Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Electric and acoustic

Food, bands and fun on the bayou. More details here.

Tastes like shoddy engineering

UPDATE: National Geographic has taken down the video of Bob Bea putting gutter water into his mouth. The story remains at their web page, and the link button is still there, but it links to a different video now. Perhaps they realized how foolish and dangerous it is to taste gutter water, and perhaps they understand how irresponsible it is, especially for a man of science and someone who claims to be an engineer, to set such a poor example. The edited story is here.


The last few days have not been good for those of us working to protect New Orleans from future disaster.

First, we get college professor Bob Bea, a man who purports to believe in the scientific method and rational engineering, performing a “taste test” of gutter water as an alleged engineering assessment of a nearby floodwall.

I am not making this up. Bea bent over and dipped his fingers into a puddle of water at the edge of the roadway and put them into his mouth—twice—in order to determine the salinity of the water. He then announced he had determined, by the taste, that the water had come from the nearby Industrial Canal. Bea concluded that the newly constructed wall in the Lower Ninth Ward was being undermined and was thus doomed to failure.

It’s all on the video from National Geographic News.

Bea did not indicate what ASTM standard he used to perform the taste test. Neither did he say when was the last time his tongue had been calibrated for salinity testing. But nonetheless, here he is, on video, putting dirty, perhaps biologically infested gutter water into his mouth.

Shame on Bea! What kind of scientist performs taste tests on dirty water? What kind of engineer sets such a poor example by putting potentially disease-filled water into his mouth? Notice in the video that the reporter immediately follows Bea’s despicable example. Let’s hope this does not inspire people around New Orleans to taste the gutter water near their homes as they mimic this alleged expert.

Second, we have John Barry, a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East board, repeating--as if it were well-established science--the unfounded but popular claim that a mile of marsh will “absorb” a foot of hurricane storm surge.

Barry wrote an excellent piece in The Washington Post this week about why we need New Orleans, and why America owes its brothers and sisters at the mouth of the Mississippi River the best hurricane protection we can afford.

He starts off on scientifically solid ground, recounting how the river built south Louisiana with sediment from the north. Barry goes on to explain how the river no longer carries the mud necessary to continue its work.

But then he repeats the myth of marsh as hurricane protection, stating as fact that “Each land mile over which a hurricane travels absorbs roughly a foot of storm surge.”

Not true.

The best research to date indicates that each mile over land reduces a hurricane storm surge by about 3 inches. And mind you, even this is really not all that conclusive—it could be much less.

Why is this important? Why would I want to knock Bea and Barry, who are obviously allies of New Orleans and who are out there fighting for a safer future for us?

Because the way I see it, shoddy science and ill-considered engineering are what got us into this mess in the first place. We don’t need any more of that.

If we’re going to have a safe and secure future, we have to proceed with the best information, the most accurate and scientifically valid information available. We need engineers and scientists to wear out their pencils working on this problem, and we need them to develop a rational, methodical plan to get us where we need to be.

What we don’t need is rumors, myths, new-age pseudo-science, and stunts. And unfortunately, that’s what we recently got from Bea and, to a lesser extent, Barry.

Let’s hope Bea doesn’t contract dysentery, and let’s hope he starts to act more like an engineer and less like a carnival side show act.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Don’t Worry About The Government

Today is the birthday of David Byrne, who was not born in New Orleans.

I forgive him for that oversight, though. I've been a fan of his band Talking Heads from day one. In my post-Hurricane Katrina life, I no longer have the collection of vinyl albums and video tapes I had collected of this crazy, quirky, brainy group. But I remember it all.

A favorite of mine is the song "Don't Worry About The Government," a happy enough pop ditty with a simple arrangement of guitar, bass, drums and a belltone keyboard effect that sounds innocent and pure.

"I see the clouds that move across the sky
I see the wind that moves the clouds away
It moves the clouds over by the building
I pick the building that I want to live in…"

We all make choices. We pick our building--our community of comfort and support.

"...My building has every convenience
It's gonna make life easy for me
It's gonna be easy to get things done
I will relax alone with my loved ones…"

We're at home at home. We enjoy ourselves. We enjoy each other.

"...Loved ones, loved ones visit the building,
Take the highway, park and come up and see me
I'll be working, working but if you come visit
I'll put down what I'm doing, my friends are important…"

We work in buildings, too. We find meaningful, productive work, but we always have time for friends and family.

"...Don't you worry bout me
I wouldn't worry about me
Don't you worry bout me
Don't you worry bout me…"

The more you say, "Don't worry," the more I worry.

"...I see the states, across this big nation
I see the laws made in Washington, D.C.
I think of the ones I consider my favorites
I think of the people that are working for me

"Some civil servants are just like my loved ones

They work so hard and they try to be strong
I'm a lucky guy to live in my building
They own the buildings to help them along…"

The whole country is like a big building. We live and work, and we can count on each other. Don't worry about the government, because the people who work for government are just like you and me.

David Byrne wrote this in 1977, not long after Nixon had resigned and in the midst of "stagflation." Was he being optimistic, or sarcastic? Was he toying with socialism?

And what happens when your building gets severely damaged or destroyed? Will other buildings take you in? Will the government take steps to make sure that the buildings are strong?

Well, I say forget about it. It's just a pop song. It's just a little ditty to pass the time.

Don't you worry about me. I wouldn't worry about me. Don't you worry about me.