June 04, 2010

Hire Everyone for the Census

Although I'm personally down on the Census. While in Florida recently, I stayed at a condo in Delray Beach owned by a colleague at work. One Sunday night, a census worker, a woman in perhaps late middle-age, nervous, suspicious, slightly creepy, came to the door. She identified herself with various badges, certificates and other paraphernalia. I had the sense that she had staked out this condo for several weeks, waiting for a light to come on. I invited her in, we pulled up a couple of cane chairs at the round table in the kitchenette. The following conversation ensued:

Census: Do you live here?
Walden: No.
C: Do you know who does?
W: Yes, a colleague in California, although he doesn't actually live here.
C: I wouldn't be coy with the census if I were you.
W: Wouldn't you...or couldn't you?
(Okay, that part didn't happen. It's from "Bananas.")
C: Do you know who was here on April 1?
W: No.
C: Who would?
W: [gives (up) name of colleague]
C: Would he know who was here?
W: I would imagine.
C: Can you give me his number?
W: I don't think I would actually feel comfortable giving it out.
C: I'll give you my number, and can you have him call me?

[Gives me her number.]

W: The thing is, it doesn't really matter who was here on April 1. Anyone staying here, including the owner, actually lives somewhere else and would be counted there. Wouldn't they?
C: For each address, we're supposed to find out who was there on April 1.
W: Okay, suppose we say that no one was here. That's probably true, too.
C: Do you know that for a fact?
W: No.

Two days passed. Naturally, since I was on vacation, I didn't disturb my colleague; meaning, I didn't follow up. Personally, I don't want Florida to have any more votes than they have now. I haven't forgotten the 2000 election. Arriving home on Tuesday night, I went upstairs and, fatefully, turned on the light. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door.

C: Were you able to reach your friend? I didn't get a call.
W: I haven't been able to reach him. (Technically true. It's hard to reach people you haven't called.)
C: Well, I need to find out who was here on April 1.

I decided not to revisit our earlier dialogue touching on the logic of this quest, feeling it was adequately covered in the previous interview.

Later that night, leaving the condo, I saw the census worker a few doors away, questioning another suspect. I went downstairs to my rental car, and noticed, a few spaces away, a car with an American flag suction-cupped to the right passenger window. I returned in about an hour. The car was still there. The U.S. Census, laboring long into the night. The next morning I came down to the car, noticing first that the Census car was gone, and then observing that there was a gouge in the right passenger door of my rented Korean sedan, as if someone had struck the panel with a golf club and scraped it along the side. Let's just say I immediately had my suspicions and let it go at that. I used up the rest of my vacation time taking the car in for an estimate to protect my insurer from an outrageous claim from Budget, photographing the damage with my iPhone and emailing that to the insurer, calling the local sheriff to report an act of vandalism, and in general acting like a responsible adult about this unfortunate episode. No hard feelings; this country believes in doing what it has to, to get people to talk.

Sheriff: Any suspects?
W: Well...not really.
Sheriff: Is this a gated community?

(What isn't, in South Florida?)

W: Yes.
Sheriff: Could be security cameras then.

Visions of a case under the Federal Tort Claims Act danced in my head, but only for a moment. The country has enough problems.

The USA has hired 600,000 temporary workers for the census program. Let's assume there are about 320 million American citizens. News reports indicate that about 75% of American households responded by mail. That leaves 80 million people presently uncounted. With 600,000 workers canvassing for reluctant citizens (or those on the lam, or hiding from ex-wives), we've got one canvasser for every 133 people. Most of our recent "job growth" is attributable to two things only: Birth/Death of business estimates (total guesswork) and census hires. I begin to see that my slightly desperate census worker was just working the tiny territory alloted to her, and working it very hard. I almost feel bad. It's just that it didn't make any sense...

This is No Country for Old Men, nor for those who insist on rationality. If hiring one of out of about every 500 Americans to count the rest of us makes any sense, and if we're going to call that "economic recovery," then logic is hardly our first priority.

Tell you what: let's just say I was there on April 1.

June 02, 2010

Robert Frost, slightly updated

Stopping by the Gulf on an Oily Evening

Whose gulf this is, I have no clue,
Does it belong to me and you?
Well, you won't mind me stopping here,
To watch our gulf fill up with goo.

My SUV must think it queer,
To stop without a BP near,
Between a dying duck and drake,
The shittiest evening of the year.

My Navigator gives a shake
To ask if there is some mistake;
The only other sound's the seep
Of all that oil we had to take.

The gulf was lovely, dark and deep
Till we drilled oil wells on the cheap
And left this place without a peep,
And all the dolphins went to sleep.

June 01, 2010

Oh Gulf of Mexico, Never Really Been & I Don't Wanna Go

Not completely true: when my uncle worked for Nabisco, he lived in Galveston with my aunt and their three boys. We visited them in the summer, and I remember that the Gulf felt like a warm bath. My maternal grandmother could never get the name right; kept calling it "Galwestern," so it's just as well my uncle and family moved back to Arlington. That kind of confusion can get on your nerves after a few decades. And Jimmy Webb would have gotten nowhere writing a song about Galwestern.

before I dry the tears she's cryin',
before I watch your sea birds flyin'...
but all gucked up!
They're all f**ked up!

It does not appear that any method of capping the Deep Horizon well is going to work after all. One might note, if one tended toward the cynical, that British Petroleum chose their order of solutions in a way consistent with maximal commercial recovery of the spouting oil. There was the box, which clogged up with methane hydrates, but would have allowed BP a way to pump oil from the gusher to a surface ship. And then sell the oil. The "topkill" and "junkshot" approaches are end-of-the-line methods, seemingly easier, but with no oil-sale payoff.

Anyway, nothing worked, and that's not really surprising. This is a formidable gusher, rising with enough force to overcome water pressures of 1,700 pounds per square inch at the seabed. So - great news! - there must really be a lot of oil in that reservoir BP tapped into! So the race is on: will BP's relief well get there before the reservoir plays itself out? I imagine that someone on Wall Street is figuring out a credit default swap on that one so we can all wager.

It's difficult to find a consistent figure for the quantity of oil entering the Gulf of Mexico. The ranges I have read go from 5,000 barrels on the low side up to 70,000 barrels. Again, I would imagine there is a huge margin of error involved here; while it's easy to talk about fixing this thing, or measuring the flow, it's difficult, for me at least, to envision what it's like to try to operate machinery in an intricate manner, by remote control, in pitch blackness, at a depth 5,000 feet beneath the surface. It's a wonder they can even find the well.

A consensus guess puts the flow at 20,000 barrels. Figuring 55 gallons to the barrel, we're looking at 1.1 million gallons a day. To give myself some mental picture of what that number means, I looked up the cubic volume of an Olympic swimming pool 50 meters long, 25 meters wide and 2 meters deep. Such a pool holds about 660,000 gallons. So we're not far away (or maybe even over, if the higher end estimates of oil flow are more accurate) from two Olympic-sized pools full of black, gooey petroleum entering the seas off Galwestern on a daily basis, as has been the case for about the last 6 weeks. And which will continue, probably, until August, unless the "riser cut" approach pans out, which does not look promising. So looking at 120 days of this stuff, we will dump about 240 Oly-sized pools into the Gulf of Mexico before this thing is brought under control. Since oil has a lower specific gravity than water (at least at comparable temperatures), eventually all of this goo will get to the surface where it can coat everything and do maximal damage.

Sun's so hot, I forgot to go home, guess I'll have to go now...

As for Presidential "optics," I don't personally care whether President Obama spends every day on the beach in Louisiana or not. He's got the wardrobe part down pat, having watched other "hands-on" Presidents take their turn at natural disaster management. No tie, windbreaker, some kind of hokey shoes, like Timberlands. Bending over thoughtfully and picking up a tar ball. A dead pelican would be more like it, or even...an albatross, but it doesn't really matter. I assume that Obama has no independent expertise in plugging deep-water oil wells. Modern politicians specialize in photo-ops and image creation rather than substantive competence. They're more in the way than anything else, and while they're in town there must be so much trouble over "advance men," and making sure the right local political hacks are in the frame with the Head Man, and the right Moments of Empathy are caught on film that it's probably better if Obama stays in D.C., or Chicago, or wherever, and allows the other federal know-nothings to nod sagely as people who actually work in the field of oil drilling talk out loud about their next futile strategy.