Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Water Table Myth and Tornado Protection

In several different contexts of late, the continuing myth of the local water table being too high (or too variable) for certain types of construction has come up.  My colleague Dr. Matt Biddle has brought to my attention that this is essentially balderdash!  His father was in the concrete business, and Matt's opinion certainly seems well-founded.  Concrete can be poured and will set up just fine completely underwater!  The home construction industry has been selling the idea that a high water table somehow precludes having basements across a great deal of the southern US.  It seems that the reality is that no such problem exists!  In the past, homes used to be constructed with basements here (in OK, and elsewhere in the south) all the time.  But it's cheaper and faster to build homes on a slab than it is to dig out for a foundation at the homesite and build that foundation before commencing home construction.  This added cost would have to be passed on to customers.  But if people can't afford that cost, then perhaps building on a concrete slab is a viable economic alternative.  Be nice to have the choice!

The home construction industry also opposes needed changes to building codes to reflect the actual threat from tornadoes and strong winds here in the plains - for similar reasons:  it adds to the cost and to the time needed to construct a home.  The latter is critical - builders make their profits by speed of construction.  Get it built quickly so it can be sold quickly!  Builders often seek exemptions from building codes in order to reduce construction time, while sacrificing structural integrity - the use of powder-driven nails to "secure" walls to the sill plate is a classic example.  Building codes generally specify the use of J-bolts for securing the walls to the foundation/slab but the builders circumvent this by obtaining an "exemption" to use the much less secure nailing method (much faster!).  So the bottom line is that if the builders had to increase the price because of their additional costs and time, they wouldn't be able to build so many homes.  Fewer people could afford them.  Profits go down.  The opposition from home builders to change is understood, but it's not necessarily in the best interests of the home buyers!

The tired "water table" excuse has been used for so long now, it's passed into "common wisdom" and so isn't even questioned - Ooops, the water table is too high here!  No basements are possible!  Everyone knows that, so don't bother to ask about it!  This is a classic case where someone raises a somewhat esoteric objection to a proposal, and the proposer is not aware of the reality of the situation, thereby feeling compelled to accept a completely specious argument mostly out of innocent ignorance.  I encounter this sort of thing from time to time - I can think of folks who are masters at pulling such objections out of thin air in a conversation, where further investigation after the argument shows that the objection is in fact without any substantial basis.  I hate it when that happens during an argument, but I admit that I have fallen victim to such, even recently.  The water table objection has been accepted as valid, despite its evident lack of validity, for so long, no one now even contemplates mentioning the issue to their home builder.  If I wanted a basement for a new home I was building, could I even find a contractor willing and able to do it here in central Oklahoma?  I wonder.

What's really bothersome is that builders use the false claim that basements are precluded by the water table as an excuse for not building homes with basements.  This has a direct impact on the availability of in-home tornado sheltering places, of course. That's actually why I'm writing this essay.  If more homes had basements that people could use for below-ground shelters, then we could reduce tornado fatalities as a result.  Just being below ground is not enough, however - there should be something sturdy (like a staircase or a workbench) under which to shelter while in the basement, as debris can fall into the basement!

I recently heard the same incorrect "water table" argument from someone as an excuse why a subway system couldn't be built in a southern state.  I've seen examples where railroad tunnels have been built on the bottom of bays and rivers, surrounded on three sides by water!  The idea that the water table is an impenetrable barrier to the construction of underground rail transportation is just plain false.  A high water table may complicate matters some, and perhaps extra costs will be incurred, but the water table excuse simply doesn't wash (pun intended!).  People may not like the proposal of using rail as a means for public transport, but the water table is not a valid reason to reject such proposals.

When you hear the "water table" argument come up in conversation, feel free to ask the person using it to show evidence that it's a valid argument!  Yes, high water tables can cause leak problems for basements, but there are ways to minimize/prevent that leakage.  It's just not a valid excuse for not building basements in the southern states of the USA!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On the Separation of Church and State

A couple of topics have emerged in some "discussions" on social media ... the first concerns the tax-exempt status of churches.  There have been some pretty strident statements made by some churches that constitute political advocacy, thereby rendering them vulnerable to removal of their tax-exempt status by the IRS. However, it seems the IRS is really not very much into enforcement of the rules embodied in existing law.  As it now stands, like other charitable organizations, including secular ones, churches are granted tax-exempt status in return for their charitable activities.

Some religious radicals believe that churches are literally above the law of the land here in the USA and shouldn't even file for tax exemptions because they're not subject to the laws of our nation.  I think this is a pretty extremist position and won't dignify it with further discussion.

Some religious believers see the restrictions of political advocacy by churches, at risk of losing their tax-exempt status, as an abridgement of their right to free speech.  This is a specious argument!  Free speech is guaranteed to persons, not organizations, and no church member's free speech rights are being taken away by the Constitutional law requiring separation of church and state.  What's being prevented by the threat of loss of tax-exempt status is the "right" of churches to influence their congregation's votes in the political process.  When churches begin to take open, even flagrant stances of a political nature, they cease to be charitable organizations and become political, which should bring the wrath of the IRS down on them.  That is, if the IRS actually was able to enforce the laws, which it seems it's either unable to do, or reluctant to do so for fear of offending someone.

Any church seeking to influence the political process is clearly seeking to abrogate the principle of separation of church and state, which most thoughtful people acknowledge has been good for churches, as well as the USA's secular government.  State-supported religion is bad for religious freedom of any but the one favored religious denomination, and is contrary to the principles under which the USA was founded - despite the revisionist history being touted by advocates of an American theocracy.

The other topic concerns the evident futility of intercessory prayer - prayers asking for the deity to intercede on our behalf.  All scientific tests of the efficacy of intercessory prayer have produced the same result:  such prayers have about the same frequency of being answered as if no prayer at all were offered.  Praying for someone or something is a way to show your concern but such praying cannot be shown to have any effect on the outcome.  Therefore, it actually does nothing for the person(s) being prayed for, but it does make folks feel better, I suppose.  You can show your concern, which can be a comfort, without actually doing anything about the situation!

Anyway, imagine that the deity is what the abrahamic religions claim it to be:  infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, and infinitely benevolent.  Said being is said to have a mysterious "plan" that, conveniently, is beyond the comprehension of any mere human.  It's at least plausible to suppose that such an infinite being could well possess an incomprehensible plan.  Would it be too much to ask for some sort of crude explanation, anyway?  After all, an infinite being should have no trouble formulating an explanation to the dunces it created in the first place.  And if this being loves us, don't we deserve an explanation?  A loving human parent would never treat a child this way!

Thus, when our prayers aren't answered, the excuse apparently is that the deity's plan precluded changing that plan to accommodate human needs (including survival!).  If one grants this deity's infinite powers, we simply should accept our fate as dictated by that plan and acknowledge that the deity does whatever it wants to, irrespective of our pleading.  It seems presumptuous and arrogant to even entertain the idea that our human needs could cause an infinite deity to change the plan, just for us!  Our discomfort is all part of the plan, is it not?  Nothing happens on this planet without the deity's say-so, right? 

Of course, jesus promises in the new testament that the deity will indeed answer prayers from people of faith, in direct conflict with available evidence.  Apparently, the mysterious "plan" supercedes jesus's promises to answer prayers, so the bible should contain a disclaimer to the effect that the needs of the "plan" trump the needs of the supplicants!  Kinda like the needs of the Army, as I recall.  So the infinitely loving being is willing to break promises; that seems pretty evidently contradictory to me.  Couldn't that infinite wisdom have figured out a way to avoid breaking promises?  Oh, yes - I keep forgetting - abrahamic religion isn't based on logic, evidence, and rationality.  It's based on an irrational belief in the total absence of evidence:  the "virtue" known as "faith"!

It seems pretty evident to me that this putative deity is a fabrication - invented by humans in their likeness, not the other way around.  The abrahamic deity some humans have invented for themselves, like all such creations in our human past, is much more human than the believers want to admit:  self-centered, insecure, demanding, jealous, full of lies and contradictions, afraid that humans will seek knowledge and understanding, vengeful to the point of being psychotic - willing to cause everlasting pain and anguish on its creations who fail to accept it as the only true deity, a mass murderer who sees women and even slaves as mere property, etc.  Frankly, it's amazing to me how many otherwise intelligent humans are able to accept this manufactured myth as reality.  But here in the USA, everyone is free to pursue their religious beliefs (thanks to the separation of church and state) - or nonbeliefs - and I support wholeheartedly their right to do so. 

The evils perpetrated in the name of the abrahamic deity continue to result in a blood-soaked human toll.  Is this what we should accept as the philosophical and moral basis for our American society?  I most devoutly hope not!!  Long live the separation of church and state!!