The Stupid Human Factor

My GPS is a miracle of 21st Century technology. Linking to satellites in geosynchronous orbit, the GPS uses timing down to a milisecond.

When I turn it on it displays a message– Do not program the GPS while driving the car. Duh.

It’s not that we’re that stupid, it’s that when there’s a temptation to get it done fast, human nature leads us to figure we can get away with it. And we do. Until we don’t.

The same goes for corruption. Ever since I was a kid punching a power press in a factory, and the boss came around in a panic turning the safety shields back into the proper position– instead of pushed to the side so we could work faster– I am unsurprised by expedience. OSHA didn’t have teeth even then, but the prospect of a fine made more of an impression than protecting workers from losing fingers. Of course, after the inspection, he turned the shields back to where they were out of the way.

Raw Story posts this item from today’s Ashahi Shimbun…

A subcontractor at Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant told workers to lie about possible high radiation exposure in an apparent effort to keep its contract, reports said Saturday.

An executive at construction firm Build-Up in December told about 10 of its workers to cover their dosimeters, used to measure cumulative radiation exposure, with lead casings when working in areas with high radiation, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and other media said.

The action was apparently designed to under-report their exposure to allow the company to continue working at the site of the worst nuclear disaster in a generation, media reports said.

If we build more of these nuclear plants, we are creating a permanent hazard for future generations. Will human nature evolve fast enough to carry this burden?

It Could Never Happen Here, Right?

An inquiry by the Japanese parliament has concluded that the Fukushima nuclear disaster was largely man-made.

The parliamentary report, based on more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people, suggests that reactor No. 1, in particular, may have suffered quake damage — including the possibility that pipes burst from the shaking, leading to a loss of cooling even before the tsunami hit the plant about 30 minutes after the initial quake. It emphasized that a full assessment would require better access to the inner workings of the reactors, which could take years.

“However, it is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami),” the report said, “and not on the more foreseeable quake.”

I can’t help noticing that ‘tsunami’ is a Japanese word.

As in the US, the Japanese people are paying for privatized profit and socialized risk. The unavoidable suffering of the earthquake disaster was multiplied by human folly– hubris, collusion, denial, complacency and greed. These are universals of human nature.

Before the world builds more nuclear power plants, consider the lessons of Japan.

Tough Talk in the Times

Maureen Dowd is mightier than a nun with a ruler in her Sunday column. Some singed vestments out there. John L. Allen of the National Catholic Reporter argues that Pope Benedict has done more than his predecessors to combat child abuse. No doubt this is true, but not convincing. Let me explain using a parable.

Once there was a man who bought a huge old house that had been divided up into apartments. He used his life savings to buy the house and moved into the landlord apartment on the top floor. Soon he discovered a problem.

The plumbing, which was as old as the house, had never been upgraded. The previous three owners had done almost no upkeep. To do the job right would be hugely expensive and disruptive.

Soon some of the tenants from the basement apartments began to complain of stopped drains and bad smells. The landlord hired the same handyman who had done work for the other owners. Duct tape was applied.

It was only a matter of time until sewage backed up into the basement shower. The landlord had his guy remove the shower and cap off the pipes and all was well for a while. But then a bad smell started to rise from the cement floor. The landlord had his guy put down a new coat of cement. The smell was gone but the tenants had started to complain. They wanted a real fix, instead of having to wonder when the old pipes were going to fail again.

“Why me?” the landlord asked them. “It’s not fair to blame me for all this. I’ve done more to fix this problem than any of the previous owners. Besides, no one on the top floors is complaining about bad smells. I think you are just persecuting me.”

That’s my answer to John L. Allen. The Catholic church did not invent child abuse and they are not the only organization plagued by revelations of crime and cover-up. But the Church has to take responsibility for what’s coming up the drainpipes. If Benedict has done more, it’s basically because he has no choice.

Real fundamental reform of the institution would not be cheap or easy, but if they do not fix the mess, then no one will want to live in the house.

ANOTHER VOICE: Sinead O’ Connor was sent to an Irish reform school as a child, she writes about the culture of abuse that should not be allowed to prevail.

Reality-Based Explanation

The Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian Earthquake were all acts of nature. The extent of the suffering and damage was worsened by human failings. In hindsight, the loss of life could have been far less if warnings had been taken seriously, but you would have to go back decades to unravel the tangle of bad decisions and events that left people unprotected from natural disasters. has some background on the politics and architecture of Haiti. War, corruption and greed play in to all three of these recent disasters. We know what is wrong and how to fix it, but are we able to trade short-term gain for wisdom?

Deworming Student Loans

Gail Collins talks sense about student loans–

Let us stop here and recall how the current loan system works:

1) Federal government provides private banks with capital.

2) Federal government pays private banks a subsidy to lend that capital to students.

3) Federal government guarantees said loans so the banks don’t have any risk.

And now, the proposed reform:

1) The federal government makes the loans.

Wow. You really do wonder why nobody came up with this idea before.

This is one example of corruption under the banner of privatization. There’s a big mess to clean up– let’s hope that this year’s freshmen will not be burdened by unreasonable interest rates on their loans when they graduate.

In related news, Parasitical Worms Afflict American Health Care. There’s a lot of this going around.