Where on Earth is Thomas Gassett?

I hate to admit it. But I miss Thomas Gassett a bit. All the blogs I frequent now are generally run by thoughtful or humorous people with an intelligent take on issues even when I don't agree with their perspective. But every once and awhile I miss being reviled by someone with no verbal impulse control. It's kind of like driving a great old muscle car. Most of the time you want to drive responsibly but every now and again you want to blow out the carburetor and stomp the pedal to the floor. Not that I would ever want him posting here but if from time to time one of you could call me names it would be nostalgic ;)


Resolution of cultural re-Discovery is an Endeavor best served by historical truth.

A lesson for our times.

I just finished reading Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz. I've read a number of other volumes on the topic but this one takes a very different approach. This book is a travel log of the author's journey to follow in the footsteps of Captain James Cook, the justifiably legendary English explorer whose three 18th century journeys about the Pacific Ocean opened up the map of the world we know today. By all truly historical accounts, Cook was a deliberate, detail-oriented observer. He was an attentive, and enlightened man for the times and he repeatedly demonstrated an interest, concern and fear for the cultures he encountered. He was far from a perfect man, being a ship's captain of the 1700's and he payed the price for his well known temper on the shores of the Big Island of Hawaii, but his accomplishments are even daunting today and his amazingly detailed charts and maps were used until 1994 in some areas of the South Pacific!

Sadly, in almost every place Horwitz recently visited, Cook was reviled as an invader, a devil, a destroyer of cultures. Harsh judgment for a man in charge of successful first contact with numerous indigenous cultures throughout the whole of the Pacific. A man who went to great lengths to narrow the distance between cultures. One particular case in particular stands out in my mind. Along the Northern coast of America he encountered a hostile looking tribe in canoes who, after a few tense initial moments, began to beat their oars and spears against their canoes in a fashion that Cook found rhythmic and musical. In a real scene that predated Close Encounters of the Third Kind by over 200 years, Cook ordered his men to play music in response. The tribesmen were enthralled and responded in kind. This lead to a peaceful exchange, similar to dozens that both preceded and followed it. Hardly the actions of a maniac or destroyer.

Yet disenchanted militant nationalist groups across the Pacific, eager to restore the real and imagined glories of their original cultures, almost uniformly revile this man. It's too bad. The true record of the man and his achievements has become a casualty of the historical revisionism and pseudo-political correctness that often accompanies such efforts. I suppose it is no shock that much of the early mudslinging about Cook came from some of the true despoilers of these cultures, the missionaries who proceeded to civilize the poor savages and expunge most of their uniqueness and teaching them a proper modicum of guilt. They educated the islanders and natives but at the price of submitting themselves to the will and control of the respective churches. All was lovely in paradise until the ungrateful serpents arrived. No doubt island cultures were wrecked in the aftermath of Cook's voyages by those that followed and the diseases they carried. They would never be the same. That time was lost forever. But the same is true of Europe of the time as well. These countries too changed partially in response to the opening up of the world by men like Cook. Basic assumptions and perspectives were altered.

The reality of island life before Cook wasn't exactly as idyllic as some would choose to recall through historical rose colored glasses. Human sacrifice, internecine warfare, slavery, gender subjugation, rigid class structures, absolute monarchical power, absent laws, stagnant learning; all these existed for generations before Cook ever laid eyes on these places. I'm not trying to be critical of these fascinating cultures just pointing out the obvious facts that peaceful hula dancing and communing with nature wasn't the sum total of island life before their contact with the Europeans. It was no doubt inevitable that someone would come and Cook just happened to be Johnny on the spot in most of them. But he didn't just happen to be there but arrived as a result of magnificent navigation, leadership and courage - the same way the Polynesians did it before him. Nothing of the true hardships suffered by indigenous peoples is minimized by treating Cook with anything less than contempt. It just makes the process less honest and probably less permanent. Misrepresenting the history of Cook isn't a necessary step in regaining a grasp of one's cultural roots.

Too bad we have so much trouble separating our frustrations from historical truth. And we don't do anyone any favors by sweeping the truth under the rug or simplifing complex issues. We in this country aren't immune to this problem. That's why I felt compelled to relate this little story. Right now apologists are busy (hello Wall Street Journal!) trying to rewrite the history of the last 8 years before the ink has dried on the facts. Maybe they just can't stop lying, who knows. But whether we liked or loathed the course this nation has taken, it's best to not lose sight of the events as they happened. It's the only way to learn the proper lessons unless preventing that is their game. The only reason we can piece together a pretty good picture of the real James Cook is from what was written at the time. But the events of the last month of his life are obscured by the fact that his journal has no entries for that period. For a guy who was so prolific in his journals up to then, it strikes one as odd. Maybe some well meaning revisionist thought something in those pages was not complementary to the late commander's memory. We'll never know now. Maybe I am more of a mutant than even I imagine. For me, the fact that people who accomplish great things are less than perfect makes those accomplishments even more remarkable rather than diminished. Plus future generations can have a clearer view of the complexities of our present and maybe avoid the mistakes we've made. What it ultimately all means will be up to the historians long after we are dead anyway. We learn nothing when we are less than truthful with ourselves though that is the hardest thing in the world to do well.

PS - Hope you enjoyed my mega pun....


Spandicks on the Road of Life: Observations of a Bike Commuter

Today I became hardcore. It's cold, it's pouring, and it's dark and gloomy. And I sports fans rode my bike to work. I had enough rain gear on to survive a monsoon, my Day-Glo greenish road crew vest with reflector strips, and so many flashing LEDS that I looked like one of those deep sea fish but I was riding in the cold rain. I may have induced a couple of seizures with all those lights. Those of us who are hardcore are quick to label ourselves as such before anyone can substitute the obvious synonyms of moron, stupid, deranged, etc. Hardcore also implies dangerously stupid so regular people generally avoid us. A guy with a fancy bike rack called to me at a stoplight. First we exchanged one of those bobbing head salutes like you see prairie dogs use. Then, sensing that it was safe, he said, "dude I'm not even that hardcore." UUH! UUH! It became official.

Having ridden my bike to work for 2 years now (so as to be able to eat whatever fat-laden and disgusting thing I like without becoming a perfect sphere) has given me enough experiences to share some of my observations about the general state of American road manners. I have to admit when I first started riding to work I was concerned that bike commuting might be nothing more than an updated version of Frogger, but I have been pleasantly surprised - so far. It is interesting to see how people react when confronted by a gray haired middle-aged guy on his commuter bike ( a Trek Soho UUH! UUH! UUH!). Below are some of the groups of people I have encountered.

Nice people!

Shockingly, this is the overwhelming majority of people I encounter. Many of them smile, wave, nod, or will wait for me to go ahead. I always reciprocate and thank them for whatever small kindness they grant. I consider myself somewhat of a biking ambassador so being polite, courteous and law-abiding is important. I try to follow the laws of the road though I will execute a rolling stop when no one is around so as to continue to enjoy the benefits rather than the liabilities of my considerable inertia. Maybe it's my age but most people are considerate of me on my bike. Middle-aged women seem to make up a disproportionate number of the people in this group but younger men are a surprising second. Perhaps they are saluting an old lion as he passes. Who knows but they tend to nod and acknowledge my presence. Families in station wagon analogs are also pretty well represented in this group - though not SUV's. Bikers of similar age and body shape also seem to fall into this group. Polite bikers also tend to be wearing helmets. Perhaps it's because their narcissism is bounded by enough sense to rebel in other ways than rejecting self-preservation measures.


When I become Emperor of the Universe, people will be required to accept the inconvenience of concentrating on their driving rather than viewing their car as a mobile, cafe', salon, saloon, workstation, entertainment center, communication command center, etc.. With the exception of people like the President (and somebody drives him while he does it) very few people need to be in constant contact or are so important that they can't wait until they turn off the ignition to get something done. If I get run over by someone making a sales call or discussing a grocery list I will come back as a very vengeful wraith... If you are going to kill me I demand that it be for real or presumed cause rather than inattentiveness . Most people aren't that good of a driver when they pay attention let alone discussing the critical points of 30 Rock or the Office. Driving is without a doubt the most dangerous task performed by the average person so c-o-n-c-e-n-t-r-a-t-e. Young women, anybody in a BMW, guys in suits and SUV's fall disproportionately into this category. Young people riding bikes without helmets, listening to their ipod, also fall into this group.


Many Mercedes and Jag drivers. This group does not appear to need any multi-tasking distractions to ignore anyone else on the road. A fair number of elderly drivers fall into this category as well as they seem to have compromised situational awareness. Enough said.

Angry A-holes

Young men mostly but equal rights has produced a growing crop of young women who also fall into this group. They seem to favor the SUV and the Hummer and get very irritated if they have to wait a nanosecond before they can pass you (way too close of course to show their disgust), followed by the inevitable gunning of the engine to make up for lost time. Another tip off is the baseball cap. Baseball cap and SUV, and I go into threat response mode. They seem very perturbed by people on bikes though you'd think they'd love us because by biking I lessen fuel demand which means they can guzzle gas that much longer in their Tahoe. Some of them give me the eye at first but I have perfected a wonderful Germanic war face of steely coldness combined with just a glint of Charley Manson around they eyes that deters all but the truly insane. It's one of nature's wonderful warning signs and it keeps them in their snug leather seats. Again the young biker without a helmet often falls into this category as well. Strangest are the skateboarders. Some of them will skateboard down major streets during rush hour and get very belligerent when some one takes time to tell them they aren't allowed on the streets. One petulant young fellow I saw was holding up traffic by boarding right in the street. He flipped off anyone who protested. That is until a big dude stopped and popped the crud out of him for same. Ah life's lessons.

But all these pale in comparison to the group I truly loathe!

The Spandicks

Mostly rail-thin white males wearing skin-tight spandex, this group is by far the rudest of the rude. These guys comprise a certain percentage of hardcore riders. They are the ones always protesting how drivers fail to share the road which in their mind of course is staying completely out of their way at all times. They consider bike riding as example of their moral superiority over anyone in a car. They will often play chicken with cars and dare one of their moral inferiors to hit them. Spandicks apparently know very little about the physics of vehicular collisions, nor much about mass and velocity affects.

It's as if they imagine themselves competing in the Tour de' France while riding around town. Spandicks zip along, jump from the sidewalk to the street and back, dart in and out of traffic, ignore any rule that is not immediately convenient, behave rudely even to other biker riders and yell viciously at anyone in a car who they imagine has in some way slighted them - usually by narrowly avoiding smashing them. On two occasions this summer a Spandick passed me on the left less than 8 feet from an intersection and immediately turned directly in front of me to make a right turn. Heaven forbid he have to slow down and turn behind me. I caught up with one at a red light. I think he got the message about not doing that again - e-v-e-r... So please, Spandicks - work on being a little less full of yourself.

Like most things in life biking can be a pleasure as long as everybody just tries to be a little bit civil to one another.


IT Came from the Drive-IN Previews!

Shield your eyes before it's too late!

Too late - now that same unspeakable horror will haunt your dreams too - or maybe not so much. I was surfing the web for really bad old movies the other day. Don't ask me why I suddenly had the urge. That's what happens when I have time on my hands waiting for a test program to run its course. I figured that you can never go wrong including Roger Corman in the search criteria and there it was! The very image that terrorized my dreams when I was 7. Man to confront that dreadful suppressed memory - no not the ones about the parish priest, the one armed acrobat and the wheel barrow. Though he wore all black and kind of waddled too, no try to stay focused for a change.

I remember going to the drive in with my folks. We all piled into the station wagon with the grocery bags of popcorn we'd made at home (we were so poor I couldn't pay attention...) and headed to the edge of town where the drive In theater stood waiting for the sun to set. I don't remember what movies we actually went to see but I remember the previews. "The Creature from the Haunted Sea" and "the Diary of a Madman" with Vincent Price (turned out that all the scary parts of that film were shown in the previews...) were both previewed. They showed the above clip and I about jumped out of my skin. I was thinking 'oh my gosh (I was a good Catholic boy at the time - well, I was Catholic - well I attended Catholic school at least...) how can they show such horrors when little kids can see it! Maybe adults or even high school kids could handle it but surely not the very young such as myself could stomach it without being traumatized for life. Especially a kid with such a vivid imagination. For some reason (which escapes me all these years later seeing how cheap the costume was to the point that you can see the guys wrists.) that image really stuck with me and scared the bejeesus out of me.

In reality it wasn't that image that I recalled exactly. What I remembered was sort of a mental mutation of this mutant. A kind of addled Gumby. My version had the same creepy buggy eyes and rounded head but was smooth skinned like a seal. My version didn't have claws but instead he had flippers. Yeah that's right he had flippers. I don't exactly know how I expected him to terrorize people with flippers and no claws- maybe he would just have slapped the shit out of them or some such. Though with flippers for feet as well, he wouldn't get too many licks in before anyone outside of a nursing home would make their escape. But you could never be sure about those clever flipper-pawed sea monsters. No matter. Flippers or no he was one ugly mother. Though now when I think of the image I had of this diabolical monstrosity it does look something like Opus or Woodsy Owl with no beak. You have to admit that Woodsy Owl was pretty creepy in his own right. As you can surmise from my rendition above, my version was much scarier than Corman's. Come to think of it, tall, foreboding, nasty, crazy gaze, it looked just like the Mother Superior at our school. Now that is chilling. Maybe that helps explain the response. Plus if the monsters were related (nuns and the flipper beast) then I suppose he could extended his own lethality by using their weapon of choice - the meter rule! Definitely would make him more of a threat than simple flipper slapping. I always suspected that the Catholic Church's early recognition of the metric system had nothing to do with science and everything to do with gaining three more inches in reach...

Matters only get worse...

The whole sea creature monster thing really bothered me growing up. I lived about 200 yrds from a nice lake and spent a lot of time there. But I have to admit that for a year I kept a sharp eye peeled for that sly bastard and never turned my back on the water lest he try to sneak up on me. Oh with time I kind of forgot the flipper beast but it wasn't because I was no longer concerned with such threats but because he had been surplanted by a far more menacing foe - THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON! I saw that dread monster in an Ad for some late night showing and it was terror at first sight. No flipper boy was he - he had long green legs to swim and run fast, long sharp claws and big red lips surrounding his long teeth. Hold on - the movie was in black and white so what's with the red lips? I don't know but that's how he always appeared in my nightmares - those big Mick Jagger lips right before I'd get scared and wake up. Only the monster snorkel saved me from oblivion on many a night while he no doubt waited patiently for the smallest sliver of skin to lose the protective aegis of the blanket of invincibility which had some how been passed down to me from Perseus and every other kid I knew. But alas he was always disappointed by morning light since I had mastered the art of complete coverage better than any mussel. Summers were more of a challenge as, lacking air conditioning, I had to settle for the sheet of near invincibility and being cold blooded, he was more active in the summer as well.

Now one could argue that having all those glue-crusted Aurora monster models on my bedside table might not have helped but it always payed to know your enemy. Of course my Gillman model had blood red lips.

For a few years I had a number of nightmares that starred the Gillman. These were always some variation of being at home alone with all the neighbors gone. Then I'd see him slowly rising out of the lake on his way to get me. In his slow southern fishy drawl (yes he talked, duh!) he would promise, "I'm gonna get you!". Not terribly erudite was he but it was scary all the same.

The Loaf by the Ears

I remember one particularly unusual scenario. He was chasing me around the house but couldn't catch me. I had perfected the broken field running technique of a gazelle in order to escape my older brother's clutches when he would, for no reason at all I assure you, decide that he needed to pound me in response to some completely fabricated infraction. He was much more fleet of foot than any web-footed amphibian so old fish face was having a hard time trying to grab me. Then I saw my escape. There was a large piece of wonder bread on the ground (no joke and no drugs were involved). It was about 5 feet square and had two control levers in its midsection as in the detailed design specification shown above. One has to wonder how that particular assortment of neurons fired at the same time to create such an unconventional mode of transport but fire they did. I jumped on, instinctively knowing that the levers controlled the aerodynamic responses of said bread, and was able to coax it up to an altitude of about 12 feet. But that was all she could give me. The Gillman was leaping up trying to grab on to the aerobatic bread slice but he just couldn't quite reach. Nor could I gain a safe altitude despite my great frustration and best efforts. No manual of operations was available and to this day I don't know if I was missing some critical factor that would have allowed me to speed away. I suppose in retrospect I should have been grateful that the bread defied gravity to the mere extent it did and that it wasn't one of those nasty whole wheat slices my mom always tried to feed me as the added weight would no doubt have limited its service ceiling to a level where the creature could have grabbed me before I could wake up. Any slip up at all and I would have been toast for sure. In case you are wondering that was my only flight experience with baked goods of any kind. I always thought it would have made a great wonder bread Ad. Certainly better than the other use I had for it - wadding it up into a hard little ball and bouncing it off my brother's head - always provoked I assure you.

High Noon at the Psychic Corral

Finally one day I confronted my fears and watched the movie. I was pissed beyond belief. To think that this movie had haunted my dreams was now unthinkable. A lame guy in a rubber suit with a visible seam! And NO JAGGER LIPS! The shame was intense. A few months later I had another Gillman dream that pretty much ran like all the rest before it - except for one tiny detail. The creature was chasing me around the house when I caught a glimpse of something on the ground. Recognizing it straight away I picked it up and cracked its breech open to check it out. It was my father's double barreled shotgun and finding it lying around unattended was the first clue that this was all a dream. The second and third clues were the two fresh shells loaded into the breech, again something never encountered outside of fantasy land... One thing I liked about the movie was the fact that the creature wasn't bullet proof like most monsters. He certainly wasn't in my dream... Just before I woke up I remember standing over my former foe and letting fly a rebel yell of triumph while the smoke cleared. My mom came in to check on me because she heard a yell. She asked me if I was ok or had I had a nightmare. "Nope', no nightmare just a very good dream." And that was it. No sequels ever. I was glad that the Second Amendment had been extended to my dreams.

I never had too many bad dreams after that. There never were any really good monsters worthy of dreaming about. At least until that rotten Ridley Scott movie opened...

Memories, memories. NO NOT THAT! Now I have that damn song stuck in my head - No! Now I have Barbara Streisand stuck in my head! Someone make it stop!
The link below will take you to the climax of one of the worst monster movies of all times:


Creature from the haunted sea, is now in the public domain. You can torture yourself through the entire film if you dare.



The Elephant in the Control Room: The Dilemma of Spent Reactor Fuel

In the last post I dangled a lure in the water (thus far ignored by the fishes...) about large scale nuclear (nü-klē-ər) power plant construction as one possible component of our long-term energy policies. This is of course far different than the issue of Nukeyouler power that may have be discussed over the last 8 or so years. One of the many emotional issues rightly conjured up by the nuclear power option is the problem of the long term storage and management of nuclear waste materials. For now I'm going to forgo any conversation about the safety of the plants themselves and concentrate on a high level review of the storage challenge. Nor am I going to talk about the pollution problems associated with the alternatives which aren't any bed of roses either.

Very Basics

No doubt everyone knows the basics. The traditional nuclear power plant generates electricity in essentially the same fashion as coal or oil fired plants. Most power plants use a heat source to boil water that is used to generate steam. The steam is usually processed into superheated dry steam which is then used to drive turbines as a separate circuit. The turbines drive generators and electricity is produced. This is the typical set up of the majority of reactors in the US (Pressurized water reactors). Coal and oil fired systems use combustion to heat the boilers while nuclear plants generate the heat from fission chain reactions in partially enriched (U) uranium-235 or (Pu) Plutonium-239 containing fuel rods. In the US most reactors are 'light water' types as opposed to 'heavy water' (deuterium) types favored in places like Canada. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type. The light water reactors require enriched uranium (2.5-3.5% U-235) to operate while the heavy water ones can use uranium as mined from the ground (0.7% U-235) because of the superior modulation of heavy water. This slows down fission-generated neutrons sufficiently to help support the chain reaction in the fuel. If they aren't slowed they tend not to be captured by U-235 atoms and thus fission doesn't take place.

Of course there are other types of reactors such as the fast breeder variety that causes all the international concerns. In the breeder reactor much higher grade uranium is required (15-30% U-235) because neutrons will be used not just to sustain the chain reaction in the U-235 fuel but also to bombard a jacket of U-238 surrounding the core of the reactor. Here fast neutrons are preferred as U-238 absorbs these fast neurons in a series of reactions that end up with Pu-239 in significant quantities. These reactors are usually liquid metal types like sodium rather than water so as to not slow the neutrons down before they can react with the U-238. In this way a breeder reactor in 10 years for example can produce enough new fuel to power another reactor an additional 10 years. Pretty impressive but it also happens to be how larger quantities of Plutonium are produced for making bombs - hence the concerns. Only a tiny fraction of the energy contained within the nuclear fuel rods actually is used over the life cycle of the rods.

Nuclear Waste

Pretty much anything that comes into contact with the fission reactions becomes irradiated but the overwhelming majority of nuclear power plant waste comes from the fuel rods used to generate the fission reactions in the first place. This is called High Level Waste or HLW. Obviously you can't just sweep ashes out of the nuclear furnace and spread it over your flower beds (well you can until your gums bleed and hair falls out but...) The process of decommissioning spent nuclear fuel (SNF) involves a number of steps. First the hot rod must be removed from the reactor and cooled (careful...). This may take months to years before the fuel is cooled to a point where further processing is possible. This is why most US reactors have large associated cooling pools on site. When cooled you face a dilemma. Store the rod or reprocess it. Before considering the question of which option may be best it helps to consider what's in the SNF.

What is in the rod at this point (assuming a standard Uranium fuel rod to begin with)? Well it is a satanic mixed bag of nasties that cannot be allowed to mingle with the public for quite a spell - how quite a spell is something we'll come back to in a minute. The SNF includes unused U-235, 238 (~95%); Pu-239 (~1%); and bits of (Sr) Strontium-90; (Cs) Cesium-137; (I) Iodine-129, and some ultra short-lived isotopes. In short somewhere around 97% of the spent rod is Uranium or Plutonium. That is important and we'll come back for that factoid in a minute.


So how long do you have to store SNF? Well, it all comes down to the question of half-life. Of course you know that half-life is the time needed for a radioisotope to decay to a point where only 50% of the original material is left. What you may or may not know is that for purposes of safety it is generally considered wise to store an isotope for a period encompassing 10 half-lives before declaring it safe (a point where only 1/10 of one percent of the original isotope remains). How long is that? For Sr and Cs the half-life is 29 and 30 years respectively. That means we need to store it for between 290 - 300 years just to be safe. For context, imagine that a fuel rod stored in 1708, about the time that Peter the Great was winning a battle against the Swedes, would just now have safe levels of Cs and Sr. These two (and the Pu of course) are the really nasty ones from a human perspective because Cs can replace potassium and Sr replace Calcium in tissues and bones. Both potassium and Calcium are highly present in animal bodies like ours and therefore the Cs and Sr can be concentrated in animal tissues. This is considered bad. Another problematic one can be (Co) Cobalt-60 with a half-life of about 14 years. It too can be absorbed into tissues and is known to cause cancer in humans.

Plutonium takes a bit longer... The half-life of Pu-239 is around 24,000 years. So technically you need to store it for 240,000 years. A fuel rod used about 10,000 years after the initial appearance of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens would have safe levels of Pu-239. Pu is one of the most toxic substances on earth. A single grain ingested by a human will result in cancer formation.

Iodine (some isotopes are much shorter), a bit longer. Its half-life is a bit less than 16,000,000 years. So a rod stored by an unfortunate Allosaur in the mid-to-late Jurassic period would have only trace I-129 by now.

But these are mere pretenders to the Uranium twins. U-235 has a half-life of ~ 713,000,000 years. Which of course means that a rod would have had to have been hanging around about 2.5 billion years in space waiting to be incorporated into the protoearth... U-238? Well, U-238 created at the time of the Big Bang (I know it couldn't happen - this is a metaphor) would need another 31 billion years to completely cool off... That of course is a good thing if you like nuclear reactors or living on the good Earth. If Uranium had a short half-life then it would have long since decayed. No nuclear reactors could have ever been constructed and the core of the Earth, still heated in part by nuclear reactions might have cooled, lacking a molten core we would have no magnetic fields and we would have been baked long ago by the solar winds. So it isn't entirely crazy to say that radiation sometimes is our friend.

The storage issue please...

Ah yes, that brings us back to the problem of storage. You need to store the spent fuel a long time. According to German engineers (1) the highest threat dissipates within about 10,000 years. How can that be? Well remember that all radiation is not generated equal. Highly radioactive elements like the Sr and Cs for example are the ones that decay faster. That's why they are so radioactive. They also tend to generate more gamma rays while the slow burners generate more alpha and beta particles (2). Alpha and beta radiation is is less energetic than gamma radiation and consequently much easier to shield against. As we said before, the Sr and Cs are of particular concern so that first 300 years is a biggie. If the Pu is removed then much of the long term danger is mitigated. I'm not saying that 10,000 years would be trivial but it would be a darn sight easier than a few billion in my humble opinion. But that 10,000 year time frame kind of makes you wonder about this NRC regulation though.
"NRC guidelines: § 72.236 Specific requirements for spent fuel storage cask approval and fabrication.
........(g) The spent fuel storage cask must be designed to store the spent fuel safely for a minimum of 20 years and permit maintenance as required........"

Oh well... Gotta love the gov!

Of course radiation isn't the only storage issue that has to be considered. A great deal of heat is generated by all this decay and has to be managed. All this together means that we have to be careful to store this gorgon's blood somewhere were it won't be disturbed for eons. Real easy to do on a planet with tectonic plates in motion, convection cycles, ground water migration, erosion, volcanism, etc. As all those fossil beds demonstrate (if not the diabolical work of Satan...) simply burying the stuff anywhere probably isn't a good idea. Yucca Mountain in Nevada continues to be debated as our chosen 'valley of the kings' for burying spent fuel for now because of its allegedly stable geology. At our current rate of dumping we are expected to fill what it is licensed to handle in pretty short order unless fuel rods are reclaimed. This site isn't the only one that will eventually be needed if the nation embarks on a more aggressive plan to build reactors but the issues raised in its creation and the time it has taken to move toward activation is instructive of why the issues need to be raised now. (I recommend that you check some sources on the Yucca mountain debates. Interesting politics. The Dept of Energy site is referenced below)
Mitigating the storage challenge

Are there any other options? Actually yes. Recall near the beginning that 97% of the SNF is either Uranium or Plutonium. This can all be recycled! Wouldn't recommend leaving at the curb for pick up but it can be reprocessed into new fuel rods (or some can be used to make 'silver bullets' - those depleted uranium penetrators that we use against tanks. Ignoring the fact that they very substance scattered about when one hits a tank is the same stuff we say has to be stored for generations here at home. Consistency is a great thing). Using reprocessing we are left with around 3% of the fuel rod to be stored as waste. Still needs to be stored away but it means that the storage sites fill up a lot slower.

Only one little problem. On April 7, 1977 , President Carter banned the reprocessing of commercial reactor spent nuclear fuel. Here in this country (alone as usual) only the military can reclaim spent fuel. The rationale at the time was the concern about diverting of the plutonium through theft. One might claim that leaving the old Soviet arsenal unattended with the keys in the door for 15 years makes the diversion of trace amounts of plutonium in spent fuel rods less of an issue, but you never know. So if we as a nation decide to move forward with new nuclear power plants then we are going to have to readdress this issue of reclaimed fuel. In many ways it doesn't make sense to proceed without it.

So there you have it. A little start in the discussion of whether nuclear power is going to take a bigger place in our futures. There are a lot of issues that go along with this that can't be covered all at once but one thing is certain; nuclear power can produce a lot of energy and we are going to need something pretty soon. Is this the right approach? I have no clue as usual... There ED - more science ;)
Here a few potentially interesting resources on the issue for anyone interested. Though googling such topics will no doubt land you on some watch list somewhere. Though I cannot imagine the few degenerate souls who on occasion read this stuff, not already being on several....

1) Long Term Storage and Disposal of Spent Fuel http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Magazines/Bulletin/Bull281/28104681520.pdf
2) Waste Management in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf04.html)
3) Spent Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing (interesting Jordanian presentation/symposium)
4) US Dept of Energy Site on Yucca Mountain


Crazy Talk About Energy Conservation

Inconvenient truth in far less than 328 pages. Oil is becoming more scarce and most of it that is left belongs to somebody else who doesn't like us. Making matters worse, there are an enormous number of items made from petrochemicals that don't get ejected from an engine's exhaust (plastics anybody?). The energy content of petroleum (~25-50% greater than coal for example) matched with the relative ease of extracting it (and consequently lower energy costs associated with its recovery) have made oil our favorite energy source. So much so that the U.S.A. gobbles it up at a rate of 20,680,000 barrels/day!

If the U.S.A. is to remain an economic power in the future I believe we will need to invoke a very radical energy policy. [(i.e., past ~ 2040 when all projections show exhaustion of petroleum at CURRENT rates of consumption and assuming we aren't fighting over the last drops (- assumes that China and India don't continue to increase their consumption...)] Below are a series of debate points which might be considered as part of an aggressive energy conservation policy. Some are big and some are small. Let the games begin!

Proposal 0: Add a 50 cent/gallon tax on gas at the pumps to help fund infrastructure requirements. (Gee Pliny why don't you just ease into the discussion with a soft pitch...)

Proposal 1: Bail out the US auto industry before it collapses but require that in 24 months all their cars must make at least 30 mpg. In 5 years 40 mpg. In 7 years 50 mpg. In 5 years begin a progressive excise tax on a vehicle's fuel consumption. Exceptions only for demonstrable work or farm vehicles. Government fleet purchases only cars with >= 30 mpg immediately. Strictly enforce energy efficient speed limits.

Proposal 2: Eliminate truck borne delivery greater than 50 miles. Big-rig trucks are at best estimated to be able to move one ton of freight ~ 59 miles per gallon of fuel. Rail transport can carry the same ton somewhere between 203 and 423 miles depending upon who's doing the estimates. Road wear and tear and pollution would also be decreased. (Requires upgrade to nation's rail system of course)

Proposal 3: Reduce petrochemical fertilizer use by 50% in 3 years. Reduced yields but currently large surpluses particularly of corn.

Proposal 4: Only recyclable plastic to be used in packaging in 2 years. Eliminate excess packing materials.

Proposal 5: No incandescent lights or new lamps manufactured in 2 years. LED lamps only in 5 years.

Proposal 6: Cease all exports of fossil fuels in 12 months. Preserve our stocks for strategic reserves and products such as pharma that need petrochemicals.

Proposal 7: Require 25% increase in energy efficiency in all new construction in 2 years. Additional 15% in 4 years.

Proposal 8: 25% of grid power from nuclear reactors in 10 years. One-to-one replacement of all oil-fired plants in 20 years. (Reduced power supply offset by previous conservation efforts and reduced demand.)

Proposal 9: Optimize time changes to reduce need for work lighting.

Proposal 10: Enhance mass transit and bicycle lanes.

Misc. Got to plug the old service. Navy moves to all nuclear force by 2035. Naval nuclear power plants have proven very robust and reliable and the strategic advantages of such power will offset the added costs in the lifetimes of these ships (30-50 years). Ships in port short of fuel are of no use.

These are just some ideas – some are no doubt just loco! What are your suggestions?


Human Biology and Democracy

"Discourse is most productive near the very limits of civility"


Today I hope to push those boundaries a bit. Maybe even overshoot them somewhat. The topic is not the impact of democracy on the pursuit or teaching of biological science but rather to begin a discussion of the implications to democracy derived from our understanding of biological science. The question is a legitimate one; is democracy a fundamentally unstable form of government based upon what we know about the real nature of man. If so, what if any are reasonable alternatives. Let's start with something completely obvious...

Democracy is unnatural

That's a bit of a gauntlet to throw right off. Is humankind special or are we just a particularly inventive primate? This is at the crux of any debate on the stability of democracy. Democracy is predicated on a special view of humankind as something far removed from the animal kingdom and the biological world. As such it is derived from a highly idealized and separate view of humanity or its relationship to the whole of creation. Democracy thrives in an environment of self-motivated and enlightened souls endowed with abundant free will yet possessing a strong love for community, or so we are told. But is that a legitimate view of humankind? Are we essentially noble creatures or self-serving beasts who will do almost anything to survive. Many of the problems we face today are complicated by our unwillingness to answer that question truthfully.

One of the arguments we hear from the religious right fairly frequently is that without objective 'truth' many of our institutions are at risk. (As if the mere believing in a special place for ourselves somehow really changes the truth of our nature.) I happen to agree with them on this point - though for completely different reasons. I believe man really is just a particularly inventive primate and any arrangements which in the long run require him to be something else will fail in time. If man is not special, then governments designed for special beings (arguably like democracy) will not endure. Imperfect man the animal may need help in achieving a stable form of government or society. But that will never happen without understanding our basic nature. Theists of course think they have the answer to that one but religion too suffers from the same flaw as democracy - its foundation is the special nature of man which does not exist. If science is correct then the way we construct government may or may not be badly flawed.

Our collective perception is that humans have a strong sense of the importance of community even sometimes at the expense of the individual. Certainly this is true on occasion and these traits can be successfully nurtured or redirected through certain kinds of conditioning like military training. As Spock said while sliding down the glass during his protracted (but impermanent) death scene, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." Noble sentiments about self-sacrifice and community are the bread and butter of politics but there is a small problem with the science. Man is just another product of evolution (to the best of our knowledge at this time). Evolution or biology is about individual survival - not populations. In other words evolution is about the needs of the one exclusive of the needs of the many. But a society must be predicated on the needs of the many not only the one; i.e., on the needs of populations if they are ever going to work. Society is, therefore, at some level unnatural (certainly once we reach the size of nations) in a strictly scientific sense. That's a huge stumbling block. Our nature is a product of Nature. A stable society must struggle to nurture those traits most conducive to the collective welfare of all, while mitigating humankind's nature forged over millennia of natural selection and individual competition. It would seem that a realistic appraisal of human nature would be very helpful to those efforts. How successfully a society balances (or ruthlessly suppresses) those forces is in large part a measure of its longevity.

The affects of our animal origins are everywhere. For example, our individual nature and motivations help explain the persistence of injustice. Guilty or innocent, the handling of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners violates every U.S. Constitutional guarantee conferred upon the accused. Yet there has been no rebellion, no storming of the Capitol in defense of fairness and the law. Some people complain but no real skin is put in the game by the overwhelming majority. In some ways we haven't come very far at all. Three million years ago some of Lucy's kin and countrymen no doubt ignored her cry rather than risk injury in a collective defense against that leopard that killed her. They, like us, were probably just content to know it wasn't them. So predators, politicos and tyrants continue to flourish when minimal effort by the masses could stop them cold. In the context of survival of the individual rather than the group, that all makes perfect sense. Nobility is very expensive. Why take risks unnecessarily. Leaders know this to be true. For all our protestations to the contrary we generally avoid conflict that doesn't directly affect us – or which isn't made to appear as if it has dire consequences to us personally through the skilled art of manipulation.

At its most basic level democracy depends upon aggregate self-interest. The theory is pretty simple. If people vote for their own interests, and these interests are fairly universal, then government will represent the needs of the majority of its people by simple default. But problems arise almost immediately because individuals, simple animals that we are, rarely consider consequences beyond the immediate. The recent election was a classic example of this. Regardless of the desirability of the result, there is not doubt that many people stopped fretting about potential future dangers to national security from bomb-laden terrorists when faced with the immediacy of the economic down turn and voted differently. (A meltdown in the hand is worth two in the future...)

So what are inventive primates to do if they want to create stable governments? Perhaps we should take a lesson from a cockroach. A favorite book in our household is "The Roaches Have No King" by Daniel Evan Weiss. The book chronicles the efforts of one particularly industrious cockroach who dreams of the possibilities that would be opened up if he and his brethren could ever work together. His efforts to organize and direct a group effort all end badly. Rude as it no doubt is, the book makes the claim that ultimately enlightened self-interest is probably the best approach to life and its ultimate expression, governance. If you want it to work, that is.

What is enlightened self-interest? Nothing more than pragmatic realism. As we mentioned earlier, religious people often argue that in the absence of theology morality automatically becomes relative. You know what - I agree with them. It's clear from a cursory study of history that morality has always been relative and pliable even within the so-called absolutes of the various faiths. So does that mean that we can't create a reasonable moral model for a society? That's just silly. Sorry, but the answer is yes, we can. The broad strokes of it are pretty simple. It starts with the familiar Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But with a caveat. Perhaps we would have been better served if the Founders had written, "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; within evolving and carefully considered limits." The individual is most content when allowed to pursue his or her own path free of any restrictions which are not needed to protect other's rights or which endanger the innocent. That looks suspiciously like the Golden Rule... That is the first element of pragmatic realism. Create only those rules needed to provide the broadest societally stable range of opportunities and securities for each citizen based upon our knowledge at the time. And not one rule more. In principle that's about it for the short term. That may well be all that is required to create an idealized democracy but is not enough to give it longevity. At least two factors threaten its eden-like existence.

The first place where the trouble lies is in the definition of what is central to our own needs and constitutes the rights of others. Human evolution has resulted in brains that can ponder the presumed consequences of a wide variety of esoteric issues far removed from Maslow's Hierarchy. So instead of limiting our choices to those that affect the availability of food, collective security, the welfare and future opportunity of our offspring, or shelter, we machinate on such critical survival issues as the theoretical and theological consequences of allowing gay couples to wed and so on. How is one to assess issues in order to determine what is legitimately a threat a which are just really no one's business? Let's take the cases of pedophilia and homosexuality as examples since they come up often enough. The pedophile's pursuits clearly violate the rules about harming the innocent. They probably are hard wired that way and may not be able to help what they feel, however neither can a wolf nor a tiger and we would see no problem in preventing those predators from 'expressing their natures' by devouring our young. Enlightenment is not he same thing as stupidity or lack of accountability. Understanding is not synonymous with acceptance. Enlightenment is really nothing more than making decisions based upon truth. That's objective proof for those about to pounce... Rather than requiring each parent to pursue and neutralize these sexual predators society is justified in creating laws to off load the individual burden. Society can justify this because it protects the innocent and frees up adults to pursue more mutually beneficial activities as well as standardizing responses and penalties for real threats. Justifiable morality is the best we can hope for when absolutes are removed. However, using the same logic it is hard to make the case that the marriage of two gay adults constitutes a clear and present danger to the rest of society. In my opinion a huge part of enlightenment is distinguishing true harm or threat from mere perceptions of danger. Some may find gays threatening in some way or based upon this or that belief, but an enlightened society should be able to determine that such risks are mere perceptions rather than objective realities. One can believe what they want but society must determine what, if any actions are permissible in light of these beliefs. Pedophiles are a true danger while gays are only perceived as such by some. The minimalist democracy previously described would recognize these distinctions and ignore mere perception. That may sound great but this is difficult to accomplish in a true democracy as individuals will vote in accordance with their perceptions rather than objective reality (measure 8 anybody?). In that case about the only hope one has is that one of those activist judges everybody complains about may decide that a Rosa Parks really can sit where she wants... Those Founders were pretty smart guys.

A variation on this is the single issue voter. Such a person, for what ever reason, decides that one item is the lynch pin of society and won't vote for anyone who thinks otherwise. This makes for some strange political bedfellows as our recent (and not so recent) history demonstrates. Imperialist white male neocons aligned with Christians of all flavors on the topic of abortion while they conveniently ignored all the other less than Christian activities that resulted in the deaths of many non-fetuses. How does a democracy survive the threat of such strongly polarizing issues? One fact which complicates these discussions is that sometimes they really are issues central to a society or really are issues of objective truth. It's understandable that single issue voters were common in the election of 1860 for example. Only the future will reveal whether the abortion debate ultimately is as divisive or important to the nation's continued existence. Frankly I have no clue.
Long-term interests of society

A hard as the afore mentioned problems are, the next one is even worse. How do you take a primate forged by natural selection to live in the moment and make them care about the future? So far, it's been a mixed bag and many conservation efforts originated in a desire to preserve a resource for purely selfish reasons. Conservation is an extremely advanced concept that has no biological precedent nor any basis in natural selection up to now. We inventive primates appear to be the first such creatures on this planet that can at least conceptualize the impact of today's actions on future events and even more; can take actions to alter that impact. That is extraordinary. Future planning is beyond the biological programming of any antecedent species. For all of biological baggage and limitations, we have invented (or developed) empathy and conservation.

Natural selection works on individuals in the here and now. It is quite possible (and even observable) for an ancestral individual to be successful and sire more offspring by consuming resources which will ultimately endanger future generations of the species, maybe even leading to extinction. Populations collapse all the time in nature because individuals live in the here and now and are not innately linked to (or concerned with) any collective future. Yes, rodents often store supplies for a rainy day but they aren't storing it for any college fund - its for their own consumption. Seeds falling from a bird feeder being snatched up by squirrels may provide the only observable example of trickle down economics but the birds aren't trying to be magnanimous - they're just messy and there are certain limits to the dexterity of a beak. Nature is not cruel it is just extremely apathetic. And we are its children. World oil supplies are finite and dwindling but you don't see many people melting down their Hummers - until the price of gas hurts them directly. It's almost always about us.

This only scratches the surface of the issues. Hopefully this provides some food for thought and discussion. Can hairless apes swing a democracy for the long term? What do we do to engender objective decisions regarding rights and limits? Or do we care? How do we prepare for the future when most only care about today? Any thoughts?


Reach Out

I remember when Bush was re-elected how completely miserable I was on that first morning. The sense of uncertainty and fear for the nation's future. I suspect a lot of people feel that way this morning. I am going to try something different today. I pledge myself to reach out to some of those people, listen to their concerns and hope to make them understand that we are all in this together After all it's my nation, it's their nation and it's our nation. Can we work together to find common purpose? Yes We Can....

A great day to you all...


Pliny's Election Central: Congratulations President Elect Obama!

Pliny's electoral map: Bringing our entire staff to bear to report the returns as they happen - or as we steal them from the stuffed shirts who will blab incessantly instead of just reporting the news. Or maybe they'll be distracted by some late breaking and earth-shaking car chase or celebrity meltdown. Watch the pretty color changes on this map as the results stream in. Unlike those uninspiring animations that the network spends millions on, here at P.E.C. watch as the size of each candidate's head changes to reflect the results until only one big head remains! P.E.C. - Your only choice for imbalanced reporting. If you want unbiased reporting your only hope is to go channel Edward R Murrow.

8:00 am. Breaking News!:
....McCain working class mascots including Joe the Plumber to form Men-at-Work II band when election is over....
.....Former Mayor Richard J Daley vows to cast a vote today in Chicago - and bring along many of his new friends....
.....Large numbers of retirees in Florida moving toward polling stations in scenes eerily reminiscent of a George Romero film....
.....Detroit police and fire braced for rioting or celebration depending upon election results. suggesting owners of blue cars and red cars keep them off the streets today.....
.....McCain aids blame switch to daylight savings time for Indiana's close polling - century inadvertently changed to 21st when the clocks changed.....

ONLY on P.E.C.
10:00 am. Breaking News!:
....Oregon voters slow to return mail-in ballots. Experts blame medical marijuana law....
.....New Hampshire precincts rush to tally results to be first to report. California and New York say 'big deal, we have voting booths with more people'....
.....Texas shows its complete lack of interest in new federal development dollars for the next 4 years by backing McCain....
.....New Orleans voters turned away unless they have lived in the same house for more than 4 years....
.....Anchorage; Obama asks Palin to serve the nation by keeping an eye on Russia for the next 4 years....
.....McCain's doctors report he is suffering from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome induced by too many air quotes....

11:00 am. Breaking News!:
.....Kansas, pollsters report that the Rapture has definitely hurt McCain.....
.....South Bend; Karl Rove reportedly trapped in bell tower by angry mob.....
...... Columbus; nation uneasy with 20 electoral votes at stake in state which hosts the creation museum....
......Oil companies drop gas prices another 50 cents in last ditch effort to shore up McCain....
...... New York City; GOP saves money by replacing Rudy Giuliani with parrot that only repeats 'awk, 911, 911, awk'....
.....Malcom X's family offended that no attempts have been made to link Obama to the famed militant....
.....FOX news division admits that tomorrow 'they may have some splaning to do' to angry viewers who expect a McCain landslide....
.....Undisclosed location; Joe Biden's security detail asked by DNC to put their feet in his mouth to prevent him from doing same...

1:00 pm. Breaking News!:
.....pboyfloyd admits that GOP polices have always been for the birds....
....Houston; Aids to T Boone Pickens concerned about what to do with remaining unslung feces...
....Osama bin Laden still at large....
....Washington D.C., aids to President Bush hopeful that their new charts and graphs will convince their boss that the 22nd Amendment pretty much puts a period to his political career....
.....Pennsylvania; GOP mudslinging backfires, voters realize that no one single person could be a godless, Muslim, Marxist, socialist, terrorist, tax loving, hater of America and still have time for public appearances....
.....Phoenix; Straight talk express expected to make its last station call at around 1 am.....
.....Nation; Americans like that Sara Palin is a hockey mom, vote to keep her in that role....
.....Minneapolis; voters having a hard time forgiving Al Franken for 'Stuart Saves His Family'....
.....Virginia; Obama holds slight lead in number of attorneys on call to watchdog election....

2:00 pm. Breaking News!:....undisclosed location; with its 5th visitor P.E.C. pulls even with NPR in reaching the voters....
.....New Mexico; 1500 out of work movie extras hired to flood across the border on cue for assembled press to highlight the dangers of illegal immigration.....
......Americans flocking to polls in numbers not seen since before the last Civil War....
......Timbuktuu; Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers and Jesse Jackson expressed their surprise that attendance was so low at their DNC sponsored retreat....
.......West Virginia; McCain insiders worry that candidate's numbers fall by 1/3 of a point every time voters hear him laugh....
.......Los Angeles; GOP insider leaks that McCain considering announcing support for gay marriage and women's right to choose at 4 pm PST since Midwestern Bible belt will have already voted and godless west coasters just on the way home from work.....
......Nebraska; responding to a reporter who persisted in questioning Obama's experience, a state campaign worker replied, "If he had more experience he wouldn't want this crappy job".....

7:00 pm, Breaking News!:
.....Atlanta; CNN's holographic reporters at large incredibly lame until Galactic Emperor dials in....
.....Lexington Kentucky; state grabs label of first among losers....
.....Scientists at Cal Tech collaborating with Cornell team to greatly accelerate rate of continental subduction to reduce flyover time between coasts....
.....RNC chooses California governor to deliver concession if needed; DNC chooses Howard Dean - "i'll be back vs a guttural yell....
.....Phoenix; McCain campaign asks band at headquarters to stop playing 'Nearer My God to Thee'.....

9:00 pm, Breaking News!:
......Key predictor in election going for Obama - High level GOP strategists seeking numerous book deals!!!.......
......Pliny scoops national media by calling Florida!.....
......Deep south best hope no disasters occur in next 4 years....

10:00 pm, Breaking News!:
.......Fat lady seen doing the scales in Grant Park.....
.......Thanks to George W Bush! He screwed up so badly that someone other than a rich white guy wins the Presidency!.....

John McCain delivers a wonderful concession speech

My life spans Rosa Parks to Barack Obama .......Tomorrow all of America's children may wake up thinking that nothing is beyond their grasp. What will we achieve when all of us feel a part of this great land. America the Beautiful!........ Goodnight all, and to all a good night! The healing of our nation begins tomorrow.

Mr Obama, Your Grandmother Was Proud of You

It is no solace to you today but she got to see the man you became. And she got to see you change the country for the better. She got to see the crowds of people who responded to you. Not that you will ever see this but many of us send you our heartfelt condolences on this day when you may well be on the eve of gaining a great prize but have also lost someone very special.