Category Archives: Fearmongering

It Would Be Simpler If We Would All Just Die

Time magazine recently designated Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage wokescold, their Person of the Year for 2019.  It really isn’t surprising: the title seems to have always been based on notoriety rather than merit: past designees have included Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Watching Greta’s speech at the United Nations, I could barely get through twenty seconds without bursting out in laughter.  Perhaps she meant to be deadly serious, but it came across as overwrought and silly.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about global warming, or climate change, or whatever they’re calling it this week.  The basic premise—that human activity is putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural systems can take out—is beyond controversy.

But I’m skeptical about the effects.  I can’t observe climate around the world, but I am aware of long-term trends where I live.  I’m writing this on Christmas week, in New York City.  The temperature outside is 48 degrees Fahrenheit, a little warmer than it has been in the past few days.  Last week was right around freezing.  About 15-20 years ago, it was warmer, with milder winters and several days each summer with high temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  But in more recent years, the weather has become more like I remember it, with over-100-degree days being genuinely rare, every winter bringing snow and at least a week or two of temperatures close to zero, and mid- to late-December being right around freezing, like it is this month.

Nevertheless, it’s always fair to check one’s premises, and when my professional society made a presentation on the subject available, I checked it out.  You can review it for yourself here.

My essential question for Greta Thunberg and all those who go around screaming about the ‘climate emergency’ is: what do you propose to do about it?  Part of my skepticism is that climate change seems to be a pretext for Draconian government control of our lives.

The presentation had some useful insights, but they were very grim.

  • Exxon, in the early 1980s, had endeavored to project future levels of carbon dioxide and global temperatures.  Their projections have turned out to be accurate, nearly 40 years later.  This answers another of my points of skepticism: there were many predictions in the 1980s that low-lying Pacific islands would be underwater today, but that hasn’t happened.  But here is a prediction from the 1980s, by an entity with a business interest in accurate results (what will be the future market for their product?), that is coming to pass.
  • Carbon emissions and global GDP (is it really a ‘domestic’ product when one is considering the entire world?) have moved in lock step for the last 50 years.
  • Even on the level of households, there is a strong relationship between energy consumption and income.
  • To meet the goals of the Paris climate accords, the world will have to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 7.6% per year in the short term.
  • Doing so will mean that global GDP will have to necessarily shrink.

My wife and I could reasonably reduce our household’s emissions by 7.6%.  This would mean (as a quick approximation) not only using 7.6% less energy at home, but traveling 7.6% fewer miles and eating 7.6% less.  But if we must do it again and again over successive years, we will ultimately be starving in the dark!

And we’re doing pretty well in the world: for many, even a slight reduction in consumption would be a real hardship.  Some countries and peoples simply can’t reduce consumption; others won’t.

It would be simpler if we would all just die.

In the recent Democratic debate, the candidates all insisted they would do something about climate change, although exactly what was still very fuzzy.  But what will they do, if elected?  What can they do?

Remediating the effects of climate change will be a vast project: it will entail implementing new sources of energy, building infrastructure to hold off flooding, and possibly relocating whole populations.  Can our government do those things competently and even-handedly? 

And if not, as seems likely, what would they do instead?

The Scripted Emergency

A week and a half ago Wednesday, three men with rifles shot up a conference room in a center for the developmentally disabled (try saying that ten times fast!) in San Bernadino, California, killing 14 and injuring about 20.  I found out about it at the gym that day: I was annoyed because I wanted to watch Judge Judy while on the treadmill, but all the major networks had been pre-empted.

The reporting came across as less of a news event and more of a manufactured pageant: the announcers regurgitating the same three sentences’ worth of facts while we saw the same shots of the outside of a building and distressed people.  It was, in brief, a scripted emergency.

Later the story changed: there were not three assailants but two: a native-born American citizen and his Pakistani/Saudi wife, conveniently shot dead by police.  One of the shooters just quietly disappeared from the narrative.  And on Friday, the news media were invited to rummage around the couple’s home, with all sorts of documents left behind by the FBI, barely two days after the event.

The story has been leading the network news programs ever since, even though there still isn’t much to tell.  The event has been labeled ‘terrorism,’ as if that declaring the event as such is somehow momentous.

Yes, the event is what we, today, call terrorism.  From what we know about the motives of the killers, we now know that it was an event of Islamic terrorism.  But this type of terrorism only has power to terrify if the people are told about it.  Does this event merit wall-to-wall coverage, when all we really know fits in a couple of paragraphs?

The news media are as much terrorists as the shooters themselves.

Sunday night, President Obama, our Dear Leader, addressed the nation, telling us nothing we didn’t already know.  He ducked out of the Kennedy Center awards to make a 13-minute Oval Office appearance, and then returned to the festivities.  He wants people who are on terror watch lists (‘no-fly lists’) to be denied the right to buy guns.

It’s a charming thought, but it wouldn’t have stopped the San Bernadino shooters, who had squeaky-clean records until last Wednesday.  And it flies in the face of our Fifth Amendment (no person shall be denied life, liberty, or property without due process): the process by which one is added to the terror watch list is a deep dark secret, with no way of finding out about it until you try to fly somewhere.  For all I know, I may be earning myself a spot on the list by writing and posting this essay.

The Dear Leader also wants us to embrace the hundreds of thousands of Islamic refugees that he proposes to bring from the Middle East.  What they are seeking refuge from is not entirely clear, given that the vast majority are Muslims.  We have no moral justification (a story for another day) to bring then here, and even though they may not be associated with ISIS or al-Qaeda or any of those groups, I can’t see how they can bring anything but trouble.

I don’t really know how a young American-born man and his Middle Eastern wife embarked on a path of terrorism.  I’m not sure it really matters.

But it’s clear to me that the government and the media are doing far more to advance the cause of Islamic terrorism than the terrorists themselves.

They should stop.

Remembering Paris

A week ago Friday, Islamic terrorists associated with ISIS executed a series of attacks in Paris, at a sports arena, a music hall, a restaurant, and several other sites.  They killed 129 people and left over 300 wounded.

I was horrified, but not particularly surprised.  Two weeks before, ISIS planted a bomb on a Russian airliner full of tourists returning home from Egypt.  The plane dropped out of the sky, and all 224 on board was killed.  The Russians, more than us, have stirred up the ISIS hornet’s nest, and now we’re facing the consequences.  (Then again, we built ISIS, but that’s another story.)

The next day (a week ago Saturday), my wife and I went to see the new James Bond movie, Spectre.  One of the trailers was for London has Fallen, an upcoming action movie in which terrorists blow up, well, London.  It seemed in poor taste after the events of the previous day.  But I suppose that the show must go on.

Spectre was a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment, without so much emphasis on Bond’s personal problems.  But it’s consistent with the new generation of Bond films in that Bond’s adversary resolves into a non-rogue agent of the same government that Bond himself serves.  The plot revolves around a ‘Nine Eyes’ surveillance initiative by which nine countries would pool their resources and share surveillance data on all their citizens.  But, in real life, there is a ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance agreement between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  It seems pointless for Bond to appear in a movie trying to thwart a plot that is already in operation in real life.

Saturday night, the Democratic Presidential candidates had a debate.  I watched some of it after the fact, and lost interest: the candidates are too much in agreement with each other.  But Hillary Clinton was called out for not wanting to say that we were at war with ‘radical Islam.’

On one level, I agree with her: it’s ludicrous to say that one is ‘at war with Islam.’  A religion is a set of ideas: software for the brain.  It’s almost like saying one is at war with Microsoft Word.   But the principles of Islam are a driving force for the terrorists.  That’s why I prefer to refer to our adversary as ‘Islamic terrorists,’ and what makes Hillary’s use of ‘jihadist’ evasive.

As I watched the evening news this week, and they regurgitated the Paris attacks, I realized that I was supposed to be frightened.  I don’t see the point: quivering in fear accomplishes nothing.  Even the Parisians understand that: they have been coming together at the Place de la Republique to talk, and heal, and move forward.

But our leadership is latching on to the event to tell us that we need yet more surveillance, and that those evil companies, Apple and Google, have released software that enables individuals to send encrypted messages that the government can’t read!  They have to be stopped!  And, by the way, you can blame this all on Edward Snowden, for spilling the beans about the NSA.

Well, maybe.  If the volume of data to be transferred is small enough, it’s easy to make an unbreakable code, with or without a smartphone app, because the party who would break the code does not have enough input to begin to try.  And no, the government does not have the right to read our communications in transit, any more than it has the right to read our paper mail.

Meanwhile, President Obama wants to bring at least 10,000 Syrian refugees into the US per year over the next two years, and perhaps many more.  He says that it’s in the American tradition of looking after the downtrodden.

Again, well, maybe.  Our Dear Leader sent out a graphic noting that in the past five years, we’ve accepted 2,000 refugees, none of whom have been arrested for terrorism… yet.  But now he’s proposing bringing in an order of magnitude more in a shorter time, and somehow things will just work out?

Moreover, we’re broke.  You might say that it’s only a few billion, and barely moves the needle in terms of the national debt.  But it still pains me to see our President playing Lady Bountiful, spending money he doesn’t have.

All of which has taken me a bit afield from what I started with, the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.  To be sure, it’s sad and horrifying, but life goes on.  I speak from experience: we had terrorist death and destruction in New York City not that long ago.

But more horrifying than the destruction wrought by the terrorists is the realization that, in both instances, our leadership brought the terrorists into existence to play some other geopolitical games, and they turned on us when circumstances changed.

We have to start doing something different.  And we need to start, as individuals, by not letting our leadership and the media fearmongers frighten us.

Snowjobbed

The spectacle of the Exploding Meteorologist has been a fixture of New York City winters for at least the last twenty years: the weather reporter breathlessly telling us about the monster snowstorm, which ends up yielding, perhaps, two inches.   Of course, every once in a while, a real snowstorm shows up, and the Exploding Meteorologists do their thing.

But this time, the Exploding Meteorologists were joined by an Exploding Mayor.  Yesterday’s morning news included this item:

Yeah, right, whatever.

I rearranged my schedule to get through my meetings earlier, and walked out of my last meeting at 12:20 pm.

Back in the office, I put on  WINS, the go-to radio station in New York City for bad weather.  I found that the Exploding Mayor had been joined by our Exploding Governor, Andrew Cuomo.  He admonished us, like little children, not to go out in the snow, and ordered all non-essential vehicles off the road at 11:00 pm.

I left the office about 5:00 pm, and had a pretty normal ride home, except that the trains were not as crowded because most people had left work earlier.  Back home, I learned that the ‘travel ban’ also included the subways.  Usually, the trains keep running when it snows, and during NYC’s worst snowstorm ever, in 2006, the subways kept running.  (I know, because I was travelling that day.)

At 11:00, ready to sleep, I looked out the window: there had been a substantial lull in the storm.  So much for the Exploding Meteorologists.

In the morning, my wife noted that the G train was running: we can see the viaduct from our windows.  Slowly it dawned on me: the subways could have kept running, and perhaps did to some extent. But we, as passengers, were not allowed to ride them, by order of the Governor.

The morning news reported that the storm had moved off to the east, and the travel ban had been lifted.  NYC got about a foot, although snow is continuing to fall, and New Jersey got 2-3 inches: hardly worth complaining about.  The subways are starting up and will run on a Sunday schedule for the rest of the day.

In another time, the Mayor and Governor would have declared states of emergency, ordered private vehicles off the roads, and left it at that.  Why did they feel the need to shut down mass transit?

Don’t tell me it was to protect the public: we’ve had many, many snowstorms, and this was the first time it was felt necessary to shut down the subways pre-emptively.  (Usually, in a really bad storm, lines that run outdoors are shut down on a case-by-case basis as conditions worsen.)

Is it a case of liability making cowards of us all?

Were they simply asserting their authority because they could?

Are they getting us in practice for martial law?

Whatever it was, I’m sure it wasn’t good.

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

If we are the civilized people that we claim to be, the only appropriate policy direction on torture, or anything resembling it, is not to do it.  There are two essential reasons:

  1. If policies admit torture as acceptable in some circumstances, some of our people, perhaps being restless or bored, will do it for sport.  (See Abu Ghraib.)
  2. We like to believe that we face danger bravely, being appropriately apprehensive, but we don’t let it scare us.  A policy admitting torture is the mark of a scared people.

Last week, the public discourse included reheated discussions arising from the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.’  It was the same discussion that we had years ago, and the report (a Democratic partisan effort) revealed some of the gorier details of these interrogation methods, but otherwise revealed nothing of consequence we didn’t know before.

Was it torture?  I don’t know if there’s a formal definition, but as I think about it, torture would include any of the following:

  • Violating the subject’s body.
  • Causing permanent physical injury to the subject.
  • Offending the subject’s basic human decency.  This would include something like parading the subject naked in the town square; offending the subject’s personal beliefs is fair game.
  • Using drugs or poisons on the subject.

By that definition, yes, we tortured people.

Did it work?  This is the part where the debate has swirled for years.  But it was only a couple of days ago that I understood what we were really up to.

  • If you interrogate one person, the results will be hit or miss.  He might tell you the truth, and he might not.
  • If you interrogate a dozen people on the same question, you’ll get a dozen stories.  But by cross-checking them, you can usually reconstruct the truth, or a good approximation.

We weren’t just practicing enhanced interrogation on a handful of terrorist kingpins.  We were doing it on a broad scale, getting dozens of answers to the same question and reconstructing what happened from the result.

Once again: did it work?  The answer to that is probably–justifiably–secret.

In fairness, most of the enhanced interrogation techniques that have been discussed at length (waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions) don’t meet my earlier definition of torture.

But that doesn’t make them right.  They can still be abused for sport; they’re still the mark of a frightened people.  We’re saying that the ends justify the means: the first step on the road of evil.

And finally, to turn to the favorite argument of the defenders of enhanced interrogation: what if you had someone who knew the details of the atomic bomb that would destroy New York City tomorrow?  Would you play nice with him, or bash his face in?

Of course, you’d bash his face in.

But there’s a big difference between doing that, as an agent exercising his judgement in an extreme situation, and a policy admitting face-bashing as a normal interrogation technique.

Descent into Propaganda

NBC Nightly News - 2 Oct 2014

Last night’s NBC Nightly News began with a vaguely Mickey Mouse rendering of the Ebola virus behind Brian Williams as he told us about the Ebola case in Dallas, bad weather (since when do thunderstorms make the national news?), and deaths from high school football.

But then he began the report of the lead story:

The spread of Ebola is now a truly scary, very dangerous epidemic in Africa, made even scarier for Americans now with the first case diagnosed in this country….

I can accept that a live news reporter, witnessing something truly horrendous, might refer to the events around him as ‘scary.’  I can accept that, after having reported the facts, a news announcer might deliver an editorial summary and characterize something as ‘scary,’ although it’s not a word I’d use in a mass media report.

But when we’re told that something is ‘scary’ at the start of the story, we’re being told to how to feel about it before we’re presented with any evidence.

That isn’t news: it’s propaganda.

Evil or Stupid?

I’ve written in these pages that 11 September 2001 was the day we discovered our government was either stupid or evil, and to this day we’re afraid to find out which. Now we’re hearing that the terrorist group ISIS is already ensconced here in the US, just waiting for the right moment to strike.

Our leadership is trying hard to present themselves as ‘not stupid:’ if, indeed, there is a terrorist attack, we won’t be able to say they didn’t warn us.

But if they’re not stupid, then they would have to be….

Hold that thought for a moment.

We, the United States, built ISIS.

We built ISIS the same way we built al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein. They served our purpose… until they didn’t.

In the particular case of ISIS, we wanted to go after the Syrian government, but the political will for a direct military response wasn’t there. So we enlisted the help of the ‘moderate Syrian rebels,’ only later coming to understand that there was no such thing.

There are two rational ways to deal with ISIS:

  • Acknowledge (even if only to ourselves) that we’ve made a mistake, and do our best to undo it. That means not only ‘boots on the ground,’ but whatever it takes to grind them into oblivion, followed by an extended occupation so they don’t get back up.
  • Acknowledge further that whatever efforts to undo the situation will only make matters worse: resist the urge to do something in the face of ISIS atrocities, stop supporting them, and let them burn themselves out.

Of course, we’re doing neither of those, outsourcing the dirty work to ‘carefully vetted moderate’ rebels, even though that approach got us into this mess in the first place.

Maybe I just don’t understand things. Maybe sleazy geopolitical gamesmanship is simply the way of the world.

I do understand, however, that if ISIS commits terrorism here, it will also be an event of our own making, because, besides building ISIS, we neglected the simple imperative of securing the border.

I also understand that responsible leadership means forestalling crises, not encouraging them. ‘Never let a crisis go to waste’ is the cry of fearmongers and despots.

Evil or stupid?

I’m still not sure, and I don’t think I want to find out.

Snooping

For a while now, I’ve lived with the presumption that anything I transact over the Internet gets snorfed up in transit by the National Security Agency, for possible review/analysis/whatever.  This week, we learned that Verizon, the telephone company for many of us, has turned over records of all telephone calls made over its network in recent weeks to the government, and that the NSA has an ongoing program to collect data from major Web providers including Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.  Apple joined this group more recently, in 2012.  That this happened after Steve Jobs died may be telling.

We’re told that all of this is done strictly in the interest of catching terrorists, and that there are safeguards on the use of this information.  Somehow, I’m not convinced.  It’s probably still a bit of a stretch to sift through billions of telephone records to construct a chain of associations from a given person, but that will only become quicker and easier over time.  It seems inexorable that eventually the same process will be used against more ordinary crimes (after all, for every felony there is a related law against ‘conspiring to commit’), for sociological research, and for God knows what else.

I’m a law-abiding citizen, and as far as I’m aware, I’m not under investigation for any sort of crime.  But if the police wanted so send officers to track my movements, they could.  It would be legal, and Constitutional, because there is no presumption of privacy on a public street or, by extension, in a public conveyance.  But it would be preposterously expensive to send officers to follow everyone.  And so it always was… until now.

We’re reaching the point where it is becoming practical to perform surveillance on everyone, regardless of whether one has committed a crime or otherwise merits investigation.  I carry a cell phone, and I’ve always accepted that in order for it to function, the cell phone network must keep track of approximately where I am.  But I’m not comfortable with the notion that the phone could use GPS or other means to more accurately locate itself, and then report that information back to the network, which could then be reported to the government.  And I’m really uncomfortable with the notion that, under government order, the phone could be used as a listening device without my knowledge and consent.  (And I’m sure that such a feature has been included in our cell phones for years.)

And the telephone companies and Web providers are really big companies, and they know which side their bread is buttered on.  They all exist at the grace of the government, and wouldn’t want to get in trouble, lest it interrupt the revenue stream.

The Fourth Amendment says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

But who is to say what is ‘unreasonable’?  I’ve noted in these pages that a search of one’s possessions prior to boarding an aircraft is reasonable, for reasons that go beyond terrorism. (What’s reprehensible is the conduct of the people carrying out the search, but that’s a subject for another day.)  But this week, politicians and columnists have lined up to commend the government for its efforts to keep us safe: it’s only ‘metadata,’ people; nothing to worry about.  So I guess the current view is that trawling through everyones phone records is ‘reasonable.’  Ten years hence, when voice recognition is fast and really, really cheap, it will be ‘reasonable’ to trawl through the actual content of everyone’s voice conversations.

You don’t want the terrorists to win, right?

Or do you?

Am I Supposed to Be Scared?

The news headlines in yesterday’s papers were overtaken with the big, big story that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombing, had planned to come to New York and ‘party’ in Times Square.  The Daily News editorial berated the FBI for not promptly informing the New York authorities about the brothers’ ‘party’ plans.

For my part, I’m skeptical of the narrative of the Boston Marathon bombers:

  • There was a Saudi national who was a person of interest in the bombings, and then quickly and quietly deported.
  • The Tsarnaev brothers had normal social lives for young American men.  Why would they have turned to such destruction?  (I know, that’s a question that we’re never supposed to ask.)
  • The FBI put on a charade for us a week ago Thursday, asking us for help in identifying the suspects, when they knew damn right well who they were all along.
  • And why was it necessary to effectively lock down the entire city of Boston the next day?  The only answer that comes to mind: Because they could.  And because it would be good practice for the next time.  (OK, that’s two answers.)

But returning to yesterday’s story, am I supposed to be scared? Consider that:

  • First, the obvious: one brother is dead, and the other is quite thoroughly locked up.
  • When I was growing up, we worried that the Russians might annihilate us in one fell swoop.  Somehow we all got through that in one piece.
  • Twenty years ago, there were over 2,000 murders per year in New York City.  (Today, it’s less than a quarter of that.)
  • And in 2001, terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed over 2,000.

In comparison, two dudes with pressure cookers and gunpowder, even if they were still at large, don’t budge the needle, other than my possibly deciding not to go to Times Square.  But I stayed away from Times Square in the 1980s, when it was a garden of sleaze, so even that is not new.

Or am I supposed to be gratified that the civil authorities are diligently protecting us?

Weather Duds

The Exploding Meteorologists have been at it again this past week, warning us of an epic snowstorm that would leave us shut in for most of the weekend.  The Weather Channel even gave it a name, ‘Nemo.’  I don’t know whether they were referring to the captain of the Nautilus, or the fish in the Disney movie.  Whatever.

Friday was a normal workday, other than that I got a late start and didn’t get into the office until 10:00 a.m.  I was going to come home early, but then, as the afternoon went on, I started to get productive, and I didn’t want to interrupt that, so I ended up getting home a little late.   The weather was starting to get unpleasant after dinner, with snow and wind, so it was good to be home.

The morning, I woke up to a cloudy sky: the snow had stopped.  We got a little less than a foot.  By noon, the sun was out and sky was a beautiful clear blue.  The streets were plowed, the buses were running, everything was relentlessly normal.  Shut in for the weekend, yeah, right.

I know that places further east, like Boston and Long Island, got whomped.   But for New York City, weather like this used to be part of a normal winter.  And when I lived in Pittsburgh, getting a foot of snow at a clip wasn’t even worthy of being called a ‘snowstorm.’  You shoveled it out and then enjoyed a mug of hot chocolate.

Enough, already….

Sandy, Day 1

As I write these words, the lights have flickered for a moment, but are staying on.  Cable TV went out about 15 minutes ago; I have a pocket Internet hot spot that enables me to write this post.  The wind is blowing hard outside, but there has been relatively little rain.  It’s close to high tide, and the maximum storm surge that it’s supposed to bring.  That’s more of a concern than the rain and the wind, and if that’s peaking now, it’s one less thing to worry about.

At about 8:00 this morning, I went out to the Gowanus Canal, my handy spot for measuring storm surge.  A couple of taxis passed me on the street: I could have gone to work today!  The water was about five feet over its normal high tide, about the same as when Irene hit last year.

For the last month or so, I’ve been dreaming of roast chicken, one of the few dishes I know how to make, but haven’t had the time for this fall.  Today was the day: I prepared the chicken, threw it in the oven, and realized: if I want to have a really nice lunch, we need a bottle of wine.

Going out at 11:00 a.m., the weather felt like an ordinary autumn storm.  The sky was grey and the wind was blowing the drizzle into my face, but it wasn’t really raining.  The liquor store in my neighborhood was doing a brisk business at what I’m sure is normally a relatively slow time.  Usually, we have festive lunches at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so now I’m prepared for the holidays.

We all enjoyed the roast chicken, and then I nodded off for a while.  Later in the day, I went for a brief walk with my wife.  The wind was stronger and it was now really raining, but still more wind than rain.  The liquor store was closed for the day, but a little grocery store was open.  My wife wanted some strawberries, which they had.  And as we passed the Chinese restaurant near our apartment, we saw a guy head off on his bike to make a delivery.  Indeed we saw more bicycles than cars out on the street.

The news was nonstop Sandy reports.  A crane atop a building at 57th Street had collapsed; coastal areas were very soggy; Governor Christie of New Jersey, looking like a plumber in a running suit embroidered with ‘Chris Christie, Governor,’ berated the people who had disregarded mandatory evacuation orders, and the mayor of Atlantic City, who had opened shelters in public buildings that were subject to flooding.  He looked ready to send people to bed without their supper.  There would be no rescues, he said, until daybreak tomorrow.

So now I think I’ll watch a movie….

Sandy, Day 0

Governor Cuomo directed the public transport to shut down, and as I write this, the last train has gone by my window.  For how long?  Nobody knows.

I’ve thought about disaster preparations, and always been stymied by the thought: what am I preparing for?  I’m worried that, in the longer term, the economy will become unglued, with shortages and widespread power failures and civil unrest and God knows what else.  How do I prepare for that?  If I arm myself to protect my property, isn’t that a lost cause to begin with?  (Besides the fact that getting a pistol permit for one’s house in NYC is genuinely difficult.)

But what I’m preparing for this time is much simpler.  I expect that my family and I will be stuck in the house until Wednesday. I don’t expect damage to my apartment: I live in a stout concrete building.  I don’t expect flooding to affect the building, although there probably will be street flooding nearby.  Cable TV is the most likely utility to fail, although it held up when Irene hit last year.  A power failure is possible, but unlikely.  Water or gas failure is implausible.   (New York City’s water is delivered by gravity, and restarting the gas after it had been shut off would be such a major production that it would take something catastrophic to get it shut off in the first place.)  The latest weather maps suggest a total of 4″ of rain in the city over two days: nothing the sewers haven’t handled before, so I don’t expect trouble there.

My wife and I went to the supermarket to pick up some final items.  The store was busy for a Sunday, but mostly normal.  The shelves were being restocked, and we were able to find what we were looking for.

I get ham sandwiches from a local deli for lunch.  They have about twice as much meat as usual.  Like me, they’re expecting not to do business for a few days.

“We need water,” my wife remarked.  We have a case and a half on hand, but I’ll let her exercise her paranoia.  The Lowe’s sells cases of water for $4. She also wanted some garden items for her house plants.

Heading back from the Lowe’s, I was buttonholed by Steve the barber.  He has a tiny shop on Ninth Street that doesn’t get much business because the subway station nearby has been closed since March.  I’ve been running around like a maniac these last few months, and haven’t had time to go for a haircut.

“Do you think it’s the end of the world?” he asked me while clipping.

“If it’s really the end of the world, do you think I’d bother with a haircut?”

No, the world is not a more dangerous place than it was 15 years ago.  We’ve just been led to believe that it is.   And if this turns out to be the end of the world, or the end of New York City, at least I’m looking sharp for the occasion.

I was going to write about how we’ve wimped out: can we expect now that every storm will come with a state of emergency and a subway shutdown?  But after dinner, I find a Web site with an ’emergency preparedness checklist for perfect storm Hurricane Sandy.’  By the standard of the list, I’ve failed miserably.  I have nowhere near enough food or water stored; I haven’t boosted my intake of superfoods, immune-boosting herbs and nutritional supplements; and I have no way to defend the house against the marauding hordes that will come if there is an extended power failure.

Well, we shall see….

Sandy

Here we go again.

Thursday and Friday, we were treated to Exploding Meteorologists on the tube as they talked about Sandy, the hurricane that’s supposed to turn into some kind of mutant monster before it gets here Sunday night.

OK, there’s going to be a lot of rain and wind.  And if you live near the beach, or in the suburbs, you need to batten down the hatches and prepare.  But for the city, it will be like a thousand other storms with no name and no press agent that have hit us before.

In 1985, Hurricane Gloria struck the city on what was supposed to be a normal workday.  I headed into work that day.  Later in the morning, my wife called me and asked me to come home.

“Is the power out?” I asked.

“No, the lights are on.”

“Are there any broken windows?”

“No.”

Then leave me alone, I thought, but being newly-married, I said something nicer.

I had had other issues that year, and I didn’t want to skip out from work unless something was terribly wrong, and Gloria did not qualify as ‘terrible,’ at least not to me.  Fortunately, most of my colleagues were out that day: I was tasked to run a couple of errands, and then I could go home.  But the subways were running normally, and when I got home a little after 1:00 pm, my wife and I went out for a walk under blue skies, looking at a couple of trees in the neighborhood that had been blown down.

As I write this on Saturday night, the city has not ordered an evacuation, but the MTA is talking about shutting down public transport starting at 7:00 pm tomorrow.  Not they’ll necessarily do it, but they’re thinking about it.

Before Irene hit in 2011, the city had never ordered an evacuation, and there was never a total shutdown of public transport.  Yes, some bus and train lines would get shut down in heavy snow or rain, but until 2011, the idea of an organized shutdown was unthinkable.  And now we’re thinking about these things again.

When did we get so wimpy about bad weather?

Hurricane Irene

I missed writing about the earthquake earlier this week: I was on a business trip in the middle of Pennsylvania, when the room vibrated for a bit, as if there were a subway train passing underneath.  I suspected that it was an earthquake, but the power stayed on, nothing actually shook, and nothing further happened.  It was only afterward, when I watched the evening news, that the dimensions of the event were clearer.  My wife, in Brooklyn at the time, was unaware of it.

Anyhow, if the debt brouhaha and an earthquake were not enough, today we await the arrival of Hurricane Irene, which is now pounding North Carolina and headed north:

  • The City has ordered the evacuation of locations in Zone A.  The zones are part of the citywide coastal storm plan, but there is no simple logic to them: it’s not like ‘five blocks from the water.’  You have to look it up on the map, or through the City Web site.  And while the map has been printed in the newspapers, it isn’t clear enough to resolve the details.  I live in Zone B: if I were two blocks south, I’d be in Zone A; if I were two blocks north, I’d be in Zone C; and if I were three blocks north, I wouldn’t be in any zone, and presumably safe from coastal flooding.  We live in a stout building, with windows high enough to escape any downed trees; we’re staying put.  I’m sure there will be plenty of confusion about evacuations today.
  • Mass transit, including subways, buses, and commuter trains, will be shutting down completely after noon today.  It’s the first time that I can remember a total shutdown because of weather.

The latest reports suggest that the storm is weakening somewhat, and will probably hit the city as a tropical storm.  I figure that we have about a 50% chance of losing cable TV, and 30% of losing power.

Well, we’ll see.

Heat Inflation

It has been hot of late; today’s official high temperature in Central Park was 97 degrees.

And maybe ten years ago, that would have been it.  The weatherman would report the temperature, and the humidity, and leave you to figure out how miserable it was.

Today, in addition to the temperature, the weather reporters tell us the ‘heat index;’ some calculation based on the temperature and the humidity, supposedly to give a sense of how hot it feels.

I think the real reason is to make the weather reports scarier:  today is no hotter nor stickier than a 97-degree July day ten or fifteen years ago.  But by telling us that ‘the heat index is 110,’ it turns an ordinary hot day (common enough in mid-July) into almost an emergency.

If all my meetings got cancelled because of the heat, then maybe I’d feel different about it, but other than being hot, it was a normal workday, with all of my meetings going on as scheduled.  So it wasn’t an emergency, after all.

If one is more into conspiracy theories, one might believe that the use of the heat index is a scheme to make us believe that global warming is real.  I don’t know if it is or isn’t, but new fake temperatures do not help to clarify the issue.

I wish weather reporters would report the real temperature and then shut up: we already know that it’s hot and sticky.

It’s July in New York City, after all.  It’s supposed to be hot and sticky.

PLAN on Keeping my Old Cell Phone?

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a new scheme, called PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network) for alerting the populace to emergencies through cell phone messages.  New phone will include programming to receive the messages, which will be broadcast from cell phone towers in the affected area.

Some have suggested that this is yet another way for the government to monitor one’s activities.  From the information in hand, it doesn’t look like that.  When you carry a cell phone and keep it turned on, the phone company knows where you are: it’s how you can receive calls.   From the information in hand, PLAN actually seems a step backward: the messages are addressed through cell phone towers, to whatever phones have the programming to receive the messages.  The receivers of the message are not localized, or even identified, by the transmission of a PLAN message.

Are we now so distrustful of the government that what is actually a public safety enhancement is viewed as a form of mind control?  Perhaps, but:

  • The description of PLAN indicates that the system will provide ‘text-like messages.’  Well, is it a text message, or isn’t it?  Perhaps one could forward a brief audio message through PLAN, but the description is unclear.  I’m OK with a textual message, but having my phone interrupt me in the middle of a call is not so good.
  • The description notes that there are three kinds of message that will be forwarded through PLAN: Amber Alerts (for child kidnapping), alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life (tornado warnings?), and Presidential messages.  A service provider may enable users to block the first two kinds of messages, but not Presidential alerts:
    • I’ve never liked the concept of the Amber Alert.  It reminds me of Fahrenheit 451, when the police enlist the help of the neighborhood to catch the fleeing Montag: OK, everyone drop what you’re doing and look out your front door… now!  It’s true that child kidnapping is very rare, and Amber Alerts are actually infrequent.  But we’ve created an infrastructure that could readily be abused at the whim of our leadership. So I’ll shut them off… for now, anyway.
    • I have to wonder what the President would tell the nation through an emergency text message.  Perhaps they’ll send out one every Fourth of July at noon, as a test.  But in an actual emergency, what would he tell us?  “Put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye”?

So no, I’m not going to hang onto my old cell phone just to duck out of PLAN.  Like anything else in our modern world, it can be used for good or for ill.

What If I Lived in Tokyo?

It was terrible what happened about a week ago in Japan, far beyond what I might be able to write in these pages.  But the awesome and terrible destruction of the earthquake and tsunami has been eclipsed by the events at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

At this point, accounts vary as to the actual status there.  Some reports suggest that the situation is very nearly under control.  But most of the news reports are vague and ominous.  We’re hearing from the US government how terrible things are: how would they know from 7000 miles away?

So I ask myself: what would I do if I lived in Tokyo?

At this point, from what I can tell, life in Tokyo has mostly returned to normal: the lights are on, the trains are running, and most people have managed to clean up their respective messes left by the earthquake.  The only problem is that background radiation is several times normal, as a result of the problems at the nuclear plant.

Do I stay or do I go?

Maybe, as a foreigner there, I might have had a bellyful of the place and want to leave.  I can’t blame the foreigners in Japan who decide to leave as a result of what happened, nor their respective governments for advising their citizens to leave.  And if I were there as a visitor, unless I had a really compelling reason to stay, I might leave too.

But what if I were Japanese, having spent much of my life in Tokyo, as, in real life, I’ve spent most of my life in New York City?

Some conservative commentators have noted that small amounts of radiation are not as damaging as the regulations might suggest.  For my part, I note that there are parts of the world where background radioactivity is 50-70 times higher than in most of the rest of the world.  (Tokyo is still far below this level.)  People live there, have children, and go about their lives, with no apparent ill effects.

So while I believe I’d be nervous, and following what was happening closely, I think I’d stay put.

Meanwhile, back on our side of the world, our new governor has called for the closing of the Indian Point nuclear power plant a short distance north of New York City.  It’s a charming thought, except for one minor detail: we barely have enough power plants to carry the load, and Indian Point generates about 20% of the electricity used in New York State.  If we close it, what will replace it?

And what would I do, as a New York City resident, if Indian Point experienced the same kinds of problems as Fukushima Dai-ichi?

Well, the city is far enough from Indian Point that there probably wouldn’t be a mandatory evacuation here.  But, on further consideration, it isn’t the radiation that would really worry me.

The response of my fellow New Yorkers is far more frightening.

Global Warming

I’ve wanted to write something about ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ or whatever it is that we’re supposed to call it.  Is it a threat to human existence, or a fraudulent scheme to separate us from our industrial civilization?

Parts of the issue are beyond doubt: we, as humans, are putting more carbon dioxide in the air than natural systems can remove, leading to rising levels in the atmosphere.  And carbon dioxide functions to trap heat.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was thought that air pollution might cool the planet rather than heat it, chiefly through particulates and other specific forms of pollution that would reflect solar radiation back into space.  But that view was in the minority back then, although a couple of examples made it to the popular press at the time, which are waved today about by the opponents of global warming.  Moreover, the Clean Air Act and other similar law and regulation worldwide substantially limited particulates and other pollutants, although not carbon dioxide, substantially abating whatever cooling effects our industrial activities might have.

So now we have excess carbon dioxide, without particulates, and global warming.  But how much?  At this point, not very much: perhaps a fraction of a degree Celsius.  It’s still small relative to variations in climate related to solar activity, which is why the opponents of global warming have been able to seize upon a drop in temperatures in recent years as evidence that the phenomenon is not real.

But the small magnitude of the change to date doesn’t mean that it can be ignored.  As a simple example, consider a block of ice at the freezing point.  It takes a certain amount of energy to melt the ice and turn it to water, still at the freezing point.  If that same amount of energy is then applied to the liquid water, it will be heated most of the way to the boiling point.  In other words, ice must absorb a considerable amount of energy before it melts.  There are many elements in our world that work similarly to absorb the excess energy trapped in our atmosphere and limit actual warming.  But if the excess energy continues, ultimately it will have to result in warming, and the ice will melt.

So global warming is real, although the effects of it aren’t clearly apparent yet.  It is the sort of problem where government regulation is actually useful: when the effects of global warming are clearly apparent, it will be too late, so we need rules now to limit the future damage.  But what should those rules consist of?  Should we strangle our industrial civilization and go back to the 19th Century?

Probably not.  Besides the obvious impracticality and popular resistance to such a plan, there are other, longer term, reasons why such drastic measures are not necessary:

  1. The runup in carbon dioxide levels was caused by burning fossil fuels.  But these are finite, and we’ve consumed a decent fraction of them.  Eventually they will become too valuable to simply burn.
  2. It would be a stretch for 2010 technology, but still possible, to provide a technological solution to the problem by reflecting a portion of the sunlight reaching the Earth back into space.  But technology marches on, and such a solution will be practical soon enough to be relevant.

In the meantime, we should do the obvious: take practical measures to limit our consumption of fossil fuels, and develop new sources of energy.  I’d like to believe that this could be accomplished through the market, without need of government regulation, but I know that isn’t practical.  Money, alas, is lazy.

But what the government regulations should consist of is a subject for another day.

Just Wondering…

At this point, we’ve all seen the video of Our Fearless Leader’s recent press conference in Baghdad, an which an Iraqi reporter threw his shoes at President Bush.  (The shoes missed; nobody was hurt.)  The Iraqi government wants to throw him in jail for several years, but he’s a local hero in his neighborhood for standing up to power.

Does this mean that, much like travelers at US airports, reporters at Presidential press conferences will be henceforth required to remove their shoes?

Painting the Corridors/Blackout

Last Thursday, they started painting the corridors in the apartment.  While the building where I live is generally kept in good order, the corridors could use a paint job: they haven’t been painted since we moved here in 2003.

Aesthetically, I wish they hadn’t: the old paint was a light yellow, which was pleasantly warm originally, when lit by incandescent lights, and still decent when the lights were replaced with fluorescent bulbs.  The new paint job is a blue-gray color, dismal and cold.  Did they choose such a grim color so that we’d all know they had been painted?

And then, in the lobby, someone posted a notice that the apartment doors were being painted with (gasp!) oil-based paint.  “Oil-based paint is a paint whose primary component is oil,” the notice reminds us.  (As opposed to, say, peanut butter?)

“Do you want your children  to breathe these fumes?”

At this point, my son is old enough that I can no longer control what he breathes.  But if he were younger, while I wouldn’t take him to a paint factory, I can’t get upset about the paint on the apartment doors.

When I was a kid, oil-based paint was common enough as a wall paint, and the smell of a freshly-painted apartment was part of its charm.  But I have to wonder if the people who are fear for their children from freshly-painted doors ever change their shower curtains: the funk from a new plastic curtain can make a bathroom uninhabitable for a week.

*          *          *

On my way home this afternoon, the trains were screwed up: a blackout in Brooklyn.  I feared for the worst as I took an alternate route home.  But the lights were still on when I got home.  Whew: I had loaded up on groceries this morning.

I have to wonder, though: we never had to worry about blackouts in New York City until a few years ago.  Electricity in the city was expensive, but reliable.  Now, some part of the city loses power every year: a couple of years ago, part of Queens was in the dark for over a week.

Maybe if electricity got cheaper, one might consider it a fair trade.  But it’s still expensive, and Con Ed has asked for yet another rate increase.

Andromeda Sprained

This weekend, I watched the remake of The Andromeda Strain on A&E. When the original came out in the early 1970s, I thought it was way cool: crack scientists in a secret underground lab, trying to understand an actual (if microbial) creature from outer space. I was curious how it got transformed for our time.

First, the story has been retuned to our current mania for death and destruction. In the original, Andromeda did almost all of its killing before the picture started: we drive around the town of Piedmont and wonder what how everyone died at once. But in the new version, Andromeda is the Energizer Bunny of microbes: we see it kill again and again. The odd thing is that its victims only die after they have passed it to someone else.  Later, it kills plants, as well. We’re supposed to believe that Andromeda is intelligent, that it has been sent across billions of miles over at least some number of years with hostile intent. Mostly, I think the scriptwriters are just lazy.

In the original, the military may have had their sinister intentions, but they were secondary to the scientists. Now we see them blundering about throughout the picture (and getting killed): they’re not only evil, they’re stupid as well. The unspoken message: they will not protect you. Meanwhile, the handsome young journalist slips through their fingers. We’re rooting for him, of course, but it’s yet another dimension of military ineptitude.

Another change was to adapt the story to our mania for instant communication. Originally, the scientists were holed up in their top-secret lab, and part of the story turned on a lapse of communication due to a trivial failure of a Teletype machine. In the current version, the scientists are on the phone half the time, even talking to our handsome journalist. What part of ‘top-secret laboratory’ do these people not understand?

Finally, in the original, the key to disarm the atomic self-destruct device is turned over to one of the scientists because he’s a single male, and the Odd Man Hypothesis suggests that single males are most likely to make the correct decision in such matters. We never knew anything about his personal life beyond that, and didn’t think anything further about it. In the current version, it’s impressed on us that the Odd Man is gay.

When I was eleven, the original Andromeda Strain was a shining illustration in the power of reason and logic, although I didn’t put it in those terms back then: it was just really cool. Even though the scientists in the new version do manage to save the world, it’s a pale imitation of the original.

New Toy

After all my hemming and hawing, I went out today and bought a new AT&T Tilt, realizing that it’s essentially the only game in town.

Now that I have it, I love it and I hate it.

The keyboard is small, but it’s functional, and it’s backlit, so that I can type in the dark.  And my first operational test of the PDF reader–one of my Giant Spec Books from work–passed with flying colors.  I’m typing this entry on the subway home from work, so I can now officially consider myself among the ranks of honest-to-God bloggers.

But there are annoyances, too:

  • It runs Windows Mobile, which includes a pocketable version of Windows Media Player.  Wonderful, I thought: I can load up some music on an SD card, and listen to it on the way home.  But even though it has Bluetooth and works with my headset, it only plays music over its speaker.  (Perhaps I’ll have to read–gasp–the instruction manual.)
  • I had a picture that I used as wallpaper on my old phone, and I thought it would work well on the Tilt, because it’s dark and the text that the system displays is white.  But for reasons that escape me, the picture appears washed-out as Tilt wallpaper, so it’s useless.  I’m stuck with the default colors of Flaming Red, Boring Blue, and Bilious Green.

But it does one good thing that none of the other PDAs in my life ever did: it synchronizes through the cell phone network, so it always displays the correct time.

I think I’ll keep it.

*          *          *

The afternoon’s e-mail brought me a missive from Personnel Concepts, purveyors of fine workplace posters.

By law, employers are required to post things like the minimum wage and one’s right to Worker’s Compensation for their employees. And it makes sense to post notices about how to work safely.

But a look at Personnel Concepts’ ‘Break Room Posters’ is instructive.  There are posters for:

  • Avian flu
  • Earthquake preparedness
  • Foodborne illness
  • Homeland security
  • Hurricane preparedness
  • Pandemic flu
  • Tornado preparedness

I have to wonder about a company where they would put all of these posters in their break room.  I would have to believe that the employer’s real motive is to discourage people from taking breaks.

Or encouraging them to be very, very afraid.