Friday, September 16, 2005

Some Illustrative items...

Quick note... that “naming auction” is now up at Pass word along to your rich friends that they can benefit the First Amendment Project and get their names used in a coming book.

I just had a film crew in my home, interviewing me for CBS News Sunday Morning... maybe airing in a couple of weeks... on the usual topic of technology and privacy.

Speaking of which:

The State Of Surveillance -- (Business Week -- August 31, 2005)
Artificial noses that sniff explosives, cameras that I.D. you by your ears, chips that analyze the halo of heat you emit. Tomorrow's surveillance technology may be considerably more effective. But each advance in protection will typically come at the cost of more intrusion into the privacy of ordinary people.

And, in the 14th predictive “hit” for my novel EARTH...

Web Trade Threat to Rare Species -- (BBC -- August 31, 2005)
The illegal trade in wild animal products over the internet is driving the world's most endangered species to extinction, wildlife campaigners claim. A probe found 9,000 live animals or products for sale in one week on trading sites like eBay.

Again and again I say that we should look for new patterns. While the following does support the truth that we are led by morons, it also suggests that anything so across-the-board should be looked at in a new way. offers a “Timeline to Disaster” By Farhad Manjoo, Page Rockwell and Aaron Kinney. Much about the response to Katrina still remains shrouded in the fog of disaster. But several important themes emerge in this timeline. Every level of government failed, to one degree or another, in the aftermath of Katrina. But the lion's share of the blame must go to the highest level.

What new way should we see things? Any disaster worsens when amateur leaders hamper our professionals... and when professionals hamper the resilience of citizen amateurs. The Katrina disaster showed both effects, relentlessly.

Yes, professional police and agencies should observe what citizens do in times of crisis and hold them accountable for bad deeds... as citizens should reciprocate with intense scrutiny of actions by public officials. But what we have seen this time is both classes interfering with each other to a degree that stymied every positive effort.

And yes, this model is based upon labeling the politicians as “citizen-amateurs.” But who can doubt that the populist administrations of Louisiana, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia are at-best composed of hamhanded pols, far less educated and skilled than the professional public servants they supervise? At-worst, they are demagogues, whose contempt for professionalism extends to compulsive ideological interference on an unprecedented scale. Unprecedented in this country, that is.

I know this way of looking at things is odd. Rich amateurs like George W Bush would seem to be opposites of poor amateurs who are struggling to self-organize while hip deep in toxic sludge. One type is outrageously over-empowered which the other was prevented from driving themselves out of a calamity zone in school buses. I am not saying this is the one and only way to view this crisis. But it is a way that bears some thought.

The lesson? We will all suffer if new synergies of citizen and professional are not negotiated, and soon. Methods to enhance their ability to supervise each other, without getting in the way of each others' legitimate action. This will mean getting political hacks off of the pro’s backs... but also getting professionals to appreciate the creative power of citizen resiliency and responsiveness, seeking ways to enhance that resiliency for a new era.

As if in partial illustration: Stefan submits this creepy illustration of blameshifting: - E-mail suggests government seeking to blame environmental groups


Rob Perkins said...

Stefan's article was interesting; the blame shifting is hardly going to stop.

I had occasion to sample about 15 minutes of right-wing talk radio today, going back and forth on errands. Snippets included callers pointing out the bit mentioned in Stefan's article; that the breached levees were all holding back Ponchartrain, and that no funding was provided there. They were also talking a bit too forgivingly about how "these things happen" to install people like Mike Brown as heads of organizations they have no real resume for.

But they also pointed out that part of the failure was probably due to the professional procedures in place: the Federal Government response was designed to move within 72 hours, which, they claim, it did. It's kind of heartening to hear Bush say that he takes responsibility for it, even if I'm not entirely sure what that means. I don't even know of any way to *test* the "repairs" he intends for FEMA et. al. without suffering through another urban-area disaster.

But the more I think about it, the more I tend to agree that with disasters on the scale of a cat-4 hurricane, especially when state lines are crossed the way Katrina did, there ought to be law, or at least reciprocity agreements, that the Feds are in charge. And we know now, thanks to Katrina, that we need more preparation on "who will lead" rather than waiting to see "who will step up".

I love the idea of an ear-ID camera... I was using that approach just yesterday, trying to figure out which child was in the picture I had in my hand.

Intrusion into privacy... I ranted about the SSN a while back, and DB mentioned that the SSN ought to be utterly safe from anything. I'd love to come up with ways to do that. Anyway, four days after ranting here my brother (a reputable dentist in the area) had his identity stolen and used to lift thousands of dollars of goods on instant credit in stores over 200 miles away.

Until knowing that body of information is safe from fiscal predators like the thief who took my brother's good name, I don't see how privacy concerns are going to evaporate.

And to think... *all it would take* (IMO) is for the credit bureaus to permit consumers to set a password, and change it as frequently as once a day, which creditors would have to provide in order to get a report. No password = 7 day wait or some such for credit approval. Typical secret-key stuff... not difficult at all...

Under such a scenario I'd never have a problem giving out otherwise private info.

W.B. Reeves said...

Re: The blame the environmentalists strategy.

This meme was first floated last week on a "conservative" blog, Professor Bainbridge. Working off an LA Times piece, the Professor baldly asserted that the NOLA flooding was the direct responsibility of the environmental group, Save the Wetlands. The basis for this charge was a 30 year old lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers. In Dispute was a project to build flood gates on the seaward side of Lake Ponchartrain. The Judge in the case ruled against the Corps., issuing an injunction. The Corps. never appealed.

The meme was quickly picked up by such journalistic lights as Michele Malkin and passed around the rightward side of the blogosphere. An examination of the Times article reveals that this isn't quite the smoking gun that some would like it to be. A spokesman for the Corps. is quoted as saying that the floodgates wouldn't have prevented the Katrina disaster.

Interesting that the current regime in DC is apparently searching high and low for more ammunition for this line of argument.

Anonymous said...

"A spokesman for the Corps. is quoted as saying that the floodgates wouldn't have prevented the Katrina disaster."

Of course, it doesn't matter. We're dealing with a F.U.D. campaign here, where momentarily plausible talking points are far more important than fact. They allow people to suspend disbelief . . . a Media-Age version of the "doublethink" employed by members of Oceania's Outer Party in 1984. This sort of self-deception ultimately theatens the everyday acts of compromise, reason, and common decency required for civilization to survive.

The same talking points don't work with everyone, so you curry a bunch of them:

For the mouth-breathing racist pinheads, you play up the looting and the helplessness of the people left behind. (A slightly more cultured, but no less reprehensible, version of this is the "blame the welfare state" argument.)

For others, you elevate valid criticism of local officials to vicious demonization. Thus arise myths about Bush pleading with Mayor Naygin to evacuate the city.

For property owners, and people who run or work in extractive industries, you blame environmentalists. (The irony here, of course, is that if the delta and Gulf shore wetlands hadn't been trashed by development and oil exploration damage from all hurricaines would be lessened.)

Rove is particularly brilliant at this sort of thing, but I don't think it will work this time. Bush's Teflon has suffered a fatal scratch, the Press has finally discovered it has a spine, and nothing the Administration says will be taken at face value any more.


Anonymous said...

Here is something we could do today, albiet at some expense, that would make our communication and transportation infrastructure much more survivable:

It is now possible to buy flywheel backup generators. Sturdy pods containing a small motor / generator and a flywheel made of high strength materials. When the unit can get power, it spins the wheel up. When the power goes out, the flywheel turns the generator, producing current.

Combine solar panels, these flywheels, and the standard grid, and you have a system that could keep street lights (at the least, at important intersections), traffic signals, and cell phone towers going during a crisis.

A low-capacity, but extremely hardy, computer network would also be handy. The local government, or rescue organizations, should be able to set up laptops anywhere in the area. Town Hall in a laptop bag.

* * *

Of course, none of these technical fixes matter if your government is run by crony capitalists, your emergency services are headed by incompetent frat boys, and the ideology de jour despises the very idea of a common society.


W.B. Reeves said...

I think Stefan's analysis is spot on.

It's appropriate to note that this scattergun technique in propaganda bears a striking resemblance to that used by corporate interests and others to undermine the whole concept of scientific consensus. When confronted by unwelcome scientific findings, throw out counter memes, however ludicrous, until the debate is hopelessly muddled. Demonize the opposition as environmental wacko's. Denounce "junk science" as opposed to "sound science". Don't hesitate to smear those who dispute you as left wing ideologues, etc.

People who engage in such tactics respect neither science nor scientists. They view the former as a commodity and the latter as, at best, hired hands.

Okipunk said...

All of this is great, but little is being said about the incompetence at the local levels....and that is THE critical issue at play here. And the fact that so many of the victims of this disaster were ridiculously unprepared for this. If "everyone" knew that a hurricaine could cause a levee break, then what is the excuse for the lack of preparadness?

Anybody who has any experience at all with working with federal power can tell you that the exercise of said power is always slow, cumbersome and extremely expensive. That is why FEMA, the Red Cross and other groups advise people that they have 3-5 days before they can reasonably expect help from anyone.

While we do live in a push-button world, some things do not just happen instantly. Creating and organizing this kind of relief effort takes days of preparation and planning in the happiest of circumsstances. Using the most recent war in Iraq as an example, it took 6 MONTHS to build up our armies and get the supply lines ready.

@ Stefan:
Why is it "racist" to demand that people have some measure of responsibility over thier own lives? How hard is it, even if you are poor, to stockpile enough food, water and medicine for 5 days if you live in a disaster-prone area? Sorry, but I do not like this sort of counterpoint, because it does nothing for creating new ideas and has everything to do with stifling debate by using childish name-calling.

Or am I not allowed to criticize the people who made themselves helpless because they happen to be disproportionally black? Am I not allowed to criticize mayor Nagin because he is black? And I thought we lived in a colorblind society. How is this sort of attitude not patronizing?

If you wish to label me a "mouth-breathing pin-headed racist" for being critical of people who are so helpless, for whatever reason, that they cannot take care of themselves at all then go ahead. But please take into consideration that I married a Japanese lady and that I immediately volunteered to go down to NOLA with my National Guard unit to help out when given the chance. Would a true "racist" make these choices?

To me there are two different mindsets here: those that think of the government as the primary provider and those that understand that they have only themselves to rely on. What happened to our citizens that they cannot take care of themselves at all? A few thousand maybe, but this many? And your solution is to create an even larger government? Didn't we get an interactive lesson in the failure of this theory?

While the it is valid to criticise the feds as too "old boy network" it is also worth noting that these people were left to flounder by their LOCAL politicos, who did absolutely nothing, or actively worked to obstruct relief efforts, during the critical 3-5 day timeframe for the feds to begin ramping up relief efforts. Think I am making this up? Think again:,1096,0_682_4524,00.html

Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?

* Acess to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.

* The state Homeland Security Department had requested--and continues to request--that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.

Label this as demonizing if you wish, but this seems kinda dumb to me.

Bottom line here is that all levels of government failed. To blame everything on the feds and big evil corporations (like Wal-Mart, who donated millions of dollars worth of aid to the same people who were looting their stores) is silly. If you really want to have the feds do everything, then consider this:
PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - Trailers are "home sweet home" — at least temporarily — for up to 300,000 displaced families who were in Katrina's path.

Now is not the time to be putting on partisan blinders. There is plenty of blame to go around. All I ask is that everyone who failed the people get their share.

Anonymous said...

Gee, Peter, why did you think I meant you when said "pin-headed racists?"

I can't think of anyone who comments here who fits that category.

I was thinking of the genuinely evil twits popping up around the blogosphere who were suggesting things like sealing off the city and letting nature take its course.

Note that I said:

"For others, you elevate valid criticism of local officials to vicious demonization."

Italics added for emphasis. Of course the locals deserve a share of the blame. And like the man says, CITOKATE.

My post was not a general "who is to blame," it was about how the spin machine operates.

It is framing this multi-layered clusterfuck so criticism lands on everyone but the administration. And when the finger does get around to point at the Federal level . . . "Huh? What do you expect? That's not our job! Our job is to hey, watch out! There's an environmentalist behind you!"

W.B. Reeves:

Yes, exactly. F.U.D. . . .Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.


David Brin said...

Interesting comments. But you guys are ignoring my attempt to view this from a different angle.

Other venues are playing the blame game. I am trying to step back a bit and pose a hypothesis, that we are witnessing two events -- 9/11 and Nola -- that expose basic truths about the "age of amateurs".

Citizen resiliency was unimpeded on 9/11 and it worked when the professional caste utterly failed.

Katrina shows what happens when amateurs have too much power - interfering in professionals doing their job...

and when amateurs have too LITTLE power... relentlessly oppressed and stymied by "professionals" who would not let them do a thing to help themselves.

Okipunk said...

"When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."

Thank you for keeping us on track, David.

But I still maintain that this cluster was a direct result of a failure to lead. We are vastly rich as a nation, even poorer areas in Louisiana. We have more than ample resources to ensure that everyone is taken care of, provided:

That someone, anyone at all, is in charge.

That individual citizens accept and take measures to have the necessities for survivial in disaster-prone areas. This is critical, because short of doing a house to house search of everyone in a potential disaster area, there is little chance that government can know for certain that their charges have what they need to survive until the calvary arrives.

That Professional help dovetials with private charity and donations.

If the scope of the disaster, regardless of its origin, is too large for the local authorities, that they quickly say so and that the feds (as quickly as possible) take steps to assist them.

That there is a real plan for disaster preparedness and that it is practiced in real life with real people, not just run on computer models or on teleconferances.

That there are plans laid out and disbursed to all leaders, from town aldermans on up to the president. After all, what are we paying these people for? Press conferances? Detailed plans for disaster are nice, but if no one knows what they are, then time is wasted coming up with spur of the moment solutions.

When things go bad (and they will, every time, that is why we use the word "disaster") the people in charge dispense with partisan bickering and take full responsibility for their failures immediately. If we can't learn from our failures then we are doomed to repeat them.

Lastly, for God's sake don't put the displaced persons (NOT refugees, at least as the UN defines it) in TRAILERS! Anyone who studies climatology knows that storms are created when a hot air mass collides with a cold air mass over a trailer park. Seriously, what is the point of putting millions of people in housing that will blow over with a stiff breeze?

On second thought, all these people are good for is giving press conferances.

Frank said...

Blandland said:
"short of doing a house to house search of everyone in a potential disaster area, there is little chance that government can know for certain that their charges have what they need to survive"

That sounds to me as one of those things that the 'amateurs' are probably very good at. Create a network and check up on each other, then relay that info to some governmental authority.

Watch 'n Wait said...

David...on the matter of security, check out this company headquarted in San Diego:

Anonymous said...

Trailer parks only create twisters in the Southeast; in other parts of the country, God uses meth labs to smite them. (Don't blame or credit me for that, I read it online somewhere.)

"That sounds to me as one of those things that the 'amateurs' are probably very good at. Create a network and check up on each other, then relay that info to some governmental authority."

I hate to give the Cuban regime credit for anything, but they've actually come up with a very effective way of managing evacuations. Every neighborhood has a squad of yentas and busybodies whose job, when bad weather threatens, is to round up everybody, and their pets, to safe areas. They make it their business to know about the old lady in apartment 3G, and make sure she gets a ride.

A valid question is, could this work here?
I think it would depend a lot on the community. In rural towns, "where everybody knows your name" it wouldn't be hard to organize along these lines. In New York City, where people barely nod at their neighbors in elevators, it would be tough indeed.

There's also, in this country, a resentment and suspicion of busy-bodies and do-gooders.


David Brin said...

Stefan points to a fundamental reason why communist pyramidal hierarchal tyrannies were especially pernicious. Traditional aristocrats, like Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas... and W... ignore the base of the pyramid, allowing it to fester till it boils over.

Communists paranoically made the pyramid's base their core center of interest. They mobilized ideological cadres and spared no expense to provide basic services, offereing an appearance - or illusion - of empowerment for the poor.

And when the poor wanted more than shoes and free education and free (minimal) health care? When they started wanting SECONDARY justice, like freedom to speak and argue and possible jostle the commisars? Maybe compete with them?

Among the cadres were recruited the very personality types Stefan mentions. The gossips and busybodies that infest every village. Made block commissars, they would be very useful in civil defense... but also in cowing all dissent and terrifying everyone into watching what they say, even among friends.

Few know what Solidarity did in Poland, under Walesa. Before taking tho the streets. Before marching, and before striking, they went to every block commissar...

...and killed her cat. Left it hanging on her door.

She resigned and the Party was blind. And the revolution could begin.

Frank said...

Just for clearity, communism was the farthest from my mind. I was thinking more along the lines of a network of friends. Even in New York City people have friends, right? I'm sure networks like this already exist and that people made use of them before and during disasters. If such a kind of social infrastructure is strenghtened and given more responsibilities, surely, that has to be a good thing?