Friday, September 30, 2005
Thursday, September 29, 2005
Easy as 1-2-3
I've been wanting to blog about this for a long time but never really quite got around to it. And by this, I mean this nagging feeling of blogging being too easy. It's so easy, in fact, that I've managed to write around a hundred posts in not much more than a year. To a large degree, yes, they're right. It's easy to link up a post at CNN or something, bemoan the state of the world, and then criticize the media coverage of it. It's easy to write a short blurb about what went wrong with the response to Katrina, and it's easy to accuse the President of not caring about black people. It's easy to write what I'm writing right now. Why? It's because there's no accountability. I've definitely made mistakes, and I definitely haven't corrected all of them. But I don't have an editor or a fact-checking staff to back me up, and so I'm allowed to make mistakes. I'm just a random person, who's posting his thoughts on the internet.
Remember when Dan Rather got taken down a few pegs because of posting a false story on President Bush? The blogging world was on fire because of that. In fact, they even took credit for it in the first place. And the Old Media lambasted the blogs because they were telling Rather to have some journalistic integrity, when they themselves had none to begin with. And no, I don't have it either, but I've definitely pointed out instances where I thought Old Media was going wrong. And I think that's what we need to do.
I have said before that I think our blog (although certainly not all blogs) functions best as a sort of filter through which to view the media. And that's all. I've never done any original research, I've never gone out and interviewed people. Marmar has gone to New Orleans (which was perhaps why his recent post was the most worthy of being 'real'), but in large part this blog deals with the world on a second-hand basis. It is, after all, a virtual space. But we don't try and make any claims to be the source, and not the filter. Sometimes blogs blur this line and publish rumors and innuendo. But the problem is that when this line gets blurred the blog thinks of itself not as a filter but rather as the gospel. And that indeed is a big problem, because it enables people to think that by visiting certain blogs, they are getting the real story.
But this is not to say that the Old Media isn't already filtering through their own lenses, be they liberal, conservative, pro-war, anti-war, etc. But because they have "Journalistic Integrity" (and I'll just take an aside here for the obligatory Fox News joke), at least they're trying; and at least they have some standards in place. But who holds those standards accountable? The news outlets say they have a respect for the truth- and yes, it may be true that Laci Peterson is dead, or that Michael Jackson is a weirdo, but is that a truth that needs to be trumpeted across the entire US? If you want the blogs to respect your standards, perhaps the standards need to be respectable.
In any case, I would go so far as to say that the blogging world isn't 'media' at all in the Fourth Estate sense of the word. The blogs should merely be a discussion, a true free market of ideas, not taken as the truth; yet still respected because of what they represent. And you know what? It's our responsibility to get upset when the Old Media bends the rules, or gives us stupid regurgitated nonsense about a runaway bride and a girl disappearing in Aruba. Because while blogging is easy, it sure looks like the traditional news outlets (another phrase to exclude blogs) are getting pretty lazy over on their side as well.
Ahh... blogging about blogging. you've obviously got to take this seriously.
Friday, September 23, 2005
Book Review: Mere Christianity
And here's a little background info. CS Lewis, the author of the book, and yes, also the author of "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" (coming to theaters this year!) was a professed atheist, before he started questioning his beliefs and converted to Christianity, convinced that it was the one true path and that it was a rational, logical choice. This is his explanation of Christianity.
The book starts off with a simple premise- that there is a human moral code. This is not a big controversy, so he goes through a few analogical hoops to show that this code is not, in fact, simple rationality, and not, in fact, simple human instinct. But it's in these chapters that he begins to show his purposeful use and misuse of analogy and language to illustrate his point of view. Cases in point: Lewis calls this moral code the "Law of Human Nature" many times. By Law, he admits, he does not mean unbreakable rule of physics. He is referring to Law in the legal sense- something that should be followed or have consequences. But even though he admits it, he freely compares this Law (capital L) with other Laws of nature, like gravity, which is a Law in a totally different definition of the word. He purposely bludgeons the word to make it have more of an effect. Yes, you agree- there is this human moral code that exists within us. And yes, we could call it a Law if we wanted. Secondly, he mixes up definitons of right and wrong- some of the most contextual and reconnotated words in our language. He says, that when we say something is the wrong color, we mean unsuitable. But when we say someone is wrong for taking our seat, we don't simply mean it was unsuitable- we mean that it was morally incorrect. Of course that's true. He might as well have said, "when we say, that bird is going right, we don't mean that it's moving up the moral ladder. When we say that man is right, we don't simply mean that he is not to our left. Thus we all have a sense of right and wrong."
These imprecisions don't make him wrong, they just show his willingness to use populist argumetns to further his point. And in any case, I did agree with him- humans do have consciences, and they are in many ways compatible and comparable. Which, he points out, is why so many religions have similar rules and commandments. So far we're on the same ground.
The point is, he says, is that NOBODY follows their conscience all the time. In fact, he argues, we listen to it very seldomly. How can this conscience keep nagging at us day after day, within us, all the while being totally ignored? And who created it?
A question for the ages, of course. And yet we're still on common ground. Lately I've been questioning whether I really, truly, believe in non-existence of God. The scientist in me says yes, but the irrational part of me says that it would be awfully nice if there were. But here is where Mr. Lewis and I part ways. He says he feels that this voice inside him, not created by any person, that fills him with Christian guilt (my words) wherever he goes. He knows that it is inside him and inside of everyone else. This voice is part of God, because it wants people to make the right choices, and this machinery of the conscience is sort of a test of moral fortitude.
OK, I say, I agree. human conscience and psychology is something I'm not qualified to delve into, but isn't it totally possible that human conscience is created by the same things that make us sentient? Yes, I feel guilt like Lewis does, but I don't NECESSARILY attribute it to the push of an invisible hand. It may just be a construct of the human emotional and rational combination. That which makes us biologically special makes us intellectually special, and that which makes us intellectually special probably makes us spiritually special, for a lack of a better term. Lewis argues way too simplistically, that because he believed that there was injustice as an atheist, he was forced to acknowledge that there was a just power somewhere else, and that if we lived in a universe without meaning, we would never know about no meaning, just like if we had lived in a universe without light, we wouldn't know about dark. But he doesn't allow for the fact that perhaps, this universal sense of justice is created by both societal and human nature- that humans can't possibly have survived the last million years without evolving to to not screw over your neighbors. And meaning can exist without there being a God... it can easily be a construct of our minds.
(as an aside- see the 'Selfish Gene' to read about the monkeys that don't help groom each other- the other monkeys have learned that it is 'right' to pick lice off each other, but every once in a while an 'evil' monkey (ha, evil monkeys!) will not help, but because the other monkeys assume that most monkeys will do it for each other, they do it for that monkey anyway. if that 'evil' gene spread throughout the monkey population, they would learn to stop helping each other out and all become infected with lice.)
But I won't try and deny the possibility that if there were a God, it would live within us. That's the Hindu version of God, that the Truth is the guiding force in the universe, and it also helps guide our actions. I can't deny that because it somehow has a ring of truth, even if it doesn't get the whole picture.
Lewis then goes on to talk about Christian morality- specifically, pride, greed, sexuality, etc. These are things that I agree are problems in the world. As an invention, Christianity definitely has some things going for it, if people actually followed its moral code. But these are not original to Christianity. As a moral guide, I think we can't deny that Christianity has shaped and will continue to shape American morals, including mine. So what makes Christianity right and Hinduism wrong if they preach similar morals?
So the real leap of faith, I think, and the one that Lewis glosses over way too quickly, is that God did come in Jesus form, that he will come again, and that these are undeniable. Despite actually having a good explanation of how Jesus' death could have possibly saved humanity, I'm still not convinced. If God truly wanted to give people a chance to ally themselves with God (something he argues), isn't it much easier to believe after you've seen a perfect man performing miracles? And what is the point in him waiting for the second coming?
Lewis says that he is coming, and he is giving people a chance to decide before he does destroy the evil that has infested earth. But then isn't he inevitably cutting some people's lives short? What if aperson who dies during this Apocalypse, if given a few more years, would have undergone a CS Lewis-type conversion to Christianity? God never gave him the chance. And so if god were really testing us like that, he'd have to let the world continue indefinitely. (A pre-rebuttal: no, even if God all-knowing, he can't know what that man was going to do, because the Christian God gave him free will so that he would precisely not know what that man was going to do.)
The last compelling part of the book is the explanation of why Christians are not better people that the rest of the world, why they go to war, kill, and have priests that... can't keep their vows, we'll say. His rather simplistic argument is that, no, perhaps Christians are not better people on the outside, but rather than they have been 'upgraded' by Christianity, and boy, you wouldn't believe how bad those people would be if they hadn't been. Well, that's all well and good for individual cases, but on a societal level, things like that should cancel out- there should be just as many good christians upgraded to really great as there are atheists who are just regular good. And I don't think you can look at Christianity at any point in its History other than its beginning, when it was more of a cult, and say that Christians were the moral compass of the world.
But I can't help but feel personally affected by this discussion. I consider myself a good person sometimes. I wonder, really, though, if I were born somewhere else, in a family with hatred as a value- would I be a good person? I think that the answer is unequivocally no. Shouldn't I strive to be a better person that I am now, instead of being content that I haven't killed anybody? Christians (and by Christians I mean the people who actually practice it) believe that what they are is a gift from God, and that if they were born poor and mean-spirited, perhaps raising a family and being nice to a few neighbors is all that God asks. But if they were born rich, nice, and charismatic, they should be giving to charity, building homes, eradicating evil and evangelizing, because that's just as hard for the rich person as it is for the poor person.
On the other hand, I believe that what I am is luck. Does that mean that I have to give back even more because I'm lucky? Well, I'm not a Christian, so no. But I do think it's shaped my thinking- one of the main reason I'm a liberal is because I think that the only reason impoverished people are the way they are is simply bad luck. And to bring them closer together is to even the playing field in my view. In the Christian view, the playing field is already level in God's eyes, because both impoverished and rich people have their work cut out for them. Perhaps it helps explain the religious right. Maybe it doesn't.
In the end, I find myself appreciating the values of Christianity more than I ever have in my life. I can't avert my eyes to the moral hypocrisy of so many Christians out there, nor can I to the countless deaths and wars in the name of Christ. And so I realize something that has been nagging at me- it's religious practice I have a problem with. And since this is way too long, it's time for me to leave that to another discussion.
Monday, September 19, 2005
Or maybe that's just me. Anyway, the plan is to have people on the moon by 2020, and to start using it as a launching pad for exploration to Mars and beyond. I'll admit that a large part of the reason I'm excited is that manned flights to other planets is unspeakably cool, but there's definitely more tangible reasons to do it. Increased scientific and engineering progress is just one of the main reasons to have a space exploration program- NASA was responsible for a slew of engineering breakthroughs in the 60's and 70's while funding the Apollo program, and there's good reason to think that renewed funding in the agency will revitalize it. Politically, spending 100 billion dollars to get to the moon is probably not the greatest move by a politician, and perhaps only possible from a 2-term president (something Bush actually promised a year or so aago, and has been totally, inexplicably silent on), but at the same time could help to revive American patriotism and keep people's minds off other more earthly issues, like terrorism. Perhaps reviving patriotism is not a good thing in people's minds, but it can obviously be very helpful to a political party.
And there just isn't that much to explore here on Earth anymore. That's not to say we don't have issues down on the ground, (in fact, a new study says that the ice caps are melting at an irreversible rate) but in the course of human history, it's been shown that those who explore are more likely to conquer than be conquered. And even though we can argue whether or not there is life out there besides human life, the truth is that nobody knows, just like nobody in the 'New World' knew if there were other, more powerful races out there. Ok, so maybe that's not the most tangible reason.
Right now, they're planning on using the tried and true "explode a massive amount of fuel underneath something until it leaves earth" path. Despite the inelegance of the solution, it does seem like NASA is learning lessons from the Space Shuttle program, which will probably be remembered as a really really expensive experiment in mediocrity. There's going to be more use of 'off the shelf' parts, more realistic goals (2 launches a year), and simpler solutions (no more building a space shuttle when a capsule would have sufficed). But obviously there's still reason to be apprehensive. Even with the use of more standardized stuff, NASA is still a government agency with lots of bureaucracy. Can they really embrace simplicity? Will they continue to get funding when the next big crisis hits? How will they handle the inevitable failures and setbacks?
The problem I foresee is that because NASA is so huge, they'll come up with solutions that can only be used by a huge agency, such as the space shuttle. Was anybody ever really hoping that in a few years, people would have their own personal shuttles? There's just no possibility of trickle-down technologies when we're talking about using millions of pounds of fuel and achieving a 1% catastrophic failure rate. In order for this to work, to really be a success, they need to continually take advantage of new discoveries and simpler solutions. In any case, I look forward to the day when I can watch the next moon landing. Even if there's only a slim chance of it happening.
Sunday, September 11, 2005
Fun With NFL "Experts"
Pay close attention to Michael Smith and Joe Theismann. They will bring that bounce to your belly you so deserve.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
Rediculously Self-Indulgent Whining
I am going to theorize about what it takes to get a job, but forgive me if me theorizing is totally off base, because I haven’t gotten one, so I obviously don’t have the answers in what it takes to get one. To get hired for a position, you have to market yourself as attractive to the company that is interested in hiring people. Ideally, a company would prefer to hire a brilliant, smiling, simpering, non-offensive weenie, who has no problem dedicating his or her entire life to the organization. 70 hour work weeks? Sign me up! I didn’t really have a social life or interests anyways. Now, like most people, I try and portray this image of hard-working and dedicated, even though I secretly know that my motivational level can fluctuate from time to time. Especially when the job is something as exciting as IT training for a company that specializes in Medical Records software. Unfortunately, the HR people seem able to see through my web of lies. Is it my disappointing GPA that is doing me in? (God I wish I’d gone to more classes Freshman and Sophomore year.) The fact that I seem unable to lie in the middle of interviews? My crazy hair?
It’s definitely the hair. Anyways part of the problem for me, is that I have no idea what kind of job I really want. Sure I spend time looking online, and some look good, or even great, but I don’t know where I want to end up. If you are a doctor, or a lawyer, you have structure to fall back on. When you have two undergraduate social science degree and a masters from an international school, you trade surety for freedom. But the job market is somewhat overwhelming.
I try to look at it as having goals. I want, in my 20s, to spend some time living in an area where I can ski, and an area where I can surf. I want to travel the world. I want to make some money and become truly financially independent. I want to go back to school and get either a PHD in international development, a law degree in international law or human rights law, or a medical degree. I know I don’t want to do that for a few years. I want to learn Spanish fluently to increase my career opportunities.
But while I have my medium term future planned out, my short term future is in shambles. My goals there are to get the fuck out of my house before I make my Mom think I hate her through excessive surliness and to keep from going insane from excessive boredom. I’m not doing so well on either count. And I have not yet won Mega Millions, which is really holding me back.
As they say in Hustle and Flow, it’s hard out there for a pimp. So if you can give me any advice on how to get to pimpin’ please leave me a comment.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Lessons Learned from a New Orleans Prison
“Why weren’t they prepared for this?” The question crosses the lips of many a talked head on The Networks. Where were the engineers, the safety officials, the billion dollar Department of Homeland Security? Was there an emergency meeting on whether to change the color from yellow to peach, that our officials can’t tell us about? Where were the people who we pay and rely on to keep us safe? Where were the local authorities called to serve and protect?
Like everyone else in New Orleans, they were too busy enjoying the party, or more accurately, cashing in on it.
The party is a damned good one, as I discovered in March of 2003 as I made my way down for Mardi Gras weekend with a posse of drunken co-eds. Armed with a few ounces of schwag, and enough alcohol to kill us several times over, a crew of our future’s brightest made our way down the mighty Mississippi in a 93 Dodge Caravan, in search of some debauchery. Our first night in New Orleans lived up to our expectations. Dressed for the occasion in a purple fedora, with a peacock feather, adorned with variously elaborate beads destined for girls willing to perform variously elaborate sexual acts, I made my way with me mates down to the French Quarter. There, people flooded the streets in a stew of revelry; you could drink what you wanted to drink, ogle women’s breasts at every corner, with plenty of piss drunk members of the opposite (or in some cases same,) sex to make out with and forget past heartbreaks. The cities cobblestone streets, seedy bars, dirty jazz holes, and fried food stands gave off a vibe of controlled chaos, of orderly disorder, and of safety within the madness. “Come here,” they whispered. “Relax, let loose, it’s all in good fun. We know you’ve been dying to go a little crazy, and we promise not to tell.”
But a good binge mandates that the next night’s recklessness outstrips the previous session. With this attitude, and the sense of protection from the voices of the night, I dove into my second night of Mardi Gras determined to outdo the previous nights drunken, debaucherous exploits. In doing so, I ignored another voice I’d heard while walking around the street in the daytime that second day. The nagging voice of responsibility, which was picking up on another vibe that exudes from a deeper part of New Orleans A warning signal, that hedonism and lawlessness has a price, and beware lest you be called to pay it.
No one, least of all a 21 year old sexually frustrated male, wants to listen to this voice when the other one sounds so enticing, and everyone else appears to be having such a good time. After several drinks, well into the night, I found myself betrayed by another inner voice: that of my bladder. Overcoming the voices of the street rang the loud cry “Pee now or I quit.”
At Mardi Gras, there are no public toilets on Bourbon Street, and bars and restaurants charge five dollars for you to use their bathrooms. Those with cranky bladders like my own have to pay up or make the one lonely stand of port-o-potties twenty minutes walk from the epicenter of the madness.
In the middle of my journey, I strolled across the street in front of an oncoming motorcycle. Was I jaywalking? Perhaps. The man on the bike chose to kindly ask me to get the fuck out his way, asshole. Whether it was the sense of invulnerability, my upbringing as a Boston pedestrian, or a solid amount of Canadian Club that sparked my response is a quandary I will leave to the philosophers.
I stopped, pivoted, turned, and extended my middle fingers.
He continued, crashing into me. Deciding it was best not to pursue a confrontation with a burly biker any longer, I attempted to escape through the maze of people.
My attempts were not successful. I was slammed against the wall, as my nemesis shouted, “Sucks for you. I’m a cop!” The next thing I knew I was handcuffed, surrounded by dozens of police officers who seemingly emerged from the sewers.
Thus began my deeper experience with New Orleans, where questions that don’t cross the mind of those who come for the show, or the drugs, or the sex, get answered. Questions such as how does the city pay for Mardi Gras cleanup, why does the city allow so many “extralegal activities” on its soil, where are the locals, and how does striking a bargain of the nature of New Orleans’ affect the inhabitants of a city, both those in control of it and those controlled by it. From this experience I learned lessons that explain the depth of anarchy following Katrina, the most important being that a city whose police, courts, and legal system are based on corruption and oppression of its own will have no authority once leveled by forces they cannot control. The shattering of the illusion of civility and the setting in of desperation force the hand of the oppressed, who expect no help from those who are supposed to serve and protect, having never received any.
Upon my arrest, I was transported to Orleans Parish Prison, now immersed in flood and hopefully destroyed. I wore the same uniform as those prisoners who now get face time on CNN as helicopters fly over them on the interstate. I don’t understand the appeal of these images to those watching at home, (look, real prisoners!) stripped of their uniforms they are still humans, worrying about their loved ones, worrying about where they will go and what is to be done with them. They, like so many others in New Orleans, have no one looking out for them.
At OPP, I was exposed to the flip side of the feeling of lawlessness of New Orleans: a total lack of protection from the tyranny of authorities, once they decide to exert their power on me. In my confrontation with the biker/officer right or wrong went out the window, I was the offender because the man had a badge and a gun and I did not, not because of any law or moral code. The charges brought against me were public drunkenness, (a crime I felt I was probably not the only person guilty of that night,) disturbing the peace (I’ll admit, it only takes one person getting overexcited to ruin the calm, quaint atmosphere of Mardi Gras,) and battery, for not assaulting the oncoming vehicle that crashed into me. The rationality of these charges mattered not, what mattered is I had crossed the wrong person.
At the prison, chaos reigned; evidently, I wasn’t the only person deemed a threat to society that night. A madhouse, with girls on acid throwing themselves against padded cell windows people being moved from one massive holding cell to the next with no rhyme or reason, people still drunk on the feeling of invincibility lighting joints next to me and no time for due process or any of those quaint little ideals on which our nation is supposedly founded. Herded into jail, I got no phone call, no lawyer, no information about what was going to happen to me. Just a bunk, with a toilet and two roomies, and the bars slamming shut.
Eventually, I was able to get over the shock of finding myself in straight prison, sober up a little, and realize that lying in bed wishing this had never happened was not going to be the method in which I could spring myself from my current predicament. Finally, I got my phone call, got in touch with my grandparents, who began the process of wiring the 1600 dollars worth of bail money.
While waiting for my release to be processed, I got into conversations with some of my fellow inmates. About half the people in our cell were kids like myself, picked up that night. The other half were New Orleans residents, all African American, with stays of thirty days or less. Some had been picked up in an annual, unpublicized, pre Mardi Gras sweep of the city, whereby police pick up potential trouble makers before the tourists come in. A few men I talked to said they hadn’t been charged with any crime, simply told they were being held until Wednesday. The city was more then willing to imprison its own to ensure outsiders could come in and party. Other inmates told me they were in for being minor drug dealers and that, when released, they would go right back to plying their trade. “It’s what I’ve got to do to eat,” said the cell’s leader, a loud, boisterous bald headed black man, who shouted every word with neither a trace of remorse or expected sympathy, but with an acceptance of his reality.
Now, in the stinking hot summer of New Orleans, men, women, and children are doing what they have to do to eat. For all I know, the men I shared cell space with are some of those looting stores. Hopefully they got out of the city before the levee broke, but I doubt they all did. They weren’t evil people, I don’t think, although you can’t judge a man based on one conversation. I shared with them a sense of equality, for at that point we were equals in our powerlessness, in our submission to those with the guns, those with badges, whether we thought we deserved it or not.
Except we weren’t equals. Luckily for me, my parents had 1600 dollars lying around to post for bail, so by five that afternoon, after a few Western Union transfers, I was a free man. Just like New Orleans residents were unequal in the face of a hurricane, in terms of capability to heed the warning and escape the Gulf Coast.
The next few days were a lesson in New Orleans justice, which I can explain to those uninitiated in very simple terms: justice can be bought. While New Orleans does ignore some of the Bill of Rights, they did ensure a speedy trial: I was released Lundi Gras Monday with a hearing on Ash Wednesday. Of course, with so many arrests of so many out-of-towners, I had the same trial time and date as about 200 other people. But walking into my trial, I held several advantages over others. First, I was dressed up in shirt and tie, looking like a nice 21 year old innocent collegiate good boy. Which I was. Second, I had a lawyer, something that no one else seemed to have, mostly because they didn’t have the money (or parents with the money) to pay for such luxuries.
With a slick lawyer at my side, and me doing my best puppy dog eyes to the prosecution and the judge, I was able to get the charges dismissed and my record expunged. In order to do so, I had to forfeit 500 dollars of my 1600 dollar bond to secure such an arrangement. This made little sense to me; after all I was being declared innocent, shouldn’t I get my money back? Why should I be punished monetarily for my innocence? I didn’t particularly feel like bringing this up though. I was more than happy to pay my way to clear my name.
For that’s what I was doing, paying the Parish, paying my lawyer, for my cleared name. The city of New Orleans has to make money off of Mardi Gras somehow; it can’t be just the hotels or bars that charge for using the bathroom that profit. I’m sure my five hundred dollars went straight to the city department to pay for throwing next year’s event. As for my compatriots that didn’t have the means to buy their freedom? Evidently, they got the pleasure of cleaning up the puke, piss, and putrescence from the French Quarter on Thursday.
The party on Bourbon Street in New Orleans doesn’t really end with the coming of Lent. It just continues on a smaller scale. And, no doubt, the corrupt mechanisms that allow the party to continue, that keep the visitors alive with their sense of anything goes also continue to exist on a smaller scale. But what happens when the party needs to stop, when a society needs to collectively grow up, when leaders need to show initiative, when people need to cooperate with each other to simply survive, when the weak need the assistance of the strong, in a place that has known no cooperation and the strong have been subduing the weak so as they can comfort the revelers?
We have seen the answer as it unfolds in front of us: total chaos and mass confusion. Even from before the first clouds crept out of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mayor Nagin’s edict that everyone evacuate New Orleans was an appeal to the fantastical, although who can fault him for it? He is one man who seems to understand the reality of the situation, that this storm would be an unparalleled natural disaster and that the city he ran was totally incapable of preventing the anarchy that would follow or managing a disaster of this magnitude. Unfortunately, his savior, the Bush Administration wasn’t up to the challenge either.
People without the means, with nowhere to go, or who didn’t trust their city officials were always going to be left behind. They were going to be overwhelmingly black, and overwhelmingly poor. With a failure in engineering that surprised international experts, and can be drawn back to a lack of funds, appropriated wars for reconstructing Iraq rather than reinforcing levees, the city has been flooded with a soup of decay and death. Imagine the water that comes out of a faucet after it’s been shut off, that brown sludge that makes the stomach turn. Imagine the streets full of that. Then throw in some dead bodies and marinate for 72 hours at 90 degrees. That’s the condition of New Orleans right now, with limited food and water.
20 percent of police have stopped showing up for duty, as I doubt this is the job they imagined signing up for. The federal government has shown, not surprisingly, a total inability to carry out a job when needed. If there is one consistent theme of the Bush Administration, it’s an inability to understand reality in any situation, be it Iraq, Social Security, or budget deficits. In this instance, a disaster has mushroomed into a catastrophe due to such incompetence.
Sitting at home, far away from Katrina, I take a more personal approach to New Orleans. I wonder where the police officer from the motorcycle is, if he is one of those that fled early. I wonder where my cellmates are, have they been released? Did they make it out of the city? Or are they some of the “thugs,” forming armed gangs, grabbing guns and hoarding supplies. There is a tendency to dehumanize people who act in desperation, especially when they fit an archetype; that being the lawless African American gangster. But they share the same characteristics as all humans, they act as they have learned how to, and they react to their situation. When I was in New Orleans, I was guided by the feeling of protection, and the spirit of anything goes that spoke to me, and I reacted as I had taught myself to in such situations, whether it was right or wrong, through acting like a drunken idiot. Now, these people are acting on New Orleans’ voice of survival and desperation that was muted before by the constant partying, but now screams from every inch of the city. They are reacting to the truths they have learned over the years, that pleas for help will not be answered, that police are there not to assist, but to coerce in the name of order, and that strength in numbers and guns is the only way to get what you want or need. The words of my boisterous cellmate ring true…you have to do what you have to do to feed your self.
I have seen other writers’ reactions to New Orleans, ruing the loss of the rues, the destruction of a unique city and atmosphere that was washed away, perhaps never to return. These pieces are often full of nostalgic tales of drunken nights, weird sights, and crazy happenings; my first night’s experience repeated over and over in different words. Because New Orleans sees so many visitors, it holds a special place in so many people’s consciousness as a fond memory of expression of the hedonistic vibe humans have to exert from time to time.
But what people that hold these sentiments don’t realize is the relationship with New Orleans they hold is one that sours the soul of the city for those who live there year round. Visitors use the city for their hedonistic pleasures, then leave before called to clean up the emss Would these same partyers wish their hometown, be it D.C., Boston, Dallas, or Phoenix, to assume the mantle of hedonistic playground for the rest of the country now that New Orleans has been destroyed? Do they want drunken morons like myself roaming the streets all hours of the day, all times of the year? Of course not. New Orleans is the ultimate Not in My Back Yard.
Now, the mess is so great that it will take more than just the local authorities to do the job. The Bush Administration, much more adept at making messes than cleaning them, has compounded the situation through its inability to react quickly or provide solid leadership. This time, however, the images and people affected are too close to home for more people’s liking, a short drive or flight away, rather than off in some far off part of the map most people can’t point to. As the heat and water continue to rot away the city from its core, the reality that a major American city will have to be totally purged and rebuilt will set in, and the cost will be higher than that we pay at the gas pump.
In a way, however, the city of New Orleans gets a fresh start. A historic, vibrant city has been destroyed, but so has its rotten core and, hopefully, some of the corrupt forces in place that poisoned the city in the first place. It is a chance for the people who call the city home to be free of the incoming revelers, who don’t really care about the quality of life of the residents, and whose greed and hedonism perpetuate the corruption. Without the need to keep the party going, New Orleans can focus on the people who live there, and be reconstructed for the people who call it home. It may require the rest of us to lose our hedonistic playground we remember fondly, but it wasn’t our homes that were destroyed, or our friends who perished in the floodwaters. And for those of us who know the parts of New Orleans we never wished to see, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.
Friday, September 02, 2005
Who will save you now? (or: Technologies that I think are cool)
But let's not operate under the assumption that we're totally screwed- just sort of screwed. I mean, if we're totally screwed, then there's nothing to do but watch it happen. So I bring to you, a list of the the technologies that might save humanity's ass, or at least help it along.
So there's a grand experiment underway in France, called ITER (Latin for "the way") but originally the 'International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor'. I think. Basically this is attempting to make nuclear power with less (maybe none?) of the nuclear waste. Think of it as a miniature sun. They're not trying to harness the actual power (which isn't tremendous), but rather see if it is feasible on a larger scale. Seeing as many of our problems lie with energy, this could be a very good thing for us. Less dependence on natural resources is almost certainly a good thing. Runaway use of ANY energy source is dangerous, especially when coupled with global warming, but I still think this one to look out for.
One thing that we have to realize is that there is a limit to our food production. It may not grow strictly geometrically, but the limit is there. We're not bumping against it just yet, but it's never good to be inefficient with our energy. And one thing we've known for a while but not given a damn about in the US is our energy efficiency of food. It takes something like 900 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of beef, 400 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of pork, and like 100 to 1 for chicken. Not very efficient; but if we can somehow create the meat directly, that would save us a lot of energy. Scientists have managed to grow chicken (and maybe fish, I don't remember) straight from culture using chicken muscle cells. They even managed to make a functioning muscle, and like any good experiment, they ate the results. And it tasted like chicken! Now, I'm not sure that they broke the 100:1 barrier for energy (I'm sure they didn't actually) but theoretically it could be much more efficient than having the chicken digest the feed, waste energy on breathing and pumping blood, etc. Oh yeah, and it would have us stop killing animals.
Brains and Robots:
This is another one that could be key. In the same vein as the growing meat, too! What really makes us human? It's our brains; and if we could somehow get our brains into robotic consciousness or isolate them so that we could more directly use higher quality energy like electricity, we would save a ridiculous amount of energy- there'd be no more breathing or pumping blood- our brains have but a fraction of the energy costs of our entire body. And, we'd be less dependent on our natural resources if we didn't need all sorts of weird chemicals like protein, water, fat and vitamins. In fact we wouldn't be dependent on the Earth in any significant sense. We're not that close, obviously, on this one, but researchers are getting closer on bridging the gap between the mind and computers. Soon we'll all be wearing electrodes!
File this one under 'probably not going to happen' but I think airships (zeppelins, blimps) should make a comeback. Sure, they're slow, but they're vastly more efficient than airplanes, much safer and failure-tolerant, and they can lift much more weight than airplanes can. The problem is, like I said, speed. But really, we all intuitively know the airline industry isn't run right. Anyone who's booked a reservation and gotten 8 different prices for the same flight, then gotten delayed, and then cancelled know what I'm talking about. The goal should be for the airline industry to run similarly to the bus and train industry. Delays should be the exception, not the norm, and weather should have minimal impacts on scheduling. Airships could alleviate many of these problems. Of course, now that we're used to getting from coast to coast in 6 hours, who would be willing to put up with a 48 hour journey? Nobody. But perhaps with a few small technological innovations (like streamlining them and adding bigger engines) they could cruise a little faster. Probably a pipe dream, but the common thread here is energy efficiency, right?
Well that's all for today; if you can think of any more interesting technologies, please feel free to comment.