Instinct and the Power-Elite

September 12, 2013


A news item in the NYTimes today quoted Joe Lhota, Republican candidate for mayor of New York:

Mr. Lhota said that Mr. de Blasio’s “knee-jerk response to any new program is to raise taxes,” an approach he said was “instinctively wrong.” Instead, Mr. Lhota said the mayor should look to find efficiencies in the city’s budget.

Ah…you can’t make this stuff up.  A “knee-jerk” response to increase revenue is bad, but cutting the budget is obviously good, especially since he and his friends will not even feel it.  But how does he know this for a fact?  Raising taxes is “instinctively wrong.”  Might we say that Mr. Lhota has a knee-jerk response to tax hikes on the wealthy?  Sure seems like it.  It’s just pure instinct.

Of course, Mr. Lhota’s response to increased taxes for the wealthy may be instinct only among his social circle, so it is probably a learned response, with no instinct involved at all, but it sure seems like a reflex!

The article also includes this:

He mounted a direct attack on Mr. de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign theme, saying that Mr. de Blasio was trying to “separate classes” as a political strategy.

“Calling it a tale of two cities, that level of invective has no place in any campaign, at all,” Mr. Lhota said. “It divides people. What we really need to do is to work together and provide a solution, not separating people and then saying that the ends justify the means.”

I would like to know what level of invective is appropriate in a campaign according to Mr. Lhota?  Tale of two cities seems rather tame to me.   By all means, let’s work together to raise taxes on Mr. Lhota.


NYC Memorials, and Other Matters

September 4, 2013

A beautiful post-summer day in NYC, and I went for a walk during lunch.   Of course, I spent time in the cemetery of Trinity Church, where they’ve taken to putting up small informative signs for tourists, including one in front of the gravestone shown above.  It says Charlotte Temple on it, which is the name of a novel that was wildly popular in late 18th century America, but there is some doubt as to why it’s there.  (Reminds me of a recent article about the pseudo-grave of Nick Beef, next to Lee Harvey Oswald’s final place of rest.)

Image

A NYTimes article from several years ago says that a researcher got the church to lift the slab to see what’s under it, but there is no burial vault, however, that doesn’t mean that no one is buried there.  The little sign says that the inscription may have been carved by a bored stoneworker during construction work on the church.  I like that explanation – the artistically inclined skilled artisan class, and all that.

Further on my walk, I encountered a very odd place for NYC:  the sign in the window says as much – “It’s free.  We know that’s hard to believe in NYC!” The place is a nice modern storefront called Charlotte’s Place, and it has tables, computers, books, and spaces for sitting, talking, meeting, and other sociable activities. It is completely free, and is maintained as a resource for the community, by Trinity Church it seems.  An anonymous grave which might house no one and a free space for anyone, all from Charlotte.

Continuing, I walked past the souvenir shop for the 9/11 Memorial: I have visited the memorial site and walked around, but never been in the store.

In an interview a few years after the destruction of the WTC, Phillip Roth was quoted on the “kitchification” of the event and its victims.  I have commented before on what I feel is a rather ghoulish or morbid preoccupation with this horrible event, so I have not much to say other than that I found the store depressing and faintly nauseating, and, as that phrase I hate goes, “It is what it is…”  Seems appropriate for once.

At least while I was there I noticed this gem of a façade – sorry for the bad pic, but I didn’t have my camera, and only real estate firms had images online – which is at 125 Liberty Street.

Meanwhile, nearby, the slow, laborious work on Calatrava’s Faberge egg of a transit hub continues…  As the article correctly remarks:

It is important to note how the projects within the World Trade Center are unique in the sense that they were, and continue to be, fueled by emotions associated with the 9/11 attacks.


NYC, Storms, and Risk

June 20, 2013

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg released his report on the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  There’s a lot in there:  so much, that it’s hard to get a handle on just what the plan actually is.  Some of it seems quite sensible (new regulations for building in areas that are vulnerable to flooding) and some of it seems like the same old same old (continuous beach nourishment).

The mayor took an aggressive stance on the issue:  in case you didn’t know, the report informs us that tough is a synonym for resilient, and NYC is a synonym for “tough”.  During the press conference, a chorus of “We shall not be moved,” would not have been out of keeping with the tone.

Bloomberg also threw down the gauntlet to all those skeptics, deniers, quibblers, and doubters who ask whether or not climate change had anything to do with Sandy (doesn’t matter – climate change will make future storms worse), and if our fears of climate change and sea level rise are perhaps a bit overwrought.  On that last point, he delivered one of the most remarkable policy statements I’ve heard recently

 “Whether you believe climate change is real or not is beside the point.  The bottom line is: We can’t run the risk.”

Umm… if we don’t think it is ‘real’, then there is zero risk.  Perhaps he means that we cannot run the risk that it is real (by acting as if it is not), but then, we have to discuss that.  He wants to foreclose discussion.

I’m not a fan of Bloomberg, but I am a fan of Paul Krugman, but on climate change, Krugman is the same way, despite his hammering of his opponents (justifiably) for their lax standards of evidence and logic.  Here’s his latest comment in a recent column:

Now, uncertainty by itself isn’t always a reason for inaction. In the case of climate change, for example, uncertainty about the impact of greenhouse gases on global temperatures actually strengthens the case for action, to head off the risk of catastrophe…Delaying action on climate means releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while we debate the issue…

Same sort of logic:

- We are  uncertain about the impact of carbon dioxide on climate, but…
- we must not delay serious action to reduce the discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because…
- it will have a severe impact

The last point contradicts the first.  For an alternative view, I offer excerpts from a lengthy post by Dr. Robert Brown, a professor of physics at Duke University on the use of the label “denier” to tar those who are skeptical about climate change claims:

 …most of the skeptics do not “deny” AGW [anthropogenic global warming], certainly not the scientists or professional weather people (I myself am a physicist) and honestly, most of the non-scientist skeptics have learned better than that. What they challenge is the catastrophic label and the alleged magnitude of the projected warming on a doubling of CO_2. They challenge this on rather solid empirical grounds and with physical arguments and data analysis that is every bit as scientifically valid as that used to support larger estimates, often obtaining numbers that are in better agreement with observation….

…The issue of difficulty is key. Let me tell you in a few short words why I am a skeptic. First of all, if one examines the complete geological record of global temperature variation on planet Earth (as best as we can reconstruct it) not just over the last 200 years but over the last 25 million years, over the last billion years — one learns that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about today’s temperatures! Seriously. Not one human being on the planet would look at that complete record — or even the complete record of temperatures during the Holocene, or the Pliestocene — and stab down their finger at the present and go “Oh no!”. Quite the contrary. It isn’t the warmest. It isn’t close to the warmest. It isn’t the warmest in the last 2 or 3 thousand years. It isn’t warming the fastest. It isn’t doing anything that can be resolved from the natural statistical variation of the data. Indeed, now that Mann’s utterly fallacious hockey stick reconstruction has been re-reconstructed with the LIA and MWP restored, it isn’t even remarkable in the last thousand years!

…Now let us try to analyze the modern era bearing in mind the evidence of an utterly unremarkable present. To begin with, we need a model that predicts the swings of glaciation and interglacials. Lacking this, we cannot predict the temperature that we should have outside for any given baseline concentration of CO_2, nor can we resolve variations in this baseline due to things other than CO_2 from that due to CO_2. We don’t have any such thing. We don’t have anything close to this. We cannot predict, or explain after the fact, the huge (by comparison with the present) secular variations in temperature observed over the last 20,000 years, let alone the last 5 million or 25 million or billion. We do not understand the forces that set the baseline “thermostat” for the Earth before any modulation due to anthropogenic CO_2, and hence we have no idea if those forces are naturally warming or cooling the Earth as a trend that has to be accounted for before assigning the “anthropogenic” component of any warming.

…This is a hard problem. Not settled science, not well understood, not understood. There are theories and models (and as a theorist, I just love to tell stories) but there aren’t any particularly successful theories or models and there is a lot of competition between the stories (none of which agree with or predict the empirical data particularly well, at best agreeing with some gross features but not others). One part of the difficulty is that the Earth is a highly multivariate and chaotic driven/open system with complex nonlinear coupling between all of its many drivers, and with anything but a regular surface. If one tried to actually write “the” partial differential equation for the global climate system, it would be a set of coupled Navier-Stokes equations with unbelievably nasty nonlinear coupling terms — if one can actually include the physics of the water and carbon cycles in the N-S equations at all. It is, quite literally, the most difficult problem in mathematical physics we have ever attempted to solve or understand! Global Climate Models are children’s toys in comparison to the actual underlying complexity, especially when (as noted) the major drivers setting the baseline behavior are not well understood or quantitatively available.

The truth of this is revealed in the lack of skill in the GCMs. They utterly failed to predict the last 13 or 14 years of flat to descending global temperatures, for example, although naturally one can go back and tweak parameters and make them fit it now, after the fact. And every year that passes without significant warming should be rigorously lowering the climate sensitivity…


Pharaonic Folly of the NYNJ Port Authority

December 23, 2012

File:All Gizah Pyramids.jpg

Watching from my office window, I see the PATH terminal at the WTC site finally rising above the ground.  It will be spectacular, but I agree with Michael Kimmelman of the NYTimes who wrote:

we waste unconscionable amounts of public money on architectural follies like the much-delayed World Trade Center PATH station, which is projected, even after ground zero is fully developed, to serve only perhaps 60,000 riders and whose exploding cost is already approaching $4 billion, a scandal still waiting to dawn on New Yorkers.

Meanwhile infrastructural crises that affect millions of people a day drag on, among them our abysmal airports; noisy, erratic subways; lack of high-speed rail; and Penn Station. No other great city in the world would abide a station [Penn Station @ 34th Street] like it.

transit-hub-calatrava-main


Political Oracles

November 4, 2012

Cuomo:

Lo, the oracles of science have spoken!  Andrew Cuomo (D) and Michael Bloomberg (I? R? D?) have announced that climate change is responsible for the destruction in metro NYC…er, will be responsible for similar destruction in the future if we don’t act…er, no, contributed to this destruction…etc.

Some have dubbed this sort of media treatment “Tabloid Climatology.”  Most are not interested in what scientists such as Klaus Jacobs and Radley Horton, both associated with GISS and Columbia University have said: that it is difficult to make any credible case that this hurricane/storm was the effect of human contributions to CO2 in the atmosphere over the last hundred years.

As for these politicos who have suddenly got religion, where have they been during the last twenty or thirty years while some of these same scientists, and many engineers and geographers, have been pressing the point that NYC and the region are vulnerable now and not because of climate change, but because of our inaction, bad policy, poor development decisions, and aversion to spending money on capital assets that voters don’t clamor for? Bloomberg in particular, has done nothing, and now he makes a great show of endorsing the right candidate for president for the wrong reason.  I wonder how he feels about Obama’s tax program??  As Pielke observes on his blog:

Yet, Mayor Bloomberg is also an elected leader. What is he going to do about the fact that his city was less prepared than it should have been for a disaster that was expected and one of a sort will certainly recur, climate change or not?

It is a sad reflection of the state of the media and its treatment of science that this excellent piece by Roger Pielke, Jr. could never see the light of day in the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, but must appear in that Rupert Murdock organ, the WSJ. Here’s the intro:

Hurricane Sandy left in its path some impressive statistics. Its central pressure was the lowest ever recorded for a storm north of North Carolina, breaking a record set by the devastating “Long Island Express” hurricane of 1938. Along the East Coast, Sandy led to more than 50 deaths, left millions without power and caused an estimated $20 billion or more in damage.

But to call Sandy a harbinger of a “new normal,” in which unprecedented weather events cause unprecedented destruction, would be wrong. This historic storm should remind us that planet Earth is a dangerous place, where extreme events are commonplace and disasters are to be expected. In the proper context, Sandy is less an example of how bad things can get than a reminder that they could be much worse.


Discovering Columbus..?

October 15, 2012

I went to discover Columbus, that is, to visit the living room that Tatzu Nishi has constructed around his statue in Columbus Circle, NYC as a public art project.  It’s weird being face to face with the sculpture which I never got a decent look at, since it stands high atop a column in a busy intersection.  Some students in line behind me remarked how “some people” don’t like Columbus, and how “he did really screw things up for a lot of people who were here first.”

Not sure that there is anything to be had from this artistic spectacle other than a very novel view of a public fixture, and some great views of the avenues.  I did recall, however, that when I first came to NYC, and for many years thereafter, Columbus Circle was a hellaciously ugly intersection.  At least it’s getting some positive attention now.


Calatrava White Elephant?

June 27, 2012

I am a civil engineer, so I cannot help but be thrilled at the sight of the Calatrava PATH terminal taking shape (the elliptical foundation in the middle of the photo) beneath my window at World Trade Center site – it will be amazing!  And the memorial park itself is pretty nice too – I visited it for the first time last week.

Of course, the base of the Freedom Tower looks disturbingly like Godzilla’s foot stamping on Bambi, but no matter.  They’ll fancy it up…a bit.

In the end, as I gaze down at the massive construction site, with more people and money moving in and out of it than some entire countries no doubt, I wonder about that PATH building:  let’s forget the money-losing tower for now.  What is it for?  Penn Station handles more than seven times the number of passengers, and this terminal will do nothing to increase capacity.  It will simply look fantastic.  Is it worth $3.5 billion, and counting?  That would buy a lot of nitty-gritty upgrades for the cars and tracks that actually move people around the city.

I have to conclude that it’s a colossal waste of money, what used to be known in architectural circles as a ‘folly’.  All those bridge and train tolls gonna rise…$3.5 billion and counting.  We will pay for the megalomania of the PA NYNJ directors.  From the Wiki article:

A large transit station was not part of the 2003 Memory Foundations master plan for the site by Daniel Libeskind, which called for a smaller station along the lines of the original subterranean station that existed beneath the World Trade Center. Libeskind’s design called for the space to be left open, forming a “Wedge of Light” so that sun rays around the autumnal equinox would hit the World Trade Center footprints each September.

In early 2004, the Port Authority, which owns the land, modified the Libeskind plan to include a world-class transportation station downtown that was intended to rival Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal.

For a little perspective, consider that Grand Central, completed in 1913 for $80 million, $1.9 billion today, has 44 platforms, on two levels, and 67 tracks.  It was built with private money, and marked a tremendous advance in the design of complicated rail terminals, besides being a Beaux Arts monument.  The PATH terminal will have, uh…four tracks?

If I go back to using the PATH, I will go from Hoboken, left and center, to NYC, at the right, in the photos below.


Cranky on Consumerism…

April 29, 2012

crank   (krngk) n.

A device for transmitting rotary motion, consisting of a handle or arm attached at right angles to a shaft.
Informal:   A grouchy person; An eccentric person, especially one who is unduly zealous.

Back to one of my favorite topics for complaint:  It seems that every time I look at the news, especially the business news, everything is about the Internet.  (Surprise!)  I just want to find out whether the UK and Europe are imploding and all I see are articles about startups and IPOs for outfits selling gizmos that help us spend money, waste time, and gain access to more information, most of which is of no use to us, except as a way to help us spend more money and waste more time.  In the NYTimes, one academic jocularly speculated:

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, he went on, you won’t have to shop at all. Your vast piles of shopping data would be instead collected, analyzed and used to tell you exactly what you need: a new motorcycle from Ducati, perhaps, or purple rain boots in the next size for your growing child. Money will be seamlessly taken from your account. A delivery will arrive at your doorstep.

And if we could just figure out how to have machines make all the stuff for us, grow our food, and tend our bodies without having to move, we could just plug in and live virtually!

Don’t get me wrong – I love stuff.  I just spent hours shopping for a new pair of shoes made of Tyvek – looks really cool.  But I wouldn’t be destroyed if all these opportunities were taken away.  Is it my age?  I had a room mate once who thought of nothing but making money and buying. “That’s what man is,” he, a resolutely unphilosophical person told me.  “Man is a consumer.  He buys things.

When I was thirteen, I got a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I recently discarded it, but I kept the A and Z volumes just as a reminder of happy times gone by.  I would start off looking something up, it would lead to something else, and something else again in another volume, and pretty soon hours had gone by while I ‘surfed’ the expanse of human culture, and I was left sitting on the floor surrounded by opened volumes.  Now I do it online.  I rather like doing it online, but I don’t kid myself that my experience is essentially any better.  Just faster, and more rich in media.  Some things I can find now with ease that I would have had to go far out of my way to get then…but that was part of the fun of it!  Something gained, something lost.  This is the way of life, but, not on the business pages.  How long before people start to get jaded?

A minority opinion, but not a solitary one.  The caveman at the left is the logo of Uncivilized Booksa small publisher of comics, that I discovered in Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD.  Yes, an actual store!  This comics artist, Tom Kaczynski, seems to be thinking the same sort of thoughts.  And I love that logo!  That’s me, but I wear a collar and carry a laptop as I face the day’s challenges of scratching a living from the earth.

In one of his comics, Kaczynski talks about Richard Florida, and his books on the rise of The Creative Class…new to me. But at the symposium I attended Friday at the Regional Plan Association in NYC, I felt like I was hearing what he was describing, at least at the morning session.  Bike paths, cultural diversity, cafes, restaurants (for the record:  I like all that stuff) capital chasing all those smart, talented, hip-and-with-it highly educated technology workers…  What must a city do to woo them to come and live in its precincts?  And what about the not-so-smart and not-so-hip or talented?

Mayor Bloomberg gave his “NYC is Great” (and so it is) speech, and remarked that the RPA has been around giving us great plans since 1929!  1929 gave us so many great things – he rattled off a few, including Scotch Tape.  Was it a subtle joke on his part that he omitted The Crash?

Once again, mes pauvres lecteurs, I call your attention to this brilliant piece of social commentary:  Flaubert on the Internet.

Pollack Paranoia

January 31, 2012

Three Days of the Condor (1975) is a conspiracy thriller by Sydney Pollack about a renegade CIA section.  There were a lot of movies then about that sort of thing:  Watergate; JFK’s assassination; Vietnam – any nutty theory seemed to have some traction.  Unlike The Parallax View of 1974 by Pakula, which is darker and takes itself much, much more seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, while I found the Pakula number predictable and pretentious.  I guess I like Redford more than Beatty too.  (I still want to know how they filmed that scene on the Seattle Space Needle at the start of Parallax though!)

Redford plays Joe Turner, a CIA researcher who returns from a lunchtime errand with the office’s sandwiches to find everyone murdered.  Why would  anyone rub out a bunch of nerdy intelligence analysts?  He may be an egghead bookworm, but he’s also Redford, so he can fight and think on his feet like James Bond:  not quite believable.

He forces Cathy (Faye Dunaway) to shelter him, she falls for him, of course, and they sleep together.  The next day, she’s feeling a bit skittish.  He tells her, “You don’t have to help me.”  She replies, “Oh no, you can count on me, the old spy fucker…”  He’s annoyed.  A funny bit; part of what makes this thriller a little quirky.

The film is shot in New York City, and it’s a real treat to see the locations.  It’s NYC in the 70s, the NYC I remember, even when I’m walking around the spic-and-span streets of today near Central Park – The NYC of humungus cars lumbering down potholed streets, garbage on the sidewalk, and grime.  Several of the shots of CIA headquarters in NYC are in the World Trade Center, a deliciously sick irony, given the fate of those structures and the CIA ineptitude that helped bring it on.  Here, the Hoboken train station take on a noir/Casablanca atmosphere as Turner walks away from Cathy, maybe to his death.

Cliff Robertson (sporting a massive, windblown rug) plays Higgins, the CIA guy trying to get Turner:  is he on Joe’s side, or does he put The Company first?  Here he stares at a primitive version of Google Maps trying to locate Joe from a phone call, but Joe was too clever to be tracked.

Joe finds the CIA guy who rubbed out his friends so that a secret rogue CIA plan to invade the Middle East wouldn’t be uncovered.  Turner realizes it was all about oil.  Sounds familiar.  The 1973 oil crisis was a recent memory.

John Houseman is the old CIA hand who craves “the clarity” of yesteryear.  Max von Sydow is  Joubert the hired murderer who has found clarity in “the precision” of his work.  He doesn’t have to worry about which side pays.  He has found peace.  He and Joe have a little man to man outside of the renegade’s house.  Joe seems cool with the fact that Mr. Death (yep, Max has a lot of experience with The Grim Reaper) knocked off his colleagues:  he’s a bit overwhelmed by it all, and asks for a lift to the train station.  This was another of the enjoyable, unpredictable elements in this film.

Joe is not quite through with The Company.  He meets Higgins again, who tries to justify the whole dirty business, although, of course, that renegade went too far.  They have a little debate about democratic accountability with Turner taking the high road, “ask the people what they want,” and Higgins telling him that when they are out of gas, hungry and cold, they will just want the ‘authorities’ to get it done, and not ask why.  He has a point, doesn’t he?

The moral ambiguity of the ending, the unresolved romance, the unknown future of Joe Turner is what makes this movie really fun.  Joe tells Higgins that the New York Times now has the whole story.  He thinks that will protect him:  he doesn’t quite trust Higgins to be gentle with him, despite Higgins’ show of concern for his welfare.  After all, Joubert told him not to trust anyone.  Higgins is aghast – another Pentagon Papers debacle – but as Joe walks away, he calls to him.  How far can you walk?  “How do you know they’ll print it?”  “They’ll print it,” shouts Joe, but he doesn’t seem totally convinced.

Sydney Pollack turns up at the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final work, and a terrible disappointment to me.  He gives the low down to Tom Cruise who cannot fathom the corrupt orgy he’s witnessed.  Pollack tells him that the high and mighty, the secret governing class, they do things you wouldn’t believe, if you only knew.  Yeah, yeah, I read the papers, we know.  It’s a pretty silly denouement.

Oops…what if they don’t print it?


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