The following incident took place as described less than two miles from where the house I now live in was built, some decades later; the (now relocated) rail line is just over the hill from where I live, close enough that I easily hear trains passing on it in the night.
... no one can force a man to feel this way. Instead he must embrace it freely. I want to tell about one such man .... no one knows his name, or where he came from; all we know is what he did.
In my home town sixty years ago when I was a child, my mother and father used to take me and my brothers and sisters out to Swope Park on Sunday afternoons. It was a wonderful place for kids, with picnic grounds and lakes and a zoo. But a railroad line cut straight through it.
One Sunday afternoon a young married couple were crossing those tracks. She apparently did not watch her step, for she managed to catch her foot in the frog of a switch to a siding and could not pull it free. Her husband stopped to help her.
But try as they might they could not get her foot loose. While they were working at it, a tramp showed up, walking the ties. He joined the husband in trying to pull the young woman's foot loose. No luck --
Out of sight around the curve a train whistled. Perhaps there would have been time to run and flag it down, perhaps not. In any case both men went right ahead trying to pull her free, and the train hit them.
The wife was killed, the husband was mortally injured and died later, the tramp was killed -- and testimony showed that neither man made the slightest effort to save himself.
The husband's behavior was heroic, but what we expect of a husband toward his wife: his right, and his proud privilege, to die for his woman. But what of this nameless stranger? Up to the very last second he could have jumped clear. He did not. He was still trying to save this woman he had never seen before in his life, right up to the very instant the train killed him. And that's all we'll ever know about him.
This is how a man dies.
This is how a man lives!
With apologies in advance for a more-political-than-usual post ...
This weekend's events on the West Bank, and the months of slaughter of noncombatant Israelis by terrorist Palestinians, are the endgame of an inevitable chain of causation which began with one of the most bizarre episodes of US involvement in the Middle East -- something which took place less than 20 years ago, but has been completely forgotten by the American public. You can read about it here. The setup:
On 6 June 1982, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) attacked into Lebanon on the first day of Operation Peace For Galilee. What was initially declared to be a limited offensive designed to create a buffer zone for the northern Israeli settlements soon turned into a siege of Beirut, a cosmopolitan city of over one-half million people. In its pursuit of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) tactical forces, Israel violated the sovereignty of Lebanon, engaged in major battles with Syria, and backed its quarry into a corner.
But then, when the IDF was on the brink of annihilating its most dangerous enemy:
The 32d MAU [Marine Amphibious Unit] landed a [sic] 800 man contingent in Beirut on 25 August 1982 as part of a multinational force to oversee the evacuation of the PLO guerrillas. Upon successfully completing its mission, the ATF [Amphibious Task Force] departed for Naples on 10 September 1982.
It gets worse (emphasis mine):
The MNF [multi-national force] interposed itself between forces to keep the Israelis from attacking the PLO as they were evacuated .... The USMNF [that is, the American contingent] interposed forces around the port to prevent the IDF from attacking the PLO when they were most vulnerable, after they had given up their arms and were concentrated in the relatively small confines of the port .... the positioning of the USMNF between the IDF and the PLO assured no harm would come to the PLO.
Your tax dollars at work, saving an army dedicated to the destruction of Israel:
The PLO, which was portrayed as a scraggly terrorist organization by the American press, led to wide and varied speculation on the terrorist threat. To add to the confusion was the fact the PLO arrived for the evacuation wearing new uniforms, were freshly shaven and had haircuts. Even though the PLO fighters were fairly well disciplined, they had the peculiar custom of firing their weapons into the air on full automatic to celebrate "victory" creating an unnerving if not dangerous situation.
From another source, the appalling number of murderers saved by US intervention:
The 800 Marines arrived on August 25. On August 28, under the watchful eyes of the MNF, the PLO began to pull out. The evacuation, which took three days, went off without incident. Nearly 14,000 Palestinian and Syrian fighters left by sea and land.
Returning to this source, we read of the thanks we got:
On 18 April 1983, a car bomb exploded destroying the U. S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, of which 17 were Americans, and wounding 100 others.
At approximately 0622 on Sunday, 23 October 1983, the Battalion Landing Team (BLT) Headquarters building in the Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) compound at Beirut International Airport was destroyed by a terrorist bomb. This catastrophic attack took the lives of 241 U. S. military personnel and wounded over 100 others. The bombing was carried out by a lone terrorist.
A more sickening misdirection of American foreign policy cannot be imagined. And without wishing to be gratuitously offensive, I feel I must remind my Republican readers that it was the Reagan Administration which carried out this ghastly mission. Blame for the trials of 2002 attaches to the leadership of 1982.
A Modest Proposal for an Asteroid Warning System
As promised in comments on Transterrestrial Musings and Turned up to Eleven, here is a modified version of my recent correspondence (Sat 23 Mar) to Brink Lindsey, who rashly vowed to "make an effort to think about the unthinkable and learn more about this issue."
The risk of a relatively large asteroid like 1998 ST27 hitting the Earth is small; perhaps a hundred millenia pass between any two such events. This does not, however, remove asteroids and comets as a source of deep concern. I reproduce below a news item from the June 1994 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, followed by a Paul Harvey-esque "the rest of the story" coda from a personal conversation I had with someone in the spring of 1995.
Satellites Detect Record Meteor
(LOS ALAMOS, NM) Analysts at the Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories report that a network of early-warning satellites has detected the brightest meteor seen in 19 years of monitoring from space. Details of the event were declassified and released in mid-March.
The brilliant bolide briefly exceeded magnitude -25, rivaling the Sun, when it streaked over the western Pacific Ocean during daylight on February 1st at 22:38 Universal Time. Infrared and visible-light sensors on six different satellites pinpointed the meteor's location at 164.1° east, 2.7° north. That put it about 300 kilometers southeast of the tiny Micronesian island of Kusaie, where it was witnessed by two startled fishermen. The bolide traveled southeast to northwest, building in brightness for several seconds before exploding at an estimated altitude of about 20 km.
Standard models of nuclear detonations suggest that the meteor packed a kinetic-energy punch equivalent to 11 kilotons of TNT, comparable to the nuclear bomb dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. If the projectile was a solid, rocky object moving at 15 km per second, it would then have weighed some 400 metric tons and been 7 meters across.
But estimating the total kinetic energy depends upon how much of it was radiated away as light. The nuclear models assume a fireball temperature of 6,000° Kelvin and a luminous efficiency of 30 percent. David Morrison and Kevin Zahnle (NASA-Ames Research Center) argue that the actual efficiency is at most 3 percent, based on previous studies of bright bolides. In that case the kinetic-energy yield would have been 110 kilotons, delivered by a rocky body roughly 15 meters across.
"Basically," they state, "the February fireball can be thought of as a smaller version of Tunguska" [the explosive fireball that leveled more than 2,000 square kilometers of Siberian forest in 1908]. An airburst of this size occurs roughly once per decade. Until this bolide lit up the sky, the most brilliant event detected by the satellite system was one that occurred in April 1988, also over the western Pacific, which peaked at magnitude -24.3.
According to declassified satellite data, a Sun-rivaling meteor flashed across the morning sky on February 1st near the island of Kusaie. It carried the kinetic energy of a nuclear bomb and triggered sensors on six early-warning satellites. Fortunately, it exploded harmlessly 20 kilometers above the ground, leaving a train of smoke that remained visible for an hour.
And now ... The Rest Of The Story:
In May of 1995 I attended the Texas Star Party, a sort of amateur astronomical Woodstock held each year during the last New Moon before Memorial Day in the Davis Mountains of trans-Pecos Texas, near the University of Texas' McDonald Observatory. (I have been to five TSPs altogether: '90, '92, '93, '95, and '97, the one year it was not held at the usual location. Other responsibilities have precluded my attendance for the past several years, but I now own some land nearby, which I expect to visit this September.)
Having made a donation to a light-pollution-reduction fund, I was granted access to sit in on half a night's observing run on the 2.7-meter telescope at the observatory. The investigator, Beth Clark (now Clark-Joseph), was taking some spectra of Sun-like stars as part of a project which dealt with how some asteroids come to be highly differentiated (like Earth, that is, with a core, a mantle, and a crust; or a piece of a core or mantle or crust from an asteroid which was shattered in a collision with another asteroid). The usual idea is that radioactive decay of 26Al was the heat source which melted some of the asteroids and allowed them to, as it were, fractionally distill themselves; but could it have been, instead, a sudden flare-up of the Sun, early in the Solar System's history? This is the question Beth was addressing.
One of my fellow donors was Bob Gent, who has since risen to the position of vice-president of the Astronomical League, the umbrella organization of astronomy clubs in the US. At some point during the conversation that night, I mentioned the Sky & Tel article I've reproduced above. Turns out Bob was career Air Force and worked on early-warning satellites in the 1960s. As you might infer from the article, these work by looking for big flashes of light -- nuclear tests, rocket launches, etc. Well, it seems that pretty shortly after the first generation of warning sats came on line, they started seeing these huge flashes rather often and in completely random locations that obviously couldn't have anything to do with nuclear testing or rocket launches.
The bottom line is that they figured out almost immediately that kiloton-range (non-nuclear) explosions in the upper atmosphere are quite common, and inferred the rate and size of incoming meteoroids. But they couldn't tell the scientific community this, because it would have revealed their detection capabilities to the Soviets et al. So the finding remained classified for many years.
A Tunguska-class event today would almost certainly cause far more deaths and property destruction than the 1908 strike. Had such a thing occurred during the Cold War, we can only wonder whether cooler heads would have prevailed until the absence of ionizing radiation indicated a natural rather than man-made event. And since today's world is hardly without its own instabilities, the danger has not passed: imagine the reaction to a hundred-kiloton explosion almost anywhere between India and Libya, or anywhere in the United States.
Now to go a bit beyond what I wrote to Brink Lindsey. Assuming the greatest hazard to be geopolitical, the proper context of his remark, "we have or can develop the means to prevent any such horrors from occurring," is detection of incoming objects soon enough to warn the world, thereby preventing -- we hope! -- a deadly misinterpretation of events. So what would it take to provide advance warning of something the size of the Kusaie Island explosion of 1994?
Well, that would be an ambitious project.
A stony meteorite, or piece of an S-class asteroid, typically has an albedo of .10-.22, that is, it reflects 10% to 22% of the sunlight that hits it. The one that fell near Kusaie was estimated at 15 meters in diameter. At lunar distance it would shine at magnitude +15 or thereabouts, 4,000 times fainter than the dimmest stars visible to the human eye; a 16" telescope with a CCD camera could detect it. But at 0.05 AU (7.5 million km), the threshold distance for "potentially hazardous asteroids," this would be reduced to at least +21, and the aperture requirement would thereby increase to the size of the largest telescopes on Earth, such as the 5-meter instrument on Mt Palomar.
(If "reducing" something from +15 to +21 doesn't make sense to you, read this.)
For something the size of the Tunguska meteor, also a stony meteorite, which was perhaps 60 meters in diameter, the task is a bit less daunting, but detection at 0.05 AU would still require a telescope a meter or more in aperture. At present, only institutions, and perhaps a handful of very well-equipped amateur groups, have such capabilities. And we would need to scan the entire sky, so even without making allowances for the vagaries of weather and moonlight, a relative handful of telescopes would not do.
How much time would we have? Suppose an object is in an elliptical orbit ranging from 0.9 to 1.1 AU from the Sun, is outbound on a collision course with us, and is the proverbially dangerous 0.05 AU away, implying a semimajor axis a of 1.0 AU, an orbital eccentricity e of 0.1, and an "eccentric anomaly" E of ~0.05 radian. Turning to page 185 of Fundamentals of Astrodynamics and applying equation 4.2-4, namely
-- and plugging in the values developed above, and having expressed distance in AU, setting the Sun's "gravitational parameter" (m) to 1, we get 0.045 "heliocentric time units," one of which is the length of time it takes Earth to travel through one radian (360°/2p) of its orbit, or 58.1 days. Answer: 2 days, 15 hours.
Plenty of time to warn, and maybe even enough time to evacuate an affected area. But at lunar distance, the warning time drops to 3 hours. Still enough to broadcast to the world that there's going to be a big boom, and it's not a nuke.
So if we want to be able to warn of "Kusaie-class" explosions (~100 kT), we need a network of telescopes of ~0.5 m aperture sufficient in number to cover the entire sky every 3 hours. If we want to be able to warn of "Tunguska-class" explosions tens of megatons in size and evacuate affected areas, we would need about one-twentieth that number of > 1-meter telescopes. Kusaie-class meteoroid detection could be done with large amateur instruments, which could be made available in quantity and built into a worldwide net of automated observatories within a few years; in fact, something like this will probably happen anyway, suggesting that the marginal cost of using it as a warning system may be surprisingly low. Unfortunately telescope cost scales roughly as the cube of aperture, so decent warning of future Tunguskas is going to be expensive.
Somewhat pessimistically assuming that each instrument can image only 10 square degrees of sky per hour and assuming that half of them would be in sunlight and half the rest clouded out at any given moment, around 5,500 of the smaller telescopes would be needed to give 3-hour warning of a potential 100-kiloton explosion. Similarly, around 260 of the larger telescopes could provide 60-hour warning of a 10-megaton explosion. A rough-order-of-magnitude (and again somewhat pessimistic) estimate for the cost of the larger network of smaller telescopes is $100 million, but much of this may be picked up by amateur astronomers. There are several thousand such persons in the US alone willing and able to purchase the requisite hardware over the next decade.
Story here; picture here. The efficiency is only 1.7%, but they're shooting for 10%, which by my calculation could generate 100 watts per square meter or more if painted on a house (though something like half that, or less, would be more typical). Notice the nanotech:
... specifically the production of nanocrystals and nanorods pioneered by Alivisatos and his laboratory colleagues. These are chemically pure clusters of from 100 to 100,000 atoms with dimensions on the order of a nanometer, or a billionth of a meter ....
Huynh and Dittmer manufactured nanorods in a beaker containing cadmium selenide, aiming for rods of a diameter -- 7 nanometers -- to absorb as much sunlight as possible. They also aimed for nanorods as long as possible -- in this case, 60 nanometers.
The applications just keep coming, even with solution chemistry.
Over on UPI, Martin Sieff compares India with China, and diagnoses why we don't often hear this story in the US.
An Attempt at Lasting Significance
Every once in a while, I wonder what I'd do if I had a really large audience -- then Glenn Reynolds links to me and a few thousand people, probably, read this thing in a day, and I momentarily get a large audience. So what would I want the largest possible number of people to see?
Lots of bloggers have their pet causes. Virginia has therapeutic cloning and protectionism. InstaPundit (Glenn) has intellectual property issues (especially music) and nanotechnology. Iain has the Anglosphere. Paul has -- well, some kind of neo-liberal survival while metaphorically surrounded by a mob of libertarians and conservatives, probably. Orchid is all about having fun (and getting a job!). Alex has military history lessons and New Orleans politics. Kathy has feminine bellicosity.
It's not like my attitudes and interests are real well hidden; anybody who reads through a couple of dozen posts on Arcturus will get a good idea of what turns me on. But what's important?
Something like this:
The blogosphere is rife with calls for the US to widen the war and take out half a dozen or so regimes in southwest Asia, plus generally cowing, stomping on, and getting rid of anybody who gets in our way. I am broadly sympathetic to such ideas, and certainly favor an approach which goes well beyond anything the present Administration is likely to undertake. I believe we are in a battle for the future of civilization.
And yet ...
Turning to page 406 of the first edition of Generations, we find:
Historically, aging Idealists have been attracted to words like "exterminate" and "eradicate," words of apocalyptic finality .... Add in the fiery passion of the more evangelical last-wavers, sharpen everyone's moral conviction, reduce everyone's level of tolerance, subtract the active presence of any adult Adaptives -- and that is the leadership awaiting America .... It is easy to picture aging Boomers as noble, self-sacrificing patriarchs -- but just as easy to see these righteous Old Aquarians as the worst nighmare that could ever happen to the world.
Other generations of spiritualist elders have had visions of apocalypse; this one will have the methods.
Sometimes I think of that when I read yet another demand that we wipe the bad guys out. And, yeah, I know they're the bad guys. They're worse than the Soviets, who at least wanted our stuff; these people don't want anybody to have what we've got, starting with us.
But I read let's-kill-'em, and I see this.
And I think of this. To follow the parlance of Generations, busy Civics want long life; embattled Reactives want riches; pondering Adaptives want "understanding to discern what is right."
And "Idealists" want the lives of their enemies.
I was born in 1959. This message is directed, mostly, at my fellow "last-wave" Boomers, born anywhere from the early '50s to the early '60s. When you call for the destruction of the Islamo-fascists, you may well be describing what must take place to ensure a decent human existence for most of the world.
But never forget that in doing so, you reveal more about yourself than about the situation we face. Self-awareness is precious, and it is not abundant in our generation, which all too often substitutes a narcissistic self-centeredness. Examine yourselves. Fight for civilization, yes; but find a way to avoid apocalypse.
The Really Interesting Thing About Global Warming
Why Did Global Warming Take Hold As World Concern? asks UniSci, in an article about a University of Gloucestershire study of the propagation of the global warming meme-complex. It's high time somebody did something like this. An excerpt:
The apocalyptic scenarios produced in the 1980s were embraced as a belief by some scientists, hyped in the media, and caught the imagination of environmental pressure groups and the general public.
Resulting pressures on politicians, policymakers and research councils arguably channeled an increasing proportion of funds towards climate-modeling.
-- which means that there is some hope that this will prove to be a self-correcting phenomenon, at least among the technically literate. If not, we may unpleasantly infer climatology as a discipline to have been thoroughly corrupted by public money.
RTWT (read the whole thing).
Americans' Environmental Priorities (II)
Paul Orwin writes to suggest that:
The real difference is not in whether they affect people v. biosphere, but whether they have immediate, short term effects v. unclear or gradual long term effects. Humans, like all animals, are not wired to think or act upon what might happen to our descendants, but rather on what might happen to us. The same thinking informs debate on Social Security, Missile Defense, and everything else. This survey shows, not surprisingly, that people don't think very far ahead.
To backpedal just a bit, I was describing the effect of Americans' attitudes, not necessarily the causes. In any case, a time axis/evolutionary psychology explanation is at worst orthogonal to saying that people are more easily persuaded that other human beings are of greater concern than non-human species. The real constraint on environmental attitudes may be Maslow's hierarchy of needs; after all, to our grandparents, smokestacks connoted nothing but prosperity.
In Why Chips Still Rule, Michael S. Malone observes that:
... silicon is gold.
Despite the roller coaster ride the chip industry has undergone over the last quarter-century, according to Clendaniel's numbers the average annual growth rate of the industry has been 12 percent — a number pretty much reflected in the stock prices of industry's major companies ...
Name any other investment that has offered such a return over the course of three decades.
Well, gold sure hasn't. This chart shows that gold has declined almost continuously for 14 years -- in nominal dollars! The consumer price index has risen by 53% (from 118.3 to 180.5, where 1982-84 = 100) during this time. A few minutes with a calculator establishes that had gold merely kept pace with chips since 1988 -- never mind going back to 1965 when Moore's Law kicked in -- it would now be at $3,700 an ounce in 2002 dollars! It is, instead, $297.40, less than 1/12 of that figure.
I'm ranting about this because gold is "the god that failed" of libertarianism. The founder of the Libertarian Party, David Nolan, once wrote that a gold standard is one of the five core beliefs all libertarians should share. The LP's candidate for President in 1988 was Ron Paul, an ardent advocate of a return to a gold standard. But gold is a lousy investment and would virtually guarantee hyperinflation were we to simply replace our fiat money with it.
The reason? The stuff's too easy to get. Cumulative world gold production increased from just over 60,000 tonnes in 1970 to just over 120,000 tonnes today, and the rate increased noticeably in the late 1980s. Annual world gold production never exceeded 1,500 tonnes until about 1985. It is now over 2,500 tonnes per year. The annual rate of increase in production is approximately 3%. For comparison, the Consumer Price Index went from in 107.6 in 1985 to 177.2 in 2001, which works out to 3.2% per year. From 1992 to the present, however, inflation has averaged only 2.6% per year. So it's not looking like a real great hedge against inflation either, even in the present fiat-money regime.
If all gold were to become money -- to use a fancy economic word, if there were no "sterilization" (thanks to She Who Must Be Obeyed for that term) -- the incomparable and irresistible incentives thereby created would undoubtedly drive up production much faster, into double- or triple-digit percentage increases every year. To be sure, the Earth's crust is relatively depleted in siderophile elements, but tiny amounts of gold are nearly everywhere. Sea water contains 1.1 ´ 10-5 mg of gold per liter (source: CRC, 65th ed [1984-85], p F-149). Every cubic kilometer of ocean therefore contains 11 kg of gold -- over $100,000 at today's prices, and far higher if a $10 trillion economy suddenly had to function (temporarily) on, say, 30,000 tonnes of gold -- in which case gold could (temporarily) be worth on the order of $5,000 an ounce. How many years would it be before someone genetically engineered a bacterium to extract it?
And I need hardly remind my readers about asteroids.
Investors, don't buy gold. Invest in human ingenuity instead. Libertarians, lose the Randian meme about gold being an "objective standard of value."
Americans' Environmental Priorities
Browsing Americans Sharply Divided on Seriousness of Global Warming, we find more indications that the American public is more perceptive than usually recognized (admittedly a recurring theme at Gallup):
Another indication that Americans are sharply divided on the global warming issue comes from a question that asks about the reliability of media coverage of the issue. One-third of Americans believe that news reports of the problem are generally correct while another third believe they are exaggerated and an equal number believe they are underestimated. Attitudes on this question have not changed since 1997.
But the truly striking finding of this survey is that Americans' environmental priorities, ranked by prevalence of those who "personally worry about this problem a great deal," look like this:
The top five items are all directly related to human quality of life. The bottom five relate to the rest of the biosphere. Whatever the actual extent of these problems, Americans tend to put people first.
From that title, anybody'd think I was bucking for a permalink from PejmanPundit. I did drop Pejman a line, to which he sent a kind reply, and I kept thinking about his question and my response.
And while reading this, something really jumped off the page (emphasis mine):
Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens, resulting not from birth but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter; with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people?
To repeat one of my favorite themes: this country is a great big Boolean parallel-processing network, and what it processes are memes. America is good because it can become good.
Project Management (A Tremendously Exciting Post)
Derek Lowe ventures into my day-job territory with What's A Project Manager to Do?, and imparts another important principle, viz "just because you can screw things up in one direction doesn't mean you can't screw them up in another."
Now, if I really knew the answer to the question he poses, which is perhaps the ultimate poser about schedule risk -- he phrases it as "how long should a drug discovery project take until it recommends something to the clinical development folks?" -- I wouldn't be driving 15 miles to an office every day in a 10-year-old van; I'd have retired to someplace in this vicinity and would be occasionally shuttling off to Australia for some southern sky observing in my spare time, which would be copious. So the value of what I'm going to say here is limited, but I just can't resist.
Some years back I heard a co-worker grouse about how development projects should be quality-driven rather than schedule-driven. Great, except that the world won't stand still while you're perfecting your new product. There might even be people working on something similar who won't mind releasing it when it's 95% of what it should be instead of 100%. And if you're working on a big project in the States, well, the American way has always been to build things fast and fix them later, as Stephen Ambrose explains.
Nor does the regulatory environment eliminate this driver; indeed, in the case of pharmaceuticals, the length of the testing window combined with the 17-year patent expiration makes getting something out quick just that much more urgent.
So there will always be people who think they haven't been given enough time, and they may even be right, but the decision for the senior executive is how to balance such complaints against missing the opportunity altogether. So -- how? My limited-value suggestions are:
Joe Bob Briggs deconstructs the Jewish Museum exhibit for UPI, and includes a general principle we would all do well to learn, which I have italicized below:
This thing had so many essays, warnings, explanations and convoluted art-criticism purple prose on the wall it gave me a headache. If you have to explain it this much, it must suck, right? After a while, I stopped reading the stuff because there's only so many times you can see phrases like "spiritual ambiguity" and "encounters with evil" and "the moral division between victim and victimizer" before your eyes glaze over.
Needless to say, you should read the whole thing.
Because It Can Become Good (III)
Pejman Yousefzadeh gives us a three-hanky weeper over on PejmanPundit. As Reynolds said, read the whole thing, but here's an interesting excerpt:
I am compelled to ask a question I know is stupid. Yet, it is the only question I can ask. Is it possible that in this most heterogeneous of countries, Americans nonetheless have some sort of genetic capability hardwired in their brains that allows them to respond to an unexpected crisis as if they knew it was coming, as if they had gone through it before, in a manner that shocks both friend and foe with its speed, its efficiency, and its unerring sense for what matters? I don't even pretend to know the answer to this. Yet the question, and the facts that prompt it both dumbfound me, makes me proud, and again, humbles me before my God in that He was able to create this nation of heroes.
With apologies in advance for my relative lack of eloquence -- it ain't genetics (God knows it ain't -- I'm a mutt), it's memetics. To quote myself:
So we find ourselves doing a good thing, a thing without precedent in two thousand years, a thing in sharp contrast with the attitudes of our closest cultural relatives. I'd be going way too far if I said I knew exactly why we get it right when so many others don't. But that it can happen here is enormously important. It suggests that America has, to borrow a phrase from myself, "an ability to apply selective pressures to memes" that somehow nudges them in a benign direction. Or, to answer a much earlier question, America is good because it can become good.
Of course, you should read that whole post too. ;)
Well, whatever it was, it wasn't a rookie stunt. Browsing Strip search lacked legitimacy, legal experts say, we learn that the two teachers who arranged the strip-search of 23 3rd-graders for $5 in missing lunch money are in their 15th year with the district, having joined it during the 1987-88 school year.
Here's the Pitcher Elementary School website, such as it is, and the school report card, from which we learn that Pitcher, being on the eastern edge of the district near Independence, is predominantly white and almost entirely English-speaking. In other words, it's not in a stereotypical ghetto or barrio environment; indeed, the indicators in the report card strongly imply that it's one of the best grade schools in the district.
Returning to the KCStar article, we also learn that the relevant case law is New Jersey vs. T.L.O., from which I excerpt the following:
... we are faced initially with the question whether that Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies to searches conducted by public school officials. We hold that it does.
We join the majority of courts that have examined this issue in concluding that the accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating the law. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search. Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, one must consider "whether the . . . action was justified at its inception;" second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted "was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." Under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be "justified at its inception" when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. Such a search will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.
This standard will, we trust, neither unduly burden the efforts of school authorities to maintain order in their schools nor authorize unrestrained intrusions upon the privacy of schoolchildren. By focusing attention on the question of reasonableness, the standard will spare teachers and school administrators the necessity of schooling themselves in the niceties of probable cause and permit them to regulate their conduct according to the dictates of reason and common sense. At the same time, the reasonableness standard should ensure that the interests of students will be invaded no more than is necessary to achieve the legitimate end of preserving order in the schools.
That's what we pay the Supreme Court for, folks -- to tell us to use common sense. ;)
More seriously, this is yet another blow to the KCMoSD, which is already facing a takeover by Jefferson City due to decades of abysmal performance. Fortunately, the district encompasses less than a third of Kansas City, MO, and surrounding districts are, at least by comparison, much better (except, I suppose, for Kansas City, KS).
Bill Walker, who may be overestimating the size of my readership, writes:
Link to my article! Link to my article!
All right, already! Things like this tempt me toward adding a "tip jar," or worse yet, a hit counter. I still prefer the "pay me to e-mail you" model, though.
The BATF vs the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice
Over on InstaPundit is an anonymous reader comment about the incident in which Saudi girls were prevented from escaping a burning school building by religious police, characterizing it as "the anti-Waco." And there is a certain horrifying symmetry in the imposition of an arbitrary prohibition leading to the deaths of children in a burning building, surrounded by "authorities."
But there just might be a more positive parallel also, in terms of what happens next.
This requires explanation, and a bit of autobiography:
Upon casual inspection, I would appear to be one of the "rabid Waco-Wackos" Glenn's reader finds so wearying. On Sun 28 Feb 93 I attended a regularly scheduled meeting of the Dallas County Libertarian Party, for which I was handling publicity at the time, and discovered that everyone else in attendance was as upset about that morning's events as I was. We immediately organized a protest, which took place during the noon hour in front of the Earl Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas two days later.
Beginning the following weekend, we held protests in Waco (usually in front of the Convention Center, where the daily media briefings took place). I personally did about half the organizing and nearly all the media work, using the then-new technique of broadcast-faxing from my home PC, and attended all but one or two of the protests, which continued until after the fire. The final protest drew over 200 people and was held directly in front of a BATF/FBI roadblock.
In January of 1994, I organized the protest which took place on the first day of the trial of the survivors in San Antonio.
I was fairly good at writing and sending news releases but didn't interview real well even on radio and got to where I hated TV pretty fast. Nor was I enamored of the atmosphere of many of the protests, which unsurprisingly tended to attract opportunistic types. But they also attracted people from all over the country desperate to do something about what they regarded (correctly) as an impending disaster or, after the fact, a terrible wrong.
In the years since, I have learned that the "rabid Waco-Wackos" are invariably those who couldn't be bothered to do anything about the Waco standoff while it was going on.
I've also learned that malice is a more popular explanation than stupidity among such people for what happened on 19 Apr. And I have found myself moving steadily away from notions that the Feds deliberately set the fire or kept the people in the burning building pinned down with machine guns.
In any operation as complex as the siege of Mount Carmel, especially when the besiegers have so little understanding of the motivations of the besieged, huge mistakes are nearly certain, and tragedy is likely. The fire trucks which were sent back to town a few days before the fire, the call to the Parkland Hospital burn unit on the morning of the 19th which was never followed up on, and countless other details of the incident betray a managerial mess that just didn't get straightened out in time. "In time" being before Janet Reno panicked at a spurious report of child abuse and sent in the tanks.
And none of it would have happened without the initial 28 Feb raid, the ghastly BATF publicity stunt gone wrong that started it all. If only the Branch Davidians had been prosecuted for welfare fraud instead! Of course the Feds didn't care how many people rot on welfare, but God forbid that they should arm themselves.
Nine years on, the most important thing about Waco is that it never happened again. Which brings me at last to my point: we distinguish ourselves by how we regard such things along a continuum, ranging from so-what/business-as-usual to never-again/terrible-anomaly. In this country, anything like Waco is regarded purely as an anomaly. There have been plenty of other potential targets for similar raids in recent years, but no such actions have taken place. Of course the drug war goes on, a dreadful waste of lives and resources in an idiotic re-enactment of Prohibition, but the next drug house with 130 men, women, and children in it will be the first.
Back to burning Saudi girls. As Kathy Kinsley has pointed out, the fact that the Saudi press reported the incident, along with expressions of disapproval of the religious police by Saudi royalty, is itself quite significant. Will the Saudis begin to regard the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice as an anomalous manifestation of something to be shunned? Will their activities be curbed? Will Saudi society begin to turn away from its historic mistreatment of women?
What's Six Orders of Magnitude Between Friends?
This one's so good I'm quoting it verbatim. From JunkScience.com:
As an aside: several defenders of John Vidal and The Guardian have written to challenge my 'assumption' (also 'presumption'; 'arrogance'; inter alia) in writing yesterday that Vidal had overstated the ice mass involved by 6 orders of magnitude - they claim others, especially me, understated the mass.
So, for the benefit of those who can't balance their checking account with their socks and shoes on:
The NSIDC release states: A total of about 3,250 km2 of shelf area disintegrated in a 35-day period beginning on 31 January 2002 ... The Larsen B shelf was about 220 m thick.
In kilometres: 3,250 (area) x 0.22 (thickness) = 715 km3;
1km3 = 1,000m x 1,000m x 1,000m or 1,000,000,000m3;
715km3 = 715,000,000,000m3 (715 billion cubic metres);
1m3 of water has a mass of 1 metric ton (tonne), 1km3 of water = 1 billion tonnes;
Ice has a lesser mass by volume ("weighs less") than water (it floats and the ice shelf was known to be rotten - its collapse anticipated for years);
Total anticipated mass of 715km3 of Larsen B ice shelf is therefore significantly less than 715 billion tonnes, putting 500 billion tons right in the ball park.
See? Simple, not even back of an envelope stuff. Now you can see how we know Vidal overstated by a factor of a million. But hey! What's six zeros to a reporter hyping a story?
Evidently about what it is to that reporter's editor -- a detail too minor to warrant correction. Make no mistake: this is the quality of reporting and editing behind everything from "global warming" to Afghan civilian casualty figures to next year's Federal budget deficit projections. The incessant hectoring to which we are subjected by interventionist media types and politicians routinely betrays utter ignorance of even the simplest mathematics.
Without mathematical rigor, the 20th century gave us things like Social Security, incomparably the largest Ponzi scheme in human history; and the 21st may give us a multi-trillion-dollar effort to "fight global warming," an either nonexistent or entirely beneficial trend. How long can the equilibrium of technically incompetent rulers lording it over technologically advanced societies be maintained?
Over on Lagniappe, Derek Lowe (who paid me a staggering compliment in the form of categorizing me with Charles Murtaugh) is after me to report on this presentation about amino acid ratios in the Murchison meteorite. Unfortunately, I was sitting a couple of rooms over at the time, grooving on the latest goodies from Mars Odyssey and then writing them up for Arcturus. Feel free to read it yourself; in searching for an answer to Derek's question ("Where did those excesses come from?") here's what looked like the key passage to me:
... the secondary formation of amino acids, and therefore their derivatives, by an asymmetric catalyst. In this case one must imagine the formation of such catalyst by the preferential photolysis of a racemic compound having a larger difference between the extinction coefficients of its enantiomers than those of aliphatic amino acids and thus able to achieve greater chiral purity in the process. This enantiomerically enriched catalyst could then act to promote the formation of amino acids with substantial enantiomeric excesses.
(While reading the above, I found this and this handy, as some of this is just a bit beyond my area of expertise.)
Here's a followup to my earlier item. This technology may be the crucial breakthrough enabling wide use of methane(CH4)-fueled vehicles, whether powered by internal-combustion engines or fuel cells:
[University of Missouri physicist Peter] Pfeifer told United Press International if carbon nanopores were used, methane could be stored safely.
"Our material offers a number of advantages for methane storage -- it's lightweight, easy to manufacture in large quantities and relatively inexpensive," he said. "But most importantly, it would allow the methane to be stored at a safer, significantly lower pressure -- about 530 psi -- which reduces the risk of an explosion should a methane-powered vehicle be in an accident."
A carbon nanopore gasoline tank "would be filled with the carbon," Pfeifer told UPI. "It would look like your tank was filled with charcoal, pressed into a large cube or so."
The Earth may hold a 10,000-year reserve of cleaner-burning methane gas, Pfeifer said. He believes a commercially viable carbon nanopore storage product could be on the market within five years.
Or at least the Bad Things™: Scott Burnell of UPI Science News writes up an encouraging interview with Ralph James, associate director for energy, environment and national security at Brookhaven Natl Lab.
James is wisely concentrating on requirements for effective use of radiation detectors rather than getting lost in their technical specifications. "You need to have something that's relatively inexpensive to be able to disperse them in such a widely distributed manner .... something that's low-power, battery operated, very compact in size, long-term operation unattended, no maintenance; all those things are going to be required to make this happen."
Of course, some threats are sufficiently specific (and potentially destructive) that detectors can and should be tailored to spot them. "We can determine by a specific signature those isotopes that present the greatest risk to our citizenry," especially 239Pu and 235U.
Persons expecting the INS, or even the military, to be able to prevent unwanted immigration across our borders are advised to read One of Texas' most wanted fugitives found hiding out on Fort Hood. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.
A terrific presentation by Steve Ostro of JPL on radar astronomy of asteroids included handing out models of the asteroid 216 Kleopatra to the audience. This asteroid turns out to be shaped rather like a dog bone in spite of being roughly the size of New Jersey. The instrument which helped determine this is the aforementioned Arecibo radar telescope, whose transmitter power is somewhat greater than that of the recently-opened WTC pillars-of-light memorial -- and concentrated in a beam only 2 arc-minutes wide.
Kleopatra is also metallic. Its surface has a "radar albedo" of 0.7, and its interior is most likely "relatively unconsolidated debris, perhaps including some number of large monolithic shards" (quoting directly from Science, 5 May 2000, 288:5467, pp 836-839).
And we're not talking aluminum here. The bulk density is around 3.5 g cm-3 and Kleopatra's porosity may approach 50%. Picture three or four hundred thousand cubic kilometers of nickel-iron, with a substantial admixture of siderophile and chalcophile elements, which are relatively depleted in Earth's crust. Palladium, silver, platinum, and gold, among others, in amounts far greater than all the precious metals ever mined.
Yesterday afternoon I attended the entirety of the "Small Bodies, Big Science" session on asteroids. It was lots of fun, insofar as much of it impinged on 1) asteroids hitting Earth and causing mass destruction and 2) asteroids containing incomprehensible wealth in the form of ferrous and platinum-group metals.
The geological properties of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) are not well-known, and it is therefore difficult to predict what would be the effects of any given NEA impact on Earth -- or devise a mitigation strategy to prevent one!
The NEA designated 1998 ST27 was investigated last October by three researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic, using the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea and the Arecibo radar telescope in Puerto Rico. This asteroid is considered a potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA), since it will pass within 0.05 AU of Earth in October of 2024.
Like many NEAs, it is binary -- actually two bodies. The radar observations indicate that the larger is around 800 meters in diameter and is roughly spheroidal; the smaller is less than 100 meters in diameter. Its orbital period is unknown, but the rotation period of the primary is less than 3 hours.
Its flat spectrum and low albedo (<5%) indicate that it is a CM carbonaceous chondrite. (Lest the geology lingo leave you behind, here's a good background article.) A nice example of the value of a physical meeting like LPSC was provided during the Q&A at the end of this presentation. Andrew Rivkin of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (U of AZ) commented that visual spectra of 1998 ST27 have also been taken and that he would get them to the investigators. This will help greatly in determining composition.
Once the size and period of the orbit of the secondary is established, the mass of the entire system can be calculated and the density of the primary estimated to within a few percent, which will reveal even more about its composition. This will also indicate whether 1998 ST27 is a solid piece of rock or a loose "rubble pile" -- crucial information to have if we ever need to keep it from hitting Earth.
So what if it did hit us? They didn't talk about this in the presentation, of course, but I can make some assumptions and do the math. Here goes:
Results -- mass is 5 ´ 1011 kg, KE is 4 ´ 1020 J ≈ 1014 kg TNT = 105 MT.
Translation for the peanut gallery: one hundred thousand megatons. This would cause serious damage, defined as knocking people's houses down, in an area about nine hundred kilometers across -- which sounds pretty bad (I think of everything between KC and D/FW) but is actually less than 1/750 of the entire surface area of Earth. So one's odds, randomly speaking, aren't terrible.
They get dramatically worse, however, if one lives anywhere on or near the coast of the Pacific Ocean, which would stand a 40% chance of getting hit by virtue of its size. Any oceanic strike would raise an immense tsunami, tens to hundreds of meters high, which would devastate coastlines and penetrate far inland in some areas.
Another interesting, more slow-motion, disaster could ensue if the impact point was on Greenland or in Antarctica. The dislodging of a large portion of the ice cap could raise the sea level by meters to tens of meters over the following several years.
Do these things ever hit us? Well, the Farmington Meteorite, which landed in northern Kansas in 1890, turns out to have been a piece of one ... a very small piece.
-- well, the NASA version, anyway; a special panel at midday today was comprised of presentations concerning the National Research Council's Solar System Exploration Decadal Survey, which developed a roadmap for 2003-2013 (I was peripherally involved in the ad hoc "Education & Public Outreach" panel).
Colleen Hartman of NASA noted that the President's proposed budget for FY03 calls for a total increase in NASA planetary mission expenditure of 73% through FY07. The year-to-year percentage increase from FY02 to FY03 is larger than that for defense, in spite of the war in Afghanistan et al.
She also discussed the Nuclear Systems Initiative, which is comprised of development of a radioisotope power system (RPS, a next-generation RTG [radio-thermal generator]), nuclear electric power, and finally nuclear electric (that is, ion) propulsion.
An RPS will use "unicouples" instead of the thermocouples used in RTGs. Interestingly, there are no fueled RTGs left in the domestic inventory; the only extant one had its fuel taken away recently due to national security concerns. The new generation of RPSs will be fueled with 238Pu (T½ = 87 yrs), in powdered form as PuO2, but compressed into pellets and coated with graphite, which makes it safe for transport (powdered plutonium oxide is nasty stuff).
There is no domestic production of 238Pu; NASA will purchase it from Russia at $2,000 per gram. "Believe it or not, that's actually an amazingly good deal," Dr Hartman said.
RTGs powered the Pioneer and Voyager probes to the outer planets and are currently being used by Galileo at Jupiter and by Cassini, which is on its way to Saturn. Outer-planet exploration, and even most Mars exploration, will use RPSs -- comparable probes on the Martian surface could operate for 180 days with solar power vs 1,000 days with nuclear, and solar power becomes uneconomical at latitudes greater than 30° north or south of the equator.
A Europa probe with an RPS could operate for 60 days at 200 watts vs 3.5 days at 2 watts on battery power (sunlight is so attenuated at Jupiter's distance that solar power is not a cost-effective option). The Stardust probe, currently 2.43 AU from the Sun, is operating off solar panels; this is the all-time record distance for solar power.
Moving beyond RPSs to full-blown nuclear reactors in space, for power or propulsion, will not happen soon; Dr Hartman estimates it will be a "minimum decade and a half" before this becomes a COTS (cheap off-the-shelf) item.
The best-attended session yesterday afternoon included several presentations of results from this spacecraft, even though it has only been mapping Mars since 18 Feb! Steve Saunders of JPL reported that the spacecraft has enough onboard stationkeeping propellant to operate for at least 3 (Earth) years, and may well work for 10 years. Everything shown today is therefore only the first trickle of a torrent of discoveries.
The major finding so far -- low epithermal neutron counts below 60° S latitude, indicating subsurface ice -- had been expected to take a full year to establish; instead, it was demonstrated within 3 weeks. This finding is consistent with visually identified "ground ice terrane" at these latitudes.
Phil Christensen of Arizona State then showed a stunning series of images taken by the infrared and visible-light cameras on the spacecraft. All were from just the first four or five days of mapping operations. Eventually global maps at 100-meter resolution will be produced, including two complete maps developed from IR pictures taken at two different times during the Martian night, for comparison of thermal conductivity of surface rocks.
"Warm bedrock" is ~220 °K (-63 °F) at night. There are some locations where a blanket of surface dust masks the thermal signature of underlying rocks or bedrock; in the Elysium basin, this dust may be as much as one meter deep.
The visible-light camera has a minimum resolution of only 18 meters, far better than any earlier spacecraft (this should shut down "face on Mars"-type speculation over the next few years). Several pictures showed amazing feathery-looking dune fields; one showed a cross-hatch of dark material blown downwind from a group of small craters.
Dr Boynton of the University of Arizona presented the gamma-ray spectrometer findings. He got a big round of applause by leading with the comment that this was the 3rd attempt in 18 years to send such an instrument to Mars. The immediate success of this one is an especially gratifying event to investigators.
In spite of significant radiation damage to the detector (which is actually being remotely repaired by deliberately heating it to cause annealing) from solar storms, it has provided unambiguous evidence of large amounts of subsurface ice. Epithermal neutrons are slowed down most efficiently by hydrogen atoms (whose mass is closest to that of the neutrons themselves), becoming thermal neutrons. Lower-than-usual epithermal neutron counts therefore imply the presence of hydrogen, most likely in the form of water ice (a much remoter possibility is some kind of hydrated mineral). This has been observed only at the south pole, because the north pole is still covered with CO2 frost, as the northern hemisphere of Mars is just beginning to emerge from winter.
When pressed for an estimate of the amount of ice, Dr Boynton would say only "more than several percent" and "somewhere between whopping and gobs." So I assumed a 3,000-km-wide circle (roughly the surface area of latitude >60° S on Mars) and a 1-meter thickness of 10% ice. This works out to 700 billion metric tons or thereabouts, for the south polar region alone. Probably an underestimate, and presumably it will have to be multiplied by at least 2 to include the north pole. So reasonable estimates would start at a couple of trillion metric tons and go up from there. That'll keep a colony going for a while.
Liberty Enlightening the World
Taking a break from LPSC ...
Over on InstaPundit, Glenn Reynolds points to this piece by Victor Davis Hanson. It's certainly a bracing read, in some ways one of the best things I've seen written about the war. Some caution, however, is in order. An article in the April issue of Reason (not yet available online) savages Hanson for, among other things, lumping the autocratic city-states of ancient Greece in with the present-day US as "the West" and claiming that they represent the same tradition. It is certainly true that freedom of action did not extend to the individual level in Athens, any more than it did in the Persian Empire, so a good portion of Hanson's explanation for "Western" victories just doesn't stand up.
Where Hanson does well is with a (slightly oblique) comment on the abundance of feedback loops in the West, which promote ever-increasing excellence and turn failures into temporary setbacks:
Nor is our power merely an accident of superior technology; rather, it is founded on our very ideas and values. The underpinnings of Western culture -- freedom, civic militarism, capitalism, individualism, constitutional government, secular rationalism, and natural inquiry relatively immune from political audit and religious backlash -- have always brought carnage to adversaries when applied on the battlefield. Setbacks from Cannae to the Little Bighorn have led not to capitulation but rather to study, debate, analysis -- and, finally, devastating reprisals. Too few men too far away, a bad day, terrible weather, silly generals like Custer, or enemy geniuses such as Hannibal, all can usually be trumped in the long run by the systematic approach to war that is emblematic of our culture.
I note that of the seven "underpinnings of Western culture" listed above, the Romans (even under the Republic, during the Punic Wars) clearly enjoyed only one, with small amounts of two or three more. But they could and did learn from experience -- at least until they developed an unsupportable state apparatus in the 3rd century AD, which was subsequently overwhelmed by 1) its own impossible economics and 2) my ancestors. The determination of the American military to learn from Vietnam (and more recent disasters in Beirut and Mogadishu) is the crucial element on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
It is not enough, however, to ascribe the ultimate disadvantage of our enemies to suicidal mysticism or an absence of effective feedback. We don't just have better processes. We have better ideas -- partly a result of, but partly a cause of, those better processes.
A universal franchise and limited government are better than monarchy or tyranny. Monogamy is better than polygamy. And grace beats karma. Our polities are not perfect; our marriages are not perfect; our faith is not perfect. But they don't have to be. They just have to be less unjust, less oppressive, and less self-destructive than those of our enemies. And we have to be just humble enough to keep them moving in the right direction.
What results is not merely a country, or a civilization, which is good for people who believe as we do. It is good for everyone. Nobody makes you vote. The state does regulate marriage in the US -- far more than it should, and I for one think this should give Christians the creeps -- but even in this area, there are loopholes and workarounds. And this is the best nation on Earth in which to adhere to any religion -- or none.
We have made freedom a universalist gift. Unless we are somehow overpowered by others' resentment, not only our material riches but our way of learning will become a model for the world.
"Iridium and Spherules in Late Eocene Impact Deposits" was the typically oblique title of a presentation by Frank T. Kyte of UCLA. He suggests that Earth was bombarded by a "comet shower," with at least one impact every 100,000 years, for 2.5 million years in the late Eocene, 34-37 million years ago. One of these comets was about 6 km in diameter and hit what is now Chesapeake Bay, creating a 90-km wide crater and covering most of North America with "microtektites," tiny spheres of glass melted in the impact.
Several other presentations discussed impacts in carbonate platforms; even the oldest known such platform, in the Hamersley Basin of Western Australia, shows signs of at least two hits, and one-third of all asteroidal and cometary impacts on Earth struck such biogenic sediments. Although none of the presentations discussed this, there are clear (to me) implications of ballistic transport of organic material, if not living matter, throughout the Solar System as a result of these impacts. This has been going on for upwards of two and a half billion years; the overwhelming likelihood is that all life in the Solar System (if there is any anyplace besides Earth) is related.
A presentation by Gordon Osinski of the University of New Brunswick ("Oz" is British rather than Canadian, the grandson of a Polish refugee) discussed the Haughton crater in northern Canada (now Nunavut), which is 24 km across and initially contained 12 cubic kilometers of melted material, possibly carbonates. Commenting from the audience, Jay Melosh of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (U of AZ) of pointed out that the ejecta from this impact, dated to 23 million years ago, would have remained hot for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. I can only wonder how a county-sized area of red-hot rock affected the weather at high latitudes. Could warm-weather ecosystems arise on the border of such an area?
Sessions typically consist of 12 presentations of 15 minutes apiece in meeting rooms which seat 200 or so. Presenters use (that is, fiddle with until they get it working) a remote to control 2 slide projectors. A very low-tech warning bell, sounding like a cheap kitchen timer, goes off at 8 minutes, indicating that the presenter should begin wrapping things up. They're usually only about halfway done at that point and have to rush through to finish by the final 10-minute bell. The time limitation is particularly hard on non-native English speakers (mostly German, Russian, Chinese, or Japanese, but occasionally someone a bit more exotic like Czech, Hungarian, or Finnish).
Then there are 5 minutes for Q & A and it all begins again. Morning sessions start at 8:30 and -- presuming adherence to schedule -- end at 11:45. I tend to pick a session and stay in it, but many attendees move around from session to session. To facilitate this, sessions are kept in synch as closely as possible -- should a presenter fail to appear, their session will take a 15-minute break.
The Lunar & Planetary Science Conference has been held every spring since 1970, when the first analyses of Apollo moon rocks became available. It takes place during the week of spring break for the convenience of professors and graduate students. Anyone can attend; the conference fee is only $50.
The venue is normally the Gilruth Center, on the grounds of NASA-JSC in Houston, but things are being done a bit differently this year due to security concerns. We are instead meeting at the South Shore Harbour Resort and Conference Center, a few miles away from the Space Center. I was last at this facility in July of 1999, during the 30th anniversary of Apollo 11; I presented this paper on that occasion.
This morning I'll be attending a session called "The Cratered Earth," followed by the plenary session and an afternoon session called "Analysis of Interplanetary Dust and Micrometeorites: the Key to Coming Sample Return Missions." This evening there will be an informal "Lunar Cataclysm" discussion.
I will attempt to post something each day this week about the more interesting (as regarded by me) presentations. Mars is going to be very big this year, due to the recent discovery by Mars Odyssey of extensive underground ice deposits.
Your Roving Correspondent Visits NASA
Beginning Monday, I hope to begin posting daily reports from this event. Don't expect to see more than one post per day, but I'll try to make them as interesting and complete as possible.
So, OK, I'm riding down 119th St in rush-hour traffic past big-box retail stores and strip malls and apartment complexes and housing developments, and thinking, man, there didn't used to be anything out here; in the '70s when the church youth group sold fireworks out of a shed at 119th & Metcalf to raise money for the summer staff, it was a couple of gravel roads and maybe one or two farmhouses within horizon distance.
I'm on my way to get a haircut, and the only place I know to get one is in Oak Park Mall. I decide not to deal with Metcalf or I-435 and continue west on 119th. It was terribly humid here yesterday, and had been quite foggy during the morning rush hour, but I'd decided to take the bike anyway. At 6 PM the streets were wet, even though there hadn't been a drop of rain.
I was approaching the US-69 underpass when a light turned red and people ahead of me began stopping. It's a slight downhill slope. I gently hit both the front and rear brakes -- not gently enough; the wheels lock up. Five or six hundred pounds of bike and a couple of hundred pounds of me, skating along like a big, ugly hockey puck.
In the first hundred milliseconds or so, I realize that the combination of 1) damp but not rain-washed road and 2) slight downward slope ending in 3) red light or stop sign is exactly the combination of events which has led to both fender-benders I've been in in 25+ years of driving. Except that the others were in a car and a van, respectively, and I have no protection whatsoever in this situation. I've been a moron. Am I going out like Pete Conrad?
Interestingly enough, I avoided emitting a stream of profanities as I made a completely futile attempt to steer. After about two seconds, it became evident that I wasn't going to rear-end anybody. Shortly thereafter the bike fell over on its right side.
I was able to maneuver such that I merely sat down, hard, on my right buttock and slid along the street. The bike slid much better than me, so it moved on in front, avoiding mangling my right leg. As soon as I realized that I obviously wasn't being crushed or skinned alive, I thought, cool, this is just like the Speed Channel!
Which is probably not what the people behind me were thinking, but fortunately they were far enough behind that I didn't get run over. Presently both the bike and I stopped, and I scrambled up and began dragging/lifting it onto the curb. I was able to restart it, but the throttle wasn't working well and would abruptly switch between being wide open (~5,000 RPM) and nearly closed (barely idling).
So I decide to go ahead and get my haircut, since I've already noticed that I've fetched up only a block from someplace called "Footlights." I roll the bike on down the hill and into a parking lot, get the haircut, call a buddy to give me a lift, hang out in a Starbucks until he shows up, and go home.
Today I hurt all over.
Never again will I commute on the bike on damp streets.
The Real Color of the Universe
NOAA to Announce More Evidence of Imminent El Niño, sez Reuters. I expect that the Davis and Simon campaigns in California will be watching this story carefully. Will this be a long, hot summer on the Left Coast? ;)
Continuing my spate of bio-items ... this story is an encouraging development insofar as it represents a non-ethically-problematical method of tissue repair.
Back in November, before I had this thing as an outlet, I e-mailed a few friends about Gene Chip Technology Made Practical For Sequencing, from which I predicted (assuming a 1-order-of-magnitude improvement every 5 years, roughly following Moore's Law) the following lengths of time required to sequence one person's entire genome:
2001 - 37 yrs 6 mos
2006 - 3 yrs 9 mos
2011 - 4½ mos
2016 - 2 wks
2021 - 1 day 9 hrs
2026 - 3 hrs 17 min
This turns out to be ridiculously pessimistic. In Sequencing One Human's Genome In Less Than 24 Hours (the title kinda gives the story away), we find:
"We predict the process we're developing could sequence the human genome in less than a day, and ultimately maybe even less than an hour. I'm hopeful that in a few years we'll be able to do this," [Susan Hardin, an assistant professor of biology and biochemistry at the University of Houston] says.
This is three to five years away. Oh, and it will take only a single molecule of DNA to work.
The implications are breathtaking: biometrics, cladistics, genealogy, facilitation of nanotechnological cell repair -- and undoubtedly many others -- will be jump-started or transformed almost beyond recognition by this capability.
-- says Derek Lowe over on Lagniappe, commenting on a peculiarly hideous disaster in India, namely that anti-commercial memes are causing parents to withhold lifesaving vitamin therapies and vaccinations from their children. Best line: "You're damn well going to need a spiritual outlook if you go across a bridge that was built using Vedic math." Read the whole thing.
-- is revealed in Experts Outline 'Dirty Bombs' Threat (also carried on Yahoo! this morning, which is where I first saw it):
Richard Meserve, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the biggest impact would be psychological and economic and that was why the public needed to be educated about the risks.
"The terrorist's greatest weapon is fear," said Meserve.
Well, actually, it's junk science. Read on:
Federation of American Scientists President Henry Kelly referred to a small amount of the radioactive material called cesium which was recently found abandoned in North Carolina and outlined its impact if used by terrorists.
If this small medical gauge of cesium was exploded in Washington D.C., residents over a five city block area would have a one in a 1,000 chance of getting cancer while those over 40 city blocks would have a one in 10,000 chance.
If decontamination were not possible, these areas would have to be abandoned for decades because of health risks, he said.
Now let's say that a city block is 1/8 x 1/16 = 1/128 of a square mile = 5 acres and that the residential density is 5 households per acre averaging 2.6 persons per household (it's much lower than this in the city where I live, and somewhat higher in several of the largest cities in the US).
There would then be 325 persons in the area of 1/1000 cancer risk and 2,600 in the area of 1/10,000 cancer risk. So we have a total likelihood of 0.325 + 0.26 = 0.585 of one additional cancer death in a population of 2,600 people resulting from a "dirty bomb." In terms of lost life expectancy (LLE), this is roughly 6 days.
Compare this to the rate of cancer in the general population, which works out to an LLE of 3.4 years, or over 200 times as great, and it is immediately obvious that panic over "dirty bombs" is utterly unjustified.
Unfortunately, there is ample historical precedent for this kind of destructive hysteria on the part of the Federal government. The risks at Times Beach were even lower, but 3,000 people were run out of their homes and got their entire town bulldozed.
Reappearance of Sanity on Cloning Issue?
A news conference, excerpts from which got air time on CNN Headline News yesterday, used some rather effective techniques to savage the execrable S. 1899 (go here and search on "S. 1899" to read it). There is hope.
As I suspected, limiting transmissions to 3.1 GHz and above, that is, to l < 9.67 cm, doesn't do this technology any favors. From the ironically-titled Panel paints rosy ultra-wideband picture:
Bruce Franca, deputy chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology .... said the devices must operate primarily above 3.1 gigahertz, well outside the band used for GPS, and any inadvertent transmissions must be squelched at a level much more stringent than that for computer devices. The rules will be reviewed in six to 12 months, he said.
The FCC limits ... could seriously curtail UWB development, said Samir Soliman, a vice president of technology at Qualcomm, the San Diego-based cell phone and electronics maker. Based on the frequencies available to UWB, combined with interference from existing devices, Soliman said a simple equation shows the new technology won't have enough range or power to effectively provide services such as home networking.
Here's a dose of reality, courtesy of JunkScience.com. Like Niven and Pournelle said, civilization equals pure water and electric power.
I'll do a techie post next, promise. I just can't resist this one.
Secret Weapon Needed: Linguists, says ABCNews.com. And where are we getting them?
Here, that's where -- from the employer of the much-maligned Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. Turns out that missionaries to Central Asia are the only Americans who care to learn the local languages.
This in spite of Afghanistan's scanty prospects for religious freedom (without betraying a confidence, I can state from personal experience that missionary work in Islamic countries relies heavily on PGP for secure communications with American supporters). Those awful Western cultural imperialists -- learning the native language, introducing advanced technology, pressuring authoritarian societies to ease up -- what could be worse? ;)
That experiment in "spiritual warfare" in Florida isn't doing too well. I quote the relevant portion of this article in full:
Thieves Swipe Anti-Satan Posts
I N G L I S, Fla. — Maybe the Devil did it.
Someone has stolen four posts bearing proclamations banning Satan from this Florida town of 1,400 people.
Inglis Mayor Carolyn Risher attracted national and international attention when she banned the Prince of Darkness in November, and had four hollow posts erected with the proclamations inside at the town's four entrances.
But the four-foot posts vanished sometime last week.
"I just can't believe anyone would do this," Risher told The Associated Press. "They were put there with good intent and for the good of the town as well as to reclaim our town back to God."
Banning Satan was not universally popular in this central Florida town.
One resident went to the American Civil Liberties Union to complain over the separation between church and state. The Town Commission passed a resolution saying the mayor was only speaking for herself, even though the resolution was on town stationery, signed by the town clerk and stamped with the officials [sic]seal.
Among other things, the proclamation said: "We exercise our authority over the devil in Jesus' name. By that authority, and through His Blessed Name, we command all satanic and demonic forces to cease their activities and depart the town of Inglis."
Apparently, someone didn't get the message.
Inglis [sic] says she plans to replace the posts with new ones twice the height that will be anchored in concrete. She also plans to put up a giant cross.
"This time [they] are going to be in the ground nice and firm," she said.
Persian dualism masquerading as Christianity having failed her, mayor Risher is now enlisting gravity for the cause.
Arcturians, graze on over to UniSci and check out Pore Fractal Discovered; May Be First Ever Documented:
The surface area of this great inland realm works out to about 1,000 square meters (or one football field) per gram. The researchers expect that methane and other fuels could be stored in this kind of structure. The molecules are readily taken up into the branching alleyways by the weak attraction of induced electric dipole "van der Waals" forces, and at pressures much less than the 200 atm needed to store methane in steel cylinders.
Here's an illustration of the concept, which I daresay could have more short-term effect on energy distribution than this putative development.
Readers just grazing in may wish to read my earlier posts on this subject, which you will find here and here. The second post quoted a letter to the KCStar which concluded "and the children...why, they are afraid of nobody."
Rumor now has it that Piper High School is being blacklisted by colleges and employers around the country. I say "rumor," even though I've seen credible reports of it in print, because I've been unable to find an online citation, partly because I'm not willing to pay $2.50 for a few column-inches of text in a newspaper's online archives.
All this got me to pondering (look out!).
Feedback loops are good things. The sophomore biology students who jeered "we don't have to listen to you anymore" at Christine Pelton (shortly before she resigned) may not be afraid of anybody within the public-school system, but are likely to feel differently about having to spend the first several years of their adult lives concealing the origin of their diplomas. And it is conceivable that the threat of blacklisting an entire school might stiffen the spines of otherwise invertebrate school board members.
The problem, of course, is insufficient data resolution. Twenty-eight kids should have been flunked (and will now, instead, have problems for the next ten years, instead of one semester -- so much for leniency). But thanks to the blacklist, hundreds of others are being tarred with the same brush, and thousands will be over the next few years. Ken Layne's comment to the effect that thanks to the Internet, we can fact-check, uh, posteriors, should not deceive us into thinking that we are about to enter a realm of perfect justice.
The solution to low-resolution fact-checking is of course high-resolution fact-checking -- in this case, a list of the "Piper 28." But that's a lot harder to get. It will therefore happen much less often. This brave new world still has the same old people in it, few of whom will be conscientious enough to avoid inflicting collateral damage. The vast majority will not. And the Internet, as far as we know, is forever.
Some people go through life in an orderly fashion, without embarrassing missteps. Then there are the other 99.5% of us, who may look a bit strange after a Google search. A major motivation behind Arcturus is that I want something more current, that is, something more reflective of what I am and do now, than what used to pop up when searching on my name. By the grace of JunkScience.com and several of the überbloggers, I have a larger readership than I ever expected, so Arcturus is firmly ensconced in the #1 position.
I wonder, though, about the long-term effect on American society of this Internet instantiation of Matthew 12:36. This has always been the great country of second chances, where one could physically or metaphorically "go west, young man," and start over in a new city or a new subculture. Now our pasts may dog us wherever we go. Reason number zillion why repentance and forgiveness are important.
Primary source here; secondary sources here and here.
I'm not posting about it because I am resolutely agnostic, and in any case, we'll know soon enough; the UPI article notes that "... 10 to 20 labs around the world could attempt the same experiment within weeks, confirming or disproving the results." For the true barometer of its significance, watch fossil fuel (and tritium) prices.
But I will say this: watch for reaction from people who think that successful demonstration and subsequent scaling of the technology would be bad news -- who are afraid, not that it won't work, but that it will -- that every household on the planet may enjoy the standard of living (and then some) of upper-middle-class Americans today.
... squashing this stuff now will save lives, compared to what will happen if an American city is nuked. The big danger in the next few months isn't being too violent, and inflaming the "Arab street" with a desire for revenge. It's not being violent enough, and inflaming the "Arab street" with the belief that victory is possible.
I would change only "months," to "years." The cyclical model of American history presented in Generations suggests that the current conflict is roughly analogous to WWI. The worst thing that could happen would be for it to end indecisively, with embittered semi-losers on all sides. The task then faced by today's grade-schoolers, circa 2020, would be truly fearsome. But if Glenn's list of "victory conditions" (or perhaps something analogous to the Truman Doctrine) has been attained by, say, 2005, an era of peace comparable to that in (most of) Europe, from 1945 to the present, could ensue.
What we should fear most is an early-21st-century Armistice, or a "peace process" that is nothing more than a present-day Treaty of Versailles.
A while back, I did some travel math and concluded that the airline-killer will be "smart" cars and highways, rather than high-speed trains.
ABCNews.com has a story today called Virtual Co-Pilots at the Wheel, which discusses some incremental steps toward automated driving. My impression is that the technical issues, non-trivial though they are (especially as regards testing), pale before the political and liability issues. Separate lanes (with concrete barriers) for automated vehicles will be necessary. Nonetheless, we may look forward to significant penetration of this technology within the decade.