Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Some recycled haiku I wrote in December 2006....

I went to do some relatively last-minute Christmas shopping tonight. I'm no great fan of shopping in general, and Christmas shopping is decidedly black or white for me-- either it's great, or it's horrible. The experience in Target tonight was bad enough to leave me without the words to describe it in prose-- I am forced to resort to haiku.

Christmas shopping hell
Fat wobbling everywhere
Get out of my way

Waddle waddle lurch
your thighs slap like wave on beach
Cellulite thunder

Fluorescent cavern
temple of cheap and shoddy stuff
souls not yet for sale

Herd your children, bitch
like sheep to the meat market
They're getting shorn too

Hey madam wide ass
Your butt is blocking the aisle
Put down the Big Mac

Christmas time is here
bright lights, bows, lots of bunting
Retail job is hell

Merry Christmas
Sales staff shove Santa in box
Time for Valentines

Two old men stand there
recall days now long gone by
wish for better times

I see no windows
no clocks, so time escapes me
got lost in housewares

Don't get things backwards
Holiday is time for fun
not to create stress

Warning I have nog
made of eggs, milk, other stuff
Deck the halls or else

I begrudge the world
stealing joy from holiday
drip, drop on a stone

wrong turn, lingerie
panties should not be so big
mainsail for tea clipper

Horde of shrieking gnomes
Running amok, soprano cries
I wish for a gun

Sign says ten or less
you must learn to count your items
express aisle my ass

Young man in track suit
thinks he is the mack daddy
tarnished bling, girls laugh

Gibraltar indoors
stream parts, circles, flows, rejoins
Dumbass stands like rock

Wonderbra wishes
girl in checkout line, flat chest
delusions of size

Stack of DVDs
on sale, picked over, pile of crap
nothing worth buying

throbbing with his angst
emopunk stares at world
still shops at the Gap

Transformers movie
trailer is out on the net
fans all spooge in pants

haiku are addictive
so simple, yet emotive
you can't eat just one

Five syllables is
an awkward length for poems
so bugger all this

Monday, November 23, 2009

God Gave Us The Papacy.....

By now you may have read of or heard of this incident.

On September 12, 1960, a man surnamed Kennedy stood before the Ministerial Association of Greater Houston and assured his audience that he believed "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference -- and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials -- and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

That man, of course, was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our nation’s first Catholic president, who overcame over a century and a half of political and social stigma associated with Catholicism, by dispelling the lingering fear that a Catholic president would be politically subservient to the Papacy.

Forty-nine years later his nephew Patrick Kennedy, a Congressman representing Rhode Island, founded as a colony that embraced religious freedom, has been effectively excommunicated by a Catholic bishop upset that Representative Kennedy, a democratically-elected public servant of a diverse constituency, refuses to take his political marching orders out of the pages of Catholic dogma.

I must congratulate Bishop Tobin for so manfully attempting to undo what JFK did in the way of opening socioeconomic doors for Catholics in the United States.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Deep Thoughts on Deep Time

Deep Thoughts On Deep Time

Ten thousand years is a very long time. It’s so long a time, in human terms, that it’s hard to convey just how long a time it is. It’s a hundred centuries. Probably five hundred generations.

A thousand years ago, the Norman conquest of England wouldn’t happen for another half-century. The Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate were going concerns.

Ten thousand years is five times the length of time since Augustus Caesar and Jesus walked the earth. The Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls hadn’t been written yet.

Ten thousand years is four times as long as the length of time since the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Classical Greek and Roman civilization lay in the future, and the mightiest empire on the planet was Achaemenid Persia.

Ten thousand years is about twice as long as the length of time since groups of bronze-armed Sumerians skirmished on the banks of the Euphrates, having probably not even domesticated the horse yet.

Ten thousand years ago, saber-toothed tigers and mammoths walked the earth in North America. Glaciers were retreating from large chunks of what is now settled land at the end of the Younger Dryas cold period.

In fact, the entire history of civilization, written and unwritten, is far less than 10,000 years old. Agriculture in the Middle East began only slightly more than ten millennia ago, in the Neolithic Period. The first cities of any measurable size date from about 3,000 BCE.

With the exception of a sprinkling of Paleolithic and Neolithic hand tools and other artifacts such as stone arrowheads, virtually nothing man-made is more than 5,000 years old.

If ten thousand years is a span of time longer than the duration of civilization itself, why, then, would someone want to design a clock that would keep time for ten millennia? Supercomputer engineer Danny Hillis and the Long Now Foundation have done exactly that, conceiving the Clock of the Long Now in 1986. The first of the working prototypes struck twice at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999. The Foundation describes itself thus:

The Long Now Foundation, was established in 01996* to develop the Clock and Library projects, as well as to become the seed of a very long term cultural institution. The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide counterpoint to today's "faster/cheaper" mind set and promote "slower/better" thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

Hillis, for his part, simply said “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.”

The term “Long Now” was itself coined by musician and producer Brian Eno in 1978, in the context of the differences in the perception of the duration of a ‘now’ between Europe and New York, with ‘now’ being a span of time of variable length, rather than an instantaneous point. As he described it:

The incident stuck in my mind. How could you live so blind to your surroundings? How could you not think of ‘where I live’ as including at least some of the space outside your four walls, some of the bits you couldn’t lock up behind you? I felt this was something particular to New York: I called it "The Small Here". I realized that, like most Europeans, I was used to living in a bigger Here.

I noticed that this very local attitude to space in New York paralleled a similarly limited attitude to time. Everything was exciting, fast, current, and temporary. Enormous buildings came and went, careers rose and crashed in weeks. You rarely got the feeling that anyone had the time to think two years ahead, let alone ten or a hundred. Everyone seemed to be ‘passing through’. It was undeniably lively, but the downside was that it seemed selfish, irresponsible and randomly dangerous. I came to think of this as "The Short Now", and this suggested the possibility of its opposite - "The Long Now".

The Foundation in turn has high hopes for the Clock of the Long Now as a teaching instrument:

Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.

This is a particularly ambitious piece of pedagogy, but one of the little-remembered sparks that lit the fuse on the modern environmental movement was the photographs of the Earth taken by the Apollo flights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The photographs’ importance was that they made the Earth look small and delicate, in sharp contrast to the longstanding attitude of a world big enough for anything.

If you consider that during the whole of recorded human history, the Clock of the Long Now would have ticked a mere five thousand times and the millenarian cuckoo would have popped out only four or five times, that will give you an impression of the time-scale involved in the project. The last time the cuckoo popped out before the year 2000 would have been in the early medieval period. Consider the differences between the world of 1000 CE, with stone castles, Vikings, feudalism and peasantry, and the year 2000, with cheap consumer electronics, aircraft carriers, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Designing and building a machine that has to function over a period of time that is almost beyond real human comprehension is understandably quite the challenge. The Beverly Clock, maintained by the Physics Department of the University of Otago in New Zealand, hasn’t been wound since 1864 and functions off of atmospheric pressure, but it still requires repairs, and the advent of central climate control in the departmental buildings nearly caused the clock to run down altogether.

Together with the Long Now Foundation, Hillis’ engineering priorities included the following principles:

• Longevity: The clock should be accurate even after 10,000 years, and must not contain valuable parts (such as jewels, expensive metals, or special alloys) that might be looted.

• Maintainability: Future generations should be able to keep the clock working, if necessary, with nothing more advanced than Bronze Age tools and materials.

• Transparency: The clock should be understandable without stopping or disassembling it; no functionality should be opaque.

• Evolvability: It should be possible to improve the clock over time.

• Scalability: To ensure that the final large clock will work properly, smaller prototypes must be built and tested.

The resulting clock was, perhaps ironically in this era of microprocessors and atomic technology, a clicking, ticking brass machine that, although idiosyncratic and innovative, would probably have made perfect sense to a natural philosopher from three centuries ago, such as Robert Hooke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, or Christiaan Huygens. In fact, some of the clock’s calculation elements owe a particular debt to Leibniz’s seventeenth-century work in binary mathematics.

Some of the reasoning in the clock’s design is obvious—the clock couldn’t depend on an external power supply, such as electricity, since electricity may not be available someday. Nor could it even depend on regular, intensive human maintenance, since mechanical skills can be lost. Three centuries from now, the world could be in a post-nuclear dark age, with a vastly-reduced population having abandoned cities for subsistence farming. Some technology, such as measurement of atomic decay, was too recondite for most people to understand and therefore not viable for the long term—you probably wouldn’t have a nuclear physicist around to fix the thing if it broke.

The first prototype, currently on display in London.

The full-scale clock, which will likely be the size of a house if not larger, is intended to be constructed in a bunker on top of Mount Washington, Nevada, in the middle of Great Basin National Park. Not only must the clock’s design account for ‘normal’ problems such as mechanical wear and tear, corrosion, or inaccuracy (imagine having to cope, not with leap years, but with leap centuries), but due to the chronological scale of the project it must also consider phenomena with much longer cycles, such as the precession of the angle of the Earth’s axis, changes in the length of day due to changes in the speed of the planet’s rotation, global warming and cooling cycles, and changes in the tidal forces exerted by the Moon. On these timescales, even relatively stable materials such as brass or gold can fail—if you leave a pure lead brick sitting atop a pure gold brick for a few thousand years, eventually microscopic but unstoppable forces such as Brownian motion and molecular diffusion will percolate lead atoms clean through to the other side of the gold brick, and will ultimately weld the two masses together. Granted, this will take millennia if not longer, but that is the sort of time-scale the Long Now Foundation is working with—this is mankind’s first try at wading into deep time.

This splashing around the edges of the bottomless pool is more of an adventure than is generally understood. The concept of how old the world really is—about 4.5 billion years by most estimates—was one of the biggest psychological shocks the post-Roman Western mind ever experienced, easily on par with the heliocentric solar system. In fact, this concept of “deep time” or “geologic time” is one of the physical sciences’ most profound impacts on the fields of philosophy, literature, religion, and other arts and sciences in the developed world.

John Playfair, a 18th-century Scottish mathematician and natural philosopher remarked on a 1788 visit to a geologic feature known as an angular unconformity at Siccar Point in Scotland that "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.” James Hutton, a colleague of Playfair’s who while working as a geologist and engineer developed the concept of geologic time, was vilified by many religious leaders as an atheist and heretic for challenging the Judeo-Christian creation narrative of the Biblical Book of Genesis.

Prior to the articulation of geologic time in the public sphere during the Nineteenth Century, the common understanding in the Western world, as well as in the Islamic world and most of the other civilizations, was essentially what would now be termed “Young-Earth Creationism,” a closed-system cosmos, about six thousand years old, that was created at a specific moment. James Ussher, a seventeenth-century Archbishop of Armagh, actually spent several years of his life attempting to calculate the exact age of the Earth based on a Biblical chronology, eventually producing in 1656 what he believed to be a precise result: the night of October 22, 4004 BCE. Although the most famous such scriptural exegete, Archbishop Ussher was by no means the only one. Medieval Jewish scholars put the date of the Creation at 3760 BC. Greek Orthodox theologians put Creation as far back as 5508 BC. It is likely no coincidence that these ‘creation’ dates roughly coincide with the beginnings of settled civilization in the Middle East and other areas.

Other civilizations, such as the Mayan and some Hindu cultures, articulated a nonlinear, cyclical and metacyclical concept of time, such as that presented by the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar’s sequence of repeating worlds (the Fourth World being the present, created in 3114 BCE) and the cosmic Hindu concept of yugas, multi-billion year epochs that are days in the life of the godhead Brahman.

The unthinkably ancient now seemed entirely possible, an eerie bottomless abyss of time that made the known span of human history seem less than a flyspeck on an elephant’s back. Since culture abhors a vacuum, the human mind went to work to fill in the blanks. The sciences produced the new disciplines of paleontology and evolutionary biology. Theologians reevaluated the nature of sacred theology, weighing doctrines of inerrancy against geologic evidence. Popular writers such as H.P Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard explored the newfound past as a setting for stories; Lovecraft gave Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones their origins in the Precambrian, and Howard created a sprawling timescale to serve as a stage for Kull of Atlantis (supposedly 20,000 BCE) and Conan the Barbarian.

Given civilization’s history of repeated rises and falls, expansions and contractions, it should be no surprise that the concept of building or preserving something for the future. It is no coincidence at all that “built to last” is a sincere if wistful compliment.

The preservation of ancient knowledge through catastrophe is also a recurrent theme in history and fiction, particularly science fiction dealing with post-apocalyptic themes; three examples would be Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, published in 1960, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, published during the 1940s and 1950s, and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, published in 2008. In each case, a small elite struggles to preserve something for the ages, whether it is fragments of religion and knowledge in a post-nuclear wasteland, advanced technology from a mathematically-modeled collapse of civilization, or a way of life amid the gnawing chaos of human nature. Real-world historical precedents for this phenomenon include the preservation of Christianity by monastic communities during the western European Dark Ages, and the survival of elements of Roman civilization in the Byzantine empire.

If the Clock of the Long Now seems a strange and almost quixotic attempt to create a lasting monument for mankind, consider the Church of Spiritual Technology’s massive Trementina Base in New Mexico. The facility is less secret than most of Scientology’s inner workings—the ABC Network’s news program 20/20 was given a guided tour in 1998.

The goal of the project is simple—to provide an indestructible safe storage place for the works of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction author and founder of the Scientology movement (who died in 1986), to which Scientologists can return for guidance from other galaxies in the future, according the predictions of Scientology’s peculiar doctrines.

The Church of Spiritual Technology, a multimillion-dollar nonprofit that maintains and licenses the archives of L. Ron Hubbard’s writings and other leavings, has spent the last twenty years engaged in a quarter-billion dollar effort to preserve Hubbard’s writings for all time, including etching text onto stainless-steel plates, which are then placed in titanium canisters, wrapped in Kevlar, and stored hundreds of feet underground in a bunker carved out of solid rock in a New Mexico mesa, behind a series of four doors supposedly proof against nuclear weapons. Audio recordings of Hubbard’s speeches are recorded onto various media, including pure gold compact discs and steel records playable on a solar-powered record player. One only hopes that they didn’t pick HD-DVD over Blu-Ray.

Compared to the 10,000 year design period of the Clock of the Long Now, Trementina’s projected thousand-year lifespan is trifling, but it should survive well enough unless the Internet-based group known as Anonymous, which has a record of mocking Scientology, inaugurates a corps of combat engineers.

On the other side of the coin, for all that humans feel the urge to preserve things for the ages, humans are generally aware of the ultimate futility of that urge. Consider Shelley’s Ozymandias, written in 1818 during the first flush of the archaeological exploration and plundering of Egypt. The poem, allegedly based on an Egyptian inscription referenced by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, reads

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The inescapable message is that however mighty Ozymandias was, how flourishing his civilization, and how eternal his works were meant to be, within a few thousand years of the statue’s construction the vicissitudes of time and fate had all but wiped him and his away, leaving nothing for the future but a broken statue.

Another essential question is whether or not human artifacts, however well engineered and carefully built, can last for millennia on end. Most of the infrastructure built by Rome was in ruins within one or two centuries of the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire in the late 400s, victims in equal measure of willful destruction, the elements, neglect, and the corrosive effect of local villagers pillaging building stone.

Even assuming an absence of malicious or accidental damage, such as the Goths pulling down Rome’s aqueducts, under the onslaught of the elements, the laws of physics and Earth’s climate are ultimately destructive. The Great Pyramid of Giza is less than 5,000 years old, and even though it is of relatively simple construction—few manmade things are more durable than a massive solid stone block on flat ground—but the pyramid is certainly the worse for wear after centuries of sandstorms.

The mechanical death-traps which beset the fictional Indiana Jones, for example, are essentially impossible. Assume that whatever civilization built the temple from which he escaped at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark were exceptionally capable engineers within the technologies available, and that they could actually build a clockwork mechanism that would shoot arrows, open and close doorways, and roll massive stone balls at whoever sets off the trap. Wood rots. Moss and vegetation grow, spreading roots and tendrils into available crevices. Stone cracks and spalls into gravel, which jams things in place. Rainwater or groundwater carry silt into mechanisms. Metal rusts or buckles under loads. Vermin build nests in gearboxes. Rather than Indy’s epic escape in a hail of dust and arrows, it’s more likely that his theft of the golden idol would have triggered nothing more than a loud crunching and snapping noise as the machinery self-destructed, if it even got that far.

The concept of the ‘design period’ is an essential one in any field of engineering, as well as many associated disciplines and other fields such as real-estate development. The heart of the matter is that a good design, whether it be for a computer, building, machine, or sewer system, must take into account not only the needs of the present, but carefully-considered assumptions about future needs, as well as careful selection of building materials, construction methods, capacities, and other requirements. For example, the sewer system of metropolitan London, designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in the 1850s, so thoroughly considered the potential for urban population growth that it could even accommodate the vast sanitary output of a skyscraper-studded 21st-century metropolis, and most of the system remains in service over 150 years after construction, having been augmented and expanded but never replaced. The infamous ‘click wheel’ iPod of 2004, by contrast, so consistently failed within 18 months of purchase that the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading investigated the product as an instance of unlawful intentional design-to-fail.

Sometimes unforeseen changes in technology or other considerations render the design assumptions invalid, or at least less valid. For example, the architects of a school building constructed in 1920 could well have foreseen population growth, but could not have been expected to factor into their design technologies such as the Internet and the current mania for computers in the classroom. Likewise, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destitute state of its successor entities virtually obliterated any budgets for maintenance on the USSR’s once-mighty railroad network. The net result is that many outlying communities in Siberia and the former Soviet Far East, which depended on the railroads for communications, became so isolated that they had to be abandoned.

Bearing the above in mind—the difficulty in engineering for deep time, or even for a millennia or two, there naturally arises the question of ‘why bother?” In a world of constant cost/benefit analyses, a project such as the Clock of the Long Now or Trementina Base, absent other considerations such as the need to hedge one’s bets on a future survival of Scientology or the goal of educating people on truly long-term thinking, generally looks pointless to the outside eye. Scientology gambles that there will still be Scientologists in the future, but the Long Now Foundation is wagering that there will still be humans interested in clocks around in 10,000 years. Both assume that things will not get so bad that, for example, the plates on which L. Ron Hubbard’s books are recorded haven’t been chipped up into arrowheads, and the pawls of the clock broken down for use in crossbows.

It is entirely possible that a massively-dispersed, decentralized and somewhat viral entity, such as Christianity, Freemasonry, Anonymous, the scientific method, or Linux, may survive in the long term better than a single engineered edifice such as the Clock of the Long Now or Trementina Base.

In favor of seeking a measure of longevity through one’s creations or the preservation of knowledge, however, remember this—our world was profoundly shaped by the Irish monks and Greek bureaucrats who preserved what western Europe lost after the fall of Rome, and we at least know who the pharaoh Khufu was (if not much about him) because his pyramid survived.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Health Care.

One of the most noisy and contentious political and media events currently going on in the USA is the debate over health care reform.

To put it in a nutshell, most Americans these days get their health insurance through private companies such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield, CIGNA, Connecticare, etc. A smaller number, mostly people over 65 or who are disabled, get health care funding through government-run programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, or (in my state) MassHealth. Approximately forty-six million (46,000,000) people have no health insurance at all. The central problem with the lack of health care insurance is that health care expenses have skyrocketed to the point where it is difficult to get medical treatment without expensive insurance.

Speaking from personal experience, whenever I see my primary physician, I have to pay a copayment (which is a fancy term, I think, for a deductible), but the cost that is billed to my health insurance provider is about six times the copayment. If I had to pay over $200 in cash every time I had to see a doctor, the cost of such visits would rapidly become prohibitive, and I would be unable to afford health care. That is the exact situation that at least forty-odd million people are in right now.

The major reason for the high cost of health care in the United States is, in my opinion, not the cost of providing the care itself, or the medical research that goes into it, or even the (fiendishly high) insurance premiums doctors must pay. The reason is the administrative bloat, the vast overhead of bureaucrats, executives, accountants, claims processors, and support staff who manage a company such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and the outer manifestation of this is a system in which a health insurer can arbitrarily increase monthly premiums by 12%, with no warning or justification. As it is, health-care premiums for families have risen 119% since 1999, while inflation has risen 28.5% and real wages are essentially stagnant at about 3%.

I, for one, would gladly accept a federal tax that is stable from one year to the next instead of a private plan that could triple in costs by the end of a fiscal year, or drop my coverage entirely.

I compiled the following few salient points, which in my opinion shed a lot of light on the subject of the debate, as well as how the debate itself has been structured, managed, and skewed by business interests.

Under the current system, even if you pay your premiums all your life and are never late with a payment, the insurance company can still drop you like a hot potato if it becomes apparent to the insurer that you’re about to become an expense rather than a source of revenue—in other words, if you become sick enough to need to file an insurance claim. In fact, you're as likely to be dropped by a private insurance company when you need life-saving care as you are to get treated. Even if you aren't dropped, they have the ability to overrule your doctor's advice for life-saving treatment, and refuse to cover the proposed treatment. Translation: death sentence. Murder by spreadsheet. Life-and-death decisions made for people by faceless bureaucrats. This is the sort of thing the opponents of the proposed reforms are trumpeting, but this sort of thing is happening NOW, and as a business decision.

One-sixth of all government spending is on health care, twice as much (proportionally) as any other country spends out of its budget. This is more than four times what we spend on national defense, even while fighting two wars. Individually, many Americans spend 10% or more of their pre-tax income on health care alone. As a whole, the US annually spends $2.5 trillion on health care. I, for one, would love to know how much of that expenditure is swallowed up in profits and overhead, but it’s roughly six times (proportionally) what European countries spend.

So, the United States pays more per capita than any other country on the planet for the privilege of being thirtieth (out of 195) in life expectancy, after most of Europe, South Korea, Japan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, and Jordan. Although one of the frequent talking points of the opponents of public-option health care is that you can die waiting for care in Canada, the average Canadian family spends less than $2000 a year on health care with no waiting periods for life-saving care. The average American family spends $16,800 a year, waiting for private insurance companies to approve life-saving treatments (or to be callously dropped).

These costs accumulate. Nearly two-thirds of American personal bankruptcies are related to health care costs, largely in cases where massive medical bills pile up due to cancer or other serious illness or injury, which insurers do not (or will not) cover.

The costs accumulate for business, too. Businesses - particularly small businesses – increasingly cannot afford to provide health insurance for their employees under the current employer-based private insurance system, and will be forced to either drop their coverage or cut costs in other areas, such as laying off employees (who then lose their health coverage). In the case of Massachusetts, this burden is particularly acute. The Romney administration in 2006 signed into law a requirement that everyone must have health insurance. This plan had some teething troubles, but currently provides health coverage to almost half a million people who didn’t have it before.

Every independent estimate says the public option will save us—the government and private citizens alike—lots of money. The most conservative estimate, from the Congressional Budget Office, estimates a savings of $150 billion.

It’s well worth repeating. As of 2006, forty-six million Americans were uninsured. An estimated fourteen thousand more lose their health insurance every day. Most of those who lose it, lose it either because they lose their jobs, or because they can’t keep up with the premiums. It’s actually pretty hard, in this richest nation on earth, to get health care if you don’t have expensive health insurance.

Eighteen thousand Americans die each year due to lack of health care. That works out to fifty people per day, who die because the system is structured so that they can’t get what they need. This doesn’t count the number of people who get their only health care from charitable clinics or emergency rooms, because they can’t get it anywhere else.

$2.5 trillion is a lot of money. In fact, it’s more than the 2008 gross domestic product (the market value of all final goods and services from a nation in a given year) of Russia. That’s right. If you managed to agglomerate all the value of everything created, sold, or done in Russia in 2008, from caviar to oil wells to dry-cleaning, it wouldn’t suffice to pay the United States’ medical bills. With that much at stake, it’s only to be expected that the health care insurance industry has launched a frenzied counterattack to protect their captive market.

As has become usual in the United States, political and corporate interests are trying to structure the public debate, even to the point of introducing blatant lies as facts. Private insurance companies are spending over a million dollars a day to kill the public option by inventing phony citizen groups and sending letters on behalf of retirees who’ve never heard of them, busing in people to protest at town meetings. Sarah Palin’s “death panel” comments only make things worse—though, to be sure, one should simply Google Natalee Sarkisian.

Would public-option healthcare be better than the private sector? Maybe. Maybe not. I just don’t see how it could be any worse. Medicare and Medicaid have provided high-quality care (or rather, the funding for it) for decades.

At least if I die while on a government plan, I’d know it wasn’t a profit/loss decision.

The role of the government is not to make money. That’s what private enterprise is for. The role of the government is to do what private industry either cannot or will not do—to provide essential services and to do things that are so big or so obnoxious that no non-governmental entity will tackle them, or to do things where (as in this case) the financial incentive runs contrary to the public good.

Consider the Manhattan Project. The federal government poured the equivalent of $24 billion and the man hours of 130,000 people for several years into a project to produce a nuclear weapon, which was by no means certain to work. In fact, it wasn’t certain whether the A-bomb would work at all until three weeks before the first one used in anger (and thankfully, as of this writing, the second to last) was dropped on Hiroshima. No private venture would ever have undertaken that sort of venture.

There is a persistent myth in the history of the United States that the greatness of this country is the product of free enterprise and unbridled capitalism alone. This is flatly untrue. Most of the events, undertakings, or other things that made the US what it is today have been brought about with no small government involvement, though in many instances the government’s role consists of offering subsides or reduced regulations as incentives to encourage private industry to undertake something for the common good, but for which (without government intervention) there would not have been a market. The drawback to a profit-centered system, you see, is that if there is no profit in it, it will not happen.

Even the transcontinental railroads of the late 19th Century, which were relatively simple works of civil engineering by comparison, were subsidized with huge (yes, I know, Python fans take not) tracts of land, granted by the federal government, which the railroad concerns could then sell off as they chose.

The extraction of the vast (but, it needs to be emphasized, not limitless) resources of the West, which fueled such juggernauts of industry as Andrew Carnegie’s US Steel, were made possible by artificially low rates for leases on government-owned lands. The General Mining Act of 1872 fixed the per-acre cost of leasing federal lands for resource extraction at $1.25 annually, half of what the real value was in 1872. Thanks in large part to resistance from members of Congress from states such as Colorado and Wyoming, this cost has never been adjusted to keep pace with the times, in effect creating a federal subsidy for mining companies who get the land essentially for free.

So yes. I’m in favor of the public option plan.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Homeric Fail

The reader should beware, for the following pages, though only poor scratchings by my humble pen fully legal copy of M$ Word, preserve for your eyes a tale of chaos, ineptitude, and disaster fit to try the human spirit beyond bearing, a tail of Fail so dire that it is beyond ΓΌber, beyond legendary, and even surpasses epic. This isotope of Fail manifests so transcendent a degree of chaos that there is only one term for it that conveys idiocy so intense that it should forever be burned into the cultural history of the western world, in the way that the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey have become part of the foundation of modern culture. This is Homeric fail.

For that matter, no, it has nothing to do with the Bush Administration. The names have been changed to protect the guilty, but they know who they are.

Be warned. This was written while under the influence of Neal Stephenson, and I made a deliberate effort to use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.

By way of context, please recall to your minds my recent amusing and easy-to-read discourses on the subject of a certain apartment building in Springfield, and how the removal of a forgotten and unused fuel oil tank from said property caused all manner of problems during the week of July 13.

For those who never heard these stories, or whose memories are less than pachydermal, a brief synopsis:

On June 17, I found an abandoned underground oil tank while doing an inspection at an apartment building in Springfield. We told the property owner (and his banker) that the tank should be removed, since it was installed in 1934. The property owner then contracted with Amalgamated Bashers and Wreckers, a local demolition company, to provide the excavation and trucking crew, and (separately, which is an important thing to remember) the company I work for to oversee the work, do soil testing, etc.

Well, the way it panned out was, Amplified Bingo Winners went ahead and pulled the tank out on Monday the 13th, without telling us, and for that matter without telling the property owner they were going to do it that day. As it turns out, the tank had leaked massively, and the bottom of the tank was riddled with holes like Swiss cheese (Emmentaler, not Gruyere). What followed was a clockwork succession of events- Abject Bullshit Wastrels called the Fire Department, the Fire Department called the Department of Environmental protection, who ordered a cleanup, and who finally called the property owner, who called us.

What followed THAT were some trivial paperwork and some quarrels about scheduling, and whether it’s ok to handle contaminated soil in the rain. This issue produced a rather snippy exchange between myself and Fred from Arrogant Bloated Wretches at 6:35 Tuesday morning. Want the quick answer? It’s not ok, especially when the weather forecasts two inches of rain that day. By 11 AM the radio is broadcasting flooding alerts. We eventually got about three inches of rain.

[N.B. – Fred is a large, generally tube-shaped, pale, and blond supervisor from Associated Bumbling Weenies. His resemblance to a Dutch rendering of the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man carved out of butter is not helped by his propensity to wear yellow polo shirts and pale chinos. Fred is a superb example of grade-A, USDA-inspected and LEED-approved Prick, who probably has a devoted following as a sperm donor among women whose life’s goal is to give breed a prick of their own, and he shall therefore henceforth be known as Fred the Prick.]

I arrived at the site at 7:30 Wednesday morning, ready to begin work. I then sat and waited for thirty-five minutes, because Excavator Guy, who is driving a John Deere POS backhoe from the Assorted Boozy Wastrels garage the one (1) mile from there to the site, gets lost. He manages to get lost, I might add, despite having been the guy who pulled the tank out here two weeks ago.

Once he arrived, and we got the backhoe and truck situated so that we could load the dirt into it, Excavator Guy duly informed me that he hadn’t segregated the contaminated material from the clean material during the tank removal and had shoved it all back into the tank grave. This was a less-than-stellar thing to do because now that it was all mixed together, we had to treat all of it as dirty, and it all had to go into the truck. Incidentally, Excavator Guy is out of his element because he only knows how to run JCB equipment, and the different control arrangement on the humble John Deere (which he regards as a venerable French sommelier might regard Mad Dog 20-20) keeps throwing him off his stride. The only place to put the dump truck is up on the sidewalk, with the front end of the truck sticking ten feet out into the street. That twanging noise you just heard was us breaking the Oops Barrier.

We commenced digging. Rather, Excavator Guy commenced digging, and I attempt to tell him where to dig, advice that he thoughtfully ignores. Pete (my boss) showed up. Things proceeded apace for a good forty minutes.

A kid from across the street, who I dub Spherical Boy for his impressive rotundity, joins our merry crew at this stage. This worthy fellow is so pale, round, intrusive, and disturbing that I could almost get away with referring to him as Rover, as a reference to The Prisoner, but that would be a little too degrading. Spherical Boy is a little slow and is on summer vacation, so when not in school his major pastime seems to be pushing a shopping cart loaded with odds and ends of stuff around the neighborhood looking for something to do, in the process serving as a general Hazard to Vehicular Navigation. Most elementary school aged boys find backhoes and stuff like that unbelievably fascinating (I sure did when I was that age) and we pretty much make Spherical Boy’s day by giving him something new to watch while his dad’s hangover wears off as he sits on the porch across the street and watches his progeny clamber around an excavation site.

Around 8:40 I made a comment to Pete about how I had had a dream the previous night about how things went badly on this job, and how one of the things that happened in this dream was that the machine hit a water line. Pete laughed. At 8:45, the backhoe ripped up the building’s 1” diameter copper water line with a deep metallic twang that resonated in your teeth, and the ruptured water line started gushing water into the hole.

Welcome to Ohshit Territory.

Work comes to a screeching (or rather, squishing and splashing) halt. Excavator Guy calls Fred the Prick. Excavator Guy tried to crimp the water line shut, without success. The soil is stiff varved clay, pretty dense stuff, so the water fills the hole up like a swimming pool at an alarming rate. Pete takes off to another meeting, laughing in disgust. Fred the Prick shows up, disappears, and reappears, without seeming to do anything productive. I send the Dump Truck Guy off to the soil recycler with the stuff he already has in the truck, because there’s nothing else he can do.

The water line’s splattering destruction has inconvenienced several of the apartment building’s charmingly diverse occupants in their daily routines. They indicate this to myself and the surrounding neighborhood in the traditional manner, viz., loud obscenities and irate questions in at least four languages, two of which are probably Spanish. They also place a series of outraged phone calls to their landlord, who in turn calls Fred the Prick. Fred the Prick doesn’t return the landlord’s phone calls that day. Or the next day.

An hour creeps by, during which the hole continues to fill with water, Excavator Guy berates real estate agents over his cell phone, and I sit in my car talking on my cell phone to my girlfriend, while being billed out at a rate of $50/hr. It is during this time that I notice that Excavator Guy, who is a wiry Aryan poster child with an inability to use nicknames or contractions (so that I am always Thomas and Dump Truck Guy is always Randall), has a White Power tattoo on the inside of his left bicep. He also has a very loud voice and (conspicuously), a colorful vocabulary, and no concept of discretion, in that he is making loud, caustic remarks that segue between prostitutes, welfare mothers and crack babies. Excavator Guy is evidently a Ph. D. in sociology, having graduated summa cum loud from the School of What Some Guy In A Bar Once Said To Me While Watching Fox News.

The neighborhood isn’t all that bad, really (nobody has been killed on this street in at least six months), but it strikes me that I’m standing thirty feet away from a guy who is unconcernedly and loudly using a wide variety of racist epithets in the middle of what we might describe as an “multicultural” neighborhood. Thirty feet suddenly doesn’t seem like enough of a distance, so I go across the road, sit in my Jeep and try to figure out potential future crossfire angles so I can avoid becoming a pile of rapidly cooling meat by a tragic accident.

Fred the Prick and Hardhat Pedro from the Water and Sewer Commission finally show up around 10:00. Pedro proceeds to drill, tap, and bore-brush All Bad Words a shiny new brass asshole over breaking the water line, taking particular care to point out that Arnold Builds Wallabies was legally responsible for calling the Water and Sewer Department to have the services marked out. It takes the relentlessly efficient Hardhat Pedro (who must polish his hardhat, because it is impressively clean and shiny despite being visibly well-worn) all of ten minutes to locate the water service shutoff, which some other appendage of the city government has, for some ineffable reason, paved over.

Say what you will about Springfield (most of it is true), but their engineering departments are excellent record-keepers and it is a matter of minutes for someone like Hardhat Pedro or myself to get his or her hands on a building permit or water service connection sketch from 1902.

By this point I’m a little fed up with things—I have plenty of other stuff to do, I can’t do anything here until Hardhat Pedro gets the water situation sorted out, the Angry Beaver Wenches people have pissed me right off, and I’m hungry, so I give Fred the Prick my card (intentionally WITHOUT my cell phone number on it) and tell him to call my office when the water is off and the hole has been pumped out, and take off around 10:15 AM, having accomplished maybe 40 minutes’ digging so far.

Hello to scenic New Clusterfuck, population: Excavator Guy, Fred the Prick, Hardhat Pedro, and yours truly.

In hindsight, it was probably inauspicious to do this on a Wednesday, given that in Scandinavian mythology Odin, the god after whom Wednesday is named, was the god of traitors, the hanged, really impressive criminals, disasters, and general unpleasantness.

I spend the next couple of hours schlepping errands across the river in Lower Numbnuts, including an argument with Deputy Chief Lameass from the town’s Fire Prevention Bureau. I rewarded myself with French toast at Rein’s Deli, food being my preferable distraction and anodyne. Inevitably, just as I was about to chow down on some immense slabs of fried challah, the cell phone rang. Fred the Prick had called Pete the Boss and proclaimed that all was solved, and Asinine Booger Whippers would be ready for digging in fifteen minutes.

When I get back to the site at the appointed hour (1:00 high, an hour which has never been as hallowed in western movies as it should have been), the water has indeed been shut off and a temporary water supply rigged from a neighboring house, but the hole is still a swimming pool. Fortunately, Fred the Prick surrendered to the inevitable evisceration of his budget and called in an environmental services contractor to bring a Vactor unit out to the site to pump the water out of the hole. This device squats curbside like the Ark of the Covenant’s rusty bastard cousin, billed out at such a stinging hourly rate that you can practically see it absorbing money out of the air the way desert plants absorb water, and attended by a brace of doting crewmen. Spherical Boy is so amazed that he is temporarily silent. Christmas is going to have a hard time competing with The Day They Dug A Hole Across The Street. Unfortunately, at this point, Mister Pump Trailer is sucking up money much faster than it is sucking up water. My wallet puckers tighter out of sympathy.

Ten minutes later, and after a set of rituals so complex that they make a pre-Vatican II high mass look like a campfire cookout by comparison, the Watery Mess Evacuators crew has managed to propitiate Mister Pump Trailer to the extent that this device deigns to start. One of the steel demigod’s acolytes reverently lowers a fat black hose into the pit while his cohort piously does something delicate and technical involving pulling a lever the size of a man’s arm. With a disturbingly gastric-sounding slurping noise of a magnitude that hasn’t echoed through the ear canals of mortal man since the Great Jehovah contracted with Mister Pump Trailer to remove the waters of Heaven from the Earth at the conclusion of the Deluge, Mister Pump Trailer does what it is in Mister Pump Trailer’s Aristotelian nature to do. He moves a large amount of unsuspecting water very, very quickly.

After a positively epic and very loud ten seconds, the hole is bone-dry and some hundreds of gallons of water, oil, cigarette butts, and miscellaneous crap are now safely ensconced in the steel belly of the mickle Mister Pump Trailer.

Anthony From Long Island, one of the Wastefully Managed Enterprises guys, tells me that he “needs somewhere to put this thing [the pump trailer], ‘cuz it’s gotta stay here till Monday, we got a permit issue.”

Let me interpret what “permit issue” means in this context. Three months ago, the Mass DEP dragged the company into court for transporting hazardous waste for a year and a half without a waste transporter permit, the result of which was that Weird Muddy Elbows settled for paying a $225,000 settlement and agreed to get a permit. What we have here, then, is an environmental services company that can’t legally provide the most basic of services, which is transporting the stuff from one place to another. Since the stuff now gurgling in Mister Pump Trailer’s bowels is now officially hazardous waste, someone else has to come decant Mr. Pump Trailer into another vessel and truck the water away, but he can’t do it until Monday, so Mr. Pump Trailer isn’t going anywhere.

For those of you watching at home, we just hit the on-ramp to the Turbo Dumbass Superhighway and dropped a lead brick on the accelerator.

Mr. Pump Trailer can’t stay in the road, though—he’s too big. There’s nothing for it. We look around carefully, examine the terrain, conduct and intelligence-gathering foray, and then we pounce on a vulnerable target. Three of the tenants’ precious parking spaces, which they normally defend with the kind of foaming monomaniacal frenzy that Gollum showed when mugging Frodo for the One Ring, are suddenly full of Mister Pump Trailer. He’ll be there all weekend, if you want to stop by and visit. Bring some incense to burn, rub his mighty diesel engine with ghee, and anoint his noble trailer hitch with the finest aromatic nard and myrrh.

The next question is—where has Dump Truck Guy got to? He exited stage right of our little melodrama some four hours earlier for parts unknown, and we haven’t seen or heard from him since. I ask Excavator Guy, who calls Fred the Prick, who says he sent Dump Truck Guy to go haul material at another job while we were waiting for the water to be shut off and the hole pumped out. Since the other job is only three blocks away, he should be with us soon.

Fifteen minutes later, Fred the Prick calls Excavator Guy and says that Dump Truck Guy’s eponymous vehicle sank into some soft ground at the other site, and is now thoroughly stuck, and could Excavator Guy go use an excavator at the other job site to unstick him.

I now realize that, after an hour’s drive down the Turbo Dumbass Superhighway, we have crested the hills of East Clusterfuck, and I can see the crystalline, Olympian peaks of Three Stooges Land gleaming above me, the wind carrying faint taunting echoes of ‘nyuk nyuk nyuk’ across the distance ……

I give Excavator Guy a lift the three blocks from one place to the other place, during which he repeatedly compliments the mechanical soundness of my Jeep, and mentions that his father had owned the same model but had sold it before he was sent to prison last year. The other job site turns out to be the Longhill Garden Apartments, a five-building postwar subsidized-housing complex that was built on an old landfill, and that was a wretched hive of scum and villainy until the city condemned the place two years ago. The new property owner, who bought the place at auction, is wisely demolishing the three buildings that were about to fall down anyways.

By 2:00 PM we have rescued Dump Truck Guy and his chariot, and are finally back to digging. Excavator Guy works at an erratic but frenzied pace for half an hour, thrashing around with his machine while simultaneously smoking, talking to a realtor on his cell phone, and repeatedly calling me a pain in his ass. Great wet lumpy turds of oily clay fly off of his swinging bucket and splatter across the sidewalk, the lawn, and the side of the building. To his credit, at least half of it gets into the truck. Spherical Boy is well into the spirit of things, complete with yelling “oh no!” at the appropriate times.

By 2:30, we have the truck as full as we can get it and a police car has made three (3) very slow passes by the site and officially took notice of the dump truck we have sticking out into the increasingly busy road. We send Dump Truck Guy off to the recycler with another load before the cop slaps him with a ticket for obstructing a public way.

Two things have become clear to me by this point. I admit that I’m not used to working with demolition guys—I usually do this sort of thing with construction guys. The difference in world-outlook between the two professions should be pretty obvious—one takes vacant land and creates a finished product (buildings for people to use), while the other takes the same finished product, destroys it, and makes vacant land. Let’s sum it up by just saying that wreckers smash stuff for a living, and generally do not understand the concept of ‘neatness’ because neatness is as antithetical to their way of life as drunken Las Vegas orgies are to the Dalai Lama.

The other insight is much less philosophical, but much more empirical; I just formed the opinion that you pretty much have to be severely brain-damaged to work for Agglomerated Bovine Wholesalers. Excavator Guy has, for example, set up his backhoe so that one of the outriggers that take the machine’s weight when he’s digging is planted on the ground right over the building’s natural gas line, and he only moves it after I’ve asked, suggested, insisted, and begged that he please move to somewhere he is less likely to blow us all up.

By now we’re definitely in a bind, though. It’s 2:30, we’re nowhere near done, and Dump Truck Guy won’t be back for a half hour. The soil recycler place closes at 4. During this lull, Excavator Guy indulges in his usual hobbies of chain smoking, cell phone calls to realtors, and casual public racism and vituperation. I ate an orange, walked across Fort Unpleasant Avenue to buy some Gatorade at the local commercial mecca, not failing to note the numerous rat-traps strategically placed around the floors and atop the coolers, read a few pages of a book, and generally tried to convince myself that I was somewhere else and having fun.

Dump Truck Guy triumphantly returned at ten past three, having battled his way across highways and byways against the riptides of afternoon traffic.

We shuffle equipment around to reach a different area of stinky dirt, and excavator guy starts molesting the hole again, scraping dirt off the sidewalls and loading it into the truck. In the process, he shatters an old clay tile drainpipe along the house’s footing. More water pours out of the drainpipe into the hole. Lake Runamok lives again. All hail Lake Runamok. Excavator Guy calls Fred the Prick.

By this point, your humble scribe is sitting on the building’s steps with his head in his hands, laughing madly but quietly and trying to remember all this stuff because it will make a story of a hell. No, I don’t mean a hell of a story. Spherical Boy is now standing on the sidewalk and, with much yelling and waving of arms, trying to direct Excavator Guy. As with all instructions, Excavator Guy studiously ignores him. Spherical Boy has also somehow acquired a post-hole digger, which now juts from his shopping cart like the ram of a Roman war galley.

Fred the Prick and two other Army of Bilious Wankers employees named Mental Bucket and Gitterdun (because that’s all he seems to know how to say) show up with portable chain-link fencing to secure the hole, which a) is the law and b) is, notwithstanding a) still a very good idea considering that there are children and drunkards around, and I would not want to find a wino doing the backstroke in the hole the next morning. I wanted a trench plate (a massive piece of iron about an inch thick and a few yards square) to cover the hole rather than a fence, but Fred the Prick brought a fence… so if it rains, the hole will get water in it, but actually by this point that’s moot since….oh my gosh…. The hole has water in it already.

By ten past four, I have taken enough scratch samples to know that the digging is not complete and that we have to continue digging. Excavator guy leaves promptly at 4:00. I stick around to see that the fence is set up, and Dump Truck Guy drives his half-load of contaminated soil back to the Amused Baboon World yard where it will sit overnight. Fred the Prick tells me that I won’t have to work with Excavator Guy tomorrow, because he is scheduled to work on demolishing one of the Longhill Apartment buildings. This seems pretty appropriate, given how good Excavator guy is at destruction.

I go back to the office, drop the samples off, and go home.

It’s the same thing on Thursday morning. In fact, Thursday morning starts out so much like Wednesday morning that for a moment I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I arrive at this most blessed chunk of real estate by 7:30 and find two different guys from Apparently Busy Workers there dismantling the fence. One is named Steve, and I never really did learn what his job was. The other is Motormouth Jim. Dump Truck Guy arrives about ten minutes later.

The hole is, of course, full of water. Steve calls Water Movers Extraordinaire, but as it happens they don’t have anyone available to send out to minister to Mister Pump Trailer. One of Mister Pump Trailer’s acolytes attempts, via cell phone, to talk Steve through the process of ritually arousing the iron demigod from his slumber.

Mr. Pump Trailer awakens with a concussive diesel fart that rattles windows, frightens children, and leaves a smoke-ring the size of a truck tire drifting down the alley between two houses. Steve eagerly lowers the suction hose into the watery depths of the hole, and then does something intimate to Mister Pump Trailer’s control panel, which is a wall of knobs, switches, gauges, valves and levers that rival a pipe organ for complexity.

There is a problem, however. Mister Pump Trailer…… will not pump. There is a great rumbling of engines, a subterranean gurgling, and a very loud whistling hiss, but the water does not move. Mr. Pump Trailer is wide-awake, but is apparently content to sit where he is, disturb the neighborhood, and chew his watery cud from the previous day.

By 8:45, having spent an utterly pointless and wasted hour and a quarter of my life here this morning, I give Steve my card and tell him to call me when the hole has been pumped out. I then go back to the office and attempt to do something productive involving a wastewater permit.

Steve calls me at 11 and says they’re ready to go. With a heavy heart and no great expectations, I drag myself back to the site. The hole is, indeed, devoid of water. We resume digging.

Motormouth Jim is, from the get-go, a much better operator than Excavator Guy. He talks constantly and is still not that great at listening, but he’s obsessed with safety (which is always a plus, since it makes it less likely that I will be killed) and has a much better touch with the backhoe. He also politely exiles Spherical Boy to the sidewalk outside the fence, well out of the way. Such are Motormouth Jim’s mysterious Jedi powers that Spherical Boy, who is a bit of a roller skate, actually remains where he is told to go.

Motormouth Jim’s two favorite topics of discussion are, 1), how essential it is to get the hole filled in before it collapses, and 2) how much of an idiot Excavator Guy is. I agree with him on both counts. An hour of steady, workmanlike digging removes another half-truckload of oily clay from the hole without causing any more calamities. Motormouth Jim gets progressively more anxious about filling in the hole, at one point ordering Dump Truck Guy to “go like a mother” to the recycling plant, empty his load, and bring back some clean stuff to fill part of the hole in with so it won’t collapse. I keep talking him out of it long enough to get the rest of the visibly contaminated soil into the truck, and take my samples. By this point we have enlarged the hole to the workable limits, bounded on the bottom by a water table that I don’t want to touch, the gas line and electric line, and the building’s foundation. The hole is now almost ten feet deep. The building’s lawn area now looks like the surface of the moon, devoid of life. There is nothing more I can do here, but Motormouth Jim seems desperate for conversation (or perhaps just an audience) and he talks my ear off for another half-hour.

I then escape back to the office. Later that afternoon, there is ice cream, and much vacuuming to remove the couple pounds of congealed clay I tracked into the office on my boots.

In summing up the epic nature of this mess, I contend that it equaled the trials of Odysseus. It rivaled the Islander’s imprisonment on Calypso’s island for sheer time-dragging exasperation, the knife’s-edge perils of the passage of Scylla and Charybdis, the outright danger of the battle against Polyphemus the Cyclops, French toast to rival the temptations of the Land of the Lotus Eaters, and a conclusion to rival the ultimate bittersweet reunion of Odysseus with his family, during the course of which he had to slaughter all the guys who were trying to get their mitts on his wife while he was away. There were, however, no Sirens.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

CAFOs: A Collective Colonic Cornucopia

Swine flu is overwhelming the news lately, but there is one aspect of the problem that seems to have fallen through the cracks.

Swine flu (H1N1, as the Center for Disease Control has designated it) is not a food-borne illness; you do not get it from eating pork products. It is spread by contact between people, the same as any other sort of flu. The name ‘swine flu’ is applied because it was originally an animal illness that has started infecting humans too.

Yes, it’s a new and fairly nasty disease, but if you behave reasonably and take the precautions that you would if you knew any other flu was going around your school or office, you will be fine. Essentially, do all the stuff your mom told you to do when you were five years old—blow your nose, don’t pick; wash your hands; load up on Vitamin C and drink a lot of water; stay home if you’re sick; and go to a doctor if you really feel horrible.

The Mexican government blames the outbreak on a hog farm in La Gloria, Veracruz, Mexico, with the first human cases of swine flu identified in the vicinity of the farm in early February. The current hypothesis is that fecal particles transported by wind or insects were somehow ingested by humans, allowing the disease to make the jump to humans.

The farm in question is owned and operated by Smithfield Foods, Inc., of Virginia, one of the world’s largest food supply companies, with an annual revenue of $11 billion and an annual production of approximately 5.9 billion pounds of pork and 1.4 billion pounds of beef.

Agribusiness is big money—the 10 million hogs raised annually in North Carolina are the state’s largest cash crop, surpassing Big Tobacco with $2 billion in annual revenues. 92% of these animals are raised on factory farms with more than 2,000 animals per facility. In 1983, North Carolina had about 23,000 hog farms, most of which had fewer than 200 hogs. By 1997, however, those ratios had changed. There were now fewer than 5,000 hog farms, but the average was now 2,000 or more animals per farm, and 480 farms had more than 5,000 animals each. Most of the small farmers were simply run out of business by large conglomerates like Smithfield Foods.

Agriculture is, in the United States, a uniquely privileged industry, one that was originally exempt from many state and federal environmental protection regulations such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as wetlands and natural resource protection requirements. Some popular pesticides (such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT) were, however, specifically banned for their damaging effects on wildlife. The reasoning for this, when these regulations were created during the 1970s, reflected government and the public’s sympathetic attitude towards farmers, and a recognition of the shoestring profit margins on which most farmers lived. The Clean Water Act did, however, identify those factory farms that existed then (mostly poultry farms) as ‘point sources’ of pollutants which could affect water quality.

That was more than thirty years ago, however, and the exemptions made somewhat more sense in the 1970s than it does today, given the consolidation and industrialization that has occurred in the agriculture sector over the last three decades, and the exponentially larger number of factory farms operating today. The autonomous family farm in the United States is no longer a meaningful part of the American food supply or economy, a victim of the unforgiving need for economies of scale in agriculture, and the inability of private owners to absorb the loss of a harvest as easily as a multibillion dollar corporation. Most family farms these days are contract farms, to whom a firm like Purdue or Tyson will subcontract the work of raising and feeding animals. Most of our food is produced, processed, and provided by a surprisingly small number of immense agribusiness combines, such as Smithfield Foods, ConAgra, Tyson Foods, and a few others. Monsanto and a few other firms also hold a firm sway over the fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, and other products used to support agriculture, particularly pesticide-resistant strains of ‘Roundup Ready’ plants, which allow a farmer to blast a field with weed killer without fear of killing the wheat along with the weeds.

Farms like the Smithfield facility in La Gloria frequently cram tens or hundreds of thousands of animals into a feeding complex. The layman’s term for such industrialized operations is a ‘factory farm,’ but many regulatory agencies, trade publications, environmental groups, and others generally refer to such operations as CAFOs, which, depending on who you ask, stands variously for Confined Animal Feeding Operation, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or Combined Animal Feeding Operation.

The current US EPA regulations for CAFOs, the 2008 CAFO Final Rule, define a facility as a “Large CAFO” (and thus subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act):

if it stables or confines as many as or more than the numbers of animals specified in any of the following categories:

  • 700 mature dairy cows, whether milked or dry;
  • 1,000 veal calves;
  • 1,000 cattle other than mature dairy cows or veal calves. Cattle includes but is not limited to heifers, steers, bulls and cow/calf pairs;
  • 2,500 swine each weighing 55 pounds or more;
  • 10,000 swine each weighing less than 55 pounds;
  • 500 horses;
  • 10,000 sheep or lambs;
  • 55,000 turkeys;
  • 30,000 laying hens or broilers, if the AFO uses a liquid manure handling system;
  • 125,000 chickens (other than laying hens), if the AFO uses other than a liquid manure handling system;
  • 82,000 laying hens, if the AFO uses other than a liquid manure handling system;
  • 30,000 ducks (if the AFO uses other than a liquid manure handling system); or
  • 5,000 ducks (if the AFO uses a liquid manure handling system).

These are minimum thresholds, you understand—some facilities have ten times the number of animals needed to qualify as a Large CAFO. There is also a category called the Medium CAFO, which can cover smaller facilities with more direct potential for impact on the environment.

A CAFO can be summarized as an enormous number of animals crammed into a few buildings, unable to move more than a few feet in any direction, and essentially living in their own feces. Lots of animals mean big barns and enormous amounts of poop. Two years ago, I worked on a commercial poultry farm that had housed 25,000 turkeys, which is small by CAFO standards—some poultry farms in the Midwest, in the MidAtlantic, or elsewhere can house ten times as many birds. I can personally attest that the floors in these buildings were covered to the depth of a foot with excrement, wood chips, and the skeletal remains of dead turkeys, and that even months after the business had ceased operating, the stench was eye-watering.

Pigs in a CAFO facility.

Animals understandably do not thrive under these brutal conditions without substantial assistance from mankind, so it should be no surprise that factory-farmed animals are typically pumped full of hormones, antibiotics, and other substances from the day they are born until they are slaughtered. Diets are carefully adjusted to produce the most lean meat per animal for the least cost, which in some cases has a deleterious effect on the meat that is the end result—this is why pork is so much more lean now than it was ten years ago. Likewise, most factory-farmed cows are fed a steady diet of corn, which is cheap but fibrous, not easily digestible, and not very nutritious when compared to the grass that a cow is biologically structured to eat, which is why cows have to be stuffed full of nutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals.

Meat is not murder. Meat is manufacturing.

By contrast, the rule of thumb for non-industrial cattle raising, as suggested by the Ohio State University Agricultural Extension Program, is five acres of land per cow. A CAFO can raise hundreds or thousands of cows on the same land area, because it doesn’t depend on land area and grazing—it just locks the cows in stalls and shovels in the corn. Thirty years ago, treatment like this earned the raising of veal calves lasting opprobrium as an inhumane way to raise an animal, but it is for all intents and purposes how most cows are raised in the US today.

A typical CAFO, showing barns, lagoons, and support buildings. Photo courtesy of US EPA.

The large oblongs next to each group of barns are the manure lagoons. Guess why the fields in the above photos are that dark brown color.....

One of the most odious aspects of the livestock industry is the poop the animals produce, and which they by definition produce in almost unimaginably vast quantities. Nationwide, farm animals produce an estimate 1.6 billion tons of excrement per year. Some sixth-grade math will tell you that the farm animals produce in one day what the human population of the United States produces in three years.

Now imagine a factory farm in rural Iowa or Michigan holding ten thousand cows. A cow typically excretes twenty to twenty-five pounds of poop per day, or approximately ten times as much as an adult human. Ten thousand cows, then, produce 200,000 to 250,000 pounds of poop per day, equivalent to the excrement produced by the human population of the city of Manchester, NH. One dairy alone, the Vreba-Hoff II facility in Michigan, has a storage capacity of 22 million gallons of poop.

Vreba-Hoff Dairy II, south of Hudson, Michigan, partially flooded in 2003.

Unlike the collective daily bowel movements of the Queen City of New Hampshire, however, the poop produced by these ten thousand cows does not go into a sewer and does not go to a treatment plant. It goes, if we are lucky, into a storage lagoon the size of a football field, and there it sits. And sits. And sits. All through the hot summer, swarmed by flies, reeking to high heaven. Eventually, it may be composted, dried and sold as a fertilizer (such as the ever-reliable Bovung) or most likely, diluted into a slurry and sprayed onto fields. Poop, as any backyard gardener knows, can be a very valuable and useful commodity for growing plants, serving as a fertilizer and soil restorative. Given the sheer quantities of poop produced at a CAFO, however, the unfortunate facility manager is now often faced with the prospect of having more poop than he can use, forcing him to apply more than the appropriate amount of poop per acre (18.7 tons of wet-weight hog poop per acre being an industry rule of thumb, and worth about $50 at current prices), applying poop to frozen ground during the winter, or onto wet ground, just in order to free up lagoon space. These are not recommended practices, since the poop just runs off the ground surface without improving the soil and winds up in the nearest stream, pond, or other drainage nexus.

Any individual CAFO has the potential to become a collective colonic cornucopia, a fecal Frodi’s Mill which produces more excrement than even the best-intentioned crew can handle, leaving the CAFO’s staff running around like sorcerer’s apprentices trying to get rid of it all.

That practice spraying onto the fields, and the potential for the poop to affect streams and other waterways, was the subject of a 2003 rule issued under the Bush Administration by the Environmental Protection Agency, which required CAFOs to obtain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits under the Clean Water Act. A NPDES permit, which can cover anything from an industrial wastewater treatment system to a construction project’s runoff controls, allows a party to discharge a certain quantity of material into a waterway, within strict limits and requiring chemical treatment and other safeguards to minimize the environmental impact of the discharge. The 2003 rule was itself the result of a 1992 consent order issued by a court in response to a suit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which essentially told the EPA it had to do its job whether it wanted to or not. The 2003 rule, however, essentially rendered the NPDES requirements essentially toothless, since it gave CAFO operators a free hand in deciding on their own what ‘compliance’ meant, in addition to specifically exempting them from several important and longstanding federal regulations:

• The rule allowed factory farms to write the part of their permits that limit spraying poop on fields without state or federal review or approval, and without notifying the public. The preparation of permits is usually done either by government officials, or the permits are subject to government approval.

• The rule did not require CAFOs to use technological controls to reduce bacteria and other pathogens in the manure, even relatively simple and inexpensive technologies like methane digesters and odor controls.

• The rule exempted factory farms from meeting water quality standards.

These exemptions meant that any NPDES requirements essentially existed only on paper, without any real effect on the CAFO’s adverse effect on human health and the environment.

The Waterkeeper Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and filed a suit against the EPA in 2005, alleging that the 2003 rule had violated not only the 1992 consent order, but the Clean Water Act itself, thus putting the EPA in the awkward position of having violated a law which it is charged with enforcing. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, threw out the 2003 rule, and ordered the EPA to start afresh, with specific requirements for pollution controls and public notification of permits.

Innumerable local initiatives have been launched over the last ten years to draw public attention to CAFOs and their environmental impacts, including Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Michigan, who maintain the website

This is not 1900 or 1950, when after milking the cows a boy growing up on the farm could wander down to the creek for some idyllic fishing. Not only are there probably no fish in the creek now, let alone any fish safe to eat, but the smell of the water alone would probably make a prospective fisherman nauseous.

In 1895, over a century ago, the New York State Department of Health considered a four-square-mile area of waterway adequate to absorb the 11,350 pounds of raw sewage produced daily by a neighborhood of five thousand people. Granted, that was nineteenth-century engineering and displayed a degree of conservatism and caution that fell out of favor over the succeeding eight decades, but it does put the sheer quantities into perspective.

The vast amounts of animal poop introduced into the nation’s rivers, ponds, wetlands, lakes, and so on easily overwhelms most of the natural ecological processes, converting streams into vast open sewers worthy of Calcutta, India. Several of the Great Lakes, a large part of the Florida Everglades, and the Chesapeake Bay are virtually biologically dead, due to the combined uncontrolled runoff from tens of thousands of acres of agricultural land.

Assume a hog farm CAFO in North Carolina, with two thousand hogs. A hog will produce about two tons of poop in one year. Two thousand animals times two tons of poop per animal per year equals four thousand tons of poop—enough to cover a football field to a depth of eighteen feet, or to fertilize 213 acres of farmland. Much of that poop could, however, wind up flowing into nearby waterways, or even seeping into the ground and contaminating aquifers.

A worst-case situation—a CAFO on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, with feeding barns, poop lagoon, and visible flooding that would carry enormous amounts of contamination into the adjacent river.

Rainwater, floodwater, or irrigation runoff, which account for most of the material carried into waterways, can transport dissolved solids (such as fecal particles) as well as ammonia, phosphorus, hydrogen sulfide (the asphyxiating and potentially corrosive ‘fart gas’), organic acids, bacteria, viruses, parasites, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, pharmaceuticals, and various other undesirable materials, all of which winds up in the stream, lake, etc. The result is not so much a stream as a noxious brown soup unable to support life.

Many of these substances, such as bacteria (notably fecal coliform), phosphorus, and ammonia are also found in human-derived sewage, in which case they must be treated in a wastewater plant or septic system (which is a wastewater treatment plant in miniature) to protect human health and the environment. The exponentially larger quantity of animal poop, however, is not require to be so treated, and in most cases does not even receive the more cursory runoff controls generally required of construction projects.

Ammonia, which accounts for the eye-watering reek of mammal urine and bird excrement, presents a particular problem. Ammonia is by itself a weak base, with a typical pH of 4.5, and if enough of it reaches a water body it can alter the pH of the water to the point where it’s no longer suitable for native plant and animal life. Ammonia is, however, a nitrogen compound (NH3) and when it breaks down it releases nitrogen into the environment. Nitrogen is great as a nutrient for plants, but sometimes it is too great. When introduced into water bodies in vast quantities such as agriculture produces, it provides a surprise banquet for algae, microscopic plants that live in water, resulting in ‘algae blooms,’ in which the water becomes so clogged with algae that nothing else can live there. Fish, frogs, newts…. Everything but the algae has to leave or die.

Human health is also potentially at risk, since poop or the chemical constituents thereof can leach into groundwater, rendering the water unsafe to drink due to contamination with fecal coliform, nitrate, nitrite, and other compounds. Tyson Chicken settled in 2004 a $7.4 million lawsuit brought by the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which found that Tyson’s operations had contaminated the city’s potable water supply (drawn from municipal groundwater wells) with alarming levels of phosphorus. Tyson Chicken has been found guilty of twenty separate violations of the Clean Water Act for its Sedalia, Missouri plant, although this was a processing facility and not a CAFO, as well as facing suits and racketeering allegations about the deliberate recruiting of illegal immigrants as factory labor. Smithfield Foods was the subject of the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the Clean Water Act in 1997, a paltry $12.7 million – 0.035% of the company’s 1997 earnings. Other potential pathways for CAFOs to affect public health are through air quality degradation through fecal particle and gaseous emissions, and damage to other crops, fish, or other livestock in the vicinity of the CAFO that people could consume.

The bottom line is that although poop is an animal product, in the context of modern industrialized agribusiness it is an industrial waste and should be regulated as such. The natural environment could absorb the waste generated by ten thousand cows if they were spread over fifty thousand acres, but ten thousand cows concentrated in five acres is a contaminant source that overwhelms natural processes and damages the environment. This is not the liberal establishment picking on Ma and Pa Kettle. This is a matter of industrialized big business, the equivalent of the public’s realization thirty years ago that hazardous wastes posed a clear and present danger to human health and the environment. The nation owes it to itself to address the problem before we have another disaster on the scale of Love Canal.

As a footnote to the above, there remains one major issue which must be addressed, which is the safety of our food supply. Within the last two years, we have seen panics over peanut products, dog food, beef, Malt-O-Meal cereals, Nestle candy bars, and Gerber cereals. Given the relatively small number of hands our food supply passes through these days, a failure in one plant or factory farm can have enormous ramifications. If a Tyson Chicken plant has a bad day, all of the 100,000 birds processed that day could potentially be contaminated, a problem that may not be caught for months or weeks afterwards.