the world) and systematically addressing some of their goals are all tasks that the parallel-processing, socially comitted worldwide geek swarm can address in a way that was never before possible. "Very large force, meet almost-intractable object. Get to work." One of the biggest benefits of having a large Union is that, in theory, we should all be able to help each other through various crises. The web makes that increasingly possible.

My programming chops are not anywhere on the order of wizards like Ethan, so diving into a serious opensource coding project like Sahana is not something I--or many of you--can do. But if someone were to assign me a fairly simple but repetitive task for a project I believed in, especially one I could do from my own computer at odd hours, I'd be a lot more likely to be useful. There's a lot to be said for managers and geeks who spend time not designing deeply clever solutions but instead coming up with easy to perform algorithms and unbreakable ways of dividing complex tasks into very simple pieces. Assuming that we'll get more of that, here are some ideas that I'm going to propose off the fly:

  • 1) Come up with a good way of dividing up the United States, for now, into breakable zones. (This applies to the world to, but I'm starting with what I know.) Counties? Zipcodes? Congressional Districts? Municipalities? Population centers? Somebody should assign a scoring system that's centered around disaster relief, basic social services, and decide what's the best way to break up each state. Maybe in Wyoming counties is best, but in California transit districts make more sense. Then any subsequent task on my list (or any others) can be broken down into geographical chunks and efficiently delegated out to local volunteers or non-local friends of a region. But the breakup has to be consistent to be efficient. It should also be keyed to Google Maps in someway so that people can use tools like this census mapping (from Snarkmarket) to do their work. What kind of work? Glad you asked--
  • 2) Local maps that are crisis oriented. Where are the hardware stores and drygood stores? The hospitals? The payphones? The police precincts? The bomb shelters and homeless shelters? The factories to be avoided? If organizations like CARD could hand community based organizations like deaf community centers or homeless shelters local maps, and those groups could in turn distribute them to their clientele and keep them ready in hard copy for disasters, that would be an enormous service. The after-the-fact updating Katrina wiki is incredibly cool, but it's not helpful to people without computer access and it's a bit late. If people could be assinged chunks of Google Maps to annotate, and have a very consistent, fool-proof set of directions of how to annotate them, I think this could be done much faster than if one person just took it on by themself. And then in a crisis, they can be dynamically annotated--"Look, that Target is flooded. You'll have to go to the one up the hill."
  • 3) National, dynamic maps of urgent needs in poverty services. Currently we have a very list-oriented way of looking at disparate crime rates, poverty rates, hunger rates, etc. It makes it hard to hold the whole picture in our heads. That's what maps are for. Say we have a hunger-map---a dynamic map of county foodbanks where each foodbank's color is indicative of how well its able to meet local needs. If local volunteers take responsibility for continually keeping the national map informed of what's going on, donors should be able to just glance at the map and get a sense of what's needed where, and send their donations accordingly. And if enough people look at the map, constantly, and donate, constantly, people should actually be able to see the problem getting better on the national scale. Same for domestic abuse shelters. Free clinics that could use three weeks of some doctor's time. Let's stick to the very basic, very important things for now, and if the model works it can be extended.
  • 4) A registry of Available Neighborhood Preparedness leaders. Maybe they should be certified. Type in your address and find out which person on the street is willing to give you locally specific tips on how to prepare yourself for disaster or be an additional in case of emergency contact for your family. When they've dealt with whatever number of families they're comfortable dealing with, they'll take their name of the list and start recruiting for someone else to step up. If the order comes to evacuate, they'll call around and make sure everyone's good to go, and if someone's not, they'll have some idea of who to notify. When you move someplace new, you check this list.
These are mostly spontaneous ideas of mine. I'm sure that better ones are available from the preparedness community. My real goal is to try and inspire the digiterati to get in deep touch with the preparedness community on an ongoing level. I hope to do the same as well, and I hope you will to.

I'd like to close with a couple more quotes from Ethan's post. First, he writes,
In a perfect world, I would sit down with a couple of good developers and develop a workflow management system for the next time we need to get a thousand volunteers together to enter some data. It would have a simple, web-based interface that logged users in, assigned them a task, nagged them via email until they completed it, and provided a comprehensive view of what was and wasn’t assigned to administrators.
Well, I'm not any kind of developer. But creating such a system, open source like wiki--especially one that's particularly sensitive to dividing up tasks along geographic lines--would be an invaluable service to activists and social workers everywhere. You'll never know when you'll want to use such a system, and it's better to build it now then after the next hurricane.

Secondly, he wrote,
Basically, when net people try to solve a problem, they bring their posse with them. For me, one of the lessons of the weekend was discovering what a powerful force my posse can be, and how effective the network of posses around the net can be
Posses do rock, and I think one of the most wonderful thing about blogs is how they are, slowly but surely, creating true virtual posses. Community is built on goofiness and laughter as well as hardwork. I paid attention to Katrina a lot sooner than I would have b/c I've had a damn good time hanging out at Maitri's blog back when all was well. So reach out and meet someone--you'll enjoy yourself now and be thankful later.

(technorati tag.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Republican War on Science

On Wednesday night I had the pleasure of finally meeting Chris Mooney, science policy journalist extrordinaire and blogger of The Intersection. Mooney is on tour promoting his new book, The Republican War Against Science, and spoke to a packed house at Cody's Books. Chris is speaking at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco today, so hopefully that will eventually be broadcast and archived on and I can link to it. In the meantime, I highly recommend you buy the book and try to catch Chris on his tour. For now, a couple of the important points he made at Cody's.

First of all, this Republican war on science is not necessary to being a Republican. Chris went out of his way to exempt moderates like John McCain. Indeed, he recommends that if you are a Republican, you consider going out of your way to support moderate Republicans who are science-friendly. This war on science, is however, very solidly part of the overall strategy of the dominating aspect of the Republican party and the Bush administration, and Chris documents its various strategies and guises.

Secondly, Chris got into writing this book because he realized that while scientists have been loud in pointing out abuses of science, they aren't very good at elucidating the motivations for that abuse--something that a political reporter might be able to spell out a little better. The motivation lies in the Republican party's reliance on and courting of two main constituencies--the religious Right and Big Industry. Chris lays out an incredible, evidence-rich explanation of this in the book, and again, I have to insist you go check it out. He carefully documents the extent to which the scientists and science necessary to federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and prevention are undermined by policy-makers unable to tolerate any contrary data. So far I am most grimly tickled by the virulent reaction that a poor Pennsylvania epidemiologist garnered when she signed off on a WHO report that unshockingly recommended a low daily intake of sugar. She was very surprised to have her credibility and reputation attacked over a result that mirrored many findings in the peer-reviewed literature, but I suppose she can't have been expected to keep track of the "Ranger" status sugar magnate Pepe Fanjul earned in the 2004 Bush campaign.

Thirdly, the question was raised at Codys--what does this disrespect for science mean in general, not just for obviously science-dependant agencies like the EPA? Chris said science was his beat for this book, but others had made the case to him that the problem was symptomatic of an overall Republican hostility towards expertise. I would argue that policymakers who do not respect expertise, statistics, and empirical data are bound to create failure in any large endeavor, not just obviously technological ones.

Chris pointed out that there is no dedicated public interest research group that goes around rating politicians for the integrity of their use of science and general science-friendliness. It's certainly not a task the AAAS can take up. Now might be the time to start one. At Cody's I met a young astrophysics student who has just started the DefendScience project at Take a look.

Finally, there are example of causes "on the left" which similarly abuse science. Opponents of genetically engineered food (who have a good case when they stick to ecological diversity and economics of seed hording) often stoop to making wishy washy arguments based on weak or nonexistent evidence of the harm to humans. Animal-rights activists often make atrocious arguments--blatantly misinforming the public by touting a nonexistent ability to model complex systems (instead of testing), minimizing role that experiments on animals have in all fields of medicine, or falsely trumpetting the ability of lab-rats to survive in the wild. The difference between the Republican and Democratic party is that on the left these groups are marginalized and hardly courted by the party, while their conservative equivalents (religious fundamentalists and industrial corporations) form the solid base of the Republican party and are strongly courted by them. Reporters and debaters too often fall into the cognitive trap created by years of compare and contrast essays, giving equal time to both sides of the coin. Sometimes the coin just isn't fair, and it's a sign of intelligence to recognize that and acknowledge it.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Gracias, Mexico

The Mexican army is helping with the relief work on the Gulf Coast. From CNN:
A Mexican army convoy began crossing into the United States on Thursday to bring aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Carrying water treatment plants and mobile kitchens that can feed 7,000 people daily, the convoy bound for San Antonio is the first Mexican military unit to operate on U.S. soil since 1846. . . .The convoy will be escorted by the U.S. Army and the Texas Department of Public Safety.It was scheduled to leave after the leader of the convoy, Gen. Francisco Ortiz Valadez, greeted the head of the U.S. Army unit in charge of the escort, Brig. Gen. F. Joseph Prasek. Military engineers, doctors and nurses are among the 200 people headed to San Antonio.
Given the political sensitivities of various Republican constituencies regarding the idea of the Mexican army crossing the border, I'm surprised this happeend at all, but glad it finally happened. It makes a lot of geographic sense.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


From Meet the Press, via TK, the President of Jefferson Parish:
And I want to give you one last story and I'll shut up and let you tell me whatever you want to tell me. The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night. Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.
(Video Transcript) (Regular Transcript)
Katrina People Finder/Future

A quick note in case you have time to volunteer now or think you can use it: Ethan Zuckerman and some associates have built something called the Katrina People Finder to try and systematically collect and reconcile all the different Craigslist/newspaper type bulletins into a single, searchable database. They've designed a data-set standard and have so far had 2100 volunteers enter put together 68,000 records. They need volunteers both with the programming and the data-entry.

Ruchira has a good post on things we'll need to keep worrying about--housing, counseling, and credit-rehabilitation. We should start chewing on it now so that some brilliant mind comes up with another idea like above.

Update: It looks like they're done, for now; at least some kind of searchable interface is up at Hopefully this will help people find their loved ones, or at least keep track of who is still missing. Ethan wrote up his view of the timeline in his blog. Fascinating.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


If you'd like a break and want to look at something beautiful to renourish your spirit and imagination, you couldn't do much better than my friend Emily Cooper's new illustration website.
Geeky Way to Fund Katrina Relief

Stolen from TK--it seems that you can help fund efforts and possibly volunteer to help restore communications to the New Orleans/Biloxi area by helping out, an organization devoted to the unlicensed part of the radio spectrum. Here's the Katrina Part-15 information.

Friday, September 02, 2005


I've been trying to be even-handed and avoid ranting. But too many straws have broken the camel's back.

Flipping through Lou Dobbs and the Faux News Network, I saw that as soon as anyone in the mainstream media finally points out the brutally obvious--that while only 70% of New Orleans's population is black, over 90% of the people we saw stranded at the Superdome were black--some people immediately point out that the mayor is black in a tone that tries to say, "See? These problems have nothing to do with race whatsoever!" Never mind the fact that the people with the most room to hustle in during this crisis--primarily the federal government--are almost all white. Never mind the fact that it's atrocious that we have so many poor people in the first place, that we care about them so little, and that they are so disproportionately black.

First of all, blaming the mayor now is ridiculous and rude. At least he's down there trying to do his job. Giuliani screwed up a few things before 9/11 that might have made it a lot less horrible, but even Giuliani-haters didn't mention it until weeks afterwards. Secondly, the lumping together of local, state, and federal government functions is also ridiculous. The mayor of New Orleans does not cut funding to the Army Corps of Engineers, does not hire horse-lawyers to run FEMA and does not throw away well-thought-out plans to have pumping ships in place before the hurricane hits.

I'm not saying it's all about race, I'm not saying that the people in charge are being blatantly, consciously racist. Neither was the NAACP or Congressional Black Caucus. Poverty is the real thing. But race is clearly an issue in that poverty. All the happy stories on Anderson Cooper's 360 degrees yesterday were reunions of white people. I don't begrudge them their happiness. But when you see the resources -- a comfortable hotel room, a laptop, internet access, cell phones, a friend's private plane -- available to one couple in order to be reunited with their little baby (thank God), and then you immediately cut over to images at the Superdome with hundreds of little black babies who haven't had anything to drink, it hits you in your gut that 142 years after the Emancipation proclamation we have a really f---ed up situation in this nation. Jesse Jackson said we have developed a great tolerance for black pain in this country, and he's right.

And even if it isn't about race, why the hell is it about poverty? What the bloody hell is up with this? What is up with our system wherein if you are poor you get left behind? The message we're sending the world is that in America, if you are poor, if you don't have a car, if you can't all fit into your car, you will get left behind to die in sewage. As I wrote Tauscher and Boxer and Feinstein--I've never been so ashamed and so disappointed with my government.

And what the bloody hell is up with the lack of communication? Why did it take so long for the Governor to get in touch with the DoD? Why weren't they ready and waiting for the request for troops? Why don't all the governors have satellite phones preloaded with Rumsfeld's personal number ready and waiting? A friend of mine once made fun of me because I "fantasize about logistics" but it appears that we have installed a government that doesn't even understand the notion of logistics. I'm sorry, it has to be said--can you even imagine Al Gore running an administration that is so poor on communication equipment? Can you even imagine Al Gore taking so long to cut short a vacation that would never have been so long in the first place? Can you even imagine Al Gore not knowing that the levees might break? I'm just talking about Gore because I know more about him. I honestly think the same could be said of a number of other presidential contenders--even some Republicans, like John McCain or Elizabeth Dole. I hope America finally realizes that there is some benefit to electing leaders who read books and magazines and like to talk to scientists and engineers.

I'd like to make it clear that when I was questioning the use, or lack therof, of the National Guard, I was not in any way questioning the fidelity or dedication of the National Guard itself. Trent Lott tried to pull that trick yesterday in an interview with Anderson Cooper, admonishing people for making such demands of citizen soldiers. I have nothing but the highest respect for such citizen soldiers who have to abandon their own lives so quickly to take care of others. But, Senator Lott, my questioning was directed at their civilian leadership who waited until the situation was so dire to even call them up in the first place.

I see how angry people are, how even polished news anchors are exploding in fury, and I know most Americans don't want the system to be like this. If we thought the poor deserved to be left behind, that they should be left behind, we wouldn't be pouring money into the American Red Cross. If we thought that logistics and communications were unimportant, we wouldn't be creating a new culture obsessed with exactly those things. But we've lost track of our system. We've let it get out of control. We've made terribly poor choices, we've slacked off on our duties of oversight. We've got to get it back.
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! -- Mario Savio, Dec. 3, 1964.
And here's the thing: we run it, we own it, and we need to make ourselves free. I'm pretty sick at heart, and this stinks. Let's not wait for everything to be destroyed before we fix it.
Thanks, Sri Lanka

From CNN--tiny Sri Lanka, which is still devastated after the Tsunami, and must be facing lots of demands on its foreign reserve, pledged $25,000 to the American Red Cross. From the Herald Tribune: "The government also urged Sri Lankan-born physicians living in the United States to volunteer their services to the relief effort."
Maitri Says Send The Troops

Maitri. Apparently some of them have gotten there. Make sure they keep coming. Write to your Congressional Reps & Senators.
Homeless Shelters in Texas

I figure this list of Texas Homeless Shelters might be useful to someone, somewhere. I really think donating to the Red Cross is the way to go right now--this is not the time to quibble their possible bureaucracy and blood-donation policies aside, and in crunch time they are the experts--and they distribute supplies to other groups in a prearranged way. But still, this might be useful. This one in San Antonio ( SAMMinistries, 1-210-340-0302 5254 Blanco Road, San Antonio, Texas 78216-7017.) is taking in Hurricane victims.

If you're of the Christian persuasion, I remember being impressed with the attitude the Trinity Foundation takes towards charity; their Dallas Homeless Project is worth taking a look at. they were profiled in a New Yorker article.
Donation Stuff

American Red Cross
In case the Redcross website gets overwhelmed again, a little bit of possibly useful information:
  • You can donate through Amazon.
  • Here's the Yahoo Donation site.
  • By phone: English is 1-800-HELP-NOW (1-800-435-7669). Spanish is: 1-800-257-7575. TDD: 1-800-220-4095.
  • Mail: American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. (Specify Hurricane 2005 Relief Fund if you want.)

Two local chapter addresses:

American Red Cross
American Red Cross Bay Area
85 - 2nd Street, 8th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105-3459

American Red Cross
American Red Cross in Greater New York
150 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10023

I just hope they can get to the people who need their help. . .

Thursday, September 01, 2005; People Getting Turned Away At The Astrodome

I turned on my TV, finally, and my attempts at levity have recollapsed. Houston's Astrodome is turning away the refugees who have trekked 320 miles away from the damaged Super Dome looking for shelter; it's full. MoveOn has put together HurricaneHousing for locals to offer shelter.
Like Owner, Like Laptop

So I came home after about, oh, 13 hours, and found that my closed shut Dell Inspiron laptop had been awake this whole time. Needless to say it was a bit warm though it's cooling off now. I'm amazed it didn't shut itself down or crash. I suppose perhaps it's been spending too much time with me, but it's a bit worrisome to me that it wasn't "sleeping" when it should have been. If you have any ideas why, please let me know.
I don't get it

I'm prepared, in good faith, to accept a solid answer for this question: given the fact that much of the Katrina damage was predicted days ago, why wasn't the National Guard ready and waiting in some safe place like Texas to sweep in to the Mississippi delta region immediately? Read Matri's plaintive request for troops and Slate's Today's Papers , noting that the LA Times wrote, "After a disheartening aerial tour of the flooded city, Blanco said she was able to reach White House officials on a satellite phone but could not connect with Army and other officials in nearby Baton Rouge." Eric Umansky bitterly mocks the media for its naive faith in authority, when its clear authority doesn't know what it's doing.
That's actually suggestive of a larger problem: The papers are playing up officials' assessments as if the authorities are as informed as usual—a kind of authority fetish. The problem is that officials aren't that informed; they can barely keep in touch with each other. As the LAT mentions in passing, Louisiana's governor couldn't get Army and other officials on the phone. The NYT seems to have a particularly strong faith in the oraclelike abilities of officialdom, announcing across the top on Page One: "BUSH SEES LONG RECOVERY FOR NEW ORLEANS." Does that tell us a damn thing?
Why the hell not, that's what I'd like to know? What were they doing in the last week? What resources did they not have such that they could not respond faster? Either heads should roll or resources should be reallocated, but no response is not going to work.

Update: I see that Armchair Generalist talked about this yesterday, though it still doesn't quite answer my questions. Why are we limited to using the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guards? Why are they being slow? Why was DOD waiting to give permission? I still don't get it.
Tristesse Pour La Nouvelle-Orleans

On BART, tonight, this poster seemed so bittersweet:

New Orleans was going to host people who wanted to help others, but now it needs them. It's hard to comprehend how sudden and thorough this destruction has been; frankly I had a bit of hurricane fatigue and figured those Southeasterners knew what they were doing by now. But it's really pretty bad.

You've read the news. Maitri keeps the blogging coming. Saurabh at Rhinocrisy posts one of the saddest IM chat transcripts I've ever read. Celebrated science blogger Chris Mooney is torn between the hectic release of his heralded book and worry and grief about his childhood home and family's fortunes. At Slate, Josh Levin pens a requiem for the city as he and three generations of his family knew it and left it.

I'm left with the overwhelmingly repetitive thought that I never got to see it as it once was. No matter how well it's cleaned up, it will never be anything like before. It's not a city I have any real ties to. It first entered my consciousness, beyond its importance in the Louisiana Purchase, as the principle character in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and the grimmest possible ending of death in a flooded car gave me nightmares even then. It has stayed earily literary in my mind since then. The junior high spate of bad Anne Rice books. Some poetry. A profile of some local writer in Poets and Writers. Emails from a schoolmate gone to Tulane for college. My teacher Steve told us some story about getting to spend the night during a layover; the story escapes me but an impression of historical architecture and mysterious allies stayed with me. Postcards from a math conference. Somewhere I have some shiny beads someone brought me from there. The silly little things that tell you, that yes, somewhere in this land of yours, there is another city for you to see, filled with marvelous sites and interesting people.

My prayers for the city now. The American Red Cross Donation Site.