Thursday, December 16, 2010

Forget the economy. Let me tell you about a bake sale!

The Torrington Register Citizen, the New York Times tells us, is encouraging the public to visit its newsroom and attend afternoon news meetings.

Why? No one there has a clear explanation, according to the Times' story.  It's possible to sell newspapers. No newspaper has yet figured out a successful or robust way to charge for Internet content.  That's why the few thriving Web newspapers depend on grants from non-profit organizations.

Or, a company can distribute a paper for free to get advertisements into people's homes. 

From all appearances, the reason to invite the public to help produce a newspaper is because the newspaper does not want a long payroll of reporters.

Think of it in this abstract way: Consider a circle including all events, big and small. Newsworthy events are small circles. Other goings on are squares. Events are newsworthy if they provide information about how tax dollars are spent,  information the electorate needs to know in order to make rational voting decisions, or if the event is entertaining. 

For example, a power plant exploding ultimately raises questions about whether the government was maintaining its responsibility to protect citizens.  Tragedies also often provide grisly entertainment. Crime tells you how well your police force is working. 

Sports, movie reviews, advice columns,  local columns, letters, comics, and horoscopes may be informative, but are usually either thought-provoking or otherwise entertaining.

The reporter's job is to travel inside the circle and find the circles among the squares. This requires the skill to recognize a circle and/or the ability to convince officials to help pinpoint the circles. A higher number of reporters makes the task of gathering circles easier. You can collect more circles over a given amount of time, too.

Not all circles are simple. Often, circles are within circles, within squares, within circles. It may take time to find the circle in the middle. If you don't have the staff, those circles remain hidden and unknown.

Bringing "the public" (whatever that means) into the newsroom is casting a huge net and hoping that the people who appear will bring some circles with them. Or, more likely, the public, which is not monolithic, is likely to differ with editors about what constitutes a circle. 

Citizen A, for example, might question the necessity of reporting a murder, or identifying the victims of a car crash. Citizen B could question why the newspaper publishes or posts so much bad news. Why not some good news? Citizen C might complain that the publication is simple-minded, and Citizen D may protest that the writing is too complicated to understand.

The jobs of the reporters and editors is to slog through all of the collected circles and squares, separate the two, and decide on the most important circles. 

How will the public contribute to that process? That depends on who shows up on any given day. Will the editors follow the public's news judgment? If not, what benefits do the individuals accrue?

Another question is, who would be motivated to attend news meetings? Would suspects or crooked cops appear and demand that their stories be told? No. Do you want the mayor helping decide what you read? No. Will business owners reveal plans to lay off workers? No. 

Will anyone newsworthy show up? Only for self promotion. 

More likely, editors will hear about bake sales, scholastic sports, homeowner disputes, and public works complaints. And they may also be treated to the rantings of a few lunatics.

So, what does inviting "the public" into the newsroom accomplish? As far as I can tell, nothing, other than prior restraint.

Will "the public" compensate for a skeleton staff? Unfortunately, no.

Jesus wept

The creepy thing about John Boehner weeping so readily on a variety of subjects, is that the tears seem prompted by self-pity.

Boehner's labile behavior is troubling when you consider other historic wallowers in self-pity.  Richard Nixon, who resigned the presidency after his plot to undermine the Constitution was uncovered; Adolf Hitler, inventor of industrial mass murder to effect genocide; and Jimmy Swaggart, evangelist who sinned. You can think of many more.

Self-pity is not pleasant to watch.

There are plenty of reasons to weep. Being wrapped up in yourself is not a good one to put on public display. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Only a few of us remember cars

A few generations ago there were people who remembered transportation exclusively on foot or by horse. 

Some of them witnessed the transition from horse to automobile. 

And right now lives a sub-population who will be able to tell their children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, about a time when the U.S. had an interstate highway system  modeled after the German autobahn. 

That was back in the age of automobiles.

Their kids will listen incredulously as parents tell them that everyone drove cars, machines run on internal combustion engines and fueled by gasoline. "What's gasoline?" a young one may ask.

You see, big companies that had a lot of influence over governments, pumped stuff called petroleum out of the ground. Petroleum is the fossilized remnants of ancient plants, and other stuff. The problem was that when you burn such fossil fuels to release the stored-up energy, one resulting exhaust gas is carbon dioxide.

Yeah, everyone knew that carbon dioxide was transparent to sunlight but opaque to re-radiated heat. Yes, that was discovered way before us old folk were born. Sure, people knew that fossil fuel emissions would change the climate, but the oil companies convinced the government to transport food and all manner of goods in big trucks on our version of the Autobahn, which Germany built before World War II to rapidly move military assets around the country.

 Other countries developed advanced rail systems.

You know, Henry Ford built the first mass produced car. Well, yeah, he and Hitler got a long fine. But that's another story.

 Driving cars was a ball! No, everyone was  on the highway at the same time, staying between painted lines. Yeah, that was it.  Yes, of course cars crashed into each other and people got horribly maimed or killed.

Hundreds of thousands of people every year. It wasn't just Volkswagens, there were many brands of cars made all over the planet.

We didn't know any better.

No, wait. We did. We just needed our space and independence. Yeah, that's all. The spirit of young individualist pioneers. Yeoman farmers. That kinda thing. I don't really remember.

Yes! One person to a car, usually. Using a steering wheel.  No computerized  radio control cables in the road, no. 

 People would drive around drunk and crash into other cars, and people would talk on cell phones and even try to text each other. It was insane.

After cities were redesigned into places people wanted to live in, not escape from, and work was only a few blocks away, that all changed.  That's why we live in Bridgeport, and it's so nice.  Old Bridgeport was pretty horrible. You wouldn't have liked it.

It took a while, but people got used to buses, and computer controlled vehicles programmed not to collide. And trains. And bicycles! You wouldn't believe how fat people used to be. 

Yeah, I think it's much better now.  There were a few decades where people were using fuel cells, wind mills, and other things to generate electricity, before the answer became so obvious. It's been like through out history. Once someone does it, it doesn't seem obvious anymore.

Okay. Time for bed. 

You know, I may have to get a new pair of legs. These are beginning to kill me.

What has this country come to? I mean, really?

Creating and building your own private business is good experience for lowering the horrendous unemployment rate in Connecticut, right?

That's what candidates who have started their own businesses say. But it's not true.

One caveat that few seem to have checked, is what businesses are the candidates referring to? What does Ned Lamont do? What did Linda McMahon do? She is married to Vince McMahon, the steroid tycoon who converted regional "wresting" into a national company.

Her campaign contends that she created "500 jobs" in Connecticut. Doing what? Writing scripts? Wrestling as independent contractors? Five hundred jobs, whatever they are, does not seem to have revived Connecticut.

McMahon et al, who are running on their supposed business acumen, do not understand one simple matter. Operating a state is not like being the executive of a company.

For openers, entrepreneurs seek to fill a consumer niche. Turns out a lot of adolescent types wanted to watch bulked up men gymnastically throw, hit, and jump on each other. That's why the WWE is successful.

A show about, oh, rebinding old books,  or rock collecting, would not be a ratings smash.

Neither would feeding  and sheltering the poor, providing them with medical care, or  negotiating budgets. That is why government exists -- because it is the agency of last resort. Government does not need to make a profit. It gets its money from taxes.

Solving these kinds of problems is extremely difficult and requires a politician (from the Latin word for "government").  Here are some good politicians: Thomas Jefferson, Lyndon Johnson, FDR, and Winston Churchill.

Ronald Reagan and cronies made "politician" and "politics" into dirty words. This was part of the whole "starve the beast" decade of wealth distribution to the wealthiest, and the devil take the hindmost.  If you're poor or unemployed, in this laissez-faire system, it is because you are inferior, unmotivated, and a malingerer. Or your ancestors were slaves kidnapped from Africa, and we all know, or we thought we did, that some "races" are superior to others.

At any rate, being able to sell ice cream in the desert is not the same as being able to sell a budget in Hartford. Or to negotiate. Or to convince people that paying taxes is morally superior to letting your neighbor starve, or sicken and die, in country full of food and doctors.

Ability to turn a profit does not make one a good governor or senator. Of course, it is possible to do both.

What does Ned Lamont do? He inherited a fortune, had a go at Cablevision and is founder and president of Lamont Digital Systems, which apparently wires up colleges with high-tech communications gizmos. He supposedly makes at least $500,000 a year.

What does Linda McMahon do?

 Who cares?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Windmills of Doom?

Windmill generators seem clean and environmentally benign, aside from the toxic insulation and other little pieces here and there.

But before we create forests of windmills, consider what they do. The sun's heat is distributed unevenly on Earth's surface, because the planet is more-or-less spherical, and continents handle heat differently than oceans.

As Earth tries to regain homogeneity, hot air moves north and cool polar air moves south, creating wind. Wind mills derive their power from wind. The wind turns the huge propeller blades, which turn a generator. Since the wind has given up a little energy, its velocity drops slightly. This is what's know as conservation of energy.

Now imagine that instead of one windmill, the countryside is covered with them, hundreds of thousands of them. Enough windmills, perhaps, to make the wind come to a complete halt? Just for fun, let's assume that this is possible.

Ultimately, the polar and equatorial temperatures cannot achieve equilibrium, so the tropics become blazing hot and he higher latitudes become freezing. As noted, this would take an incredible number of windmills, probably one standing on every square foot of land and sea.

So the effects, in the real world, might be more subtle. Maybe temperatures modify by a fraction of a degree. Then consider the windmill itself. It cannot be 100 percent efficient. Some of the rotational energy escapes as heat. The same applies to electric cars.

None can be totally efficient, meaning they emit some energy as heat. How much warm air would the windmills and electrical devices powered by them, produce? Enough to compensate, or maybe over compensate reductions in green house gases?

These may seem like silly questions, and perhaps they are. But if someone has asked 150 years ago what effect coal burning would have on the climate, that would have seemed silly, too.

Today's silly is tomorrow's scorch.

Friday, February 12, 2010

One day of snow does not a climate change

Who knew that James M. Inhofe, Republican senator from Oklahoma, was a climatologist?

Oh. That's right. He's not.

Anyone who selects a particular storm to prove or disprove climate change just does not understand weather or climate, or what the difference is between the two. So, just because it snows way more than average in the usually milder parts of the U.S., does not mean the climate is changing or getting cooler.

Inhofe, the same guy who openly disdains the theory of evolution, was delighted with this week's mid-Atlantic blizzard because "snow" is the opposite of "warming." Or something like that. No one knows how his mind works.

Why argue that the atmosphere's average temperature is not increasing, when careful measurements show that it has over the past century? Heaven forbid that the federal government has to do something to slow the rate of carbon dioxide emissions. That's bad for business.

Oh. Wait a second. That's right. Developing and building alternative energy sources is good for business. That might mean most of the cars in the U.S. would have to be replaced, which would benefit the auto industry.

Some people might have to be put to work building and erecting windmill power turbines, or building nuclear power plants.

That's why China is is becoming the world's supplier of wind turbine blades.

And, incidentally, the horrible explosion at the under-construction power plant in Middletown this week created more casualties than any nuclear power plant accident in the U.S., ever. Three Mile Island? No one injured, no one dead.

As for the climate, consider this: warmer oceans put more water vapor in the air. If that extra water vapor happens to collide with cold air, you get lots of snow. If it gets wound into a hurricane, the result is a stronger hurricane. This is a gross over simplification, but the point is that virtually all climatologists predict that global warming would create exactly this kind of weather extreme.

A warmer planet, incidentally, does not mean that every place on Earth is like Miami. The global temperature is an average. Climate change could leave some parts of the world parched and hot, while other areas become cold and snowy.

Places like Oklahoma might experience more frequent and stronger tornadoes.

Does Inhofe believe in tornadoes?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Do-it-yourself nuke

John McPhee is such a tease.

He wrote "The Curve of Binding Energy" in 1973, and rogues have yet to build a workable atomic bomb, as far as we know. If so, it is not because McPhee offers too little information.

We learn that a sphere of plutonium the size of a billiard ball would suffice. We're taught how to convert plutonium nitrate and plutonium oxide into more or less pure plutonium -- at home. And then the reader is basically taught how to fabricate a uranium weapon, by a former nuclear weapons designer, Theodore Taylor.

Taylor specialized in miniaturing nuclear weapons, giving us the W-54 warhead employed in the Davy Crockett 155 mm recoilless rifle. The W-54 had a puny yield compared to other nuclear weapons, but just right for a terrorist. The smallest atomic weapon in the U.S. arsenal, as far as the public is concerned, is the spacial atomic demolition munition, which also uses the W-54 device and weighs about 160 pounds.

Small fission devices are also necessary as the triggers for larger hydrogen bombs. Taylor made many "small" designs, but he refuses to disclose them explicitly to McPhee.

The question, if you are pretty much insane, is where to get your hands on the enriched uranium or the purified plutonium?

McPhee wrote in 1973 that the nation's large stockpile of plutonium, which is generated by civilian reactors, is stored casually in poorly guarded structures that could be breached in a few minutes.

What the intruder would have found 30 years ago were heavy casks each containing about 2 pounds of plutonium nitrate. Thieves take a few of them home. Then what?

(Caution: don't even think of trying any part of this, even minus the radioactive stuff. No kidding. )

Here's all they have to to: Add oxalic acid to the plutonium nitrate. Plutonium oxide crystals will precipitate out. Roast these crystals to dry them. Then you buy some hydrofluoric acid and heat it in a quartz crucible. Direct the hydrogen fluoride gas into the crucible and bake at 500 degrees centigrade. What you get is plutonium fluoride. Now take another crucible and line it with magnesium oxide. Add water to make a paste. Add 170 grams of calcium and 50 grams of iodine. Put 500 grams of plutonium fluoride in the crucible, top with argon gas, and close the container.
Heat to 750 degrees C. in an induction furnace. The mixture will react and heat itself up to 1,600 degrees. During the next 10 minutes, the crucible cools down to 800 degrees. Now take the crucible out of the furnace and let it cool to room temperature.

Then, if you've managed to do all of this without setting your basement on fire, blowing yourself up, or otherwise avoiding serious injury or poisoning, pour some nitric acid into the crucible to wash away the iodine flakes and calcium fluoride salt.

What you have left is a small lump of plutonium. Repeat several times, and then figure out how large a sphere you need to construct, and how thick a layer of explosives you must use to wrap around the sphere, and figure out a way to make all of the explosives detonate simultaneously to the plutonium sphere will be compressed to a supercritical mass.

One would require a fairly large, sophisticated laboratory equipped with the right, and not easily obtained chemicals, to carry this out. Configuring the plutonium is also not a trivial problem. The amount you need depends on what you use as a reflector.

You'd pretty much need to be a weapons designer like Taylor to carry this off. Making the plutonium is not the only problem, either. Plutonium metal exposed to humid air rapidly forms oxides and hydrides that crack off and burn spontaneously.

McPhee does not mention this part, perhaps purposely.

Well, wouldn't it be easier to hijack a truck carrying enriched uranium oxide powder on its way to fashioned into reactor fuel pellets?

Sure. Put four and half kilograms (about nine pounds) on a vibrating tray in a laboratory furnace, while heating up hydrofluoric acid in a stoppered flask. Guide the hydrofluoric acid gas through a tube to the furnace and heat up to 500 degrees C. What you end up with is uranium tetrafluoride, which you dump into a crucible with powdered magnesium and potassium chlorate.

Sounds like we're making fireworks.

Put the crucible into a strong steel container and then use something like a toaster coil to heat the mixture to 600 degrees. The uranium tetrafluoride and magnesium ignite, creating uranium metal and magnesium fluoride. Repeat.

McPhee's point seems to be that reckless, motivated lunatics unafraid of death, could conceivably synthesize materials necessary for making an atomic bomb. Many experts consider these scenarios farfetched.

They point out that stealing a bomb would be much simpler. The U.S. military is aware of this, and configures most bombs and other nuclear munitions with protective devices that render the devices unexplodable if tampered with.

McPhee's point about more closely managing and guarding nuclear materials is still valid. The U.S. is spending $250 billion to improve security at nuclear power plants, nuclear waste sites, weapons fabrication plants and munitions storage facilities.

Russia is also attempting to gather and protect fission and fusion weapons scattered across the former Soviet Union. International efforts to curtail proliferation must also be strengthened.

None of this is simple, but if we are frightened by a man who sets his underwear on fire in a passenger plane, we should be terrified at the thought of suicidal maniacs getting their hands on atomic bombs.