Archive for September, 2011

Not how we store information anymore

September 12, 2011 Comments off
filing cabinet in trash

Filing cabinet in trash. Condition: perfect.

This was not a cheap piece of office equipment.  It was built for storing important information: heavy steel with fireproof sides, ball-bearing drawers, precision latches, nicely-machined handles.  In perfect condition.  Made by the General Fireproofing Company in Youngstown, Ohio.

Discarded. As is, unfortunately, the building where this cabinet was probably made.  The company apparently went bankrupt in 1989. Looking at the pictures it’s easy to imagine the factory full of noise and life, people earning a living making quality products that filled offices across the country. They even made aircraft parts during WWII.

Hope the church is making regular off-site backup copies of whatever database replaced this thing…

File cabinet

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Build the right monument

September 10, 2011 Comments off
9-11 memorial sign

10th year 9-11 memorial. Click to embiggen.

Do you care what I was doing when I heard about the September 11 attacks? I won’t be offended if your answer is “No”. Among hundreds of millions of people, practically every activity you could possibly think of was in progress when the planes crashed.

But there will be a lot of memorial services, monuments dedicated, special newspaper sections printed, and somber editorials. Cable television will be smoking-hot with replays of 9-11. Millions of little plastic flags will be planted. My dentist even sent out a memorial email.

On 9-11, innocent people died, who had nothing to do with conflicts between Muslim extremists and US foreign policy. We have a human need to make sense of it all, if we can, and try to steer a course to a better world from that awful day. If we can.

Almost every incident of mass death attracts monuments because the human race has a powerful forgettery. We forget context, we forget (or never knew) how it looked for the other side. We can forget the whole damn thing with astonishing ease. Battle of Antietam? 23,000 Americans dead in a single day in an area barely 8 miles square? Few remember that, but we remember symbolic acts like Washington throwing a coin across the Potomac… which did not even really happen.

So how best to remember 9-11? How best to honor the dead and elevate the living?  I have a modest proposal.

When we’re done with the bronze and marble and granite and limestone, build another monument in our global moral standing and our daily freedoms. When we arrest someone, citizen or not, on our soil or not, let’s set the global standard of human rights instead of trying to maneuver around it. When someone points a video camera at a policeman in uniform on a public street, let the rest of the world see that our authorities are not afraid of accountability. When we talk on the phone let’s be certain that no one is listening without getting a warrant. Let’s not hide censorship behind corporate welfare. Let’s stop crotch-feeling 8-year-olds in airports and calling it security.

Bush was right about one thing: our enemies DO hate our freedoms. But in exercising those freedoms we will discover friends we never knew we had. A blogger, a gay couple living openly without fear, a citizen asking pointed questions of a politician or a policeman, peaceful Christian and Muslim neighbors, are all in a way ambassadors for our country. Every exercise of rights sharpens the distinction between us and our enemies.

Let’s get back to declaring war as Congress’ job – and pay for our wars on the books in real time. Let’s never again be manipulated and goaded into a vastly disproportionate response.  Let’s recognize false pretext to war as a criminal offense. A former president in jail would send a powerful message to our allies and enemies: we really do believe in justice. You can trust us.

We spend more on “defense” in this country than the next 19 countries combined, while scientific questions go unanswered. In 1969 the physicist Robert Wilson had to explain to Congress why we should spend money on a National Accelerator Laboratory “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another”, he said; “the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

In asymmetric warfare, the moral high ground truly is the defensible position: there is more power in trust than in any weapon. Battles and even wars might be won on the battlefield, but the future is won by the elapsed time between the last American shame and today’s date on the calendar. It is won by using our power to elevate others. It is won by our courage not to back down from our principles in search of an illusion of security. Our real strength isn’t anything that explodes; it’s something that only endures as long as we insist on it.

Let’s make it a flag worth waving. That would be a “monument” worthy of a day we really do need to remember.

NOTES and updates:

  • In Hiroshima there is a monument that says, optimistically; “Please rest in peace. The mistake will not be repeated.” No mention of whether they meant Pearl Harbor or The Bomb. Or the oil embargo that led to Pearl Harbor? Or their expansionism that led to the embargo? Atrocity always has antecedents.
  • Luckily the cable news networks are going to be responsible and low-key about this. They’re going to mention it, in a “this day in history” sort of way, without endless “Man In The Street” interviews and egregious repetition of horrifying videos. They won’t run up ratings by making life miserable for people with PTSD. Which is a lot of people, given that two of the four attacks happened in one of the most populated spots on Earth.
  • (Sorry, that last link was satire.  You know the networks will milk this anniversary for all it’s worth.)
  • Mike the Mad Biologist nails The Hardest Thing about remembering September 11, 2001
  • Stephanie Svan’s meditation on The Importance of Forgetting: “We do not always learn the right lessons from history”.  And Dana Hunter’s on why We Have To Remember: “A terrorist act cannot destroy a country. A country can only destroy itself.”  If you only have time to read one, read both anyway.

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The Galileo Gambit; rule number one is…

September 8, 2011 2 comments

Texas Governor and (so we’re told) God-appointed presidential candidate Rick Perry said:

 ”The science is — is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at — at — at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is just — is nonsense. I mean, it — I mean — and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”

Earth to Rick: when deciding to use the Galileo Gambit, rule number one is “You Are Not Galileo”.  And neither are the carbon-energy industry funded thinktank mouthpieces, or the Fox News bobbleheads who invite them in for unlimited airtime.

Deniers learned long ago that there are always suckers, however.  Just look into the camera and say it like you mean it, and presto! You outweigh independently confirming data and conclusions from multiple fields of actual science.

But here’s the deeper point: when you’re accustomed to deciding whether something is true based on belief, and when belief is a decision you make rather than something compelled by reproducible evidence and demonstrably predictive theory, you can fool yourself.  And that’s the whole point of science:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
- Richard Feynman

Science has a number of checks and balances that prevent you fooling yourself.  One is confirmation by experimental data; another is confirmation across disciplines.  If temperature records line up with animal migration records, which make sense in the context of sea ice depth, which fits in with paleoclimatology data, and that’s confirmed by ocean chemistry, which aligns with carbon isotope analysis of the atmosphere, which fits in with multiple weather modeling algorithms, the idea of some conspiracy for grant money (your other hypothesis)… sort of breaks down.

Besides: the real money is in saying what industry wants you to say.  But you already knew that… didn’t you, Rick Perry?


  • Josh Rosenau goes more deeply into Galileo’s situation, correctly describing the scientific climate then as “a time between consensus”.  At the time it was far from clear to the scientific community what the physical reality was – but of course they all knew what would happen if they decided the wrong way.
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Stitch in time saves nine – 2nd in a series on cliches that made our country strong

September 5, 2011 6 comments

Things we used to say: “A stitch in time saves nine” (Labor Day edition)

Rusty bridge support link

This bridge support link isn't as bad as it looks - but because of the rust it will need more frequent inspections (click to embiggen)

A few weeks ago I was walking across a multi-level bridge on a tour of Chicago. Bridges – in fact structures of all kinds – fascinate me and I like learning how they stand, and how they fall. So naturally I was looking at the structure, figuring out how the loads were distributed, how they were sent to ground, and if there was any redundant load-path to ground. And following the load from the span to where it connects to ground support I looked up and saw this:

You are looking at a link, between the bridge support (left side) and the bridge span (right side). The link consists of a pair of vertical steel bars with 2 holes, bolted onto the support and the span I-beam respectively. The span literally hangs from the support; load applied to the span is conveyed to ground via the lower bolt, the link, then the upper bolt. I’m going to describe the best of my understanding of this structure, and if any inspectors or engineers happen by, feel free to expand or correct in the comments.

Since the bridge span consists of many I-beams in parallel, each with one link at each end, we would not expect all the links to fail at once unless they were in such bad condition that a cascading failure became possible. The challenge is that these links necessarily exist near where the span connects to the support, so road salt can fall right on them from the road above. The links and bolts themselves seldom break. A common failure mode of this kind of link is that expanding rust on the beam forces the washer outward, shearing off the cotter pin that holds it in place, allowing the bolt to migrate horizontally and leave the I-beam unsupported. Mitigations include regular inspection to insure that the pins are intact (as these are), holding the bolt in place. Application of water-repellent grease isn’t a bad idea either.

OK, fine, that’s cool. This bridge support is actually in fair condition structurally even though it should be watched carefully on account of the rust. The problem is there are hundreds of these links on this one complex bridge alone, and Chicago has more bridges than any other city anywhere. Some of them are of different designs and could have different failure modes. Bridge inspecting is, to say the very least, a full-time job, and it is not without political pressures. Add sewers, water mains, buried power lines, buildings, and roads and you need a lot of people who just go look at things and make predictions about them. And the looking sometimes involves advanced imaging and analysis techniques, plus knowledge of chemistry, engineering, physics and even technology history. People who can do that don’t work for minimum wage.  (They don’t exist in isolation from a working education system either, but I’ll cover that later in this series.)

Bridge traffic in Chicago

Another problem of bridge repair is handling traffic load while it takes place (click to embiggen)

Roads, bridges, electrical grid, water mains, sewers, schools, dams and river engineering projects of days past contributed in two ways to our economy. First directly, in the wages of the people who designed them and built them. These people spent their wages, creating a cascade of economic activity from service to manufacturing. And second, the infrastructure itself reliably enabled economic growth – something politicians were pleased to attribute instead to their charm and ideologies. Today that same infrastructure is falling into disrepair, as thoroughly documented by the excellent Slactivist series you will find in the Notes section.

We are in effect resting on past accomplishments – infrastructure built from the 1930′s through the 1970′s. No politician wants to hear from the bridge inspectors that they must sell a multi-million dollar “expense” to the taxpaying, voting public. We’d rather be afraid of swarthy foreigners than rusting bridges – even though in the long run the rusty bridges are a much greater hazard to our economy. Infrastructure is one of several necessary conditions for a sustainable economy.

Is there anyone alive who really thinks it is better to wait for disasters than to prevent them? The only explanation I can conjure for our national behavior is that we’ve become accustomed to not thinking it through. Strong infrastructure makes for strong economies – and the opposite is true when infrastructure is allowed to fall apart. By the time disaster strikes, the economy is immune-compromised, vulnerable. We have stopped telling ourselves; “A stitch in time saves nine”, dismissing the old aphorism as a cliche.  There is another cliche that now applies: “better late than never” – but late unpredictably turns into “too late” so we’d better start right away.


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Things We Used To Say (First in a series)

September 3, 2011 3 comments

What the “Things We Used To Say” series is about:

I’ve been a bit overwhelmed trying to get a handle on today’s culture of Conservatism.  I grew up conservative but today’s version isn’t recognizable to me.  The word has become shorthand for “Selfish, short-sighted ideological bully” and I’m not even sure it has language in common to explore the difference.  But two weeks ago it occurred to me that a few, almost-forgotten aphorisms, which once defined what it meant to play a constructive role in society, are overdue for a visit.  I started writing them down on an index card and here’s one I picked more or less at random.


My dad raised us – by example – to throw out our trash, even if we had to carry it for miles.  So I admit it bothers me when people won’t even walk fifty feet to dispose of their trash properly.

Litter, under a bush

Too bad the energy drink didn't give them enough "wings" to make it to a trash can

Once upon a time litter was a big national issue, and there were television PSA’s about it:

Litter is today considered pretty much the trivial end of the crime spectrum. Is it even a real crime? Does it matter if there are bottles and cans and french-fry wrappers and cigarette butts all over the place?

To answer that question, I have to get into the Way-Back Machine and travel to a time when there was a concept called “The Common Good”.  A lot of people forgot about it back in the “Greed Is Good” 80′s, but it goes something like this: “We all have to live in whatever kind of society we create, so let’s make it a good one.”  It goes by other names, including “The Golden Rule”.

Many people alive today won’t remember, but within my lifetime we decided as a country not to tolerate pollution, or unsafe drinking water, or wildlife dying from ingesting litter.  We decided to pay a little more for unleaded gas so inner-city children wouldn’t have high lead levels in their blood. We got tired of “smog alert days” when asthmatics filled emergency rooms and the radio warned people to stay indoors.  It actually bothered us when the Great Lakes fisheries collapsed, or when the Cuyahoga river caught fire.  For a while there, we gave real attention – and resources – to the quality of life and not just its quantity.  But that has been changing.  Roughly half the electorate seems to be against enforcing any environmental rules, and my intuition tells me that litter is a visible sign of it.

Trashin’ and tossin’ is a revealing act: it makes a social statement against the idea of community.  It says; “Don’t even talk to me about the Common Good.”  Occasionally it is accompanied by some nonsense about how litter cleanup creates jobs, but how likely is it that litterbugs want to pay taxes to clean up… their litter?  Today it might even be dangerous to confront someone for littering.

There was a time when police even wrote tickets for littering – and people had to pay them too!  Today people might say the men in blue have better things to do.  But tickets and social disapproval might improve the environment for thinking, along with the ecological one.  I have a hunch industrial and municipal pollution will be less acceptable to people who recycle.  Because we all have to live in whatever kind of society we create.  So let’s make it a good one… and putting trash where it belongs is an easy place to start.


  • “Wait – what does litter have to do with Conservatism?”  Here’s what: Michele Bachmann pledges to “Shut down the EPA”   (an agency signed into existence by Richard Nixon).  She is the leading Republican candidate.  Leading candidates are a pretty reliable proxy for the attitudes of a political party or movement.
  • A “revealing act” is something that tells you about a person’s character.  For example I once witnessed a college student having a quiet conversation with his girlfriend.  He didn’t like something she said.  He was holding both her hands across the table.  He locked eyes with her and squeezed her hands until she said quietly; “You’re hurting me!”  He waited a few  more moments, released the pressure, but held eye contact for some time after that.  I felt it revealed something about his character.
  • The famous “Crying Indian” PSA above wasn’t completely on the level either. Anti-litter campaigns – valid and important as they were – were partially funded by corporations that wanted to direct attention away from their smokestacks and drain pipes.  Notice – the commercial shows a lot of different kinds of pollution but ends up focusing on litter.
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