Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hurricane Finis

Hurricane Finis

"But for the grace of God..." is the reaction of many that Hurricane Katrina did not make a direct hit on New Orleans as a Category Five. As bad as it is, and it may get worse, the doomsday scenario of tens of thousands of deaths thankfully seems to have been avoided.

However it says here that another piece of folk wisdom is more apt, "If we can land a man on the moon why can't we" blankety-blank.

All residents of southeastern coastal cities have a three month knot in their stomachs every summer. Last year four hurricanes hit Florida, two went through the same town.

During one of my twenty-three knots in Miami I had one of those Eureka flashes you sometimes get just before you fall asleep: Why not tow a big iceberg in the path of one of these storms?

It sounded stupid even to me the next morning but then last year someone wrote in one of the mainstream news publications about some of the scientific possibilities after talking to some actual scientists and the iceberg thing was one of the possibilities mentioned.

From memory another one was seeding the clouds with something which I believe they'd actually done experimentally. Another I believe was putting a big patch of iron shavings in the ocean path which would bring down the temperature of the water or air or both.

I think another was detonating a small atomic bomb in the eye of the thing. I may be wrong but honest to god I think that really was one of the proposals. I would certainly like to see that tried especially when the hurricane was close to an Islamic country.

All of the possibilities were ultimately dismissed by the 'tists as impractical, inefficacious, dangerous, whatever.

But look, let's approach this syllogistically:

(1) Hurricanes/tropical cyclones are the most dangerous storm systems on the planet. They cause billions of dollars of damage each year and kill however many people a year.

(2) They are as slow as Technology Review editor Jason Pontin on heroin. There's so much lead time. Hurricane forecasting is swiss watch precise compared to earthquake or tornado predicting.

(3) They are very quirky, fragile things. Katrina just dropped from a cat-5 to a cat-4 and then to a 3 before it hit land. They are at the mercy of steering currents, high and low pressure systems elsewhere, biorhythms, upper level wind shear or something like that, a zillion things. When Katrina was a 5, Max Mayfield said that conditions have to be perfect for a storm to develop to that strength.

A couple of years ago some monster was heading right up Cuba toward Miami when the damn thing just disappeared. It was wind shear or something.

(4) While you should be able to reduce the number of human casualties to near zero with better evacuation plans you cannot move buildings and offices so the economic devastation is still going to be there and when a major economic center like New Orleans or Miami gets hit, an entire state's or region's economy--and it's people--are going to suffer.

In my view the "therefore" that should get tacked onto the end of that syllogism is "we have to try something." The present manner of "dealing with" hurricanes is just unacceptable. If we can land a man on the moon we ought to be able to stop or degrade a hurricane.

Or at least try.

Louisiana and New Orleans are eccentric enough that I am surprised that either the governor or mayor didn't propose something...creative, when Katrina was at a five and experts were predicting 10,000+ deaths. Dump all the iron in Birmingham (if they still have any) in the path of the thing. Seed those clouds. Commandeer all civilian aircraft in the state to fly over the top of the hurricane to try to help that wind shear thing along. Do something. What have you got to lose? This is just not acceptable anymore. We have to try something else.

Americans have always been about trying. We conquered an entire continent (and seriously degraded its natives), we built a transcontinental railroad then a transcontinental highway, we invented flying, the telephone and the internet, we're 9-1 in wars, 9-2 at the very least. We try. We don't often take "it's impossible" for an answer.

Voltaire, although not American, said a wise thing once, probably more than once. He said that "the perfect is the enemy of the good." We just should not be deterred from pursuing a good solution to the hurricane problem because we don't have a perfect one. And anything would be "good" compared to what we're doing now.

-Benjamin Harris

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Re-wilding North America

Re-Wilding North America

By now this idea under this title has gained a certain level of popular currency. First appearing in the 18 August 2005 issue of Nature it proposes the gradual reintroduction of camels, elephants and the like onto the Great Plains of America.

It has been greeted with a general expression of "Just when we thought we had heard of everything..." even among other scientists, and perhaps it is a wacky idea. One thing one comes to appreciate in subscribing to Nature is the intense competitive pressure that that publication experiences from its American rival Science, pressure no less intense despite the presumed rigorous vetting before publication in the premier science journal in the world.

Scientist/scholars of course also feel that "publish or perish" pressure. Even Darwin rushed his "Origin of Species" into print upon receiving a letter from a callow amateur asking for his thoughts on precisely the evolutionary theory Darwin had been working through for years.

Acknowledging all of that, that this re-wilding idea may turn out to have all the staying power of Pons and Fleischman's cold fusion idea twenty years ago, one does not come away from a reading of the article itself with the thought that this is junk science.

The authors, principally Josh Donlan of Cornell, lay the pedalogical groundwork for their proposal in simple terms. "Megafauna" were indigenonous to North America as we all know from the discovery of mastadon, t-Rex, and other dinosaur fossils.

Two, they're already here on private land in other parts of North America. "For example, 77,000 large mammals (most of them Asian and African ungulates, but also cheetahs, camels and kangaroos) roam free on Texas ranches..."

Three, the Great Plains is empty, with all sincere respect to our fellows in the Dakotas, Kansas, et al. This proposal would be irresponsible if the venue were almost anywhere else. These animals are obviously going to need their space both for their sake and ours and the Great Plains is available.

The re-wilding would start with wild horses and asses, then move to large tortoises, then to camels and large cats such as cheetahs then to elephants and would conclude with the largest cats of them all, lions. All of this phasing in, from start to finish, could be done in only fifty years.

Donlan writes modestly seeming to sense the ridicule that he's inviting and he's scientist enough to anticipate the legitimate objections: the stress put on the current animal population, the potential for species-jumping diseases, the logistical difficulties of fencing the reserves, and so on. He properly terms his proposal a "vision" rather than a detailed programme.

But here's to visionaries. It's a breathtaking idea and we need more people who dare the ridicule and the dismissal to see far. It says here that this is going to happen if for no other reason than Donlan has got another visionary on his side.

Ted Turner, who had the chutzpah to turn an ignored cable television station in Atlanta into a "superstation," and then build on that and found the Cable News Network, laughingly dismissed by it's initial critics as the "Chicken Noodle Network," Ted Turner is the largest private land owner in the United States and has been approached by the proponents of this re-wilding vision. He is enthusiastic.

America's astonishing creativity has to be in part a product of the sheer size of our continent. Our geography has made a virture of the necessity to see far even if all we wanted to see was our family and friends. We have gotten used to the idea and we have produced and continue to produce visionaries like Leland Stanford, the Wright Brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, Bill Gates and Ted Turner.

We can also thank Josh Donlan for getting Turner's attention and perhaps sparing us
another $1 billion gift to the U.N. Sheesh, talk about wacky ideas.

-Benjamin Harris

Tuesday, August 16, 2005



I hate dreams.

In my late teens, having had one too many of these phantasmagoria, I adopted a mantra that I had read about in, like, Reader's Digest. When you go to bed if you repeat to yourself, "I will not dream, I will not dream, I will not dream, " you won't! Or at least not remember them.

The Reader's Digest trick is not foolproof however. Occasionally a dream slips past my defenses. I've had the standard aging yuppie dreams, about almost drowning, just barely keeping my head above water (overwork), being late or unprepared for an exam (deadline pressures), but I've had a pleasing one for the last year or two about being able to fly.

The other night I had a variant of the flying dream that I'd also had before, of being able to fly but with someone else present who didn't seem to notice that I was flying.

That someone was my new girlfriend and I didn't think it took Sigmund Freud to figure it out: I believed that I possessed Hidden Abilities that others didn't see. I felt Underappreciated. I have delusions of grandeur.

What a nightmare.

I was totally depressed and ashamed. I did a quick survey of my life. Are there other instantiations of my grandiosity? I started this weblog three years ago and named it after the first newspaper published in North America and billed it as "A continuation of" that paper. Ooh.

So I immediately changed Publocc's heading to the more modest "Dedicated to." I have not had the courage yet to change the blog's name to something more realistic, like manque@blogspot.com.

As I've done a few times before, to verify the meaning of at least general flying dreams, I looked in the index of Interpretation of Dreams under "flying."

None of those in the general index was anything like what I supposed my garden variety to be. One had to do with some reaction to having teeth pulled which resulted in the rising and falling of the lungs, I don't know.

In another section Freud was almost dismissive, saying, "I have no experience of my own of other kinds of typical dreams [oh, EXCUSE ME], in which the dreamer finds himself [misogynist] flying through the air to the accompaniment of agreeable feelings..." He related one to the childhood experience of being held parallel to the ground by an adult who then runs a few steps; another one was riding down a banister.

I turned to the next to the last entry. It referred me to page 420 where I read at the bottom of the page "..flying dream...dreamt by...a young man with strong homosexual leanings [uh oh], which were, however, inhibited in real Life [OH SHIT]."

Then on the top of page 421,

"He was attending a performance of 'Fidelio'
and was sitting in the stalls at the Opera
beside L., a man who was congenial to him
and with whom he would have liked to make
friends. Suddenly he flew through the air
right across the stalls, put his hand in his
mouth and pulled out two of his teeth."

NO! Whew.

So I left the General Index and went to "Index of Dreams, part A, Dreamt by Freud Himself," to see what interesting, complex, not "typical" dreams Himself had.

"Keeping a woman waiting." Oooh, real interesting.

But then I saw,

"Dissecting my own pelvis" and in the "F"'s section,"Funeral oration by young doctor." Dreamt after "Dissecting my own pelvis," perhaps.

Intrigued, I now turned to part "B" "Dreamt by Others."

"Arrest in restaurant" dreamt by a young man, seemed straightforward enough.

"Barrister lost cases," I could, alas, relate to also.

"Big dish with big joint." If we update the imagery to the current symbolism, that would be pretty typical, I think.

But some of the others, "Caviar, legs covered with (girl)." I don't want to know.

"Daddy carrying his head on a plate (Boy aged 3 yrs, 5 months)." Whoa! I hope Freud fingerprinted that lad.

"I must tell the doctor that (Man patient)." I dissected my own pelvis?

"Hat as genital (agoraphobic woman patient.")! Followed immediately by "Hat with crooked feather (Man)."!!

"'Who is the baby's father' (Woman patient)." Wilt Chamberlain.

"Revolution of 1848 (Experimental Dream)"
"Roman Emperor assassinated"
"Sitting opposite the Emperor"

Americans don't have dreams like that.

"Three theatre tickets for 1fl. 50kr (Woman patient)." What if it had been 2fl. 50kr? Or 50fl. 1kr?

I don't know, I think I'm going to stick to "I will not dream, I will not dream."

-Benjamin Harris

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: "Lord God"

Lord God

For sixty-one years a spectacular species of bird has clung tenaciously and anonymously to life in an obscure wetlands area in Arkansas.

The Ivory Billed Woodpecker is the largest of its genus, with a wingspan out to four feet. It is also beautiful even by the high standards of its cousins. For these reasons it acquired the quintessential American nickname of the "Lord God" bird for the exclamation uttered by so many when they first saw it.

Partly also for these reasons the story of the bird's discovery has broken out of the ornithological community and into the mass media. These "subjective" reasons for popular attention are no less compelling or legitimate than the "objective," that a species presumed extinct is in fact extant.

We know so much about so much that the ability of this attention-grabbing but very private bird to survive undetected despite humankind's best efforts has stimulated some purely human feelings. Delight that this plucky creature foiled us for so long, wonder at the tenacity of life, delight that even the scientific method, that most relentless and result-oriented of our branches of knowledge, occasionally leaves a stone unturned. That has also made us, however briefly, more modest, which most of us agree we could be more of.

It also assuages our guilt--another uniquely human feeling--a little. The Ivory Bill has been driven to the point of extinction by us. We have done that to many other species. This gives us another chance when we know that there few second chances in life, fewer in saving life.

All of these feelings came together for the discoverers. When, paddling in their kayak the Ivory Bill flew right in front of the researchers, one of them openly wept. Lord God. And, taking advantage of our second chance we are now cutting down some trees to increase the bird's food staple, the beetle, which feeds on decomposing wood.

We, the public, would not have reacted as we have to the Ivory Bill if it had been an endangered species of cockroach that had been found. Cockroaches are not as big as Ivory Bills, except in Miami, and they are not beautiful.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder only if the beholder is human and, perhaps conceitedly, it is the spirituality, in among other things, our recognition and appreciation of beauty that marks us as distinct from all other life forms.

When we discover life elsewhere in the universe it will almost certainly not be beautiful. It will be plainly organic like bacteria or simple organisms like Technology Review editor Jason Pontin. Nor will there by any "practical" consequences of its discovery such as posing a threat of invasion, providing us with the Grand Unified Theory, or explaining the infield fly rule. The Ivory Bill and the cockroach will not notice. But it will be the most momentus event in humankind's history because it will effect us as beauty does, spiritually, ethically and philosophically, that is fundamentally as human beings.

The discovery of the Ivory Bill is a human story as much as a bird or scientific story, something that only our life form can celebrate with a species-wide, "Lord God."

-Benjamin Harris

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Society of Professional Journalists: "Death Threats can be fun."

"Subject: SPJ LEADS: Death threats can be fun (and other moments of jocularity)"

Actual email I received from them today.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005



I have been accepted into the Society of Professional Journalists. Li'l respect, please.

Their--our--magazine is entitled "Quill," redolent of a wooden desk in a wood-paneled study, of a learned (wo)man dressed in one of those cool great shirts that Macchiavelli is always pictured in, thinking...contemplating...writing. Repeat.

I expected an impressive acceptance ceremony along the lines of those given to Nobel Laureates. Maybe instead of the King of Sweden we'd have Ben Bradlee presiding over the whole thing, mace in hand seated on a throne. I'd be dressed in a tuxedo and would approach his Quill-ship in a slow reverent walk and bow to allow the membership medal to be draped around my neck. I'd be told the secret password that i'd whisper to gain entree into any newsroom in the country, "Don't Fake the Funk on a Nasty Dunk," or like that.

I imagined that after induction all of us new inductees--laureates--would proudly Mingle with our now peers, sipping champagne, discussing the ravages of carpal tunnel syndrome and attempting to insert our quills into any willing ink well.

It wasn't quite like that. I "applied" online, waited for the membership committe to vet my journalistic credentials, which took a whole week, and then was emailed an "acceptance letter." Oh, and I had to fork over some dough.

Then a week later I got my "membership card" printed on genuine stiff paper and looking like it and a thousand more were run off just that afternoon at the Kinko's down the street.

And then I got "Quill" (no article needed, just the noun). The subtitle of the June/July issue is "Emotional, Enlightening, Enthralling"(Emenen?). Huh? What is this a creative writing fraternity? Whatever happened to "All The News That's Fit to Print," or even "Fair, Balanced," and whatever-it-isn't, "Objective."

I thought "we" were just supposed to report and comment on the news and leave the Enthralling, Emotional stuff to that other "if it bleeds, it leads" electronic medium.

I got an email from SPJ dated 7-29 that, I am not making this up, began with "IF I RULED THE WORLD. Want power? Want prestige? Boy did you pick the wrong profession." You think?

This is what has become of The Press in 21st century America. It truly is the Fourth Estate or the Fourth branch of government except that this one has no checks and balances on it. Apparently you go to pencil school now with the thought of wanting to "rule the world," of acquiring "power" and "prestige."

We now have ink-stained wretches interviewing ink-stained wretches for news, talking head shows, not with politicians or, like, actual members of the government, but of wretches talking to other wretches.

The first email I got after my acceptance had the subject head of "College newspaper woes, FREE trips to Vegas, Jumpstarting a j-career." (emphasis in original). Maybe Quill's sub-head should be "If it ain't FREE, it ain't journalism."

My induction coincided with the Valerie Plame/Cooper/Miller affair. A real cause celebre with us. On July 5, I was sent a sober email sparely titled "Statement from the Society of Professional Journalists on Miller and Cooper cases" (Plame not mentioned: irrelevant to larger issue). Gravely, we were informed that sister Miller and brother Cooper might enter the Gray Bar Hotel on the morrow.

We were informed that The Newspaper Guild had asked its members to observe two minutes of silence at noon on July 6 in solidarity with the cause of outting a CIA agent under deep cover.

The author of the Statement, SPJ president Irwin L. Gratz, asked society members "and all journalists, to mark the appointed time as you see fit." Well, that's taking a stand!

President Gratz also asked "the public to ponder the potential impact of [the hoosegowing] on the practice of journalism in the United States."

Heeding my president's words I pondered and then I "mark[ed] the appointed time" as I saw fit. I responded with an email,

"At noon today I will be wearing a party hat and weilding noise-makers and if [at our annual convention in "Vegas"] in mid-October, brother Cooper and sister Miller are still in the hoosegow, I will observe a moment of silence for the rule of law."

Bitchy, thumb-in-your-eye, holier-than-thou juvenalia, I know. But hey, I'm a professional journalist now!

-Benjamin Bradlee, er Harris.