Saturday, September 24, 2005

Logging Back In


Power came back about 4:30 PM. I confess I indulged in a shower before re-assembling the computer and logging back in to report I am alive and well, though I need to find a gas station.

Gasoline is the big word for everyone right now. At the 5 PM Newscast, there were two (2) gasoline statons open for business and fueling up cars, at an average wait time of three hours for those in line. KHOU advised that if you were not already in line, they might well be out before you could get there. Houston remains the city which, two days after finishing the 2005 “Get Outta Town” marathon, is now the city of “Stay Where You Are”. Gas stations are expected to be closed until at least Monday or Tuesday throughout Houston, although FEMA (more on them in a moment) has sent rations of gasoline to locations along major roadways.

I feel like the guy in those movies who has a gun pointed at his chest, only to see the shooter turn and fire into the guy next to him. Louisiana got a lot of Rita, and East Texas got a lot more. Rita politely dropped her windspeeds from 175 mph sustained to just about 130 mph when she made shore, and she moved froma dead-on course for Galveston. Since Rita was so big, Houston still got hurricane-force winds and a fair bit of rain, but no real storm surge and a lot less damage than we expected.

I saw an interesting effect from Rita late yesterday. The sky was clear at sunrise, but clouds moved in around noon, and by 4 PM were clearly threatening. Around 7:30 PM, the setting sun turned the cloudscape golden, a stunning sight which seemed like a divine promise of protection. Of course, it was overcome in about 20 minutes by black clouds swiftly moving in, so that could be taken the other way, but it was a fascinating sight, not unlike the green skies I have seen just before a tornado hits.

We kept waiting for monster winds, but the sustained winds were fairly controlled, not much worse than the tree-shakers we get every couple weeks or so. Of course, those storms don’t last for fifteen hours, but even so, the winds didn’t seem too bad, and even the gusts brought down only a few trees and signs in the neighborhood; the building proved to be just the rock we hoped it would be. All the streetlights are still out, and no one has gas,but we’re good. And Centerpoint got the lights back on before nightfall.

Now, I will be annoying some of the Red-Ticket-Only contingent, the ones who maintain that we are morally obliged to vote a straight-ticket, but I have to say that Mayor Bill White, a life-long Democrat even if he did his best to keep that quiet when he ran for Mayor, has done an outstanding job in this crisis, especially in avoiding finger-pointing for things like the gas shortage, and in asking Houstonians to use “common sense” early in the week in deciding whether to evacuate and in cooperating to help stranded motorists and in planning actions with state and federal officials. White, very unlike Nagin, got in touch with state and federal officials early on and made all the necessary approvals and requests to get supplies deployed and responders on the same page. I will writing more on Bill White later this week but for now I have to say that, Democrat or not, he’s earned my respect and my vote. I will give Governor Perry a chance to redeem himself as recovery unfolds, but he was a moron to publicly promise that Houston gas stations would get gas by Friday evening; it never happened and he plain looked like an idiot for promising what we all knew would never happen.

Now about FEMA: FEMA had officials in Houston Thursday, in close cooperation with the Red Cross and Salvation Army, and more importantly, with office space specifically set up by the Mayor. By Friday night, a convoy of eighteen-wheelers was bringing medical and food supplies to the 49 Red Cross shelters in the greater Houston area, ahead of the storm. It is noteworthy as well that in about the same time that it took for New Orleans to get about 200,000 people out of New Orleans, more than three million people evacuated the greater Houston area. Think about that, really.

Well, I gotta get going; Jagan needs dinner and I want to find a Coke machine.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Shutting Down


Storm clouds moving in, wind gusts up to 40 mph now.

Closing down until the storm surge passes.

A Chat With A Witch, about a Really Mean Lady


I was walking around today, trying to think of anything I might have missed in preparing to ride out Hurricane Rita, when a figure in black caught my eye. Looking up, I saw a woman in black riding a broomstick, and peering down with a worried look. I waved at her, and she came down to the ground.

You look lost”, I said to the woman. “Can I help you?”

Maybe”, replied the woman. “I’m a witch, and I’m trying to find a little brat and her dog.”

That sounds familiar.” I remarked.

Yeah, I know, I know”, shrugged the woman. “Gerty Nightfall, Wicked Witch of the West.”

Like in the Wizard of Oz?” I asked.

Kind of, yeah”, agreed Gerty. “That movie didn’t really catch the whole story, you know.”
Really?” I asked

Oh yeah”, assured Gerty. “Like that brat Dorothy. To hear people talk, you’d think she was a sweet innocent little girl, but in reality she’s a racist murderer.”

That sounds harsh.” I said.

Hey, her mom started the ‘tradition’ by dropping a house on my great-aunt. And ever since, it’s been a running game of ‘kill the witch’. I could sure use a Harry Potter on my side, even a Voldemort.”
I guess. So, what are you doing in Houston?” I asked her.

Houston?” repeated Gerty, clearly surprised. “I thought I saw storm clouds, like a tornado coming.”

Umm, no.” I answered. “Those storm clouds are Hurricane Rita.”

Hurricane?” asked Gerty. “So, no houses being picked up and moved to another land?”

More like winds tearing down houses and land being turned into instant lakefronts.” I answered.

Ow. Sounds mean, this Rita.” said Gerty.

She is that.” I said. “Six hundred miles across, winds moving faster than some aircraft can fly, and she can’t make up her mind.”

Indecisive? How do you mean?”

Well, Rita was supposed to be heading for Matagorda, then Brownsville, then Corpus Christi, then Matagorda again, then straight for Galveston, now it’s nudging more towards Beaumont.”

So some of your coast could be OK?”

Not really. The storm is so big, pretty much the whole state will take a hit, it’s just a question of who gets the worst of it.”

I get it.” said Gerty. “So why are you sticking around? Are you that tough, or that stupid?”

I’ve been hearing that”, I replied. “It really comes down to three factors, which people don’t often see unless they have to face the decision themselves.

First, have you seen the traffic jams? By the time my wife and I got off work yesterday, the roads heading North were jammed so tight, that the time to get out of Harris County was in the 12-13 hour range. Also, we couldn’t get gas for the CRV; stations were running out and the ones which still had gas Wednesday had lines dozens of cars deep. We decided driving out was not feasible.”

So that’s what that was.” muttered Gerty. “I thought it was just a bunch of really big snakes, sleeping and stinking in the heat. What about catching a flight?

I can’t ride a broom, Gerty” I said.

Ha ha” said Gerty. “Come on, you’ve got airports.”

Yes, but we can’t get there, the only way to get to any of them is to drive the same roads that are already jammed.” I explained. “And anyway, everything that can fly out has pretty much already left; can’t blame the airlines for not wanting to park a few thirty-million dollar planes out where the wind will rip them up. So that’s not really an option.”

You said there were three reasons” reminded Gerty.

Yes.” I replied. “Leaving town would be stressful and expensive, no matter how we did it-

And staying for the storm is fun?” interrupted Gerty.

No fun, but we have to come back and clean up sooner or later” I replied. “If we had left town, we’d be spending hundreds of dollars we can’t easily spare, to sit in a hotel or shelter somewhere, stressed out while we worry, and then afterwards we have to get back and clean up, and probably do repairs. It just prolongs the stress, increases the cost, and makes more problems. Also, there is a real danger of looting.”

OK, but isn’t your family more important?” asked Gerty.

Absolutely.” I answered. “And that’s where the third reason kicks in. Houston is a huge city, covering about six hundred square miles. About four and a half million people live in Houston and the surrounding areas. Throw in another hundred thousand or so fleeing from Galveston and other coastal counties who are heading North through Houston, and you have a lot of people driving on some very limited roadspace, and with no way to refuel them. It doesn’t matter what time you leave, or which highway you take, you’re going to run out of patience, fuel, and options if you didn’t leave early Wednesday or if you didn’t get lucky. There are a bunch of people who went on the long drive, only to end up having to come back home, only more tired and less prepared than when they left. Next to that, staying home and readying supplies looks very smart.”

I guess”, said Gerty. “Well, good luck with the storm.”

And good luck to you with Dorothy” I said, as Gerty prepared to fly away.

And her little dog, too” she chuckled as she left.

It was only much later that I wondered about the monkeys...

Thursday, September 22, 2005

City In The Crosshairs

[-] [+] [-]

Thursday, September 22, 2005. Houston is fast becoming a ghost town. With the evidence of Katrina’s pain and misery unloaded on the people who stayed in New Orleans, many Houstonians didn’t have to be prodded very hard to evacuate. Of course, the rush to get out of town led to huge lines at gas stations, empty store shelves, and chaos on the major northbound routes. There are over four million people living in the greater Houston area, easily nine times the number of people in the greater New Orleans area. Given the comparison in available roads, notice before the storm hits, and the wind force of the relative storms, Houston is going to have just as hard a time getting everyone out as New Orleans did. And, like New Orleans, there will be many who are unable or unwilling to leave, like my own family. We do not have the finances necessary to take shelter in a North Texas hotel, we do not trust the police or neighborhood to prevent our apartment from being burglarized if we leave town for any length of time, and in any case, the long drive North before the storm, and the return later to deal with the consequences would only add to the stress and fatigue before we got down to the task of cleaning up and repair. So we have stored up provisions, prepared escape plans for worst-case conditions, and readied ourselves for both what we expect to see happen, and for possibilities of every magnitude. My employer took the precaution of closing early for the weekend, so we will have all of Thursday and Friday to get ready for Rita’s landfall. Our apartment is not in a flood plain, the one car we have remaining is a relatively high-clearance SUV, we have several cases of water, a fair amount of dry and canned food, a decent first-aid kit, candles, and a small butane stove. The apartment building itself is a heavy brick building, ugly but sturdy, and we live on the second floor. As long as the power stays on, I will blog updates on the Hurricane. At the moment, Rita is a full-Category 5 Hurricane, the 3rd-strongest storm ever tracked, headed on a course directly for the Galveston Bay and Houston. We expect to start seeing storm effects Friday morning, with landfall expected around 1 AM Saturday morning.

The most likely scenarios for Rita all include heavy rain and high winds; the only question is really how much flooding, how high the wind gusts will be in major metropolitan areas, and how far inland Rita will be able to do catastrophic damage. Galveston, both the city and the county, will be in for a really hard hit, just like Lake Jackson and the rest of the Texas Gulf coast. Buses and other means have been used to move thousands of people already, and the rescue crews and shelters are all in place and have several plans and contingency options ready for whatever comes.

What I’m saying is that there are really three zones of Hurricane impact; the Gulf Coast cities, the Houston metropolitan area, and inland Texas. The areas of greatest danger have had mandatory evacuations begin already, including Seabrook, Galveston, Clear Lake, Dickinson, LaPorte, Corpus Christi, Nassau Bay, Hitchcock, Victoria, Wharton, Pasadena, Baytown, and all the way down the coastline. The Houston metropolitan area is actually three sub-areas - downtown with high-rise buildings and a lot of glass, low-lying areas to the South, and a lot of land which is going to get hit with high winds and flooding to some extent, but which is sixty miles from the coast, so there will be effectively nothing like the storm surge which hit New Orleans. The main concern is the fact that Houston is a very decentralized city, so that people who are trapped in flooded areas or by wind destruction will be difficult to reach. City officials warn that 911 services will seriously degraded during the time the Hurricane is passing through Houston, and the sheer size of the storm (more than 600 miles across at this writing, with sustained 170 mph winds) means that it’s fifteen mph pace of approach will take around twenty hours or so to make its way through the city, so there will be literally a full day of high winds and heavy rainfall. According to KHOU-TV, around a million and a half Houstonians have or are evacuating through this morning, generally from the areas with flood history. TXDOT has begun to reverse inbound lanes on major highways and toll roads to outbound traffic only, to improve the flow of traffic out of town. Additional deliveries of gasoline to stations is planned for today, to provide fuel for the evacuees. Medical evacuations began late Tuesday evening, so that the most critical cases were out of town before Mayor White announced the voluntary evacuation stage.

Houston is also seeing traffic from the South, as coastal areas evacuate through Houston to reach inland destinations. This is another reason for the congestion, as well as the heavy gasoline consumption. Many evacuees from Galveston and the coast were nearly out of gas when they got to Houston, creating intense demand for the limited supplies by both Houstonians and through traffic. In addition, owners and employees of many stations are themselves evacuating, further reducing the supply. At the moment, the supply of gasoline has definitely been the biggest problem so far. Most of us would be happy if that were the only big problem from this storm.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Outrageous - Class Warfare a la Reader’s Digest


The October edition of Reader’s Digest is out and with it, another in a series of outrageous injustices - or so it may seem, if you don’t look at the details or pay much attention to the writer’s hidden motive. The writer of this particular piece, titled “the $54,000 an Hour Executive”, is Michael Crowley, whom Reader’s Digest acknowledges in rather fine print after the article, is also Senior Editor at The New Republic. That is, he sees things with his own perspective and agenda, and while this is valid for a writer, it’s just a touch unfair that Reader’s Digest does not present this fact plainly, at the start. The reader is led to believe that Mr. Crowley speaks from Middle America, and so is misled from the start.

The article Mr. Crowley put out this month is a harangue against CEO pay. Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of overpaid people in the world, and more than once I have looked at this case or that and wondered “What were they thinking?”, about the people who approved such extravagant compensation. But the essence of Crowley’s article is based on a very false premise; that wages and compensation should be controlled, that if someone makes more money than the average person thinks is appropriate, that he should be denied his wealth. That, friends, is nothing but forced redistribution of wealth, the stuff of Lenin and Stalin and Chairman Mao. As un-American as anything we’ve seen since the Nazis thought it would be cool to impose their will on anyone they could control. I am not saying that Michael Crowley is a communist or wishes to overthrow the American tradition of government, but simply that he has done a poor job of thinking his complaint through. He’s done a poor job, but broadcast his ill-considered thoughts on a very significant stage. That must be rebuked.

Sure, some CEOs make a ton of money. But the guys who garner these deals do so through negotiations; no one is forced to make the deal they do, and Mr. Crowley leaves off the success stories, in large part because there are too many CEOs who do their jobs with integrity and modesty; they don’t fit the picture Crowley wants to sell, so he leaves them off, but still pretends he’s showing the matter cleanly.

Consider professional sports, those fortunate few who are paid millions to play games. A basketball, football, or baseball player who is able to drive his name and reputation can make more than a hundred million dollars before he sees his first grey hair. Next to pro sports, the money paid to the average CEO is frankly paltry. Then there are doctors and lawyers, who can make millions of dollars off a single case; why doesn’t Mr. Crowley consider that a conflict of interest? Authors who find an audience can become rich, even though they do not hire employees, produce tangible commodities, or improve the efficiency of any business or industry. Shall we tell Michael Crichton or J.K. Rowling that they are not entitled to the results of their efforts? For that matter, it seems that Mr. Crowley’s annual earnings are several times my own, even though I work just as many hours, just as hard, and with just as much ingenuity and creativity. Perhaps Mr. Crowley should, in keeping with his sense of fairness, share his salary with me? Somehow, I doubt his sense of fairness extends to personal responsibility.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Republicans: By the Polls


Yesterday, I noted the numbers for the Donkeyfied Party, today I look at the Pachyderms.

Again using the numbers from Polling Report I took a gander to see how the Grand Old Party sails in the American eye. Here are the numbers, using the same polls:

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll says that 42% of Americans viewed the Republican Party as “Very Positive” or “Somewhat Positive” in January 1997. That remained at 42% in January 2000, and only climbed to 44% just after the 2000 election. April 2003 saw the Republicans rise slightly to 49%, and in September 2005 the Republicans are down to 37%. Compared to the Democrats, the Republicans in this poll started 5 points lower, pulled ahead in 2003, and now are even with the Democrats.

Then there’s the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll. In October 1997, the Republicans held a 50% “Favorable Rating”, reached 61% Favorable in January 2002, and in July 2005 owned a 46% rating (no newer data). During Bush’s time in office, the Republican Party has generally been above 50% Approval in this poll.

The ABC News/Washington Post Poll has a shorter timeline, starting in December 2000 at 54% Approval (10 points below the Democrats), but rising to 63% in January 2002, and sloping back down to 49% in June 2005, their lowest rating since ABC started tracking. This represents an eight-point gain in that time-frame.

The CBS News/New York Times Poll showed the Republicans at 41% Favorable in June 1999 (10 points behind the Democrats), rising as high as 58% in January 2002 (even with the Democrats), and staying near or above 50% since 2003. Their July 2004 number (last report) sat at 49%. This represents an eight-point gain for the party, and the absence of recent readings is interesting.

And finally, the Pew Research Center showed the Republicans at 52% “Very Favorable” or “Mostly Favorable” in January 1997 (8 points behind the Democrats), and as high as 59% in December 2002, their most recent report (5 points higher than the Democrats). The absence of recent data is interesting, and the thirteen-point gain by the Republicans is in line with a strong increase in self-identified Republican voters.

Note that only the NBC/WSJ Poll has asked about people’s opinion of either Democrats or Republicans in anything like recent weeks.




Monday, September 19, 2005

Democrats: By the Polls

I love Polling Report. If you want to see what’s what on a topic in an opinion poll, you can’t do better than visit Polling Report, who present side-by-side polls to show the consensus without a word of their own preference.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Democrats, and I have to admit, if these guys had been steering the Titanic, they’d have aimed for the iceberg, but anyway. I thought it might be interesting to see what people think of the party that used to bring us men like Truman and John Kennedy, and now has to settle for Howard Dean and Ted Kennedy. Here's what the numbers say:

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll says that 47% of Americans viewed the Democratic Party as “Very Positive” or “Somewhat Positive” in January 1997. That rose to 50% in January 2000, but was down again to 46% just after the 2000 election. April 2003 saw the Democrats drop to 36%, and in September 2005 the Democrats are at 37%.

Then there’s the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll. In October 1997, the Democrats held a 54% “Favorable Rating”, and in July 2005 own a 52% rating (no newer data). But the Democrats, who reached 61% approval in January 2000, have also been as low as 46%, that mark in February 2005. Before the midterm elections the Democrats were generally above 50% in the this poll, after 2002 generally below it.

The ABC News/Washington Post Poll has a shorter timeline, starting in December 2000 at 64% Approval, but dropping down to 51% in June 2005, their lowest rating since ABC started tracking.

The CBS News/New York Times Poll showed the Democrats at 51% Favorable in June 1999, rising as high as 58% in January 2002, and dropping as low as 46% in May 2003. Their July 2005 number sat at 54%.

And finally, the Pew Research Center showed the Democrats at 60% “Very Favorable” or “Mostly Favorable”, as high as 61% in June 1997, falling as low as 52% in August 1997. Their last reading was 54% in December 2002, no data after that.

Note that only the NBC/WSJ Poll has asked about people’s opinion of Democrats since July.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Hidden Secret of Albus Dumbledore


It’s really a mark of how great J.K. Rowling has mastered her craft, that legions of fans are arguing for weeks on end about whether Severus Snape is a loyal but misunderstood servant of Light and Justice, or else a slimy traitor who should not only be killed in the final book if there is justice, but in an especially prolonged and painfull manner. I should say right here that if by this point you are a fan of the “Harry Potter” series, but have not yet finished the “Half-Blood Prince”, this article would be a ‘spoiler’, so you might want to stop here. Also, if you are not a fan of Harry Potter, or if the name Harry Potter rings no bells, this article will hold little value to you.

With that said, readers of HBP (as the 6th book is usually dubbed in shorthand) are appalled to learn about the death of Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster at Hogwarts School and Harry Potter’s mentor. If the events of the book depict matters clearly, it also happens that Severus Snape, a teacher at Hogwarts specifically protected under Dumbledore’s trust, delivered the kiling blow with a forbidden curse. Snape was last seen fleeing the school, Death Eaters and snotty bully Draco Malfoy in tow. As a result, all sorts of debates have begun concerning the character of Snape’s heart and soul, and more to the point, predictions about what is to come in the pronounced finale to the best-selling series. The essential point comes down to a critical question: Was it Snape’s idea that Dumbledore, or was it actually Dumbledore himself? There seems to be strong support for either position, but I have found an early indicator of Dumbledore’s intentions along this line of thought.

First things first, and by that I mean that a lot of good information can be found in the first book, “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone” (American title under Scholastic publisher; all references in this article will be under the American edition), the shorthand for the title is SS. Anyway, the very first words spoken about our man Dumbledore come from Professor Minerva McGonagall, who tells Dumbledore that the only reason Voldemort has any powers that Dumbledore does not, is because Dumbledore is too “noble” (page 11). That significant word is reinforced througout the series, so it strikes me that we should key on it.

Another early reference to Dumbledore shows up when Harry meets Ron Weasley on the train to Hogwarts, and also discovers Chocolate Frogs and Famous Wizards Trading Cards. Harry’s first card is no other than Albus Dumbledore. The card’s detail says Dumbledore is famous for a number of accomplishments and merits, including “the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel.” (page 103). The story brings up this connection later in Harry’s discovery of the significance of Nicolas Flamel, and his search for the hidden stone and its importance to the mystery.

At the end of SS, in wrapping things up, Dumbledore says a number of things which are very important if they are recalled and applied to the context. To Harry’s first question, Albus “sighed very deeply”, and said “I cannot tell you. Not today. Not now.” (page 299). This is important, because it reinforces that there is information we do not receive directly, nor at the time or in the way we wish.

But before that, in the course of discussing the magical stone, Dumbledore says a number of things which need closer attention. In the first place, Albus flatly explains “As for the stone, it has been destroyed.”

Harry immediately realizes that the destruction of the stone will mean the death of Nicolas Flamel and his wife. Dumbledore explains:

“Nicolas and I had a little chat, and agreed it’s all for the best.”

“But that means he and his wife will die, won’t they?”

“They have enough Elixir stored to set their affairs in order and then, yes, they will die.”

(Page 297) It strike me as worth looking at that statement more closely, with a few thoughts.

First, one might wonder why the Flamels are willing to discuss this matter with Albus Dumbledore in the equal footing that they do.

One might note that Dumbledore and Flamel were not merely colleagues in magic, but according to the card, partners in alchemy.

One might consider that Dumbledore’s true age is difficult to know, except that he is very old by all accounts. He has no wife or children, and seems to have little planned for the future.

One might consider that Flamel and Dumbledore discovered how to make the Sorceror’s Stone together, and shared its virtues together. That would explain why Albus spoke with Nicolas; they shared the same fate.

Once the Stone was destroyed, Albus Dumbledore knew he was going to die, years before it happened. In all probability, Snape (who knew a great deal about potions, the Stone, and the events involving them) did as well. Everything after that is details about how it may best be used to accomplish good.