How to elaborate on the 12 bar form – Donald Fagen explains “Peg” by Steely Dan

“Peg” is the opening tune on the second side of the 1977 Steely Dan LP “Aja”.
Like a number of Steely Dan songs, it is actually based partially on the 12 bar blues form. However, as with other Steely Dan songs derived from the blues (other examples are “Bodhisattva”, “Chain Lightning” and “Josie”), the chordal structure and voice leading is…different.
As Fagen explains, the idea was to build the verse harmony around a major seventh, not a flat seventh. Also present are additional sections; the introduction, which is derived from the chorus, and a stop/transition, based on jazz bebop harmonies, between then first chorus and the start of the second verse.
Fagen, prompted by Warren Bernhardt, who played piano on several 1990s Steely Dan tours, walks through an explanation of how “Peg” is constructed in two parts.
It is a beautiful explanation of how the underlying harmony of what superficially passes for a 12-bar blues was developed into something altogether more interesting.


Walter Becker – an appreciation

The passing of Walter Becker, who finally reeled in all of his years yesterday at age 67, is another one of those inevitable reminders that your youth is way way behind in the rear view mirror.
In the Autumn of 1973, I arrived, fish out of water, at the University of Manchester. In terms of music listening, i was most an under-the-bedclothes transistor radio nerd, lacking any form of stereo system, although I had listened to a fair bit of what was then being tagged as “rock music” at my friends’ houses.
The problem was, I didn’t like much of it. And when I arrived at the university and began dropping into the rooms of people in my hall of residence, I rapidly realized that musically most of them were locked into an emerging musical monoculture. That year in college, there seemed to be only four LPs in constant rotation – “Selling England by the Pound” by Genesis, “Tales from Topographnic Oceans” by Yes, “Seventh Sojourn” by the Moody Blues, and “Brain Salad Surgery” by Emerson Lake and Palmer. Somewhere in there some people were listening to Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, with a sprinkling of God aka Eric Clapton. But…most of the listening seemed to be dominated by bands writing long tunes stuffed full of elaborate pseudo-classical musical devices, and seriously pretentious lyrics that seemed to have been written by amateur high school poets.
Being something of an iconoclast, I rebelled. I had been marginalized in high school, and I was not about to join a herd that had shown by its behavior that they did not value differences.
I began to listen to American music off of Piccadilly Radio, which had DJs who not only shut up instead of talking over music (hooray) but who also were not afraid to step outside of the “4 bands and a couple of hangers-on” mindset.
I also found a record store in a small mall a few hundred yards from the college building named Black Sedan Records. Black Sedan was a small store tucked away in one of the corners of the mall. Most of its clientele was comprised of students from the University, but many of the visitors were musical nerds, who liked to hang out and listen to the latest LPs on the store sound system. Black Sedan’s workers had catholic taste, and also specialized in getting hold of import LPs released in the USA before they were released in Europe. At the time, the concept of simultaneous worldwide release dates for LPs did not exist except for a handful of mega-artists like Led Zeppelin. LPs by US acts would often be released in the USA first, up to 3 months ahead of the release in Europe. So, you could walk into Black Sedan and listen to music that might not be available in a UK record store for up to 3 months.
On one of my first visits to Black Sedan, I walked in and a few minutes later the counter guy put on a new LP by Steely Dan, “Countdown to Ecstasy”. I had heard “Do It Again” and “Reeling In The Years” on the radio already, and liked them. It was clear that in terms of playing and production, Steely Dan was ahead of most other bands of the period. They were also clearly prepared to do different things, as evidenced by the jazz-like electric sitar solo on “Do It Again”.
So, out of the speakers came “Bodhisattva”, seemingly a fast 12 bar blues, but not quite, the third part of the 12 modulated differently. Then, after the lyrics, which were clearly a dig at Eastern mysticism, was a jazz guitar solo. The play-out section was not the same as the rest of the tune, and it led to a shambolic sounding ending in a pile of cacophony that almost seemed like a parody of a bad rock band’s last live set tune ending.
Then, after the discord and bombast, along came “Razor Boy“. A jazz samba, with acoustic bass and Latin percussion, and dancing vibes, but with sinister lyrics sung in sweet harmony (“Will you still have a song to sing/When the Razor Boy comes and takes your fancy things away”). Then, out of nowhere, a pedal steel guitar began to accompany and solo, using jazz-based voicings instead of the usual wailing and sliding “my baby done left me” country music sound.
I was hooked.
I had been subverted by Steely Dan.
Steely Dan were, in hindsight, a unique band that partly provided the missing link between classical 20th century pop music, jazz, and Bob Dylan. Dylan had expanded the lyrical canon of songwriting beyond where it had been, tackling all manner of human subjects and social issues. However, Dylan was not really a singer, he was a vocalist, sometimes shaky and off key, and his songwriting approach was, compared to professional pop songwriters, rudimentary. Nobody was going to confuse his sense of harmony and musical structure with that of, say, Burt Bacharach. However, Bacharach also could not have written “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”.
Steely Dan’s approach to songwriting, while seemingly revolutionary, was mostly rooted in classical structure, as this excellent piece from Tom Moon explains. Donald Fagen once said in an interview “classical song structure is extremely serviceable” and Steely Dan were quite happy to use it when it suited them.
However, it became early on in their writing careers that they were not, unlike Bacharach, going to be able to churn out hits for others, because, as Becker noted, “the lyrics always turned left in the middle of a song”. Steely Dan’s songs were often populated by…weird characters. Mixed in with the love songs (and yes, Steely Dan did write love songs, listen to “Rose Darling”), were songs about desperate gamblers (“Do It Again”), depression (“Any Major Dude Will Tell You”), drug dealers left high and dry by changes in fashion (“Kid Charlemagne”), seedy divorces and affairs (“Haitian Divorce”), and sad forty-something men attempting to date the Newer Model (“Hey Nineteen”).
Many of the Steely Dan song characters were fringe, alienated in some way from mainstream society. This reflected Becker and Fagen’s own upbringings. Both men were children of the Cold War, a dislocating time, when Americans were taught to live in perpetual fear of, as Fagen would write in his solo tune “New Frontier”, the Reds pushing the button down. They grew up feeling alienated from many things that were part of mainstream America. Today they would be nerds, but at the time the word did not exist. Like nerds, they lived in their heads, read books extensively, smoked pot, and expressed themselves through writing songs that often started out like pop songs, but then suddenly exploded into sharp stories about weird people, with jazz instrumentation and sophisticated modulations of keys and structure.
In many ways, Steely Dan’s choice of subjects for their songs was analogous to the approach of Spike Milligan’s writing approach for The Goon Show, where, not being a professional comedy writer who had written for others, he would quite cheerfully write a 30 minute show comprised of a single sketch with multiple oddball characters, surreal plot lines and elaborate jokes within the plot. Milligan, probably not coincidentally, was also a jazz musician.
Steely Dan also, like Weather Report, soon violated the idea, cemented in the 1960s, that a band passing as a pop band was a fixed collection of musicians. Unhappy both with the travails of touring, and with the poor consistency of most of the band members, Becker and Fagen effectively dissolved Steely Dan as a touring entity in 1974, and retreated to being a studio duo, hiring musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds to suit their conception of what a song should sound like. Effectively they operated more like a jazz ensemble, where musicians would routinely play with other musicians, partly to see what would emerge.
With lots of time spent in the studio, Steely Dan recording sessions soon acquired their own mystique. Tales of entire tunes recorded with several different sets of musicians being scrapped, and multiple rejected guitar solos for tunes such as “Peg” abounded, as the duo sought something different, lightning in a bottle to uniquely adorn songs that crossed the entire spectrum of musicality from simple to complex. Eventually Steely Dan returned to touring in the 1990s after a lengthy hiatus, able to afford great musicians, and this even led to a change of mind by Becker, who over the last 15 years of his life would mention in interviews that he wanted to record quickly and not spend hundreds of hours seeking perfection, although he also admitted that this was not exactly Donald Fagen’s preferred working method.
It has always been difficult to work out who did what on Steely Dan compositions, and in interviews Becker explained that when working together, they had no formula for how to complete a Steely Dan record, with both men taking on anything and everything to get to the point where they could move on. However, it is possible to tell songs written on guitar from songs written on keyboards, due to the notes and keys used, and based on this, one can make some educated guesses. “Haitian Divorce” and “Here At The Western World” are guitar-based songs, and the use of reggae devices on the former tune leads me to suspect that it was mostly written by Walter Becker. One is left with the impression that Fagen was more attuned to melody and tunefulness, with Becker, described by Fagen as highly cynical, crafting many of the sharp, witty but sometimes cynical lyrics.
Walter Becker’s guitar playing was always initially in background. He mostly played bass on early Steely Dan LPs, until the hiring of Chuck Rainey allowed him to start playing more guitar on LPs, and slowly he emerged from the shadows to demonstrate that he had a laconic, understated but highly effective playing style, not in the least bit flash, but perfect for adding statements to the music. The best example is probably his playing on “West Of Hollywood” from the CD “Two Against Nature”. “West Of Hollywood” is a song written deliberately without a single rhyming couplet in the lyrics. It represents a microcosm of Steely Dan – a monster groove, over which an elaborate story is told, with Becker talking his way through the song on guitar before Chris Potter blows the tune apart with his frantic soloing over a progressively ascending and descending series of modulations.
Steely Dan, more than anything else, expanded the vocabulary of song in the late 20th century, and, like most pioneering musical acts, regarded genres and boundaries as a weird construct imposed from elsewhere and something to be ignored. If a superficially odd combination of instrumentation sounded good, they would try it (see the bass clarinets on “Babylon Sisters”).
So, we have lost one half of one of the best songwriting and recorded performance assembly duos of the last hundred years. Steely Dan’s real impact has been on other songwriters and musicians, who have also felt free to step out beyond the 3 minute song form with conventional instrumentation and stock “happily ever after” characters.
Thanks for the fun, Walter.


Indirect Speech #1 – The disguised sneer

In dialogue between humans, there are some fundamental ways in which one can easily reduce the chance of a positive outcome to the dialogue down to zero.
One of the ways in which you can be effective in discussion is to extend the principle of charity to the person at the other end of the dialogue. This requires an initial assumption that the other person is trying to engage in a good faith discussion, followed by verification that this is in fact true.
We validate the extent to which the other person is showing good faith by parsing their words carefully.
Now…some people read better than others, so this is not a foolproof concept.
There are, however, a number of ways in which you can quite easily convince the other party to an attempted dialogue that you are not interested in good faith discussion. Some of them are obvious. Some are not so obvious, and some are rather subtle.
Obvious approaches include:opening with a slur or a snark in the first sentence, often preceded by “you”. Words like “libtard”, “sheeple”, “snowflake” or “Trumpaloo” are prime examples. They make the writer look both juvenile and mean-spirited.
The next worst thing is to use strawman accusatory words like “statist”, “marxist” or “bleeding heart”. Those, in addition to making the writer look juvenile, are usually assumptive about the person on other end of the dialogue, and make the writer look like he or she is trapped in binary thinking. it’s not a good message.
The more subtle signalling is the use of indirect speech.
The first rhetorical device is the use of pre-inoculation. A classic example is beginning a response with “with the greatest respect”. This is usually deployed by the writer for one of two reasons:
– They fear that what they are about to say will be contentious, so they are engaging in pre-immunization
– They have no respect at all for the person or persons they are talking to, and they are attempting to offset this by excessive politeness
The second rhetorical device is the use of ingratiation. This usually takes the form of an introductory sentence such as “here is one for my conservative/liberal friends”.
The first thing that enters my mind when I read rhetoric like this is “why are you writing this?”. As a preface, it adds no content to the discussion.
The second thing that I wonder is whether the writer really has any respect for the positions or views that their “liberal friends” or “conservative friends” hold. In my mind, what I am really reading is “this is one for my conservative/liberal friends, who I consider to be idiots”. It is a form of dog-whistling, the communication of a message of dismissal in advance of the actual argument or response to a discussion point.


Bill Bruford – Feels Good To Me

While working away this weekend in the home office, I found myself listening to Bill Bruford’s LP “Feels Good To Me“.
It is difficult to explain how eye-opening this LP was when I first went out and bought it in early 1979. It is also amazing and gratifying to find out that it still sounds like a damn fine LP nearly 40 years later.
For those of us who were following the UK music scene, Bruford had already shown his willingness to go out on a limb musically more than once. He had quit the drum seat in the band Yes in 1972, when Yes were poised to break out and become a massive band worldwide. At the time the move was greeted with a fair bit of astonishment in the UK, not only because Bruford was leaving Yes, a band seemingly on the rise, but because he was leaving Yes to join…King Crimson, a band whose audience, in contrast to that of Yes, seemed to be shrinking, and whose main newsworthy activity seemed to be the latest item of news about who had just left the band. King Crimson violated most people’s expectations at the time that bands should have a stable enduring line-up. Not only that, but Crimson’s musical approach seemingly changed from LP to LP, confusing listeners and reviewers alike.
At the time that Bruford joined King Crimson, the previous version of the band had essentially ceased to exist, and Robert Fripp had recruited Bruford into a brand new incarnation of Crimson.
The band, with Bruford’s straight man drumming offset by the unique percussion stylings of Scottish percussionist Jamie Muir, was either brave or suicidal depending on your point of view – they opened their first gig in 1972 in Germany with with a 30 minute free improvisation, and played “20th Century Schizoid Man” only as an encore. However, playing with Muir awakened Bruford’s interest in tuned untuned percussion, which he would use to good effect on his own projects.
That version of the band recorded “Larks Tongues In Aspic” in 1973, an album that, for those who bought it, had an impact out of all proportion to its modest sales. “Larks Tongues” was a mixture of jazz, heavy metal, classical music and other forms not even categorizable. (One thing that you will not find in “Larks Tongues”, however, is any trace of the blues). It still sounds unique and fresh to this day.
However, after 1972, King Crimson began to shed members once more, and Fripp disbanded that version of the band in 1974, leaving Bruford to pursue itinerant session and touring gigs, until he teamed up with Eddie Jobson, John Wetton (who had been the bass player and vocalist in Crimson), and guitar player Allan Holdsworth to form the progressive rock band UK. UK released one album to good reviews, but Holdsworth left during their first major tour, and the band fizzled out.
After the UK experiment, Bruford retreated to his home studio, and working with Dave Stewart and Jeff Berlin, wrote the tunes for what would become “Feels Good To Me”. For the LP recording sessions, Bruford showed that he was a man of much more musical reach relative to just about every drummer on the planet. He recruited Stewart to play keyboards, Jeff Berlin to play bass, and persuaded Holdsworth to play guitar (in true Holdsworthian style, he would again leave the band after its first UK tour). He also called on the unique lyrical and vocal approach of the American singer Annette Peacock. Lastly, he asked jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler to play on several tunes.
“Feels Good To Me” covers a lot of stylistic ground, from hard pop through to intricate instrumental tunes, some with odd standard time signatures, led by Bruford’s mallet and tuned percussion playing, through to mini suites. However, what still rises to the surface is Bruford’s innate sense of melodicism. His tune melodies refuse to go in straight lines, but they have a logic and a destination, they just take more time than 8 4/4 bars to get there as they tell a more elaborate story than most instrumental melodies.
“Feels Good To Me” is a long way removed from most drummer LPs, which tend to comprise tunes designed more to showcase technique than musical story telling. Bruford has technique to throw away, but it was always used to support the tunes.
After “Feels Good To Me”, the band recorded “One Of A Kind”, this time without Peacock or Wheeler, but Holdsworth left the band before their next tour, and John Clark became the band’s guitar player. The LP is less accessible than “Feels Good To Me”, mainly because of the lack of the lack of vocals. The band then recorded a third LP “Gradually Going Tornado”, with Jef Berlin trying his hand at singing (verdict: average). They disbanded in 1983, and Bruford would then re-group and launch his project Earthworks, another genre-smashing ensemble.


The F1 engine supply mess

THe current complicated negotiations involving Mclaren, Honda, and Scuderia Toro Rosso are said to be reaching a conclusion over the Monza Grand Prix weekend.
The situation is complicated partly because none of the other F1 power unit suppliers are keen to supply Mclaren. Earlier in the season, Mclaren was said to have an outline deal in place to return to being a Mercedes customer from 2018. However, that proposal seems to have disappeared off the table. Mclaren cannot sensibly obtain Ferrari power units because the two companies compete in the luxury car market. That left only Renault, but the French company is publicly reluctant to expand to supplying a fourth team.
Numerically, the three other power unit suppliers currently supply three teams each. Under the terms of the current power unit regulations, if Honda withdraws from Formula 1, one of those suppliers will end up supplying Mclaren in 2018. Here is a summary explanation from Fabrice Lom, the FIA Head of Powertrain:

For the obligation to supply: the idea was to have no team that is not able to have access to a power unit. This was a big part of the discussion because we also don’t want people to be able to play with that and to change from one power unit to another from one year to another in order to have the best one. So there is a quite complex system in place, but the basic [premise] is that if you are a team with no offer, so nobody is offering you a power unit, you can ask the FIA to have one and there is a system of ballots. So we will take the power unit that has the smallest number of customers. If there is only one, this will be the one that will be required to give the power unit. If there is more than one there will be a ballot between the two to decide which one will supply, and there is a low price of €12m from 2018 for this supply.

This rule is one that none of the power unit suppliers wants to see invoked. If Honda does withdraw, one of the current suppliers will, by ballot, be told to supply Mclaren with power units for 2018 for the bargain price of €12m, a price which may not even cover their costs.
So…Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault would much prefer that Honda stays, in order to avoid that scenario. They want to negotiate their own power unit supply contracts, not have a supply contract mandated for them.
So, there is a deep imperative by the FIA and LibertyF1 to ensure that Honda stays in F1. The ideal current solution is essentially a power unit supply swap where Toro Rosso has Honda power units in 2018, and Mclaren has Renault power units. However, that requires Mclaren to negotiate an end to its current contract with Honda. Since that contract was 10 years in duration with lots of money attached, that is proving difficult. Honda is also said to be demanding that any Toro Rosso contract contains the option for Honda to supply Red Bull racing from 2019 onwards, since the Toro Rosso driver line up does not contain a world champion.
So, all of this, as Jean Todt admitted, complicated…


Interview with Gene Haas

I just watched an interview with Gene Haas during the rain delay of Qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix.
Haas came across as a deeply frustrated man. Having set up his own Formula 1 team from scratch, headquartered in the USA, he is now in his second season of F1. Superficially the team has done well, scoring points regularly. Haas did most things right, hiring experienced F1 leaders such as Gunther Steiner, and making deals with Ferrari (to supply engines, drivetrain and other parts) and Dallara to supply the chassis, in order to assure quality.
However, Haas is clearly concerned by the combination of the budgets in F1, and the reality that only three teams currently have any chance of winning races.
Whether the interview reflected his real position on the continued participation of the Haas team in F1 is difficult to tell. In this sport, public posturing and negotiation has been the norm for decades, as most of the key participants followed the divide-and-rule lead of Bernie Ecclestone. Liberty F1 are clearly not of the same mind. Chase Carey has consistently stated in interviews that he believes that businesses should negotiate privately and only announce deals after they are completed. So he may not be too happy about this public positioning by Haas. However, a lot of the Haas team infrastructure is shared with his NASCAR operation, so if he does decide to withdraw from F1, Haas can probably put that infrastructure to use, and find jobs for some of his personnel.
At any point in time, there are usually F1 teams available for sale. This has been the case for some time, ever since the slow distortion of revenue and payment structures created the current scenario, were the top three teams get given large guaranteed sums of money just for showing up. The last F1 attempt to bring new teams into the sport, which initially attracted Manor, Caterham, HRT and the failed-to-make-it USF1, did not end well, with all of the teams now defunct. Haas is the first new team in a long time to actually do well in its first two seasons. However, it is clear from Gene Haas’ comments that he is far from convinced that F1 is where he wants to be long-term.


Conflict of Interest

Conflicts of interest are inevitably going to arise in corporate and political governance.
However, the behavior pathology of driven people is to ignore potential or actual conflicts of interest. Hubris plays a part in this pathology. Successful, entrepreneurial people have a mindset that the normal rules should not apply to them. I have seen this close up in business.
A lot of politicians in the USA are former businessmen, and they carry that pathology with them into government. They regard conflicts of interest as something to be managed for the benefit of all parties, including lobbyists and influencers. The law is generally fairly clear on this topic. Conflicts of interest are to be avoided. This applies not only to clear conflicts of interest, but also to perceived conflicts of interest.
It is probably correct to state that the current administration in the USA has contempt for many basic political norms, including conflicts of interest.
However, the revelation that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was appointed several months ago by the POTUS to head up his Electoral Commission, is also a paid contributor to Breitbart, takes the phrase “conflict of interest” to a whole new level. It confirms in my mind that Breitbart is not in any sense of the word, an independent media outlet. It is operating a significant part of the time as a propaganda channel for the Trump administration.


Innovation inhibitors in corporations – modern reality

I see “innovation campaigns” and change management initiatives all of the time in corporations. Most of them never achieve any positive results. In the worst case, failed change management initiatives increase cynicism and depress morale further.
Innovation and change, like morale, are things that all leaders in all corporations will agree they always need more of. However, innovation and change are very slippery items. Like the wind, you know they are there, but they can head in all directions, and are difficult to steer, and even more difficult to capture and grow.
Having watched the trends in IT solution delivery and service provisioning in corporations in the USA and Europe for over 30 years, I have come to some conclusions about why so many corporations are currently struggling with innovation and change initiatives.
Leaving aside the approaches to fostering innovation, which are often bizarre and superficial, there are several underlying current pervasive dynamics that have the power to totally derail all attempts at fostering innovation and implementing organizational and/or cultural change.

1. Psychological Safety
One of the best ways in which a corporation can ensure that innovation is suppressed is to make it clear that the reward for taking risks or attempting new approaches is to be penalized by Exile or by being made redundant. The organization shows little or no tolerance for failure.
This article explains the concept of psychological safety extremely well.
It is up to leaders to create a climate where taking risks is not immediately shut down, and failures of innovation are not immediately punished. Whenever I hear leaders commenting to the effect that “our culture is risk-averse”, I immediately begin to worry that they are stewards of a climate where nobody with any sense of self-preservation is likely to propose any sort of innovation or change.

2. The offshore delivery work fiction
Most IT delivery organizations have been relentlessly reducing staffing levels for decades, often sending work offshore, where it is often performed poorly, at which point the remaining onshore team members have to “paper over the cracks” in order to elevate quality levels to an acceptable level for the client or end-users. (By the way, this “acceptable” level is often way below the previous quality level that was provided to the client). The result is a corporate fiction that the work is being performed offshore. In reality it is being bodged offshore, and fixed up onshore by a small number of over-worked resources. Those resources are usually too busy to even think about visiting the restroom, never mind engaging in innovation.

3. Reduction in SME coverage and predominance of tacit knowledge
Over the last 15 years I have seen groups progressively slimmed down to the point where only one person is a SME for key areas of the solution. If that person is (say) killed in a road accident this upcoming weekend, the organization will be in a dangerous place starting on Monday.
However, a one-person SME, in the current climate, will not willingly train another person to be a SME, since that introduces a risk (as the SME sees it) that the organization can WFR them in favor of the newly-trained SME.
If the request is to train an offshore person to become a SME, well, if you are the corporate leadership expecting willing participation from the onshore resources, you are below naive.
Ditto documentation of processes. When a person perceives that their employer is looking for an excuse to WFR them, they are going to make damn sure that their business and technical knowledge remains implicit and tacit, not explicit and documented. The default in that sort of climate is that Knowledge is Indispensability. It is probably not true, but that is how employees will see it, and, like just about any employee, they will behave in a “circle the wagons” way to protect their position.

A culture of innovation, like credibility, requires constant renewal and attention to detail. Just as credibility can be severely or degraded by one perceived failure to deliver on promises or committments, innovation interest and engagement can be severely impacted and driven down to zero by one incident where innovators were seen to be punished for failures.


Houston Floodsplainer

1. Matt Corbett‏ @CorbettMatt 13h13 hours ago
A Houston floodsplainer: (caveat, I’m not a pro, just someone interested in how my city works. If a real pro finds an error, please LMK)

There will inevitably be extreme hott-akes regarding flood planning and Monday-morning QB-ing of officials. This is for context
(some good links):
Houston is on a flat, mostly featureless plain, which is naturally drained by a number of Bayous (“The Bayou City” refers to HTX, not NOLA) which all run (and drain) from west to east, converging on either the ship channel or San Jacinto Bay
Note the scale: HTX is also geographically enormous It also has varying development density. Here’s a sat pic which will roughly show that:

(Note: I’ve highlighted 2 areas- Addicks & Barker reservoirs and the medical center, because I’ll mention them later)
HTX has sandy soil and a high water table, and so has some, but limited, ability to rely on absorption
(related: No houses have basements and it would be nearly impossible to construct a subway)
Most of HTX is ~35-45′ above sea level. Flooding risk is almost entirely from rain, not storm surges
Being Gulf Coast, HTX gets ~50″ of rain a year. Gulf T-Storms can get intense. 4-6″-in-8-hours storms happen about once a year
flooding is essentially a rate problem- can you drain the water as fast as it comes?
when the answer is ‘no’, water backs up along the drainage routes

As a result, any person’s flooding risk is mainly about proximity and elevation vs the nearest bayou
The primary backup for the bayous for handling too much water are the roads
In the 90s. Houston was getting large enough that relying on groundwater was starting to cause subsidence problems
The powers that be decided (wisely, mostly) to slowly convert all the roads into a giant rain collection network
so every time an asphalt road needed to be repaved, it got replaced with curb & gutter concrete w/ big storm sewer underneath
this has been highly obnoxious to anyone living nearby when such a project was underway but ultimately quite effective
usually means that in flooding situations, roads briefly become rivers and then drain, saving houses from flood damage
but it’s also a work in progress that has proceeded at the rate roads needed replacing, and varies greatly by location
the next backup for water are sections of freeways. Here, e.g. is a section of I-69/US-59 (as indicated on map)

Ggiven the flood risk indication of the neighborhood immediately south, that sunken section serves a flood-relief purpose.

Thus, flood control in HTX is and has been in a continual state of upgrade for 20 years
However HTX has also been growing rapidly in that time, adding about 100-125k people/year for 15 years, with the result that at any given time the flood control has been adequate, but for the city T-5 years ago, not now, with the currently least-adequate parts usually around the geographic periphery and immediately downstream
The key incidents forming city officials’ decision making have been the experiences of Allison (2001), Rita (2005), Ike (2008), and the flooding events of the past 2 years (Memorial Day 2015 and Tax Day 2016)
Conceptually, Harvey is closest to Allison, which was a TS that parked itself over HTX for 3 days and dumped 20″ rain … . The key point:

Rita (2005) was a huge storm, occurring ~1 month after Katrina. For a few days it was forecast to hit Houston directly, but it ultimately drifted eastwards and hit Port Arthur
The debate of whether Houston should have issued a mandatory evacuation is more complicated than many probably realize
Hurricane Ike (2008) is least directly relevant- in Houston it caused immense damage but comparatively little flooding and death
..except in the medical center, which lost power, and sustained lots of flood damage …
The med center is an utterly critical component of Houston, and understandably a high priority for flood control
It employs ~150k people, conducts enormous amounts of cutting-edge research, and most importantly, at any given time has a large number of very sick, very immobile patients
it has therefore received (again, understandably) disproportionate flood-control attention in the past decade… but often at the expense of other areas in the city
The other section I highlighted was the Addicks & Barker reservoirs.
They are flood control reserviors that date from the 30s. They remain highly useful and functional
but given Houston’s growth are now inadequate to the nearby area, which is where the worst flooding in Allison occurred
They are the focus of the Texas Tribune article linked above, and I’d guess that’s where the worst flooding will happen this time
Note the last sentence in this page:

With all that background, now for the city’s Harvey choices:
As of mid-last week, it was forecast that Harvey would produce “up to Allison” levels of rainfall. That was when any evac order would have had to be made
It’s not possible to evac all of Houston inside of 48 hours. Too many people, not enough roads or time, and Houston would inherently be a lower priority than people closer to the coast
City & state leaders knew the rainfall would be very, very bad. But the experiences of Allison & Rita would lead to the belief that evacuation, especially on short notice, would lead to more death than hunkering down.
Also, given that roads & freeways flood BY DESIGN, “stuck on the road” is the absolute worst, most dangerous place to be.
thus an evac that stranded people mid-storm would be worst-case scenario.
Embedded in that is a gamble that emergency services will be able to rescue people at the rate they become endangered
That’s a hard choice to make. and it will be examined for a long, long time given 20/20 hindsight
But decisions have to be judged by the best information available at the time. And at the time, it was justifiable.
Perhaps on closer examination it will have been the wrong choice, but it is an entirely defensible one.
Many have noticed something of a gap a gap between Mayor Turner and Gov Abbott on this choice
and hinted some sort of R/D partisan issue. More relevant is likely the Gov’s handicap
(famously, within TX) Gov Abbott is in a wheelchair, and is thus highly sensitive to the risks for people with limited mobility, who of course are/would be in the most danger if hunkering down proves the wrong choice. And so the Gov likely has a different sense of risk than does the Mayor. Doesn’t make it right or wrong. just a different value judgement. Judgement calls are as much about being able to live with a choice being wrong as they are about picking the outcome one thinks will be best. It’s easy to see both sides of this one

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