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Posts Tagged ‘President Obama’

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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There’s a word for this: bureaucracy.  The U.S. narrowly escaped a devastating airborne disaster on Christmas Day and today President Obama unveiled his plan to assure us that such things won’t happen again. Unfortunately, his plan is a plan “of bureaucrats for bureaucrats”.  It preserves the holy pecking order of the government civil service.  Information gleaned by operatives in the field is passed up the chain to be reviewed and analyzed by experts.  Judgments are made or not made.  Alerts are issued or not issued. Nothing has fundamentally changed.  The bureaucrats are happy. Order in the office has been preserved.

Consider a hypothetical case: you are in a public building and you see a fire in a corridor.  You look around for a fire alarm, but there are none.  You look for a fire extinguisher, but there are none. You run to a nearby office to tell someone about the fire, but you are told you have to stand in line if you want to make a report.  Fortunately, our real world isn’t like that.  Buildings have fire alarms and anyone can pull a fire alarm.  The first person who sees a fire can warn everyone and call the fire department at the same time. In the world of the CIA, DIA, DHS, and the unending list of government acronyms and abbreviations, there are no fire alarms. A CIA agent can’t pull one and warn the world about anything. It has to go through the system – a system that demonstrably does not work.

President Obama has issued a stern order: make the bureaucracy work better.  Right.  This isn’t going to work.

The President said the buck stops with him. That does not help.  It might sound good, like in the old Hollywood movies. But it doesn’t help.  No organization can be victorious with incompetent people manning critical positions.  Imagine that the New York Yankees lost the World Series last year and their manager said, “The buck stops with me. We are not planning to trade anyone. We’ll keep the same team, same positions for next year. I take full responsibility.” Right.  That’ll work.

Here is one simple piece of evidence: the father of the man who tried to blow up the plane told the CIA that his son had become radicalized and that he was a threat to the U.S. The CIA person who received this information should have been able to pull the fire alarm.  He should have been able to put this man on the Do Not Fly list in a heartbeat – maybe two heartbeats.  He should have been able to put this man on a bunch of other lists too, but he couldn’t.  That’s because our anti-terrorism system is a gigantic bureaucracy.  It can never be successful fighting an agile enemy like Al Qaeda. President Obama does not understand that. Neither does anyone else in the self-sustaining bureaucracy of the bloated U.S. government.

Meanwhile, it seems that the facts surrounding the whole underpants bomber incident are morphing as the government bureaucracy passes the papers back and forth from desk to desk.  Take a look at the official accounting of what happened on the plane. This was published today, just a few hours ago. It says that after the terrorist failed to set off the bomb that he was restrained by the flight crew until the plane landed.  Gee, that’s odd.  I thought I had heard that this Dutch guy had leaped over four seats and tackled the terrorist and put out the fire with his bare hands  and that everyone on the plane was cheering for him and calling him a hero. At least that’s what it said in the Washington Post a couple of days after the incident. So what ever happened to good old Jasper Schuringa, the guy who saved everyone? Why has President Obama studiously ignored him? No medals for heroism? No key to the city of Detroit from the Mayor? Nothing?  Not even a thank you?  Are we too embarrassed to admit that the plane was saved by a Dutch passenger and that if it wasn’t for him almost 300 people would have died?  So, officially, Jasper doesn’t exist anymore and it was the flight crew (the stewardesses?) who saved everyone?

The problem with the President’s approach is that it is the approach of a politician and a bureaucrat to a practical issue.  The bigger problem is that the President doesn’t realize that that is a problem.  The thing is this: the system in place is horribly flawed. It didn’t work. The system did not work and the people in the system who might have tried to override the system did not do so. These people are at fault. These people are the only ones who could have saved the day because the system, demonstrably, does not work. They failed. They should be replaced with people who are not afraid of taking decisive action. Instead the President has chosen to protect these failures in our system. He says the buck stops with him.  He doesn’t want to blame anyone.  Fair enough, President Obama, if that is the best you can do then maybe it is time for you to step down.  We don’t need a manager who can’t make the tough decisions, we don’t need Generals who deal in warmth and platitudes.  We need a hero who can cut the Gordian knot of our vast, and hamstrung, homeland security system and get the job done.  Many of us thought that you were that hero.  Now, I’m not so sure. My sword-wielding hero is looking more and more like an average politician. (Let’s not even get into the health thing.)

The answer to the murderous terrorism of Al Qaeda will never, ever be found in protecting incompetent civil servants or in papering over the byzantine workings of Washington bureaucrats. Don’t we all know that?  Mr. President, don’t you know that?

I know, Mr. President, that you are fond of quoting President Truman when you say: “The buck stops here”, but Mr. President, you need to make major structural changes in our homeland security system.   The system does not work well enough.  Surely, you can see that.  If you would just rather not get entangled in such a messy affair, perhaps you might also ponder another one of President Truman’s quotes: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”.

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Emotions have run high on both sides of the issue.  Is access to health care a right, a privilege, or a commodity?  The answer, it seems, depends upon where you stand.  Today, as the U.S. Congress continues to thrash through the process of considering the health care bill, accusations fly from both sides, with Senator Joe Lieberman caught in no man’s land, trying to please both sides but pleasing no one – an army of one.  The left-most side of the debate has already turned on their leader, President Obama, declaring that he has misled, misdirected, and misfired.  Dire predictions abound about 2010 and 2012.  On the extreme right, Republicans chortle with glee, knowing they have stymied a process that might have led to low cost health care for most Americans.  It’s hard not to be emotional about this whether one is on the left or the right. Health, after all, can be an emotional issue. But, then again, so is money.

There can be little doubt that we are a nation divided on this issue. There may be a majority of people who want to change the present health care system. There may be a majority who favor a public option or expanded Medicare or some other version of a government supervised health plan. But it apparently isn’t a two-thirds majority or a three-quarters majority. And that is the problem for this Bill.  Our Constitution was written to ensure that the majority rules, but not the simple majority.  The way the system is supposed to work is that 60% of the people (i.e. 60% of the Senators who represent the people) can make laws – but 51% just isn’t enough. There are not 60 Senators who want this health care bill.  It is that simple. It also seems that there are not 60% of the people who want it either – maybe 55%, maybe 59%, but it doesn’t look like 60%. So, it’s not going to happen – at least not in its present form.  That is the way our government works – that is who we are.

The question we need to ask is this: what does this say about the American people? Somewhere around 30% of the people don’t have and can’t afford health insurance.  Many people go without critical medical care because they can’t pay for it.  Many people die because they can’t pay for the medical care they need. We all know that. It also seems that pretty close to half of us are OK with that too.

It’s just who we are.

We Americans like to say that we believe in freedom – in many ways that belief defines the essence of America: freedom to be what you want, do what you want, say what you want. It is also the freedom to not do things, to not help someone, to not pay someone else’s bills, to not take care of strangers. It is the freedom to look the other way.  We do that all the time.  Many people may have forgotten by now, but there  was a tragic case of murder that occurred in New York City in 1964. A young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death at the entrance to her apartment building. She screamed that she was dying. A lot of people watched. No one helped.  A few years ago New Orleans was inundated by Hurricane Katrina.  President Bush flew over the city and looked out the window of his airplane at the drowning city as he flew by. He didn’t help. The U.S. government didn’t help. The people drowned.

It’s just who we are.

It is indeed ironic that it is the Republican Party that has led the fight against health care. It’s ironic because so many Republicans are staunch “Christians”. Yet, standing by and watching people suffer and die is the opposite of Christianity, isn’t it? Isn’t that a value more to be attributed to the Roman Empire where people were thrown to the lions just for fun? I must admit, I don’t understand the mental gymnastics that people have to go through in order to call themselves Christian and at the same time vehemently and violently oppose health care for the sick and dying people of America.

It’s just who we are.

In the end though, we have to recognize one truth.  Regardless of how strongly we feel about this issue, we as a people, have an agreed upon method for creating rules. We have an organization we call Congress that makes the rules on our behalf. The process is complex and involves a lot of horsetrading, money changing hands, posturing, threatening, and cajoling. Money counts in our system. Money buys influence in our system.  The average citizen’s only voice is his single vote in the elections. We voted. There is now a majority of Democrats in the Senate, but not an overwhelming majority. We made it that way.  We could change the system. We could eliminate lobbyists and payoffs.  We could eliminate the deal-making and the lying. But we don’t.

It’s just who we are.

In the end, whether a watered-down health care bill passes or it doesn’t, it is because this is what we, as a people, voted for.  We have this form of government because we want it and we don’t want to change it.  If we don’t choose to provide health care for the poor and unfortunate people of America it is simply because we don’t want to do so. That’s what this all means.  It isn’t President Obama’s fault. It isn’t Joe Lieberman’s fault.

It’s just who we are.

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Imagine it is September 11, 2001 all over again, except this time you are one of the passengers on United Airlines flight 93, bound for San Francisco out of Newark, New Jersey.  Except for luck, fate, timing, call it what you wish, it could have been any of us on that plane on that day.  The plane had already been hijacked and the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon had already been hit by other hijacked aircraft.  What if it had been you on United 93 and you knew about the other hijackings and the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon? What would you do? Would you have decided to make an all out attack on the hijackers, storm the cockpit, and try to take over control of the plane, knowing that it must certainly be destined to smash into another major American landmark?

Not everyone would take that action.  Many would have remained in their seats, hoping, praying for something to save them. Some would have just entered a trance-like state, denying the reality of the entire situation, assuring themselves that it must be a dream from which they would awaken.  Others might even hold out hope that they could bargain with their captors, maybe make a deal – who knows?  But the passengers on United 93 didn’t try to avoid a confrontation.   They knew that the people who had taken control of the plane were ruthless murderers. They knew that their plane was going to be used as a weapon against other Americans. They decided that they were not going to let that happen.

We all know the result of their decision.  They rammed in the door of the cockpit and fought hand to hand with the terrorists for the control of the plane.  The violent struggle continued until the terrorists lost control of the aircraft and it plunged to the ground in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Everyone on board perished. It is now known that the most likely target for United 93 was the U.S. Capitol building.  If the passengers had not intervened our Capitol – the symbol of our democracy – would have been reduced to rubble and many more Americans on the ground would have died.

Here is the question: do the brave passengers on United 93 deserve any posthumous recognition for their bravery from the U.S. government? Should they be awarded posthumous medals, similar to the Medal of Honor that is reserved for military people?  Surely their bravery and their deed of saving the U.S. Capitol is comparable to the bravery and deeds of many who have been awarded the Medal of Honor, isn’t it?

So far, the only recognition these brave heroes of United 93 have been awarded is a Hollywood movie called United 93.  There are government awards available to heroes such as these. There is the highest honor that can be awarded by the U.S. President: the Presidential Medal of Freedom award, perhaps it would be an appropriate medal that could be awarded to recognize their gallant deed. But it hasn’t been. The most recent recipients of this award for “service to country” was CIA Director George Tenat in 2004.  Before that it was Jean MacArthur in 1988, she was the second wife of General Douglas MacArthur. Before that the Medal had been awarded in 1984 to Whittaker Chambers, a former communist spy who eventually testified against Alger Hiss. So far neither President Bush nor President Obama has deemed the heroic passengers of United 93 worthy of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Well, what about the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award that Congress can award? The most recent recipient of this award was Arnold Palmer on Sept 30, 2009.  Other recent winners of this award have been Neil Armstrong, Edward Brooke III, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Dr. Michael Debakey.  Congress did take  up the question of awarding their medal to the passengers of United 93, but, in their collective wisdom, they ultimately decided that the passengers on United 93 did not deserve such an august honor from them.

Recently, the National Park Service broke ground for a memorial to the people who died on United 93. It’s a simple memorial, a bit reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, sort of half-underground with a low wall. So that’s it? That’s what happens in this country when ordinary civilians show extraordinary courage and save the nation’s Capitol from certain destruction? They get a low wall in the ground in Shanksville, PA? Meanwhile, George Tenat gets the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Arnold Palmer gets the Congressional Gold Medal?

I have only one question for President Obama (because the Congress is beyond hope): Mr. President, when will you correct this egregious oversight?

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