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Saturday, January 29, 2005

Nuclear Now

Wired Magazine

The theme of this article is that if we are to become a "green" society, nuclear power is the best and cleanest choice of energy sources. Some relevant data:

1. "A Coal-fired plant release 100 times more radioactive material than an equivalent nuclear reactor - right into the air..."
2. Energy demand is expected to triple by 2050.
3.China could build a Three Gorges dam every year and not be able to meet its demand for electricity.
4. Renewable sources are land- and capital-intensive. "Jesse Ausubel, director of the New York Rockefeller University's human environment program calls them 'false gods.'"
5. A 1,000 megawatt photovoltaic plant would require about 60 square miles of panes and the "largest industrial building ever built." The wind equivalent would require 300 square miles of turbines plus a huge infrastructure of transmission lines.
6. The "clean coal" touted by both Bush and Kerry would possibly triple production costs and leave over a million tons of extracted carbon per year.
7. Biomass would require over 1,000 square miles to produce the same amount of energy a nuclear plant could produce in 0.33 square miles.
8. New design with gravity, rather than pump driven, cooling systems are much cheaper and safer and are competitive with coal-fired plants.
9. France gets 77% of its energy from nukes; Belgium 58%, Sweden 46%, Switzerland 37%, Japan 31%.
10. US reactors have been able to increase production from 60% of capacity to 90%, the equivalent of building 40 new reactors without an iota of increased carbon emissions.

Burning hydrocarbons is a luxury the planet cannot afford.

Onassis and RFK's assassination

A recent letter to Vanity Fair drew my attention. It was from Helene Gaillet de Neergaard who had been a lover of Aristotle Onassis. Peter Evans, author of Nemesis, had tracked her down after several home and name changes to verify what he had documented elsewhere, i.e., that she had been Onassis's lover and that Onassis had confessed to her that he had been directly involved in financing the assassination of Robert Kennedy. It was originally published in 1986, but de Neergaard's letter was published in response to an article by Dominick Dunne. (link)

Great quote

"The Republicans have the federal government -- for now. But we've got Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City (Bloomberg is a Republican in name only) and every college town in the country. We're everywhere any sane person wants to be. Let them have the shitholes, the Oklahomas, Wyomings, and Alabamas. We'll take Manhattan."
Dan Savage, The Portland Mercury (November 11, 2004)

Other good stuff from Savage's column.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Shad myths and trivia

I have to admit to being a huge John McPhee fan. His books and essays are always interesting and Founding Fish about the American shad is no exception. McPhee always does his homework, seeking out the knowledgeable and then going further to double-check even their information. For example, one little tidbit is the myth surrounding the role of shad in saving the Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge. The prevailing wisdom, cited in numerous sources is that the shad run was early that winter and without the abundance of fish the army would have starved. Often cited as a source is a letter purportedly by Nathan Hale who, McPhee, points out had died in September of 1776, and so could have had little knowledge of Valley Forge events. (I was pleased to see that the Valley Forge Historical Society does not perpetuate the myth(link.)

The idea that early settlers also feasted on fish appears doubtful even though it was plentiful. Archaeological studies reveal few fish bones except for slaves. It appears that, coming from beef loving England, they were eager to have a beef laden diet in the colonies as well. Washington caught thousands of shad at Mount Vernon, but used them mostly as fertilizer and slave food. It's a bony fish, and like the lobster, took many decades to be accepted as "upscale" in restaurants.

Like salmon, the shad is anadromous (running upstream,) but differs in that while the salmon dies after spawning at the end of its run, the shad can make the trip up and back to the ocean several times.

Only McPhee could take such an arcane subject and weave culture, history, physiology, and natural science so ably together.

Pretext for War by Bamford

James Bamford makes a convincing case that the United States was ill-served by our intelligence communities before 9-11 in Pretext for War. Part of the problem was the agencies were still fighting the Cold War and agents were enjoying the perks traditional with service in overseas embassies: good food, cars, great shopping, and other fringe benefits.

The beginning of the book provides a nice compliment to the 9/11 Commission report of the hijackings, a step-by-step reenactment, fascinating yet horrifying. He then provides how the spy agencies work in this country and how information was transmitted to the policy makers. The overall effect is not reassuring as evidence is provided that shows intelligence manufactured to support a policy and how Congress is routinely bypassed. The implications for balance of power and the tri-partite government created by the Founding Fathers are disturbing. The trend is away from public scrutiny, when, in my opinion, more is needed. The Bush administration appears to be heading toward increased secrecy and less congressional oversight.

Rumsfeld has gradually lobbied for and been giving extraordinary powers for "black bag" operations around the world (see Seymour Hersh's article in the January 24th, 2005 issue of The New Yorker.) The idea is that we have to become more like the enemy and act like them, i.e. giving them a taste of their own medicine. Aside from the questionable morality of such behavior, one wonders whether it will work in the long run or perhaps come back to bite us in the ass.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Parker Redux

I first read some of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels several years ago. At the time, the detective seemed a shade too macho and inadvertently misogynistic. Happily, his later ones don't seem to have the same defect.

I've just finished three fairly recent titles: Paper Doll, Back Story, and Potshot. In Paper Doll, Spenser is hired by Loudon Tripp, an ostensibly wealthy Boton businessman, to find out who murdered his wife, Olivia Nelson. I understand that Faulkner is Spenser's favorite author and the scenes in South Carolina, where the trail leads him to find that Olivia Nelson is not whom she appears to be, indeed, the real Olivia is alive and well living in Africa, has Spencer seeking the help of the local black population to unravel the murder. In the end, he must analyze the ethical conundrums, after being harassed by local constabulary beholden to a prestigious senator, to bring closure. Susan and Hawk play less of a role in this entertaining story.

Back Story is the 30th novel in the series and we still don't know Spenser's first name. In it he agrees to search for the killers of the mother of a friend that happened thirty years earlier during a bank holdup by the Dread Scott Brigade organization, a seventies leftist group. Hawk plays a larger role in this novel. As is perhaps inevitable, many people want the case to remain unopened and Spenser has to dig up a lot of dirt.

For Hawk lovers, he plays a much more prominent part in this book as he does in Potshot, another fun read. Spenser is hired to find out why a local group of thugs in Dell have control of the town and why they killed Steve Buckman, the husband of his client. Spenser accumulates his own PC posse (a gay, a Latino, a black, and an American Indian) to bring the sociopaths to justice.

Perhaps it's my imagination, but the more recent books have more dietary trivia and recipes than the earlier books -- not that it detracts. It just makes me wonder.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Weekend Snippets and Comments

As Martin Luther King's birthday approaches, I am reminded of the Civil Rights marches I went on in the sixties; a time when we all thought we could change the world and make it a better place. MLK was an inspiration and a life to emulate. The I turn on the news and watch Bush stumble through an attempted rationale of Iraq and my heart bleeds.

The president of Bethune-Cookman college in Daytona Beach, Florida has ordered the removal of a Greek goddess that had stood on the grounds for 31 years concerned with its appropriateness. I'm not quite sure what he was afraid of (pardon the tailing preposition.)

You can now buy an RV for around $2 million that will protect you against chemical and biological warfare from the Parliament Coach Co. (also in Florida, what is in the water down there?) The article did not say whether a .50 caliber machine gun to protect it was included in the price.

To sign a petition supporting the repair and extension of life for the Hubble telescope, a truly marvelous instrument of knowledge, click here. For incredible images taken by Hubble, see this site.

Interesting article in the latest New Yorker ("Battle Lessons, January 17, 2005) about how the lower echelon battlefield commanders are using the Web to help disseminate lessons learned on the battlefield in Iraq. Also an interesting comment by Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinsecki in 2000 that about half of a soldier's training was "meaningless and 'non-essential.' " Fascinating. Thank goodness that former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown is no longer in charge of the New Yorker. David Remnick has done a great job returning it to a journal of record, eliminating most of the silly celebrity crap that Tina wallowed in. (Oops, another hanging preposition.) That magazine, along with the Atlantic, has become essential reading.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Brilliant Book about a Brilliant Mind

"'How could you,' Mackey asked, 'how could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof. . . how could you believe that extra terrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world? How could you . . .?' "Nash looked up at last and fixed Mackey with an unblinking stare as cool and dispassionate as that of any bird or snake. 'Because,' Nash said slowly in his soft, reasonable southern drawl, as if talking to himself, 'the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.'"

A Beautiful Mind
by Sylvia Nasar is the biography of John Forbes Nash. Nash was brilliant. (The movie was terrific, but often bore little resemblance to reality.) At twenty-one he had invented a theory of modern human behavior and his contributions to game theory would ultimately win him a Nobel Prize. As a young professor he solved some mathematical problems deemed "impossible" by other mathematicians. He also became insane. This most fascinating book is the story of his descent into schizophrenia and his sudden remission at age sixty-two.

Nash had that spark of genius reserved for the extraordinary few. He could visualize answers to problems that baffled others, often working out proofs later. He worked and learned not by absorbing what others had already accomplished but by rediscovering the concepts on his own. He was "compulsively rational," and envied the emotionless, considering thinking machines superior to humans. He remained aloof from the mundane and was described by his contemporaries as "queer," "spooky," and "isolated." Ironically, he was to revolutionize the theories of social cooperation and conflict. Unlike Von Neumann who had focused on the group, Nash, in his twenty-seven-page dissertation thesis proposed a theory for game "in which there was a possibility of mutual gain. His insight was that the game [economics] would be solved when every player independently chose his best responses to the other player's best strategies. . . a decentralized decision-making process could, in fact, be coherent."

Princeton probably deserves the Nobel medal as much as anyone for sticking with the genius and putting up with his bizarre behavior as does his family who often sacrificed a great deal in their efforts to help him. Whether an "ordinary" person would have received such special care is perhaps another issue.

What is truly ironic is that Nash's son suffers from the same condition as his father, but despite advances in pharmaceutical treatment for schizophrenia, his son has not displayed the signs of remission that brought his father back.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Summer at the Beach

"It's a phenomenon that has always amazed me. People get in their cars in the height of the summer heat and crawl along for two or three hours, all for the right to spend an afternoon lying in the grainy dirt, baking, sweating, and burning under a barrage of cancer-causing rays. Their only escape is to enter the water, which can best be described as a freezing, salty urinal. Then unless they've endured the day covered with sticky grease, they can spend the two or three hours on the way home watching their skin blister."
Andy Carpenter, in First Degree.

My thoughts, exactly.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Tsunami Pales in Comparison to Asteroid

Editor's Letter

Just in case the asteroid doesn't worry you:

In the same issue of The Week, an article reveals that a volcano in the Canary Islands is poised to go off that would cause a landslide into the ocean triggering an enormous tidal wave that would engulf the east coast. There is no tsunami warning system in the Atlantic.

Other delectable tidbits:

Smoking dulls the mind (pg 18,) so what else is new?

Leonard Pitts in The Miami Herald, wonders how Republicans would act if Clinton "had gotten 1,200 Americans killed in Iraq?" Good question.

Finally the Conservatives Have Caught On

I've been saying it all along. Just declare victory and bring the troops home; that's the best way to support them. We have pulverized the country, yet (dahh) antagonism increases and ambushes on Americans increase daily. Rather than providing security, we have become the objects of the violence. Bush may finally have to learn what Colin Powell meant when he said, "you break it, you bought it." I ask again, how many lives is Iraq worth? It took us ten years and 50,000 in Vietnam and our motives were just as pure then. It has past the point where Bush can reassemble the broken country. They will have to do it themselves.

Unfortunately that means Halliburton won't make as much money, but...

As an aside, the $350 million we are sending to southeast Asia is what we spend in three days in Iraq. And while that sounds like a lot, the U.S. spends just "0.14 percent of GDP to foreign aid, ranking us last among the world's 30 richest nations. Even counting private donations, we give only 21 cents 'for every $100 of national income to poor countries.' "

Friday, January 07, 2005

New Discovery

I have now read two of David Rosenfelt's Andy Carpenter novels: Open and Shut and Bury the Lead. They are a delight. I was given an advance reader's copy of the latter, read it and immediately ordered the first two in the series. I'm enjoying the second in the series, First Degree, currently. (It's not necessary to read them in order, but it helps understand some of the characters.)

Carpenter is a wise-cracking, self-deprecatory, witty lawyer who has inherited a huge amount of money (how and why are explained in Open and Shut) from his father who had invested the money and then never touched it.

Carpenter loves dogs and Tara, his lab, is a prominent feature. For an author who is not a lawyer, the courtroom scenes ring surprisingly true -- not that I would have much of a clue about real courtroom scenarios. There is a hysterical scene in the first novel as Carpenter pulls all sorts of tricks in the courtroom to get his client off.


Laurie: Andy's love whom he gets off of a murder charge in First Degree. She's also his PI and their dialogue is reminiscent of that of Susan and Spencer in the Parker novels.
Edna: Andy's crossword puzzle expert secretary who concentrates so hard on the puzzles she rarely looks up when someone enters.
Willie: whom Andy got off in the first novel. Willie had been on death row for a crime he did not commit but who Andy's father-in-law had. Andy's huge fortune stems from ramifications of this case. Willie now runs Andy's dog shelter.
Tara: Simply the best dog in the world whose favorite position is "lying on her side with her head resting just above my knee. It virtually forces me to pet her every time I reach for my beer. . . ."
Sam: His computer expert who can hack into just about anything but never seems to have any money. He and Andy play a little game every time they converse, which is to work song lyrics into their conversations whenever possible chance.
Pete Stanton: Police lieutenant and just about the only friend Andy has on the force.

Sample: "Time is the ultimate pain in the ass. It consistently, absolutely, and obnoxiously does the exact opposite of what one wants it to do. This is my theory and I'm sticking to it. In fact, it is just one of the profound theories I am able to come up with such as this, lying in bed, unable to sleep, at three o'clock in the morning."

Very enjoyable reads. I will leap to buy the next one. Long live the series.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

More Acerbic Wit from Gore Vidal

If you enjoy your history with a partisan flavor and a good dose of skepticism, you will immensely enjoy Inventing A Nation, Gore Vidal's romp through early American history. Gore begins with 1786 as Washington prepares to lead the constitutional convention.

It's refreshing to go beyond the glowing myths we are fed in high school and see the great men with all their foibles, flaws that somehow make them even a little greater in my estimation. There was a lot of groping going on to find just the right mix. Democracy did not have much in the way of precedence. After the Athenian defeat by Alexander, there was really no democratic example to follow.

Ours is certainly not a democracy in the Athenian sense as Gore, in his inimitable manner makes clear: "Much of the significance of December 2000 was that the Electoral College, created to ensure that majority rule be thwarted if unacceptable to what Hamilton thought of as the proper governing elite, threw a bright spotlight on just how undemocratic our republic has become, causing one of the Supreme Court Justices (by many thought to be a visiting alien) to respond to the Gore lawyers who maintained that Florida's skewed voting machines and confused rulings by various interested courts had deprived thousands of Floridians of their vote for president. The American Constitution, said the Justice, mandibles clattering joyously, does not provide any American citizen the right to vote for president. This is absolutely true. One votes for a near-anonymous member of the Electoral College, which explains why so few Americans now bother to 'vote' for president. But then a majority don't know what the Electoral College is."

That's classic.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Risk Analysis of Apocalypse

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > 'Catastrophe': Apocalypse When?

Posner writes more books part-time than most full-time authors. He's usually illuminating and inciteful. This review (quotes below) imply this one is not unusual.

"In the third and most difficult chapter of ''Catastrophe,'' Posner explores ways of calculating the costs of catastrophic risks and of possible responses to them. He rebuts the claim that it is not cost-effective to do anything about global warming, an argument that invariably relies on heavily discounting disasters that will not occur for 50 or 100 years. We may wish to invest money to generate wealth rather than spending it to avert gradual global warming, but, as Posner suggests, the victims of the warming are likely to be concentrated in poor countries and will not necessarily benefit from the increased wealth generated by the richer nations. (On the other hand, abrupt, spiraling global warming that flips over into a deep freeze could kill us all, and then increased wealth will not do us any good anyway.)"

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Diamond, Jacobs and the End of Culture

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: The Ends of the World as We Know Them

Two other related books are Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

Jacobs identifies five pillars of culture that if destabilized make a culture unsalveagable. They are:

1. Household strength, i.e., community and family;
2. Higher education;
3. Science and science-based technology
4. Taxes and governmental power that are directly in touch with the needs of the ruled;
5. Self-policing by the learned professions.

Jacobs suggests we are failing on all counts.

Diamond focuses on what makes a culture strong and viable. These are important books worth reading.

America's Women by Gail Collins


“American women of the late nineteenth century were drowning in drugs and alcohol that they ingested under the guise of medication. Colonel Hoestetter's Stomach Bitters aided the digestion with a compound that was 44.3 percent alcohol.-- one tablespoon fed through a gas burner could maintain a bright flame for almost five minutes. Some of the alcohol-laced medicines were even recommended as cures for alcoholism”