Saturday, December 31, 2011

The World Health Organization Warns About Those Engineered Flu Viruses

The United Nations health body said it was "deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences" of work by two leading flu research teams who this month said they had found ways to make H5N1 into a easily transmissible form capable of causing lethal human pandemics.


The WHO said such research should be done "only after all important public health risks and benefits have been identified" and "it is certain that the necessary protections to minimize the potential for negative consequences are in place."
A poor post to end the year with, I know. But I am optimistic about 2012. I'll greet the New Year with something better tomorrow.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Blog The Halls

ZenPundit (aka Mark Safranski) has given us a bit of holiday nostalgia in a blog challenge.

I’m not sure that’s the proper name for it, or if the custom ever had a name. It’s a throwback to the early days of blogging, say 2004, when I started. We bloggers were eager for links and clicks, and one way to get links was a sort of chain letter: here’s what’s on my desk, and I challenge blogger1, blogger2, and blogger3 to do the same. Those were linked, of course, and when those bloggers wrote their posts, they would link back to you.

The blogworld has moved on, at least the parts I frequent. Some of the bloggers from back then like Praktike (aka Blake Hounshell) and Marc Lynch have moved on to bigger things, and some have stopped blogging altogether. Some of us, like Mark and me, have stuck with it, augmented by Facebook and Twitter. The MSM have encroached with media they frequently call blogs, but, since those documents are generated by paid staff and presumably edited for conformity with the parent publication’s policies, they’re not quite what I would call blogging.

So okay, here’s what’s on my desk. I never did pass these challenges on to others, just as I don’t send chain letters on, but that never has stopped Mark from listing me.

It’s hard to delineate exactly what constitutes my “desk.” I have a wrap-around set of shelves and worktable that, for the most part, contains the usual things: papers, office supplies, the small mechanisms necessary to working with paper and computer (stapler, postage scale, hand calculator), and a telephone. More paper. At least two cameras have temporary residence on the worktable, sometimes migrating to the windows through which I can see birds and other wildlife in the yard. Materials for the next Nuclear Diner meeting. For now, Christmas cards and associated address labels and stamps. Material to be organized into scrapbooks. Android being recharged. A cup of pens, pencils, envelope knife, and scissors, the cup from a flower arrangement someone sent me a long time ago.

Copies of Sky Calendar from the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. This is very worth subscribing to for information about interesting stuff in the sky, like eclipses and meteor showers. An Iittala glass paperweight with a picture of birch trees in the fall that I bought in the Helsinki Airport. And a cube with glass sides containing sand, driftwood, shells, and rocks from the Oregon beach. I can turn it different ways to get different scenes. The paperweight and the Oregon beach scene are in the photo above, along with the cup of pens.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Peace on Earth

Seems to be something we've sort of forgotten. Nicholas Burns asks if the word "peace" is disappearing from our national conversation.

Stephen Walt points out that only those espousing a muscular (read: military-driven) foreign policy need apply for posts in Washington.

Christmas is, as Walt points out, looked upon as the season of peace. The Prince of Peace. Peace on Earth. Peace to all our readers, and let's share it in the coming year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Science and Secrecy - Continued

Here are some thoughts on the subject from Michael Eisen, who knows a lot more about building viruses than I do. His uncertainties are worth considering, although I disagree with his bottom line and will explain why.

One of the things I should have written, but didn't, in my previous post (I know, no credit for that!) was that we don't know how well these modified viruses will survive in the real world. It's possible that their modifications also damage their ability to survive in some way. That hasn't been tested. He doesn't address that directly, but I suspect that it's behind this statement (my emphasis):
Although it is impossible to know how this virus would affect humans, its behavior in ferrets establishes a non-trivial possibility that the evolved Rotterdam virus could cause a lethal global pandemic.
He argues that it is likely that the existing virus constitutes more of a danger than that terrorists will develop a similar virus. Laboratory accidents are not unknown, and the incubation period for influenza assures that others would be exposed. But he is working through some arguments on publication of the full preparation of the virus. And I'm not so sure that this comparison is relevant to that argument.

Later in the post, he continues this line of reasoning:
But the thing that really really annoys me about this whole debate, is the disproportionate attention paid to mitigating the risks of these experiments compared to the far greater risks that surround us. It seems insane for a government to spend so much time wringing its hands about publishing the results of a few potentially dangerous experiments, when it does things every day that entail a far, far greater risk to its peoples’ health and well being. For example, we continue to ship massive amounts of arms to sketchy “allies” across the globe, many of which are destined to end up in the hands of terrorists, who would have a far easier time using them against us than they would any H5N1 virus. And we have done little to address the sorry state of our public health infrastructure – something that is an indispensable part of our response to major pathogen outbreaks, whether of natural origin or otherwise. And let’s not even talk about our stubborn refusal to deal with global warming…
I'm weighing into the argument because it's analogous to arguments that have been made regarding nuclear weapons. And we have some experience there with controlling information. I would also argue that the fact that bad, perhaps worse, things happen does not negate our responsibility to deal with the case at hand.

I would argue, however, that controlling specific information about how to do some things is both responsible and effective, and that the history of restricting nuclear weapons information supports this. It is true that knowing that something can be done is useful for someone who wants to repeat that something. But in chemistry (my field) and, I'm sure, in virology, details are enormously important. As the dimensions of nuclear weapons components are necessary for building a bomb, so are the exact mutations and how to arrive at them for the production of these new flu viruses. And that is the information that needs to be held closely.

In the case of nuclear weapons, we can consider the latest wannabe, North Korea. The yields of their nuclear tests suggest that they didn't get all those dimensions to where they wanted them to be. They can probably get closer the next time around. But keeping that information from them made it more difficult for them to build a bomb. And they may well have had the help of A. Q. Khan.

Part of the difficulty is in the handling and preparation of materials. That may account for North Korea's low yields as well as design specs. I think, although I am not quite convinced, that producing a virus to spec is less difficult than producing a nuclear weapon. Producing a virus requires fewer specialized talents, but what I am unsure of is whether keeping from being infected with the virus is more difficult than making sure that the explosives don't blow up as you machine them.

I recognize that free dissemination of information is something of an article of faith for academics today. Certainly censorship can be badly misused. But I think there are two issues here that have to be considered together in a way that extraneous issues like global warming don't need to be. Those issues are the responsibility to avoid harm to the public and the need to maximize the availability of information. I am not sure that the obligations toward informing one's colleagues are at the same level of avoiding harm to the population.

As I've argued the unlikelihood of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons, I think there is an analogy to their producing this flu virus, with my reservation above that this flu virus may be easier to produce. I agree that the danger lies in the currently existing virus, and would add the danger of some amateur looking to score some points who doesn't properly contain the virus.

And this brings us to another question I had: whether this exercise was genuinely in the pursuit of better ways to deal with viruses or a way to call attention to the researcher. Another quote:
Here’s where things get complicated for me, because truth be told, I think these were really stupid experiments that have little practical value. The ostensible reason for carrying out and publishing these experiments is that they tell us important things about what a human transmissible H5N1 virus will look like, allowing us to better detect and prepare for a future pandemic.

I think this is very wrongheaded, and exhibits an almost willful ignorance of the ways that viruses in general, and flu in particular, evolve. RNA viruses like flu have very high mutation rates, and sample an astonishing diversity of variant sequences even in the course of infecting a single individual. The best demonstration of this is the rapidity with which drug-resistant strains emerge whenever any of the available anti-influenza drugs are used. It is because of the rapid emergence of resistance that use of these drugs is largely restricted to managing outbreaks in places with highly susceptible individuals, like nursing homes.
For me, this tips the balance, along with the history of restricting nuclear weapons information. Eisen remains unconvinced:
But I remain uneasy that the quick censorship trigger being pulled here with the easy acquiescence of most of the scientific community augurs future restrictions on science that will do real harm to one of the few things with the potential to protect us from deadly viruses and the other real and imagined perils of our future.

Update: Ivan Oransky argues that removing some information from these papers isn't censorship.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Science and Secrecy

Biological weapons have a serious drawback: they consist of entities that reproduce themselves. That means that they can get out of control and infect everyone, not just those they are aimed at. This is the reason that bioweaponeers look for diseases most of us find exotic: they want bacteria that will infect the targets but not spread so easily that they are a danger to those using them.

The big news of the past few weeks has been that Dutch and American researchers, Ron Fouchier and Yoshi Kawaoke, and their teams have made new influenza viruses that kill most of the organisms they infect and are easily spread through the air. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has advised the journals (Nature and Science) to which the papers describing the preparation of these viruses have been submitted to publish the papers with key passages relating to the preparation of the viruses deleted. The purpose, of course, is to keep the critical information of exactly what the operative mutations are and how to induce them out of the hands of amateurs and terrorists.

Because of their communicability, these viruses present much greater danger than the anthrax attacks of 2001. If an amateur tried the prep and messed up, infected his family, things could get ugly. We have the previous example of SARS that shows that something like this could be contained, but people would die.

On the other hand, if researchers know the components that make these viruses so virulent, they may be able to come up with defenses against them, maybe even a vaccine against all varieties of influenza.

I feel strongly that the NSABB has made the right call. Some people feel that information wants to be free, or something like that, a libertarianism of the intellect. Consequences be damned, I guess. And that link has it wrong: specifics of the mutations and how they are induced make it much easier to produce the viruses. Knowing that such a thing is possible is useful to those who would reproduce the process, as is any additional information in the papers. But it's some distance to figuring out the exact steps in the laboratory.

The people who discovered fission in the 1930s and realized its implications faced the same sort of dilemma. Here's a historian who discusses how that worked.

It's impossible to keep this sort of information secret forever. I'd be happy if we could damp down idiotic attempts to do it in someone's garage until we have some idea of how to make a vaccine.


O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.

T. S. Eliot, East Coker

The photo is mine, of New Mexico's Ortiz Mountains this morning.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bits and Pieces - Vaclav Havel Edition

Some very good material in these three links and their links. Havel retained his integrity under the Soviet regime and then helped to remove it.

Vaclav Havel on Intellectuals in Politics.

Vaclav Havel's Critique of the West.

Vaclav Havel on true leadership in times of crisis.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bits and Pieces - North Korea Edition

With Kim Jong Il dead, and his twenty-seven-year-old son his immediate successor, although probably with some sort of regent/advisor, nobody knows what is likely to happen in the short or longer run. South Korea has gone to alert status, because one way North Korea has historically dealt with uncertainties within has been to provoke someone else.

If you want to follow the speculation, here's some.

This is more a news article.
The United States was just about to offer another round of food aid to North Korea, which is verging on famine conditions once again. That might have led to further talks on North Korea's nuclear program, but it appears that there will be a month of obligatory mourning in North Korea while those in power reassess their situation.

A broader look at the nuclear talks.

More links at Nuclear Diner.

North Korea at night, illustrating the oppressiveness of the regime and consequent lack of economic development, the same factors that lead to famine.

Lots of biographical pictures of Kim Jong Il.

From the BBC: a lineup of people and nations affected by Kim's death.

Steve Clemons lists people who are among the best placed to provide some insight. None seem to have published anything on Kim Jong Il's death yet.

Howard French: Crazy like a fox.

Christian Caryl: North Korea’s Not-So-Simple Succession.

Michael Hirsh: How Kim Jong-Il Became the Most Successful Dictator in Modern History.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Christmas Bushtit

These tiny guys must weigh less than an ounce each, but they keep going through the winter. They travel in flocks of twenty or thirty, and they swarm the suet feeder. They also check out the trees and bushes for bugs, which is what this one seems to be doing.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens - Updated 12/20/11

Christopher Hitchens died this week. Death by esophageal cancer is ugly, and it must have been a terrible year for him and his family.

But he’s not one of the writers I’ve looked forward to reading. I’ve read many of his pieces because they were talked about, or because they appeared in magazines I read. They were smoothly done, and I appreciated an occasional phrase or sentence.

Of the articles I’ve read commemorating his life, two have been by women, and they were both interviews. “Let’s have a woman interview him,” I can imagine the male editor saying, pleased with the incongruity.

Esophageal cancer is frequently associated with smoking and drinking, Hitchens’s trademarks. And that is a good bit of what is being celebrated: his massive capacity for drink and the ability to write under its influence. And the polemics, which make me think of a nasty drunk, but perhaps that’s uncharitable.

I keep thinking of the phrase, “a man’s man,” which would go with the smoking, drinking, and anger. Yes, Hitchens claimed that all that made him creative, productive. Those celebrating his life seem to agree that this is a path to creative productivity.

But I’m of a different temperament. Let’s imagine paens to sitting quietly and meditatively, knitting, finding creative productivity there. Or walking in the woods. Yes, that works better: stretching our masculine muscles, striding along assertively. Certainly creativity there. But wait. I like to sit on a boulder, feel its boulderness, rub my hand against a crusty treebark, wait for a bird to pose or the light to reach its peak. And the ideas come.

I’ve been angry, but I can’t think of any time when it’s done me much good. Perhaps men’s anger is more useful in this world, although I can’t think of a lot of examples. Yes, it’s occasionally useful for someone to puncture the pompous or the actively dangerous. Too bad Hitchens was too busy making macho noises when that opportunity arose with George Bush’s adventure in Iraq.

It’s odd that the world that Hitchens and I grew up in marked women as the emotional sex. Those emotions, of course, were the ones not associated with masculinity. The masculine indulgence in another set of emotions was normed along with other things masculine.

But now we’ve seen through that, or have we?

For the past year or so, I’ve been running into writings and actions that seem shockingly unaware of how blind they are to anything outside a narrow band of experience, that sometimes further valorize that experience above all other possibilities. No, I’m sorry, I don’t have links just now; and I know this is awfully abstract. The tributes to Hitchens overlap with this category: experiences that are pretty much alien to me.

I’m wondering how much this sort of macho goes into the fictions currently permeating American politics: self-made men, don’t need help from the government, just let us live free. Not so different from Hitchens’s ethic, although backed by a Christianity abstemious in his drinking and smoking, not so abstemious in anger.

But you can’t run a country on adrenaline rush. Daniel Kahneman’s new book distinguishes between that rush and what makes us human: reflective thought. He calls them Systems 1 and 2. System 1 is automatic and easy; System 2 needs cultivation and protection.

I’m sure Christopher Hitchens was a great drinking buddy. I’m not sure how much further that goes than Saturday night.

Update (12/20/11): Okay, here's a good remembrance by a man.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Not What We Thought! Not That We Had Any Idea What We Were Talking About.

I'm not sure how long ABC will allow its breathless foolishness to stay up, but the headline says it all. And I'm not sure how long ABC will let that stay up, so here's a screen grab:

And another warning: the breathless foolishness is the autoplay video so beloved of ABC alone.

Not Quite What It Seemed. Sigh.

The newsies at ABC got a report that radioactive material was stopped by Russian customs from being transported in someone's baggage to Iran. So a bunch of presumptions, aided and abetted by a shaky understanding of what radionuclides are, kicked in to produce a knee-jerk story about how Iran must be making a nuclear bomb. That's in the autoplay video that I expect to disappear from the ABC site.


It beats me why someone would pack a bunch of sodium-22 in their luggage. It's mostly used for medical diagnostics, and there are better ways to transport it, through channels. It's not at all useful for bomb-making.

OTOH, it's good to know that the radiation detectors at the airport caught it. Sodium-22 is a beta emitter, and beta radiation can be hard to detect. One of my colleagues used to say he could distribute beta emitters knee-deep and nobody would find them. But that was twenty years ago, and detector technology has improved.

AP did a better job at the news.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Stephen Walt suggests five game-changers in international relations:
*The United States Takes the Military Option "off the Table" with Iran
*Hamas Revises Its Charter
*The United States Proposes Reciprocal Global Nuclear Arms Reductions
*Israel Accepts the Arab League Peace Plan
*China Proposes Multilateral Negotiation and Arbitration over the South China Sea

Game-changers are badly needed in today's world. We've got a lot of nay-sayers who hold things back, and people who might be able to change the game who are afraid of the political damage the nay-sayers might do. I'm not sure I agree with all of Walt's suggestions. But far too many bad situations have simply festered.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Just Wondering

If Conficker may have been a scout for Stuxnet, then how about this report from October and the Iranian downing of the RQ-170 drone?

Bits and Pieces - December 12, 2011

Today's news:
Mikhail Prokhorov announces he will run for Russia's presidency against Vladimir Putin. Here's the announcement for those of you who understand Russian. David Remnick's take on the recent parliamentary election and the demonstrations in response. Gary Hart's piece is mostly a setup for an Atlantic series on Russia, but he raises the question I keep wondering about, namely why there is so much American hostility to Russia, with whom we have a great many common interests.

Newt Gingrich is convinced that one of the greatest dangers facing America is an electromagnetic pulse attack. He is also being bankrolled by a big-time American Likud supporter. Which probably explains his Likud-like performance Saturday night.

I have less sympathy for Edward Teller than this blogger does. But you should take note of this excellent blog if you enjoy nuclear history. And yes, Newt does sound rather Teller-like.

Culture clash: Chinese students discover American politics.

Do budding geniuses have to learn too much?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thursday, December 08, 2011


Photo: Menheer Ihsan, Flickr

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Bits and Pieces - December 6, 2011

I guess President Obama has been getting some good things done.

This seems to be the drone that Iran took down. Whether it was shot down or control intercepted is not clear, nor is its mission when it went down. This is the kind of thing that militaries really, really don't like to lose to the enemy.

Speaking of what we don't know about Iran, I've been working on a post about last week's explosion at Isfahan. But there's really not much to work with. Jeffrey Lewis notes that and then talks about the previous explosion at a missile base.

Some interesting graphs and a map and how an attack on Iran might affect the world's oil supply.

American crocodiles are off the endangered species list thanks to the warm water from the Turkey Point nuclear plant in Florida.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Bits and Pieces - December 5, 2011

Racial discrimination hasn't gone away, at the local and federal levels.

What's under the ice in Antarctica.

Less than the Tehran demonstrators might have hoped to find at the British Embassy.

Both these articles on Iran are worth reading. At first, they seem opposed, but after I thought about it a while, they look like the same thing from different viewpoints. They are quite different from most of what is in the MSM.
Why Iran lashes out at the West
Interview with Robin Wright

Friday, December 02, 2011

How Much Do Nuclear Weapons Cost?

When I was a student, I worked in a laboratory that separated plant pigments, like chlorophyll, from algae that had been grown in heavy water, so the hydrogens in those pigments had been substituted by deuterium. The amounts of pigment were small and carefully handled. One slow afternoon, some of us tried to calculate what they were worth, sitting green and yellow in their shiny glass vacuum ampoules. The growing had required heavy water, nutrients, and energy to keep the vats warm. Technicians had to monitor the growing and, at the right time, separate and dry the algae. Then senior scientists had prepared the algae and the chromatographic columns (four inches by two feet, filled with confectioners' sugar tamped just so) and did the separation, which entailed proper application of an algae solution to the columns, followed by careful excavation of the pigmented regions of the column with surgical-like tools and further preparation, winding up with those ampoules. Hours of expensive people time.

Nuclear weapons are further along in development than our plant pigment separations were, but not by a lot. Their production process is more like that of an exclusive car, the handwork that goes into, say, a Bugatti. Expensive components and hours of expensive people time. And then there are the delivery vehicles, whose production is more like, say, a Mercedes-Benz.

But if you want to account for what nuclear weapons have cost the country since they were invented during World War II, you would have to include the damage to the environment and people's health from poor judgements about worker conditions and waste disposal, the work that has gone into development of treaties to control them, and today's monitoring of other nations that hold them or may be trying to get them.

Stephen Schwartz, most recently with Deepti Choubey, has tried to reckon up that full cost. That number is useful for a great many things, among them ways to consider what nuclear weapons might cost us in the future and how we might deal with those costs.

During the Super Committee deliberations, an argument was made that the nuclear weapons budget for the next ten years could be cut by $200 billion dollars. This argument came mainly from organizations hoping to phase out nuclear weapons altogether, and was based on a total cost of nuclear weapons for the next decade of $700 billion dollars. That estimate came from the Ploughshares Foundation and was based on Schwartz and Choubey's numbers.

During the last Republican debate, an ad was aired that made use of that $700 billion figure. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" columnist looked into it and found some problems. I had looked into the Ploughshares numbers at about the time they came out and also had some questions (here, here, and here).

I was writing in the context of the Super Committee and the suggestion that $200 billion be cut from the "nuclear weapons budget." My concern was that taking such a broad approach would result in funds being cut from such things as environmental cleanup, worker compensation, and treaty talks, given the Republican love of weapons.

The past day or two, since Kessler's piece was published, has seen an uproar in the Twitter world over who's right. That's an unfortunate emphasis, since it seems to me that the problem is that Schwartz and Choubey are doing one thing, and Ploughshares another.

Schwartz and Choubey are trying to find what the cost of nuclear weapons has been. The paper I linked and other estimates that Schwartz has done are generally accepted as the most reliable. The purpose of the Ploughshares document is political, to argue for reductions in nuclear weapons via the Super Committee. With the demise of the Super Committee, that political purpose continues. So Ploughshares has vehemently defended its numbers, particularly that bottom-line $700 billion.

Schwartz has made the point again and again that we need to know what costs go into the nuclear weapons budget. The federal budget contains no such line item; the costs are largely, but not exclusively, in the Departments of Energy and Defense. Any such accounting necessarily makes arbitrary judgements as to where to draw the lines. The common meaning of "nuclear weapons budget," it seems to me, includes the manufacture and maintenance of the weapons themselves and their delivery vehicles. Schwartz's estimate contains many other costs, which makes that estimate very useful in understanding all the costs of nuclear weapons.

Some commentary has welcomed "a discussion of nuclear weapons costs," but that's not what I saw yesterday on Twitter. That came down closer to "I'm right, you're wrong" and stayed at that bottom-line number.

Extrapolating those numbers into the future should include assessments of the various categories individually, not just a bottom-line number. The question of what parts of the program are desirable to continue, like treaty development for further control of those weapons, is important. That is the discussion we need to have, and it was completely absent this week.

Update: Here are some specific suggestions for saving $45 billion from the nuclear weapons budget. Kudos to the Arms Control Association for looking beyond Twitter.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.