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[ 20040927 ]

Announcing 411blog.net

A joint announcement by A Voyage To Arcturus and The Rhetorica Network:

Recent controversies regarding "legacy media"/"MSM" coverage of the U.S. Presidential campaign, especially the troubling memos regarding the President's experiences during the Vietnam War, have demonstrated a need for conventional media to draw on the vast, dispersed expertise of the blogosphere.

Can this Schumpeterian gale be harnessed? We believe it can. Amidst the jeering, we have formulated a constructive response -- a mechanism whereby a symbiotic relationship between blogging and traditional forms of journalism can be deliberately cultivated.

That mechanism is 411blog.net.

Reporters can use it to quickly authenticate highly technical or specialized story elements with subject-matter experts (SMEs) drawn from the best the blogosphere has to offer, including academics, business people, scientists, and lay experts of all kinds. SMEs on 411blog.net also offer reporters another important advantage: As bloggers in addition to subject experts, they are plugged in to the latest internet conversation regarding their subject areas.

Bloggers can use 411blog.net to nominate subject-matter experts, build trust with traditional media, and increase their standing in the blogosphere.

So if you're a blogger -- or even a regular blog reader -- we encourage you to:

  1. Nominate bloggers to serve as subject-matter experts (SMEs). Just tell us the subject and the blog -- or blogs; go ahead and suggest as many as you want for a given topic. We'll contact the bloggers and ask for their permission to list them on 411blog.net. Just one rule: you can't nominate yourself.

  2. If you are nominated, of course, we'd like you to agree to serve. What we hope this will mean is the occasional contact from a journalist in need of enlightenment about some obscure element of a story that you are uniquely qualified to explain. The reporter gets the story right, and you get (if you wish) quoted or referred to as the expert. It's win-win.

  3. While we expect the service will be used, at first, on stories that don't have pressing deadlines, we believe that eventually (perhaps surprisingly soon) it will be entirely possible for a reporter with only an hour or two to spare to hit 411blog.net and obtain significant insights. Toward that end, we encourage the SMEs to respond relatively quickly, or hand off the inquiry to someone else in a better position to field it. Remember: there is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit (toward that end, we will not accept nominations of ourselves as SMEs).

  4. Not to overlook the obvious, we'd like you to link to this post.

We'd also like feedback. You know more than we do -- far more. 411blog.net will adapt and grow with your help.

Jay Manifold [8:03 AM]

[ 20040925 ]

Geeky Item of the Week

Previously unknown reader (the best kind) Gene Damon reports:

Did you know that on the early IBM machines, can't remember the model number now, but around 1967, you could play the national anthem on an FM radio (placed on top of the main cabinet), if you ran the right deck of cards into the machine. (That was the first day of class for something called computer programming, a complete mystery to a confused history major and the beginning of misspent life working with computers.)

That's some serious geekiness, and while it tickled some echo of a fugitive memory -- not to mix metaphors or anything -- in the back of my brain, ~1967 is way too early for me to have been around a computer. In this connection, regular contributor Mike Daley writes of

changing Divisional IBM 360 Assembly Language programs to the new centrally located 370 FORTRAN-based programs. Must have gone through at least nine different programmers in accomplishing this in my divisions as well as all the smaller divisions ...

-- and separately uses the phrase "any straw becomes a lifeline," which, translated into Latin (any takers?) would make a fine motto for Old Geeks For Truth. He concludes: "Have to admit, I'd always assumed you to be much younger than this admission [programming a 370/168-III in FORTRAN with punch cards in '78] would make you." I've noticed that people who know me only by how I act (online or off) seem to think I'm a lot younger than I really am, a possible indicator of my true emotional maturity or lack thereof. But I turn 45, the epitome of middle-aged stodginess, tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the "serious announcement" alluded to below continues to take form ... we hope to have something pretty decent to unwrap on Monday. Much of the infrastructure is in place and solicitation of SMEs has begun. Watch this space.

Jay Manifold [7:05 PM]


I have recently begun receiving (entirely unsolicited) e-mails from a repellent outfit called Project Strait Gate, where one Charles E. Carlson (could he possibly be exploiting the resemblance of his name to Charles Colson, hmm?) carefully informs me that "Judaized Christians always vote for more war and more inflation because they are led to believe each new war is good for Israel." They're not skulking in the shadows, either; their "latest Vigil and picket was at a Billy Graham Crusade organizational meeting in Fresno, California." Protesting Billy Graham? Yeah, that'll rake in the followers.

The e-mails aren't getting through Spam Arrest -- I'm finding them in the "Unverified" folder, and that's just where they'll stay. They even admit to being in the spamming business: "In August Pharisee Watch went out to over 200,000 new media people, educators and Christian leaders. Our objective is to reach 2 million influential religious and young educational leaders in the next 45 days!" -- and end the latest message with "IT IS LEGAL TO SUBSCRIBE YOUR FRIENDS TO PHARISEE WATCH." Been harvesting e-mail addresses, have we? You're a bunch of neo-Nazi parasites (gee, looks like their site is down at the moment -- thank God for small favors). Repent now.

Jay Manifold [7:03 PM]

[ 20040924 ]

Highway 61 Revisited

Currently tied for #43 on Blogdex; it wasn't me, but I think it can be easily done.

Jay Manifold [5:08 AM]

[ 20040923 ]

In Which I Found Yet Another Organization

Semi-regular correspondent Ric Locke (see, for example, Annular Eclipse [II]) wrote regarding In the Year 2004 to point out that

the illustrated equipment looks a whole lot like the control panel for a small research reactor circa mid-Sixties. The wheels were for raising and lowering the control rods -- there were two sets. One set brought the reactor up to a power level generating enough neutron flux for irradiation experiments; the other, larger wheel controlled the rest, and had to be used to bring the reactor up to full output. Note the coolant-loop schematic on the right-hand console panel.

(He had not yet read Hoax, which explains all). I complimented him on the accuracy of his observation, and he responded with: "*sigh* All that's really needed is to be a sufficiently old geek. Did you know that if you're clever enough, you can get *two* flipflops on an IBM circuit module using 12AT7s? S'true, I swear ..."

This gave me an Idea.

So, in addition to the Orthogonal Self-Awareness Party and the Midwestern Association of Unfiltered Solar Observers, I hereby announce the founding of ... wait for it ...

Old Geeks for Truth.

Old enough to remember IBM Selectrics? (Beth is.) Punch cards? (Heck, I am -- programmed an IBM 370/168 Model III with 'em in FORTRAN back in '78 or so.) Nuclear reactors -- breeder reactors -- when Democrats thought they were cool? (Page down to the "Science and Technology" section and read the next-to-last paragraph.) Congratulations; you're in!

Now for the dull part. There will be a Serious Announcement appearing on this blog, and over on Rhetorica as well, sometime in the next few days, regarding the creation of an orderly mechanism by which the (I hate this acronym already) MSM can draw upon the expertise of old geeks, young geeks, and SME (subject-matter expert) bloggers in general, by way of improving the quality of their reporting, especially as regards technical/specialty items. Watch for it. We prospectively thank you for your support. ;)

Jay Manifold [6:22 AM]

[ 20040922 ]

Channeling PZ Myers

PZ's one of the guys I visited on my latest motorcycle road trip, and I owe him a few things (food, lodging, hours of interesting conversation, etc), so I'll start by dedicating this post to him, in a sense; you can graze over to Pharyngula and read this background post if you'd like, though I'm trying to make this a standalone kind of thing.

Anyway, The Scientist has Story on intelligent design study highlights debate on creationism and evolution, and unsurprisingly, the usual conspiracy theory emerges from the woodwork:

... a large part of the scientific community is determined to make science a field of endeavor that can simultaneously explain away all theistic ideas, while never allowing the possibility of support or even allowing much room for theism in human thought. They're happy to trot out scientists who somehow cling to belief in a God who never did anything in our universe, but they dare not allow one paper to point out the incredible design in living things that doesn't at least toss a bone to the gods of evolutionism: time, chance, and survival (natural selection). Having censored anything that doesn't toe the party line, they then turn around and use this shutout as support for their argument that ID isn't scientific. This gives them all the more motivation for keeping the blinders of censorship in place.

Of course, the only real conspiracy going on is the one to hack the system by sneaking articles like this into peer-reviewed journals:

Richard Sternberg, a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information who was an editor of the Proceedings at the time .... has ties to the intelligent design community, but he identifies himself as "a structuralist who has given several papers and presentations critiquing creationism." He is on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group at Bryan College, Dayton, Tenn [yes, that Dayton -- JDM]. Baraminology, a term introduced in 1990, views biological creation as happening instantly, rather than through evolutionary descent.

I cannot resist pointing out a couple of things about the letter quoted above. First, a theme I've commented on before, one of respect for institutions. Fundies ranting about how scientists are Bad People™ doing Bad Things™ are living in violation of 1 Peter 2:13 (this attitude figures prominently in the atrocious "theological" position on somatic-cell nuclear transfer). Second, the ironic phrase "the gods of evolutionism: time, chance, and survival" -- ironic in light of Ecclesiastes 9:11, not to mention the Parable of the Sower. Well, I guess some parts of the Bible have always been more popular than other parts. Or just easier to remember.

This is relevant because of the identity of the letter's author. I thought I'd seen the name "David L. Bump" somewhere before, and I have; his personal website mentions that he's had several letters published in Science News. On it, he self-identifies as "a Fundamentalist Christian, a dreamer, and a Furry." Now, I suppose he gets some points for putting all that info right out there in front of God and everybody (I've written before that most people could look a bit strange on the basis of a Google search), and we can certainly be entertained by this particular overlap of sets, but ... dear Lord. If you don't already know what a Furry is, you wouldn't believe me if I told you. And then you'd wish I hadn't.

There is much more I could say here, but it would be, not to put too fine a point on it, frankly un-Christian, and I do try to avoid that.

(I found out what a Furry is by reading Something Awful. Language warning, big-time.)

Jay Manifold [4:57 PM]

[ 20040921 ]


No, not that other one; this one. Turns out I inadvertently asked a key question. Thanks to abrasax for the catch.

And no, I won't resign either. ;)

Jay Manifold [6:41 AM]

[ 20040920 ]

Anti-Nuclear Hysteria + Burdensome Regulations = Death

Getting isotopes a challenge is the laconic headline of an article by John Dudley Miller in The Scientist. Some airlines, and many seaports, now refuse to accept medical isotopes, whose shipment can be extraordinarily time-critical due to short half-lives. This isn't about "dirty bombs" -- the creeping denial began well before 9/11/2001. The IAEA news release seems to place most of the blame on airlines, but Miller's story points to an unpleasant synergism involving the IAEA:

[David] McInnes [of the Canadian radioisotope manufacturer MDS Nordion, and a member of the international IAEA committee] and [David] Rogers [spokesman for the British firm Reviss, which manufactures radioactive materials used to sterilize medical supplies] believe the regulations are increasingly burdensome. "But I think part of the blame for carriers walking away from [shipping radioactive materials] must lie with the IAEA itself, in the ramping up of requirements," Rogers said. "It sends a message." For example, Rogers said that the IAEA has reclassified most tantalum ore—a rare element used in electronics circuits—from non-radioactive to radioactive, causing increasing numbers of shippers to refuse its transport.

IAEA's Wangler refused to respond to these comments, but McInnes said that the IAEA only requires regulations that its member countries authorize, so the countries are to blame for any overregulation.

Ironically, some airlines' efforts to manage risk -- Northwest refuses all such shipments in the name of passenger safety -- merely transfer the risk to those awaiting the shipments in order to administer treatment (and, of course, the patients themselves). British Airways also refuses to ship medical isotopes, for fear of legal exposure to arcane regulations.

I note that development of inexpensive detectors to distinguish among isotopes and determine their quantity, as opposed to regulatory inhibition of shipments, would be a great help in identifying and preventing attempts at nuclear terrorism. To borrow from an otherwise entirely different issue, campaign finance, transparency is better than prohibition.

I also note that the more life-threatening consequences cited in the IAEA report (122 kB *.pdf), to wit:

... preventing medical isotopes that are essential for the immediate delivery of healthcare (nuclear medicine and cancer therapy); disrupting the capacity to sterilize surgical and medical supplies and a broad array of other products or applications that prevent disease and the spread of infection ...

-- will fall the hardest on those countries least able to afford them.

Jay Manifold [4:18 PM]

In the Year 2004

Since everybody else is linking to this (it's tied for #5 on Blogdex at the moment), and if all the other kids jumped off a bridge, I'd be right behind, I will too. Just one thing has me wondering: what's that big steering wheel for?

Jay Manifold [6:42 AM]

[ 20040916 ]

A Gradual Return to Civilization

Eight days off the grid -- well, away from phones and TV and the 'net, anyway -- left me anticipating what news stories I would catch up on: "... and in other news, President Cheney formally welcomed our new alien overlords in a ceremony on the South Lawn," that sort of thing. Instead, I find out that I need pajamas.

Actual results of vacation: every night was at least partially clear, with a zenith magnitude limit approaching +7, at least judging by the naked-eye appearance of M13 -- after all, I was at around 6,000 feet; I observed anywhere from three to five hours per night for six nights in a row; logged 61 Messier objects on the way to this award and 52 double stars on the way to this one; observed Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Uranus (pronunciation) and Neptune; and convinced myself that I could see Vesta without optical aid.

(During the daytime, I read The Barbarian Conversion and Europe in the High Middle Ages, and made progress on The Evolution of Scientific Thought.)

It's all still sinking in, and I won't be back home for another couple of days, so more profound, or anyway longer, thoughts (and some terrestrial pictures) will have to wait. Check back in a few ...

Jay Manifold [10:38 AM]

[ 20040906 ]


I'm off to a semi-secret, semi-undisclosed location, one with a line-of-sight view of this, for eight days, which interval will see "first light" for my new telescope, purchased largely because it is small enough to fit in the car, thereby allowing it to be taken to the semi-secret, etc, location. While I am gone, your assignment is to analyze stories like this in light of the structural biases of journalism.

Jay Manifold [9:08 PM]

[ 20040902 ]

That SETI Signal

Cross-posting (with minor changes) something I just sent to the ASKC Yahoo! group ...

I note that the location is near the South Galactic Pole. Not much out that way, as several of the articles I quote from below state. Doing a LexisNexis™ on "SETI" gets 15 hits from today. The more substantive bits are ...

Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent for The Times (London) writes (excerpts):

The signal, known as SHGb02+14a, was first detected by the Arecibo telescope in February 2003, along with several other strange radio waves, during a survey of 200 sections of sky.

SHGb02+14a ... has now been listened to on three different occasions adding up to about a minute.

Even scientists who have tracked the signal, however, are cautious about ascribing it definitively to extra-terrestrial life.

It appears to be coming from a point in space where there are no obvious stars or planets for 1000 light years around, and the transmission is very weak.

Sam Jones of The Guardian (London) writes (excepts):

The signal has a rapidly fluctuating frequency, which could occur if it was beamed out from a rapidly spinning planet or object, although a planet would have to be rotating nearly 40 times faster than Earth to produce the same drift. A drifting signal would be expected to have a different frequency each time it was detected.

Yet with every observation of SHGbo2+14a, the signal has started off with a frequency of 1420MHz before starting to drift - although this could be connected to the telescope.

James Reynolds, Science Correspondent for The Scotsman, writes (excerpts):

Other questions arise over the signal's frequency, which oscillates by between eight and 37 hertz a second.

Paul Horowitz, a Harvard University astronomer who looks for alien signals using optical telescopes, believes that the drift in the signal makes it "fishy."

Being a firm believer in the Rare Earth Hypothesis, I expect it to be either interference with the telescope or an interesting new natural phenomenon.

UPDATE: Note that the absence of an optical counterpart to the radio signal would be easy to verify. Any star in the general direction of the signal would be within, at most, 2,000 light-years; at that distance, the Sun would shine at magnitude +13.7 or thereabouts, which is (just) within the light-grasping capability of a 6" telescope. Even a red dwarf like Proxima Centauri would shine at magnitude +20; this page notes that the entire sky has been mapped to 20th magnitude (page down to "C. Sky Surveys").

But could it be distinguished? Yes: we may infer from this page that the resolution of the Arecibo radio telescope at l = 21 cm is around 2'40"; a cone of this angular diameter extending 2,000 light-years from the Solar System would be around 1.7 light-years across at its base and have a total volume of less than 1,500 cubic light-years. At the stellar density of the solar neighborhood -- there are 91 stars, including brown dwarfs (and the Sun itself), within just over 19 light-years of the Sun -- this volume of space would hold only about 5 stars. Figuring out which one is the source of the signal, assuming it is not entirely spurious, should be easy.

Jay Manifold [4:58 PM]

[ 20040901 ]

How Many Bombs?

Iran Said Nearing Enrichment of Uranium, writes the AP's George Jahn. Excerpts:

The confidential report of the International Atomic Energy Agency said the agency had been informed that the Islamic Republic planned to process more than 40 tons of raw uranium into uranium hexafluoride.

A senior diplomat familiar with the agency declined to say how much hexafluoride could be obtained from that amount of raw uranium, also known as yellowcake, beyond saying it was a "substantial amount."

Another diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that enough highly enriched uranium could be produced from the hexafluoride derived to make several explosive devices.

I can do better than that. Turning to Characterizing and Classifying Uranium Yellow Cakes: A Background, we find assays ranging from 75-85% UO3. Assuming the Iranian yellowcake to assay at 75%, this would mean (at least) 30 tons of UO3. Each molecule would weigh around 238 + (3 * 16) = 286 daltons, so the uranium portion of the total would be (238/286) = 83% of the total, or at least 25 tons. This in turn would process into 37 tons of UF6 (flourine's atomic weight is 19).

But the 25-ton figure for pure uranium is the most important. Natural uranium is 0.72% 235U (source), so there's 180 kg of the good stuff in there. How many bombs?

This page notes that 1.5% of the 235U in the Hiroshima bomb was fissioned, yielding 14.5 kT. At 4.2 MJ per kg of TNT equivalent, that's 61 trillion joules, or 6.1 × 1020 ergs. Now turning to this page, we find that a typical fission event converts 0.087% (0.1911 GeV/218.8969 GeV) of the mass of the fissioned atom (plus neutrons) into energy.

And that means that at last, after nearly three years of blogging, I get to actually use E = mc². Fissioning one gram of 235U would convert 0.87 mg of mass to energy. Using CGS units, we get 7.8 × 1017 ergs. Dividing that into the amount calculated above produces a figure of 780 grams actually fissioned. If this was 1.5% of the total in Little Boy, it had 52 kg of 235U.

So the Iranian regime will be able to produce at least three, and probably four, crude nuclear warheads in the 10-kT range within a matter of months. Arcturus: figuring out stuff to keep you awake at night so you don't have to!

In the real world, this risk will be managed. And everyone will pretend to complain, while being secretly relieved, just like last time.

Jay Manifold [1:01 PM]