Posts Tagged ‘Rant’

Here we are again…

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Another attempted bombing on an American airline.

The arguing that has already begun about this will continue. Everyone will see in this what they want. Everyone will trim their sails to take advantage of this particular gust of wind.

I don’t have any particular new or original information about the incident, or what was and will be done about it. But I have a couple thoughts, and one idea. These are things that I think are fairly clear.

The only way to absolutely prevent this kind of thing is to scan passengers for intent. We can’t do that yet. Not well. Sure it seems like a good idea to have things like no-fly lists, but then, as in this case you get into a whole argument about how we pick people for such a list. I’m sure that one of the effects of this will be a lowering of the bar for entry onto the list. I would expect the no-fly list to balloon, if it hasn’t already. This may or may not prevent another attempt.

I think I can say with some confidence that expanding the no-fly list will not absolutely prevent another attack. It will, however, absolutely guarantee an increase in the number of people who are on the list who have no intention of ever doing anything on an airplane but traveling. This increase will increase the number of people who have a pretty legitimate reason to be frustrated and angry with the US. And the cycle continues…

Do I have an answer? No (well I have one idea but we’ll get to that).

Do I think this guy should have been let on that flight knowing what I know now? No.

Do I think that it is possible to know what someone is going to do before they do it? No.

And this is the problem. We’re dealing with people. People with passion. Given the right circumstances almost anyone will commit terrorism. And given the right circumstances almost anyone will jump across airline seats to stop an act of terrorism.

So what do you do if you can’t scan for intent?

Our current solution to not being able to do this is presumption of guilt. We assume intent, so we try to remove the means. Let’s say I want to blow up a plane, and I try to get past TSA with a couple of bottles of fluid, disguised as shampoo, which constitute a binary explosive. What happens is that they take away my bottles and I go my smiling, if thwarted, way. If I’m sufficiently motivated, I’ll still try to do something. My intent is still there.
To be absolutely consistent, it should be legal to carry explosives on airplanes. What should be illegal is the blowing up of airplanes. Of course its hard to come up with a good benign reason for having C4 in your carry-on, but we allow people to carry guns in all kinds of crazy places if they don’t seem to have criminal intentions.

I hate the current TSA checkpoints, and the regulations on behavior in the air (how is listening to my iPod while the plane is landing going to cause a problem?). And now they’re going to get worse. Great! As Harry Shearer said: “The passengers prevented a disaster, so let’s punish all passengers.”

Most solutions are not solutions to problems, but distractions from problems.
(and if you’re going to fly, you better make sure that your solution is non-flamable and in a bottle that is 3.4 ounces or less.)

It has been a mental habit of mine to think as I go through TSA… “This would be easier on me if I thought it was actually helping.” I don’t say this out loud… I’m not a complete idiot, nor do I think hassling the employees of TSA is a sane or humane way of expressing anger about our society. But now we have a case in which despite all the hoops they make us jump through, this yahoo still gets to self-imolate on an airplane. So our response is, let’s do MORE of what we’re doing, because clearly we’re not doing ENOUGH. Instead of lets look at what we’re doing.

So here’s my suggestion (I don’t know how original it is): How’s about a licensing system. If you want to travel by air, you have to get a license. And society will check you out and decide if we think its safe to have you in the system, just like with guns and cars. I’m sure that if we imposed 24 hour sobriety checks on every street corner, we would save millions of lives, but we don’t do that. We check every passenger, every time they use air transport… and we still don’t do it well.

I mean if there were a well designed test, that determined my ability, and presumed willingness, to use the air-transport system without endangering society, then I should be allowed to do so without undue hindrance. And I should be issued a license card that allows me to identify myself as such. I’m sure we could come up with something here, and yes, such a system would be rife with abuse and problems, but so is the system we have, so let’s try SOMETHING!!

Aren’t we supposed to be the country that’s innovative in the area of human liberty? I know we haven’t been sometimes, but aren’t we supposed to be? Aren’t we supposed to be the country that inspires people to want to come here and be part of this interesting project?
Rather than inspiring young men to come here to try to blow stuff up…

What do I know? I’m just a citizen, and that seems to mean less and less these days…



Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

TSA airport security inspections suck.

Who was it who said that TSA stands for “Thousands, Standing Around.”

There is, on one hand, the whole political argument about being subjected to a search without probable cause, and the attendant argument about whether any of this is really doing what they say it’s doing, but that’s a rant that been ranted in other places by other ranters. Let me just say that I have deeper questions about the whole thing.

But the frustration that I’m ranting about here, is related to the aesthetics of the experience. I mean, I know there’s probably some sort of security reason why the whole thing has to be flexible or something, but why does it always seem like these TSA inspections are run by FEMA? I know for a fact that there are architects in this country. It follows that some of them are talented. It follows that some of these could solve this. It just doesn’t seem that hard to design a way to do this with a modicum of grace. It’s one thing to have to take your belt and shoes off as part of a public transportation experience. But I don’t think they could do this worse if they tried. Even the newer facilities that have been built in the last few years, look like they were set up in a couple of hours by some high-school student council committee.

Beyond the design issues, there is the problem of the staff. There seem to be two types.

The first is the type that knows that there is an inherent arbitrary absurdity to the situation and the best thing they can do is try to maintain compliance with this week’s regulations with a minimum of stress. These people are relatively helpful.

Earlier this summer I was going through security in Las Vegas (on the way from Edmonton Alberta to Chicago Illinois… in addition to architects I think we could use some cartographers.). I have taken to carrying Sigg water bottles with me when I fly. By filling them at water fountains at the gate, I can avoid the carbon footprint of bottled water and the bacterial footprint of onboard water tanks. Anyway, the trick requires going through security with the bottles empty, but in Las Vegas, because I was on a lay-over I didn’t expect to have to do the TSA thing, and one of my bottles was full of Canadian water. So the guy said, you’re going to have to empty it, and then escorted me on a circuitous path that took me around the entire inspection area and back to the other side. We walked past several water fountains and restrooms. He said he’s having to do this more and more because more and more people have similar hydration strategies to mine, and he doesn’t think it’s right to take their bottles away. When I said “And there’s no way I can just dump it on THIS side, he shook his head and rolled his eyes.

The other type of TSA employee is apparently dealing with the largest amount of authority they have ever had. They are not dealing with it well. They have allowed their perception of the stakes of their situation to stress them out, and make them vaguely abusive. Harking back to Milgram, these people have been given instructions that allow them to be stupider and ruder than they probably would be in normal circumstances.

I was going through security in New Orleans once, several years ago. I had a button shirt that I was wearing over a T-shirt. It was unbuttoned and untucked. I was flying north and I would want it buttoned by the time we landed. The guy told me to take my jacket off. I told him that it wasn’t a jacket, it was a shirt. But he made me take it off. I asked him if he would have made me take it off if it had been buttoned up. He just stared at me. But I really wanted to know, so after getting through, I went back out, buttoned and tucked in my shirt, went through again. The guy just stared at me. He was clearly pissed off at me, but he couldn’t ask me to take my shirt off.
Ok, so that’s a story about how I’m kind of a jerk, but the point is that these rules are CRAZY, and they set up situations in which human interactions become really dumb. Unless this craziness is the common enemy we’re at odds with each other.

On the positive side, the TSA has set up TSA Complaints, and I have heard reports that this has been effective. Some things that people have complained about have been addressed.

However, in addition to the TSA staff, there is another group of people who frustrate me when going through airport security.

The other passengers.

I’m sure I’m guilty of pissing people off in TSA lines as well, but I have NEVER gone through one of these lines without feeling that people aren’t paying attention or thinking ahead. I understand that some people don’t travel very much and aren’t used to this process, but it just isn’t that tricky. Here are some “rules” that have emerged for me.

1. Think ahead. Pack your carry-on with a thought towards this process. Put the contents of your pockets in your bag before you get anywhere near the scanner.

2. Think through how many of those plastic tubs you’re going to need. Grab that number and keep moving. Keep your stuff together for as long as you can.

3. Put your, laptop, little baggie of liquids, your shoes, and belt etc in the tubs at the last possible moment, and send them through the scanner.

4. At the other end, the priority is to keep moving. Grab your stuff and get as far from the scanner as you can. If you are standing at the exit to the scanner, putting your shoes on, you are causing a problem.

If people would just do this, it would move SO MUCH smoother.

All of this of course is filed under the heading of sweeping generalizations. There are plenty of anecdotes about helpful TSA folk and efficient passengers. But on the whole, I find everyone to be at least mildly irritating, if not wildly infuriating while involved in this hateful practice.

It has always driven me irrationally crazy, and I could never figure out why. Going through security at Jet Blue in JFK this last weekend, I suddenly realized why this is so irritating to me. As a theatre artist a big part of my job/interest is movement through time and space. I’m not an expert when it comes to the legality of this whole TSA enterprise. I am an expert when it comes to how it’s performed. TSA security inspections are badly staged!

I can see how to fix this problem but I need everyone to either train more or rehearse.

Oy vey

Rantings of the politically insane…

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

Let me see if I remember this…
There is a story about Laurie Anderson getting an assignment to interview John Cage. Anyone got a citation on this? I think it’s on the Puppet Motel cd rom which I can’t play anymore. (Remember cd roms?!!). As I remember it, she’s sitting there listening to him talk and she’s increasingly obsessed with and distracted by a question that she eventually blurts out:

“Are things getting better, or are they getting worse?”

Cage takes a moment and then says:

“I’m not sure, but they’re certainly getting faster.”

The question is a good one. An excellent one. One that I find myself asking all the time. And Cage’s answer, like many things he said, is most exquisitely useful.

I have often said this but it is one of the profound mixed-blessings of being bi-cultural, that it is almost impossible for me to see only one side of any argument. This would be a great thing, except that I find myself arguing sides of arguments that shock me, all the time. So I try to inch the mix on this blessing towards the good.

I also believe in debate. Argument. The vigorous battle of ideas. Its a way of improving our thinking. Making our ideas stronger. Because of this, if you say to me that you support any of the current presidential candidates, I will passionately take up the cause of the other, and try to convince you. The foundation that this situation sits on is that I have not made up my own mind yet. And I will argue that I am passionate about NOT making up my mind right now. The general election is still ten months away. Because I refuse to hold a party affiliation, I cannot vote in the NY primary. The system has told me that I either play the game or they don’t want to hear from me till November.

Yeah, I tend to agree with the democrats. That doesn’t mean that I want to JOIN their little club. The candidates that actually articulate the things that I think are necessary in our country are cranks that have already been dismissed at this point in the process. My views run towards pacifist anarchy with social accountability. I have no problem with Marx being right, but Smith seems to have been more practical in terms of how the world seems to work. Everybody with “vision” is either a Utopian Capitalist or a Utopian Marxist. Meanwhile what are those of us who live in the real world supposed to do? I want a strong government that distributes wealth equitably, but also stays away from my life, and my personal choices about how to live. Clearly, I’m politically insane. You wouldn’t want me running the government anymore than you’d want me doing open heart surgery. I do, however, feel these things.

Part of my distaste for Party politics comes from a distaste for team boosterism/fandom. The whole “My team/family/race/religion/sexuality/gender/party/nation/culture/species is better than yours, and we’re gonna kick your butt!” is SO infuriatingly tiresome to me. It is the kind of thinking that allows us to find moral justifications for interpersonal violence (what other kind is there). But we reduce even something like doing political good to this same horse-race argument. My good is better than your good, and I will pound you to dust to prove it.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in competition. Far from it. I think it is essential. But it is a much more profound thing than the hooliganism I see most often. I have to thank my friends over at the “Oh My Goodness!” blog (see the link in the sidebar) for the following Carl Wilson quote about democracy:

“This is what I mean by democracy–not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like. Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical, and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but to celebrate it, to stake everything on it. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves.”

I like this. I like it a lot. It confirms in me the political thrill that I feel when I talk to someone who disagrees with me. The ecstatic joy of living in a milieu where I am not “like” those around me. The profound happiness of “otherness”. This is democracy. You don’t need democracy in an environment where everyone agrees. Democracy is a stab at answering the deceptively profound and paradoxical question: How do we live together while preserving the values of plurality and multiplicity? How do we REALLY?

Ok. I will now do the violence of political articulation here. From my point of view right now, this minute:
The Barak vs Hilary presidential candidate argument, misses the whole point. The point is that the United States is being run by corporate interests and we are polluting the planet past its ability to continue to sustain us, while killing and torturing people. Both Barak and Hilary are members of our CURRENT government. Why have they not risked their political lives fighting what is happening RIGHT NOW? Why have they not aggressively pursued the sorts of changes that they talk about. Anyone can say the things that they’re saying. Why haven’t they done it yet? Why should we trust them AT ALL otherwise? This may be asking a lot, but do we not have a right to ask a lot of those who seek from us our political power? Barak, Hilary and Edwards agree on so much, what if they were to form a coalition to actually get some of these things done? We are being asked to care about who’s in the white house. Why? The only reason to care is because they may be able to do something meaningful. So isn’t it just as good if they can do it outside the white house? Why are they wasting our time? People are dieing unnecessarily right now. We are screwing up the environment unnecessarily right now. The civil rights of people are already being dismantled.

It’s like we’re standing inside a burning building watching some sort of competition, where we’re asked to choose which fire-department will come rescue us in a year. And the people with hoses and axes are being told to stand back and not get in the way of the all-important competition. And we are told not to run. To keep our eyes on the shiny trucks.

So is this new? Is this any different than it’s ever been? I doubt it. It’s probably always been this way.

It’s just happening faster.

Going back to some Japan Thoughts

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

Ok, so I’ve been lazy about the Blog. Here I am climbing back into the saddle.

So I waxed rather rhapsodic about Japan while I was there so here are some things that SUCK about Japan:

• Relative rarity of free WiFi networks (Australia, or at least Melbourne, also SUCKs on this count)

• Rarity of AC outlets in Airports, trains, train stations. There are coin operated cell-phone charging stations which are cool, and I understand that free plugs aren’t ubiquitous in the States either, but if you look, you can usually find power to snitch in the US. This leads to another thing: I understand that the power needs are different, but if every little calculator can have the little photo-voltaic cell on it, why can’t my iPhone have a flip top that provides a trickle charge. I don’t expect it to be able to run it, but it would slow the battery drain. Wouldn’t it? (I’m setting this up for my bother Joel to comment on it).

• Shu-den. The last train. For all the glory of Japanese mass transit, it doesn’t run all night. On the way back to the hotel one night in Tokyo, Akiko and I were on the last train on the Sobu line into Shinjuku. We were changing there to the Yamanote, but the Yamanote line was delayed. Because the Sobu train was the last one of the night, they waited for the Yamanote line to arrive. When we got off the train, it was already full. As we stood there across the platform from it, it filled up to the point that people were hanging out of the doors. When our train finally showed up, it was full and MOST of the people got off and tried to get onto the now completely full Sobu train. The scene on the platform as our train pulled away was something out of a high-concept disaster movie. The number of people trying to get on was at least two and a half times the packed capacity of the train.

I don’t know the numbers on this but if the MTA here in NYC can run trains all night, why can’t there be some service late night in Japan? Is there a downside? Sound? Wear and tear? Capsule hotels will go bankrupt?

Speaking of sound:
• Sound trucks. Japanese politics features a very vocal radical right-wing, called the Uyoku. As opposed to the radical left Sayoku, Both of these are boarder-line terrorist organizations, and whereas when I was young the Sayoku were the ones demonstrating against Narita airport and the constitution, by the time I was living here in the 80s and 90s it was the Uyoku that was making all the noise. To over-simplify completely, the Uyoku are Neo-Nazis. They’re intensely nationalist. They don’t like foreigners. And they would like us to operate on the basis that the 2nd World War is still on, and that Japan should be much more aggressive towards the Russians in terms of certain islands which are in northern Japan or southern Sakhalin, depending on who’s telling the story.

The MO of these guys is to drive around in black panel vans with white and red slogans written all over them and late 1930’s Messerschmidt loud speakers on the roof. The guy in the passenger seat then proceeds to shout into a hand held CB style microphone and what you can hear through the distortion of the tortured amps is a stream of Mussolini style tirade. They often have a posse which consists of a small parade of men marching behind them in military fatigues, helmets and white gloves, holding various banners and flags.

I was eating my lunch in the court-yard of the theatre in Mito many years ago when one of these parades went by. One of the marchers came over and stood over me, watching me eat my rice-ball. After awhile he asked if I liked Japanese food. I told him that I did, and he walked away as if I had validated something about his life. I was a bit confused by the encounter, but I don’t think I was as confused as he was.

Akiko and I ran into such a parade in Shibuya on our way to see Kayoko’s play and the sound bouncing off the glass sides of the valley of high-fashion retail was mind melting. I didn’t make out ONE SINGLE WORD of what this knucklehead was saying. I don’t know what the issue was, or what he was trying to convince me of. I suspect this has ceased to be the point of these trucks. They’re a form of right wing punk rock. I don’t know their politics enough to know if I agree or disagree with them anymore. But I don’t like their punk rock.

• Misogyny. There’s a lot of it in Japan. It’s everywhere. You see it in the behavior of both men and women. Almost everything I say about liking the basic state of being in Japan is predicated on my being male. I often wonder if Akiko would like Japan if she hadn’t been somewhat inoculated to the misogyny by growing up here.

• Racism. There is a truism that I hold to about living in the United States that states that, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t benefit from being a white person. This is mostly because I’m treated in with a modicum of respect and normality. I assume in an emergency, that I’ll be able to communicate reasonably with members of the Police. for example. In Japan this gets complicated because there is a kind of positive racism in that I’m actually held in some weird form of respect just cause I’m white. This has dissipated over the years just because it’s not the rarity it used to be, but when I was a kid it was SO easy to take advantage of being European that a lot of us didn’t really notice the extent of the effect. I remember that the first few black people I had contact with in Japan, had radically different experiences as “Gaijin”. Some of it was novelty but there was an ugly edge to it. Hip-Hop culture’s hold on vogue has changed this considerably, but there’s a generational issue. The official bureaucracy is not hip to Hip-Hop. The historical situation concerning Koreans and Chinese is an absolute horror story.
One has to be careful. To say that Japanese people are racist… is racist. I know many Japanese people who are very sophisticated about these issues. I’m talking about general social tenancies here, which I acknowledge is dangerous.

The upside to the Japanese attitude towards gender and racial equality is that there is a relative absence of political correctness. People are more likely to indicate their attitude, and you know where people stand, but the underlying ambient level of discrimination is undeniable, and unacceptable. It’s not that this isn’t also true of most other countries, including the States but I believe Japan is shamefully behind, in terms of equal pay and other tangible issues.

• Localized technology. I don’t know exactly how to talk about this yet. It’s something that I really noticed on this last trip and I’m not sure I can be clear here but it has to do with Japanese society’s tendency to create a great deal of innovation that is fundamentally self-involved. It’s like the Americans making cars that only appeal to Americans and then expecting everyone to buy them.

There is this canard about Japan not being able to innovate. I think this is bunk. This is a society that can come up with five, distinct, cost-effective ways to package a rice ball without the seaweed touching the rice, that can be unwrapped without touching the rice directly. The six years I was gone saw a transformation in the way hot cans of coffee get sold out of vending machines. The new trains have these very user-friendly data screens that let you know where you are and how long it’s going to take to get you where you’re going. The thing that gets me is that the layout is reversed depending on which side of the train you’re on. In other words, the whole layout is reversed to make sure that the map is oriented the way the train is actually moving. The next station on the map is in the same direction as the train is moving. This is a small thing, but it’s the kind of thing that makes a difference between technology that’s adjusting to humans or the other way around. The iPhone (which I love) has a flaw in this regard: When it’s in Landscape mode, the volume rocker is reversed relative to the volume indicator on screen, and Apple is the master of this game.

Think for a moment about the latest development in toilet technology that has an actual impact on your life (not in the area of cleaning the toilet). No really. Think about it. It’s probably the development of cheap, readily available toilet paper. I’m willing to bet thats what it is, and I don’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case. This means, that I’ve NEVER seen forward movement (excuse the pun) in the technology of routine bowel evacuation. This is not true in Japan. When I was a kid, the throne style “western” toilet was a relative rarity. Now a toilet that doesn’t have a built in bidet, and automated washing set-up with air-drying and seat warming is a relative rarity. I’ve seen these things introduced in little news items in the States as an example of “those nutty Japanese”. I have never seen such a clear example of “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

Mocking these things makes us look like the filthy ignorant Neanderthals we probably are, but the broader point here is that the innovation that has lead to things things is not permeating world culture. This is the thing I can’t put my finger on, but there’s something self involved about making something that only a Japanese person would find useful. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that of course, but somehow I get the feeling in Japan that it’s not coming from a passion towards the Japanese way of life, but a fear of going out and playing in the bigger playground. It is the old Japanese insularity, and it feeds the conflicted sense of superiority (look at our cool stuff)/inferiority (oh you wouldn’t be interested) that lies at the heart of so much in Japan.

Ok. Thats it for now.

Gotta go do some stuff.

Katrina V

Wednesday, September 7th, 2005


Sorry for the lapse since IV.

A certain dark heart of despair is past. There are things happening and deals dealt with.

My original impetus for writing these missives was to let people know what was happening that wasn’t being reported (as far as I could see). There is so much material out there now about what is going on and the percentage that seems responsible is getting high enough for a certain critical mass of accuracy to evolve which will eventually be the way this story is told. Like all historical (or for that matter non-historical) events, there is no one unified truth about what happened. It is a massive bundle of human experience. Much of it contradictory. Little of it simple. I have never experienced war. I hope I never do. I have a slightly expanded context for imagining it now.

One of the great sources of information is the New Orleans Times Picayune. Many of their reporters have stayed on in the most horrid conditions and continued to provide information about their city. What’s really kind of inspiring about these people is that they are hardly ever even alluding to the fact that they are still down there. That they are scrounging for food.
There was a bit of controversy about the two pictures that you might have seen circulating the net: Each showing similar activities, one captioned as people having found food, the other captioned as looting. The only difference being that the looter was black. The guy who wrote the caption on the picture of the white people “finding food” was still in New Orleans and he responded to the criticism by saying basically that he was perfectly willing to have a conversation about the issue but right now, he’s wet, hasn’t slept or eaten much in days, and could we all just cut him a bit of slack until he’s on dry land. This kind of journalist is a universe away from Geraldo Rivera holding up a baby in a refugee camp.
To paraphrase John Steward last night, the media has kind of gotten it together on this one and is doing a pretty good job for once.

Life in Baton Rouge (the fastest growing city in America!) is: A veneer of normality punctuated occasionally by intense and jarring surrealism. You’ll be going about your day and suddenly a phalanx of 12 unmatched ambulances will shriek by, lights and sirens, going god knows where, at 75 miles an hour. You’ll be stuck in traffic and a convoy of trucks carrying air-boats will be winding their way east. Military helicopters (the big pregnant ones) swoop overhead like Tolkien’s Nazgil. I don’t know anybody who is not putting someone up or planning to. Every business is doing something. This is not an exaggeration. Everywhere you go there are rescue personnel from New Mexico or Illinois, all with arm-bands and various pieces of equipment.
There is still no gas, but that’s not so much of a problem because there is so much traffic you can’t drive anywhere anyway. There is some sort of mathematical phenomenon where the clogging of the traffic patterns has an exponential relationship to the expansion of the population. We’ve just over doubled the population but it seems like there’s 10 times as much traffic. We’re hovering right over the tipping point where no traffic is moving anywhere. Traffic reports are saying things like “Airline hi-way will be backed up all day. Also I-10. Please try to use alternate routes.” ALL DAY!

I got out to Target over the weekend and there are certain things that are just gone (men’s underwear, practical candles, certain camping supplies) and then huge cases of batteries sitting on pallets in the aisles.

One of my colleagues had a birthday over the weekend. A bunch of us got together. There were valiant attempts to talk about things other than the Hurricane. We failed. But at least we tried.

I don’t know how he’s being perceived in the rest of the country, but NO Mayor Ray Nagin is quickly becoming a folk hero down here. As far as I know, as I write this, he is living on the 25th floor of the Hyatt Hotel, which is now a walk-up. Yesterday he was choppered out to the Iwo Jima so that he could shower, change his cloths and sit in an air-conditioned room for awhile. I have seen some controversy about his staying in NO but to most people I have talked to down here, it is a shining example of a leader leading from the front. People tick off the facts and factoids about how Nagin is living (there’s no electricity. No… No many things) and what he’s doing, with a proto-religious awed reverence.

One of my students, who is a complete comic-book, seventies-music/eighties-movies geek of the highest order (and also an amazing dancer who spent the summer with the Joffery Ballet), was looking at the total loss of his extensive and invaluable collections (This included some archival video stuff that I had brought back from Japan, that he was helping me digitize over the summer). It turns out, his house was miraculously spared. No damage. None. There were leaks in the house, and some minor flooding, but nothing of any value was lost.

On the other hand there are more and more stories from people who are getting back into the outlying areas to asses. My housemate Michelle went into Slidel with our neighbor from across the street (who now lives with us, because her parents and grandparents live in her apartment). You can’t get into these areas without some proof that you live there. They showed me some pictures. Huge boats, upside-down in the middle of the hi-way, stacks of cars arranged around car dealerships like a crumpled house of cards, and trees, trees and more trees. Most of them at angles not conducive to photosynthesis or orderly life in their proximity. But the thing that they said was absolutely overwhelming and impossible to convey was the smell. Pervasive, intense, offensive and dark. The mind starts to get frantic, not just from the physiological stifling of it, but from the imagination trying to come to terms with what could possibly be causing it. I’ve gotten whiffs of it. I don’t want more. I don’t enjoy retching.

There are signs everywhere in the quarantined zone that say: “Looters will be shot.” I want to tag them with “Shooters will be looted.” Reasonable people are seeming to find that death is an appropriate consequence for burglary. The American dream: Get away from my stuff or I’ll kill you! You use the government to create a situation with an impossible disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Then you take away their infrastructure and dip them in a sea-water/petroleum/sewage concoction. Carnage ensues. What did you think was going to happen? Some people didn’t like the way things were and have no vested interest in returning to the status quo. On top of which, many of them have been de-toxing on national television. Speaking of both New Orleans and Iraq: Why are Americans so confused about what is motivating people to shoot at them? Can’t they figure this out?

The three reasons I have heard for why snipers shoot at rescue choppers:
1. They are evil.
2. They are hallucinating on account of the lack of drugs.
3. They are not being rescued and are trying to get attention in the only way available.

Denial and delusion play a critical role at a time like this. It is an invaluable survival skill. So many people tell me about evacuees who are staying with them who talk about getting back to their homes next week and wondering if they’re going to have to take the carpeting out. Despite the fact that it’s pretty clear that their house is or will be destroyed, these people NEED to think this way to get through the next week, the next day, the next five minutes.

The internet is playing a critical role. E-mail is better than cell-phone service. Even text-messaging is better than voice. There are web-based portals that are serving up, up-to-date “shingle-level” satellite imagery based on street addresses. It’s really pretty amazing. I’ve helped a number of people find pictures of their homes, and try to figure out what’s left of their property, 80 miles away by looking at it from outer space.

There are SO many stories now. We started classes yesterday and everyone… EVERYONE has an engrossing story that is heartfelt, heartbreaking or heartening. I have also started finding and meeting with friends amongst the diaspora. I have found that one of my primary functions at a time like this is to tell tasteless jokes:
Yeah… I got hit pretty bad. A house fell over and hit my tree.
Then some cloths and books and all kinds of appliances got all over my water and mud.
See the problem is that you left the wrong people behind. If you’d left the middle-class white people on the roofs, this wouldn’t happen.
After a hurricane, everyone is Amish.

My sarcasm circuit is stuck on full throttle. Just mention the federal government to me these days. I’m like a walking, one-man Daily Show. This is not an accomplishment. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

The other thing that more and more people here are talking about is the fact that so much attention is being focused on New Orleans that we are forgetting that other areas of the gulf coast were hit worse. Of course the footage of New Orleans looks new and dramatic, what with the water all over places many Americans may have visited as tourists. Whereas the footage of Mississippi has the been-there-done-that quality of the tsunami aftermath. Also, the broken Super-dome is more dramatic than a bridge, highway or building that just isn’t there any more. Footage of sand doesn’t really grab you unless you’re from the town that used to be on it.

And then there’s the whole thing about pets…

Katrina IV

Friday, September 2nd, 2005


The situation is still evolving. Trying to deal with what might happen.

We have been told that there will be hundreds of new students that we are “absorbing” from the NO schools, so I guess that means we’re going to have a semester.

Like many places in the country, we don’t have any gas. Most of the stations are closed. Prices, when there is gas, are not as bad as they are in some places, because Louisiana has a law that freezes gas prices in an emergency. The doubling of the population, and the fact that many people are still running generators for their electricity compounds the basic problem of no supply. The trick now is to keep the tank full so that if you need to get out, you can. My friend and hero Tom Anderson, said that several people in the emergency response business told him yesterday “Don’t panic, but be ready.”

Reports of civil unrest yesterday here in BR turn out to have been exaggerated. However, the speed at which the fear swept this town is scary. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we are approaching a tinder-box stage where a single incident could ignite the whole thing. One of my colleagues who was in LA during the riots says that the atmosphere is similar.

I heard yesterday that one of the reasons why the national coverage has been so slow to get up to speed is that seasoned reporters got down here and immediately reported back that they needed to be put on a “war footing”. They need the stuff they use to do war coverage which, although I don’t know all the ins and outs of, I’m told is a lot more hard-core than hurricane coverage and is taking some time to get.

Lately I’ve heard a tone of outrage on NPR that is resonating better with what I’m feeling here than it was before.

Several people have asked me why the evacuation wasn’t more effective early on:
Here’s the thing. The amount of time that Katrina was a Category 5 was not that long before it hit. When it hit Florida, it was a Category 1, which is small consolation to the death and destruction that caused, but the doomsday scenarios for NO required a 3 or higher. The evacuation that was ordered was extensive, and on the whole, effective (now granted there was no plan in place to evacuate the poor, primarily black population that we are now watching die), but the escalation of the situation was very steep. Also, there was in the early, critical hours of Monday and Tuesday, a sense that we may have dodged the bullet. We went from “Oh my god!” To “whew!” to “…oh …mY …GOD!!!” There was a momentum that was lost in the “whew” moment that I think was critical.
Don’t get me wrong. I think there is incompetence, stupidity, lack of imagination, racism and particularly greed all over the place and people are dieing horrible deaths as a result even as I write this.
There is also the simple matter of logistics. Where do you tell people to go? Balls are being dropped out there, but I don’t think people are maliciously saying things like “Forget about the 2500 in the convention center.” At this point it’s just that the job is overwhelming.

Despite the fact that this is a disaster that was known about as a potential for a really long time. The reality of what is unfolding in practical terms is hard to fathom. I am reminded of the fact that when the Capital of Ancient Japan was moved from Nara to Kyoto a primary reason was that the growth of Nara had overwhelmed it’s sewage system. There are similar “infrastructure issues” at work down here. It’s hot. It’s humid. We have a brief window now before Typhoid and Cholera potentially become the main story. And then there’s West Nile (standing water anyone?). I hope I’m wrong about this stuff. I really do.

Have you heard about the shark? There was a shark in lake Pontchartrain all summer. And now it’s prowling around New Orleans.

Fats Domino has been found and he’s fine.

Try to think up an image. I bet it’s happening.

Speaking of images: Perhaps people have seen the image of the two wrapped corpses outside the Convention center; one in a wheelchair, one on the ground. It is interesting how these two corpses have resonated. I’ve seen so many media outlets show them and reference them. I think part of what’s going on is that because the bodies are wrapped, the pictures show no race or social class. It could be anyone in those shrouds, and I think that’s helping people relate to the fact that what’s going on is about PEOPLE. We project ourselves and our own kith and kin into those pictures.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that I’m in that part of the movie where, as an audience, because you know what’s going to happen, you’re screaming “Get out NOW! Just leave!”. Trapping inside either an interesting eventful couple of weeks, or the first half hour of “The Pianist”. There’s no way to know which. Ah the hindsight I will have in the future.

We have a major US city that is suddenly wandering the roads. The people who are turning to violence simply have nothing left to lose. It’s really very simple and really very dangerous. My earlier allusions to “Road Warrior” are coming back to haunt in very real ways.

I am frankly scared. Right now we have every emergency worker that can be spared, every resource that isn’t nailed down screaming towards the gulf coast. The shock and awe of the National Guard are already there. We absolutely need everything we can get our hands on to help people who need it now. I am not a criminal mastermind, but it seems to me that in another couple of days, this country is going to be so completely vulnerable to an attack somewhere else that it is almost implausible that it won’t happen. It’s a perfect storm, and I can’t fathom the possibility that terrorist sleeper cells are not seeing his. The dragon is down, and his claws are stuck in a desert on the other side of the world. What an ideal opportunity to go in for the kill.
I don’t want to be unnecessarily alarmist, and I really really hope that I am wrong. There is never a good reason to panic. But I haven’t seen a better time to “be prepared” than right now.

It is becoming increasingly important that we take this conversation to the next level, and keep it there. This country is poorly led. It has been poorly led for a long time. The important thing, I think is not to sling mud at this point. I know people like Moore and even to a degree myself have been doing this. But we need to show people in rational terms that the chickens of some long term stuff are coming home to roost. This goes beyond Blue vs Red. There is a window of opportunity to be taken advantage of here. Hard core Republicans have started to register complaints. Bill O’Reily has been criticizing the administration for goodness sake, and that wasn’t supposed to happen until there were airborne porcine. We need to start figuring out how to fix what’s broken and stop fighting over who should be fixing it (or pretending to).

In the vein of giving voice to the situation in vehement terms that are really clear: I encourage all of you to listen to NO Mayor Ray Nagen go off about it. You can read the transcript here:
But I suggest you follow the links to hear him speaking.

I know a lot of you want to find ways to help. Here are some further suggestions:
1. Pressure your local government to demand more/better response and reform.
2. DO NOT tolerate people speaking ignorantly about what is going on, particularly in terms of race.
3. Live your daily life with a richness that suggests an appreciation for what you have. Understand that all your stuff, and your life, is on loan from capricious forces, and drink hearty.

I started off today thinking there wasn’t very much to report…


Katrina III

Thursday, September 1st, 2005


Again if you didn’t get I and II and you want them, let me know.

Every day a new wrinkle. Just when you think…

The downtown area of Baton Rouge, which is adjacent to the refugee centers has been heating up in terms of social tensions for the last couple of days. This morning I started hearing about roaming gangs and swat teams. Certain areas being sealed off. Many of my contacts who live in these areas are getting out. It’s ironic because these are the neighborhoods that didn’t lose power this week. These people were the lucky ones until today. I just had lunch with a couple of students. One who lives there and is going back in to get her computer and her dogs and then moving to her aunt’s. The other said that his mother, who works downtown, was “evacuated” this morning by armed guards who escorted her past broken car windows covered with blood. I get back to my office and the following “broadcast” e-mail was in my inbox:

There have been confirmed reports of civil unrest in the Baton Rouge
area this morning. These incidents appear to be confined to specific areas
in the downtown Baton Rouge area and specific locations around the
community. At this time, local law enforcement are reported to have the
situation contained. To insure safety, we have instructed that all
buildings on campus be locked and we ask that occupants remain indoors. We
are confident in the security procedures of LSU Public Safety and these
actions will permit their timely response to any incidents that may occur
on our campus.

This is a trying time for all of us in the affected areas and beyond.
Our efforts now center on safety and recovery. We are primarily concerned
with the safety and well being of the LSU community and we urge that safe
choices be made. For those on campus who would feel more secure in their
homes, we urge that you leave campus in an orderly fashion. Please be
aware that these incidents of unrest in the community make travel an
unknown risk at this time. Permitting time for the law enforcement
personnel to work through these challenges will likely improve the security
outlook in the near term.

Above all else, think through the choices being considered to assure
your safety.

Chancellor Sean O’Keefe

Our building is NOT locked, but it is awfully quiet out there. I wonder if I dare go to the gym…

Truck in front of my office, tricked out with cherry picker and all sorts of weird looking equipment from “Minnesota Tree Specialists”.

Last night the girl who lives across the street from me, was finally re-united with her father. This man spent three days, cutting his way out of his subdivision in Slidel with a chain-saw. He said that there were pine trees, several feet in diameter that just snapped like matches. He hauled out 3 giant coolers packed with ice and about 400 dollars worth of beef. The ice was pretty much gone by last night, so we gathered all the back-yard grills in the neighborhood and he cooked it all. The thing he was happiest about was that he had finally had a shower.

Many of you have been asking about cross posting these e-mails. Please feel free to.

Many of you have been asking about where to send help. I’m not a pro in this field but the following sites have come across my field of vision (thanks Brent):

Episcopal Relief & Development

United Methodist Committee on Relief

Salvation Army

Catholic Charities

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster

Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Also the Red Cross and whoever else. We are in the process of trying to set up some support funds on our own here in the department and Swine Palace but nothing is in place yet. I will keep you posted.

I just heard that our new Wall Mart (which is nowhere near downtown) was looted. I have to say I have mixed feelings about that. I think actually this incident is an urban myth.

We are all feeling much relief that our beloved leader, as if cutting short his vacation was not more than we deserved, took the trouble to instruct his pilot to fly Air Force One over the stricken area on his way back to Washington. And then in that miracle of magnaminity, with a gesture of generousity not seen since Mary Antoinette had a foot-man lift the corner of a curtain on her carriage and peeked out at Paris, swiveled his chair slightly and… (drum roll) TURNED HIS HEAD. (… to the left I am lead to believe. I get choked up just thinking about it) Some say for close to 30 minutes. The strain on his air-conditioned neck must have been tremendous. I understand he only looked away to refill his club soda. I only need to think back to the deep personal bond I feel towards people and parts of the world I have only seen through the window of a 747 to know that we are in good hands.

We are being told not to politicize this, but I’m sorry. As much as I want to be in favor of hearing both sides and striving for dialogue in these divisive times; It’s this government that cut Federal Hurricane preparedness funding for New Orleans by almost 45%. It’s this government that has allowed us to lose coastal wetlands at a faster and faster rate, because to save them would compromise the oil profits. Until recently Bush wouldn’t even admit that global warming was real. It’s the girly-man environmentalists who have been screaming unheard that we weren’t doing what we needed to do to mitigate this kind of thing. A levee that is 80% complete is a levee that is 100% broken. And now they’ve relaxed all environmental regulations on the refineries to enable them to quickly make the gasoline to drive our Humvees out of the frying pan and into the fire. And now the dispossessed and disenfranchised black people for whom there never was an evacuation plan have been moved into my town where they are living out every horrible stereotype about them, causing people I know to be reasonably nice people to say things like “We just need to start shooting the scum-bags.” After two major catastrophes under this guy, the country has lost all sense of what it would be like to have an actual leader, with actual vision in charge.

Sorry to rant. I’ve tried to keep these posts relatively rational and factual, but I’m getting tired of this and a bit angry.

more to come… Unfortunately.