Saturday, August 30, 2008

Basin and Range

I just finished reading (actually, re-reading) John McPhee's Basin and Range. The book, first published in 1980, is basically a series of reprints of articles that had previously appeared in The New Yorker. As a geology undergraduate at the time, the articles were extremely gratifying, lending an aura of much-needed glamour to the science and an almost "rock-star" persona to the geologists working in the field. Those issues of The New Yorker were passed around geology departments across the country, including mine at Boston University. Later, when the articles that would later be collected into McPhee's next book, In Suspect Terrain, began appearing in The New Yorker, those issues were passed around among the staff of the Georgia Geologic Survey, where I was working at the time.

I ran across a used copy of Basin and Range earlier this year at Portland's outstanding Powell's Bookstore, along with several other volumes of McPhee's work. The copy I bought was inscribed, "For Jen - here's hoping you have fun with geology. Dan." I can't speak for Jen, but during the 28 years since the book was published, I've made my living as a geologist, specifically an environmental hydrogeologist, and been having a lot of fun.

It's terms like "environmental hydrogeologist" that apparently endeared geology to McPhee. When I saw McPhee speak five years or so ago at The New Yorker Festival, he read from a chapter of Basin and Range:
"I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive. It was a fountain of metaphors - of isostatic adjustments and degraded channels, of angular unconformities and shifting divides, of rootless mountains and bitter lakes."

Indeed, McPhee's prose is almost poetic - all one needs to do is add line breaks at the appropriate places:

Stream Capture

Steams erode headwards,
Digging from two sides into mountains or hill,
Avidly struggling toward each other until
The divide between them broke down,
And the two rivers that did the breaking
Now become confluent.
One yielding to the other,
Giving up its direction of flow
And going the opposite way.

That's almost Zen. Consider his catalog of geologic terms that caught his interest:
Fatigued rock and incompetent rock,
And inequigranular fabric in rock.
Thrust fault, reverse fault, normal fault -
Two sides active in every fault.
Roof pendants in discordant batholiths, and
Mosaic conglomerates in desert pavement.
Festooned crossbeds and limestone sinks,
Pillow lavas and petrified trees.
Incised meanders and defeated streams.
Dike swarms and slickensides,
Explosion pits and volcanic bombs,
Pulsating glaciers and hogbacks,
And radiolarian ooze.

And he didn't even mention my favorite - the armored mudballs.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Kshanti (Patience)

Life in Atlanta, at least for another year or so. . . That I refuse to sell my house in this depressed real-estate market means that I will be here until economic conditions improve - a situation, I firmly believe, that will come quicker with a Democratic Obama victory than a Republican McCain victory in this years' presidential elections.

The listing for my house came off the realtors' databases, and I've been inundated with telephone calls from agents not understanding the situation and asking if they can represent me - instead of my former realtor - in selling the house. I tried to politely explain to the first several callers that in fact I've decided not to move, the house is not for sale, and there's nothing here for them, but they're stuck in sales mode and keep insisting that they can do a better job in selling the house than my last agent. Although I don't like to do it, I've often had to be rude to them just to get them off the line. Simply hanging up on them usually does the trick.

I have to admit that I've played with a few. I've told one of the more cheerful/phony callers that I decided not to sell the house at this time in order to take care of my wife's funeral, pulling the rug out from under his "isn't-it-a-sunny-day?" attitude. and I've told others that I'm soliciting cash bids for the privilege of representing me, stating at $2,500, and will select the highest payment I receive.

But there's really no point in generating bad karma. I make their day a little miserable, and they in turn take it out on someone else, who passes it along, etc., and the world's a little worse off for my effort. So for now, my strategy is to just try and not answer their calls.

Over at the unsellable condo, Stanley Steamer couldn't get the stains out of the carpet. I got a bid ($2,100) for replacing the carpet with hardwoods, which should allow a higher rent and position the condo better for an eventual sale, but haven't yet authorized them to proceed. My cleaning lady is making one last-ditch attempt today at using some miracle solvent to try and lift out the stains (which I now believe to be children's play paint), but if that fails then I'm pulling the trigger on the hardwoods.

What else? Last Sunday morning, I led the new-comers' orientation at the Zen Center and on Monday, I led my usual evening service. On Tuesday, I got back involved with the Beltline project, attending my first Advisory Board meeting of the year. Two years ago, I worked like hell to get on the Board, but then, after moving to Portland, with all of its world-class public transit and bicycle accessibility, seemed like an option, I pretty much dropped off the Board. But now that I'm back, I'm now willing once again to get involved with the Beltline project again and all of its contentious politics.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Weasel Frogs of Wagga Wagga

The inherent illogic in Intelligent Design, as illustrated by godless atheist Richard Dawkins (pardon the triple redundancy - and the modifiers are not meant to be derogatory), is also used to support skepticism in climate change. Both ID and climate-change skepticism look for knowledge gaps in the opposing science, and then claim the existence of those gaps somehow "proves" that their alternative theory is the correct one (without ever having to offer any evidence to support their own theories).

As Dawkins notes, admissions of ignorance and temporary mystification are vital to good science. In "The God Delusion," Dawkins writes,
"The following is hypothetical but entirely typical. A creationist speaking: 'The elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog is irreducibly complex. No part of it would do any good at all until the whole was assembled. Bet you can't think of a way in which the weasel frog's elbow could have evolved by slow gradual degrees.' If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, the creationist draws a default conclusion: 'Right then, the alternative theory, "intelligent design," wins by default.'"
In other words, if theory A fails in some particular, they then assume that theory B must be right. Needless to say, the argument is never applied the other way around.

The creationist's ploy undermines the scientist's natural and necessary rejoicing in (temporary) uncertainty. For purely political reasons, today's scientist might hesitate before saying, " Hmm, interesting point. I wonder how the weasel frog's ancestors did evolve the elbow joint. Might make interesting research for a graduate student." The moment the scientist said something like that - and long before the graduate student began the research - the default conclusion would become a headline in a creationist pamphlet: "Weasel frog could only have been designed by God."

The same tactic is used in arguing against climate change. The skeptics ask, "If the world is getting warmer, why then are temperatures actually falling in Wagga Wagga?" ("Wagga Wagga" here being a surrogate from where ever you like). If the scientist can't immediately answer, or if the complex mechanisms of the whole oceanic-atmospheric circulation system are too confusing for the skeptic, theory B ("Al Gore's a blowhard") is assumed by default.

As Andrew Revkin recently (July 29) noted in the New York Times, when science is testing new ideas, the result is often an intellectual argument among competing research teams. When the work touches on issues that worry the public, affect the economy or polarize politics, the news media and advocates of all stripes dive in. Conflicting findings can make news coverage veer from one extreme to another, resulting in a kind of journalistic whiplash for the public. Lately the phenomenon has been glaringly apparent on the issue of global warming.

How are these for Wagga Waggas? Revkin poses the theoretical questions, just how fast is Greenland shedding ice? Did human-caused warming wipe out the lesser spotted weasel frog? Has warming strengthened hurricanes? Have the oceans stopped warming?

These Wagga Wagga questions endure even as the basic theory of a rising human influence on climate has steadily solidified: accumulating greenhouse gases will warm the world, erode ice sheets, raise seas and have big impacts on biology and human affairs.

Scientists see persistent disputes as the normal stuttering journey toward improved understanding of how the world works. But many fear that the herky-jerky trajectory is distracting the public are creating an impression of uncertainty. The rapid-fire publication of unsettled results in highly visible venues creates the impression that the scientific community has no idea what’s going on. Each new paper seems to negate or repudiate something emphatically asserted in a previous paper. The public picks up on this not as the development of objective scientific understanding but as a proliferation of contradictory opinions.

Recent polls in the United States and Britain show that the public remains substantially divided and confused over what is happening and what to do. Some environmentalists blame energy-dependent industries and the news media for stalemates on climate policy, arguing that they perpetuate a false sense of uncertainty about the basic problem.

The news media does sometimes overplay the uncertainty by balancing opposing views in a story without characterizing the overall level of confidence on either side. In the interests of "journalistic impartiality," they assume that they also have to report an opposing viewpoint whenever new research results are released, but the reporters do not have the ability to distinguish the credentials of the researchers with those of the opposite point of view. So the public is left trying to balance a press release from, say, scientists at NASA with the opinions of a certain writer of science fiction, or former stand-up comic now pundit Dennis Miller, or comic magicians Penn and Teller.

One skeptic argument that I frequently hear states that scientists were predicting the onset of an ice age in the '70s. Now it's too much warming! Why should we believe the scientists this time around?

While it is true that there were some predictions of an "imminent ice age" in the 1970s, a comparison of those warnings and today's reveals a huge difference. Today, you have widespread scientific consensus, supported by national academies and all the major scientific institutions, solidly behind the warning that the temperature is rising, anthropogenic CO2 is the primary cause, and it will worsen unless we reduce emissions.

In the 1970s, there was a book in the popular press, a few articles in popular magazines, and a small amount of scientific speculation based on the recently discovered glacial cycles and a slight cooling trend at that time from air pollution blocking the sunlight. There were no daily headlines. There was no avalanche of scientific articles. There were no United Nations treaties or commissions. No G8 summits on the dangers and possible solutions. No institutional pronouncements. You could find broader "consensus" on a coming alien invasion.

I've always suspected that the creationists and the skeptics were fellow travelers, but it wasn't until I considered their underlying (il)logic that I was able to connect the dots.

Monday, August 18, 2008

There Will Be Oil

I try to keep Water Dissolves Water interesting by interweaving narratives about my life, Zen, current events and science. I attempt to be sincere and open, but also acknowledge the strong possibility that sometimes I may simply be full of shit. And I've also tried to spare the reader from dualistic discussions of the more partisan of politics by reserving that kind of post for the WDW Live blog instead.

But this energy controversy deserves mention here. You've all heard the claims that the current high price of gasoline in America is due to the moratorium on off-shore drilling, and that if Congress would only lift the ban, the prices would soon drop. Even Obama, who initially supported maintaining the moratorium, has finally relented and agreed to allow some limited increase in off-shore drilling as part of a larger program of energy independence.

Well, the facts show that the price of gasoline has nothing to do with off-shore drilling, that increased off-shore drilling would do nothing for lowering the prices, and that the Republicans are using the issue to go on the offensive and blame the high costs on "the liberals," while at the same time diverting attention from their own fault in this crisis.

So here we go: the high, $4 per gallon cost of gasoline is due to four factors, namely,
  1. Increased demand for petroleum from the surging Chinese and Indian economies (good old supply-and-demand economics),
  2. The lower purchasing power of the U.S. dollar,
  3. Speculation on the commodities markets, and
  4. Instability in the Middle East.


Since lack of off-shore drilling is not among the causes, increasing off-shore drilling obviously can't be the solution.

If you listen to the press and the pols, you'd think that no off-shore drilling was allowed (which would probably confuse you when you hear about off-shore rigs threatened by hurricanes). The U.S. Minerals Management Service, part of the Department of the Interior, estimates that the Outer Continental Shelf contains about 86 billion barrels of undiscovered but recoverable oil. That sounds like a lot, and it is, and better yet about 70% of it is in areas where no drilling restrictions exist at all and the oil companies can come and get it. (source: Federal Register, vol. 73, no. 149, p. 45066)

But they're not. Concerns about increased supply lowering the price are preventing the oil companies from drilling at these open areas while they're earning record profits (there's that pesky supply-and-demand thing again). Only about 30% of that 86 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, about 26 billion barrels, is estimated to be in the restricted area. If the oil companies aren't clamoring to get at the 60 billion barrels already available to them, do you really think that they're going to start drilling for another 26 billion barrels in environmentally sensitive areas where drilling will be more difficult and more expensive? Of course not.

So why is everyone making a big fuss? Why are a group of wingnut Republican legislators holding a pajama party in Washington demanding that Congress come back to session and lift the moratorium? Why has John McCain joined the call for Congress to come back and to come back now? Why are the oil companies demanding that the restrictions be lifted?

That's an easy one. By having more land under lease, even if only for "undiscovered and technically recoverable" oil, the corporate balance sheets are improved by putting more assets on the books. Company stock value rises and so, accordingly, does the CEOs' compensation. But they know that have to act now before the Administration changes and while every one's outraged by the gas prices to have any chance at getting these additional leases on their books.

The oil companies are major donors to many Republican congressmen (including "Exxon" McCain) and the congressmen want to keep their campaign donors happy. And finally, since many Americans unfortunately believe that the high oil prices are due to the drilling moratorium, the issue plays to popular opinion while diverting attention to the real economic causes, much of which can be traced back to the failed economic policies of George W. Bush.

Sorry if all of that sounded pedantic or partisan. That's the reason I try to avoid posting this kind of stuff in this blog.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Saturday morning, I finally finished reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (reading in bed on weekend mornings is one of my favorite self indulgences). Near the end of the book, as Dawkins describes his source of inspiration in the absence of a theistic faith, he writes about:
". . . how lucky we are to be alive, given that the vast majority of people who could potentially be thrown up by the combinatorial lottery of DNA will in fact never be born. For those of us lucky enough to be here, I pictured the relative brevity of life by imagining a laser-thin spotlight creeping along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything before or after the spotlight is shrouded in the darkness of the dead past, or the darkness of the unknown future. We are staggeringly lucky to find ourselves in the spotlight. However brief our time in the sun, if we waste a second of it, or complain that it is dull or barren or (like a child) boring, couldn't this be seen as a callous insult to those unborn trillions who will never even be offered life in the first place? As many atheists have said better than me, the knowledge that we have only one life should make it all the more precious."
This is not at all inconsistent with my understanding of Zen. In his aptly named book Appreciate Your Life, Taizan Maezumi Roshi writes, "Please enjoy this wonderful life. Appreciate the world of just this! There is nothing extra. Genuinely appreciate your life as the most precious treasure and take good care of it."

No one can live your life except you. No one can live my life except me. You are responsible. I am responsible. But what is our life? What is our death?

To answer this, Maezumi turns to the transmission of "the treasury of the true dharma eye and subtle mind of nirvana" from Shakyamuni Buddha to his successor, Mahakasyapa, the one who smiled. What is this "treasury of the true dharma eye and subtle mind of nirvana?," Maezumi asks. "All of the Buddhist teachings deal with this most precious treasure," he writes. "It is your life. It is my life."
"We do not see that our life right here, right now, is nirvana. Maybe we think that nirvana is a place where there are no problems, no more delusions. Maybe we think nirvana is something very beautiful, something unattainable. We always think that nirvana is something very different from our own life. But we must really understand that nirvana is right here, right now."
I'm fascinated by the parallels between the very humanistic and atheistic outlook described by Richard Dawkins and the non-theistic teaching of Maezumi Roshi. Zen and Buddhism are not atheistic but rather non-theistic - they don't maintain that there is no God, the teachings are simply not about, and independent of, the existence or non-existence of a God. Dawkins acknowledges this early on in The God Delusion, noting, "there is something to be said for treating (religions such as Buddhism and Confucianism) not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life."

But in a note, he observes "Just as Christianity is sometimes thought to be a nicer, gentler religion than Islam, Buddhism is often cracked up to be the nicest of all. But the doctrine of demotion on the reincarnation ladder because of sins in a past life is pretty unpleasant." He goes on to quote the comedian Julia Sweeney: "I went to Thailand and happened to visit a woman who was taking care of a terribly deformed boy. I said to his caretaker, 'It's so good of you to be taking care of this poor boy.' She said, 'Don't say "poor boy." He must have done something terrible in his past life to be born this way.'"

I think Sweeney (and Dawkins) miss the point. The woman was, in fact, taking care of the poor, unfortunate boy, and was humbly dismissing pity as the motivation for her care. She was motivated by genuine compassion, not a desire for merit, not empathy or pity, not for her own salvation. The fact that she misinterpreted karmic consequences, causing Dawkins to imagine a "doctrine of demotion on the reincarnation ladder," takes nothing away from her genuine compassion.

It is too late to worry about past lives, or even if there are such things, just as it is pointless to plan for future lives. What matters most is this precious life, right here, right now. Whether you think of it as your moment in Dawkins' laser-thin spotlight on the ruler of time or consider it the treasury of the true dharma eye and the subtle mind of nirvana, what is important is to appreciate your life right here, right now, even before finishing this blog post.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Chicken Foot Mountain

So to advance the story line a little, as it were, and to wrap up some loose ends, recall that when Shakyamuni Buddha twirled a flower in front of the assembly, only the old ascetic Mahakasyapa understood. Mahakasyapa smiled, and the Buddha announced, "I have the true Dharma eye treasury, wondrous mind of nirvana, which I bequeath to Mahakasyapa. Spread it through the future, never letting it be cut off." He also entrusted to Mahakasyapa his golden embroidered winter robe. Having thus received transmission of the true Dharma eye treasury, Mahakasyapa became the first Indian patriarch of Zen.

Mahakasyapa's understanding was profound, and there were even those who maintained that Mahakasyapa was actually Buddha's teacher, not the other way around. Upon hearing this, Mahakasyapa humbly bowed before the Buddha, and confirmed that Shakyamuni was the teacher and Mahakasyapa his disciple.

Mahakasyapa practiced and eventually passed away on Kukkutupada (Chicken Foot Mountain) in the Himalaya. There are those who say that he is still waiting in a cave on Chicken Foot Mountain for Maitreya to appear in this world as the next Buddha, at which time Mahakasyapa will present Shakyamuni's robe to the future Maitreya Buddha.

According to legend, seven Buddhas have so far appeared in the world. The seven Buddhas include three Buddhas of the Age of Adornment and four Buddhas of the Age of Wisdom. Shakyamuni was the seventh Buddha, the fourth in the Age of Wisdom, and the appearance in the future of Maitreya will mark the eighth Buddha.

One day, while still in this mortal coil, Mahakasyapa asked the Venerable Ananda, "What single verse gave rise to awakening and all the teachings of the Buddhas?"

Ananda said, "Not performing any evil, respectfully practicing all good, purifying one's own mind, this is the teaching of all Buddhas."

Mahakasyapa agreed. Remember him as the one who smiled.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Real Estate Roundup

Since the last weekend of June, I have had the sum total of exactly one visitor come and look at my house, and I use the word "visitor" instead of "prospective buyer" advisedly since that one person came during an open house and seemed more attracted by the balloons out front than by the house. The only question for me now is how much I want to take off the price of my house - $20,000? $50,000? More?

Given that scenario and the dismal housing market, I have come to the following decision: I'm taking my house off the market. I'm not moving to Portland. At least this year.

Another victim of the Bush Administration?

As much as I want to move, as enthusiastic as I am about Portland, and as excited as I am about the opportunity to transfer, I don't want to give up the equity I've earned in this home, and I don't want to start down the slippery slope of dropping home prices. No reason to buy high and sell low.

My situation is unique - my job here is secure, and the offer to relocate to Portland will still be there this time next year. I may as well take advantage of my advantage and wait it out for a year. The real estate market may very well be better under President Obama. Speaking of which, it's probably better that I vote here in Georgia, a potential swing state, than in solidly Democratic Oregon.

I've got the Red State Blues (hey, that sounds like a country song - I should copyright that line). But at least U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob ruled that the City of Atlanta was right in banning concealed handguns from Hartsfield Airport, even though the NRA wingnuts are still allowed to carry concealed handguns on MARTA and in restaurants that serve alcohol.

But at least I still have a nice Zen Center at which to practice.

At least I still have my options open.

At least I still have my health (cough, cough).

However, I still have the Unsellable Condo. Believe it or not, the contractor is still repairing all of the damage caused in six months by the previous tenants. I stopped by today, and he was very nearly done - just a little touch-up paint, and put back one toilet that had been taken off line in order to re-tile the floor. It's been a month, and still we can't get the stains off of the carpet despite two shampooings and a variety of spot removers and cleansers. Nest step is Stanley Steamer and, if that fails, replacing the carpet. At this rate, I'll be lucky to have a new tenant in by October.

Please don't anyone tell the manager of the Portland office about my decision to postpone the move. He's on vacation this month, Switzerland, and will be disappointed to hear the news. I want to tell him personally when he gets back. I did discuss the situation with corporate management here in Atlanta, and they're completely supportive - in fact, they had their own reservations about me relocating during this sour economy. There are things you do in prosperous times and there are things you do in hard times, and they're not necessarily the same things. After our conversation. we all shared a collective sigh of relief and decided to wait a year and see what happens.

So it looks like I will be occupying Atlanta for about as long as the U.S. will be occupying Iraq, another 18 months or so. To Portland, 2010!

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Russia v. Georgia, August 2008. There are those who say that the world in general and the U.S. in particular isn't paying enough attention because we're distracted by the Beijing Olympics. I can't speak for the world, but my observation is that here in the U.S., people just aren't that interested (as long as it doesn't affect oil prices).

After nearly seven years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorist attacks in New York, London, Madrid, India and elsewhere, and the heartbreaking situations in Darfur and elsewhere in Africa, our compassion and outrage over war are nearly tapped out.

But to the people of the Republic of Georgia, the suffering is real, profound and imminent.

Oh, by the way, here's your president, um, admiring the "Olympic spirit":
Go ahead, Mr. President, you know you want to smack it.
Can't a President get some love?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

I'm Back from Pascagoula

Last weekend, before the thunderstorms swept through and knocked out power, Atlanta-based producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri hosted his third annual So So Def Summerfest 2008. I didn't attend, but events included a celebrity basketball game at Morehouse College with Dupri, Nelly, Soldier Boy, Chris Tucker and several NBA players. A party at the Woodruff Arts Center advertised a guest list that included Dupri, Nelly, Sanaa Lathan, Gabrielle Union, Nia Long and Larenz Tate. A finale party was scheduled Sunday at The Velvet Room on Peachtree Road.

On Friday night, thousands of people, including several celebrities, attended a Summerfest kick-off party at a club on Clairmont Road. Apparently, some guests became angry when they learned they had to pay twice if they wanted entry to the VIP section of the club. They had paid at the door to get in, but once inside they were told they would be charged again if they wanted entry to the VIP section. Some sort of pushing match broke out, and security came over to calm things down.

That's when, as Dupri and Sean "Diddy" Combs (aka Puff Daddy, P Diddy, etc.), Nelly and Usher were performing on stage, someone produced one of those concealed handguns recently legalized in Georgia and shot a security guard in the arm. Fortunately, the injury was minor. No arrests have yet been made and the gun has not been found.

Thousands of people started streaming out of the club. It's fortunate that there weren't more legally concealed handguns in the crowd, as I can't imagine that more shooting would have improved the situation.

If more guns equal more safety, shouldn't we expect the U.S. to have fewer casualties and injuries, since our society is so well-armed? However, the United States leads the developed world in gun deaths. In 2004, 11,344 Americans were murdered with a firearm. During the same year, Australia suffered only 56 gun homicides and England and Wales had only 73.

The truth is more guns on the streets doesn't lead to greater safety. It leads only to more gun violence.

More 10- to 19-year-olds in America die from gunshot wounds than any other cause except car accidents. Every day, gun violence claims the lives of eight young people in this country, one every three hours. In 2005, 3,006 children and teens died from firearms. Of those children and teens:

  • 1,972 were homicide victims
  • 822 committed suicide
  • 212 died in accidental or undetermined circumstances
  • 2,654 were boys
  • 352 were girls
  • 404 were under the age of 15
  • 131 were under the age of 10
  • 69 were under the age of 5
    • Considering 53 police officers died from guns that year, more preschoolers (69) were killed by guns than law enforcement officers. Yet, despite the bloodshed, the issue of gun safety has not become an issue in the 2008 presidential race. Hardly anyone running for office in Georgia mentions guns at all, except to eagerly note that they own them.

      In Georgia, the rate of gun deaths exceeds the national average. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence reported that Georgia gun stores supplied more guns that were later recovered in crimes in other places than any other state. Using federal data, the Brady Center said 2,631 crime guns recovered in other states were traced to Georgia. Just last week, the head of a gun trafficking group that illegally funneled guns bought in Georgia to New Jersey's streets was sentenced to over 12 years in federal prison. The defendant was convicted of paying people with clean criminal histories $300 to buy guns. At least 62 guns from those "straw" purchases were sent to New Jersey, where gun laws are tighter. Police recovered 13 of those firearms at crime scenes, including one where a bystander was killed in a gang-related drive-by shooting.

      A 2002 study on firearm deaths by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that children ages 5 to 14 died at higher rates in states with more guns. The study found that children in the five states with the highest levels of gun ownership — Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia — were 16 times more likely to die from unintentional firearm injury, seven times more likely to die from firearm suicide and three times more likely to die from firearm homicide than children in the five states with the lowest levels of ownership - Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Delaware.

      Since 1979, gun violence has taken the lives of 104,419 children and teens. A black male has a one-in-72 chance of being killed by a firearm before age 30; a while male has a one-in-344 chance.

      While black children are more likely to be victims of firearm homicides, whites are more likely to use a gun to commit suicide. Eight times as many white kids committed suicide by gun as blacks. Research has shown that guns in the home greatly raise the risk of a child dying by suicide. Adolescent suicide is often driven by impulse, such as a romantic rejection or an altercation at school that makes the whole world look foreboding. With 60 percent of suicides involving guns, a pistol within easy reach can turn a teenager's natural impulsivity into immutable tragedy.

      It is a national crisis that a child or teen is killed by guns every three hours somewhere in America. We must support reasonable restrictions on guns to limit the number of illegal guns in our communities and to make certain they don't fall into the wrong hands. Our cities — and our children — cannot wait any longer.

      Wednesday, August 06, 2008

      Guess Who's Back In Pascagoula?

      No, not Barack Obama. It's me, Shokai, back in Pascagoula, Mississippi for the first time in several years.

      I spent much of the summer of 2005 here working on a large project, a project that was cut short quite suddenly by Hurricane Katrina. While many other environmental consultants rushed down to this area in the aftermath of the storm, I found myself under-employed as a result of the impact.

      Not that it was any picnic for me being here. I found it dull, hot and inhospitable, and the firm I was working for ultimately wound up firing me. But work is work, and now I'm back down here, hat in hand, begging the client that had hired me in the past for some more work. Groveling, or as we call it, "marketing."

      It's still hot, it's still boring, and everything looks exactly the same as it did back in 2005. The place was re-built following Katrina, but re-built exactly as it was before - no improvements, no changes. I feel like Steven Wright must have when he said, "I woke up one day and everything in the apartment had been stolen and replaced with an exact replica."

      Wright goes on: "I said to my roommate 'Can you believe this? Everything in the apartment has been stolen and replaced with an exact replica.' He said, 'Do I know you?'"

      Now, there's a koan for you.

      Tuesday, August 05, 2008


      As predicted, the power did come on and off. Sunday night, the power company decided to start working on the outside lines at 9:58 pm, cutting off the last two minutes of Generation Kill, and then decided 10:30 pm to 1:00 am would be a good time to chain-saw the branches off of the fallen tree. The electricity didn't come back on until after 2:00, but that was not a problem, because no one in the neighborhood could sleep during the chain-sawing anyway.

      But, funny thing . . . remember that transformer that got knocked down by the tree and was dangling by its guide wires? Well, the nocturnal chain-saw crew apparently didn't see it because it also got cut down along with the branches, and was left laying out on the road underneath a bunch of sawed-off tree limbs.

      The worst part is that it seems to have cracked or something when it fell, and transformer oil ran out and across the street. As previously noted, transformer oil often contains PCBs, and even transformers marked "No PCBs" can contain up to 50 ppm of the toxic chemicals. You can see the oil-stained pavement on the lower right of the picture.

      The transformer oils left a nice little trail of stained pavement, making it easy to trace its path.

      From the pile of branches, the trail crosses the road, and runs along the gutter toward, but fortunately not yet reaching, a stormwater drain. The stormwater drain discharges to Spring Valley Creek, the small, perennial stream across the street from my house. Spring Valley Creek feeds Tanyard Creek, which flows to Peachtree Creek, which empties into the Chattahoochee.

      If the oil doesn't reach the storm drain soon, then the next rain will surely wash the oil down into the creek. Once in a stream, PCBs and transformer oils tend to stick to the sediments on the bottom, and can persist for many, many years.

      On Monday, I called the power company and reported the spill. The person answering sounded very concerned and appreciative of my notification, and said he would be sending a HAZMAT team out within a few hours. I then went next door and notified my neighbor, who lives at the corner where the transformer fell, and warned her of the release, and told her she was in no danger but that it would be a good idea to avoid any contact with the stained pavement. Having fulfilled my civic responsibility, I then went to the Zen Center for my usual Monday night service.

      When I got back home hours later, the transformer was still on the ground and there was no sign that the HAZMAT team or anyone else had been by.

      Update (8:45 pm): Coming home from work Tuesday night, I saw that the transformer had been picked up some time during the day and a bunch of pine needles were lain where the transformer had fallen. There was some absorbent on the ground (looked like kitty litter) where the oily trail had approached the storm drain, but most of the large patch of stained pavement (pictured at the top of this post) was still on the ground. A token attempt, in my opinion, at cleanup.

      Sunday, August 03, 2008


      This is the thunderstorm time of the year, the time the afternoon heat creates big thermals that come crashing down on the State of Georgia as thunderstorms, occasionally generating tornadoes.

      We had a typical episode late yesterday afternoon/early evening. I was actually working on a post to this blog at the time, a long tirade about shooting deaths and our national fixation with handguns, when the thunder started rumbling and the wind began blowing. Power flickered on and off and I had to postpone working on the post so that I could unplug the computer to protect it from power surges. After the worst of the storm blew over (they rarely last for more than 30 minutes) and the rain had stopped, I went out to pick up a pizza before finishing the blog entry.

      There were branches and leaves all over the road, typical for after a summer thunderstorm, but nothing big had come down. So imagine my surprise when I got back home and found that my power was out. Usually, if the lights go out, it's during the storm, not after the fact. But I made the best of it, lit some candles, enjoyed a few slices of pizza, and waited for the power to come back on.

      I waited quite a while before deciding to go out for a while and wait it out at the friendly, neighborhood tavern, where at least I could at least enjoy the company of strangers, watch the ballgame on tv, and pass the time. I was able to shower before I left, as the water pressure is not dependant on electricity and my water is heated by gas, neither of which were interrupted by the storm. Which made me wonder - why aren't homes equipped with gas-powered back-up generators for situations just like this? It seems an easy enough feat to design a generator that can burn natural gas for its energy, and since the gas still runs when the electricity is out, it would make a good fall-back power source. If any inventors come up with something like this, please consider donating a portion of your profits to Water Dissolves Water.

      Hours later, when I got back home, the lights were still out but I just went straight to bed, where I experienced a series of lucid dreams, imagining that I was waking up to the power coming back on even while I knew that I was still in bed, dreaming.

      In the morning the power was still out, but at least it was light enough in the bedroom that I could read (early morning reading while lounging in bed is one of my favorite vices). I couldn't brew my usual cup of coffee, but I made the best of it, until I heard the familiar cracking sound of a tree trunk splintering, and the rustle of leaves as the tree fell down.

      My house is surrounded by many tall trees and one of my fears is that I will get crushed some day by falling timber. A few years back, a man died in his sleep here in Atlanta when a tree fall on his bedroom, and a couple over in the nearby Virginia Highlands neighborhood died in their car when a tree fell on it. Every time I hear the wind whipping the trees around and see the branches swaying in the breeze, my appreciation of the beauty of nature is tempered by a realization that life is brief and impermanence is swift and sudden.

      Laying in bed this morning, reading my book, and hearing the falling tree, I braced myself for the impact. Nothing. Relieved, I quickly got dressed and went outside to investigate. Looking down the road, I saw that a big tree had fallen in a neighbor's yard, blocking the street.

      I went to take some pictures but realized the batteries in my camera were dead. I hurried to the Ace Hardware next to the nearest Starbucks (killing two birds with one stone as it were) to get some replacement double-As, but as it turned out, there was no need to hurry - the tree was still there when I got back, and is still there now, hours later.

      The tree had actually fallen across the side street, very close to where a tree had fallen a couple of years ago following Hurricane Dennis (an early storm likely forgotten back in the Katrina-Rita dominated summer of 2005), pretty much blocking off both my street and the side street.

      Worse yet, the tree still hadn't completely fallen to the ground, but was precariously held up by a few power lines on a utility pole in its path. The tension on the lines was also pulling on other poles, including the one in front of my house, and it appeared that at any moment, either the tree might finish its crash down to the earth, or more damage to the lines may occur.

      But the worst part of all was that it had knocked a power transformer off of its pole, and the transformer was now dangling in the air by the power lines it had fed. Power transformers can be loaded with toxic PCBs, and even so-called "PCB-free" transformers can still contain up to 50 ppm of PCBs.

      The good news: the tree had bizarrely fallen in two directions in my neighbor's yard, fortuitously missing both their car and their house with both trajectories.

      The bad news: it appears that restoring power is now more than just flipping a circuit breaker somewhere in the system, but will require chain-sawing the fallen tree, and replacing at least one pole and one transformer (if not more). I was resigned to being without power for a long, long time.

      But even as that realization had sunken in, suddenly, unexpectedly, the power came back on, along with cable and Internet access (that's how I'm posting this now). It will likely come back on and off as the power company, the City, and whomever else deals with the tree, the pole and the transformer, but for now, I'm back in the 21st Century.

      The long tirade about handguns will have to continue on another day.

      (No raccoons were hurt in the posting of this blog entry.)