Friday, April 30, 2010

Mayday on May Day

Things are looking pretty grim in Louisiana. Our economy is based largely on oil and fishing. This time of year birds nest and fish spawn. Now oil has entered the fragile marshes and wetlands. The state has closed all commercial and recreational fishing east of the Mississippi River. The oil is a heavier and more damaging crude than was previously thought, and it's spewing out faster than earlier believed. A leaked classified document from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Emergency Ops starts off "The following is not public" and then goes on to speculate that if the pipe further deteriorates the current rate could multiply tenfold. At long last the government is losing patience with BP, who seemed to be flying solo for a week after the explosion. Sadly British Petroleum's exploration plan for the Deepwater Horizon well states that it was "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities." It also says that wildlife refuges and beaches were too far away to ever be effected by a spill. They were wrong.
Large numbers of people are now talking about the effects lasting years instead of months. Some, including me, fear it could be more like decades and generations. I hope I'm wrong. Plus it's May Day, a day celebrating workers. Fishermen are being economically forced to apply for clean up work from the same company, BP, who put them out of business and ruined their lives.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Robot Submarines & Oil-Sucking Domes

What an amazing world in which we live, at least according to the oil industry spokespeople. Here I was worried about the environmental impact of massive quantities of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Some sources said it's 1000 barrels a day, others say 7400 barrels. That's a difference of 268,800 gallons per day. Is that big? Frankly I'm surprised they don't have some sort of meter on the hole where the oil comes out. Maybe Home Depot can hook them up for the next time. But in any case, it doesn't even matter apparently. Technology will fix everything.

In this futuristic world in which we currently live, the first line of defense involves robot submarines that swim around deep in the gulf and try to flip a 450-ton valve at the wellhead to shut it off. Shockingly, that doesn't seem to be working, though there are reports of some whales swimming in the oil spill. Can't we train them to plug the leak? What about Shamu in Orlando? Can't we get freakin' Shamu to use an oil-plugging laser? Trained killer whales with lasers working in tandem with robot submarines. That will stop the leak for sure, if the giant Nazi squids don't sabotage the operation.

The second line of defense for the rare cases when robot subs don't work is a giant oil sucking underwater dome. Today I learned engineers are designing this very thing. True, such devices haven't been used in deep water before, and some estimate it will take a month to be built and arrive at the scene, but what a great idea. They could save some time by just using the roof of the Superdome to capture the oil. But please make sure to tell the whales and the robot submarines, as we wouldn't want them to get sucked up into the magic dome with all the oil.

Wednesday I predict we'll hear about rocket propelled fire sponges, followed by microscopic alloy space needles on Thursday. But then the message will change dramatically on Friday when the oil hits the Chandeleur Islands and pictures of pelicans covered in oil start making the internet rounds. But the best part of this futuristic tech world in which we live is that BP stocks will take a short-term hit but ultimately continue to grow dramatically in value. But for now, I'm praying for the robot subs.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Solar Panels in Sunny New Orleans (Part 2)

In January I posted that we had a 3.36 KW solar panel system installed. Though I've still not heard from the Feds or State of Louisiana about our 2009 tax rebates (we should get back about $20,ooo of our $26,225 investment), we have received two Entergy bills. I should point out early that this post is full of technical data and boring numbers so you should probably stop reading here unless you're thinking about installing panels. Here's the data:

Entergy Bill from February 17 to March 18, 2010
We used 785 kWh from Entergy (cf. 1063 kWh 2009 bill), and we sold back 219 kWh from electricity produced by the panels. Thus Entergy charged us for a net of 566 kWh which cost $16.78. Each kWh cost 2.96 cents.
Enphase, which I use to monitor my system, records that my panels produced 463.89 kWh of energy during this same period. So why is there such a discrepancy between the 463 that my system claims and Entergy's claim of only 219? Anthony Reis from Solar Works clarified that the difference comes from when we're at home in daylight hours and consuming electricity at the same time the panels are producing it. Thus the Entergy meter registers a much lower number.
Bottom line: Total Entergy bill (gas and electric) was $125.79, compared to $194.27 for same period in 2009. Savings = $68.48.
From March 18 to April 15, 2010
We used 770 kWh from Entergy (cf. 798 kWh 2009 bill), and we sold 259 kWh back, for a net of 511 kWh which cost $16.31. Each kWh cost 3.2 cents (notice the increase from last month, and thanks Entergy).
Enphase records that my panels produced 523.17 kWh.
Bottom line: Total Entergy bill was $90.69, compared to $124.23 for same period in 2009. Savings = $33.54
It's way too early to accurately predict overall performance with just two months of data. But thus far we've saved an average of $51 per month. That means it would take 10 years for the system to pay for itself, a bit longer than the six years we predicted. However, we're entering the summer months when the panels will produce more electricity, and as electricity charges go up, so does the value of my system. Plus, it's not so precise to calculate the benefit of the solar panels by just comparing the Entergy bills, as they also include charges for gas, base rate charges, and charges being added on to Entergy New Orleans customers for "Emergency Storm Reserve Fund." So at this point, I'm happy about the panels. This is mostly because I'm paying Entergy less money than I would be without the panels. But also, with a giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with 11 dead, and a mining explosion in W. Virginia with 29 dead, I'm reminded that there needs to be an increased focus on renewable energy.

"Truth Will Rise above Falsehood as Oil above Water"

Or so said Cervantes many years ago.

More recently, or five days to be exact, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig tragically exploded in the Gulf of Mexico about 40 miles south of the coast of Louisiana. Sadly, 11 people died. During the first 48 hours after the explosion, we were told that we need not worry about the environment. We were told that the deep-water hole was spewing an estimated 13,000 gallons of crude oil per hour but it was nearly all burning, and it was heading away from the shore, according to Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry.

Yesterday the Coast Guard changed their minds and said that now they were concerned with the oil spill. Now we're told that as much as 1000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of oil is leaking each day. However, another source says it is 7,400 barrels per day. That's quite a big difference. The Coast Guard said they've identified a 20 mile square oil sheen about 40 miles off the coast, and it seems to be heading northeast towards the Mississippi/Alabama/Florida coast. I believe that in about five to seven days, when the oil hits the coast and we see all the dead fish and oil soaked birds, there will be international outrage. Fat men in bermuda shorts will yell at the cameras. But I don't think these companies are touchable legally.

Transocean, a Swiss company with holdings all over the world, hired BP Exploration which then leased the Deepwater Horizon rig. Good luck with that, and of course, drill baby drill.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

So No Human Bones In Donner Hearth?

As a Bible scholar who seeks to better understand ancient texts through the disciplines of history and archaeology, I've been fascinated by a recent debate concerning the Donner Party.

Historians have little doubt that these people ate human flesh to survive the harsh winter of 1846-47. Survivors said they did, and historically speaking, it's well documented.

But enter the anthropologists... Gwen Robbins at Appalachian State University excavated one of the Donner Camps. In the hearth she found the bones of several animals but no human bones were discovered. Suddenly media outlets are running with the story that the Donner Party never ate people. I know pretty well how the media works, and how controversy and quotations out of context are common. But what troubles me here is that I fear the anthropologists might be overstepping their evidence, something I've often seen in the world of biblical studies.

The website from Robbins' university published this article. It falsely says the survivors "fiercely denied allegations of cannibalism." True, some did, but most admitted they ate people. The article states that the "legend of the Donner party was primarily created by print journalists... to sell more newspapers." Let me tell you, I have certainly heard a similar argument applied to biblical authors and biblical scholars. The article records that there are china shards in the hearth so they conclude these people attempted to maintain a "normal life" and their "refusal to accept the harsh reality of the moment." Interesting, but I'm reminded that Hannibal Lecter used fancy dishes. Anyway, I'll be anxious to read the full academic article in American Antiquity which comes out in July.

But for now my point is this: the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. The human bones, that survivors claimed they ate towards the end of their stay in the camp, would have been at the top of the hearth, making them less likely to be preserved for later excavation. The survivors talk about cooking the bones in very small pieces, so it's believable that they left no trace. So sorry media, but I think we're a long way away from separating the Donner Party from their alleged act of infamy. And in the end, as Indiana Jones tells us, archaeology is the search for fact, not truth, whatever the heck that means.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ezekiel and Resurrected Bones

My sixth opinion piece in the Times-Picayune appears in tomorrow's paper. It's about Ezekiel and the work Mark Gstohl and I have done with our Xavier students at St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 in collaboration with Save Our Cemeteries. Thanks to Annette Sisco of the T-P for her help with this.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Steven Seagal's Unique Reaction To Sexual Arousal?

Forget about HBO's Treme, the best thing about being in New Orleans right now is that Jefferson Parish lawman Steven Seagal is being sued for more than $1 million by Kayden Nguyen for allegedly recruiting her on Craigslist to be an assistant and then changing the job description to that of a full time sex slave. She claims Steven Seagal always seems to have two human sex toys on hand for special massages, and Seagal's wife is OK with it. All this time I thought it was the meditation that made Buddhists like Seagal and Tiger Woods so mellow, but perhaps the full body rub downs might contribute as well.

The lawsuit can be found here. Seagal's people claim, of course, the whole thing is false and that they fired Ms. Nguyen because she was a drug addict. Amazingly, the whole case might come down to some secret knowledge that only people who have been intimate with Mr. Seagal could know about. According to p. 11 of the lawsuit:

"As Ms. Nguyen began sobbing, Mr. Seagal became sexually aroused and had a unique physiological reaction to sexual arousal. Ms. Nguyen can and will describe in great detail Mr. Seagal's unique physical reaction to sexual arousal. Other females who have been present when Mr. Seagal has become sexually aroused will be able to verify the truthfulness of Ms. Nguyen's factual knowledge about the characteristics of Mr. Seagal's unique physiological reaction."

From watching Lawman, I know already that Steven Seagal can see things like the Predator. Now I learn that he has organs beyond his eyes that are exceptional.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Will The Treme Make Me Cry?

I am very much looking forward to seeing HBO's new series The Treme. I'm a huge fan of David Simon's previous shows, especially The Wire. Plus John Goodman's character is based on the late great man of letters and punk rock fan Ashley Morris. Most (but not all) predict that The Treme will be a great ambassador for the unique culture of New Orleans. It should also help in educating America that the disaster in New Orleans was caused not so much by a storm, but by the greatest engineering failure in the history of this country.

However, I'm a bit nervous about watching The Treme. This morning while I was getting ready for work, I was listening to an NPR interview with David Simon and Clarke Peters. Clarke Peters was talking about a clip in which his Indian Chief character was looking for a friend in a desolate neighborhood just after the flood waters receded. I started thinking about those days after flood, about all the milestones such as discarding refrigerators, gutting moldy drywall, restaurants slowly reopening, visiting friends who moved to other cities, and all that garbage that is seared so deeply into my memory. I got a bit teary eyed remembering those difficult days. Through all those hardships we laughed and joked, but it wasn't at all funny. Like many (if not all of us) in New Orleans, I have so much baggage that I've repressed during these past 5 years.

But of course I'll watch the show religiously. I loved K-Ville, so you know I'm really going to fall for this one. Everyone's invited to our house to watch it Sunday at 9PM, especially those who don't have HBO.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Cameras & War

This morning I watched a disturbing video from Wikileaks that shows two U.S. Apache helicopters use 30 mm canons to kill 12 people and injure two children back in 2007. The military claimed the dead were armed insurgents, though they later learned that two of the dead worked for Reuters. The pilots mistakenly thought a camera stretched over a shoulder was a gun. Listening to the two pilots is the most troubling aspect of this for me. I can imagine combat is stressful and there is a psychological need to demonize the enemy. But unlike these pilots, I would imagine that I would never laugh after a tank rolls over a corpse or say "Nice!" after someone states "Look at those dead bastards!" Here's the video. It's about 17 minutes long and be warned that it is pretty graphic.

Monday, April 05, 2010

An Archaeology Dream

Last night I dreamt that I was excavating a Late Bronze building in southern Jordan, and against a wall I discovered a golden cultic vessel from Egypt. As I was showing this very important find to the dig directors, one of them noticed some writing on the object. As I looked carefully, it said in English "Radio Shack copyright 1982." I was very upset because the stratigraphical sequencing for the entire season was now worthless.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Crossroads

We went to the Crossroads, the place on Highway 61 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The plan was that Kalypso would bring her violin and Gilgamesh would bring his drumsticks and they would exchange their souls to the Prince of Darkness for musical mastery. It didn't work out that way, as the devil never showed up. Perhaps it was because we went on Good Friday? We did see a guy who looked like Ralph Macchio though at the Delta Blues Museum. I asked him "Hey Eugene Martone, where's Willie Brown?" He said his name was Bob not Eugene. As I look back on our brief exchange, I think he might have actually been the devil. Another missed opportunity, as now I will have to continue to listen to my kids practice their instruments.