Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On Some Replies to the Abortion Blog

I write a blog about language and the abortion issue and to my great surprise the blog explodes with replies. There were many interesting responses and I would like to deal with a few here, rather in the reply section. But, first, I should thank the many positive things you said about this and other blogs on this site. It inspires me to continue.

Some persons -- notably Christian Pro-Lifers -- charged me with exhibiting bias. This is ironic since if I have an actual bias in regard to the abortion issue -- a point of view I bring to any thinking I do on the subject -- it is to oppose abortion. My wife and I dealt with an unexpected pregnancy by having our child. However, I have thought my way to the other side of the issue as the result of valuing other moral considerations over those I adopted as a result of early indoctrination by my religious teachers. One of these is my belief that I do not have the right to impose my personal morality on another person.

It was never my intent to debate the abortion issue but rather to speak to the role of language in this debate. Today I got a reply that leads me to engage in this debate in a small way to illuminate a more fundamental problem:

What reason is there for considering a human foetus not a human life? It is definitely made up of human cells, it is alive (if not aborted), and - as I illustrated earlier, it is uniquely individual. So what else is there?
What else is there? While the foetus may be "alive" in some sense of the term, it is not self-sustaining unless born in one way or another and even then requires constant supervision and nursing to stay alive. So, we have two things to think about here. The first is that the foetus can stay alive only within the womb of a woman for some period of time, which brings me to the second point. In a free society, it is understood that the government cannot interfere with what men do to their own bodies in ways that do not apply equally to women, such as restricting us in regard to what drugs we may consume -- either by prohibiting the use of illegal "recreational drugs" or limiting the use of legal drugs. Yet there are some that believe that the bodies of women who are pregnant are property of the state in that they can be required to carry a foetus to term. I find this differential treatment between men and women intolerable. As a man, I would never take the position that I could require my wife to carry a foetus to full term. I would have the option to divorce her if she didn't do so. Indeed, I exist only because a man -- my father -- did divorce his first wife because she had an abortion (actually three -- he was a bit dim about recognizing the outward signs of pregnancy so it took awhile before he could lay down his ultimatum). There are other reasons to come down in favor of Roe v. Wade of course but this is the main one.

Our Pro-Lifer had more to say, including

Really, to believe that a human foetus is not a living human being, one has to rely entirely on aesthetic judgements, right? If there is another way to come to such a conclusion, please enlighten me. You can leave a comment on one of the posts at my blog at [this site]
I gave "another way" to get to the position of defending Roe v. Wade in my preceding paragraph. What I would like to note now is that we have here the signs of someone who doesn't have a clue as to what would and would not constitute an argument against those who support the Roe v. Wade decision. Never, ever have I heard an "aesthetic" argument in favor of a woman's right to do with her body what she wants to do. What in the world would constitute an aesthetic consideration that would favor having an abortion? Could it be that this poster believes that those who wish to have an abortion do so only because they don't want their bellies to expand making them less attractive (an aesthetic consideration) to their husbands? What we have here is an example of what happens when our educational system fails to train people how to think, and that includes not just our K-12 schools but our universities as well.

The ability to think consists of an ability to (a) frame hypotheses, (b) recognize the difference between empirical and nonempirical hypotheses, and (c) recognize the strengths and weaknesses of hypotheses on empirical and logical grounds. A serious problem with the abortion debate is the inability of many or even most participants, especially on the Pro-Life side, to recognize the difference between relevant and irrelevant arguments (quoting the Bible does not constitute giving an argument of any consequence whatever) and to evaluate the distinction between good and bad relevant arguments. This same problem has infected the debate over creationism and intelligent design, but since I so far have nothing of linguistic interest to contribute to these controversies I shall not blog on them now. But as a citizen I find myself dismayed by the continuing effort of the Right Wing Christian Fundamentalist movement to force their views on the American people. If you are Pro-Life because you, like I, sang the bible school song starting off "Jesus loves me, this I know, For the Bible tells me so" and you have generalized that confidence in the Bible to other issues than whether or not Jesus loves you such as the abortion issue I worry about you. After 9/11, we should all recognize the danger of religious fundamentalism, including Right Wing Christian Fundamentalism..

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Language and the Abortion Controversy

Language plays a very important role in the abortion controversy with the key battle being how the tiny cellular mass inside a pregnant woman is to be described. Pro-Life advocates (who typically are Pro-Death when it comes to the Death Penalty and often when it comes to doctors who perform abortions) want this tiny cellular mass to be called a "living human being." In the state of South Dakota, legislators want to require doctors to refer to this tiny cellular mass this way. I wonder if a legislature somewhere might want to force astrophysicists to cease to refer to "black holes" using that term since it, along with a lot of other terms employing this word "black" ("black sheep" or "blackball" or "black cloud" (that has a silver lining), etc.) evoke negative associations that attach to Black Americans. Why not?

Years ago, I read a book by a doctor who opposed abortion that took the position that if one could get people to use the term "baby" instead of "foetus" for the tiny cellular mass I earlier mentioned, their battle would be largely won. Of course, calling this tiny cellular mass a "living human being" would surely be believed to have an even greater effect. But, if you asked people in an abortion-neutral way to characterize some of the properties of a living human being they would quickly come up with properties that were inconsistent with calling this tiny cellular mass "a living human being" or even a "baby." It ain't gonna work, baby.

Implicit in the linguistic effort to force upon doctors the language "living human being" or even a less outrageous term like "baby" is a belief in the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, according to which language determines thought. There is no question that what something is called can influence thought (how could it not?) but it is a huge, easily falsifiable step to move to the strong form of this hypothesis that what something is called will determine thought about this thing.

It is quite clear that thinking goes on in tiny humans (i. e., those former small cellular masses that are not inside women that we raise to be grown men and women) well before they begin to acquire language (i.e., begin to associate words with things and comprehend phrases and sentences) and perforce this thought cannot be determined by language. In fact, I have long believed we do not remember much of our first few years because we have no real language though lots of learning is going on. Moreover there are hosts of concepts we have for which we have no words or as an old friend and colleague (at M.I.T. as a graduate student and at Illinois and Ohio State as faculty colleagues) Arnold Zwicky once termed them "fixed expressions." Notice that there is no single term that uniquely refers to fish, pork, chicken, and beef (i. e., there is no fixed expression) but typically these are the things many of us think of as what to serve as the main course of a dinner. We must then have concept of them. Vegetarions certainly do since they class them together as things not to eat. We wouldn't want to say that "edible flesh" is our language for them for there have been and may still be humans who have seen human flesh as quite edible. The same is true of what we could call "leafy greens." They occur in a row in grocery stores. Modern stores sometimes jumble things up a bit but normally romaine lettuce, Boston or bibb lettuce, red and green leafy lettuce, radicchio, fresh spinach, etc. are organized together and that argues for the existence of a concept in the heads of grocers for which there is no fixed expression.

Perhaps the most decisive refutation of the strong form of the S-W Hypothesis comes in the area of perception where it is clear that we distinguish vastly more colors than we have words for and that though different languages have more or fewer basic color terms and the terms they have often slice up the spectrum differently we perceive color in much the same way. There is a language which I have forgotten the name of that has a single term for the talons of a hawk, the claws of a lion, and human finger nails but before you read this, assuming you are biologically untrained (like me) it would never have occurred to you spontaneously to organize them together cognitively. But the speakers of my forgotten language clearly organized them together. Just for fun I Googled "word for talons, claws, and finger nails" and discovered that hooves are part of the same class. I can easily accept talons, claws, and nails as a concept even though I have no fixed expression for them. Now that I have learned that hooves count too, I can revise my concept but it will have no linguistic consequences." (I don't plan to revise it however.) Google "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" and you will find discussions and references supporting the thesis that the strong form of this hypothesis is false.

The Diocese of Fort Worth seems either to believe the strong form of the S-W Hypothesis or some very strong version of the weak form (if that makes any sense at all, which I doubt). The web site cited argues that simple passage of the Civil Rights Law of 1964 was sufficient to change people's attitude toward persons of other races with respect to such notions as seeing one's daughter having a person of another race as a college room mate or whether persons of different races should be able to rent rooms in the same building or stay in the same hotel. (I think the bombing of Black churches (sometimes with children inside) and watching Bull Connor's thugs whacking heads on TV might have had a greater effect.) The Diocese claims in connection with conservative columnist George Will's view that overturning Roe v. Wade would not change people's morality in regard to abortion, saying

It always surprises me when sophisticated political commentators appear to be ignorant of the relationship of morals, morés, and laws.
This incredibly naive religious person seems not to have understood how unsuccessful prohibition was and prohibition was not a mere law -- it was put into being by the 18th Amendment to our U.S. Constitution. Nor does this person seem to know that minors everywhere in the country smoke and drink alcohol even though it is illegal. Our morés in connection to smoking and drinking are unaffected by laws it seems.

In my opinion, overturning Roe v. Wade will cause a vastly greater disruption of American society than did making it a part of American Law. Calling a foetus a "baby" or "living human being" is not going to cause persons determined to abort their foetuses to cease having abortions because language does not determine thought.

I don't pretend to know what exactly will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned but I can assure you it will not be pretty. Women will die because of botched abortions , just as they did before Roe v. Wade. Middle class and wealthier women will get their abortions even if they have to travel outside the country to do them. And they will be pissed off and start voting for Democrats. It will be the poor who suffer either by getting dangerous abortions or having to raise kids they don't want. As I said, I don't know what will happen but I suspect that there will be an underground market for miscarriage pills. That way the Christian Mullahs will be happy and those who want abortions will be happy.

Perhaps I am naive, but IMO the mainstream of the Republican Party and even George Bush do not want Roe v. Wade overturned because they know that they will begin to lose elections as a result. IMO, Judge Roberts was a stealth judge, conservative to be sure but, unlike Chief Justice Rehnquist whom he will replace, he is unlikely to vote to overthrow Roe v. Wade every time it comes up. And as Chief Justice he may work to make sure that that Roe v. Wade isn't overturned (though he might want to see some limitations on it). The Republican Party is scamming the Religious Right (who richly deserve such treatment). They benefit from worked up Christians. They will not benefit if the middle class gets worked up because they have to fly out of the country to get an abortion.

I have no idea what I think about abortion. I don't feel good about it. I feel very ungood about partial birth abortions -- the name scares hell out of me. I also feel ungood about telling women that they must carry foetuses to term whether they want to or not. This is a moral controversy that will never go away since both positions are quite reasonable.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

George Bush and Mrs. Malaprop

It is difficult to listen to George Bush speak and not think of Mrs. Malaprop, a very memorable character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, who had the habit of substituting contextually inappropriate words that often bear a certain (usually phonetic) similarity to an appropriate one. Another word that springs immediately to consciousness when thinking of characters in novels and George Bush is "falstaffian," which originated from the name, Sir John Falstaff, who was a character in Henry IV, Parts I and II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. This character is famous for saying, "Discretion is the better part of valor" (because it saves ones life). President Bush definitely took heed of Falstaff's advice when he joined the National Guard during the Vietnam War. Let's focus, however, on possible accounts of President Bush's propensity to use contextually inappropriate words. I can think of four. Bush is a Nitwit; Bush is an Ignoramus; Bush is a Sociopath; and Bush may have some sort of speech disorder, perhaps a mild case of anomia.

George Bush has come up with some fairly amazing malapropisms, some of which are presented at the web site, Fun-With-Words, which provides examples from others as well.

(1) "I am mindful not only of preserving executive powers for myself, but for predecessors as well."
(2) "Natural gas is hemispheric... because it is a product that we can find in our neighborhoods."
(3) "The law I sign today directs new funds... to the task of collecting vital intelligence... on weapons of mass production."
(4) "Oftentimes, we live in a processed world, you know, people focus on the process and not results."

The question arises as to why George Bush makes so many such mistakes. One hypothesis is that he is a nitwit who is controlled by right wing zealots who do their best to protect him from himself by keeping him as far away from microphones as possible.

One might argue that this is hard to square with his Yale bachelor's degree and his MBA from Harvard. These are prestigious schools. The fact is, however, that a school like Yale has historically been a lot harder to get into than to get out of. But, if Yale is hard to get into, how did George Bush get in? It is clear that he got into Yale as a legacy admittee. According to the New Yorker magazine (I am quoting from a secondary source) Bush's verbal and math SAT scores were 180 points below the median for Yale, which suggests he may not have gotten in on his merits. But, of course, Ivy League schools are notorious for accepting legacy applicants because this encourages rich alums to give money to grease the admission wheels. Bush admitted he was a legacy entrant when he once replied to a question, saying, "I thought you were referring to my legacy," Bush said. "In my case, I had to knock on a lot of doors to follow the old man."

Once in, Bush had it made for Ivy league schools are also notoriously easy to get out of. In the 90's, the graduation rate at Yale was in the mid-90's. Maybe they have gotten lax, but I doubt it. So, it is reasonable to assume that President Bush not only eased into Yale, but he eased out as well. He was certainly not a very good student, saying himself in a Yale commencement ceremony, "To the C students I say, you, too, can be president of the United States."

It is alleged that George Bush was also a legacy admittee to the Harvard Business School as well, my source being the the article referred to that itself makes reference to the New Yorker. Certainly, someone who was not just a C student at Yale but also was in the 21st percentile of his class and who had never worked in business would not normally be admitted to the Harvard Business School. I have no data on how hard it is to graduate from the HBS.

So, the Nitwit Thesis has some legs as an account of Bush's propensity to misspeak. However, getting bad grades and getting into major private universities (dare I mention the National Guard as well?) because of who is father is, is not proof that President Bush is stupid -- that Karl Rove, as is believed by some, is Bush's Brain. Many perfectly intelligent people have skated through academia with bad grades but performed excellently in the post-graduate world.

There is a closely related thesis that might explain Bush's malapropisms and this is that he is simply ignorant -- this his education at Yale and Harvard fell on deaf ears. There is a good reason Ms. Condaleza Rice joined him as he tried to prepare to be President: he knew little or nothing about the world. And one characteristic of an ignorant person is that he or she will butcher the language in the process of trying to express himself or herself on matters of some complexity. I am myself reduced to false starts, monosyllables, and speaking with my hands when trying to communicate with carpenters, for instance. In my book on The Language of Politics (now going for the alarming price of $230 -- don't buy it at that price!!!) I discussed some problems President Reagan had with the language when speaking extemporaneously. In his case, I suspected he routinely did not understand the policies of his administration. Since I don't actually know what Bush did or didn't know at any given time, I won't pursue this Bush is an Ignoramus hypothesis attractive though it may be to some.

There is one particularly scary theory of the origin of Bush's malapropisms, and this is that Bush is a sociopath who is verbally facile when speaking of violence and punishment but falls apart when he comes to domestic policies. This Sociopath Thesis is due to Mark Crispin Miller in his book, The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder. One can find a discussion of Miller's thesis in a Toronto Star story by Murray Whyte. This is an amazing thesis but Miller is not alone in holding it. Now, I can believe that most Right Wing zealots are sociopaths to a degree. How else can one explain their utter lack of empathy with those who exist in poverty and suffer from the psychologically damaging and economically limiting effects of racial and ethnic and other forms of prejudice? But the claim that Bush is a sociopath wants some proving. Since Miller's thesis is predicated on a contrast in fluency when talking about violence and when talking about such things as domestic policy, all it would take to knock down the argument is some examples of Bush waxing malapropistically when discussing war, violence, punishment, and the like. In fact, example (3) above would seem to be a case. But the principle underlying Miller's thesis is totally nutty, namely that if a person P is reduced to malaprops and other forms of gibberish when discussing topics of Type T1 but is fluent when discussing topics of Type T2, then there will be a psychological disorder that accounts for the fluency in discussing topics of Type T2.

I have long observed a person who was employed by a radio station in a city I once lived in whose verbal skills were even worse than Bush's. When he talked about sports, especially his favorite sports, he was typically reasonably fluent. But when the show drifted to topics within the sociology of sports verbal errors came flying out of his mouth at an alarming rate. Over time, he improved. He now has a national gig where his focus is exclusively on football and he does reasonably well. There are momentary problems but he is a competent and popular analyst. Now, is this person stupid? I am inclined to think that he isn't because he has a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of American football -- and believe me when I say that that knowledge is not easily acquired. He has a college degree as well but, as we all know, that means nothing but that the person is persistent. Suppose, then, that we move on to a hypothesis along the lines of Miller's Sociopath Thesis for Bush for this sports analyst. The problem is that there is no psychological disorder that can be associated with great verbal facility when talking football, but a lot of verbal blundering when talking about such things as the sociology of sports. This presents a bit of a problem with Miller's thesis since what is good for the goose (a psychological account of Bush's differential verbal skills) is good for the gander (a psychological account of our sport's personality's differential verbal skills).

There is another possibility that would cover both Bush and the sports analyst and this is that they suffer from some sort of verbal disorder that leads them to be exhibit a certain amount of anomia especially in contexts in which their knowledge is limited to some degree or the person is under stress (i. e., speaking to thousands or even millions of people). I have absolutely no evidence for this but it is the hypothesis that scares me the least. I would much rather believe that Bush has mild anomia than that he is stupid, ignorant, or a sociopath. I am not an expert on this but if any can direct me to an expert's discussion of this possibility I would appreciate it.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Rose By Any Other Name Is Just As Thorny

In my morning paper, I read that refugees from the storm don't much like the word "refugees" as the story linked to the title of this blog suggests. The problem is that the word is taken by at least some of these Katrina victims as having a negative implication. Are they being oversensitive? In my experience, many if not most White people will say they are. All you have to do to see that this might be so is consult the sports message boards on the issue of whether our universities should use Indian names and logos as accouterments for their sports teams. White people in my experience feel qualified to say what is and isn't insulting to minorities in this country.

Interestingly, I also found this morning a BBC News item bearing on this issue.

In every age, schoolchildren have an armoury of words most calculated to hurt and humiliate each other.

The words change from generation to generation, but one thing usually stays the same: adults shudder with shame at the words they used as children.

Learning difficulties, cerebral palsy, Romanies: all terms now used respectfully where once euphemisms were abuse.

And now, it seems, playgrounds up and down the country are resounding with the latest taunt: Refugee.
So, it seems that some of our British brethren see the word the same way.

One thing is for sure, the word "refugee" has no good connotations. I have never heard anyone say anything like I yearn to be a refugee. In the story linked through the Title of this blog, we find

For some, the word "refugee" is loaded with racial undertones, conveys too sorry a fate for the victims, or simply doesn't, in its dictionary definition, apply. For others, there's just no better way to describe the horrific condition of the hurricane victims.
There would be an excellent reason for seeing "refugee" is racial terms in the New Orleans circumstance: one rarely saw a White face amongst the persons evacuated to the Superdome and Convention Center. Some 67% of the New Orleans citizenry were Black and many if not most were poor. I suspect that New Orleans was as bad as any city in the country in this respect and this is ironic in a way for the fame of this city rests more on on the musical contributions of African-Americans in the form of jazz than any other single thing, with the free flowing booze being second. To gourmands, its food is a reason to visit. .

I am not sure how these Americans who have been put out of their homes by Katrina should be referred to but I am quite sure that it shouldn't be up to me or any other White person. It is clear that "refugees" is a very bad choice on either side of the Atlantic. I would suggest that they not be referred to as "homeless." That would be a step in the wrong direction. "Displaced persons" has some left over negative connotations from WW II to some of us older people. There may not be a good term, primarily because their circumstance is so bad.

President Bush is cited in as saying

"The people we're talking about are not refugees," the president said, according to the Associated Press. "They are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens."
I am pleased to read of this. Actually, to be honest, I am a little shocked.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Incomprehensible Language

The US culture has long been fond of words. We have "word for the day" calendars. And on-line dictionaries offer up words for the day. At Dictionary.com the word for today is cavil. The word for the day at Merriam-Webster is riposte. The word for the day at the New York Times is seclusion.

In addition to this fascination with words for the day, many of us also want to increasing our "word power." One web site titled "How To Increase Your Word Power" offers us the Indo-European roots for words. Clicking on the"roots" link and then on annu- , enni- yields (after some editing by me):

annu- enni-
Mr. Johnson compiles the annals of the Historical Society.
The professor has read all the annals of early American history.
Here is a picture of Tom in his high-school annual.
Beans and corn are annuals; you have to plant a new crop every year.
I’m tired of your perennial nagging!
These flowers are perennials; you don’t have to plant new seeds every year.
This is the centennial anniversary of the founding of our town.
The centennial of the end of the Civil War occurred in 1965.
How much is the annuity from this life insurance?

I suppose that learning the roots of words can help with understanding them. As the national spelling bee broadcast by ESPN each year illustrates, the kids are always asking for roots of words, which seems to help them with spelling. However, I think that it would be much easier to learn English words by learning English words rather than by learning Greek or Latin words first.

Many years ago, there was a competition within the Humanities college for "seed" grants of, I think, $1,000 or so to help people put together credible grant proposals, primarily for the National Endowment for the Humanities (I think). I got a call from the Dean who asked me whether a proposal by some Classics professor for a seed grant to develop materials to assist the teaching of Latin to inner city children as a means to increase their ability to read and write Standard English made any sense. I told the Dean that that the proposal was silly, which is what he thought as well. If you want inner city or other kids (e.g., kids speaking Appalachian English) how to read and write Standard English then teach them how to read and write Standard English directly.

The silly grant proposal is a species of the approach to increasing word power of learning Indo-European roots. It just doesn't go back as far in time for the roots.

This is a long-winded opening to what I really want to talk about and that is simply knowing the meanings of English words may not help you much in understanding what you want to read (or listen to). I recently was on an oral doctoral thesis defense in astrophysics at Ohio State (as the dissertation cop -- i.e., the outside observer). I am pleased to say that I understood almost every word in the dissertation. Here is one of the easiest examples:

In practice, almost all reverberation mapping data has been insufficient to constrain the transfer function, and reverberation analysis has instead relied on cross-correlation techniques.
I understand every single word in that sentence but I don't have a clue what the sentence means. I think I understand The reverberation of the sounds in the auditorium led to a distracting echo. So, I have "reverberation" down (I think). I also know what "transfer" and "function" mean but I can't tell you what the formula for this function is. Ergo, I don't understand what the sentence cited means. This is the crux of the matter.

Learning new words is both a linguistic and a cognitive exercise. It is linguistic in the sense that we are learning to pair sounds with meanings but it is cognitive in that we must understand the underlying theory wherein the words derive their meanings. For words like cavil or riposte or seclusion, we already know the theory presupposed by these things. We might call this "The Theory of Ordinary Things." The problem in coping with sentences such as the astrophysics example cited, is that one must actually learn the subset of astrophysical theory within which this language derives its meaning. And this means, among other things, that one must understand the mathematics employed that expresses the various relationships that exist among the various phenomena this theory is about and that would include understanding the "transfer function."

Years ago, I had a student that was struggling with a syntactic theory course I was teaching. He came in for help and I asked him to show me a passage in the text that he didn't understand. He pointed to a paragraph on a page on which there was some prose and several formulae (yes, Virgina, there is mathematics in linguistics). I pointed to the formula above that paragraph and asked if he understood that. He said he didn't and that he always depended on the prose surrounding any formula he didn't understand to provide him with whatever understanding of the text he would need. I pointed out that if we could teach what students needed to understand without using formulae we would but we can't. He asked me to interpret the formula for him and I did. His performance in the class improved.

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Friday, September 02, 2005

Extravagant Language

I am prone to overreact to events both positively and negatively but normally calm down fairly quickly. This morning, the extravagant phrase "second rate, third world nation" keeps running through my mind as I think about the situation in New Orleans, the idea being that our leaders have been acting with the competence of leaders of second rate third world nations. This consists of three main properties.

(1) Leaders of second rate third world nations do not heed the warnings of scientists that continuing a course of action could easily result in a catastrophe.
(2) Leaders of second rate third world nations do not make preparations for catastrophes.
(3) Leaders of second rate third world nations do not respond promptly and effectively to catastrophes.
Let me now defend these extravagant claims.

A year or so ago, I watched a television program, possibly on PBS, describing the conditions that would arise in New Orleans should a hurricane cause the flooding of the city. I believe the suggested cause was a tidal wave overwhelming the levees protecting the city from the Gulf resulting from a hurricane. As I recall this scenario, the pumps that pump water out of New Orleans into Lake Pontrachain and the Mississippi River would be shorted out and since water cannot drain out of New Orleans in the way that it did in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi and nearly every other city in the world after these cities were overwhelmed by a flood wall. The result would be a city that could not be saved from the destructive effects of standing water -- significant numbers of deaths, persons living in intollerable conditions, disease, serious damage to any building built of materials vulnerable to water.

American governments rarely heed the warnings of scientists until the dire predictions occur. This failure concerns both not changing things so as to avoid the problems predicted to occur and the failure to prepare for a problem should it occur. Of course, the second consequence is a virtual entailment of the first. If the government does not heed the warning and change national behavior to avoid the problem predicted they are very unlikely to make preparations should the problem occur.

When New Orleans was built it was built above sea level. The people who settled there weren't stupid enough build their businesses and homes in a soup bowl. However, they didn't understand the biochemistry of bogs and fens sufficiently to understand that if you pump water out of bogs and fens (the first occurring in lakes and the latter in moving waters) and then build on the resulting ground, your buildings and homes will gradually settle deeper and deeper as the eminently biodegradable organic material constituting bogs and fens degrades. The result will be a city in a soup bowl.

Naturally people didn't stop building as the city settled. A cousin of mine and her family owned a house in New Orleans that suffered a substantial resettling due to some project (probably a Corps of Engineers project given the level of incompetence shown)that caused a decrease in the level of ground water below their home. Their home, being heavy, settled. Their concrete steps, not being all that heavy, stayed put. So, new steps were built. This is in microcosm how New Orleans has acted in all of the affected areas.

Right now, the Mayor wants the entire city evacuated. This is an amazing prospect: an American city has to be abandoned because people can no longer live there. Of course, all of the politicians say that New Orleans will be rebuilt and be bigger and better and all that good stuff. But is this the right course of action?"

My ill-considered proposal is that, instead, we sink a fifty foot deep solid wall of concrete around the city to protect it from seepage of water out of or into the ground water under New Orleans. That was done at the stadium the Ohio State football team plays in to protect the field from the waters of the Olentangy river that runs past it. So, I know it can be done. Next, we build a thirty foot concrete wall on top of our fifty foot underground wall. We then bulldoze every building in the city and spread the debris out evenly, most of which would have to be bulldozed anyway because of the damage the standing water has done. . This will provide a quite substantial base as compared to that of the biomass that New Orleans was originally built on.

Next, we use this area so constructed as a national land fill, bring solid waste -- I would limit it to waste that is as free of quickly biodegradable matter as possible. Maybe just debris from buildings that are destroyed and the waste that results from building buildings. This will solve the problem cities face getting rid of such waste.

After our retaining wall is filled to the brim, we then run the compactors land fills use to compact waste over all of this on a 24/7 basis. Once we are satisfied that our land fill is maximally compacted, we then build a new city -- no high rises allowed. It will have a lovely section where booze and jazz flow freely and great casinos. Not only will these be tourist attractions, tourists will be drawn to our New Orleans wall much as they are drawn to the Great Wall of China.

What is absolutely clear is that it would be insane to rebuild New Orleans without protecting it from all worst case scenarios. The fact is that the worst case scenario I saw on the television show was not as bad as what occurred. Flooding resulting from the failure of levees means that even if you could pump water out of New Orleans it would do no good because the Lake would simply flow back into the city to replace the water pumped out. Flooding due to a wall of water higher than the levee is less of a problem.

Perhaps after this disaster our leaders will listen to scientists. I suggest they listen to those whose expertise lies in the area of actions we humans take that are causing global warming. Unfortunately, it is not possible to build a space ship that can travel faster than the speed of light despite what SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battleship Galactic teach us on Friday nights. This means that there is no chance we can abandon this planet for another one once we have ruined this one.

Those who have gotten this far in my mad ramblings will perhaps want to write me in as their choice for President in the next election. I couldn't do worse than Bush is doing. I don't have the capability to do worse. I don't have the time right now to edit this for coherence. Please forgive any errors.

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