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

Eclipsed Moon Setting Over Jemez Mountains

The lights at the lower right are Los Alamos.

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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Good News, But Not For the Police

There were no car burglaries in Santa Fe over the weekend. You would think that would be good news, and Geoff Grammer reports in The New Mexican that the police accede to this judgement. But they're still disappointed.

It seems that they set up a big SUV full of electronics and left it in the Walmart parking lot. Watched, of course, in the expectation that somebody would take advantage and could easily be swooped up and brought to justice.

Another sting. Like those FBI informers who ingratiate themselves with would-be terrorists and show them how to get the stuff to make bombs.

It's probably not all bad to warn the would-be burglars that unlocked SUVs full of tempting stuff may be a trap. But the non-burgling happened before we all knew that.

The Santa Fe police have broken a couple of theft rings in recent months. That probably has more to do with the weekend's absence of burgling than this bright sting idea. Real police work does make a difference.

Friday, November 25, 2011

An Update on Nature's Sexism

Apparently Nature intends to stand by its editor and his buddy who wrote that sexist fiction piece. They haven't come out with any official public statement. And the fiction author continues to tell the rest of the world they're wrong - he's a nice guy and everything he said is entirely legitimate and the rest of us should just shut up.

No, I'm not going to link to any of the depressing swill. One of the hypotheses is that they're doing it as linkbait, which seems a cheap tactic for one of the world's foremost scientific publications.

But I have to wonder if some clicks are worth looking like retrograde jerks.

The good part of this furore has been that I've found Paleontologist Barbie and Michael Eisen's blog.

A Further Thought on Black Friday

And I see others are having it too.

Kevin Drum traces this use of the term back to 1985, as that decline of the middle class was becoming obvious. It's probably also got to do with the rise of WalMart, which always seems to be the scene of Black Friday tramplings and now pepper spraying.

Many societies have found pleasure in watching the lower classes fighting each other. Slaves in the Roman coliseum, for one example. So today we have Black Friday.

Angry Black Lady points this out.

And a tweet from @rationalists:

We need to make this a meme.

Bits and Pieces - Black Friday Edition

I keep wondering if others see the term "Black Friday" in any positive light. The "Black Day" phrase has been connected to bad events far too uniformly for me to feel good about it. And I hate shopping crowds, so there is nothing about today's shopping events that seems good to me.

Helmut has already linked the pepper spray incident in California. All's fair in shopping!

Kevin Drum, who seems as puzzled as I am about the nomenclature, tries to find how this linguistic perversion originated.

Also in the realm of vicious stupidity: commerce in chicken-pox-infected lollypops and infection parties. The authorities may be cracking down on these illegal activities.

Hard to tell whether this is good or bad: Nobody misses Murdoch's News of the World, but does it mean that newspapers are nonessential? And we may speculate what would happen if the Murdoch pox infects Fox News.

And a slide show of more attractive (at least on the outside) public toilets.

Onion-as-Reality Alert

A woman shot pepper spray to keep shoppers from merchandise she wanted during a Black Friday sale, and 20 people suffered minor injuries, authorities said. The incident occurred shortly after 10:20 p.m. Thursday in a crowded Los Angeles-area Walmart as shoppers hungry for deals were let inside the store. [Link]

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bits and Pieces - November 22, 2011

Many thanks to The Reaction for pointing out that this song (which I mildly liked at the time) is sung by the two guys who became known as Simon and Garfunkel. The record would have been a 45, though, with a bigger hole in the center.

An interactive map of US highway deaths. There really are a lot.

This is wonky and a bit convoluted, but the bottom line is clear: if you don't want your infrastructure hacked, insert an air gap. In other words, don't connect it to the internet!

Preparing for tonight's Republican debate: questions from Thomas Fingar, a China expert, and Jon Huntsman tries to get a leg up by writing a coherent article.

A reminder that we do have someone competent in foreign policy running things, and why he'll probably win next year.

Since this post is on what some have called "the nuclear taboo," and since this one of this blog's topics is philosophy, let's put in a few seconds of thinking about that. There are some very good points made in the comments that the idea that nuclear war is a bad idea does not amount to a taboo. And, in any case, it appears that many Americans have a fairly low threshold for using nuclear weapons.

Handling Protest

President Obama is confronted with the human microphone:

Watch how he handles it: He lets the protesters have their say until opposition to them builds, then asks that they let him have his say and says he'll be glad to talk to them later.

Recommended viewing for university chancellors and police everywhere.

Speaking of whom, Lieutenant John Pike of the University of California, Davis, police has achieved internet immortality.

Update: And now, reviews of pepper spray on Amazon!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Heat's Heat

Via here, via MT, via FB

And here's a fuller version of the Scoville scale so that you can compare your favorite pepper to getting blasted in the face with a little Standard U.S. Grade FN 303 by the mighty blue of UC-Davis, NYC, or Oakland. Personally, I like a few dabs of Madam Jeanette under my eyelids with my morning coffee.

Scoville RatingType of Pepper
15,000,000 - 16,000,000Pure capsaicin (Unavailable through a natural grown plant and is only synthetically developed)
8,600,000 - 9,100,000Various capsaicinoids (e.g. homocapsaicin, homodihydrocapsaicin, norhydrocapsaicin) (Unavailable through a natural grown plant and is only synthetically developed)
2,000,000 - 5,300,000Standard U.S. Grade pepper stray, FN 303 irritant ammunition (Unavailable through a natural grown plant and is only synthetically developed)
855,000 - 1,050,000Bhut Jolokia aka Naga Jolokia (Hottest naturally grown pepper)
350,000 - 580,000Red Savina Habanero
100,000 - 350,000Habanero chili, Scotch Bonnet Pepper, Datil Pepper, Rocoto, Jamaican Hot pepper, African Birdseye, Madame Jeanette
50,000 - 100,000Thai Pepper, Malagueta Pepper, Chiltepin Pepper, Pequin Pepper
30,000 - 50,000Cayenne Pepper, Aji Pepper, Tabasco Pepper, some Chipotle pepper
10,000 - 23,000Serrano Pepper, some Chipotle peppers
2,500 - 8,000Jalapeño Pepper, Guajillo pepper, New Mexican varieties of Anaheim pepper, Paprika (Hungarian wax pepper)
500 - 250Anaheim pepper, Poblano pepper, Rocotillo Pepper
100 - 500Pimento, Pepperoncini
0No heat, Bell pepper

Saturday, November 19, 2011

One of These is Wrong

Recent police violence: videos from Garance Franke-Ruta.

It's the 148th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettsburg Address. That's where the phrase "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" comes from.

Nature Jumps Into the Sexism Morass

I saw this the other day, read the first few sentences and couldn't figure out what was going on. Or didn't want to believe that Nature, the premier British scientific journal, was publishing adolescent male musing on how different the female sex really is. But there it is. I found this today, from the Journal of Are You Fucking Kidding, of which the editor-in-commandant is apparently a sister chemist. So I went back to Nature, and indeed, the gameboy stuff was still there.

The writer wrote it, and he is defending it in the comment thread, apparently learning nothing on the way. An editor, probably more than one, had to approve it, which meant that they found nothing wrong with it and presumably liked it better than other things they might have published in its place. And it's fiction. I didn't know that Nature published fiction, so it seems that some special exception must have been made for the brilliance of this piece. (That's sarcasm; I'm feeling like the naivete is so thick that I have to explain every little thing.)

That sequence attests to a thoroughgoing sexism, apparently invisible to all involved.

And oh yes, it was written tongue-in-cheek, ha ha, the author tells us, so it's your fault, you sourpuss feminists, if you don't get it. No humor, ha ha.

All this stuff, as the editor-in-commandant is saying, is so old, it's hard to believe that the boys at Nature aren't aware of it. I think that's a big part of my disbelief. They've been hidden away in their labs and missed the last fifty years, I guess.

Update: Oh my, I see I'm quite late to this discussion. I'm still having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that Nature actually published something so juvenile.

Mas: Scientific American is published by the Nature Publishing Group. But they've posted two of the best responses to Nature's idiocy, by Christie Wilcox and Janet Stemwedel. There is also a Twitter hashtag, #womenspace, for those who follow such things.

I simply could not imagine doing any better than this.

Womandate 11/20/11: Nature seems to have This masterpiece has been regendered. I have to admit that I thought about doing that myself, but I had several more important things to do, like removing the soaker hoses from the flowerbeds and setting up the heated birdbath. The regendering, which seems to consist only of replacing male names and pronouns with their female equivalents, shows even more vividly how poorly written this piece is and fails to do much more. Even the comments have been regendered. Given what I've read about Nature's editor, the man responsible for publishing the original idiocy, I suspect that this was his brilliant idea too. I was thinking of a more elaborate regendering, in which reversed sex roles might even generate a bit of satire. But I think I'll go wash out the summer birdbath instead.

I am told, via Twitter, that this is an automated function at I'll stick with my comments above as modified.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bits and Pieces - November 18, 2011

I think we need to continue to hear about that Norwegian massacre last spring, but I'd also like to hear about how the Norwegian people are recovering. The American MSM aren's much covering either.

This isn't good. OTOH, doesn't seem like there's much of a move toward intervention in Syria anyway.

The legions and the auxiliaries in Rome and America.

Are psychologists sexing up their research?

Seymour Hersh makes his case on Iran. I don't entirely agree with it, but it's a clear and honest exposition.

Mehdi Hasan makes a case for diplomacy with Iran that's been made many times before, but worth repeating.

And there's much more on Iran at Nuclear Diner, both links and my commentary.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What Kind of Innovation Do We Need?

The Atlantic's website is featuring a section on innovation. I would like to subscribe only to certain parts of that website, but that doesn't seem to be possible, so I'm getting this innovation stuff too.

I grew up during the fifties and sixties, so I was as wide-eyed about innovation and space and transistors and computers and cars and neat stuff as any math-crazy young girl of that period. It was a good time, and new stuff was coming thick and fast.

That period put the shine on the word innovation. Innovation really did make our lives better. People made money on innovation, and they have continued to do so since then. Innovation has even reached out into our financial markets, helping to crater them, and still the word shines.

It means making something new, of course, but it has become our modern version of what the Victorians were pleased to call progress and what is now called the Whig version of progress. Ever onward and upward.

The Atlantic series is focused on new gadgets, the iPhone squared or cubed, and all the ways they will make things better, just like the flying cars that the 1950s expected for us today.* It's delightful, of course, to think about new gadgets, but most of us don't know how to use all of what we've got now, nor do we need to. Watching television on a hand-held device is not a giant step for humankind.

Part of this Whig version of innovation is the myth of the single (male) inventor. It was good to see Vaclav Smil debunk this today. The Atlantic series has been unrelentingly male. They are, of course, our innovators, if by innovator you mean guys who fit this stereotype of the heroic guy working alone to perfect the lightbulb or iPhone. Which, Smil points out, is hardly ever in fact the case.

When the series started, it occurred to me that we need innovation very badly indeed, and the good words sprayed around by a national magazine in the way that national magazines do when telling us what a great series they're going to run, when I skimmed them, looked like the series might address the innovation I thought we need.

The innovation I was thinking about was the innovation needed to deal with the too-high unemployment rate, the dead-end politics being pursued by too many in Congress, the undue influence of money in politics, and the renewal of the country's infrastructure. The crisis in the European Union, the slide of Russia back toward centuries-old attitudes that have kept Russia from reaching its potential, the religious extremism of Israel and Iran. Those lists are not exhaustive.

How do we think up new things, particularly in human relations, in the systems we use for governance, the repetitive behaviors and intransigences, the ignoring of the obvious? The same way we think up iPhones or new designs of milk-bottle caps? It may be, but there has been no attempt to consider this in the Atlantic. Almost certainly these problems will need the cooperative, incremental approach that Smil describes, not a hero swooping in with One Good Idea.

In fact, isn't that the model that the Republican candidates used far too many times in their debate on Saturday to look at foreign policy? Bomb Iran before it gets a nuclear weapon. Zero-base foreign aid. Back to torture. Oversimplified, independent of realities, each candidate a hero.

The easy road is the one the Atlantic has taken. Innovation good, get many clicks. A more thoughtful approach to the innovation we need probably wouldn't have had as many cool photos, as many search-engine-friendly words. Too bad.
* I make broad generalizations about the Atlantic series which may or may not be true. They are my impressions from skipping past most of the articles in my Google Reader. I don't have the stomach to go to the series and count up articles of various types.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Vyacheslav Danilenko, Nuclear Weapons Scientist?

Juan Cole questions the accuracy of the IAEA report on Iran. “A key allegation in the IAEA report on Iranian nuclear activities has fallen apart,” he says. He bases this claim on an article by Gareth Porter, which supposedly shows that “Vyacheslav Danilenko, a Russian scientist referred to without being identified in the report, is not a nuclear weapons expert.” Instead, Cole says, “His field is nanotechnology (making tiny machines), and Iran has been looking into making diamonds with nanotechnology, bypassing the middle man.”

Cole’s concern is understandable, given the way the Iraq war was sold. A number of circumstances are different this time: the Obama administration is not explicitly looking for war as was the case with the Bush administration, and this report comes from an international body, the IAEA, rather than the American government. But let’s take the most suspicious viewpoint and insist that a serious error would open questions of competence and veracity.

Cattley Guava

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bits and Pieces - November 13, 2011

CBS did a poll on the topics covered in Saturday night's Republican debate before the debate. The country doesn't agree with the candidates.

Photos of a new volcanic island growing off El Hierro in the Canary Islands.

A really good review by Henry Kissinger of a new biography of George Kennan by John Lewis Gaddis.

Resources on Fukushima from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

How scientists react to popularizations of science - in this case, archaeologists.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dennis Ross Stepping Down

Dennis Ross has advised a number of presidential administrations on Middle East affairs. He is definitely of the neocon persuasion, and how to deal with Iran seems to have been mostly his baliwick.

Something I've been thinking of posting on has been my puzzlement over what seems to be an unnecessarily rigid aproach to a number of issues in the Middle East. This won't be that post, and I'll stick to Iran, since that's been so much in the news lately.

There has been little creativity from a president who, when he was campaigning, said he was willing to talk to Iran's president without preconditions. That hasn't happened, of course, and the precondition of Iran's ceasing to enrich its nuclear material remains.

It can be argued that that precondition is something that the United Nations insists on as well, although the way those United Nations resolutions were passed came from a United States, under the Bush administration, that wanted justification very badly for that precondition. Unfortunately, removing that precondition would now send a message of weakness to a stubborn and volatile Iranian government.

But I used the word creativity because the essence of diplomacy is finding ways around difficult situations like this.

It's highly likely that that sort of diplomacy went unpracticed because preconditions were just fine with Dennis Ross. As the articles I'll link at the end of this post note, his ideas are held more broadly in the administration, so it seems doubtful that much will change.

While Israel has been indulging in histrionics the past few weeks in preparation for the quarterly International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran, the US administration has been quiet and continues to be, now that the report has been issued.

Come to think of it, perhaps Ross's resignation in this quiet time signifies a disagreement with that quiet policy. It is a welcome change from some of the judgementalism that has been displayed in the past. And, now that the report is out, Israel seems to be quietening down too.

Iran is a difficult nation to deal with. It has its own internal splits and a complicated governing structure that makes those splits difficult to interpret. Its policy toward the United States has been hostile since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Apparent breakthroughs in the nuclear negotiations have fallen apart for unobvious reasons. So that leaves sanctions. China and Russia are unlikely to agree to UN-sponsored increases in sanctions, so the United States is considering unilateral sanctions and which other countries might be induced to join.

Sanctions are a frustrating means of dealing with another country. Their effect is long-term and the connection between sanctions and results is not obvious. But Paul Pillar argues persuasively that it was sanctions that caused South Africa and Libya to give up their nuclear programs.

So perhaps the sanctions, combined with negotiation when it is possible, will eventually result in a favorable outcome with Iran. That would be reducing the danger that now exists that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon; it would not necessarily mean the end of their enrichment program. That program might be internationalized as a production center for fuel for civilian reactors of many nations. A favorable outcome would also include Iran's making their information on their work on nuclear weapons related subjects available to the IAEA and allowing their inspectors greater freedom at its nuclear facilities.

On Dennis Ross: Michael Hirsh and Noam Sheizaf.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Bits and Pieces - November 9, 2011

The Russian Mars spacecraft is stuck in earth orbit. They've got three days to get it unstuck.

Do you want to hear more about Herman Cain? Yet another baseless accusation. And Ta-Nehisi Coates has the last word.

The Sad Story of Central Asia's German Community May Be Ending.

And I've been writing about the IAEA report on Iran over at Nuclear Diner. A short summary of what it says about Iran's weapons activities, and some later thoughts, with links and a place to comment, if you wish.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Bits and Pieces - November 8, 2011

Do the Republicans want America to be like Greece? Compare this with the denigration of government (alternative to government: anarchy) and recommendation of "individual action" via guns and such:
A few thousand years after Greeks invented Western civilization, the basic premise behind it has broken down: the Greek individual and the Greek state no longer work in concert. Over the past generation, Greece has been slowly devolving into a state of quiet anarchy.
OTOH, here's too much government in action.

Americans want more government in health care.

Mapping Twitter.

Honey you buy in stores may not be honey.

The promiscuous past of the human race.

Mas: A nice article on improving cities, but this observation
I find that successful advocacy and implementation is more about facilitating real and personal commitment in others than in proselytizing about the abstract, and for that, we need more accessible experiences.
has implications far beyond that topic.

At first, during my visit this summer, I thought that the Estonians preferred debit cards to credit cards, since they were punching numbers into machines rather than signing slips of paper. Then I realized that it was my credit card that was behind the times. Kevin Drum explains why.

Will the Penn State debacle end college football? Should it?

Great that the defense contractors are doing such a good job of keeping costs down.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Herman Cain Is Definitely a Business Executive

He proved that nicely in his tantrum with the press tonight. When I saw it, all the memories of nasty bosses came back:

- No, don't even go there.

- Just listen for thirty seconds. (He did have presence of mind enough to realize he shouldn't say "Shut up.")

- We are getting back on message, end of story.

The video is really worth watching. The reporters' refusal to respond to the boss-is-mad messages really irritates him. So he lets go with one ineffective parting shot.

- Where’s my chief of staff? Please send him the journalistic code of ethics.

Getting a lackey to send the document that tells a reporter how he should act toward the boss, even when Cain isn't his boss, combines so many tropes of the corporate guy-in-charge that I think they're all bursting my brain.

I would not want to have worked for this man.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Fission at Fukushima Reactor 2?

The xenon isotopes that result from fission have short half-lives: 9.2 hours for Xe-135 and 5.2 days for Xe-133. So if they show up, as they have at Fukushima reactor 2, that means that fission has been taking place.

The Japan Times has a report that includes all the important information and puts it into perspective. The amount of both isotopes of xenon detected is one hundred thousandth of a becquerel per cubic centimeter in gas samples. That means that there is one becquerel - one count per second - in a hundred thousand cubic centimeters of gas, or in a hundred liters of gas, a small closetful.

When you add in that "there have been no drastic changes in the reactor's temperature and pressure" reported by Japan's nuclear safety agency, what this adds up to is that there probably is a pile of broken and melted fuel pieces at the bottom of the reactor vessel. Somehow, a very limited part of that pile got to criticality. Tepco has added boric acid to the water to absorb neutrons and prevent further chain reactions. But the criticality was very limited if it didn't make a difference in temperature or pressure.

I've seen a few fevered tweets and Facebook posts on this. There's an element of "I told you so" in some of them. I argued against the earlier reports of "re-criticality" and see no reason to change those opinions. Obviously there has been a small criticality at Reactor #2. But I thought that the reason people were worried about "re-criticality" had to do with the "China Syndrome" idea that the core would sustain its criticality to melt through the bottom of the reactor vessel and on to, um, Nebraska. That's not what's happening.

Update (November 3, 2011): More information has become available, and it appears that the xenon is coming from spontaneous fission of curium isotopes produced by normal reactor processes.

Cross-posted from Nuclear Diner.

Not To Defend Herman Cain, But...

Kevin Drum excerpts the News Hour money quote that is making the blogospheric rounds
JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you view China as a potential military threat to the United States?

HERMAN CAIN: I do view China as a potential military threat to the United States....They've indicated that they're trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have. So yes, we have to consider them a military threat.
and I think makes the correct point: why didn't Woodruff follow this up?

I'm not sure whether this indicates that Cain doesn't know that China does indeed have nuclear weapons. "[T]rying to develop nuclear capability" could mean a lot of things: that they want to add to their stockpile or maybe that they are trying to develop nuclear-powered ships. Or it could mean that he doesn't know that China has been a nuclear weapons power since 1964, one of the five institutionalized in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and a nation with which America is holding talks on reducing nuclear weapons.

So I think there's a bit too much being made of this quote. It's been clear that Cain's strong suit is not foreign relations for some time. But it would have helped if Woodruff would have clarified.

The Over-the Hill Chemical Warfare Gang

Four old guys in Georgia decided to strike a blow for the Constitution by blowing ricin (which they didn't have in a pure form) out their car to, I guess, sicken other drivers and residents in the area. There was something about explosives, too.

This is dumb on so many levels: the idea that an attack like this would lessen the role of the government (standard right-wing talking point) or the use of ricin, one of the less-promising chemical agents.

And it looks like these are white guys, so there's no hysteria in the major news outlets about it. Just our own home-grown right-wing terrorists. Nothing to see here.

Both Adam Serwer and Conor Friedersdorf are wondering how much the FBI egged these guys on at the Waffle House. And I'll wonder how many "domestic terror plots" have involved FBI encouragement and how many would have stayed over the coffee cups without.

Could we end the War on Terror now, please?

Update: Mmnh, yeah. It was a fed selling the gang explosives and such. How many guys are out there mumbling about the Constitution and keeping the race pure and bringing on sharia who go home and kiss their wives, play with the kids, and maybe kick the dog, nothing more than that? What difference does it make if a fed happens to be in the neighborhood?