Friday, April 9, 2010

Can more than 1,000 architects and engineers be wrong?

The Freedom of Information Act used to be key to transparency in government. Not any more — at least, not if you ask about Building 7, a 47-story World Trade Center skyscraper that came crashing down on Sept. 11.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology investigated the collapse of Building 7 and issued their final report. They took a very unusual approach. Rather than examining remnants from the destroyed building, they developed a computer model that they claimed represented the building's characteristics. They theorized what might have been the cause for the collapse, then ran their computer model and claimed it represented what had actually happened. NIST states office fires alone led to the collapse of the building.

Now, more than 1,000 architects and engineers are asking for a new investigation. They say this defies the laws of physics. They ask for information on the computer model. Was it an accurate representation of the building itself?

Attempts to use FOIA to get information on the model have been futile. NIST refuses to provide critical information, saying, "release of the information may endanger public safety."

What? Endanger public safety? FOIA requests shouldn't be refused for such outlandish reasons.

(Note: This was published as a letter to editor in the North County Times on April 6, 2010)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Flying Blind

(Note: written in the form of my president's message for posting on the Progressive Democrats of North San Diego County website.)

Like a hiker searching for a solid rock in the stream, Progressive Democrats of North San Diego County seem to be searching for solid footing in the political landscape. On the one hand, the two major political parties appear to be two sides to the same coin, a coin good only for maintaining the status quo. Others feel the differences between the two parties are substantial, not at all equivalent to being the same coin.

Some of us feel the solid footing is with the Democrats. Others of us feel that, if that footing is solid, it is solid only in the sense of being solidly attached to “business as usual” or the status quo.

In our general meeting of February 14, where I recounted material presented to the House of Parliament by Chris Martenson on the three E’s—Economy, Energy, and Environment, the bottom line was that the next 20 years are going to be very different from the past 20 years. If the next 20 years are going to be very different, then we have almost no past history as a guide. It almost has to be, by definition, a time of great uncertainty. In that context, we should make our best effort to become aware of and anticipate differences from the “business as usual” frame of reference that most likely will be there. We should make that the backdrop for any changes in program areas we seek to advocate.

For example, consider some of the discussion concerning the recent health care debate pertained to either potential costs or savings of various proposals. The Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) presented the savings for Single-Payer Bill, HR 676, as compared with the Reconciliation Bill passed by the House on 3/21/2010, as a YES for HR 676 savings, claiming a redirect of $400 Billion in administrative waste to care, with no net increase in health spending. This, as compared to a NO for savings with the Reconciliation Bill of 3/21, where it would increase health spending by about $1 trillion over 10 years. It has been difficult to keep track of the various savings and cost estimates, partly because secondary items get added on or deleted, making apples-to-apples comparisons challenging. The Congressional Budget Office is thought to provide a bipartisan means of assessment of the projected costs of future program options. However, does bipartisan mean the same coin? What if that “same coin” is so heavily biased towards the “business as usual” assumptions that it completely misses a future that is “completely different,” in the sense that Martenson speaks?

We are flying blind into the next 20 years. Business-as-usual methods of projecting future costs and/or savings aren’t going to keep up with the dramatically changing world of constraint. Maybe we should search for a different rock to plant our foot.