Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bits and Pieces - March 31, 2010

Hillary Clinton is really giving Canada a hard time lately. This is a pretty strong stand. I'm wondering when the anti-abortion faction(s) are going to pick it up.

One of the complications of uranium enrichment. The technetium-99, IIRC, is from uranium that has been through a reactor once or more and returned for enrichment. Since enrichment is a separation process, it concentrates impurities as well as the uranium-235. This article describes how impurities were dealt with at Oak Ridge's gaseous diffusion plant. Centrifuge plants, like Iran's, will have to deal with them too.

This article and this one raise some concerns on the basis of one phrase in the totally inadequate fact sheet on New START. Ellen Tauscher ducked questions about it at her press conference. I found that phrase strange, too, but I'm waiting to see more before I comment on it.

Was Putin's bluster on the arms control negotiations for domestic consumption only?

More on that court decision on patenting DNA.

That Iranian Defector

ABC News is breathless over their exclusive. But it seems to me that there's not much there. Or, more accurately, that we don't know what's there.

ABC characterizes Shahram Amiri as "an award-winning nuclear scientist" and says he worked at Tehran's Malek Ashtar University, which is closely connected to Iran's Revolutionary Guard and quotes an Iranian web site as saying that he worked at the Qom uranium enrichment facility that we first heard about last fall. Julian Borger calls Amiri "an expert on radioactive isotopes;" Juan Cole, "a consummate insider."

As several people have pointed out, Steven Walt among them, the absence of one scientist will have little or no effect on Iran's nuclear program. The big question is how much information Amiri brings to the US. From what I see, I simply can't tell what this might be. The radioactive isotopes Amiri is said to be expert on could be those used for medical treatments or they could be the fissionable kind.

Both ABC and Borger mention the revelation of the Qom facility last fall but fail to connect it in any substantive way to Amiri's defection.

ABC says that sources from the CIA "say Amiri helped to confirm U.S. intelligence assessments about the Iranian nuclear program." Of course he would be heavily questioned by the CIA, whatever his background. And was that confirmation that Iran ended its weapons program some years back?

At the same time, although I agree with Steve Hynd and Glenn Greenwald that there's more than a hint of bias in too much reporting on Iran, I can't ignore the game-playing by Iran in the capricious way it allows the IAEA access (and not) to its facilities. Juan Cole puts it carefully:
the International Atomic Energy Agency of the UN... continues to certify that none of Iran's nuclear material... being enriched for civilian purposes... has been diverted to military uses. The IAEA has all along said it cannot give 100% assurance that Iran has no weapons program, because it is not being given complete access.
Unfortunately, the Qom facility is of a size that might be used as a finishing plant to bring partially enriched uranium up to bomb grade. And the story that there would be multiple plants for protection against strikes is less than convincing: they would be trucking cylinders of uranium hexafluoride around a country under attack?

The history of the Manhattan Project and of other nuclear programs in other countries show that the attitudes of scientists can vary greatly. Presumably a defector would be motivated to give a straight story.

But there are double agents...

I don't see any reason to believe that this defection makes a big difference. My guess is that there are a variety of opinions within Iran on the direction of the nuclear program and that we have yet to see which one wins out. In the meantime, we can hope that the Iranian to-ing and fro-ing doesn't convince anyone that the intentions are fully toward nuclear weapons. We can recall the misinformation in the United States about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, but we must also recall Hussein's bluff that too many people really believed.

Snap-shot of the Day

"There is a little bit of elitist-versus-populist tensions. There are meteorologists who feel, 'Just because I have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on.'"
—Science writer Bob Henson suggests one of the reasons meteorologists, who wear make-up and say wacky things about the weather, are more prone to dismiss global warming than climatologists, who are actually scientists.

From The Awl.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Desert Quandong

Bits and Pieces - March 30, 2010

Ted Sorensen, a member of President John F. Kennedy's staff, tells us that it's been proclaimed before: new president doesn't know what he's doing, staff is out of control, etc etc.

Patents On Breast Cancer Genes Ruled Invalid In ACLU/PubPat Case. One of the peculiarities arising from the ability to sequence DNA has been the patenting of genes. Patents are supposed to be connected to invention, not decipherment. Nobody is inventing these genes, just finding out how they are made. In this case, there have been lawsuits against research on breast cancer by the "owners" of these genes. The ruling is by a New York federal court, so we can expect this to go to the Supreme Court.

More New START:
Prospects in the Senate. For all his noise, Jon Kyl hasn't declared opposition yet.

Questions the Heritage Foundation would like answered. Probably a foretaste of the issues Republicans will raise in the Senate.

Here's another take on a Fissile Material Control Treaty. This one follows a more standard line from the standard arms control organizations. (h/t to Avner Cohen via FB)

The Long Game of Nuclear Disarmament

I’m hearing a certain amount of grousing that New START doesn’t take the numbers down enough. In one sense, that’s true. The United States and Russia will still have thousands of nuclear weapons, although once the reductions are in place, the numbers may go below ten thousand each, total, for the first time since the 1950s.

But nuclear disarmament is a long game, and it’s becoming clear that Barack Obama is quite willing to play the long game.

I think his long game on nuclear disarmament goes something like this: regularize nuclear disarmament talks with the Russians, get an initial success, move to some of the auxiliary problems, bring the allies along, move to deeper reductions. So far he’s got the first two, or will have when/if the Senate ratifies New Start.

The numbers in New START are low-hanging fruit, ripe for that initial success. It was essential to keep the verification measures of START I in place. Both Russia and the United States wanted that, with some modifications, so that was a likely success too. But the negotiations were primarily on verification, not numbers. Unfortunately, the numbers are easier to report. Verification is boring. So we will hear more about the numbers.

It’s nice to think that the move to a few hundred nuclear weapons could happen quickly, but in the world of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, it ain’t going to happen. There are a couple of reasons for this: as the numbers get lower, the rules change, and the other nuclear powers need to be brought along.

Ain’t Nobody Goin’ To See Our Nukes!
That’s one of the primary rules of nuclear weapons classification. We have a general idea of how the Russians make their nuclear weapons, and they reciprocate. But there are some things both sides don’t know, and the more you know, the easier it would be to defeat those nukes or to make even better ones. Or so the argument goes.

In any case, the belief is real in government circles and was more so back in the 1970s. So, early on in arms control, counting delivery vehicles was a solution to that problem: each missile of a particular type represented so many warheads, each bomber, each submarine. The delivery vehicles were countable, and the warheads were hidden within. But when the number of warheads gets small enough, they must be counted individually. As must tactical nuclear weapons, the numbers being refurbished, and the parts stored. That’s why the Moscow Treaty limit of 2,200 strategic deployed warheads nets out to a total of ten thousand or so each for the United States and Russia.

That small number appears to be in the 500-1,000 total range. But the feeling is still strong that the other side shouldn’t know details of our warheads. At least two schemes for counting warheads without seeing them are being developed, one at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and one by a European consortium.

This is an extremely sensitive area that is going to require a lot more negotiation. Even these schemes will be looked at with skepticism. Any of us who have talked to members of the other side have had a moment in which we realized “Ohhhhhh! That’s how you do that!” No classified information is exchanged, just hearing an easy assumption, an elision, a juxtaposition of two comments. Crossword puzzle fans know that it’s easier to find the answer if you have a couple of letters.

As the numbers go down to perhaps 500 total for each, the two big nuclear arsenals will look more like those of the other nuclear countries. Britain and France have something like 200 each (with Britain going down to 160 in the near future), China likely has between 200 and 300, Israel has about 200 but won’t talk about it, and India and Pakistan have 75-100 each. North Korea is an outlier, and we can assume that talks there will continue (or not) pretty much as they have been. Iran has no nukes.

So at some point, those countries must be brought into the game. Too early, and they’ll sit back with their arms folded and say “You first.” Britain has been a bit more active in disarmament, but France is sticking with what it’s got for now. China and Israel aren’t saying much, and India and Pakistan remain fixated on each other.

The Fissile Material Control Treaty
For the long game, the others are being brought into the negotiations through the Conference on Disarmament, where a Fissile Material Control Treaty is being considered, at the request of the United States. Pakistan is blocking action there much as the Republicans are blocking action in the Senate.

[BTW, the US Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament is a woman, too: Laura Kennedy. Just sayin’.]

An FMCT would specify that signatories would not manufacture fissile material for weapons. The United States and Russia ended production some time ago; Pakistan thinks it needs more, and that’s its objection at the Conference on Disarmament.

So why go for an FMCT, as Obama has promised to do, if we’re not making the stuff anyway? Just to beat up on the little guys, as Pakistan contends?

An FMCT would open up a new inspection regime for enriched uranium and plutonium. Procedures would be developed, and the world would become accustomed to the idea that fissionable material is accountable to international authority. The big guys object to applying such a treaty to material that’s already been manufactured, but as the numbers go down, something is going to have to be done with those pits stored at Pantex. Russia has been selling the United States enriched uranium from its decommissioned weapons to be blended down for reactor fuel. If you get your electricity from nuclear plants, some of it is from decommissioned Soviet weapons.

There’s no overall accountability, though, for these materials, and even a weak FMCT would be the first step toward accountability for everyone. It would further encourage the repurposing of weapons materials for civilian power generation. And it would give an early warning of suspicious production or stockpiling. It would be the complement that is needed to inspection of individual warheads: what happens to them after they’re gone.

I’ve wondered why Obama explicitly made an FMCT part of his plan, but an FMCT that went in this direction would be an essential part of a world without nukes.

[Cross-posted at Obsidian Wings and American Footprints.]

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bits and Pieces - March 29, 2010

The New York Times is very polite and doesn't use the T-word. Let's all imagine how this article would have been written if those faces had been brown and the religion Islam. Emptywheel speculates further.

Scientists don't always talk nice.

Canada has been awfully pushy lately about the Arctic.

Humans may have been close to extinction more than once. So bring on that global warming! We're tough!

Bloggers solve math problems. A collaborative project.

We Have A New START

Apparently that is what the administration is calling the new arms control treaty with Russia, and the acronym is appropriate. Arms control was badly neglected during the Bush administration, despite the negotiation of the Moscow Treaty, which brought the number of deployed strategic weapons down to 2,200 for each side. That treaty was only three pages long. New START hasn’t been released to the public yet, but it will likely be in the tens of pages, with a protocol (probably longer) and much longer technical annexes.

Trust, but Verify

That’s a Russian saying, Ronald Reagan was quick to concede when he appropriated it. Verification is what those annexes are about, in particular how to count the number of nuclear weapons without actually counting warheads. Each missile of a certain type will be assumed to carry so many warheads, so many to each bomber and each submarine, with limits placed on the number of missiles, bombers and submarines. The details can go down to the power of flashlights provided to inspectors of missile silos. Some of this is still being worked out, and changes will be made; that’s why the details are in the annexes, which will have requirements for modifications written into the treaty itself or the protocol.

Although President George W. Bush said that friends don’t have to count each others’ nukes, the Russians have continued to feel otherwise. So the lack of verification provisions in the Moscow Treaty, and the dodging and weaving on the part of the United States as the end approached for the original START provisions used to verify the 2,200 limit, were taken by the Russians to mean that the United States was abandoning its responsibilities in this area.

Trust but verify isn’t a bad precept all around; we know what they’re doing, we know the limits to what we know, and we know that they know the same things about us. All that makes our relations more predictable and less volatile in an area that needs predictability.

Treaty Highlights
The White House has released a very short fact sheet (pdf) on the treaty. The primary objective of negotiations was to renew the verification capabilities of the original START treaty. Both sides wanted some changes to the verification procedures, to streamline them and make them relevant to today’s context. This seems to have been done, although the fact sheet gives no details.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed that New START should further decrease the warhead limits established by the Moscow Treaty, and this has been done.

Key words: deployed strategic. Those words describe the warheads to be counted, the same category of warhead as in the START and Moscow Treaties. These are the warheads that are deliverable and ready to deliver over very long distances. They are not the tactical nuclear weapons, of which the United States has a couple hundred in Europe - and Russia has probably a lot more around its territory. They are not the disassembled pits that are stored at the Pantex plant in Texas, which could be reassembled into warheads relatively quickly. They are not the warheads that are constantly undergoing refurbishment. Roughly, we can figure that the total numbers of warheads held by each country will be three times the number of deployed strategic warheads. From the fact sheet, the limits are:

• 1,550 warheads. Warheads on deployed ICBMs and deployed SLBMs count toward this limit and each deployed heavy bomber equipped for nuclear armaments counts as one warhead toward this limit.
• A combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
• A separate limit of 700 deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

The warhead limit is thus 74% lower than the limit set by the 1991 START Treaty and 30% lower than the deployed strategic warhead limit set by the Moscow Treaty. The limit in the last bullet is less than half the corresponding strategic nuclear delivery vehicle limit of the START Treaty. Not bad for a secondary goal.

But the best outcome may be what got us to this New START . The negotiations themselves are part of moving forward for the two nations. They give both a view into the other’s thinking, and they allow the negotiators to form personal relationships, or at least to become aware of the other’s limitations and strengths. Both sides view these negotiations as the beginning of a continuing interaction.

If the Republican members of the Senate continue as the Party of NO, the treaty cannot be ratified; it needs a two-thirds majority, or sixty-seven votes. But Richard Lugar (R – IN) seems to have signed on, and there is a small indication that Duma members may lobby the Senate.

And I just can’t resist mentioning again that women headed up the United States’ negotiating team. Did a really good job, too.

[Cross-posted at Obsidian Wings and American Footprints.]

Sweatshops and Jobs

Chris Blattman links to a paper on the perennial question of whether anti-sweatshop campaigns lead to unemployment in developing countries (downloadable pdf of the paper can be found there). The authors conclude no.

We find that anti-sweatshop campaigns led to large real wages increases for targeted enterprises. We also examine whether higher wages led these firms to cut employment or relocate elsewhere.

The results suggest that there were some costs in terms of reduced investment, falling profits, and increased probability of closure for smaller plants, but we fail to find significant effects on employment.

I Guess It Must Be Spring

The ducks have returned to Ashley Pond in Los Alamos. Actually, that should be "have been returned." They are totally under the control of humans, although occasionally a few wild ones stop by.

And I heard a Say's phoebe when I was planting pansies. But it's still quite chilly.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Popish Behavior

Whether in religion or politics or both, we've been learning once again that faith and power bend reality to their will.
In a clear indication that the Vatican continues to insist the continual abuse revelations are part of a conspiracy the Pope said: "From God comes the courage not to be intimidated by petty gossip."...

As he spoke, thousands of pilgrims who had gathered in a sunlit St Peter's Square clapped and shouted "Viva il Papa" (Long Live The Pope). The scandals seemingly not to have had an impact on their faith.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bits and Pieces - March 27, 2010

Star chamber proceedings by that "indispensible ally in the Middle East."

The American Enterprise Insitute yanks David Frum's health insurance.

EPA says "maybe not" to destroying one more West Virginia hilltop and surrounding valleys for coal.

The latest pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church seems to be playing out according to the usual script: no, it didn't happen; maybe it happened, but we didn't know about it; we knew about it, but it didn't land on the proper desk; um, we have no comment. But this time it's reaching up to the Pope himself. I probably won't write much on it, although the contradictions of supposedly religious people are always tempting. Here's one suggestion for the Catholic Church's future. Priestly celibacy began to be enforced in the Church about the tenth century, because priests were appropriating Church property for their families and willing it to their children. That was the scandal of that day.

The Women Did It!

There's probably not a catchy enough way to encapsulate it that it will achieve great publicity, but on the American side, the START negotiations have been done mostly by women. Maybe "The First Major Treaty To Have Been Negotiated By Women"?

Rose Gottemoeller, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation; Ellen Tauscher, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security; and, of course, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

There was a technical team working for Gottemoeller that must have included some men, of course. But it would have been Gottemoeller who asked them for the specifics and directed how they should frame their analyses.

Sergei Lavrov was the Russians' chief negotiator. No disrespect to Mr. Lavrov, who obviously worked hard and in good faith, but I wonder how much more quickly this might have been done if women had been negotiating for both sides.

In any case, congratulations to all involved on a job well done! The text of the treaty seems not yet to be available, but all indications are that it's a worthy successor to START I and that, as importantly, the negotiations built trust and channels of communication.

Correction: Anatoly Antonov was Russia's chief negotiator. My comments still hold.

[Poster from here.]

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Conversation?

A propos Cheryl's earlier post and MT's comments here, read this post by Julian Sanchez (via Sullivan), although he's speaking to Frum's firing from AEI. Here's a paragraph from the Sanchez post:
In the original post I suggested that the cocktail party attack itself might be a form of projection on the part of folks who are, at some level, acutely aware that their own careers depend on hewing pretty close to a party line. But I think there’s something else going on here too. One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy. [my highlighting].

Yay! We have a New START!

President Obama's remarks.

White House Fact Sheet (pdf). (We're looking for more soon, guys!)

Statement from Joint Chiefs of Staff. Good quote from Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the nation’s military leaders were allowed to submit their input during the process. This is to be used for convincing Republican senators to ratify the treaty.
“Through the trust it engenders, the cuts it requires and the flexibility it preserves,” Mullen added, “this treaty enhances our ability to do that which we have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States.”
Will the Republicans come along?

Will Duma members lobby them?

Befriending the Lost

After reading this and the post Helmut linked on communicating with a right-wing mother, I'm thinking that those of us who are pleased that the United States has joined the rest of the world in leaving behind the idea that becoming bankrupt when you get sick is a good idea should be doing what we can to befriend the people who feel they are being dissed. It's going to be hard, but it's worth thinking about how we can do this in our communities. It will probably have to be small actions at first. Just maybe not calling them idiots, as in the article I linked. Or a smile and an extended hand. Not much talk at first.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bits and Pieces, Helmut Edition

Photo by John Dominis
I'll do a round-up today....

Stephen Webster reveals his letters to his right-wing mom. Same experience here. So, I respond.

In a little-noticed but hugely significant development, China has idled 40% of its wind turbine factories. They've been racing ahead with the production of renewable energy technologies, but they have one main infrastructural hitch domestically: no power grid. And this likely won't change soon as it involves conflicts between provinces and disincentives on the part of those provinces that are more immune from blackouts.

China and Japan responsible for killing an agreement on hammerhead and whitetip shark protections at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meetings in Doha. Demand for shark fin soup has risen in China. So have finless shark carcasses.

At CITES, Japan and others are responsible for a failed agreement that would have regulated trade in red and pink corals. Buty delegates have decided to try save Kaiser's spotted newt, of which there an estimated 1000 left in existence. Some tree frog and iguana protections too.

A nice WRI piece here on Brazil's climate change approach. Plus (don't know if this ever got posted), a political history of cap and trade.

Chemicals: CIA might have experimented with LSD in 1951 using a French village as guinea pig. And India tests hot peppers for their terrorism-fighting properties. That last link sent by an Irish friend who I gassed years ago in his small Paris apartment by grilling habanero peppers before mixing them into a salsa.

For your listening pleasure, two great Jamaican soul-reggae tunes at Soul Sides - by Carlton and the Shoes and by the Heptones - and an R&B burner by Willie Smith and Cliff Driver's Infernal Machine at Funky16Corners.

Finally, newly unveiled Life Magazine photos by John Dominis of ultra-cool Steve McQueen playing with guns and records (glad he liked jazz albums; not so happy with his treatment of them). See above for one of them.


Some Chemistry, Please!

Joe Romm has been taking on the Calera process for (allegedly) making limestone out of carbon dioxide emissions and seawater. Here's the latest.

As a chemist, I've been suspicious of the Calera process and some other bright ideas out there for sequestering carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, Romm's recent posts don't help me to understand them. I know that what I'd like to see gets pretty deep in the weeds, but that's the only way these processes can actually be evaluated.

Romm's posts have been summaries of what others (Eli Kintisch, Ken Caldeira) have found about the process. But they emphasize some things that aren't all that important as far as I can see and leave out others that are.

Not so important: Romm's and Kintisch's concerns about "caustic solutions." I'm tired of seeing the dangers of "chemicals" (cue scary music) overrated. Practically everyone has that "caustic" bicarbonate in their house. It's called baking soda, and some even brush their teeth with it neat. And caustic.

What is scary about bicarbonate, to a chemist, is its ability to participate in an enormous number of equilibria with various metal ions that might be in the rock and that could make them more, not less, soluble. Bicarbonate is used in mining uranium, for example, by dissolving it out of underground formations and pumping the uranium-bearing solution to the surface. This is the issue that needs to be addressed.

And then there's thermodynamics. Hard to popularize, but it provides the limits on what one can do with this sort of process. If you calculate the free energy of a reaction, and the result says it's not going to happen under your conditions, it's not going to happen. Period. Nothing about thermodynamics (and those solubility constants are part of it) in Romm's posts or in anything I've seen from Calera.

Another problem: the relevant ions are very dilute in seawater. At least two potential problems flow from this. First, a lot of seawater is going to have to be processed, and the more material you handle, the higher the energy requirements. Second, those pesky solubility equilibria. The more water you have, the more material you can dissolve.

So I'd like to see a full (with solubility and thermodynamic considerations) explanation of what it is Calera claims to be doing. Not just what others may have concluded from something they're not fully telling us either.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Favored Narrative

Blaine Harden reports in the Washington Post that resistance is growing in North Korea. The article is responsible in what it reports, but I won't be surprised if shortly we see expectations that the resisters are going to overthrow the regime, as we have had far too much of about Iran.

There's a real pull to the narrative of brave resisters destroying an oppressive government, especially, I think, for us Americans, because it's part of our very own national mythology. More recently, it seems to have been recreated in the fall of the Soviet Union. And it worked in both of those two cases.

But in those two cases, there's an awful lot that the myth glosses over. Years of preparation building political parties and coalitions. Having a government ready to take over. The willingness of the oppressor to let go.

So we're not going to see that myth repeated any time soon in North Korea or Iran. When that preparation, and the willingness of the oppressor to let go, weren't there, it's been ugly. Hungary in 1956. Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ten Books (Or More)

There’s a meme going around, not so virulently as in the early days of the blogosphere, but I thought I’d try my hand at it. I am mildly surprised at the results.

The meme is a list of ten books that have most influenced your thought. I find that many of mine are from my childhood and are still vivid to me. I guess this will further convince some that I am simply not a serious (as in Very Serious Person) player in this game of blogging, commenting, whatever.

In no particular order; they slip and slide around as I think of their influence in various dimensions. And this may add up to more than ten, but some of them clump together in how they influenced me. The bottom line seems to be that I have been influenced more by books that made me think than by particular ideas.

1. Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. I still have the beautiful reproduction editions I read as a child, with the Tenniel illustrations. The world may not be as it seems, and I have a great deal of influence in how I look at it.

2. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I no longer have the editions I read as a child. Again, beautiful, a boxed set, Grimm green and Andersen red bindings. Prepared me for a strange and sometimes ugly world and to recognize the 19th-century Romantic effort in Europe and the Estonian forests I imagined as setting for these tales.

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. Part of my extended adolescence and finding that maybe someone else saw the world like I did.

4. The Magus, by John Fowles. Again, that extended adolescence thing, and relations between men and women. For the latter, I think that Fowles reaches his peak in Daniel Martin.

5. Creative Mythology, by Joseph Campbell. I was on a quest, inspired by trying to figure out what went so badly wrong to produce the world that Barbara Tuchman described in A Distant Mirror. I had a theory, and Campbell’s partial translation of Wolfram of Eschenbach’s Parzival supported it, along with the anonymous author’s highly contrasting The Quest of the Holy Grail.

6. Pro and Con, by Myron Matlaw and James B. Stronks. This was the text in my college sophomore English writing class. It was actually the professor who made the difference here, teaching me that clear writing required clear thinking.

7. Getting to Yes! by Roger Fischer and William Ury. Again, maybe not the book as much as a couple of mentors at work, who taught me that every interaction is a negotiation and that negotiations can and should be win-win.

8. The book I have yet to write on how Estonia broke up the Soviet Union. Estonia has shaped a good part of the last decade of my life. If I had been able to write this book earlier, and if people had read and heeded it, we might not have had the Iraq war or the nonsense about attacking Iran. And, conversely, the crazy hopes that the Green protests there will make any changes in the near future.

I’ve mentioned more than ten books, so I think I’ll stop here. Any more feel forced and repetitious.

Being There

Jeremy Bernstein gives us a first-person description of an atmospheric nuclear test and observes that there are few left who have actually seen one. I know some of them, and what they say is very similar to Bernstein's description.

Harold Agnew, who flew in the observation plane over Hiroshima and was the third director of Los Alamos, has suggested that every ten years or so, world leaders be gathered together at some remote spot to witness an atomic explosion. The scale of these events is so far from that of ordinary armaments that it is easy to sink back into the feeling that they're just big bombs.

On the other hand, a friend has commented that she doesn't need to see one of these to imagine how terrible they can be. And I've never seen a test (although I have seen some of the results), and I can be horrified by it. But she and I are in the generation that was forced to think about it by air-raid drills in school. Even then I had doubts that huddling in the hall of the school was going to keep us from being vaporized, and they were what I thought about as I huddled.

The continued existence of anything accustoms us to it, blunts the strong feelings it initially evokes. Maybe that's even more of a reason to do what we can, now, to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Bits and Pieces - March 22, 2010

Qualified congratulations from across the pond.

The Pakistani government is worried about A. Q. Khan's latest revelations, reliable or not.

The "long game" that Marc Lynch describes sounds very much like what I've called Obama's community organizer strategy.

"There are times when one simply wants to savor a victory for common sense--not an apocalyptic End to History, not the tossing of the adversary into the dustbin of history, just a plain victory for decency. This is one of those moments."

How progressive bloggers pressured NYT public editor into addressing Acorn “pimp” hoax.

Oh, and if healthcare is such a bonanza for the insurance companies (as the netroots has it) or death to the economy, why are the markets relatively indifferent (up slightly as I write)? Paul Krugman notices, too.

The Department of Justice's antitrust investigation into agribusiness.

The Quotes That Didn't Make It

Simon Shuster gives us a view of how sausages - er - magazine articles are made. Here's the final product, and here are some of the quotes (not full transcripts, which accounts for some lack of continuity) that didn't make it.

The thing about raw quotes is that there's a number of ways to interpret them. I disagree, for example with Shuster's takeaway:
What’s really striking in these interviews is how the two sides are so completely at cross-purposes in the ex-Soviet Union, and how Obama’s views as expressed by the official begin to look naive or even hopeless when juxtaposed with what the Russian government wants.
The quotes are from an anonymous senior US administration official, a conservative Russian member of parliament, and the Russian envoy to NATO. A bit of a strange mix, but when you're working under deadline, you go with what you've got.

To juxtapose the roles, it's a bit like taking quotes from Eric Cantor (R, VA) on the political side, or perhaps Zbigniew Brzezinski on the analyst side, and Rahm Emanuel versus someone in the Russian Foreign ministry. What this does (and perhaps was Shuster's purpose) is illuminate the internal divisions on one side versus the official view on the other. So yes, what the senior administration official has to say is a bit flat, but there's naivety and hopelessness in the Russian quotes too.

Sergei Markov, the parliamentarian, has some of his facts wrong (is this a conservative disease?) and is naive to think that spheres of influence are going to persist in today's world. It's interesting, though, that he is willing to see Russia as a regional, rather than world, power, although this may simply be code for his desire to go back to a system of spheres of influence.

Both Markov and Sergei Rogozov cede initiative to the United States, Markov insisting that Washington can decide Russia's status and Rogozov, that because the US is stronger, it must offer something. It's not clear what that something is.

The final article seems to take these two viewpoints as the only ones typical of Russia, but that's unlikely to be the case. And everyone likes a nice wrapup for the end, but (as usual for Time) the case seems to be more complicated there, too. The bluster that greeted Hillary Clinton in Moscow may well be the internally-required price of a START treaty. I guess I'll wait until I see what the treaty says.


The Amazing Technicolor Healthcare Reform (Plus Students!)

It's not the healthcare bill, to be signed into law tomorrow by Pres. Obama, that the progressive in me wanted. But the pragmatist in me is pretty happy with the basic provisions (pending reconciliation [reconciliation bill text is here]).

I think, though, that this has to be an ongoing dialogue. I don't mean that we ought to listen to idiots like Nunes or Bachmann. That's not dialogue and they're not interested in one anyway. And I don't mean the silly puffery by some Republicans about repealing the law next year. Frum has the answer to that one.
No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?
I mean simply that the new law provides a shifting framework for rethinking healthcare in the US. It resolves some standing issues of efficiency and fairness but doesn't reform the basic structure. Maybe that basic structure has to change as well, maybe not. Either way, policy changes come incrementally in the US and this necessitates attentiveness to policy. Tinkering around the edges can sometimes start to work its way towards the center. This goes for proponents and opponents.

The student loan initiative bundled into the healthcare bill is also a big win. It's a solid move in the right direction towards figuring out how to get a good college education without everyone going into massive, unpayable debt to each other. Like jobs, like healthcare, like the banking sector, like immigration reform, like the national debt, and like the various pressing foreign policy fronts, the cost of college education is a festering problem that the current administration has also tackled directly.

Here's Obama speaking to House Democrats on Saturday (cited by Krugman):
Every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made ... And this is the time to make true on that promise. We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.
And I don't think Krugman is exaggerating:
This is, of course, a political victory for President Obama, and a triumph for Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. But it is also a victory for America’s soul. In the end, a vicious, unprincipled fear offensive failed to block reform. This time, fear struck out.
This is a win on substance, form, and the representation of both.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


After the Senate passes the reconciliation bill, the United States will have rejoined the civilized world.

Bits and Pieces - March 21, 2010

We have all day until the vote on health care reform, so here is some reading.

Stewart L. Udall, 90, Conservationist in Kennedy and Johnson Cabinets, Dies.

Wasn't this problem faced once before, with phone service?

Just wondering: was the ease with which Wall Street fell into casino-like practices correlated with the rise of state lotteries and other forms of legalized gambling, making it that much easier to see gambling as something, well, everyone does?

Can the US still tackle big problems? I think that passing HCR will give us a real boost in self-confidence. Fargo, North Dakota, is already doing that, dealing with its yearly spring floods. (The rivers flow north, and as Fargo melts, Canada remains frozen, so the water has no place to go in the river channel.)

Iceland is dealing with a volcanic eruption and is wondering if it's a portent of worse to come.

Anti-government protests in Russia. Russia is having a very hard time with the global recession, having failed to use its oil revenue to build a real economy. This unrest at home could be part of Vladimir Putin's negative comments to Hillary Clinton the other day. Got to look strong in order to put that START agreement in place. The WaPo reports that it's technical issues, not the big picture, that are the holdup. That makes sense; the technical part of START, supporting the reductions in numbers, is immensely detailed. Both sides have wanted to eliminate some of that detail, but just going through the technical annex is going to take time, along with decisions on each detail. For an example, the equipment to be provided to crews inspecting missile silow is specified down to the power of flashlights. That was a response to some Cold War game-playing, might not be needed any more.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Looking Good

I've been sitting inside, with the wind blowing outside and the temperature barely up to freezing (although the sun has melted the snow on the driveway), doing my taxes and keeping an eye on the action in Congress. It's looking like the Democrats have the votes to pass the health care bill!

So if you live in a place where you could be out enjoying the first day of spring, here are some updates. I've checked the New York Times and the Washington Post, and their news isn't much different than it was this morning.

Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly is probably the best place to go for a more-or-less blow by blow account. The vote will be a straight vote, no deem-and-pass or other parliamentary frippery. The Senate has come through with a letter signed by a majority that they will go with the House's fixes to their bill.

President Obama spoke to the Democrats this afternoon, without a script or teleprompter. In the small excerpts I've seen in video, he's quite emotional. This is a big moment for him and all of us. Ezra Klein has the transcript.

And there are teapartiers all over Congress, with some very ugly behavior. I won't link to that, but Steve did.

Bits and Pieces - March 20, 2010

Looking like HCR is going to pass! Tomorrow's the big day!

Speaking of which, here's an anticipation of the sore losers. If you care to hear what they have to say.

Next up: Cap and trade. A political history here.

Why the dollar will continue to be the world currency.

And yeah, I'm still doing some science. An alien ecosystem in Antarctica. (h/t to RG)

With Malice Toward None

David Kaiser today highlights the parallels between today's struggle for health care legislation and the Civil War. I've just finished reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and have been wanting to write something very similar.

The parallels are striking, and Kaiser mentions many that I saw and a few I missed. Here are a couple more: Every time I read "Radical Republican," the context gave me a start. The Radical Republicans of that time wanted abolition of slavery immediately with no reference to the political environment, quite different from today's radical Republicans. Every time that term jogged me, I mentally substituted "netroots" and continued.

It also seems to me that President Obama is consciously modeling his actions on Lincoln's and that they follow the community organizer model I've talked about before. It's clear that Lincoln was a decent person who wanted the best for his country and its people individually. That was at least as much a driver of his behavior as the politics. Ronald Brownstein argues Obama's actions as part of turning our very inertial country around, a parallel to Reagan. And I think that Obama's motives for that are very much the same as Lincoln's.

BTW, Kaiser writes one post a week, usually on the weekends, and they are always worth reading.

No Universe-Collapsing Black Holes Yet

Scientists at CERN, the European nuclear research agency, announced Friday morning that they had accelerated beams of protons at the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, to energies of 3.5 trillion electron volts. That is a new record, three times the energy of any other machine on earth, and means that the collider, after 15 years and $10 billion, is on the verge of beginning to do physics experiments. Physicists hope to begin colliding the beams by the end of the month.


Barking Up the Wrong Tree cites a firewalled Economist article on difficult languages. I like this feature of Tuyuca, the language spoken by the 500-1000 Tuyuca people who reside in the Colombian and Brazilian Amazonas.
Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.
I wonder what would have resulted if Socrates had spoken Tuyuca.... More here.

Dinosaur On the Way to Becoming a Woodpecker

Scientists have analyzed the remnants of feathers on a fossilized dinosaur that lived 155 million years ago in what is now China and found the coloring of...a woodpecker! It was about the size of a chicken.

A rotating model can be found here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Moroccan Etrog

Call Your Reps!

We're coming into the final stretch on health care reform. Look, it may not be adequate at all as health care policy, but this is an old battle that is on the brink of a giant win for the American people and human decency. We need that.

As with most things, once the social norms are developed from even watered down legislation, where a health care system is widely accepted as a public good, it becomes possible to modify and improve it. That's how legislation works - it has to be tested out in practice. Although I have misgivings too about the central involvement of the insurance industry, criticism from the left that the bill must be all or nothing elides the realities of legislation. Dennis Kucinich pushed the envelope until Wednesday when he threw in his support behind the bill. That is the right move.

The Republicans know that legislation, even when considered controversial at the outset, has a habit of settling in once it's clear it's an improvement. They have not proposed anything substantial and have no intention of allowing any health care reform whatsoever. As we've seen over and over, the driving reason is simply to deny Pres. Obama this most high-profile policy victory. Failed health care reform is a cynical victory only for the GOP for electoral reasons.

We know, however, that there absolutely must be some kind of reform to the current bloated, socially expensive, and often morally indecent health care status quo. Now is the time to get this done once and for all.

I live in Washington, DC and as such have no voting representative in Congress. Please call your representatives now and ask them to vote for the health care bill, especially if they're undecided or voting "no." Demand that they give coherent reasons why they're either voting against it or are still undecided. Telephone numbers are available here.

TPM has the current tally:

Undecided Dems Who Voted 'No' On The House Health Care Bill

John Tanner (D-TN), Brian Baird (D-WA), Jason Altmire (D-PA), Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL), Jim Matheson (D-UT), Glenn Nye (D-VA), Scott Murphy (D-NY), Harry Teague (D-NM), Rick Boucher (D-VA)

Undecided Dems Who Voted 'Yes' On The House Health Care Bill

Many of the undecideds who previously voted "yes" are comprised of pro-life Democrats who are leery of the Senate bill's abortion language and are led by Rep. Bart Supak (D-MI).

-Easy to get Stupakers: Brad Ellsworth (D-IN), Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), Henry Cuellar (D-TX),

-Hard to get Stupakers: Marion Berry (D-AR), Jerry Costello (D-IL), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Steve Driehaus (D-OH), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Dan Lipinski (D-IL), Bart Stupak (D-MI)

(While Costello, Donnelly, Driehaus, Lipinski and Stupak have all declared their opposition to the Senate bill's abortion provisions, their votes still may be in play)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Born to Dance

From ScienceNOW:
Human infants are born to dance, researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Psychologists from the United Kingdom and Finland played an assortment of classical and children's songs, drumbeats, baby talk, and regular speech for 120 infants ages 5 to 24 months. Speech inspired little motion, but music consistently got the babies into the groove....
P.S. Video of a grooving babe.

Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton died yesterday in New Orleans at the age of 59. Apart from Chilton's solo career, he brought us first The Boxtops (their biggest hit was their version of Wayne Carson Thompson's "The Letter") and then, of course, the magnificent and tragically under-appreciated Big Star.

The latter band's influence runs deep and wide throughout pop music since the 1970s, almost on a par with the likes of Brian Wilson (almost). But they never really quite got their due with the public.

If you're not acquainted with Big Star, you might recognize "In the Street." My favorites include "September Gurls" "Give Me Another Chance," "Nighttime," "The India Song,"and "Thirteen," among others.

With some deaths a piece of oneself is gently carried away and buried. Goodbye, dear Alex.

Too Many Nuclear Weapons

Both in stockpiles and in current discussion. I had really hoped to get away from this subject, but with START and the Nuclear Posture Review coming to fruition, it's not going to happen for a while.

I saw "The Last Station" the other day. Besides the brilliant performances of Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, I loved the long shots of the scenery, which really did look like parts of Russia and Estonia, although the forests were clearly Germany. The understory vegetation was too grassy. So let's see what I can find in my photos of an Estonian forest understory.

Not quite what I'm thinking of; I think all of those photos are on film, unscanned. This one is on the north coast, on the glint (cliff) facing the sea. The ones I'm thinking of are inland.

Here's a lovely Yggdrasil-like oak near Pühajärv (Holy Lake).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Journalism 101

I’m not a journalist, and I never took Journalism 101. I’m a scientist being a blogger, so I’ve learned a bit about journalism.

Scientists have a lot in common with journalists, I’ve found. We are looking for something like the truth, but we know it can be hard to find. The methods of both are asking questions and then trying to figure out whether the answers make sense, although nature is resistant to the sorts of questions journalists ask; and the things that journalists investigate can be resistant to the sorts of questions scientists ask.

That phrase “something like the truth” is important. Truth can be slippery in both professions, and there can be stunning reverses, even if you do a good job at questions and verification.

I wrote my latest post on R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick’s series of revelations (on China, North Korea and Iran) from A. Q. Khan via Simon Henderson when I was quite irritated by all the ways these articles continued to flout both science and journalism, my irritation increased by the Washington Post’s hiring of yet another right-wing hack and lover of torture to afflict our eyeballs on a regular basis. I’m not sure when I’ll get over that last, but I’ll leave it in this paragraph for now.

I’m not at my best when I’m that irritated, and I can be obscure even at my best, so let me lay out more specifically what is wrong with Smith and Warrick’s journalism.

Sources are a large part of the problem. Smith and Warrick are reporting on documents by A. Q. Khan, provided to them by Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, or WINEP, or The Washington Institute. This puts them at two removes from the person whose ideas they are writing about, and questions are needed about those removes. Jeffrey Lewis is looking at the questions of A. Q. Khan’s veracity, and archjr (March 16, 02:20 AM) provides a few in the comment thread to that post.

I have tended to dismiss anything written by Khan because I can think of too many reasons that he might write, well, anything. He has been under house arrest and now seems to be more available, but he still has not spoken to law enforcement from outside the country, he is the “father of the Muslim bomb” and has that image to uphold, he has stolen information from his employers, and he was at the center of an international ring of providers of services for manufacturing nuclear weapons. Lewis may be planning to work through what the Smith and Warrick articles say about Khan, and there may be contradictions or small pieces of information to be gleaned in that way. It’s not my cup of tea, so I’m glad Lewis is doing it.

Smith and Warrick say in their latest article
The Post had no direct contact with Khan, but it independently verified that he wrote the documents.
Nothing about how they verified this.

It is not Khan who is providing the documents to Smith and Warrick, but rather Simon Henderson, a former journalist who is now at The Washington Institute, which seems to be the currently acceptable name-shortening for that organization. So there are many questions to be asked about Henderson and his employer, and how he came into possession of the documents. I am not focusing on Henderson or TWI, but rather inserting those proper nouns into questions that, it seems to me, should be taught in Journalism 101.

Does TWI have an agenda? One might start by looking at Wikipedia, for example, or the governing board, or the scholars and associates on its list. TWI was founded by AIPAC. I agree with Lewis that one must judge a work product for itself, but it is always worth asking whether that work product serves larger aims.

What is Henderson’s position at TWI? Not just his job title, but how he fits into the mix there. This would be an indicator of how likely it is that larger aims are involved. Again, one of the commenters on that thread at ACW has done some digging on these subjects.

How did Henderson get the documents? The reported story seems fairly straightforward, although it must be asked why Khan entrusted them to Henderson rather than someone else, and what his purpose was in doing that. When anyone gives documents to a person who can make them public, there may be some self-serving involved. And, going up that chain, we need to ask why Henderson made the documents available to Smith and Warrick.

Why did Henderson make this document available to Smith and Warrick at that time?
Why did Henderson make this document available to Smith and Warrick at that time?
Why did Henderson make this document available to Smith and Warrick at that time?
Why did Henderson make this document available to Smith and Warrick at that time?

There are easy answers to these questions, like “because Smith and Warrick were the most accurate journalists Henderson could think of” and “because Henderson believes that the documents should be available as a public service” but, as I noted a week or so back, multiple hypotheses are always possible, and a good scientist or journalist will try to work up a number of them for evaluation. In fact, at Lewis’s post, Smith gives a clue to one answer:
With regard to seeing the documents, they were provided to us to review and report on. But they are, in essence, Mr. Henderson’s to release. Those who are eager to see them are free to ring him directly. But I think he will say that you will have to wait until the final thread, not yet reported, plays out.
So either Henderson or the Washington Post is timing the release of this information. The obvious question would be why.

The articles also fail to make clear how many documents are involved, what kind of documents they are (A letter is mentioned. Also mentioned:
Khan's 11-page narrative, prepared in 2004 during his initial house arrest
Memos to self? memos to higher-ups? diaries? drafts intended for publication?) Memory is far from infallible. Did each Post article come from a single document? Several? How much inference was applied by Henderson, Smith, and Warrick?

I believe that Journalism 101 teaches that multiple sources are needed to support an assertion. The nature of the reported claims, however, is resistant to this kind of confirmation. The claims are about Khan’s interactions with officials of other governments to whom he was trying to sell his wares. Clearly those North Korean and Iranian officials are unlikely to speak candidly to American reporters. Since the report about China was 1982, those officials may no longer be alive, but if they are, they will share that reticence. And the records of those meetings are not publicly available.

The third article contains some of this sort of verification, but it is very thin. Smith and Warrick quote others who have not seen the documents and are commenting about various events from their points of view. These quotes may satisfy the currently fashionable journalistic requirement of “he said, he said,” but they provide little illumination. (Sorry – some snark getting through! This journalistic requirement differs from those of science.)

The quotes from Leonard Spector and Sig Hecker raise questions about Khan’s veracity, but they are just left to stand alone.

There are big claims in these three articles, based solely on Khan’s documents as provided by Henderson. It’s interesting that Khan claims such things, but why should we believe any of this?

Bits and Pieces - March 17, 2010

If the US is going to right itself economically, it will need more (and replacement) sources of energy. If we're going to deal with climate change, that growth will have to be in other areas besides coal, natural gas, and oil. So it's good to see the administration backing nuclear energy and conservation.

Video of gliding ants.

The administration is sloooowly ratcheting down the fear factor on the Mexican border.

Iran is making another offer on exchanging its low-enriched uranium for fuel elements for the Tehran Research Reactor. It's a good sign that Iran hasn't lost its interest in this deal, but each new offer from Tehran becomes more convoluted. Also good signs: Turkey is talking with Iran, and China is providing some pressure. But it's still a long way to a deal. (h/t to Tina for some of the links.) Update: This statement from Daniel Poneman, that the deal hasn't been taken off the table, is hopeful too.

Paul Goble summarizes discontent in Russia with Vladimir Putin.

But Let's Say They Did Pay Attention

to the article in my last post. How's this for a lede?
Undercutting the often-repeated refrain that climate scientists ignore water, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, Science magazine today published a years-long study by Susan Solomon and colleagues, featuring data from satellites constantly observing water vapor in the stratosphere.
No, probably wouldn't fly.

All the News?

I read my dead-tree Science magazine later than the news comes out, so I only became aware of this article during the last few days. The more I think about it, the more I wonder why there hasn't been a news storm about it.

The link I gave gives only a tidbit, the rest behind a subscription wall. There's a bit more explanation here.

The article is the most comprehensive discussion so far on the role of water in the stratosphere. The take-home is that the concentration of water in the stratosphere has decreased significantly during the last decade, which has kept things cooler than they might otherwise be.

My next question is how the water gets into and out of the stratosphere, which the paper is a bit vague about. That's fine; it's not the topic of the paper, and I'm sure the question has occurred to the authors of the paper and others. The source seems to be in the tropics, but I'd like to know more details, which I suspect aren't known.

This is a really, really important finding, helpful in understanding the processes of climate change. So I'm wondering why there has been so little news coverage on it. I guess it's because it 1) doesn't fit with any of the denier arguments and 2) nobody has picked a fight about it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bits and Pieces - March 16, 2010

It would be nice if we could see a text of the START treaty before the squabbles about where to sign it begin.

A couple of reports on keeping nuclear weapons under control.

Health care reform: The more things change, the more they remain the same.

And a very nice graph on what reform would have done for us if it had been enacted earlier from this report:

Indiana Jones and the Ants. I've found at least three kinds in my yard. Ants, that is.

A bit of history from Juan Cole, with a telling series of maps:

Fed Ex's very own fossil. Why don't we see more stuff like this in US news?

China may be losing patience with Iran. Or giving in to pressure.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Good Thing Spring Is Only A Week Away

From this morning in Santa Fe. Much of the snow has melted, and the streets are clear.

Where Does AREVA's Lead-212 Come From?

Last week, AREVA, the French reactor manufacturer, announced that they plan to build a facility to produce medical-grade lead-212. That caught my eye, because lead-212 is a product of the decay of radioactive materials like thorium and radium. Lead-212 can be attached to cell-specific peptides to target and kill cancer cells selectively.

Today, in a blogger conference call with Jacques Besnainou, the CEO of AREVA in North America, the new facility came up. I asked about the source of the lead-212, and Besnainou said that it is from “other processing operations” in France. I pressed on what those operations were, and Besnainou said that AREVA would explain, but he didn’t give any details.

Dan Yurman posted on AREVA’s R&D interest in lead-212 about a year ago. He gave a chart of the the decay chain leading to lead-212 (Pb-212), which I reproduce here. But where does the U-232 come from? It is produced by using thorium fuel in a reactor or the natural radioactive decay of thorium.

The chart also gives the half-lives of the various radionuclides – the numbers followed by y, d, h, m, and s (years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds). The half-life of lead-212 is 10.6 hours, so the process will involve a fast separation of the lead-212 followed by its incorporation into the cancer-treating reagent. This sort of process has been done for many short-lived isotopes for cancer detection and treatment.

The source of the lead-212 is most likely thorium, perhaps irradiated in a reactor, perhaps natural. It’s not surprising that AREVA would have some from “other processing operations”; thorium is often present in uranium ore.

I look forward to AREVA’s telling us exactly what the source is.

Profit, Loss, and Proliferation

Northrop Grumman and Corporate Interests

by Molly Cernicek and Cheryl Rofer

Last week the Washington Post reported that Northrop Grumman withdrew from a $40 billion competition to build aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force. With just two companies bidding on this contract, it leaves Boeing as the heir apparent.

We’ve been thinking about how to lay out the conflicts between corporations and the government, but the players in this little drama have done it for us.

The forfeiting defense contractor on the primary interest of a profit-making corporation (Wes Bush, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Northrop):
"We have a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders to prudently invest our corporate resources," he said. "Investing further resources to submit a bid would not be acting responsibly."
The Pentagon representative on competitive contracting (Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn):
The Pentagon was "disappointed" that Northrop had pulled out of the competition, noting that it "competed well on both price" and other factors. "We strongly believe that the current competition is structured fairly and that both companies could compete effectively."
The forfeiting defense contractor on choosing not to protest the contract (we report, you decide on the sincerity):
"America's servicemen and women have been forced to wait too long for new tankers," he said. "Taking actions that would further delay the introduction of this urgent capability would also not be acting responsibly."
The “contracting and defense expert” who works as a defense industry consultant at the libertarian, free-market Lexington Institute (Loren Thompson):
"If you push a contractor too far, they don't have any incentive to bid because they don't expect to make any money. The lesson is, if you push contractors too far they'll lose interest."
A Congressman whose state will benefit from Boeing getting the contract:
"Northrop made a good decision," said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). "We can now go forward."
The Senator from a state where Northrop would have built an assembly plant (Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-AL)):
The Air Force "had a chance to deliver the most capable tanker possible to our war fighters and blew it." The "so-called competition" was "structured to produce the best outcome for Boeing" and that the Air Force's "refusal to make substantive changes to level the playing field shows that once again politics trumps the needs of our military."
Senator Shelby last month put an unprecedented blanket hold on nearly 70 nominees sent to the Senate by President Obama for confirmation. He was holding those nominations hostage to projects for Alabama, this project included.

There are so many points here, it’s hard to know where to start. A bidding process that brings in just two bidders is anything but competitive. Government contracting to the private sector assumes that there are many competitors vying for each contract, which will lead to better pricing for government projects. In reality, there are only a handful of super-contractors like Boeing and Northrop that have the infrastructure, employees, and strategic alliances to other primary and secondary contractors to take on the government’s biggest projects.

These super-contractors put significant effort into winning a bid, but those efforts go into lobbying and organizing the project to include as many congressional interests as possible rather than into cost savings for the government. With so few competitors in bidding processes, it makes sense for a super-contractor to lower its costs significantly only when it is looking to win a small subcontract from a much smaller government contractor. The big contractors can take on a small subcontract at a loss initially and then will find ways to increase the contract.

News of this $40 billion contract squabble was barely a blip to most of America, including Congress. House Democrats announced Thursday that they would no longer approve earmarks directed to for-profit organizations, whereupon the Republicans upped the ante by announcing that their entire 178-member conference would not seek any earmarks this year, denouncing all of the line-item expenditures as wasteful and corrupting," reports Paul Kane. Earmarks make up about 1 percent of our yearly budget. With a $3,518 trillion budget, this comes out to $35 billion in savings. Possible earmark savings for 307,006,550 Americans (US Census Bureau estimate, July 2009) would be $115 for each American. Almost enough to pay for the new refueling tankers that will cost each American $130.