Friday, May 20, 2011

The Christian Science Monitor, Bad Fact-Checking, and Plagiarism

Came across this article in all the news about the Mississippi River flooding:
William Sargent, Letting Mississippi Run its Natural Course Could Save New Orleans from Hurricanes, Christian Science Monitor, May 19, 2011.
Sargent points out that, yes, it would have been good for the Louisiana coast to let the Mississippi River run wild, keep depositing sediment in the delta to build up new coastal wetlands, and shift course every five thousand years, as it has done throughout its history, and which it would have done at some point by now if man hadn’t intervened. But Sargent gets several points wrong and glosses over several important issues. Wrong is his statement comparing a possible breach of the river’s levees with Katrina’s flooding:
The full force of the Mississippi would fill up the underwater bowl in which New Orleans lies with far more force and water than filled the city when Lake Pontchetrain burst it’s levees after Katrina.
First, the lake is spelled “Pontchartrain” and its levees did NOT burst after Katrina; it was the floodwalls along the various canals in the city that burst. In fact, no levees “burst” during Katrina: some were overtopped, but it was the collapsing of the floodwalls that caused the worst of the flooding in New Orleans.

And he glosses over the drawbacks of letting the Mississippi flow down the Atchafalaya basin, as it would have done if the Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t tamed it with the Morganza Spillway and others structures along the river in that same area. Yes, all that sediment that the Mississippi washes down from the middle third or so of the country could now be building new wetlands along the middle of the Louisiana coast, but not if we wanted to keep it navigable. The reason we’re losing wetlands south of New Orleans is that the river has been engineered to not silt up and so all the sediment is going out into the Gulf instead of building up new land along the mouth of the river.

But Sargent’s most egregious offense is to rip off a memorable image from John McPhee’s 1987 New Yorker February 23, 1987 article, The Control of Nature (Atchafalaya). Sargent may have “consulted” this article in his research, as it is one of the standard works on the history of controlling the Mississippi, but he crosses the line with the second of these two paragraphs:
The Mississippi River is impressive. In New Orleans, it is straitjacketed between 20-foot high levees, and the river itself is over 150 feet deep. When President Bush finally went down to New Orleans to address the situation after hurricane Katrina, he stood on Jackson Square, facing the river that flowed by, 20 feet over his head.

You could see the superstructure of supertankers and hear the quiet thrumming of their engines as they cruised by in front of him. If the ships could have cruised over the nearby superdome they would have hovered in the air 10 feet above centerfield. It would have been an impressive photo-op, indeed, if the levees had decided to break during the presidential address.
Besides not capitalizing “Superdome” (a minor oversight, unless you’re a Saints Fan!!! Its “THE Superdome”, not “a superdome”, like there are a couple of dozen of them scattered around the country), the image of ships hovering over the playing field is clearly lifted from this paragraph in McPhee’s article:
William Sargent Plagiarized Plagiarism John McPhee

Here’s the two key sentences, side by side:

If the ships could have cruised over the nearby superdome they would have hovered in the air 10 feet above centerfield.
[I]f somehow the ships could turn and move at river level into the city and into the stadium they would hover above the playing field like blimps.
I’ve been reading a whole lot about plagiarism for an article I’m working on, and all the definitions for plagiarism include something along the lines of “using the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own.” And that, clearly, is what Sargent has done here. Oh, and “centerfield” is part of the field where baseball is played. In football commentators generally call the area around the fifty-yard line “mid-field.”

Full blog post...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Italian Combat Readiness in WWI

In yesterday's New York Times Book Review, the title review, by Christopher Hitchens, is Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, a new book on WWI.

What caught my eye is this accompanying photograph:

The caption in the review reads “Italian soldiers killed during an Austrian attack in the mountains near Cividale, circa 1917.” Well, no freaking kidding they were killed - they brought a damn guitar into combat - that shows where their priorities were!

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jazz Fest, Professor Houck, and Global Warming: Year 3

This is my second update to my original post in 2009 about Tulane Law Professor’s Oliver Houck’s prediction of how global warming will affect Jazz Fest. Prof. Houck’s article, Can We Save New Orleans?, 19 Tul. Envtl L. Rev 1 (2006) (PDF), is a very good piece written just after Hurricane Katrina and intersperses his personal evacuation tale amongst a detailed, pessimistic history of the environmental indignations that Louisiana, New Orleans, and the Mississippi River have suffered for the past century or so.

At one point Houck recites a litany of the worst predictions of rising global temperatures and, to try to make it more relevant to us here in New Orleans, flippantly says:
So what? Here in Louisiana we will be warmer in summer (think, maybe, 103 degrees at Jazz Fest) . . . . Houck, 19 Tul. Envtl. L. Rev 1, at 27.
The source he cites says that:
[It] is projected that by 2100, temperatures in Louisiana could increase about 3°F (with a range of 1-5°F) in spring and summer, slightly less in winter, and slightly more in fall. Envtl. Prot. Agency, Climate Change and Louisiana 2 (1997).
(See last year’s discussion for the minor problems with this cite in Houck’s article.)

Since I had been to many Jazz Fests when I read this article, and never remembered the temperature being in the high nineties, I thought this "prediction" was way off base and then, of course, had to figure out when the hottest JazzFests on record were. My original post on this, in 2009, talks about how I got the temperatures for all the past Jazz Fest (a pain in the ass) and about my methodologies in compiling them. Long story short, the hottest Jazz Fest ever was 2002, when the average temperature for the ten days of the Festival period was 89.7°F. Pretty damn hot, but a good thirteen degrees away from 103°F that Houck predicts and well out of even the maximum range by which the EPA says temperatures “could increase.”

This year’s Jazz Fest, with an average temperature of 82.6°F, was the 20th hottest on record. Here are the updated charts, current through the 2011 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

New Orleans Jazz Fest - Average Temperatures Year by Year

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Average Temperatures Ranked Hottest to Coolest

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Average Temperatures Ranked Coolest to Hottest

Conclusions? The 2011 was statistically right in the middle of all of them; three of the five hottest Jazz Fests were between 1987 and 1995, and three of the ten coolest Jazz Fests have been since 2004. There is no global warming trend evident at Jazz Fest.

Full blog post...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Is the New York Times and/or Stephen L. Carter Wrong?

Ok, so this isn’t the most timely comment. I’m catching up on stuff and cleaning off my desk after meeting two big deadlines in the past month, which is why this may have been, I think, the biggest gap in posts since I started this blog way back in aught-eight.

I had flagged James Traub’s review of Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter’s book, The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama, in the New York Times Book Review from back in - jeez! - January. Carter apparently takes Obama to task for continuing the Bush wars without any improved adherence to the “just war” theory that is the focus of Carter’s book.

The quote in the review that caught my eye was this:
Carter observes that the Bush administration coined the term “unlawful combatant” to place America’s new adversaries beyond the reach of the Geneva Conventions.
I read that and though, uhh, doubtful. Five minutes with Westlaw found several cases from WWII and the 1950s about “unlawful combatants”.

Here’s the relevant part of one such case, Colepaugh v. Looney, 235 F.2d 429 (10th Cir. 1956):

Colepaugh v. Looney

The case it cites is a Supreme Court case from WWII, Ex parte Quirin 317 U.S. 1 (1942), which says:

Ex parte Quirin

I’m no expert in this subject, but either 1) Stephen Carter is wrong - doubtful - 2) the NYT reviewer is wrong - possible - or, most likely, 3) the NYT reviewer was lazy in summarizing Carter’s statements about unlawful combatants and the Bush administration. Like all law professors, Carter is very likely a genius at grafting multiple layers of conditions and clarifications on anything he says. We have the book, and I really don’t want to read it just to find out about this, but I might have to because, based on the Traub review, Carter is absolute wrong and has completely mis-represented the Bush administration’s use of the unlawful combatant status in military law during its eight years, seven and a half of which were engaged in the war on terror, which Obama’s recent good luck in continuing Bush’s policies will probably do little to help resolve.

Full blog post...