Support the Secular Student Alliance

It’s this easy:

1. Like the SSA Facebook page. You do not need to be a student to do this, you need only support our cause.
2. Upvote the reddit article to push back against all the Christian down votes.
3. Become a member of the SSA ($35/year, $10/year for students) and/or donate to the SSA. You do not need to be a student to become a member! The upcoming generation of secular activists requires the support of the previous generation! And you know that we’re a 501(c)(3), so this shiz is straight up tax deductible, homie.
4. Spread the word even further! Tweet about it. Facebook it. G+ it. Shout it from the mountain tops. Get a pic. Do a blog! Tell them the taaaaaaaaaaaaale!

Why should you do some or all of that? Because they make a difference:

The mission of the Secular Student Alliance is to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics. We envision a future in which nontheistic students are respected voices in public discourse and vital partners in the secular movement’s charge against irrationality and dogma.

The Secular Student Alliance is a 501(c)3 educational nonprofit. We work to organize and empower nonreligious students around the country. Our primary goal is to foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values. Though our office is based in Columbus, Ohio and our affiliated campus groups are predominantly in the United States, we do support affiliates around the world.

It’s about time secular students had a voice, don’t you think? They’ve got 18,000+ Likes so far. Campus Crusade for Christ has almost 60,000. Let’s even up those numbers, and show these freethinking kids we’ve got their backs.

We Need to Stop Executing Peoplel

Last night, the state of Georgia executed a man who was very likely innocent. Like PZ, I don’t care whether he was guilty or innocent. I care that my country is one of the few countries in the world that executes people.

From Wikipedia

I used to be a strong death penalty supporter. Some crimes, I thought, could only be adequately punished by death. I didn’t ever believe it acted as a general deterrent, but as former FBI agent John Douglas said in Mindhunter, it surely acts as a specific deterrent: that particular person will never commit a crime again. When you’re talking about serial killers, that seems like an admirable thing.

But we kill too many innocent people. We come close to killing far more, before luck and persistence and the existence of DNA evidence, uncovered by tireless investigators, come to the rescue. Those are the lucky ones. Those are the ones who aren’t denied the chance to prove their innocence. How many other people have gone to their deaths because no DNA evidence existed, or if it did was never found, or if found, never allowed to be presented? We don’t know. And it’s unbearable that we don’t know.

So what about those cases in which evidence of guilt is undeniable? Where we definitely have the right person, and the crimes they committed are horrific?

I still don’t support the death penalty. Not even for them. Oh, I may want them to die, and die horribly; that visceral emotional reaction, that righteous outrage, is certainly there. But a civilized society should restrain itself. All we gain is another dead person, another traumatized family, proof that we aren’t able to rise above bronze age ideas of justice. We engage in violence to punish violence, and make our civilization just that much more violent.

Life in prison, no parole, is enough to keep society safe.

We spend an insane amount of money on killing people. That money would be far better spent on improving the conditions that lead people to violence in the first place. A society that takes care of its vulnerable members has less to fear from them, and so much to gain.

Troy Davis should be the last person to be put to death in this country. We’re the last country in North America to execute people. It’s time we joined Canada and Mexico in recognizing what justice truly is.

Is There a Word for a First World Nation Becoming a Third World Country?

Even when I was a kid, I knew I was lucky. I had a middle-class family in a prosperous country. Sally Fields used to come on the teevee soliciting funds for all those poor, starving kids in other countries where families were lucky if they had a bit of cloth to throw over a stick for a house, and I’d be quite grateful my country wasn’t like that. Poorest kids I knew still had roofs over their heads and got a few good meals a week. And we knew America was the greatest country on earth. Almost everybody wanted to be like us.

I used to feel sorry for those folks who lived in countries that weren’t number one in everything.

Rome used to be great, too, the greatest on earth, and it fell. When I learned about it, I couldn’t imagine it. What would it have been like, to live in a nation that was sliding down to oblivion? Weren’t the people sad, maybe even despairing? Did they know? Did they realize what was happening to them? I didn’t think it would happen to America, not very soon anyway, but I knew it could happen, and I just hoped it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime. I loved my country. I wanted the best for it. Selfish reasons, too: I’d never wanted to live in a decayed civilization, amongst the ruins of greatness, without a chance to become anything amazing. It’s really hard to write works of enduring literature when you haven’t got any paper and everybody in your country’s so poor they couldn’t afford to buy your book even if you managed to write it.

Those were my silly childish thoughts. Then I grew up, and for a little while, in the heyday of the ’90s, it looked like America, despite some occasional stumbles, didn’t really have to worry about falling from its perch. We were great, and we’d continue being great. We could certainly be greater. I’d learned about homelessness and grinding poverty, and some of our cities were falling apart, and the Republicans were getting awfully weird, and we spent a fuck of a lot of money on the military while screwing the poor and the public schools, but still. We weren’t doing all that badly.

Then it got worse. And worse. We voted a jackass into office (never mind Florida, it never should’ve been so close anyway). Terrorists slipped through our defenses, and the jackass and his merry band of fuckwits used that as carte blanche to invade the wrong damned country and basically bomb all the brown people they could. They turned this from a nation of laws that didn’t always live up to its rhetoric but at least acted ashamed when it didn’t into a nation that proudly tortured people. And the middle class melted away, and the infrastructure crumbled, and even crazier fuckwits started getting bold enough to dazzle a bunch of flaming morons into voting for them, and here we are today, rubbing shoulders with third-world nationhood.

Seriously. We are.

Take air travel: The United States, the report notes, now has the worst air-traffic congestion on the planet, with one-quarter of flights arriving more than 15 minutes late. One reason is that U.S. air-traffic control still relies on 1950s-era ground radar technology, even as the rest of the world has been shifting to satellite tracking (the FAA has begun the transition to a satellite-based system, though it’s moving slowly and future funding is a big question). According to recent World Economic Forum rankings, even Malaysia and Panama now boast better air infrastructure.

For fuck’s sake.

And check out what came across my Twitter feed only yesterday: we are the only industrialized nation to have a World Heritage Site we can’t be bothered to preserve. Every other country on the list has probably got a plausible excuse: tiny and poor, tiny and war-torn, tiny and trying too hard to deal with extreme natural disasters and religious fuckery and trying to build themselves up to a reasonable standard of living to be much fussed with things like World Heritage Sites. What’s our excuse? We have Republicans who think preserving things like the Everglades takes too much money out of super-rich pockets. We still have gobs and oodles of money, more than enough to pay for things like preserving priceless treasures and repairing that aged infrastructure and ensuring people get an education and health care and have decent jobs, but we’ve elected absolute idiots and let them give all the money to a disgustingly bloated military and greedy asshats who sit on millions and billions of dollars and scream like two year-olds denied a toy when someone tries to extract so much as a penny from their tight fists for the common good.

We’re 37th in the world in health care, or at least we were in 2000 – I shudder to think where we are now, after eight years of Bush and before our inadequate but good-as-we’re-gonna-get-at-this-point new health care law fully kicks in. Square between Costa Rica and Slovenia, we are. Best in the world? Which world? Certainly not the second world – maybe best in the third world, I think we can comfortably claim that, but we’d best not get too comfortable with that idea, because Cuba’s only two rungs below us on that particular ladder.

Oh, and here’s a nifty little fact: the United States of America gets its ass kicked in income equality by the likes of Iran and Nigeria. Oh, yes, we are so great and glorious, we are kicking Haiti’s ass! Eat it, the exactly two developed nations who do worse than we do! USA! USA!

And while we slide down into the scrap-heap of has-been empires, we’ve got Republicans running around beating their chests and screaming we’re the absolute best at everything there ever was. Best at what, exactly? Burning ignorance? Failed leadership? Shitting on science after sending men to the moon? Yeah. Sure. I’ll grant you that. We’re certainly top contenders in those categories.

What pisses me off is that I know we’re better than this. Yes, this country is full of willfully ignorant fucktards intent on launching us back into the dark ages, but we used to keep them on the hopeless fringes of our political system. We didn’t give them the power and authority they needed to run this country into the ground. We made a mistake. And we’re going to have to rectify that, remove the dangerous halfwits from office and never ever let them have power again, if we don’t want to end up on the bottom of the heap.

I don’t want to live in a former first world country, people. Neither do you. And neither does that greedy little shithead on Wall Street, but he could give a rat’s ass considering he’s got the money to move. So it’s up to us.

America deserves better. We’re gonna have to vote smarter and work harder to ensure she climbs back towards the top. And then, once we’ve stopped falling down, we’ve got to help the rest of the world up.

We were a beacon once. We can be that again.

In the Face of Terrorism: Norway, the Myth of a Madman, and a Better Way

Image Source Guardian.co.uk

This man is a terrorist.

Blond, blue-eyed, solidly middle-class, raised and educated in a Western democracy, yes.  He’s far from the al Qaeda foot soldier everyone expected when news of the Oslo bombing and subsequent shooting on Utoya island broke.  Some are calling him Norway’s Timothy McVeigh, and that’s apt: both of them were home-grown terrorists who decided to express their dissatisfaction with their societies by building farms out of fertilizer and parking them in front of government buildings in hopes of maximum mayhem.  But Anders Behring Breivik proved a far more ambitious fanatic.  The fact his body count didn’t exceed McVeigh’s isn’t due to anything more than somewhat poor timing and excellent police work.

This is Norway’s Oklahoma City in more ways than one.  I remember when we all thought the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building must have been bombed by Arab terrorists, back in the early hours before McVeigh got arrested for traffic violations and the truth that even good ol’ American boys could be terrorists fell down upon us.  Norwegians are a bit shocked at themselves for their assumptions, but let’s face facts: most of the people we encounter blowing up selves and others these days are, indeed, Muslim.  A few too many people, especially in my country, made the leap from “could be” to “must be” far too quickly, but the initial suspicion wasn’t completely unfounded.  When Islamist fanatics tell the West repeatedly and often they’re determined to blow our shit up, it’s not silly to think of them when a bomb goes off.


But people like Breivik and McVeigh remind us that terrorism is not the exclusive method of Middle Eastern extremists.  And this is something we must accept.  Even blond, blue-eyed native sons can be terrorists.  When someone engages in mass slaughter for political and religious motives, with the intent of terrorizing society into compliance with their views or destabilizing the government they despise, they have committed acts of terrorism, no matter how white and Christian they are.  This is something some people seem to forget, the moment the suspect turns out to have a pale complexion.  People stop using the word “terrorist” and start using words like “madman” and “mass murderer” instead.  The terrorist goes from being a terrorist to some lone weirdo who must be an anomaly.


Breivik is not.  Breivik is a cold, calculating, far-right son of a bitch who hasn’t a trace of remorse.  He is a man with a cause who planned his act of terror carefully.  He was as driven by ideology as any other political terrorist, and to call him delusional or insane is an insult to people with genuine mental illnesses.  He’s a product of right-wing ideology, not mental disease or defect.

We need to get over this tendency to think that our native sons and daughters are nuts when they adhere to home-grown extremist ideologies.  When their ideologies lead them to commit stunning acts of terror, we need to stop comforting ourselves by thinking they must be aberrations.  They belong in the same category as other people we call terrorists.  Terrorism is not merely a foreign phenomenon.  Terrorism is a method any extremist can use, and native extremists do.  It’s just that, with a few spectacular exceptions, our home-grown extremists haven’t been quite as good at it.  That, unfortunately, could easily change.  And we won’t be prepared to handle them if we insist on seeing our very own terrorists as something qualitatively different from other sorts.

What Breivik has reminded us is that terrorists can and do arise even in the most peaceful, progressive societies.  Wherever there are politically disaffected people with a martyr complex and the belief that violence will serve them where the ballot box has not, you’re at risk of having some despicable shits load up on bombs and bullets and attempt to change the political landscape by force. 

What can a society do, in the face of that?

Norway appears headed in the right direction.  So far, their people and their leaders have understood that the answer to terror is to not be terrorized.  They’re standing strong on their values and their democracy.  They’re not leaping immediately to create a national security or police state.  This has pushed them in the opposite direction from what Breivik seems to have intended, and that’s exactly the right response.  You won’t get terrorists to stop terrorizing by letting their attacks succeed.  All you’ll do is help them destroy your cherished society.  You may not remake it in the image they intended, but by giving in to the terror, by letting fear strangle your freedoms, you’ve handed them a win.  That’s not the way to go, and I’m glad to see Norway understands that.

What can a society do, in the face of terror?  Do what Norway is doing: catch the terrorist(s) who did it.  The fact that they took this terrorist alive, right in the middle of his shooting spree, is outstanding.  That denied him martyrdom, which takes a lot of wind from his sails and gives those desiring a glorious death for the cause something to think about, should they decide to attempt an act of terror themselves.  It also makes it much less likely that there will be further terrorist attacks undertaken as acts of revenge.

You might notice Norway hasn’t shipped Breivik off to some military installation to be tortured.  They’re using no “enhanced interrogation.”  He’s being afforded due process.  Under Norwegian law, it appears he’ll even have a chance at freedom in 21 years.  Never mind that his chances are about equal to Charlie Manson’s.  The point is that the criminal justice system is handling him just fine, without going to extremes, staying within the boundaries set by an extremely civilized society, up to and including affording him proper representation, and yet they are perfectly confident that society has nothing more to fear from this murderous piece of shit.  They’re completely right.  Democracies do not have to adopt totalitarian tactics to handle terrorists.  They should not.  Doing what my own country is doing – suspending constitutional rights, eroding civil liberties in the name of “security,” destroying i
ts moral authority by engaging in torture – doesn’t lead to a safer society, but one in which the terrorists, both home-grown and foreign, have all but won.

We have to accept the fact that we’re never going to be perfectly safe.  Even if we completely closed our beautiful open societies, even if we crushed dissenting voices, arrested people for showing the slightest tendency toward ideas that sometimes lead to violence, even if we turned every building into a bunker and strip-searched every citizen several times a day, we’d still be at risk from people who hold extreme beliefs and aren’t afraid to risk their lives in order to kill for their cause.  Better, then, to live in freedom.  We can take precautions, harden targets and give law enforcement the tools they need to mitigate our risks and deal with those terrorist acts we couldn’t prevent, without destroying our civil liberties and our democracies.  But let’s not make the mistake of living in terror.  Let’s accept that there are risk inherent in any type of society, and some risks are more acceptable than others.  I’d rather risk getting killed by an extremist than live under a dictatorship in the name of security.  I’d rather risk dissenting voices that might get out of hand than silence all but the most bland.

I’d rather not fight terrorism with bigger guns, escalating the violence and spiraling us off into endless conflict.  I’d rather fight Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s way:

At a press conference in Oslo, Stoltenberg, pictured, said that those guilty for the atrocities would be brought to justice and that the attacks would bring “more openess and more democracy” to the country.

“No one will bomb us to silence. No one will shoot us to silence. No one will ever scare us away from being Norway,” Stoltenberg said.

“You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy or our ideals for a better world,” he added.

I wish my own country had followed Norway’s lead, rather than letting fear all but destroy everything that made her great.

All of us, every single democracy faced with terrorism both native and foreign, can do better.  We must recognize terrorism for what it is, no matter who perpetrates it, and deny those terrorists the satisfaction of remaking our great societies into small and fearful ones.  If we don’t, we are lost.

On Terry Pratchett and Escape Routes

This news brought tears to my eyes, because I adore Terry Pratchett and I never ever want the world to be without him:

Three and a half years ago, Terry Pratchett, the beloved author of the Discworld series, announced that he has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Now he’s made an even more startling announcement.

Pratchett, who has campaigned in his native United Kingdom for the right of assisted suicide, has begun the formal process of assisted suicide in Switzerland, one of the few countries in the world to legalize euthanasia. Specifically, this would take place at Dignitas, a clinic that provides qualified doctors and nurses to assist with the patients’ suicides. 

Those of us who read Eric MacDonald’s beautiful blog know Dignitas.  It’s an amazing place, and I’m glad it’s there.  Because people need escape routes.

Which one of us wants to live on beyond hope?  Mind gone, life destroyed beyond recovery, each day one more endless slog of suffering and humiliation?  Very few of us, I’d bet.

And because of Switzerland’s compassionate laws and clinics like Dignitas, Terry Pratchett doesn’t have to.

Does the news he’s planning on ending his life shock and sadden me?  Of course it does.  I’ll miss him terribly.  He’s changed my life in so many ways, given me so many precious memories curled up with a Discworld book.  It hurts to lose him, hurts to know that the series will end far too soon, and that I won’t have a chance to ever shake his hand and say a heartfelt “Thank you.”  But, people, he has Alzheimer’s.  It’s already mauled his ability to write, and it will progress to the point where he can’t write at all.  It will steal his mind away, leaving a shell, and perhaps just enough awareness to know what’s happening.

I am a writer.  I have a damned good imagination, but I can’t imagine many things worse.

And how much worse is it when there’s no way out, no way to choose the moment, no way to cut out those awful bits at the end and go out on a high note?  To live in fear that one day, you’ll wake up and have nearly nothing of you left and know that it will only get worse and yet be forced to live through that nightmare for an unknown length of time?  I can’t speak for Terry, but I can speak for myself: that fear would consume me.  It would poison all the good moments left.  Much better to know there’s an escape route.  Much easier to live those last good days fully and happily when there’s an exit available.  Even if I can’t bring myself to walk through that door – and really, until I’ve got my hand on the handle, how can I know if I’ll have the emotional strength to turn it? – knowing it’s there would be an enormous comfort.

I’ve often said we treat our pets better than people.  We don’t let them linger on in horrible pain, not if we’re good and strong people who can do right by them.  I’ve made more than one trip to the vet with a beloved pet when there was no hope of any more good days, or too few to justify all the bad ones.  I’ve held them as they died.  And it’s hard.  It’s so hard.  But it’s the right thing to do.

Why shouldn’t I be able to do that for my mother, who lives in dread of suffering and dying like her own mother did, mind gone and only a confused, agonized shell lingering on?  Why shouldn’t I be able to choose people to do the same for me?

People have this knee-jerk horror at the idea of someone taking their own life.  They seem to believe no one should have that choice, and they give reasons.  Some, I even agree with.  This isn’t a decision that should ever be made lightly: it needs to be understood that it’s irreversible, and that some things are worth living through for a bit to see if they get better, because they so often do.  This isn’t a decision that should ever be forced on a person.  But there are so many ways to ensure those things are suitably addressed, and they shouldn’t stop us from allowing people who want it an escape route.

As for the other reasons, such as it’s God’s choice and not ours – well, those arguments are invalid.  So are the slippery slope arguments used as camouflage for the religious ones.  We’re not going to see grandmas and grandpas bundled off wholesale just because assisted suicide is legal.  There may be isolated incidents.  You know what?  There already are, and always will be, and demanding a perfect system with no errors is just another way of ensuring the escape route stays blocked off for everyone forever.  So fuck that.

I hope, once those papers are signed, Terry Pratchett can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with living a lot more life before the time comes.  I hope we don’t lose him so soon.  But at least he’s got the escape route open.  No matter when he chooses to go, at least it’s his choice, not the disease and not society.  He won’t be trapped with no way out.

It’s time other people got to have that same choice.

(Eric MacDonald on Pratchett and the Choosing to Die program is well worth reading.)

Maryam Namazie on the Islamic Inquisition

I’m sending you all away.  For one thing, I’m busy and woefully short of advance posts.  But most importantly, there’s something I think you need to read.

It’s Maryam Namazie’s speech at the World Atheist Conference.  You really should read it in its entirety.  But I’ll put an excerpt here, because I believe this bit needs to be understood clearly by all of us:

Nowhere is opposition greater against Islamism than in countries under Islamic rule.
Condemning Islamism and Islam is not a question of judging all Muslims and equating them with terrorists.
There is a distinction between Islam as a belief system and Islamism as a political movement on the one hand and real live human beings on the other. Neither the far-Right nor the pro-Islamist Left seem to see this distinction.
Both are intrinsically racist. The pro-Islamist Left (and many liberals) imply that people are one and the same with the Islamic states and movement that are repressing them. The far-Right blames all immigrants and Muslims for the crimes of Islamism.
[It is important to note here that Islamism was actually brought to centre stage during the Cold War as part of US foreign policy in order to create a ‘green’ Islamic belt surrounding the Soviet Union and not concocted in some immigrant’s kitchen in London; moreover many of the Islamists in Britain are actually British-born thanks to the government’s policies of multiculturalism and appeasement.]
Both the far-Right and pro-Islamist Left purport that Islamism is people’s culture and that they actually deserve no better, imputing on innumerable people the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling class, parasitical imams and self-appointed ‘community leaders’.
Their politics ignores the distinction between the oppressed and oppressor and actually sees them as one and the same. It denies universalism, sees rights as ‘western,’ and justifies the suppression of rights, freedoms and equality for the ‘other.’
Civil rights, freedom and equality, secularism, modernism, are universal concepts that have been fought for by progressive social movements and the working class in various countries.
As a result of such politics, concepts such as rights, equality, respect and tolerance, which were initially raised vis-à-vis the individual, are now more and more applicable to culture and religion and often take precedence over real live human beings.
Moreover, the social inclusion of people into society has come to solely mean the inclusion of their beliefs, sensibilities, concerns and agendas (read Islamism’s beliefs, sensibilities, concerns and agendas) and nothing more.

The distinction between humans and their beliefs and regressive political movements is of crucial significance here.

It is the human being who is meant to be equal not his or her beliefs. It is the human being who is worthy of the highest respect and rights not his or her beliefs or those imputed on them.
It is the human being who is sacred not beliefs or religion.

The problem is that religion sees things the other way around.

And she quotes from Mansoor Hekmat at the end:

“Moreover, in my opinion, defending the existence of Islam under the guise of respect for people’s beliefs is hypocritical and lacks credence. There are various beliefs amongst people. The question is not about respecting people’s beliefs but about which are worthy of respect. In any case, no matter what anyone says, everyone is choosing beliefs that are to their liking. Those who reject a criticism of Islam under the guise of respecting people’s beliefs are only expressing their own political and moral preferences, full stop. They choose Islam as a belief worthy of respect and package their own beliefs as the ‘people’s beliefs’ only in order to provide ‘populist’ legitimisation for their own choices. I will not respect any superstition or the suppression of rights, even if all the people of the world do so. Of course I know it is the right of all to believe in whatever they want. But there is a fundamental difference between respecting the freedom of opinion of individuals and respecting the opinions they hold. We are not sitting in judgement of the world; we are players and participants in it. Each of us are party to this historical, worldwide struggle, which in my opinion, from the beginning of time until now has been over the freedom and equality of human beings…”  (Mansoor Hekmat, Islam and De-Islamisation,January 1999)

Remember these things, because they’re important.  You need to remember them when charges of racism and cultural imperialism get thrown your way by people who would prefer you not criticize their faith.  Do not let people stop the conversation.

Got that?  Good.  Now go finish the speech.

Local Geology Kicks Project’s Arse

Confession: this post is mostly an excuse to post my super-awesome front loader and dump truck photo:

Check out the dirt-dumping action!

How awesome is that?  I’ve never had so much fun photographing a dump truck before.  Comes to that, I don’t think I’ve ever photographed a dump truck before.  But when Cujo and I were out walkies, looking for nice cherry blossoms, we passed by the site of this mysterious building project that’s been going on for half of forever.  Usually, it’s hidden behind walls, but the wall has come down, and the whole thing is revealed!  Also, there’s a sign we never noticed before:

Sooper-seekrit projeckt revealed!  Image credit Cujo.

Ah-ha!  ‘Tis a wastewater treatment facility.  And if you’ll direct your attention to the lower left of the photo, you’ll see there’s this tunnel they’re excavating that goes out to the Sound.  This tunnel is where the problems begin.

Cujo sent me this article in the Seattle Times that shows what happens when you drive a tunnel through gobs and oodles of glacial sediments: sinkholes.  And how.  Check this out:

Kenmore Sinkhole, image credit and copyright TunnelTalk

Allow me to direct your attention to a paragraph in the article describing that incident, from which the above photo was filched:

Neither the owner nor the contractor would discuss the focus of their investigations, but these will likely look at several possible causes, including the experience of the slurry machine operator with the closed slurry system making it difficult to judge the amount of material being excavated during a shove. Another possible cause might be the presence of a large boulder in the face that stalled penetration without slowing extraction of material and caused over-excavation. A third possibility is the meeting of high artesian water pressure and its influence on the excavation cycle. [emphasis added]

All of you geotypes are probably shouting, “Glacial erratic!” about now.  Seattle’s got lots, random boulders dropped by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet during its stay.  According to the articles I found, the tunnel-boring machine’s been encountering quite a bit of sandy soil, which it sometimes proceeds to remove too much of.  Not to mention running in to boulders.  Tunneling through all of that glacial outwash, till, and random erractics has got to be an absolute nightmare, and goes a long way toward explaining why the project’s run over on both time and money. 

TunnelTalk has a nice, simplified geologic cross-section showing what the excavators are dealing with here:

Image courtesy and copyright TunnelTalk

You’ll notice there’s not much clay it gets a chance to run through.  That means it’s grinding itself up against sand and gravel.  According to TunnelTalk, this means more frequent cutter replacements – only trying to get down there to replace a cutter when you’re not in a nice, stable bit of clay is difficult.  And then there’s the propensity for sinkholes.

This is something ordinary folk don’t usually think about when contemplating infrastructure, when they contemplate it at all.  But geology’s critical when it comes to deciding where and how you’re going to dig your tunnels things like wastewater lines.  We don’t have a lot of good choices here.  The bedrock’s down too deep in most places, the water table’s high, and glacial deposits are difficult to deal with.  Planners need to understand and deal with those issues so that the needs of the metropolis can be served.  And this is a good dry run for the gargantuan tunnel they want to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with: without this, they may not have been alerted to the true scope of the problems they’re going to face in sending a highway underground.

Oh, Seattle!  You are beautiful, but when it comes to infrastructure, you’re a right pain in the arse.

Stuff Comes from Somewhere

Back before I distracted by the shiny new car and purchasing of same, our own George W. had a post up that really forced some thinking.  And it’s all because he was up at 4 in the morning thinking about bolts:

Where’s the nickel (which plates the bolt) mined? What’s the state of mine-safety technology? Do mining companies pay lobbyists to keep the laws lax? Or more likely, does the manufacturer just buy the nickel salts for plating from some third-world country where the government doesn’t protect the workers or the rivers or the children who live along them? Is that why the bolts are so cheap? What’s the external cost of the carbon output from manufacturing the bolt? Maybe that’s the reason I saved the bolt that was left over from a project of years ago.  Or maybe I’m just really cheap.

Read the whole post.  It’ll make you think about bolts, politics, change and resources all in one go, which is damned impressive for a short post brought on by insomnia.  This is why I love George’s blog so: when I leave there, it’s not with the same eyes as when I arrived.

Now That’s An Engineering Project!

When we went to Arizona last year, my intrepid companion and I crossed Hoover Dam.  It’s not an experience I care to repeat any time soon.  Lots of traffic funneled through an itty-bitty road sucks mightily.  But considering we weren’t getting anywhere anyway, we pulled over to snap some pictures and ogle the Hoover Bridge, which was under construction and promised to someday make the trip less onerous.  It wasn’t very close to completion, and in fact it was difficult to tell just what it was and how it was going to come together, as you can see from this photo Cujo shot:



A few days ago, @Perrykid put a link up on Twitter that dropped my jaw.  Looks like they’re close to finishing the thing, and now it begins to make sense:



I need to call my daddy.  About the most impressive thing I can say about this is, “Ooo!  Big…”  He’s an engineer, so I’m sure he can expound on the awesomeness of the design.

The sad part is, once they’ve finished it, the drive over Hoover Dam will be no more.  They will no longer allow traffic over the dam itself.  So I guess we were lucky to go when a person could still drive one of the most impressive dams in the United States.

Funny.  Didn’t appreciate it at the time… now I find myself wishing I had enough vacation left to fight the traffic just once more, with feeling.

Corporate Responsibility: BoA Gets It Right

Sometimes, just sometimes, corporations do things that make me proud:

This summer, after months of conversations, some top executives from Bank of America agreed to accompany NRDC staff on a fact-finding trip to Appalachia. In July we flew them over moonscaped mine sites in West Virginia, took them to Kayford Mountain for a closer look at mountaintop mining, and introduced them to several local residents/activists who are fighting to save their beloved homeland from reckless coal mining companies.

Today, BofA released its revised coal policy, which will have the immediate effect of curtailing commercial lending to companies that mine coal by blowing off the top of mountains in Appalachia. The policy states, in part:

Bank of America is particularly concerned about surface mining conducted through mountain top removal in locations such as central Appalachia. We therefore will phase out financing of companies whose predominant method of extracting coal is through mountain top removal. While we acknowledge that surface mining is economically efficient and creates jobs, it can be conducted in a way that minimizes environmental impacts in certain geographies.

Why is this so important? Bank of America still stands as a pillar of our country’s shaky financial system. In fact, the trying economic crisis has only served to strengthen this behemoth bank unlike other once proud and stable institutions. All the more reason to engage BofA in using its investment power and influence to affect positive environmental change.

There are some corporations that realize you can run a successful company without being a total ratfucking bastard, who don’t believe that “good corporate citizen” is just a useful lie to tell the citizens you hope to suckerpunch. I saw that in action with Target, which does more charity work than I’ve ever seen another company do and also runs a forensics lab that helps out police agencies without charge:


Turns out Target has one of the most advanced crime labs in the country at its headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was initially set up to deal with things like theft, fraud, and personal injury cases in their stores. Now, Target also helps law enforcement agencies nationwide solve crimes, even murders. Target has worked with the Secret Service, the ATF, and the FBI, to name a few.

Target does the work for free, seeing it as a kind of community service. It doesn’t advertise its crime lab services, but word started spreading and law enforcement agencies started asking for help. Some government agency labs aren’t as well-equipped as Target’s. In other cases, Target can get results faster because of logjams in agency labs.

I’ve seen the pictures. The place is straight out of CSI, and if it wasn’t in a frozen, landlocked city like Minneapolis, I would’ve been getting my forensics degree and joining the lab. It was pure awesome. They also had safe communities programs running that had an enormous impact in some dangerous areas. I’ve had jobs I enjoyed more – taking phone calls from angry credit card customers isn’t fun no matter how great your company is – but I’ve never been prouder of the company I worked for than I was with them. They truly did put a huge effort into making a positive difference.

I’d love to see more of this. Most corporations do just enough community service to make themselves look nice, but it’s the rare few that actually devote substantial time, resources, and attention to doing right by the world.

Bank of America looks to be on its way to true good corporate citizenship. It’s much appreciated. Here’s hoping others will follow these companies’ leads.