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Archive for May, 2010

I thought I knew.  I thought it was pretty clear during the campaign for President. We all knew where Barack Obama stood on a lot of issues – and he was very forceful, indeed eloquent, in stating his opinions.  It was clear that his philosophy was left of center. He was a strong supporter of the Democratic Party. Just look at health care.  It seems to me that he said time after time that he wanted all of us to have the same health care choices that members of Congress have. We would be able, under his administration, to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of health care plans – just like the fat cats we elect to Congress. And why not? Indeed.

The thing is that when push came to shove in Congress and the Republicans unanimously said, “Not only NO, but HELL NO”, Barack Obama chose to compromise. He made a deal. The result is that we have some sort of new health care plan that does do some things and may even provide some small additional benefit to each of us a few years from now.  But for most of us nothing has changed. So, I’m beginning to wonder – where is the idealism? Where is the fight? Or, could it be that Barack Obama isn’t a fighter at all? Perhaps he’s just a deal maker.

It’s not just health care.  It’s also energy.  Remember the campaign and the conventions? Remember the Republican Giuliani shouting, “Drill Baby, Drill!”  Remember Sarah Palin saying we need to do offshore drilling right now? Remember John McCain taking up the chant of “Drill Baby, Drill”?  Actually, they’re pretty quiet right now aren’t they? But that’s not my point.  Remember Barack Obama had this ideal about clean and green energy? Didn’t he? Am I just hallucinating here? Wasn’t he going to build a bunch of windmills and solar panels to create a new source of energy for America? Didn’t he make some kind of a deal with MIT to do research on clean, green energy? Wasn’t he against offshore drilling and nuclear power?

So, a few weeks ago – a couple of weeks before the BP catastrophe, didn’t President Obama say we need to do a lot more offshore drilling? Didn’t he? Am I just imagining this?  Where did that come from? Did I miss a news conference or something? Did MIT get back to him and say, “Forget about clean and green, just go for dirty and smelly?”

And now BP has screwed up the Gulf of Mexico for as long as most of us will live.  So what is President Obama doing? He is letting BP call the shots – even though he says he is in charge – BP is making all the decisions. So what about the opinions of his scientific advisors?  Does he really have more faith and trust in BP’s scientific expertise than that of his Nobel Prize winning Secretary of Energy? That ain’t right.  Something’s wrong here.

The question I have is simple – what does President Obama stand for?  Or could it be that we were all wrong in thinking he was some kind of pragmatic idealist. Maybe he’s just a political deal maker after all – just like 99.9% of the people in Washington.  Is that it?  If so, I think he will find that America didn’t vote for him to make deals – they voted for him because they thought he believed in his ideals and that he would fight for them on behalf of the American people. We thought we were on the same page with him – but he keeps turning the pages.

At least with George Bush you knew where he stood. He was a shoot from the hip wannabe cowboy.  A Yale transplant to Texas.  He wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer – that was abundantly clear whenever he spoke. But you knew what you were getting when you voted for him: you’re-on-your-own-Republicanism. Don’t look to Washington for help when you need it ’cause it ain’t comin’.  Just ask the people of New Orleans. They know all about that.

But Obama was supposed to be different. But once again the people of New Orleans are suffering and our President is letting an oil company decide what to do about the worst oil spill in history. Is that leadership? Is that what we voted for? Of course not. Now, I’m not saying that John McCain or Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani would do any different – but that is my point.  Obama was supposed to be different. But in the end, Washington is letting us all down once again. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

You don’t find roses growing in a swamp, do you?

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Today BP announced that their “top kill” method of stopping the undersea gusher in the Gulf of Mexico is a failure. Previously they had tried to place a dome over the gusher to contain the oil and redirect it via pipes to the surface. But that was a failure. Then they tried inserting a small pipe into the gusher to suck out most of the oil to the surface.  But that was a failure. Now they admit that their “top kill” is a failure. So now they plan to place another dome on top of the gusher and redirect the oil to the surface through some pipes. Any predictions? Anyone? Anyone?

It is interesting to note that all of the methods that BP is using to try to stop the leak preserve the integrity of the well itself. The well is basically a hole in the ground (mostly rock) that starts one mile under the surface of the ocean. The hole itself is about two miles deep. Imagine how much money it must cost to drill through two miles of rock – and then you strike a huge gusher of oil. Would you want to shut it down? Of course not – this is literally money by the barrel coming out of the ground.  So, from that view BP is doing the right thing. Their first failed attempt to stop the leak would have still allowed them to pump oil from the well. Their second failed attempt actually involved pumping oil from the well with a small pipe – they just couldn’t pump it out fast enough. (We should all have such problems, right?) Their third failed attempt involved putting golf balls (really), cut up pieces of old tires (I’m not kidding here), and “mud” into the hole. I guess the “mud” is some sort of combination of drilling oil and concrete (maybe – I’m not too clear on whether the concrete was a separate attempt from the heavy drilling fluid kind of mud. Anyway, did you ever build sand castles by the seashore and then watch the waves come in and wash everything away?

The interesting thing about the “top kill” (sounds serious, doesn’t it) approach is that if it worked this sort of golf ball, old rubber tires, and “mud” combo would have solidified in the tube and created a plug – sort of how old soap and hair does that in your sink.  Then all BP would have to do is drill through the plug (in a controlled way of course) and voila! They’re back in business. Here’s the thing to note – in case you might have missed where I am going here: all of BP’s approaches to stop the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the world have been contingent on preserving their ability to continue to use this oil well once things are under control. – And after all, why not? Wouldn’t you?

Now, let’s suppose this was a real emergency – like maybe BP was being fined one hundred billion dollars a day for every day the well continued to pollute the world. Would there be a way to stop the flow then? You betcha.

It is my belief that pretty much any physicist in the U.S. or any mechanical engineer in the U.S. could come up with a very good way of permanently plugging the leak very quickly – and they could probably come up with the method in less than a day.  As a physicist myself, I feel pretty confident about saying that. So, one has to wonder… Since President Obama has now said he’s in charge of the whole thing, where is his team of physicists? Has he got MIT and Caltech and NASA on the phone? How’s his Tiger Team of the country’s best minds doing? They seem to be keeping pretty quiet. Maybe they are meeting in secret or something.  Or could it be that BP really does have the finest engineering minds in the universe? What happened to President Obama’s head of the Dept of Energy? Didn’t he win the Nobel Prize in physics? What is President Obama waiting for – Albert Einstein to come back?

Yeah, it’s a tough puzzle to figure out.  Not about how to permanently plug the leak – I’ll bet there are even quite a few plumbers who could tell you how to do that. No, I mean why isn’t the President stepping up to the plate and actually taking charge instead of just making speeches about how he feels our pain? Why is he standing by while this catastrophe continues? I’m not asking why BP doesn’t try to permanently plug the well – after all, they’re an oil company, need I say anything more? And please, let’s not bring in the military.  This is not what they do.  A team of physicists and engineers, given the mission to simply stop the leak  permanently, could have a solution in a day. It could be put in place within a week if priority were given to fabricating the necessary fixtures.  It’s just that nobody wants to do that.

So there you have it. Now, as one of my teachers used to say at the end of every lesson, “Any questions? No? Good.”

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