Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bits and Pieces - Almost New Year's Eve Edition

Los Alamos National Laboratory studies how trees die. I think this project grows out of some of the ecological research I was somewhat involved with. It turned out that the pinyon and juniper trees killed grass and increased erosion.

Idle No More looks like a movement to watch.

Noam Chomsky on work, education, and freedom. I worry about kids being overscheduled, too. When you're on your own, you get yourself into situations that require quick thinking.

The Associated Press and New York Times glibly say, "In Gun Debate, Two Sides Speak Different Languages." I think they're wrong. I think the two sides disagree. There are many things they disagree on, but it's essential not to give up before any disagreement can take place. Likewise, the argument that there are so many guns in the US that they never can be controlled declares action to be futile. We all are part of one country, and we need to agree on how to get along. I'd like to think that my right not to be shot is as strong as someone's right to have a gun.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas! and a Consideration of Rudolph the Red

This picture, from one of the many sites making holiday-themed wallpaper available for free, is very much like an Estonian or Russian village. The building on the right is the sauna (why isn't it heated up?), and the bird is a great tit.

I was thinking about that extended pun on a popular Christmas song:

Commissar Rudolf and his wife are enjoying the holiday in their Moscow apartment. She looks out the window and says, “I think it’s beginning to snow.” He walks over to the window, turns to her, and says, “Rudolf the Red knows rain, dear.”

That’s how I learned the joke back when we were learning to duck and cover from nuclear armageddon rather than a crazed shooter in school. It’s a great extended pun, but when Republicans are the Reds and commissars are a thing of the past, nobody’s going to get it.

So it had to change.

You can explicitly set it back in the Soviet times:

An American and his wife were hosting one of their Russian friends in their hotel room back in the Soviet era. Rudolph, the Russian, looked out the window and announced that it was raining. The wife looked out and said “No, that looks like snow”. At which point the husband said “Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear.”

Back during the days of the former Soviet Union, a fellow by the name of Gerald Chattington had a friend in the Soviet Embassy by the name of Rudolph Nosov, who would drop by occasionally. One evening, Gerald and his wife, Peg, were sitting in the kitchen chatting when Gerald looked out the window and said, "Look, it's snowing." Rudolph looked out and said very quickly, "No, I think it is just rain." "I'm sure it is snow," insisted Gerald. "And I am just as sure that it is rain," said Rudolph. At this point Gerald turned to Peg to settle the argument. Peg looked out the window for a moment, then said, "What can I say? Rudolph, the Red, knows rain, dear."

This one is old, but moving out of the Soviet era; it makes use of the Russian = Red idea and vaguely recalls the Intourist minders/guides.

An America couple was being shown around Moscow one day, when the man felt a drop hit his nose.
"I think it's raining," he said to his wife.
"No, that felt more like snow to me," she replied.
"No, I'm sure it was just rain," he said.
Well, as these things go, they were about to have a major argument about whether it was raining or snowing.
"Let's not fight about it!" the man said. "Let's ask our guide, Rudolph, whether it's officially raining or snowing."
As their tour guide approached, the man said, "Tell us, Comrade Rudolph, is it officially raining or snowing?"
"It's raining, of course," he replied officiously.
But the woman insisted, "I know that it felt like snow!"
The man quietly replied, "Rudolph, the Red, knows rain, dear!"

Still Russian, but reaching back to the Czars.

There was once a great czar in Russia named Rudolph the Red. He stood looking out the windows of is palace one day while his wife, the Czarina Katerina, sat nearby knitting. He turned to her and said, "Look my dear, it has begun to rain!" Without even looking up from her knitting she replied, "It's too cold to rain. It must be sleeting." The Czar shook his head and said, "I am the Czar of all the Russias, and Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear!"

And, almost totally removed from Russia, although perhaps evoking Kievan Rus,

A descendant of Eric The Red, named Rudolf the Red, was arguing with his wife about the weather. His wife thought it was going to be a nice day, and he thought it was going to rain. Finally she asked him, how he was so sure. He smiled at her, and calmly said, "Because Rudolf the Red knows rain, dear."

A good punchline will survive, even when countries don’t.

If you've read all the way to here, a reward in the form of Estonian Christmas music.

Also (more or less) posted at Nuclear Diner.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Bits and Pieces - NRA Edition

The White House is coming on strong this afternoon after Wayne LaPierre's impassioned plea for continuing gun violence.

A glossary of gun terms. One of the arguments the NRA set makes against those who argue that guns should not permeate our society is that we don't know what we're talking about - that we use technical gun terms incorrectly. This is an argument that hits home for me, since I've made it in other precincts. But I think the argument that our oversupply of guns damages our civil fabric doesn't depend on whether you know the difference between a clip and a magazine. Those writing the laws should know those technicalities. But the argument that children should be safe in school without barbed wire, guards, and guns stands without them.

Another Curveball - Wonky Addendum

One of the criteria I use for judging whether a reporter knows what he’s talking about is the way he uses words. In science, words are used very precisely, some of them the same words that are used in everyday conversation. I recognize that reporters may try to simplify complex concepts for their readers; but they need to understand what they are simplifying. I also look for problems of logic and sequencing: has the reporter thought out how an activity must happen?

Here are two of those problems in David Ignatius’s article on Syrian chemical weapons.

Ignatius says “combine and activate the chemicals” at least twice. This is not something that someone who understands much about chemistry is likely to say. It’s a common mistake: not understanding chemical reaction. There is a difference between mixing and reaction. When you spoon sugar into your coffee and then stir, the sugar disappears as a solid, although you can taste it. It is mixed into the coffee, but it doesn’t react, it remains a separate chemical compound. When you are making a cake, you mix the ingredients. Some of the leavening ingredients start reacting right away, making the batter frothy with carbon dioxide, but most of the reactions take place during baking to make the liquidy batter into a solid with lots of porosity.

Some reactions take place quickly. You can mix vinegar and baking soda and watch the carbon dioxide froth out. But sugar in coffee is a mixture without reaction. When substances react, their chemical bonds rearrange to make something new. That’s how you get safe, edible salt (sodium chloride) from a soft, reactive metal (sodium) and a poisonous green gas (chlorine).

For a binary nerve agent, two precursors are manufactured that, when mixed, react to form the agent. Ignatius’s formulation, “combine and activate the chemicals,” doesn’t make sense. Combining the precursors activates them. Or, more accurately, produces the nerve agent. To a chemist, “combine” could mean mixing OR reaction, and, if it’s reaction, it doesn’t describe this kind of reaction. Mixing the precursors activates them. There’s no need to add red mercury or say magic words over them, or whatever “activate” means to Ignatius.

And that’s why nobody who knows chemistry would say it that way.

The more I think about these reports that Syria has binary precursors to chemical agents, the less credible they seem to me. Binary precursors require manufacturing two components, rather than just one. The two components require separate storage. Mixing them to form the agent and loading shells would require about the same equipment that a unitary agent would require. The capital requirements and number of steps are more than for a unitary agent.

Shells that mix binary precursors in flight are difficult to design and manufacture.

It’s difficult to see why a not-so-rich country would go to all this trouble. Not impossible, of course, but Occam’s Razor suggests that the stories of binary precursors being mixed before loading into shells are nonsense.

Cross-posted at The Agonist and Nuclear Diner.

Another Curveball

David Ignatius is well aware of the unreliability of reports from defectors from a tyrannical regime during civil war. They may exaggerate, make up, or simply have incorrect information. So, to prepare us, he says this:

For some historical context, readers should recall the Iraqi defector known as “Curveball,” who made allegations about Iraqi chemical weapons a decade ago that bolstered the case for war — but turned out to be fabrications.

But he goes on to assure us that he is well aware of such problems and has therefore confirmed “some of the details” with independent, knowledgeable sources. Some? Just some? Which ones?
This Curveball, too, has a tale of WMD and mobile laboratories, this time chemical rather than biological. No drawings have been proffered; perhaps they are yet to come.

In Ignatius’s second-hand telling, there seem to be two stories: One that “two senior Syrian officers moved about 100 kilograms of chemical weapons materials from a secret military base in January.” They drove, in a civilian vehicle, toward Lebanon, and shortly after, two men with Lebanese accents were instructed in “how to combine and activate the chemicals, as well as the proper safety precautions in handling them.”

The other story is that 10-15 trucks “that could combine and activate so-called ‘binary’ chemical weapons agents” have been built at a “workshop in the Damascus suburb of Dummar.” Mobile laboratories!

And here’s what Ignatius considers confirmation by the independent source:

An independent source confirmed that both the Dummar and Nasiriyah facilities mentioned by the defector are, indeed, part of the Syrian chemical weapons network.

Um, there’s nothing there about movement of chemicals, mobile laboratories, men speaking Lebanese.
Ignatius keeps his defector anonymous, his only identification that he “worked inside the chemical weapons network”. On the same date, the Times of Israel published a claim from Maj. Gen. Adnan Sillu, who defected earlier this year and “was reportedly charged with overseeing Syria’s chemical weapons training program.” Reportedly.

Sillu says “Syria’s chemical arsenal has reached similar levels to Israel’s nuclear weapons,” and that Syria’s chemical weapons could easily be taken over by “anyone from the Free Syrian Army or any Islamic extremist group.”

I don’t have any evidence that Sillu is Ignatius’s source, but, based on the simultaneous appearance of the two reports, I think we can say that he is with the same confidence that Ignatius confirms his story.

Shorter version: If you know anything about chemical warfare agents, both stories are nonsense.
Let’s start with the Times of Israel story. What does “Syria’s chemical arsenal has reached similar levels to Israel’s nuclear weapons” even mean? How would Sillu know the extent of Israel’s nuclear arsenal? How is he comparing the two? Numbers of bombs? Potential for numbers of people that might be killed? Both are very scary?

There is no reason to believe anything else after someone says something like that. But is Sillu Ignatius’s source? I don’t know, but there does seem to be an overlap in the identifications.
There is a bit more to Ignatius’s story. He glues the two pieces together with this:

Drawing on the defector’s reports, the Syrian opposition quietly gave Lebanese officials a description of the trucks about six weeks ago, so that they could monitor whether the vehicles were crossing into Lebanon with chemical weapons on board. Since then, none has apparently been seen near the border.

So the Syrian opposition believed the defector enough to warn Lebanese officials that something might be up. That’s a fairly low bar of belief. And no trucks have been observed.
But by the end of the article, Ignatius seems to have convinced himself that the “mobile laboratories” exist.

I wrote the other day that I don’t know of any country that produces binary chemical weapons and then mixes them before loading them in shells, and listed some good reasons why that is a dumb thing to do. I’ll repeat and add a few more.

Nerve agents are highly toxic. That makes them very hard to handle. A pinhead’s amount on your skin will kill you. That is the reason for producing them in binary form: two chemicals that are much safer to handle and form the nerve agent when they are mixed and react chemically. The point is never to have to handle the nerve agents themselves; binary shells are designed to mix the two safer chemicals in flight.

Mixing binary agents and then loading them into shells is the worst of all worlds: a more complicated setup is needed to produce two chemicals rather than one, and then the shell-loading is with the highly toxic agents. The United States and the Soviet Union produced most of their chemical arsenal in unitary form. That has made it very difficult to destroy those stockpiles, which effort is still in progress.
So how would you clean up a truck with pipes and pumps and valves and fittings with residual nerve agent inside all those pipes and pumps and valves and fittings? Not to mention that fittings come loose when you’re driving around over unpaved back roads and any drips will kill you. And, please, Mr. Ignatius, how is that mixed-up nerve agent going to be delivered militarily? Are there trucks that are then fitted, leak-proofedly, to the mixing trucks to load the shells?

Then there’s that 100 kilograms of “chemical weapons materials,” which the context seems to imply are binary components. That would be about 12 gallons of liquids, in units easier for Americans to grasp. But even the less-harmful binary components are not packaged like gallons of milk in the grocery store; they are likely to be in sturdy metal cans, perhaps double-walled. The 100 kilograms would probably look like three or four gas cylinders, perhaps shorter and stouter. They would fit in a car, preferably a large SUV. Handling them requires glove boxes and remote-controlled equipment; it’s not something you teach guerrillas around the campfire.

Ignatius’s story is incoherent and filled with inferences that cannot be supported; the fact that military bases exist is in no way support for the whole of what he presents, which defies simple logic in places.

Cross-posted at The Agonist and Nuclear Diner.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bits and Pieces - Newtown Edition

Some of the better writing on the Newtown horror and what we need to do:

Private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management announced early this morning that it plans to sell Freedom Group, a firearms conglomerate that produced the .223 Bushmaster rifle used in last week's elementary school massacre. Emptywheel's commentary.

Have You Noticed That White Dudes Keep Mass Murdering People?

Teachers are not soldiers. I think the most important thing we can say in response to the stupid suggestion that teachers need to become marksmen, or that police and other security measures need to be stationed at schools, is that that is not the kind of society we want to live in. We must keep our children safe, not accept a war of all against all.

We are our brother's keeper.

 'Right To Live Life In Complete, Stunned Horror,' Added To Constitution

After Shooting, Gun Control Petition Breaks White House Record

The answer is not more guns. Alex Seitz-Wald responds to Jeffrey Goldberg's argument for more people carrying more guns with, um, data. Goldberg says that's not what he meant, but I'm having a hard time seeing his distinction without a difference.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Buying Guns Back

Cities across the country have bought guns back for many years now. The buy-backs usually last for a limited time and may or may not make a difference in the number of guns on the street. They’re not the whole answer to keeping schools and children safe, but one of a number of things that might be done. I’ve listed some of the others here.

Buyback campaigns also draw attention to the dangers of guns and encourage people to rethink whether having them around is really a good idea. San Francisco and Oakland are doing one now.

Some of the campaigns have left lasting monuments. In 1968, after the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, sculptor Benny Bufano made a St. Francis of the Guns statue out of the gun metal. It still stands in front of the entrance to the science building of the City College of San Francisco.

Image from here.

Cross-posted at The Agonist.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bits and Pieces - 12/12/12

You've probably read it already, but today's date is the last triply repetitive one in our lifetimes. The next one will be 2101/01/01.

T-Mobile adopts a business plan that resembles free enterprise, rather than indentured slavery.

A nuclear city under Greenland's glaciers. The article doesn't say what its current status is.

A map of forest fires across the US in 2012. Looks pretty ugly.

The honeybee's genetic code has been opened up.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Say What, NBC?

Syria loads chemical weapons into bombs; military awaits Assad's order

Pretty scary headline.

The military has loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped onto the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers, the officials said. 
As recently as Tuesday, officials had said there was as yet no evidence that the process of mixing the "precursor" chemicals had begun. But Wednesday, they said their worst fears had been confirmed: The nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs.

Ready to go, it sounds like.

U.S. officials stressed that as of now, the sarin bombs hadn't been loaded onto planes and that Assad hadn't issued a final order to use them.

Oh, wait.

But U.S. officials said this week that the government had ordered its Chemical Weapons Corps to "be prepared," which Washington interpreted as a directive to begin bringing together the components needed to weaponize Syria's chemical stockpiles.

That process would involve mixing "precursor" chemicals for the deadly nerve gas sarin, which could be used in artillery shells, U.S. officials told NBC News, stressing that there was no evidence that process had as yet begun.

 Um, could we have that last clause again?

stressing that there was no evidence that process had as yet begun.

"The process" apparently being mixing precursor chemicals. Or putting them in shells? I don't know exactly what kind of chemical weapon shells Syria has, but the way precursor chemicals (no need for quotes unless you don't know what you're talking about) are generally used is in shells that mix them together on the way to the target. Yesterday's Wired report sounded like they were mixing the precursors, then loading them in shells. The NBC report sounds like it could be either. I'd opt for mix-in-flight if I were working in the program. Handling that stuff is dangerous.

 It would be really, really nice if reporters understood some of what they were reporting on. It would be even nicer if editors could detect contradictions within an article and if headline writers read the whole article.

That's not to say that Bashar isn't preparing - just that we can't tell whether he is or not from what NBC has told us.

Updated (12/6/12): I see that NBC has edited the piece and that last paragraph I quoted has been deleted. But the first two paragraphs I quoted still stand. There's confusion there as to whether the precursors have been mixed or loaded into bombs unmixed. I conclude that what the government is reporting is that the level of readiness has increased. I'm also concluding that the NBC reporters have muddled what they heard because they don't know enough about nerve agent bombs. I'm hoping that the government spokesperson knew better what he was talking about.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Bits and Pieces - December 4, 2012

Israel's method of thanking the United States for its support at the UN on the vote for Palestine as an observer nation was to announce that it plans to build settlements in one of the most controversial areas near Jerusalem. That's gotten some people to thinking about changes in the unthinking US support for Israel.
Stephen Walt
Robert Wright
Ottomans and Zionists

A Christian minister signs up for the War on Christmas.

Some cool photos of the Tobalchik Volcano erupting in Kamchatka.

If you're on Facebook, you should vote to continue to be able to vote.

The North Koreans seem to be preparing another rocket launch.

Another of my contributions at Nuclear Diner, on what a rare earths plant in Estonia can tell us about whether Burma is working on a bomb. I apologize for spending so much time over there; I have ideas for posts here, including what music says about us as a cooperating species. One small piece of that argument here.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

George Jahn's AP Article With a Graph of Maybe a Nuclear Explosion

I have been writing about the title article over at Nuclear Diner. Since it's a developing situation, it's in the forum, and others have chimed in. Many links and my own thoughts starting here and scroll down. Jahn has come up with a counter to the large degree of criticism that has been launched at him, and I work through that here (also findable by scrolling).