Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bits and Pieces - May 29, 2012

More Iran, of course, but let's start with something else.

Chris Hayes did the right thing over this weekend, although it's not clear that the discussion will go the way it should. I'm very uncomfortable with the "heroes" label attached to everyone who wears a uniform; there are true heroes who fall on hand grenades to save their platoon or run into a burning building to save a child. There are others who wear uniforms who act creditably but never find themselves in those circumstances. And there are scumbags who wear uniforms and don't deserve the respect that those others do.

But the word was inflated after 9/11, one more of those unthinking things we've saddled ourselves with. And it's being used as a loyalty test by the worst of the 101st Keyboarders and others who would love to see others killed in another war. Not heroes!

Conor Friedersdorf says it's those guys who need to do the explaining. And he offers up five questions we all should be thinking about.

How many times have we heard that if we prevent industry from pouring their wastes into our rivers and underground water supplies, they will go broke from spending all that money and then where will we be? And how many times did they actually save money after that terrible unspeakable regulation went into force? Quite a few, actually, although the second story doesn't seem to make the same headlines the first does. So...could it be that regulating fracking to use responsible methods could save the industry money? Naaaah...

And now, of course, Iran:

Julian Borger says something very similar to what I said last week, although he says it in fewer words.

David Albright, who has been very hawkish on Iran's nuclear program, backs off a little.

Iran delays a planned missile launch, perhaps to next year. This is a good thing. I am taking actions like this to mean more than any of the talk coming out of Iranian officials. They contradict each other and themselves. I suspect that this has to do with their internal politics as well as a confused view of how the rest of the world works, but they would do themselves a service to dial it down.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

So What Happened Last Week? The Iran Negotiations

Much of the coverage of the P5+1 or E3+3 talks* with Iran this week has focused on one thing or another, like the blind men and the elephant. I’m going to try to put some of those details into a bigger picture.

There was some disappointment that no “grand bargain” was arrived at, but, given the poor track record for talks on Iran’s nuclear program, none should have been expected. The best that could be expected was an agreement to continue the talks and a willingness on both sides to consider the other’s proposals. That seems to be the outcome, although Laura Rozen and Barbara Slavin indicate that it almost wasn’t.

Iranian representatives have expressed disappointment that a complete removal of sanctions wasn’t on the table. It’s not clear if this is a negotiating ploy or a genuine reaction. It has been reinforced, however, by commentators with experience on the Iranian side of negotiations, so it may be genuine. If so, it is an indication of Iran’s isolation and unrealistic expectations.

Expectations can be unrealistic on the other side, too, and there have been criticisms that the P5+1 have been too insistent on Iran’s suspending enrichment entirely, although that does not seem to be the case in the Istanbul and Baghdad negotiations.

The Back Story
The central issue of the talks is Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has built two facilities for enriching uranium, at Natanz and Fordo (or Fordow, near Qom), and it is building a heavy-water reactor and support facilities at Arak. It has a facility that prepares the uranium hexafluoride for enrichment at Isfahan. Iran has admitted that it has done experiments related to nuclear weapons production before 2003, but says it is not doing any now, and the 2007 and 2011 American intelligence estimates agree with that. Still, material whose sources are officially anonymous but most probably stem from Israel seems to indicate that more recent experiments may have been done, particularly at the Parchin military base. The power reactor at Bushehr is not of concern for a possible weapons program.

There have been five United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program. They have resulted from Iran’s concealment of the Natanz and Fordo facilities and difficulties that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has encountered in dealing with Iran on inspections. They require Iran to suspend (not end, but suspend until the various issues are cleared up) its uranium enrichment, and they are the basis for the P5+1 talks. They are also the basis for sanctions on Iran. The United States was very active in passing these resolutions, and Iran has felt that they are punitive and single Iran out unfairly. A more detailed history of the situation can be found here (pdf).

The meeting in Istanbul in April established that there was some basis for talks and scheduled the next meeting for this past week in Baghdad. Trust has been so low, because there have been so many false starts in the past, with both sides dropping the ball, that the process had to start from very low expectations.

On the Table
Last week, the P5+1 put an offer on the table:
Iran stops enriching uranium to 19.75%, often rounded up to 20% in news reports, and eventually closes down the enrichment plant at Fordo. (The difference could be significant, since the latter is considered high-enriched or bomb grade and the former is not. However, I will continue to refer to 20% enrichment as what Iran is doing.)

The P5+1 supply fabricated fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor(TRR), along with medical isotopes, the justification for operating the TRR, and safety upgrades. Additionally, plans will be made to replace the TRR with a reactor that runs on low-enriched (3.5%) fuel.

Safety assistance will be made available for the Bushehr reactor.

Trade in replacement parts for civilian airliners will resume.
Iran also put an offer forward. Information is less available on Iran’s offer, but it is said to contain five points, only one connected with the nuclear issues, that Iran’s right to enrich uranium would be recognized. The other four points had to do with events in Syria and other regional issues.

It is disappointing that the two proposals weren’t closer together, but Catherine Ashton, the convenor of the talks and EU Foreign Minister, says that there is common ground. The fact that last week’s talks were difficult and substantive but nonetheless continued is positive relative to previous talks.

What the Two Sides Say
Chief Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili called the talks “thorough but unfinished.” He said Iran was not prepared to make any concessions unless the six nations accept “the undeniable right of the Iranian nation . . . to enrich uranium.” U.S. officials said that is not a concession they are prepared to grant.

Jalili also made it clear that Iran would not countenance a deal that did not alleviate the sanctions that have been taking an increasingly devastating toll on the country’s economy. (Washington Post)
“There is progress, there is an atmosphere of optimism after the Western powers responded to our requests,” Taleb Mahdi, a member of Iran’s delegation, said in an interview.
But, later in the same article,
“There’s been no progress in this round of talks,” Taleb Mahdi, a member of the Iranian delegation, said ... The P5+1 offer calls on Iran to end all uranium enrichment, Mahdi said.
The head of Iran’s nuclear program,
Fereidoun Abbasi, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency as saying that Iran will continue the higher enrichment level for a medical research reactor that produces isotopes for treatment of about 1 million cancer patients in Iran.

"There is no reason for us to back down on 20 percent-level enrichment, because we produce only as much 20 percent material as we need," Abbasi said. "Not more, not less."

He also said Iran has not yet been convinced to allow the U.N. nuclear agency access to a military complex to probe suspicions that in 2003, Tehran secretly tested explosives needed to set off a nuclear bomb. The suspected blasts would have taken place inside a pressure chamber.
Ambassador Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team who is now at Princeton University, has frequently been quoted, including by David Ignatius, on what he feels would be an acceptable deal. It is not clear whether he is speaking for the Iranian government; most likely not.

“I’m afraid the P5+1, they ask too much from Iran. They ask Iran to give diamonds in return for peanuts.”

The diamond in question, he said, is Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. “The issue is political, not technical. For the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) Iran would have no problem to cooperate to all questions. But…asking Iran to stop twenty percent (uranium enrichment), to implement additional protocols, to give access beyond additional protocols – this is practically the diamonds the P5 Plus 1 wants.”

He added, “And if they are going to propose Iran spare parts for airplanes (in exchange), these would be the peanuts.” (Christiane Amanpour's blog)
Jay Carney, President Obama’s press spokesman, in a press gaggle on May 24:
There have been concrete ideas exchanged in these negotiations. And the P5-plus-1 are unified in calling for Iran to demonstrate the peaceful intent of its nuclear program and to fully comply with their international obligations…. What we're looking for is progress. We're looking for seriousness on the part of the Iranians in terms of addressing the concerns of the international community. And thus far, those expectations have been met…. even as we have positive steps, the President’s position is that we will judge Iran by its actions, not by its words or simply by the fact that it’s holding meetings.
A “senior European diplomat”:
In Baghdad, the Iranians, for the first time, said, “We are ready to discuss with you the proposals put on the table. This has never happened before. In years before, there has been real discussion, but not about the nuclear issue.”

“For me, it’s important that the talks be detailed and substantive,” she said.

The diplomat said there was a change in the seriousness of the Iranians’ approach to the talks since a February letter from lead Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to Ashton accepting new nuclear talks. The concise letter — only few paragraphs long — directly mentions willingness to focus talks on the nuclear issue and avoided past versions’ lengthy diatribes against perceived international double standards. The senior European diplomat, who has worked on Iran for almost the past decade, called it a “breakthrough.”

“It is important they are discussing the issues,” the diplomat said. “There is common ground. But they made linkages between recognition of their right to enrich and [international requests on aspects of their program].”
A “senior American diplomat”:
“Maximum pressure is not yet being felt in Iran.” European Union sanctions on Iranian oil and US sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, both due to be fully implemented in July, “increase leverage on the negotiation as it proceeds forward,” the offical said.

“The Iranians don’t like it," the diplomat continued. "They hope and would rather we not put additional sanctions on. Indeed they are not at all pleased that soon after Istanbul, the president [Barack Obama] signed a new executive order [sanctioning Iran for supplying technical assistance to Syria to repress dissidents]. We heard about that.”

“We have the dual-track policy, and we believe that policy works and is effective,” the official said. “It will take some time for all of that to play out. We will do whatever we need to do to make that effective.”
What’s the Bottom Line?
“All negotiations begin with each side putting on the table its most extreme demands,” said Ambassador Thomas Pickering in an interview with Christiane Amanpour, and that seems to have been the case this past week. Now lower-level personnel will look in detail at the proposals and develop counterproposals and potential compromises.

It’s hard to interpret the comments, both positive and negative. The essential discussion took place behind closed doors. Public statements may be intended for domestic audiences or for negotiating purposes. They may also be genuine. The domestic purposes could include positioning the speaker relative to internal power plays, preparing the public for a change from previous policies, or playing to electoral audiences. Negotiating purposes could be to bluff the other side or to move the talks to a more congenial basis; that could include both in a good-cop/bad-cop approach.

Although the full texts of the proposals are not available, here are a few observations:
The P5+1 proposal couples an end to 20% enrichment to provision of fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, the purpose for which the Iranians say they are enriching to that relatively high level. This high level is of concern to the P5+1 because it would be relatively easy to enrich the 20% uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90% and more.

There has been a significant international effort, led by the United States and Russia, to refit research reactors like the TRR to use low-enriched uranium. Refitting the TRR in this way would be consistent with actions of many other countries to make these reactors more proliferation-resistant. Part of the P5+1 offer is to do this.

It appears from the latest IAEA report (pdf) that Iran is using all its 20% enriched uranium to fabricate fuel plates for the TRR. Thus, the net result of ending 20% enrichment and accepting fuel plate fabrication elsewhere would be little change from the present situation. Iran now has the capability of fuel plate fabrication in case the international supply ends. Further, the fuel would be even easier to fabricate if the TRR were redesigned or a new reactor supplied to run on 3.5% enriched uranium.

The big change, if these steps were taken, would be development of confidence by both sides that the other will follow through on their promises. This is the real issue being addressed and necessary for further, bigger steps.

Airplane parts have been one of the items for which trade has been restricted with Iran by sanctions. This would represent a loosening of sanctions, although a much smaller loosening than, say, delay of the sanctions on oil scheduled for July 1.

Iran’s two sticking points seem to be a desire to delay and remove sanctions, and that their right to enrichment be recognized. The first is a major step and would seem to require an equivalent major step on their side, say a suspension of all enrichment for a stated period of time or until some milestone was reached. The Iranians seem to be arguing that any actions to modify their nuclear program must be reciprocated by removal of all sanctions, or even preceded by removal of sanctions. This is the publicly stated position; whether they are willing to negotiate remains to be seen.

The Iranian view has been that their participation in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty assures them the right to enrichment via Article IV of that document. But the P5+1 and the UN Security Council resolutions make that right conditional on compliance with other provisions of the treaty. Iran has concealed actions in the past that have violated its obligations under the NPT.

Previously, the P5+1 made Iran’s suspending all enrichment a precondition for talks or an early requirement in the negotiations. That requirement has not been reported in this round of negotiations. In fact, the ending of 20% enrichment seems to be the only provision being put forth by the P5+1. This is much less than the demand that all enrichment be suspended. It could be seen as a first step toward a requirement for ending all enrichment, which is probably part of Iran’s concern. Alternatively, it could be seen as a step towards Iran’s indicating to the world that it can be responsible in its nuclear activities.

A Needle To Be Threaded?
It seems to me that the most important statements to come out of the two meetings have been covered hardly at all in the press. From Ashton’s official statement from the Istanbul meeting:
We have agreed that the NPT forms a key basis for what must be serious engagement, to ensure all the obligations under the NPT are met by Iran while fully respecting Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
And it’s been so little quoted that I don’t have a link, but there was a statement last week to the effect that the IAEA talks between Director General Yukiya Amano and the Iranians were completely separate and decoupled from the P5+1 negotiations.

It is the NPT that assures Iran the right to enrich, as long as Iran meets its other provisions. Whether Iran is meeting those obligations is the subject of the UNSC resolutions and the discussions with the IAEA. In the past, the resolutions have been put first (the requirement that Iran suspend enrichment), with a threat of regime change underlying them, even an explicit threat from some quarters of the P5+1. That requirement and threat have been absent from the latest two meetings. This opens some space for discussion of Iran’s right to enrich vis-à-vis its intentions for the nuclear program, perhaps even actions to support the Supreme Leader’s statements against nuclear weapons.

The result of recent IAEA negotiations carried out by Director General Amano has not yet been made public. The subject was the Parchin facility, which is claimed to have been the site of nuclear-weapons-related testing. Testing of polonium-beryllium neutron initiators, implosion assemblies, or hydrodynamic testing have been mentioned as possitilities. Decoupling these negotiations from the P5+1 negotiations removes a potential point of breakdown for the P5+1 negotiations. Allowing the IAEA access to Parchin has been a highly sensitive issue for the Iranians and a source of much external controversy.

These two simplifications open a space for discussing Iran’s right to enrichment under the proper safeguards. They may be the most important outcomes of the negotiations so far.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner, where there is also a fairly wonky article evaluating some of the claims and counterclaims about Iran's Parchin containment vessel.
* This group consists of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. P5+1 refers to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. E3+3 refers to the three members of the EU plus the other three.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bits and Pieces - May 24, 2012

Fast food portions have increased since the 1950s and so have waistlines.

Feminism in action. Finally.

The World Health Organization has issued a report on the radiation risks from Fukushima and finds them very small. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR)is starting a study of Fukushima that will contribute to the understanding of the effects of low-level radiation. They expect to have preliminary results by next May.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mixtures and Compounds, Reactions and Energy, and the Great Pacific Plastic Patch

Let's take the last first. Apparently the Great Pacific Plastic Patch, where ocean currents collect discarded plastic junk, has been misrepresented by use of a photo from Manila Harbor, which shows a guy paddling a boat through a layer of garbage, mostly plastic. According to Scripps Institution marine biologist Miriam Goldstein, who has actually been there, it's not like that. The plastic is there, but it's in much smaller pieces and more spread out. The danger to fish and birds, often exemplified by a cut-open stomach crammed with plastic, may be overhyped too. Read the whole thing.

That article is titled, "Lies You've Been Told About the Pacific Garbage Patch." It's not clear to me that "lies" is the right word. "Stuff that makes a better story" or "the only way I can visualize this" might be closer, the "I" being a reporter. Or it's possible that an overwrought scientist made it sound like this or provided a not-too-carefully-researched photo.

Additionally, the National Academies of Science held a colloquium on science communication and I wrote a letter to the editor of the New Yorker on errors in a story by David Owen in their May 14 issue.

I've been half-watching tweets from the NAS event. It looks like the conclusions were the usual: science reporters need a better background, scientists need to do a better job of explaining, there is little or no motivation for either.

The David Owen article, "The Artificial Leaf" (subscription only), appears to contain two common misunderstandings: what chemical compounds are and what makes chemical reactions happen. Neither is stated explicitly, but Owen's misunderstanding those two foundational concepts is the only explanation for some of what is in the article. It also appears that the scientist being interviewed, Daniel Nocera, was funning Owen, whose limitations in understanding chemistry prevented him from understanding that.

Chemical compounds are often referred to as a mixture of elements. This is incorrect. In a mixture, there is no chemical change. In a compound, there is. So sodium, a soft silvery metal that reacts wildly with water, and chlorine, a pungent and corrosive green gas, react chemically to form the rather innocuous sodium chloride, table salt. In reacting, they share electrons, a serious commitment that, if you want to express it in journalistic terms, is sort of like sex. Dog sex, where the participants get stuck together and are hard to separate.

Water is a chemical compound, not a mixture, of hydrogen and oxygen, two hydrogen atoms sharing electrons with one oxygen atom. It's not very reactive, unless you react it with something very reactive, like sodium. Or put energy into it, by hydrolysis or by using a photoactive catalyst and sunlight, which are the two methods Owen discusses.

Chemical reactions are rearrangements of atoms, but they are also rearrangments of energy. A mixture (physical mixture, not compound) of hydrogen gas and oxygen gas has more energy than does the water that results from their sometimes explosive reaction. The excess energy is given off as heat. Turning that around, producing hydrogen gas and oxygen gas from water requires an energy input. (I'm ignoring entropy for this discussion.)

Unless a reaction produces energy, it can't happen. Catalysts only facilitate reactions that will happen anyway.

Human beings run on respiration. We breathe in molecular oxygen and react it with carbon-containing fuels (fats, sugars) to produce carbon dioxide. Those reactions, very much like controlled combustion, produce heat. The combustion that runs automobiles and generates electricity also reacts molecular oxygen with carbon- and hydrogen-containing compounds to produce carbon dioxide and water.

The fact that carbon dioxide and water are the products indicates that they have little energy left to give up. This is a useful rule of thumb for judging, say, schemes to run automobiles on water. (Hint: not possible.)

Back to Owen's article. He spends a fair bit of time on the electrolysis of water because this is an analogy to what Nocera is trying to do: split water using solar energy. However, Owen gets several things wrong along the way, or finds things remarkable that are simple consequences of what a knowledgeable reporter should understand. Hydrogen is reactive, not because it is light (molecular weight? density? buoyancy? Owen doesn't say), but because of its energy relationships. It is not remarkable that water, a product of combustion, does not combust. Hydrogen is an energy carrier because energy must be input to split water.

Nocera complicates things by declaring that liquid nitrogen, that ooh-aah fuming liquid in funny jars, is necessary "to make stuff," whatever that may mean. He throws in quantum spin liquids and using microwaves "to cook chemicals" to further impress someone who must have shown his ignorance early on.

Owen kind of glances off the idea that the purpose of artificial photosynthesis is to store solar energy. He understands that the point is to make hydrogen and then burn the hydrogen, but, although he mentions that hydrogen is an energy carrier, he never seems to make the connection. I suspect that his lack of clarity stems from his ignorance of chemistry. And his portrait of Nocera might have been different if Owen had been able to tell when Nocera was joking.

Update: One more to add to this list of shame.

Reuel Marc Gerecht and and Mark Dubowitz beat the drums for war against Iran. It's a small point within their larger drum-beating, but separation science isn't subject to authority.
Western powers seem ready to concede to Khamenei the “right” to enrich uranium to 5 percent, which would, according to Olli Heinonen, former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, put Iran two-thirds of the way toward making bomb-grade uranium.
The energy put into enriching uranium to 5 percent is indeed about two-thirds of the energy needed to enrich to 90 percent. Anyone can calculate that from an elementary chemical engineering textbook. It's not necessary to cite Olli Heinonen.

Another Update: From Steve Clemons:
Fred Espenak is Scientist Emeritus for Goddard Space Flight Center, and a retired NASA astrophysicist. He is known throughout the world for his work on eclipse predictions and blogs at MrEclipse.com. His website lists dates and times for future solar eclipses through the year 2020.
The ancient Mayas knew how to predict eclipses. The Babylonians knew how to predict eclipses. The tables called ephemerides list eclipses out into some long future. (I'm being lazy and not looking things up, like Steve didn't.) If Fred Espenak is a well-known astrophysicist, I doubt that it's for his predictions of eclipses.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Prickly Pears In My Yard

One of the things I love about my yard is the great variety of local plants, including a number of cactus. The past few years, however, many of my prickly pears have been attacked by mealybugs. They have entirely killed some clumps, and earlier this year they were looking voracious, abetted by rabbits that were quite willing to munch through the spears and glochids (the tiny, almost unseeable, prickles that you can't get out of your fingers).

But the cactus are coming back with blooms and new growth. I have at least three kinds of prickly pear native to the yard and have added other kinds that aren't but are resistant to frost. The mealybugs seem particularly to like the smallest, spiniest variety.

Here are some photos (mealybugs first):

The white things are the mealybugs, sucking the juices out of the cactus. But this one is making a flower anyway. Or perhaps in desperation of making seeds as it succumbs. All of the infected cactuses, though, look healthier today than they have been. We had a tiny bit of rain last night, which may have helped.

The upper left-hand corner is a rabbit munch. Don't know how they do it!

And here's a beavertail prickly pear (Opuntia basilaris) that I planted, doing what I want it to do: stopping erosion. Those pads are very good at that!

Sunday, May 20, 2012


I received a missive from a long-time friend this afternoon. I've known that she's moved toward the Republican side for some time, asked her not to send me stuff a while ago, so this was something of a surprise.

It was pretty much incoherent, although the outrage was clear. Something about a crotch salute, which (I googled) has to do with the position of President Obama's hands in military circumstances. By the standards of the Right, Presidents (particularly this President) must do certain things at certain times, particularly saluting the flag, whether it is by the hand over heart or the pseudo-military handflick from head that President Bush enjoyed. I'm recalling that Mitt Romney failed in this gesture at least once, but I'm not outraged enough to google that.

I also won't google something I saw recently that said that this saluting thing (along with the flag pin on lapel is fairly recent, particularly the pseudo-military variety, which seems to go back only two presidents or so.

But OUTRAGE! NOT AN AMERICAN! (caps from the source)

It's that outrage that I'm wondering about. What function does it serve?

I'm in a listserv in which one of the members seems to need to provide an OUTRAGE first thing every morning. It may be that this is his substitute for, or supplement to, his morning caffeine. I'm one of those lucky people who don't seem to need caffeine or OUTRAGE in the morning. So I can just delete early-morning e-mails from that person. Much better.

Or another listserv on which this OUTRAGE was posted. To be fair, it wasn't posted with quite the same outrage as my other two examples. A touch of fear, though, it seemed to me.

It does seem that the authors of that one are outraged in a polite academic way or perhaps are trying to develop some outrage in their readers. So many illicit radiological incidents! (And let's throw the word smuggling in for emphasis!)

But a careful look at the list shows that many of the incidents are simply "reports", which probably mean nothing, or if they were something, may be replicated by real reports on the list. Others are of detectors set off by natural materials like granite and vermiculite. Not quite bomb material.

So are these authors dishonest or ignorant? And the reviewers and the editors and the people they work for...?

David Kaiser writes a worthy post once a week. This week's is on
dau tranh, or struggle, the philosophy behind the Vietnamese Communist revolution. Dau tranh, Pike explains, had two forms: military and political. Of the two, the political was far more important, and indeed, the Viet Cong always had several times as many active political workers as soldiers during the Vietnam War. Their mission was to rally their own troops and sow confusion among the enemy, doing whatever they could, in particular, to make the South Vietnamese government unable to function effectively.
He goes on to speculate that the Republicans are using dau tranh, have been using it for a decade or more.

It seems to me that far too much of this OUTRAGE is dau tranh. It confuses us and keeps us in a perpetual state of caffeine jitters. Kaiser thinks there may be no counter to it.

I wrote back to my friend in a friendly tone, suggesting that not everything one reads is to be believed, mentioned the lovely spring day and hoped that it was as beautiful where she is. I'm hoping that's part of a counter.

Friday, May 18, 2012

This Is Important

What I like about this news item is that it shows that nature just keeps on doing what it's doing, even when it might not seem that way.

And that it's helpful to us humans, who, after all, are part of nature.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Just Wondering

I flew to Wisconsin over the weekend. Leaving Milwaukee on Monday morning, my airplane was a smallish Embraer, three seats across, eighteen rows. That's a total of 54 people, a few less for the one-seat rows near the front.

The temperature was in the low to mid seventies. Milwaukee's altitude is 581.2 feet, pretty close to sea level.

As the temperature goes up, the air thins and it becomes more difficult for a plane to take off. This is called density altitude: warmer air makes the plane perform as though it were at a higher altitude, and it can't carry as much cargo (bodies, luggage).

While we were still in the terminal, the airline personnel were asking two people to volunteer to take a later flight for $400 in vouchers. On the plane, they asked for another volunteer: $500 in vouchers. Plus they were rearranging the luggage in the forward and rear compartments to get a satisfactory weight and balance, the distribution that can cause flight problems. Two of us in the front seats were asked to volunteer to go to the back to help with the weight and balance. I volunteered to get the flight off the ground, and so did a man.

What I'm wondering is what will happen when it gets really warm. If they can't fly with all the seats full in seventy-degree weather, they will have to fly with many fewer when summer comes to Milwaukee. Not to mention Denver and Albuquerque, which are 5000 feet or so altitude.

So why did they cram so many seats in? What is the cost when they have to give vouchers to get people off the plane? Taking out one or two rows of seats might give the others a reasonable amount of room. But then people would be able to contrast that with the much less limited capability to squash people into sardine-like compartments in the larger jets. And we couldn't have that.

Bits and Pieces - Rainbow Edition

Seems like there are a number of good posts on various equality themes today. And some others.

The business about "first gay president" has seemed silly to me. Bill Clinton as "first black president" seemed silly too, although there was more basis that he had shared some of the culture. Simply coming out in favor of one group or another doesn't confer that group's experience and characteristics on anyone. Michelangelo Signorile agrees.

Juan Cole with some history and observations on what makes up "white people."

I guess that now that this initiative has been outed, the GOP won't be able to play the race card in exactly this way. But I'm sure that Joe Ricketts and his money will find a way. Repudiated today by Mitt Romney in public, but who knows what kind of horse-trading is going on behind the scenes.

This political changing of people's minds must often be a long-term project. This article makes that point about Germany and Greece.

Hawaii bans plastic bags. When I was traveling across the Texas high plains in March, they were blowing everywhere. Even as I write this, one is smothering one of the cactuses in my yard.

Finally, some frightening claims about Fukushima Unit 4's spent fuel pool got a lot of play over the past couple of weeks. They were nonsense, but believed by many people. Some better information here and here.

Added later:
Wealthy venture capitalist tells TED that economics says the wealthy need to pay more taxes. TED cans the video. Text of talk here.

Progress report on the great blue heron nest: All five eggs hatched successfully, and the babies are looking good. Feeding time is a hoot.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Western Wallflower

Erisymum capitatum.

John Boehner Puts On The Full Crazy Suit

Remember last summer's suspenseful adventures of the New Republican Tea Party? When they threatened to do something that even Greece hasn't quite done yet - default on the country's debt? When American bonds were downgraded?

Well, they love the country so much that they want to do it again. John Boehner said so yesterday.

It seems to me that deliberately sabotaging the country's financial standing verges on (is?) treason. It's like when a couple divorces and one of them manages to pull all the money from their joint bank accounts.

Except we're not so lucky to have the Republicans getting out of our lives with their addictions to racism and failed economics.

It looks like Ezra Klein will be following this. That's good, because it makes me sick.

Update: Stan Collender confirms my headline.

More from Ezra.

Update (5/17/12): Ezra: OTOH,...

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Fat Cat We're Sad To Lose

Meow, the 39-pound cat died over the weekend of respiratory failure. He seems to have been a sweet cat, although allowed to eat far too much.

The other fat cats, who were allowed far too much latitude in financial derivatives, sadly, are still with us.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Boy Who Cried Wolf - Updated 5/8/12

My Twitter stream, about the middle of the afternoon, started telling me that the CIA had acquired an improved underwear bomb. The various reports were that a plot had been thwarted, but the person with the bomb hadn't been found, and a number of other confusing details. That's par for the course on Twitter. The early news reports didn't have much information. It's the CIA, and if the reporters printed any information, they'd have to kill them, haha.

Almost immediately, the questions began pouring in with no answers. No sources, no country identified, no information about how the bomb was acquired or why it was an improved model (improved detonator was mentioned). Would it be detectable by the naked scanners, which, after all, were brought in to detect precisely such things? Which airline?

And, along with the questions, the snark. Was this an FBI plot disrupted by the CIA?

@dougsaunders: Just when underwear was beginning to recover its respect and credibility, it gets caught up in another bomb plot.

@stevehynd: New HuffPo/Yahoo! "sex sells" photogallery: "10 celebrity underwear choices you couldn't fit a bomb into" in 3...2...

@joshuafoust: Anonymous officials allege plot by unknown people broken up using unclear methods. Natsec reporting in a sad nutshell

@mattduss: Maybe bin Laden's directive to "keep trying to blow up your underwear" will be in the next batch of docs

@lrozen: Maybe CIA can enlist underwear manufacturer/distributors to Yemen to add some more flame retardant? #likelockingcockpitdoors
There have been a number of "terrorist plots" here at home that have depended on FBI informants for ideas and materials. Reports of TSA being missing hazardous materials while harassing four-year-old girls and grandmothers in wheelchairs continue. And we are regularly treated to alarums and excursions about how terrible a cyberattack would be if there were an attacker and if it were possible to damage physical things with code. So much hype, so little content.

Please look at the title of this post. It is a reference to a folk tale, which, if you haven't heard it as a child, you can probably find through Google.

A more modern version is that people turn off alarms that go off too readily. The snark on my Tweetfeed is the same thing. The counter to it was anticipated by one of my follows, something about a pool for which outfit, probably rightwing, would be the first to declare this a victory for the terrorists. That doesn't seem to have happened yet, but it probably will, a partial corrective to the snark in keeping us vigilant and the manufacturers of bodyscanners and whatever new gadget is in the pipeline wealthy.

Convincing people that governmental announcements of danger can be ignored seems like a bad idea to me. Yes, get the news out, but make it matter of fact.

Ah, more coming in:
@will_mccants: now reports of more undi-bombs on the loose. unsubtle junk scratching on planes next few days may lead 2 passenger beat down

Update (5/8/12): Well, it looks like a CIA informant delivered the bomb. It's not clear whether this means that the CIA is doing much better in infiltrating al-Qaeda or that it's another law-enforcement-enabled bunch of screwups. It does explain why the CIA announced they had the bomb but not the bomber.

Meanwhile, the TSA is breaking insulin pumps for diabetics.

Further Update: It looks like maybe they got it right this time. NYT, WaPo.

Legacies of the Manhattan Project - May 12-13

Next weekend, May 12-13, at the Santa Fe Institute, a hand-picked group of physicists, historians, social scientists, systems theorists, and writers will examine the long-term legacies of the Manhattan Project in a timely discussion of an important event in world history that still influences science and society today. Harold Agnew, who was part of the historic effort to develop the first atomic bomb, will participate in the discussion.

SFI is collaborating with Nuclear Diner to bring the discussion to you live on Twitter. You can participate before, during, and after by searching for the hashtag #bomblegacy or following @nucleardiner. Before the event, you can also leave questions at Nuclear Diner and the Facebook event page. If you "like" the Facebook page, you will get updates throughout the week and continuing information after the workshop.

The group will discuss new information, review original records, and mine the memories of project participants to present a case study in conflict from an important period in scientific history.

More about the Santa Fe Institute working group, including biographies of the participants and discussion topics, here.

Many of SFI’s founders were senior fellows at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As the Institute has emerged as a leader in complexity science, particularly in working toward a theory of conflict in human and animal societies, the Manhattan Project has become an important case study for understanding conflict. The project’s history also illustrates the occasional tension between pure theoretical research and applied science.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Chen Guancheng: No Easy Choices - Updated 5/5/12

A blind activist shows up at the US Embassy in Beijing. He and his family are being threatened. The movie version is that the brave diplomats spirit him out in the dark of night, lying on the floor of the back seat of the limousine, and fly him to safety.

The reality is otherwise. Embassies represent an agreement with the host country not to mess with internal issues. This is an especially sensitive consideration when there are big differences between the countries' internal policies. An embassy can't set up as dissident central, in open opposition to the host country's policies.

That means that when someone like Chen Guancheng comes to the US Embassy, it's a problem for all concerned. The details of his arrival, while not all available, make for even more of a problem. His human rights are clearly being threatened, and his life and family may be in danger. What any person would want is for that danger to be removed. The problem is how to do it.

The movie version is not available. Sorry, it just isn't under international law and the conventions that apply to embassies. And, in any case, Chen didn't bring his family with him, so they would be left to face the authorities, probably in more danger than they are now.

So, no, Mitt Romney, and no, hardline leftist human rights activists, it's not that President Obama and/or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are miserable people, suborning human rights to the financial ties to China. I suspect that the best people in the State Department and White House are trying to figure out the path to the best outcome. The incident isn't over. Stay tuned.

I'm not at all a China expert, so I can't speak to the politics involved. Here's some commentary that takes the realities into account from people who know more about China than I do.

Debacle in Beijing

Blame China, not the U.S., for the Plight of Chen Guangcheng

the Ai precedent

Update (5/5/12): The situation seems to be in the process of resolution, and there seems to be a good chance that the Chen family will be allowed to go to the United States. James Joyner links some articles worth reading in full, and I particularly emphasize the article by Max Fischer, which says, in effect, that Chen seems to have believed the movie version.

And it's not over yet.