Friday, September 02, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

Tadpole by Susan Point at Inuit Gallery

"I stand quite still and try hard not to move or lift a hand since it would only frighten him [the frog.]  And standing thus it finally comes to me that this is the most enormous extension of vision of which life is capable: the projection of itself into other lives."

Loren Eisley
The Immense Journey

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Dramatic Announcement

As yet another academic year begins, I am making this dramatic announcement of an entirely new discipline: Bullshit Studies.  This will not only join the many Studies now extant but also critique them, yet in a more robust manner than the former reigning champions, deconstruction and postmodern semiotics, which incidentally were bullshit.

Bullshit Studies has vast potential.  Bullshit fertilizes every field, in and beyond academia.  Some fields, such as politics and television, produce very little other than bullshit.  Calling bullshit is our chief mode of analysis.  But we are developing tools to measure it.  We will start with the Bullshit Detector, and a scale of from 1 to 5 units of bullshit.  These units are called Hemingways, or "hems."

For example, calling this a "dramatic announcement" gets 1 hem, as it is simple p.r. bullshit.  Referring to "we" gets 2 hems, as it is actual quantifiable deception.

Some people more or less embody bullshit, which will require a different tool to measure.  We're working on that.  We must develop a way to distinguish bullshit by membership ( Republicans are basically bullshit) and then bullshit beyond that (Cowboy Rick, Newt Romney, etc.)  Of course, individuals can belong to a not entirely bullshit political party or view, and still be bullshit.  Ariana Huffington, for example, is bullshit.

As an academic discipline, we look forward to taking over as many academic departments as possible.  It's a long road.  We'll probably start small, perhaps at the Fringe Festival of the Modern Language Association convention.  But it can be done, as deconstruction proved.  When we are able to deny tenure to anybody not swearing fealty to Bullshit Studies, then we know we have conquered.

But professing Bullshit Studies does not require advanced degrees.  We uphold the highest standards of scholarship and analysis, but as everyone knows, advanced degrees are bullshit.

Today we start by calling bullshit on those big mouths-- Republican, Democrat, and Mr. & Ms. InBetween--who are complaining that Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene was overhyped.  Defining "overhyped" in non-tautological terms in reference to cable television will require years of systematic analysis (and perhaps a particle collider), so absent that, let's look at the substance of the charge in terms of impact and of actions--evacuations, precautions, money spent.

The impact of Irene is still being felt, long after the cable TV reporters have put away their rubber boots.  It's true that the media capitals of Manhattan and Washington did not suffer the impacts forecast in television animations.  The cameras, starved for shots of the Washington Monument toppled by the wind, or the Statue of Liberty swamped by the seas, had to be content to focus on reporters too dumb to get in out of the rain.  But since the cameras were switched off, the death toll has more than doubled.  Entire towns are flooded, in Vermont, New York state and New Jersey.  Roads are split and useless in North Carolina.  A million or more people are still without power.  Damages are likely to amount to from $6 billion to $12 billion--which ranks Irene in the top twenty most expensive hurricanes, and possibly the most expensive category one storm ever.

As for the precautions, pointing to the very statistic that suggests their success as evidence of their failure--the relatively low casuality figures--is bullshit.  It's 3 hem bullshit, which is characterized by repetition and is shared by a number of people who should know better, but that group of people is not totally bullshit--there are a fair number of idiots (including hopeless and temporary idiots) there as well.  Here's some suggested reading on the subject.

It's worth noting that an additional problem with forecasting storms these days is that we're in terra incognita thanks to the Climate Crisis, and its multiple effects over time.  That Irene may turn out to wreak most of its devastation with inland flooding is a prime example.

It's not clear at this point whether House maj leader Eric Cant is going to force FEMA to shut down without a deal on cuts to offset its budget appropriations, or whether he's just making those noises.  Cant is a challenge to Bullshit Studies.  He is himself bullshit.  But then there are his various actions, which require careful and nuanced application of Bullshit Detector categorization.  Fortunately, unlike FEMA and weather forecasting, this does not require GOPer-approved government funding. Which by the way has been cut for improving the very forecasting that bullshitters are complaining was inadequate.  That's a lot of bullshit.

Meanwhile there are huge ongoing wildfires in the heat of Texas and Oklahoma, and another tropical storm (Katia) in the Atlantic.  Storms, by the way, are not bullshit.

Footnote: (see, it is an academic thing.)  Our unit of measurement, the hem, is named after Ernest Hemingway because of his famous quotation (which is not so famous perhaps since I'm about to explain it): "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector."  Unlike many famous quotations attributed to people who never said or wrote them, this one is not bullshit--that is, Hemingway actually "said" it: in his Paris Review interview (republished in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Second Series, p.239.)

Monday, August 29, 2011

1000 Times Better


The career of Hurricane Irene was full of surprises, and it's not over.  A storm that unexpectedly weakened  as it began moving up the U.S. coast unexpectedly retained its power and its huge extent depite making three separate landfalls.Some of the worst flooding seems to be happening near the storm's end, in Vermont.  There are reports of windows blown out by wind in Montreal.

And it still goes on.  More than 4 million are without power.  More than 20 have died, and that toll is likely to go up.  It will take at least days for New York City's transportation to be up and running, and at least that to restore power to some areas.  Roads are damaged, bridges washed out. Flooding is still continuing, and getting rid of the water in some places will take weeks.  The damage will take time to assess, but it could have been worse.  The injuries, the loss of life, could have been so much worse--and not only because the storm wasn't as intense as first believed.

The outcome is better and will be better because government worked.  President Obama on Sunday called it "an exemplary effort of how good government at every level should be responsive to people's needs."

Leading the effort was the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA--the agency that became a dirty word during hurricane Katrina and its notorious aftermath.  But this time, said one local official, the FEMA response was "a thousand times better."

Even GOPer Governor Christie of New Jersey lauded the effort. FEMA officials, he said on NBC, are "working incredibly hard in providing things to us that we need."

That the storm did not reach the more dire dimensions that had been forecast prompted some second-guessing about the ordering of massive evacuations. But Christie said there would have been a "significant loss of life" if as many as 1 million people had not left the Jersey shore ahead of the high wind, heavy rain and tidal surges.

The officials who responded may get political credit.  The LA Times suggested "The federal government has come far since Hurricane Katrina, and the response to Irene could restore a measure of public trust and goodwill for President Obama."  But it's just as likely that he won't get any more credit than he has for supporting the rebels in Libya, or getting another major terrorist leader in Pakistan.  At least not in the media, and certainly not from the biggest GOPer mouths, who will start loudly complaining before Monday sunrise.

But the most important point isn't political, at least not in party politics.  It is simply this: that the value of people helping people is affirmed, and the idea that society is just a collection of everyone for themselves proves stupid once more.  People who want to making helping people their lives work do so in nonprofit organizations like the Red Cross, and they do it in government agencies like FEMA, or as first responders.  This was and remains an emergency affecting millions of people.  But every single day is an emergency for someone.  "You'd do the same for me" is as important an idea as any the human mind and heart has devised to live by.

Real Time

Lincoln Park, New Jersey

With the effects of Hurricane Irene still being felt, the postmortems on the forecasts has begun.  I've seen at least three major articles, none of which has much to say beyond the obvious.  Once again, the relationship of this huge storm to Climate Crisis conditions is suggested, but is not "proved."

There are two certainties about this storm, and about any storm, flood, heat wave, etc.  First, someone will call it a "wake-up call" and expect immediate changes sweeping through Washington to take the Climate Crisis seriously.  But as long as fossil fuel money controls the GOPer brain, that kind of consensus is unlikely.  Second, even scientists will deny that the extent or behavior of this storm--of any storm--"proves" that the Climate Crisis is involved, or is real.  But the question isn't proof, and never has been.

Other scientists who go at it the other way around, see the relationship.  They know the Climate Crisis is real, and they know that certain phenomena associated with this storm is both generally consistent with Climate Crisis models and adds to the knowledge base of what specific effects we might expect.  A few of the relationships are outlined here.  Others will be discussed and studied in the coming months.

But just consider this: no one knew for certain what Irene would do.  Yet it was generally known that wind, storm surges, and rain were going to be destructive and life-threatening.  So places in most danger were evacuated, response teams were organized and put in place, precautions taken by government, businesses and families.  All without 100% certainty.  Well, something like 97% of climate scientists agree on the general cause and consequence of the Climate Crisis.  Shouldn't that be enough to take action?  

And consider the context of this storm.  It was more destructive because a lot of the East Coast has been very wet lately.  A lot of rain, and (in New England especially) a lot of flooding.  According to Dr. Jeff MastersEmergency managers reported that the nearby town of Lindenhurst (population 28,000), on the south side of Long Island, was mostly under water due to a storm surge. The storm surge at The Battery on the southern shore of Manhattan reached 4.0 feet, overtopping the sea wall in several locations. Fresh water run-off from Irene's torrential rains, riding on top of a 3 to 4-foot storm surge, allowed the swollen East and Hudson Rivers to overflow at the edges of Manhattan. Irene's rains have now ended in New York City, after accumulating to 7.60" at Central Park. This brings total rainfall for the month of August in New York City to 19.68", making it the wettest month in the city since record keeping began in 1869. The previous record was 16.85", set in September 1882. Philadelphia, PA and Newark, NJ have also set all-time wettest month records, thanks to Irene's rains. The 19.40" of rain that has fallen in Philadelphia this August is probably the most rain any major city in the Northeast, U.S. has received since 22.43" fell in Newark, NJ in August 1843, according to wunderground's weather historian, Christopher C. Burt.

While this part of the country has been very wet, other parts are parched to the point of drought.  Continuing heat and drought in southern California have officials very worried about fires.  And of the state of ace Climate Crisis denier Cowboy Rick, Dr. Masters writes that Houston hit 109F Saturday, tying the record as the hottest day in the city's history.   "This year, Houston has set its record for all-time hottest temperature, most 100° days in a year (36, old record was 32, and 4 is normal), and most consecutive 100° days (24, old record was 14.) Weather records in Houston go back to 1889. Houston needs 20.18" of rain to get to normal levels of rainfall for the year. Today's high is predicted to be 107°F in Houston, so yesterday's record may be in danger of being broken today."

If the science--the physics, the chemistry--of the Climate Crisis were correct, these are the things that would be happening.  And they are happening.  Record after record gets broken, disaster after disaster deforms lives and depletes resources, but there's nothing to see here, move along, pardner.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Irene Update: Early Sunday

Hurricane Irene remains a huge and only slightly diminished storm after raking the East Coast from North Carolina into New Jersey.  It is just dawning on Sunday. With first light, the overnight damage will begin to be assessed from the continuing winds and rains--more than seven inches in Annapolis, Md., and up to 15 inches elsewhere--from storm surge and flooding, and from wind.  Millions are or were without power.  The Bay Bridge tunnel is flooded.  Roads are closed in the Tidewater area.  There have been ten deaths so far, most involving downed trees.  There have also been tornadoes associated with the storm.  At the moment there is a tornado watch for Long Island.

It's dawning over a very quiet New York City, where the big test will likely be around 8 a.m. EDT when high tide arrives at about the same time as Irene winds, now approaching at 75 mph with gusts over 90 mph.  Late forecasts however suggest that the feared widespread flooding in lower Manhattan may not happen, but that remains to be seen.  Another unknown is the effect of higher wind speeds higher in the air, meeting Manhattan's skyscrapers.

So far it seems preparations have paid off.  Up to 90% of Atlantic City's population evacuated.  Manhattan is shut down and few are on the streets.  President Obama was at FEMA's emergency control center.  But the danger won't be over at least until Sunday turns into Monday.  Later on Sunday, Irene moves into New England without totally relinquishing its effects on New York.  It will also be later Sunday that damage in Washington etc. can be assessed.  But it does so far seem that the Delaware/Maryland area got the worst of the storm.