Monday, December 27, 2010

Sept 11 first responders

Four billion dollars.  

That's the size of the federal settlement passed by Congress to compensate sickened World Trade Center cleanup and first responder workers who breathed the bad air from the "Pile" in the weeks after the towers fell.  No doubt many of these workers were harmed carrying out their duty, and doing their tough jobs.  Firemen, police, clean-up workers, search and rescue personnel, city and Port Authority workers.  Many brave and self-sacrificing people pitched in.

But the story is not as white-hat/black-hat as recent and 2001/2002 media coverage would lead you to conclude.  The US EPA did indeed say that the air was safe some weeks following the attacks.  However, in 2003 the work of one of my old physics professors (Prof. Tom Cahill of UC Davis) showed that the air was in fact very hazardous.  

Whether or not the government said the air was safe or not, the immediate behavior of the workers at Ground Zero was an important part of their exposure to dangerous air.  Many of the workers at the "Pile" engaged in reckless, dangerous and insubordinate conduct.  Firefighters in particular challenged anyone who they thought got in the way of recovering their fallen co-workers.  There was bravado and macho behavior.  On one occasion, there was nearly a small riot.  Some workers openly defied orders.  Some worked without respirators and other safety gear.  Many refused to follow procedures, take orders, adhere to work schedules as laid out by the Port Authority and the city of New York.  
William Langewiesche wrote a brilliant and clear-eyed account of all this (American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center), which first appeared as a spell-binding series in the Atlantic Monthly.   

It was a chaotic time.  The workers were understandably driven by their grief, rage and shame.  But some of them, some of the time, behaved dangerously and with disregard for the consequences of how they were working.  But those workers should share responsibility for what happened to them and to their health.  The harm to the Ground Zero workers was only partly the fault of the federal government.   

I wish that the lethal electric charge surrounding the Sept 11 attacks had discharged to a safe enough voltage that the behavior of the workers could have been openly discussed by at least the media (if not Congress itself) during the negotiations over this federal compensation fund.

the meaning of life

There's something pitiful about a society that spend so much energy discussing, analyzing and worrying about exactly how much junk people will buy for the Christmas holidays.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

America, I'll see you in Iowa in 2011.

If elected, I pledge to fight for former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's economic prescriptions as a key part of my platform.  Can I count on your vote in 2012?  Thank you!  Thank you very much!  The non-existence of God bless America!  Good night!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

changed comment settings

I changed the comment settings so that you don't need to be signed up with Google to leave comments on my blog.  By popular demand.  Comment away, everyone (except for you robo-spammers.  stay off my lawn!)

the health care mandate is unconstitutional, but the mortgage interest deduction is not?

In the news last week is the ruling by Virginia federal judge Henry Hudson that the individual mandate in the federal health care law is unconstitutional.  I understand the arguments about overreach of the "commerce clause" of the US Constitution. 

But how is a federal requirement mandating participation in the health insurance market different than the federal mortgage interest deduction?  As I understand it, the mandate says that if you don't buy health insurance from a private company, you pay a financial penalty and that's it.   This seems similar to the federal tax code regarding home ownership.  If you don't buy a house, you pay a tax penalty, right?  That is, if you DO buy a home with a mortgage, you get to deduct the interest from your tax bill.  If you DON'T buy a home with a mortgage (say, by continuing to rent an apartment) you don't get to deduct the interest from your tax bill.  The result is that the goverment is enforcing a financial penalty on those who refuse to buy a mortgage from a private company (or quasi-private company, I guess, in the case of FHA, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac loans).

I haven't heard this issue addressed over the last week in all the commentary (though I recall it being discussed during the debate and negotiations before the federal law was passed.)

I need my lawyerly readers to explain this to me.

Monday, December 20, 2010

December blankie

Winter tugs on the grey wool blanket of night, tucking in each December day earlier and earlier.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Four hours into the wait at the airport, we stand in line, unmoving.  SNA in Orange County has a departure curfew of 10PM.  We’re instructed to get ready to rapidly board the plane, since we only have minutes to make the take-off deadline.

At the moment, we’re static.  Or nearly so, fidgeting with our boarding passes.  Occasionally stamping a foot or swinging round to survey the terminal.  Snorting, frustrated at our lack of motion.  But the ground beneath us spins rapidly eastward.  At this latitude, the Earth itself rotates at almost 800 miles per hour.  A dizzying speed that we wished we were feeling, imagining ourselves winging home.  Come on, everyone.  The curfew is only 12 minutes away.

The gangway opens.  We move down the jetway, faster than I’ve ever boarded a plane before.  People are anxious.  Will we make it?  Suddenly, we halt mid-way to the plane.  What’s the hold-up?  A motorized wheelchair that didn’t clear the previous flight whirrs up the jetway.  Perhaps 10 feet per second.  Molasses.

The rock that is our home hurtles around the sun.  Earth is a projectile, zipping along its orbit two miles every second.  Only astronauts have ever traveled that fast.  At the same time, it is the speed every person that has ever existed has moved all their lives.  Add the rotation of the Earth, and we make a wobbly sine centered on the sun.  We’re etching a solar Spirograph, absent-mindedly.

Barking into the PA, the flight crew instructs us to move again.  People are fairly running down the jetway now, around the sharp corner just inside the 737, marching down the aisle.  Minutes remain.  The jet has to be able to reach the Pacific shore by 10:20PM, or the noise abatement rules in Orange County, CA, will prevent us from taking off.  Seated, we’re fidgeting again.  Our heads swiveling as if the limited movements we can make with body parts that are not directly seat-belted down could somehow urge the plane up into the air.

Our arm of our galaxy, the Milky Way, rotates on its axis, sweeping our sun, our planet, and the passengers on SWA642 along at 50 miles per second.  100 millions stars executing their stately, quarter billion year long galactic pirouette.  An invisible spray of particles from distant suns blasts through our heads and hearts at a million miles an hour, a different wind than the one we imagine rushing past the wings of our still-taxiing jet.

Hopes rise as we trundle down the tarmac at maybe 20 miles per hour.  During the safety announcements, the flight attendants stop mid-instruction.  We’re too late.  Can’t make the curfew.  It’s back to the terminal and a slow slog to find a place to spend the night, rebook and fly out the next morning.

Now shambling through the terminal, some are angry, most are dejected.  We no longer care about speed.

The Milky Way, Sol, Earth, the edge of the North American tectonic plate, the sheetrock and concrete of the terminal, the linoleum under my feet.  Everything I’ve ever known or will ever know, hurtles away from most every other part of the Universe at nearly the speed of light.  Every single point moving close to the maximum relative speed that the Laws of Nature allow.  But at the same time, each and every point in the Universe, like each brooding former passenger of SWA642, is unmoving, stilled.

Monday, December 13, 2010


"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
  --Thomas Jefferson
Many Americans - good friends of mine among them - angrily demand that Julian Assange answer for the crimes of exposing state secrets.  Maybe they're right.

But as the kudzu of the national security state relentlessly spreads it vines, I'd like to suggest some order to the process of jailing those leaky troublemakers, Wiki- or otherwise, who put American diplomats, soldiers and intelligence assets at risk.  My request: can we please start with former Vice President Dick Cheney?
Tony Auth at

Tell it, Lloyd

Lloyd Dangle's Troubletown is here...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

climate denier tramp stamp

 An alarmingly large number of Americans and American politicians actively deny that climate change is occurring.  Or they deny that climate change is due to greenhouse gas accumulation.  Or that greenhouse gas accumulation is anthropogenic.   Or that climate change even matters.

There is little doubt that scientists studying global warming and the activists working to deal with climate change will be vindicated.  They already have been, really.  Cities are dealing today with climate change.  The 6th mass extinction in the Earth's history is well underway and warming is a significant cause.  The arctic is opening to shipping in a way that it never has in the history of shipping.  Australia just experienced a "1000 year drought."  Sea levels are higher.  Greenland is melting.  Species are spreading into changing climatic niches at a rapid rate, bringing new diseases and pests to new regions.

Whether climate denialism is motivated by political expediency, nutty religious conviction, or just the ornery contrarianism of the blogosphere, it's dangerous.  It's dangerous because the delay and obstructionism caused by deniers is running out the clock on taking action on climate change.

I don't want deniers to escape the judgment of history.  But it's common, especially in America, for cultural amnesia and historical revisionism to enable bad actors to obscure or rewrite their history.  Look at the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Something like 90% of Americans supported the start of the Afghanistan war and a large majority supported the invasion of Iraq.  Where are they now?  Who among those supporters has re-colored their record, fudged their position, re-written their position?  Most, it seems.

Climate deniers in the future will say they were merely asking questions.  They'll say they were just being skeptical.  Opening debate.  And, like the science they obscure today, they'll likely be successful in obscuring their roles in a planetary calamity.

How to hold them clearly accountable in the distant future?  My proposal: tattoos. A permanent record of the position of deniers, right there, for everyone to see.  Deniers would have the unassailable right to say "told ya so" three or four decades from now if they are (somehow) right about climate change.  And it would be difficult for deniers to wiggle out of their past position.

In order for everyone to know, a tattoo would have to be somewhere visible.  The forehead is a good spot. But no one wants a big ol' tatt on their head stating their political position.  How about UV tattoos?  Ultraviolet ink tattoos, popular with nightclubbing rave-goers, don't show in ordinary light, but under UV (or "black") light, they're plainly visible.  UV tattoos aren't perfect.  They can scar or show a bit in normal light.  But UV tattoos could be perfected with a little development effort.

I'm imagining a Mad Max world (or maybe a Waterworld) in which deniers are hunted down, inspected with a Wood's Lamp, and then dealt with using rough "Beyond the Thunderdome" justice if they a big "D" tattoo glows like a brand in the middle of their forehead...

* * * * *
A list of prospective climate denier forehead tattoo candidates:
  • Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma)
  • Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California)
  • Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin)
  • (former) Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska)
  • Rush Limbaugh
  • Glenn Beck, Fox
  • Steve Milloy, Fox News columnist
  • Professor Pat Michaels, Cato Institute

Any takers?  I'll pony up for the first dozen who sign up...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

don't ask, don't look at my bum

Let's see if I have this right:

Our military is the strongest, bravest, toughest force the world has ever seen.  We can fight crazed terrorists and stare down nuclear powers.  But if a gay soldier gets a look at a straight soldier's wee-wee in the shower, our troops will wilt like delicate flowers. 

Is this what we're talking about in the "don't ask, don't tell" debate?