“Maybe we can live like this”…

One of the craziest aspects of the government shutdown has been the response of rabid conservatives to the closing of national parks and monuments. All I see in the social media from conservatives is “they’re spending more keeping people out than they would just keeping the place open.”

I wonder if these people have any idea what it costs to keep a national park open. Sure, when you read stories like this one, it all seems rather silly. A runner gets a $100 ticket for running through a national park. Won’t it cost more for the government to administer the fine — and the runner’s protests — than it would to keep the park open? After all, the runner claimed he saw “many other runners and bikers” in the park. If they didn’t all get tickets, and didn’t destroy the park, then what’s the harm?

Well, the Department of the Interior, which runs the Park Service, furloughed 81 percent of its employees. So clearly it doesn’t cost more to close the parks than keep them open. I suspect this is because most people are in fact staying out of the sites instead of challenging the Park Service to enforce the closures.

But maybe you could actually run the parks with less people! Couldn’t this be a win-win?

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. I wonder how many of the people complaining about the closed parks and monuments have even been to one lately. I was at the Grand Canyon with my daughter last spring, during the off-season, and experienced a 20-minute wait to talk to a ranger about a route for a hike. Tourists were complaining loudly, trying to cut in line, grousing about the wait. The campgrounds at the bottom of the canyon were completely full, booked up for months in advance. We couldn’t camp, so my daughter and I decided to hike to the bottom and back in the same day.

We didn’t see a ranger once on our hike. We might have been able to sneak by and camp outside of the marked campground, but we didn’t, for fear we would be caught and fined. What would happen if hundreds, thousands of others decided they were above the law, and the park was “open” with a fifth of its normal staff? How long would vistas such as this one be unstained by six-packs dumped off cliffs and improvised campsites as far as the eye could see?

I’ve had similar experiences at parks all across America, from the Smokeys, where finding a place to bury human waste near a campsite is often like walking in a minefield, to King’s Canyon, where you need only walk a few feet off the trail to see the trash previous hikers have left behind. If this is how well the fully-staffed Park Service can maintain the parks, imagine what they would look like with 20 percent of that number. Right now the Park Service operates on 1/15 of a percent (PDF link) of the Federal budget. Are we really so strapped for cash that we think our national treasures deserve barely more than 1/100 of a percent?

I’d say the Park Service has done remarkably well with that 1/15 of a percent, helping to maintain hundreds of sites and monuments that surely would have been destroyed years ago if not for their efforts. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it would be “cheaper just to keep them open.” Not if we value these remarkable places and monuments. Not if we want our children and grandchildren to be able to see them the way we could, just a few weeks ago, the way we hope to again soon.

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Thoughts from a reader about 9/11

Yesterday’s post has received a lot of commentary, mostly to disagree with me — although there have also been some points of agreement. Most of the commentary is on my Facebook page, but I also received an email that I’d like to share here (anonymously, at the author’s request) because I think it raises some interesting points:

Hi Dave,

We’ve never met, but like you I’m a science writer, and I used to follow you on Twitter. I say used to, because after reading your post “How about we don’t Remember 9/11/2001 today?” I unfollowed. I had hoped that this simple act of merely choosing who to read and who not to read, who to see in my feed, would be enough, but quite frankly I just can’t stop thinking about what you wrote.

I’m not looking to tell you my 9/11 sob story, or my Boston Marathon sob story either, I know that as a human being you can probably grasp the fact that there are people out here in the world who were and remain deeply effected by these events. But I do want to point out to you that however unintended it may have been, your post was a blunt reminder of how isolating and alone it can be to feel like you are the only one who simply can’t get over it.

Worse things happen to more people. I know that. I think about the civil wars in other countries, the acts of genocide and violence against civilians. I’ve been working as a science writer for a year now, and a day hasn’t passed since that I don’t think about the lives lost to cancer. I think about grief. I think about loss. I think about fear. I think about how lucky I am. I think about the pain and the mental and emotional anguish that so many people go through every single day and I just feel sad. And pathetic. And weak. Because thinking about 9/11 still hurts so very much. And because what I have been through is nothing in comparison to what goes on in the rest of the world. You are right, “with more destruction going on every day, should we really put that all aside to rehash our single day of victimhood?”

I wish that I didn’t have the memories of a terrified 13 year old, certain her dad (a first reponder to 9/11) was running to meet his death (he survived). I wish that I didn’t have the memories of a terrified 25 year old frozen in fear watching another terrorist attack bring a city to its knees. These are days I wish I didn’t remember at all. I feel awful that I can’t get over it, because I should, shouldn’t I? Logic would dictate that I should. I have tried. I continue to try. I have found that despite what I have been told, time does not heal some wounds. So while you are right that yes, it has been 12 years and yes worse things happen, no I will not stop Remembering with a capital R. I will Remember because for me, and many other people, remembering is not a choice, and Remembering 9/11/2001 is something I feel compelled to do.

I am glad that it didn’t touch your life in a way that makes you feel it is necessary to Remember, but in writing this, I hope that I have made a case for showing a little more empathy toward those who are unable to forget.

[name withheld on request]

Here’s the response I sent her:

Thanks for taking the time to reply. I really appreciate your heartfelt, thoughtful response and I can certainly understand how difficult it must have been for you to go through both 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attack. I ran the Boston Marathon this year and was deeply saddened by what occurred there. I wrote a blog post about it, too — albeit more of a tribute to Boston than a commentary on the events.

Sometimes I think it would be interesting to do an article about why events like Boston and 9/11 seem to affect people so much more deeply than other, numerically equivalent (or numerically worse) tragedies. I guess I was trying to get at that apparent irrationality in the post, but I probably swayed too far in discounting the very real harm done by these attacks.

Unfortunately I feel that the dramatic impact of 9/11 led to a vastly disproportionate response which not only harmed many more innocent people than were ever touched by 9/11, but also only increased the potential for more attacks in the future. I probably didn’t get that across very well in my post either.

Thanks again for writing, and I wish you the very best in your science writing career.



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How about we don’t Remember 9/11/2001 today?

I remember where I was on 9/11/2001. I remember how shocking it was. I couldn’t believe the World Trade Center had actually been destroyed… hadn’t I just walked by there, 7 or 8 years ago? I even knew people with family members who were in the building when the first plane hit. And who hasn’t been annoyed by the increased airport security necessitated by those tragic events. I just read an article about a girl who was born on 9/11/2001 and now has to endure insensitive questions whenever she fills out a form with her birthdate on it.

But really, people, this happened 12 years ago. Since then, there have been almost no terrorist attacks on American soil. Yes, 3,000 people were killed that day, but that represents a tiny portion of our population. Aside from the inconveniences of enhanced security and some increased government surveillance, have Americans’ lives really changed as a result?

It was most definitely hard for my wife and me to decide how to tell our kids about the tragic events that occurred hundreds of miles away from us, but in the greater scheme of things, it really wasn’t so difficult. It’s been much tougher figuring out how to keep our kids motivated in school, or dealing with illnesses in the family. By comparison, 9/11 has hardly affected our family at all.

Yes, I understand that thousands of families were affected directly, but the numbers are trivial compared to many more real threats that we face every day. I’ve had melanoma. 9,000 people a year die from melanoma in America. These deaths affect families just as much as those that occurred on 9/11, and there have been over 100,000 since 9/11 occurred, more than 30 times the scale of 9/11. Melanoma is much easier to prevent than war or terrorist attacks, and yet we hardly ever think about it until we or someone we know faces it. Then, whether they survive or die, we let it fade from memory.

I’m not saying that we should have an annual melanoma day, or heart disease day, or slipping in the shower and dying from a concussion day — quite the opposite. I’m saying that we should try to put these things in perspective. When millions of people in Syria have been forced to leave their homeland by the ongoing war there, when over 100,000 have been killed, with more destruction going on every day, should we really put that all aside to rehash our single day of victimhood?

I’m also not saying we should forget about 9/11 entirely. I’m just saying we shouldn’t Remember 9/11 with a capital R, the way we Remember the Holocaust or the Jim Crow South. Absent our starting two misguided wars as a response, it’s not that scale of a historical event. If you want to remember 9/11, remember that we overreacted to it. Don’t talk about how it changed your life because you remember what you were doing when you heard about it on the radio. That’s the kind of memory you’d probably be better off forgetting.

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No, sending your child to public school won’t save the schools. Not even if everyone did it.

An Allison Benedikt article on Slate is getting a lot of attention, partly due to its provocative headline: “If you send your kid to a private school, you are a bad person.”

Benedikt’s argument is basically this: People who send their kids to private school care about their kids’ education, so if those kids were in public school, the parents would work to make that school better.

Oh, if only that were true. If only somehow the children of the wealthy (and their parents) could make schools a better place for everyone by their mere presence. Wouldn’t that be great? But you know what? They wouldn’t. Sure, the wealthy parents might spend more time volunteering in the schools. They might lobby for more money to be spent on schools and for better schools to be built.

But they wouldn’t want this for everyone. They would want this for their kids. So they wouldn’t lobby for a new school to replace the crumbling central-city school; they’d lobby for a gleaming new suburban palace in their wealthy neighborhood (but not too close — wouldn’t want to spoil their view of the golf course).

Think I’m wrong? Look, this already happens. Plenty of wealthy parents are too cheap to send their kids to private schools. So they send them to public schools, then set up PTAs to raise money for those schools, turning them into the next best thing to a private school, at a fraction of the cost. They lobby against busing. They support zoning laws restricting high-density development so that poor people can’t afford to live in their neighborhoods. They do all this even though they could afford to send their kids to private school.

These people are not benevolent. Sure, they care about their kids. To a lesser extent they care about their neighbor’s kids. But they don’t care about poor kids. They might say they care, but they certainly aren’t volunteering to put on a bake sale at the poor kids’ school. They’re not coaching the poor kids’ Little League teams, they’re not advocating for higher wages so poor parents can afford a better life for their own children.

There are a lot of things wrong with the public schools. I may not know how to fix them, but I do know one thing: Asking wealthy folks to voluntarily stop sending their kids to private schools won’t fix the schools.

And it especially won’t help the public schools that need help the most.

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Finally, back home!

… and our first meal is: grilled lamb with a mesclun salad


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A Philadelphia essential

I cheated a bit, this is a rather petite cheesesteak


Greta cheated even more, with a sautéed mushroom sandwich


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Late dinner in Philadelphia

Duck Breast


Heirloom tomato salad20130817-144845.jpg

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Bagel with Nova, CC, Capers



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PEI mussels

They are as good as they look.


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Green Gables

This is the house that inspired “Green Gables” in the mega-popular Anne of Green Gables novels.


Anne’s room.


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PEI Sunset




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Lunch in Charlottetown, PEI

Trust me, there’s a crab roll under that arugula.


Greta had some of the best Mac and cheese I’ve ever tasted. 20130812-102528.jpg

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Lovely stroll in PEI






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Bay of Fundy tides are the real deal

Hall’s Harbour, NS








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This was even slower than waiting for the tides to change…

The food wasn’t bad here, but 3 hours for an appetizer and main course is a little too “relaxed” a pace for me.



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Bay of Fundy tides: First Attempt

The tidal shift here is the biggest in the world, but we showed up at high tide so you’d barely know it. Neat cliffs, though.



Here is my attempt to document the tides. Pic 2 was taken 10 minutes after Pic 1.
Pic 1

20130810-152300.jpgPic 2

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“Light” lunch

Wolfville, NS


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Halifax art


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Halifax dining

We’re in Canada, so we can have real Camembert!


Here’s our dinner:


Short ribs with Bok choy

Pan-seared cod

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Random sights from today

20130807-170848.jpgPhotography museum, Liverpool, NS

20130807-170906.jpgLovely sailboat passes as we wait for the ferry.

20130807-170921.jpgDrinks with a view in Lunenburg, NS.

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