Friday, May 20, 2011

The world will end tomorrow (or is that today?)

I'm going to go out on a limb here and go on the record as predicting that the world will not end tomorrow. (Actually, in some parts of the world it's already tomorrow.

In Samoa, they recently hopped from one side of the international date line to the other. Does this mean the world will end 24 hours sooner in Samoa than it otherwise would have?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Morganza spillway is not the story

The opening of the Morganza spillway for the first time since 1973 is at the top of the news. It's dramatic. A lot of people will lose their homes in order to save a lot more people from losing theirs.

But that is not the story. Or at least it shouldn't be.

The real story is a 35 miles upriver, near the town of Simmesport, Louisiana. There, in 1963, the U.S. army corps of engineers built a floodgate system very similar to Morganza called the Old River Control Structure, or ORCS. The reason the ORCS gets less attention is that water flows through it continuously, so the fact that water is flowing through it now isn't news. The ORCS controls the flow of water between the Mississippi and another river called the Atchafalaya. The Atchafalaya is not a tributary of the Mississippi, it is a distributory. The Mississippi forks at Simmesport, and part of its flow diverts into the Atchafalaya as part of a natural process called avulsion. It works like this: a river carries sediments. Over time those sediments are deposited in natural levees which periodically change the river's course. The Mississippi naturally changes course about once every thousand years or so. The next course change is overdue. When, not if, it happens, the Mississippi will divert into the Achafalaya, which follows a much shorter and hence steeper course to the Gulf of Mexico than the Mississippi does now.

The ORCS was built to prevent this course change from happening. The flow is carefully controlled to keep Mississippi from fully diverting. But in 1973, the last time a "hundred-year flood" happened on the Mississippi, the flow of water through the ORCS was so massive and turbulent that it undermined the structure's foundations and it very nearly failed. If it had failed, the water would have enlarged the Atchafalaya to the point where the process would almost certainly have become irreversible. The Mississippi River as we know it would have ceased to exist.

It is probably only a matter of time before the ORCS does fail. It was shored up after 1973, but water has a way of going where it wants to go. The Mississippi's sediments are building up, and the more they do the more attractive the Atchafalaya's shorter and steeper route becomes. This could be the year.

If it is, it would be an economic catastrophe of epic proportions. Morgan City, Louisiana would more or less cease to exist. The Mississippi would still flow through New Orleans, but it would not have enough water to support the deep-water river traffic it does today, and it would no longer be a suitable source of drinking water for the city of New Orleans. Most of the Gulf oil and fishing infrastructure would have to be rebuilt. It would be -- sorry, will be, because it's only a matter of time before it happens -- Really Really Bad (tm).

Despite this, I have yet to see any mention of the ORCS is any mainstream news outlet.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Also worth noting

The intelligence that proved crucial to finding Bin Laden was not obtained through torture.

More on Bin Laden's victory

This is from Ezra Klein in The Washington Post:

Did Osama bin Laden win? No. Did he succeed? Well, America is still standing, and he isn’t. So why, when I called Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism expert who specializes in al-Qaeda, did he tell me that “bin Laden has been enormously successful”? There’s no caliphate. There’s no sweeping sharia law. Didn’t we win this one in a clean knockout?

Apparently not. Bin Laden, according to Gartenstein-Ross, had a strategy that we never bothered to understand, and thus that we never bothered to defend against. What he really wanted to do — and, more to the point, what he thought he could do — was bankrupt the United States of America. After all, he’d done the bankrupt-a-superpower thing before. And though it didn’t quite work out this time, it worked a lot better than most of us, in this exultant moment, are willing to admit.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Go figure

Some pictures just speak for themselves.

That didn't take long

The birthers have already found a new angle:

A group of die-hard "birthers" took their conspiracy theory about President Obama's birthplace to a panel of federal judges Monday, urging the nation's second-most-influential court to consider what they say is evidence that the president has faked vital documents all his life and is ineligible to be head of state.

Can I call 'em or what?

[UPDATE] Cindy Sheehan is leading the conspiracy nut pack with the theory that Osama bin Laden is not dead. As I post this, 193 people have "liked" her FB post.

More hypocrisy from the right

One of the first things I thought to myself on hearing about the death of Bin Laden was: I wonder how Fox News and friends are going to spin this to make Obama look bad. Now I know.

Bin Laden's ultimate victory

David Sirota nails it:

"This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory: He has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history -- the ones that aggressively cheer on killing, as long as it is the Bad Guy that is being killed."

There's also this from HeathenFace on Reddit:

I will not remember today for Osama's death. I will remember it for the way I felt watching the videos of my countrymen celebrating in the streets of New York and Washington. I don't recognize them, these people waving flags, singing, and pouring their jubilation into the night because we killed someone. And what about all the others that have been killed? During 10 years we spent unbelievable amounts of blood and treasure, enacted unthinkable civil liberties legislation, and turned ourselves into brutes for this.

And there we were out on the streets. Brutes. We have become brutes.

Yes, the world is a better place without Osama bin Laden. But I fear what this has brought out in us. The structural factors that create Osama bin Ladens still exist, and unless we work to change those, we will continue to undermine ourselves by giving our attention to tomorrow's straw man.

I'm not sure which is more tragic, that Osama Bin Laden achieved what he set out to do, or that we didn't notice.