Category Archives: News

Angels of Woolwich

Angels of Woolwich
The story coming out of the public, broad-daylight murder of a British soldier in the Woolwich section of London yesterday includes the actions of three ordinary English women who happened upon the scene: Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who spoke to one of the killers in an effort to calm him and prevent more bloodshed, and a mother and daughter, Amanda and Gemini Donnelly-Martin, who cradled the body of the brutally butchered British soldier and prayed at his side. All of this took place while the police had yet to arrive. In the British press, they are already being called the “angels of Woolwich.”

So, there is a testimony of actions on May 22nd, 2013, on this street in Woolwich. It looks something like this: The two killers were driving in a car. They saw the soldier, who we now know to be Lee James Rigby. (Whether this was a chance encounter or a carefully planned one is yet to be established.) They swerved their car into him, pinning him against a road-sign or other obstacle. Now that he was injured and disabled, the two men got out of the car with their knives and proceeded to hack him to pieces while yelling “God is great.” That was their act of bravery and their statement of devotion to their god and their chosen culture. And they spent the rest of their time making sure that their pictures were taken and their voices recorded taking credit for what they did and why they did it. Continue reading Angels of Woolwich

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Oklahoma Tornado

Woman finds dog buried after tornado in OklahomaThe scenes of apocalyptic devastation after yesterday’s tornado outbreak in Oklahoma are heartbreaking and horrifying. Yet, so many of the victims, when spoken to amid the torn up debris of everything they owned, are themselves being incredibly inspirational, using their voices to thank God for their survival instead of cursing the fate that put their houses in the path of the tornado.

And a video that is no doubt being circulated around the world right this minute is the one below, of one elderly lady in the ripped-up town of Moore who describes taking shelter in her safest room, the bathroom, with her dog on her lap. The tornado hit and everything was blown to pieces. Somehow she survived, though her dog disappeared and she assumes it—or its body—is under the rubble. She is speaking bravely and matter-of-factly—even wryly—about all of this on camera to a TV reporter when that reporter apparently sees something move, and says, “The dog!” (It seems way too pat, of-course, but if this elderly lady is an actor then I’m the president of the United States.)

As she pulls her dog from the debris and he manages to stand up on his four legs, she whispers, “Thank you, God.” Then she tells the reporter and the watching world, “Well, I thought God just answered one prayer, ‘Let me be OK,’ but he answered both of them …” Continue reading Oklahoma Tornado

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Dissembling for Dummies: A Lesson from Prime Minister Erdogan

Dissembling from Prime Minister ErdoganYesterday at the White House there was a press conference by President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey. Most of the focus going into it and coming out of it has been on the various Washington scandals currently erupting, but I don’t have anything unique to say about those. I did happen to watch the press conference, however, and it was a question directed to Prime Minister Erdogan, and more importantly his manner of answering, which caught my attention.

The question was from Juliana Goldman of Bloomberg News. After asking President Obama the scandal-questions of the day, she addressed Prime Minister Erdogan: “And also, Mr. Prime Minister, what is the status on efforts to normalize relations with Israel? And do you still plan to go to Gaza in the coming weeks?” (I’m using the AP transcript.)

A question, then, firstly about normalizing relations with Israel, and then about visiting the Gaza Strip. Erdogan’s complete answer was as follows:

In your question about Gaza, according to my plans, most probably I would be visiting Gaza in June. But it will not be a visit only to Gaza; I will also go to the West Bank.

I place a lot of significance on this visit in terms of peace in the Middle East, and this visit in no way means favoring one or the other. I’m hoping that that visit will contribute to unity in Palestine, first of all. This is something that I focus on very much. And I hope that my visit can contribute to that process. Thank you.

What’s interesting about this? First, although the question was about relations with Israel, in his answer he does not even use the word “Israel.” His statement that his visit to Gaza “in no way means favoring one or the other” might easily be taken—and likely was taken by many listening—to mean that he intends no favoritism of the Palestinians over the Israelis, but is that what he’s actually saying? I think not; he preceded that statement by pointing out that he will also visit the West Bank, i.e. not only the Gaza Strip. Gaza is ruled by Hamas; the West Bank is ruled by the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas. Erdogan hopes to “contribute to unity in Palestine” by visiting both places. He does not intend to show favoritism to Hamas by visiting Gaza only.

By completely ignoring the question about Israel, and not even using the word “Israel,” what importance would it be fair to say that Erdogan actually places on normalizing relations with Israel? Continue reading Dissembling for Dummies: A Lesson from Prime Minister Erdogan

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Kermit Gosnell, Philadelphia mass murderer, gets life in prison

Kermit Gosnell gets life in prisonAbortionist Kermit Gosnell was convicted yesterday of the first degree murder of three infants, and involuntary manslaughter with regard to an adult patient who died in what was once called his “care.” Today, Gosnell gave up his right to appeal, and has been sentenced to life in prison.

It’s a story so horrific, so full of nauseating details, that the natural inclination is to turn one’s head away, and read the lighter news. And one of the reasons he got away with murder for so long was the inclination of so many to turn away, even the authorities with the responsibility for inspecting the clinic/abattoir in which he operated. Of-course there was politics involved in that too. His conviction is not a neat ending, but it may at least be hoped that it will strike terror into the hearts of other “doctors” behaving similarly, and that it will give inspiration and courage to whistle-blowers. There can be no joy in merely seeing this man’s punishment, knowing that he operated like this for so many years in what we like to think of as our civilized, enlightened society. He believed there was nothing wrong with snipping the necks of living babies. After all, the mothers had come to him for abortions, and a living baby would be an unsatisfactory and unprofitable result. Not only was there no one to correct him in this perception, but those who worked with him, far from objecting, simply followed his lead. They didn’t exist in some kind of vacuum in that clinic in Philadelphia. They left each day, went home, watched TV, read the papers, socialized, came back the next day and did it again. These were not the crimes of just one sick doctor, but the concrete results of a sickness in our society. And we are far from seeing the final results of that sickness. Continue reading Kermit Gosnell, Philadelphia mass murderer, gets life in prison

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Freedom Tower Spire Takes its Place in the New York Skyline

Freedom Tower SpireIt’s been a long time coming, but it’s there now, nearly twelve years after the September 11th attacks which brought down the Twin Towers. Watching the spire put into place, it’s a reminder that this is how big things are achieved: metal on metal, on concrete, on bedrock, time after time after time. It is difficult and dangerous work and it is an amazing effort of vision and will and strength on the part of so many people. It’s hard to build big buildings. The people who took the World Trade Center towers down could not have erected them in a thousand years. To destroy these American buildings, they had to use American jetliners, cutting people’s throats with blades to take control of them. That defines where such people stand and what they stand for. If they can, they ought to change their hearts and their minds and look to create and to foster life, instead of destroying and killing in the name of their death cult. Meanwhile, in a clearly tangible answer to their hatred, the skyscraper goes up in place of the one they brought down, all 1776 feet of it, the tallest building in the western hemisphere today. Continue reading Freedom Tower Spire Takes its Place in the New York Skyline

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Suicidal Trends in the U.S.

Suicidal Trends in the United StatesTwo stories emerged simultaneously in the news, seemingly contradictory.

One story is on new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing a big increase in the suicide rate in the United States, in data covering the years 1999 through 2010. Suicide now claims more lives than automobile-related accidents in America; 38,364 suicides in 2010 versus 33,687 from car crashes and the like. Among Americans between the ages of 35 and 64, the suicide rate increased by almost 30%. And the experts say that these numbers are actually lower than the real ones; suicide is considered to be “vastly underreported.” The article to which I linked cites factors including the economic downturn and wider availability in recent years of opioid drugs which can be used to commit suicide, as well as social pressures special to this era.

Then there’s the other story: Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have concluded that most people who are treated for depression in the United States have not actually met the criteria for the condition (which include a “debilitating loss of interest in daily life and a depressed mood lasting at least two weeks”). Nevertheless, most people who are treated for depression—whether they’ve met the criteria or not—are treated with antidepressant medications. Even if you’ve never encountered these medications personally and read the enclosed side-effects, the odds are that you’ve seen the commercials and heard the warnings about how they might cause “suicidal-thoughts,” amongst other lesser horrors, while the images of smiling, happy people gamboling in the sun continue to run on the screen. Continue reading Suicidal Trends in the U.S.

George Jones

George Jones, Now Resting in Peace

George Jones, Rest in Peace
George Jones is reported to have died, at the age of 81, after being hospitalized in Nashville with a high fever and irregular blood pressure.

He had a life that was full—at times far too full, which makes it such a blessing that he lasted this long—yet there’s something unusually sad about the news of his loss for me today, and I’m sure for countless others. We’re commonly told of how so many people are irreplaceable, and no doubt everyone is irreplaceable, but George Jones must then count as being exceptionally irreplaceable. I wasn’t much of a fan of his as a young lad, but grew to deeply love his music in recent years. His ability to wring so many spoonfuls of nuance out of the singing of a single syllable … the peerless way in which he expressed vulnerability, pain, and hopeless love. And, then, the way at other times he could be a supreme hoot. Continue reading George Jones, Now Resting in Peace

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Questions Avoided and Answers Evaded

Boston marathon bombings - avoided questions and evaded answers
I don’t personally watch very much television, and essentially zero television news. Like many others these days, I suppose, I largely read about the news that interests me on the internet. Yesterday was an exception, albeit that the television news broadcasts I was watching came via the internet, consisting of local Boston coverage of the pursuit of the marathon bomber(s). The tone of what I was watching fairly shocked me, the more so as the day went on. I know that political correctness is a very powerful force, but I would have thought that given the gravity and drama of what was going down, it would be superseded by a more fundamental journalistic drive to get at the truth. In this I was naïve.

The syndrome at work was epitomized by an interview I saw take place with some casual friends of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at UMass Dartmouth. They regularly played soccer with him, and, as with seemingly the great majority of his acquaintances, they had only benign things to say about him. The reporter interviewing them (I think it was WBZ but I couldn’t swear) was naturally enough trying to dig up anything that might have indicated that the younger Tsarnaev was capable of setting bombs to kill random innocent people. She was coming up empty in terms of his general demeanor. People seemed to find him likeable, if quiet. So, she asked: “Did he ever talk about politics?” She got a negative response. The interview went on a little bit, and then she asked the same question: “Did he ever talk about politics to you?” The same answer came back: no, he did not seem very concerned about political issues. The interview continued, with more on his general behavior and school-related activities. Then (as I recall it) she asked yet another time: “Did he ever talk about politics?” It got the same answer from his soccer-playing acquaintances as before: no, he did not. Asking the same question three times seemed kind of silly, but the really crowningly-silly thing was the avoidance of asking a fairly similar question that surely was crying out to be asked, given the circumstances. That would have been: “Did he ever talk about religion, about Islam?” Despite the knowledge at this point that he was a Muslim from Chechnya, where an Islamist insurgency has been active for years, and despite the knowledge already being disseminated elsewhere regarding various internet postings by him and his older brother indicating their favor for extreme Islamic ideas, a simple question to his friends about whether he discussed religion with them was seemingly off-limits. I have no idea what their answer would have been—whether he kept that aspect of himself private or not—but surely the question begged to be asked. Asking about “politics” over and over again was, I think, the reporter’s attempt to ask it without actually using the relevant word, as if some kind of crime would be committed by the mere suggestion from her that religious ideas might possibly have played a role in the violent terroristic actions of two young Muslim men. Continue reading Questions Avoided and Answers Evaded

Dylan Taylor Mitchell Anti-Communist Agents

Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Don McLean, Joni Mitchell: Anti-Communist Agents?

Dylan, Taylor, McLean, Mitchell, anti-communist agents
Of all the stories that could potentially be generated from the millions of secret documents recently released by Wikileaks, this one seems to be getting the most attention today. In 1975, in a memo to Washington and the Kissinger-led U.S. State Department, the then-U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Walter Stoessel Jr., suggested that various top musical acts should be entreated to tour in the Soviet Union, apparently with the ultimate goal of weakening the communist system. Names he mentioned included Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Don McLean, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Crosby Stills & Nash, Carly Simon and Carole King. One’s initial reaction has to be that it seems a curious group to be approached to undermine communism in the U.S.S.R., as some would have argued that (at least) one or two on that list were promoting the same thing at home in the U.S.A.. Continue reading Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Don McLean, Joni Mitchell: Anti-Communist Agents?

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Executed Infants

As hardened as we may be to the most grotesque news these days, I’d wager that there are not many people who didn’t pause in special horror at the story of a mugger in Georgia who last Thursday demanded money from a woman pushing a stroller, and, when she didn’t cooperate, went and shot her 13-month old baby boy in the face, killing him. The 17-year old suspect was indicted today, along with an alleged accomplice who is 15 years of age.

I wonder if I’m the only one—though I bet I’m not—who found in the timing of this particular obscene crime a gruesome echo of crimes being detailed in a trial currently taking place in Philadelphia. There, a man named Kermit Gosnell is charged with the murder of a 41-year old woman and seven infants. The trial is not getting a whole lot of publicity. The defendant is not as interesting as, say, Amanda Knox; the killings were not committed with an AR-15 rifle; and the actual events took place some years ago now. Kermit Gosnell is a doctor, who ran an abortion clinic in the city of Philadelphia where, by all accounts, most of the desperate women who came to see him were treated worse than animals, and where late-term babies were routinely induced to premature birth, so that shortly after they saw their first light and took their first breaths their spines could be severed by shears. I guess it was the easiest way of doing business. The clinic was uninspected for about 17 years, enabling the abbatoir-like conditions to flourish. Though, of-course, it is more than just a lack of official inspections that allows something like this to go on, in our great and so-civilized society. Continue reading Executed Infants

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Edward I. Koch, 1924 – 2013

Edward I. KochMy favorite story about former New York City mayor Ed Koch—who passed on the other day at the age of 88—is one he used to tell about himself. He enjoyed telling stories about himself, of-course. This story involves a boating operation called the Circle Line, which ferries tourists around the entire island of Manhattan, up the East River and across the Harlem River and down the Hudson, with a tour guide pointing out the sights. As it chugs up that part of the East River adjacent to 88th Street, the tour guide would naturally point out the graceful old mansion situated there, which happens to be named Gracie Mansion. It is the official residence of whoever is the mayor of New York (although our current monarch, Mr. Bloomberg, chooses to stay in his own fancier digs on 79th Street).

Circle Line ferryAs I recall hizzoner Mayor Koch telling it, he would enjoy going outside of the residence sometimes and looking for the Circle Line ferry approaching; as it passed, he would wave wildly and yell something like, “Here I am! It’s me! Here I am!”

The story is especially funny, I think, because it is so very easy to picture him doing this. Continue reading Edward I. Koch, 1924 – 2013

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The Mini Ice Age Cometh

The mini ice age comethThe mayor of London, England, Boris Johnson, wrote a widely referenced column the other day on the possibility that a “mini ice age” is upon us, due to a diminution in the activity of that yellow thing you see sometimes in the sky, known as the sun. He cited the theories of an astrophysicist named Piers Corbyn. And he cited his own personal experience of the last five winters in his locale. Reading his colorful descriptions of the unusual snowiness these past few years, I was reminded (naturally) of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by the great Welsh writer and poet Dylan Thomas.

Near the beginning of that classic and wonderful work of modern literature, the older narrator is speaking of how it used to snow in Wales, and a small boy interjects with a comment about a recent snowfall he had experienced. The narrator is quick to correct the boy’s idea that there is any valid comparison to be made.

“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

(If you’ve never read the whole thing, you really should treat yourself and pick up a copy someplace.)

What Dylan Thomas is doing is perfectly evoking the magical powers of human memory; in particular, he is illustrating its wondrous power to distort the “truth” by magnifying that which we remember fondly. If you grew up anywhere where it snowed at all, the odds are that you recall the snowstorms of your childhood in some similar manner, as great and overwhelming blizzards, every day a perfectly frozen Christmas card image of a winter wonderland. Winters these days just don’t compare. (Must be something up with the climate.)

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, is deliberately doing the precise opposite, of-course, in his column. He is perceiving the recent winters in England as being much more severe and snowier than those that are traditional. Somewhere there are numbers to be compared and verified, naturally, but that’s not what I’m about here today.

There is another kind of distortion of memory, typical of humans, whereby we attach greater weight to recent perceptions, and discount knowledge of the past. So it is that we might experience a few hot summers and think: “It’s never been this bad —the world must be about to boil over.” Likewise we might imagine there have never been so many hurricanes as there have been in recent years, without checking the actual stats. Some will argue that Boris Johnson is overreacting to a few recent cold winters in the same way. Continue reading The Mini Ice Age Cometh

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The First and the Last in Phillipsburg, New Jersey

The last will be first and first will be lastA substitute teacher was terminated by a vote of the Board of Education in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, this past Monday, apparently for violating the district’s “religion and distribution” policies.

The Phillipsburg Board of Education has refused to release full details on the case, but multiple reports in the media tell the story this way: The teacher, Walter Tutka, had remarked to a student who was last in line when leaving a classroom, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The student asked him where that saying was from, and Tutka told him that it was from the Bible, but he couldn’t recall the exact passage. The student asked him several more times, and finally, during a lunch-break, Tutka pulled out his own copy of the New Testament and found the quote for the student. The student said he didn’t have any Bible of his own, and so Tutka gave him his own copy. It’s not clear how the interaction came to the attention of the powers-that-be, but the student did apparently return that copy of the New Testament to the teacher at a later time.

Based on the outline above, it looks like a pretty good case of zero tolerance for Christianity. The initial remark about the first being last and the last being first seems far more jocular in nature than proselytory, given the context. It happened to stimulate this student’s curiosity. If Walter Tutka had attributed the quote to Bob Dylan, and brought in a copy of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” (a song which does include that line) then there no doubt would have been no problem. The Bible is indeed a book of Jewish and Christian Scripture, but it is also literature, and quotes of that kind are at least as important to be familiar with as great quotes from Shakespeare. They are infused in our culture and themselves inspire more literature, poetry and music. Is the original source to be banned from being viewed or mentioned in schools? Well, I ask the question, but I know that it’s rather like asking whether we should consider maybe pushing the barn door closed after the horse has already run down the road and gotten hit by a truck. Continue reading The First and the Last in Phillipsburg, New Jersey

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Thoughts on Sandy Hook Elementary

I read someone quoted in a news story today, comparing her feelings regarding the Newtown massacre to how she felt following 9/11/2001. And I think many are feeling a lot like that. One may intellectually grasp the fact that horrible things are happening all the time, in the U.S. and all over the world—countless children being tortured, abused, murdered, to say nothing of what is happening to grown men and women—but seeing this kind of inexplicable single event where innocent children are randomly slaughtered, without warning … it rightly turns our stomachs and disturbs our sleep, like the visions of those people jumping from the buildings and the thought of thousands being crushed in the towers’ collapse. The word unspeakable is the one that comes to our lips, because there are no words to speak that comprehend the evil of the event. How can any of these parents be comforted? Ever?

And like that day in 2001, the horror is juxtaposed with the stories of ordinary people acting with earthshaking courage, deciding in the space of mere moments to take the correct and just action, even if meant losing their own lives. The passengers on Flight 93 had only minutes to take in what was occurring that morning, and to decide to ignore all of the deeply-ingrained advice about cooperating with hijackers in order to achieve a peaceful conclusion, and instead choose to attack the hijackers in whatever small hope there was of overcoming them and saving the aircraft, or at least frustrating their plans. In the Sandy Hook Elementary School, we are told that the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, and the school’s psychologist, Mary Sherlach, on hearing the initial gunshots, rushed towards the perpetrator, despite being unarmed. They instantaneously decided that rushing the killer was the best hope of defeating him, even it resulted in their own deaths, which it did. It remains unknown at this juncture why the killer took his own life at the moment that he did, rather than continuing his mass murder, but the resistance he had encountered during his actions had to have played some role. Continue reading Thoughts on Sandy Hook Elementary

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Washed away but holding on

There’s a single vignette from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in a piece by Corey Kilgannon of the NY Times about a 68 year-old musician named Kenny Vance, who lived on Beach 137th Street in the Rockaway section of Queens, New York. He’d gradually built his home into a veritable museum of his decades in music, intersecting with the careers of many others. He’d had no serious problem in previous storms—never even getting water in his basement. Then Sandy came along and pulverized everything in a matter of hours. Kenny Vance (who was traveling at sea when the storm hit) lost prized musical instruments, photographs, and many irreplaceable original recordings and master tapes. In fact, he lost his entire house and everything in it but a few scraps and shreds he’s managed to dig out of the sand.

Reading the story, I think it’s fair to say that he never saw it coming. And why would he? We build up our homes and collect our memories, our souvenirs and our treasured possessions, and they look safe in our cabinets and on our shelves. We don’t do it with the thought that one day they will be turned to ruin or swept out in the surf. In the case of a lot of us, the grim reaper that claims our possessions will be rather less dramatic, but maybe even more depressing: it will be the garbage truck that takes away the accumulations of our lifetime from the curbside where our next-of-kin deposited them. Not a cheerful thought, but at least we don’t expect to be there to see it, as opposed to when you lose it all in a disaster.

The whole thing brought to my mind some verses from a psalm recently encountered in a Bible study. The very first part is quite famous; the succeeding lines are heard less often. It’s Psalm 146, verses 3 and 4:

Put not your trust in princes,
nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.

His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth;
in that very day his thoughts perish.

That last statement is one to pause on because of its surpassing finality and grimness: “in that very day his thoughts perish.” It’s bad enough to think about dying without being reminded that your thoughts will perish too. Every plan and dream, every intention, every cherished belief and affection: gone. It’s merely echoed by the fate of our possessions, which likely had such meaning for us in life, yet are destined for their own destruction. So, the psalmist says, don’t put your trust in a man, “in whom there is no salvation,” but in God, “who made heaven and earth … who keeps faith forever,” and in whom there presumably then is salvation.

Salvation is not the easiest word to define. Different religious orthodoxies have different thoughts on it. But perhaps at least this much could be said about salvation: you know what it is when you need it. Continue reading Washed away but holding on

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Sandy: The political parade of mutual congratulation

In 2005, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush was caught on a microphone saying “Heckuva job, Brownie,” to the then-Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael D. Brown. This quick bit of positive reinforcement for his FEMA head was subsequently (and is to this day) hung around Dubya’s neck and juxtaposed with every iota of human hardship associated with Katrina and New Orleans. How could Bush compliment Brown when so many people were still suffering?

That was then. Consider what we’ve been witnessing since last Tuesday, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in terms of political leaders and bureaucrats praising one another in a non-stop cavalcade of love and affection. You can’t tune into any of these press conferences, by Bloomberg, Cuomo or Christie, without hearing a great litany of how happy the various leaders and governments and agencies are with one another. “Unprecedented cooperation.” “FEMA is doing everything we ask.” “Couldn’t be happier.” “So grateful.” It has all been crowned, of-course, by the outpouring of gratitude and appreciation on Wednesday between Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and President Barack Obama. Continue reading Sandy: The political parade of mutual congratulation

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Post-Sandy: Weather, perception and public policy

ViewThere’s a famous cartoon by Saul Steinberg, called “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” which was a cover for the New Yorker magazine in 1976. It shows 9th and 10th Avenues in Manhattan in detail with cars and people, and then the rest of the world receding in size and significance, with bare rocks designating esoteric places like Texas, Los Angeles and Nebraska, and China, Japan and Russia featured as gray shores beyond a Pacific Ocean which isn’t much bigger than the Hudson River. The concept has been imitated many times for other locales, and it’s amusing because it contains a truth about human nature: That which is going on closest to us seems most important, and we’re generally satisifed to have the vaguest notions about people and places farther away.

I believe that the same kind of distorted lens affects our perception of weather events. The storm that just occurred is so much worse than storms previously recorded in history (even if it’s not). There is a much greater number of storms and much more damaging weather these days in general than there ever has been before (even if there is not). And even the really, really smart people who are in charge of us seem to be susceptible to this “View of the World from New York on Halloween of 2012.” Mayor Mike Bloomberg said the other day that: “What is clear is that the storms we’ve experienced in the last year or so around this country and around the world are much more severe than before.” Governor Andrew Cuomo is quoted as saying: “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents … Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality.” Well, indeed, what’s reality? Is it our immediate and emotional perception in the wake of a particular weather disaster or historical facts and numbers taken from a long period of time? Roger Pielke (professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado) has pulled out some of the latter:

In studying hurricanes, we can make rough comparisons over time by adjusting past losses to account for inflation and the growth of coastal communities. If Sandy causes $20 billion in damage (in 2012 dollars), it would rank as the 17th most damaging hurricane or tropical storm (out of 242) to hit the U.S. since 1900 – a significant event, but not close to the top 10. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 tops the list (according to estimates by the catastrophe-insurance provider ICAT), as it would cause $180 billion in damage if it were to strike today. Hurricane Katrina ranks fourth at $85 billion.

To put things into even starker perspective, consider that from August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall – Carol, Hazel and Diane – that in 2012 each would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy.

While it’s hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane “drought.” The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.

Another and broader point made by Pielke is one I will make in my own way: Since the beginning of time, the weather has been killing us. It’s been blowing us away, drowning us, and parching us. It’s destroyed our houses, wrecked our crops, and even forced us at times in large numbers to migrate. The occurrence of extreme weather events on a periodic basis is one of the most reliable features of the climate across much of planet earth. If such events stopped occurring, then that would be “climate change” indeed. Our tendency—all the more so in the modern age when we feel so relatively invincible—to want to live in places that are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, like right on the edge of huge bodies of water, only increases the potential for damage and loss. Continue reading Post-Sandy: Weather, perception and public policy

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Sandy: aftermath of the tempest

Clearly this storm has been a disaster for many who badly need assistance and prayers. Here at Cinch HQ in NYC we can only be grateful not to have lost power or suffered any other significant damage. Were it not for seeing it on the news, we wouldn’t even know it had been such a damaging storm. Would that everyone could say the same thing.

In terms of New York City at large, it seems the damage to the subway system is the biggest single issue hanging over the recovery effort. Shutting down the system was meant to avoid serious flooding by salt water, but it occurred anyway, and that’s a very big deal which will impact service for quite some time and cost plenty to fix. Continue reading Sandy: aftermath of the tempest

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Sandy: an update from within the tempest

‘Tis well I remember Hurricane Irene from 14 months ago. I remember going out just about when it was predicted to have been at its worst. The rain had stopped and light was breaking through the clouds; it seemed for all the world like a nice day. I thought: “Wow, this must be the eye of the storm.” But no: that was the storm — at least in our neighborhood.

I’m so tempted to say “Deja-vu all over again.” Yet, it’s clear enough from news reports that low-lying areas by the sea are getting inundated, and no one can say this storm isn’t going to be very serious for many people. But as far as dramatic effects in the heart of New York City … well, there have been passing summer thunderstorms that created more of a stir. We’ve had breezes, the occasional howling gust, and some moderate but intermittent rain. The focus in the media right now on a single crane slightly dislodged in midtown seems to sum things up; there’s a distinct lack of news, at least in Manhattan. Continue reading Sandy: an update from within the tempest

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The Tempest Approacheth: Hurricane Sandy looms over U.S. Northeast

They waited at the landing
And they tried to understand
But there is no understanding
For the judgement of God’s hand

So goes one of the final verses of Bob Dylan’s song, “Tempest,” released this past September 11th. It describes the sinking of the Titanic, but makes no mention of any iceberg. There is only the “tempest” cited in the title. It’s an unusually long song, and Hurricane Sandy is predicted to be one unusually long storm. Make of it what you will!

At this hour (10 a.m.) from my vantage point in the center of New York City, things are quite calm and very strange. Breezy, for sure, with some raindrops in the air but no torrents. What is very odd is knowing that, effectively, everyone is at home. You can almost never say that in New York, on any day, at any hour. This strange state of affairs is thanks to the complete shut down of public transportation. It is only the second time that’s ever been done in anticipation of inclement weather, the first time being August of 2011, when it was done for Hurricane Irene. That turned out to be an overreaction. This time, if the meteorologists are half-way correct, it will not be an overreaction.

In New York City, amidst the walls of skyscrapers, I think most of us tend to feel immune to the vagaries of weather. The worst blizzards imaginable can strike, but in a few hours as if by magic the streets are cleared and the sidewalks swept. If you use the subway or your legs to get around, you are barely inconvenienced by such events.

This could be different—indeed it’s already different by virtue of the subway shutdown—but still I think the deepest concern with regard to this storm is for people in other locales, places where they are almost certain to lose power, perhaps for many days. With the power lines underground in Manhattan, I’m not sure what disastrous sequence of events would have to take place to cut off power here.

In any case, I will continue checking in here as whim and circumstance dictate.

Now I’m going to take the dog for a walk.

One more verse from “Tempest” by Bob Dylan:

Smokestack was leaning sideways
Heavy feet began to pound
He walked into the whirlwind
Sky splitting all around

Addendum 11 a.m.: In truth, a quick walk around the neighborhood shows that about 50% of businesses are open, and there are plenty of people out and about, searching for the storm. I guess eventually it will probably find us.

The Cinch Review

Newsflash: It’s illegal to spray paint stuff in the New York City subway system

You would think that even a tourist from Bangladesh would understand that it’s against the law to whip out a can of spray-paint and start coloring things in the NYC subway (despite some people’s nostalgia for how things were in the 70s and 80s) but a journalist living in New York named Mona Eltahawy was arrested for doing so, and persecuted the poor arresting officers with strident demands to know what she was being arrested for. Well, “duh,” as they say. Watch below, if you have the gumption. Her attempt to deface an advertisement with which she did not agree was vigorously opposed by a blogger named Pamela Hall.

There’s so much to say on this subject that it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end.

If the goal of the ads was to cause controversy and provoke debate, they have succeeded to the nth degree.

The ads state:

IN ANY WAR
BETWEEN THE CIVILIZED MAN
AND THE SAVAGE
SUPPORT THE
CIVILIZED MAN

SUPPORT ISRAEL
DEFEAT JIHAD

These ads were designed by Pamela Geller, in response to anti-Israel ads that ran in September of 2011 in the MTA system. Due to legal challenges, Geller’s ads did not run until now (as it happens in the wake of the recent anti-YouTube riots throughout the “Muslim world”).

I strongly support the sentiment behind the ads, but I wouldn’t have written them this way. I think that when the word “savage” is invoked, versus the “civilized man,” the first thought by the average liberal New Yorker would be of Native Americans victimized by white Europeans. Their education, from high school, college and popular culture (right up to James Cameron’s “Avatar”), kicks in very strongly at the concept of “savages.” If there are any savages, they must be noble ones. It is the so-called “civilized man” who is to be suspected, if not loathed outright.

So, if you label anyone as a savage, you have awarded them with an advantage, in terms of public relations.

I simply would have worded the ads this way:

IN ANY WAR
BETWEEN FREEDOM
AND OPPRESSION
SUPPORT FREEDOM

SUPPORT ISRAEL
DEFEAT JIHAD

In the end, that’s what this is about. Still, Pamela Geller has provoked debate about all of these issues, and perhaps some of those who are asleep will be woken up by the ruckus. That would be a very good thing.