Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Security? Right.

I cancelled my PayPal account today. I was fed up, as it were. Teach you to tell me what my password can or can't be.

So here's the issue. Of course, PayPal is trying - rather desperately - to account for people's general idiocy and inability to protect themselves online. You can't have "password" as your password, and that's fair. But the rules are getting ridiculous. 8 to 12 characters long, lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers, symbols, no words from the dictionary. But telling people how to choose passwords will do little to make them safer.

Case in point: those family stickers people put on their cars. I passed a van on the way home this afternoon that was particularly bad. There were five family members: mother, father, eldest son, younger daughter, infant daughter. Their first names were listed underneath the images. Add to this the license plate, which usually indicates more than just state of residence - many states list the county, and if they don't, certain letter and number combinations give this information away. Specialty plates are even worse (now, not only do I know your names, your family's relative ages, and that you're from Pike County, Kentucky, but I also know you're a graduate of Auburn or a disabled veteran). Icing on the cake would be the sports stickers - they tell you the child's name, the sport they play and often what jersey number they wear at what school. And all this information is broadcast freely from the back of your car as you drive down the street.

So I implore the world... think! It's not about following specific rules in specific instances. It's about common sense. If you remember what that is.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Don't try this at home... or do

I just wanted to share with you a little bit of the kinds of things I do on my days off.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On the 9th anniversary

As Yeats put it,
Some burn damp [firewood], others may consume
The entire combustible world in one small room
As though dried straw, and if we turn about
The bare chimney is gone black out
Because the work had finished in that flare.
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
As 'twere all life's epitome.
What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Speaking of that Dawkins fellow...

Holy crap on a stick, Richard Dawkins has written a children's book.

Yeah, I know. That Richard Dawkins.

Why am I suddenly reminded of the scene from The Simpsons, when Christopher Walken reads Goodnight Moon to a group of kids?

(Sorry, it's just too funny.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Darwin's God

I just recently finished reading Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God, a roughly ten-year-old (first printing in 2000) exposition on why evolution is true, and why (ostensibly) that doesn't matter to religion.

For the most part, I couldn't help but agree with everything he said. For the most part.

The first three-quarters of the book is written by Miller the molecular biologist. He attacks with scientific rigor and reason the "anti-scientific" positions which many religious people argue (or, at least, their vocal proponents argue): God as charlatan (pure creationism), God as magician (intelligent design), and God as mechanic (deism). Examples abound. Scientific experiments are explained in accessible terms. There are even diagrams.
Miller also quite eloquently explains, as he debunks these unscientific "theories," why basing a theology on any portion of scientific understanding is a dangerous game. The Victorians, who believed the universe ran as a great mechanistic machine, found themselves trapped in a deism that couldn't handle the scientific discoveries of quantum mechanics. The proponents of intelligent design, in pointing to supposedly "irreducibly complex" systems and claiming the handiwork of God, lose spiritual ground every time one of those systems is explained scientifically. One's religion and one's science should be separated, because science is always making progress; that progress should not be resisted because we have placed our religion within the gaps in the current scientific framework.
He then turns his criticism (and rightly so, I think) toward the "militant atheists," those within the scientific community all too willing to dress their own personal opinions with the cloak of scientific authority. He expounds upon what evolution tells us and what it does not; he explains that evolution, and science, do not have to be based upon a philosophical materialism in order to be believed or trusted. Miller does an excellent job of explaining that this use of evolution as a weapon against religious belief (cf Dennett, Dawkins, Wilson, Lewontin, etc) is likely what causes the ordinary person to resist evolution as an idea. We need our lives to have meaning; it is not science's place to say whether or not our lives actually do have meaning. But when the fierce proponents of materialism use science to bludgeon purpose and virtue, ordinary folks will obviously react to science negatively. The entire "debate" hurts both sides.

But after all of this positive work, Miller explains that he still believes in God, not only because God and science can be separate, but also because the science of quantum indeterminacy and random mutation gives God a way to interact with our world.
So in the end, Miller has done precisely what he warned against doing - using current scientific understanding, which is always subject to change, as validation of his particular theology.
I can't say that I totally disagree with his assessment. I myself find the inherent indeterminacy of quantum mechanics to be a tremendously beautiful - spiritual, even - system, within which anything and everything has its chance to become reality. But I will not balance my spiritual belief upon the knife-edged fact of quantum mechanics being true. It's as true as we know anything to be, sure. In that sense, it's a scientific theory which is more valid than those which preceded it, and so I will argue that a philosophy based on quantum mechanics is more valid than one based on a scientific theory which has since been disproven. But that's not quite the same as building up a philosophy/theology from a scientific theory.

In the end, I mainly agree with Miller simply because I believe in what he's trying to do. I believe that science is not self-sufficient as a philosophy of life, and I believe that religion (spirituality) is not meant to explain the nature of the universe. When you behold a piece of art, knowing how it was technically constructed, or knowing that it is religious in nature, is each not enough to appreciate it. That greater human passion - wonder - lies at the heart of both the scientific and religious drives, and we are not whole without encompassing within ourselves both our reason as well as our emotion.

As Darwin himself said in the closing sentence of Origin:
There is grandeur in this view of life; with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being evolved.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wiprud's Katrina

The boys and I took in dinner and the symphony this evening, witnessing the world premier of Theodore Wiprud's newest violin concerto, Katrina. I must say that I was impressed, especially since I'm not generally a fan of postmodern classical music.
In the first movement (Les Bons Temps), the imagery - of a city inundated by water - is palpable. The bluesy strains of the violin are overwhelmed by thunder.
The second movement (Acadiana) was, in a word, haunted. Whistling to yourself in the dark. A ghost of a melody.
The third movement (Fly Away), however, was the only portion of the piece which left something to be desired. A melody tried to build, but was ultimately unsuccessful. The concerto ends on the upward swing of a phrase, but without flourish. Weakly.
The audience response was lukewarm.

To be fair, a brand-new piece is a difficult sell in between Copland's Rodeo ballet and Dvorak's New World Symphony, but all in all the program (quite Americana) was sound.

But perhaps the ending is appropriate. Where have we gone since Katrina? What has become of New Orleans? While the city struggles to recover, still, from a devastating blow, what can they do but end on the highest note they can manage?

Incidentally, I was reminded of how much I enjoy the first movement of From the New World. We have so much spirit in this place... I can only hope we never truly lose it.

It's the end again

So it appears that this Friday is now the day the world will end - that's right, tomorrow - and while the prediction may have changed from horrendous doomsday to whimpering, quiet end, I wanted to say two things.

First, the entire idea of the Rapture is a tremendously selfish, individualistic and ultimately cruel and inhuman one.

Second, Harold Camping suffered a stroke shortly after his failed prediction in May.

Make of it what you will.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Nobel note

This year's Nobel Prize in Physics went jointly to three researchers, "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae." Supernovae (which are massive, old, exploding stars) are actually quite good as "standard candles" in observational astronomy, because they're so bright (they can outshine an entire galaxy, in fact, if only for a short while) and they appear to have a very predictable driving mechanism (such that the assumption of distant and nearby supernovae behaving the same seems to be a valid one). So finding supernovae of differing brightness indicates they are at different distances (dimmer = farther away), and additionally, looking at the shift of light output in terms of the light's wavelength (redshift) tells us how fast the supernovae are moving relative to us. If you look at distance (plotted in the figure as bolometric magnitude, which is another way of saying brightness) versus the speed (redshift, z), you find the following relationship (from the Nobel website):
Basically, taking different cosmological models with differing predictions about the content of the universe (how much is made up of matter, for instance), you can examine your data to see which of the models fit. The Nobel Prize winners interpreted their results to mean that the universe is expanding, and that expansion is accelerating. This has led to the now familiar term "dark energy," the hypothesis that some form of unseen energy is propelling the universe ever more quickly outward from the Big Bang.

But I don't particularly want to talk about the Nobel Prize. I want to talk about some current research which argues against, not the data the Nobel Prize winners collected, but their interpretation of it.

A recent paper by Christos Tsagas of Aristotle University of Thessalonika, building on previous work and observations by others, argues that it's all in your perception (or, more exactly, in your reference frame). You might be able to observe the universe expanding outward, and at an accelerating pace, even if it wasn't actually true - if you happened to be sitting in a local region of the universe that was moving relative to the average (a phenomenon now termed "dark flow"). Our relative motion, here in the Milky Way, could make the universe appear to be expanding faster and faster, when really it's just us moving. This is demonstrated in the figure from the paper:

We all are familiar with relative motion, even if we don't know the terminology. Imagine you're in your car, stopped at a red light, and you've been fiddling with the radio. Suddenly, you're rolling backward... oh no!... until you realize that your foot is firmly planted on the brake, and it's actually the car next to you moving forward, and not you moving backward. Or imagine you're walking on a moving walkway. If you walk in the direction of the moving walkway, from someone standing at Gate B17 you look like you're walking twice as fast. But Gate B17 guy sees that you're hardly moving at all, if you're walking against the direction of the moving walkway. Now imagine this on a larger scale. What if our whole galaxy - in fact, a huge, 2.5-billion-light-year chunk of spacetime - was moving relative to the rest of the universe? It's possible that we'd see relative motion and misinterpret it as absolute motion. In the case of the accelerated expansion of the universe (the topic of this year's Nobel in Physics), we generally assume we're the stationary observer at Gate B17, but perhaps we're really the idiot trying to walk against the direction of the moving walkway.

This isn't a crazy idea, nor is it based in fantasy. It's actually a very simple argument: we're moving relative to the actual rest frame, and this skews our perception. But it's in direct competition with the interpretation that just won the Nobel Prize. So what do we do? We do science. Keep observing, keep testing, and keep refining our interpretations until we figure out which answer is ultimately correct.

Tsagas, C. (2011). Peculiar motions, accelerated expansion, and the cosmological axis Physical Review D, 84 (6) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.84.063503

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What's wrong

If you're over 18 and you voted for American Idol and not the US Presidency, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you complain about the government's right to tax citizens while using public roads to drive to pick up your social security check, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you'd rather watch Dr. Phil than read Schopenhauer, you're what's wrong with this country. [Corollary - if you prefer watch any daytime TV over reading any book, your life depresses me.]

If you own a truck and have never hauled anything in the bed or towed anything with it, you're what's wrong with this country. [Corollary - if you own a truck and you drive around with the tailgate down because you think it improves your aerodynamics, you're an idiot.]

If you know less American history than the immigrant you're trying to keep out, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you think The Onion is a real news source and propagate its headlines based on this assumption, you're what's wrong with this country.

If the difference between there, their and they're eludes you, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you believe vaccines cause autism, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you agree that Fox News is "Fair and Balanced," you're what's wrong with this country. [Corollary - if you think most news reporting in the US is generally unbiased, I'm tremendously sorry.]

If you think the opinions of a scientist who has spent his or her entire career studying something in a systematic and in-depth way and a talk show host briefed on the topic five minutes before going on air are equally valid, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you cut people off in the parking lot of your church, you're what's wrong with this country.

If you rant about what's wrong with this country and fail to do anything about it, you're what's wrong with this country.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Neutrinos and the future of physics

The scientific community is buzzing, or one would imagine we are, after news of this paper came out last week. Could neutrinos, those mysterious particles which hardly interact with normal matter, really be traveling faster than the speed of light? It was all over the news. The collaboration held a news conference. Hints of another cold fusion fiasco creep into conversations.

For the benefit of those who don't feel like trudging through the 24 page paper, here is a brief summary (with pictures!):

The detector is called OPERA, which stands for "Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus" (I know, that should be OPETA, but hey, you decide on the acronym first and then fit the name to it). It was designed to measure neutrinos coming from the super proton synhrotron at CERN. The neutrinos produced (as a byproduct, incidentally) at CERN are mainly muon neutrinos (remember that there are three "flavors" of neutrinos), and OPERA, located just under 500 miles away in the Italian national lab of Gran Sasso, hopes to see tau neutrinos. Neutrinos can spontaneously change flavor (the theory, actually, is not that they discretely change, but that they exist as superpositions of all three flavors in various mixing ratios which "condense" into one type when interacting with matter), and measuring the number of muon neutrinos which change into tau neutrinos will help to determine all sorts of interesting physical things (like whether or not neutrinos have any mass... photons don't, but electrons do). Here's what OPERA looks like:

As an added bonus, the detector measures the time spectra of the neutrinos as they pass through it, and the neutrinos, just like the protons that produced them originally (back at CERN), come in bunches. One of these bunches looks roughly like this:

The red curve is the proton time spectrum (from CERN). The black data points make up the neutrino time spectrum from Gran Sasso.
So after these two time spectra are collected for a given "extraction" (ie, a given bunch), they can be compared. Here's the kicker. The curves can be adjusted to fit one another only if the scientists assume the neutrinos which were observed in the OPERA detector are traveling faster than the speed of light. Not much faster, mind you - only 0.0025% - but over the hundreds of kilometers from start to finish, that amounts to 60 nanoseconds (ns). This number they give with a "six sigma" stamp of approval... which, in a nutshell, means that the 60ns result has only a 0.0000002% chance of being a statistical fluke.

Ok... so we have a result that seems to indicate the neutrinos are traveling faster than the speed of light. What I'd like to do now is not argue whether or not this result is correct, but instead point out a common fallacy, if you will, with regard to physics results which may or may not alter the paper's conclusions.

Fallacy #1: More statistics = better result
The authors of the paper make a big deal of the fact that around 16,000 events went into their data analysis. This is a large number of events, and naively it is true that statistical uncertainty goes down as sample size goes up - for something that follows a gaussian distribution (aka "bell curve"), for example (like the exam grades of a typical physics class), the statistical uncertainty increases with the square root of N, where N is the number of events. This means that for a sample size of 100, the uncertainty is 10 events, or 10%. Increase your sample to 1000 and the uncertainty is 32, or 3%. If you had 16,000 events, your statistical uncertainty is 126 events, or a meager 0.8%! So it appears that more stats does mean better results... but this neglects a very important point, and that point is systematic uncertainty.
There are two types of uncertainty in any experiment, as any student who's taken a basic science lab will tell you. Statistical uncertainty is the uncertainty inherent in the number of samples, but systematic uncertainty is a totally different beast. Systematic uncertainties are those which you introduce - intentionally or not - to the experiment, just by the way you do it. Is there an uncertainty in the length of the ruler you used to measure your experimental distances? Is there an uncertainty in the way you recorded the time? Sometimes, it can be very difficult to account for all of these experimental biases, because you may not even know they exist. Maybe you have some bacteria in a petri dish, and you've drawn a grid on the glass of the petri dish to allow you to measure how much the bacteria are moving. So you check the locations of your bacteria at noon, and again at three, and again on Tuesday. But did you stand in exactly the same location when you measured the bacteria against the grid? Did you lean over the petri dish in precisely the same way? Light bends through glass (refraction, the same reason a straw looks bent in a glass of water), so the angle of your eyes to the surface of the petri dish will change, very slightly, the way you see the grid and the bacteria together. Catch that? Sneaky. Yet another systematic uncertainty.
Systematic uncertainties do not get better with more data points. Systematic uncertainties are completely independent of the number of events in a given experiment. In fact, the whole data set - be it 3 events or 3 million - can suffer the same systematic uncertainty, which can sometimes cancel out, but sometimes shift the entire thing one direction or another. Consider your petri dish bacteria. If you drew your grid on the inside of the dish, before putting the whole thing together and filling it with bacteria, then what you see from the outside is always slightly off from what really exists on the inside. Even if you always stand in the same place and look in the same way, the entire grid may still be slightly off from reality, and this would offset your entire data collection. This potential offset is why, in my field, we always try to do experiments in as many different ways and at as many different labs as possible. It serves as a check. If we do things here at our lab and someone else does the same things at their lab, and our results are always offset from one another, a systematic uncertainty is said to exist between the two labs. Two methods can also suffer from a systematic uncertainty between them, such as measuring a nuclear reaction "forward" (oxygen+alpha->proton+fluorine) and "backward" (proton+fluorine->oxygen+alpha).
There are ways to estimate systematic uncertainties, and the more often you do something, the better you get at it (the more a piece of lab equipment is used, for instance, the better characterized it is). But OPERA has only been running a few years (this may seem like a long time, but for neutrino experiments, it's not). The amount of data they've collected is still being analyzed. So the potential for as-yet-unknown systematic uncertainties certainly exists (the authors of the paper even admit this fact explicitly, saying "the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed anomaly").

Now, to be fair, it's entirely possible that this result is real. While the observation of supernova SN1987a seemed to preclude the possibility of neutrinos traveling faster than light, an earlier result from the MINOS experiment indicated that neutrinos they measured might have been going a bit too fast (that experiment, however, had big enough uncertainties that the neutrinos could have been going light speed). String theory allows for faster-than-light travel through fluctuations in the "quantum foam" of spacetime. General relativity, however, does not.

So here are some more specific notes for the scientifically-minded reader, with regard to the things I feel are likely suspects in the search for systematic uncertainties.
1) The limits set by SN1987a are for a different energy regime and, more importantly, a different neutrino flavor (anti-electron neutrinos were detected during this event, vs muon neutrinos for OPERA and MINOS). There could be a systematic effect between neutrino flavors, as well as neutrino energy (the OPERA result cannot rule this out).
2) The GPS signals used to determine location and timing had to be taken at the surface, while the laboratories are actually far underground. This leads to an extrapolation, which can lead to uncertainties. Was the curvature of the Earth accounted for? The density and type of the rock?
3) Something I feel is most telling - the neutrino time-of-flight (TOF), which is ultimately compared to the time expected if the neutrinos were going the speed of light to get this "delta TOF" of 60ns, is not actually measured. As I mentioned earlier, the proton time spectra and neutrino time spectra are measured within their respective detectors/labs, and timestamped to within a few nanoseconds. In theory, there is no discrepancy between the timestamps (GPS and cesium-clock generated) at the different labs, but it is even emphasized by the authors themselves that this is not a t(stop)-t(start) kind of experiment. There is nothing that's actually starting a clock when the protons are produced and stopping the clock when a neutrino is seen, and that's because the whole process is statistical (they can't know exactly when a given proton will create a given neutrino, or where). So they do a "maximum likelihood" fit (a fancy, mathematical way of saying "we moved the two curves until they overlapped") to the two time spectra to determine how far off they are from each other. What if there's a systematic uncertainty here? It alters the entire result. What if the neutrino bunch just measured corresponds not to the proton bunch you think it does, but to the one before? It's not that the neutrinos are traveling slightly faster than the speed of light, they're traveling slower, and you're just off by one 'cycle.' I didn't get in the preprint a good description of how they know which neutrino bunch corresponds to which proton bunch, other than simply expecting them to be traveling light speed and assuming that anything falling within a small window around that would be real.

One last humorous note, which I mentioned previously on facebook. Have you ever been working in a spreadsheet program, entering a function into cell B2 that depends on cell D7? Everything is fine unless the content of cell D7 also depends on the value in cell B2... then you get what's known as a recursion error. The functions can't be solved because they each depend on the other, so you end up stuck inside an infinite loop (B2's value leads to D7's which leads to B2's which leads to D7's which leads to...). The OPERA result depends (rather heavily) on GPS timing and position signals. But GPS depends on relativity, and relativity, in turn, depends on the speed of light being constant for all observers (that means neutrinos, too). But if the OPERA result is correct, then the neutrinos have traveled faster than the speed of light, contradicting relativity. If your result contradicts the possibility of your result, how can it be your result?

I've heard a lot of good scientists weigh in on this result and its potential consequences. One real (rather philosophical) question remains. Does this mean the end of physics is looming? Hardly. This is science - doing experiments, drawing conclusions, testing those conclusions with more experiments. Overturning long-held (and often dearly loved) hypotheses is part of the deal, so long as it's done right. Time will tell if this is one of those instances... and won't it be great to know you were there when it happened?

The OPERA Collaboraton: T. Adam, N. Agafonova, A. Aleksandrov, O. Altinok, P. Alvarez Sanchez, S. Aoki, A. Ariga, T. Ariga, D. Autiero, A. Badertscher, A. Ben Dhahbi, A. Bertolin, C. Bozza, T. Brugiére, F. Brunet, G. Brunetti, S. Buontempo, F. Cavanna, A. Cazes, L. Chaussard, M. Chernyavskiy, V. Chiarella, A. Chukanov, G. Colosimo, M. Crespi, N. D'Ambrosios, Y. Déclais, P. del Amo Sanchez, G. De Lellis, M. De Serio, F. Di Capua, F. Cavanna, A. Di Crescenzo, D. Di Ferdinando, N. Di Marco, S. Dmitrievsky, M. Dracos, D. Duchesneau, S. Dusini, J. Ebert, I. Eftimiopolous, O. Egorov, A. Ereditato, L. S. Esposito, J. Favier, T. Ferber, R. A. Fini, T. Fukuda, A. Garfagnini, G. Giacomelli, C. Girerd, M. Giorgini, M. Giovannozzi, J. Goldberga, C. Göllnitz, L. Goncharova, Y. Gornushkin, G. Grella, F. Griantia, E. Gschewentner, C. Guerin, A. M. Guler, C. Gustavino, K. Hamada, T. Hara, M. Hierholzer, A. Hollnagel, M. Ieva, H. Ishida, K. Ishiguro, K. Jakovcic, C. Jollet, M. Jones, F. Juget, M. Kamiscioglu, J. Kawada, S. H. Kim, M. Kimura, N. Kitagawa, B. Klicek, J. Knuesel, K. Kodama, M. Komatsu, U. Kose, I. Kreslo, C. Lazzaro, J. Lenkeit, A. Ljubicic, A. Longhin, A. Malgin, G. Mandrioli, J. Marteau, T. Matsuo, N. Mauri, A. Mazzoni, E. Medinaceli, F. Meisel, A. Meregaglia, P. Migliozzi, S. Mikado, D. Missiaen, K. Morishima, U. Moser, M. T. Muciaccia, N. Naganawa, T. Naka, M. Nakamura, T. Nakano, Y. Nakatsuka, D. Naumov, V. Nikitina, S. Ogawa, N. Okateva, A. Olchevsky, O. Palamara, A. Paoloni, B. D. Park, I. G. Park, A. Pastore, L. Patrizii, E. Pennacchio, H. Pessard, C. Pistillo, N. Polukhina, M. Pozzato, K. Pretzl, F. Pupilli, R. Rescigno, T. Roganova, H. Rokujo, G. Rosa, I. Rostovtseva, A. Rubbia, A. Russo, O. Sato, Y. Sato, A. Schembri, J. Schuler, L. Scotto Lavina, J. Serrano, A. Sheshukov, H. Shibuya, G. Shoziyoev, S. Simone, M. Sioli, C. Sirignano, G. Sirri, J. S. Song, M. Spinetti, N. Starkov, M. Stellacci, M. Stipcevic, T. Strauss, P. Strolin, S. Takahashi, M. Tenti, F. Terranova, I. Tezuka, V. Tioukov, P. Tolun, T. Tran, S. Tufanli, P. Vilain, M. Vladimirov, L. Votano, J. -L. Vuilleumier, G. Wilquet, B. Wonsak, J. Wurtz, C. S. Yoon, J. Yoshida, Y. Zaitsev, S. Zemskova, & A. Zghiche (2011). Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam arXiv arXiv: 1109.4897v1

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why a solar flare won't kill you

In response to a comment on the previous post, I thought it would be good to explain why a solar flare won't cause the end of the world (it's going to take more space than just a comment to clear this mess!). Let's see if I can put some sense into this doomsday discussion.

"To date, Fukushima has already released 168 times the total radiation released from the Hiroshima nuclear bomb detonated in 1945, and the Fukushima catastrophe is now undeniably the worst nuclear disaster in the history of human civilization."
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), radiation levels at the Fukushima Daiichi site are constantly monitored, and display a "general decreasing trend." As for the claim that the Fukushima plants have released 168 times the total radiation released from the Hiroshima bomb, we have to specify a couple things. One thing that must be kept in mind is that radiation, radioactivity and radioactive material are different things. Radiation is the energetic particles which are emitted, via radioactivity (which is the process), by radioactive materials (the "parent"). Radiation affects us in a different way to radioactive materials, because while radiation is gone in an instant, radioactive materials can hang around. So if we're talking about radiation, we're talking about the "instantaneous" dose rate (the dose you'd get from the actual particles of radiation hitting you). At the Fukushima plant, the highest confirmed radiation dose rates recorded (and as I said, they're constantly getting better) were about 80 microsieverts per hour (about 8 mrem in US terminology). This was very near the plant and thus no one was actually exposed to it long-term; if a nuclear plant worker stood there for an hour, he or she would get only 2% of the annual dose we get from natural background radiation. As for radioactive materials, which are a bit more insidious because they can linger, the ongoing monitoring in Japan has picked up trace amounts of materials like iodine-131 and cesium-137. The IAEA reports that very near (under half a mile) from the plant, the highest concentrations in air for these radioactive materials was 3 Becquerel per cubic meter and 9 Becquerel per cubic meter, respectively. No ground contamination of iodine was detected; the ground contamination levels for cesium varied from very little to almost 100 Becquerel per square meter. One becquerel is one radioactive decay in a second - so 100 Becquerel (Bq) is the same as 100 decays per second. That may sound like a lot, but it isn't - at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapon building facility in Colorado, contaminations of 500,000 Bq were detected during the 1970s. (In case you're wondering, the area is now a nature preserve!)
Now, to compare these numbers to other instances of nuclear contamination. The United Nations scientific committee which investigates nuclear incidents produced a map of the cesium-137 depositions in Europe following the Chernobyl accident (and I've already touched several times on why Chernobyl was a "freak accident"). Notice the legend: that's a maximum of nearly 1500 kBq/sq m... or 1,500,000 Bq per square meter. In no way is Fukushima worse than this. And yet, even Chernobyl wasn't that bad. So let's last touch on the comparison to the Hiroshima bomb. The Telegraph ran a story last month claiming that the Fukushima incident was equivalent to 168 nuclear bombs (it's uncertain whether they were the first to do so), without really taking time to clarify what that actually means. The Japanese government has estimated the total amount of cesium-137 released so far (it's been about six months) is 15,000 teraBecquerels (TBq), or 15 followed by fifteen zeros. Governments have been known to overestimate the severity of a disaster in order to receive more international aid, and it is understood that when lives are potentially at stake, underestimating severity is more dangerous. So we know with reasonable certainty that this estimation is in actuality too large (pretend, for the sake of argument, that the 100 Bq per square meter measurement quoted earlier is deposited each day - that would mean you'd get a total deposition of ~150 TBq in the whole of Miyagi prefecture since the accident, about a hundred times less than the government estimate). Now the Telegraph writer is connecting this number - the possible upper limit on the total amount of radioactive cesium-137 released in 6 months' time (notice how specific that is) - with the amount of cesium-137 released by the detonation of Little Boy above Hiroshima in 1945. The report claims that Little Boy released 89 TBq (they actually don't specify if this is just cesium, or total), 168 times less than the Japanese claim. Making this kind of inflammatory comparison is nothing new. But, as it even says in the article, "government experts" continue to argue that the comparison is simply not valid, and for good reason. Nuclear weapons produce different radioactive materials than do nuclear reactors (the entire field of nuclear forensics is based on this fact), and the time scales are vastly different. Bombs are dispersive instruments by design, whereas nuclear reactors are made to be contained. Most importantly, from a public relations point of view, people (wrongly) associate the radiation of a nuclear weapon with the deaths the bomb causes (the vast majority of which are due to the explosion itself: heat, pressure, fire), so the inference drawn from the comparison is that release of radioactivity from a nuclear plant is equivalent to detonation of a nuclear weapon, which is the same as assuming it's the pickle that kills everyone born before 1865. And even so, it's worth noting that the radiation/radioactivity released by the nuclear weapons during WWII have - still - had minimal long-term effects on people in the area.
Long story short, I hardly believe that Fukushima represents the "worst nuclear disaster in the history of human civilization." Chernobyl was worse, and in that instance the plant operators didn't have a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 30-foot-tall tsunami waves to deal with.

"All nuclear power plants are operated in a near-meltdown status. They operate at very high heat, relying on nuclear fission to boil water that produces steam to drive the turbines that generate electricity. Critically, the nuclear fuel is prevented from melting down through the steady circulation of coolants which are pushed through the cooling system using very high powered electric pumps."
The claim that nuclear plants are operated in "near-meltdown status" is absolutely ludicrous, and gives away a complete lack of understanding as to how a nuclear reactor actually operates. Nuclear fuel - typically uranium-235 enriched to a few percent (naturally it comprises under 1% of uranium ore) - is one of a few materials which is fissionable (it can undergo "induced fission"). Left to its own devices, uranium-235 prefers to alpha decay: it emits an alpha particle, which is the same as the nucleus of a helium atom, made up of two protons and two neutrons. Sometimes (less than 0.00000001% of the time, actually), uranium-235 will undergo "spontaneous fission," where instead of an alpha particle, it will break up into two large chunks, plus a bit of energy and a few neutrons. Inside of a reactor, where a lot of uranium-235 is packed into a small space, these neutrons (after being slowed down by water) can hit other uranium-235 nuclei and cause them to fission also (that's "induced fission"). These also produce a few neutrons, which then hit other uranium nuclei, and the process begins what's called a chain reaction, or criticality: the nuclear reaction is self-sustaining. All that energy being released each time a uranium nucleus fissions is being collected in the form of heat to make steam. But this shouldn't be confused with being "near meltdown." Here's why.
Inside of a reactor, there are several things which impede this criticality. First is the water itself: water is a neutron moderator as well as a coolant. A moderator is something which slows the neutrons down. When they first are kicked out of the fissioning nucleus, the original neutrons are actually too high in energy to efficiently set off another fission reaction. If they travel through water first, they lose some of that energy and become "thermalized," making them far more likely to cause another uranium nucleus to fission. Thus, if the cooling water is lost (in the nuclear industry, this is known as "LOCA" - loss of cooling accident), the moderator is lost as well, and the neutrons speed up - and this (ironically) makes criticality even more difficult to attain. In addition to the water, control rods are used to (as the name suggests) control the nuclear reactions. Control rods are made out of materials which absorb neutrons (things like boron and graphite), so they have the effect of removing neutrons from the reactor core, meaning fewer neutrons are available to cause fission.
Now here's an important point which is overlooked by the Natural News author: if the coolant stops, the fuel rods do not necessarily "go critical." This is what happened in Chernobyl, but for a very obvious and unfortunate reason - the operators there, while conducting a test, turned off the safety system interlocks. While a LOCA can cause the uranium fuel to overheat, it does not suddenly go out of control in some sort of nuclear-bomb-like explosion. Nuclear reactor fuel CANNOT EXPLODE like a nuclear bomb. It simply isn't physically possible (water can't burn your skin the way sulfuric acid does - it's not physically possible). Reactors these days are designed with catastrophe in mind - they have to be, given the increasingly strict regulations surrounding them (chemical plants, industrial plants and coal burning plants have incredibly lax regulations by comparison) - so with each possibility of something going wrong, an additional layer of protection is built-in.
So imagine the scenario that the nuclear plant suffers from a loss of power (and nuclear plants, just like other power plants, do supply their own power; the Japanese struggled to reconnect the Fukushima plants to the grid because it would allow them to supply power from plants unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami). All hell breaks loose, right? Nope. In modern reactors (and older reactors in the US are required by law to be retrofitted to meet new safety standards), safety systems don't all depend on getting power. The control rods are gravity fed - meaning if something happens, they will simply drop into place, no power necessary. The cooling water may run on electric pumps, but these pumps have diesel or battery backup bumps, and these have gravity fed or thermodynamic backup systems (ie, systems which run on gravity, as the control rods, or which depend upon the natural circulation of air or liquid). Reactor safety systems which don't require power - or sometimes, don't even require an operator! - are called "redundant" and "passive" systems. They operate without power, without diesel, without batteries, without plant access, without people. They just work. Designs for modular nuclear plants exist even now that are completely meltdown proof.
Without getting too much more in-depth, it's fair to say the scenario isn't quite as dire as originally imagined. But let's take a couple more specific points.

"When the generators fail and the coolant pumps stop pumping, nuclear fuel rods begin to melt through their containment rods, unleashing ungodly amounts of life-destroying radiation directly into the atmosphere."
As we previously discussed, reactors have lots of redundant safety systems built-in. So it's not a guarantee that fuel rods will melt through their containment if the cooling water is lost (see above). It's also a horrible crime to claim that when nuclear fuel gets hot, it releases radiation "directly into the atmosphere." Secondary safety systems, such as containment, prevent this from happening. If the unlikely event of a LOCA occurred and the backup systems and backup-backup systems were to fail (with each layer of failure comes an even more decreased probability of it actually happening, like drawing four aces in a row from a deck of cards), the hot nuclear fuel is contained within a steel and concrete containment vessel which can withstand the heat and pressure the fuel creates (in fact, they can withstand earthquakes and airplane crashes and all manner of highly unlikely things). Physically, there are limitations as well: nuclear fuel is heavy, metallic stuff. If you took a chunk of steel, for example, and melted it, you'd be left with a lump of steel, and the same is true of nuclear fuel. Most of the material remains as a big, solid lump. Very little becomes gaseous or particulate, so very little even has the potential to become airborne in the first place. So even if the nuclear fuel were to melt, it wouldn't escape directly into the atmosphere. And we've already touched on the fact that nuclear material is not as frighteningly deadly as it's made out to be.

"As any sufficiently informed scientist will readily admit, solar flares have the potential to blow out the transformers throughout the national power grid. That's because solar flares induce geomagnetic currents (powerful electromagnetic impulses) which overload the transformers and cause them to explode.... But the real kicker in all this is that the power grid will be destroyed nearly everywhere."
Well, this is a half-truth. Transformers explode when they are overloaded; a power spike, usually caused by lightning or a sufficient power blip down the line (perhaps caused by another exploding transformer), melts the circuits inside the transformer and secondarily heats the oil used to cool the circuitry inside, causing an explosion. I doubt, however, any "sufficiently informed scientist" will admit that regular solar flares would wipe out the entire power grid (a good scientist will always admit that something is possible, but will also maintain that it need not be probable). Solar flares occur all the time - we wouldn't have the Aurora without them. Powerful solar flares do have the potential to interrupt satellite communications and cause temporary surges in the power grid, as has been seen previously, and the Sun is coming up to the peak of its 11-year cycle (due in about 2013). But this cycle is set to produce fewer sunspots than normal, and fewer sunspots means fewer possibilities for massive solar flares.
We can't discount the potential for large solar flares, however, at some point in the future. The chances of a flare being a massively disruptive one are low, but not zero. It's not that we haven't known about the potential for years. But because of this, we have systems now to tell us when something is going to happen. NASA satellites which float constantly in the space between us and the Sun are monitoring at every moment, ready to give us hours of notice should a large solar flare occur. If we have hours to know a solar storm is coming, doesn't that mean we have hours to shut down any sensitive systems?

"Did I also mention that half the people who work at nuclear power facilities have no idea what they're doing in the first place? Most of the veterans who really know the facilities inside and out have been forced into retirement due to reaching their lifetime limits of on-the-job radiation exposure, so most of the workers at nuclear facilities right now are newbies who really have no clue what they're doing."
This is a common misunderstanding. While there are lifetime limits for work-related radiation exposure, it doesn't mean the expertise of someone retiring from the nuclear industry is lost (think, how many consultants do you know?). And to claim that new employees have no idea what they're doing is to ignore the years of technical training required by law for any nuclear operator.

"Imagine a world without electricity. Even for just a week. Imagine New York City with no electricity, or Los Angeles, or Sao Paulo. Within 72 hours, most cities around the world will devolve into total chaos, complete with looting, violent crime, and runaway fires."
We don't have to. We've already seen what happens, and it wasn't so bad.

"Now imagine the scenario: You've got a massive solar flare that knocks out the world power grid and destroys the majority of the power grid transformers, thrusting the world into darkness. Cities collapse into chaos and rioting, martial law is quickly declared (but it hardly matters), and every nation in the world is on full emergency. But that doesn't solve the really big problem, which is that you've got 700 nuclear reactors that can't feed power into the grid (because all the transformers are blown up) and yet simultaneously have to be fed a steady stream of emergency fuels to run the generators the keep the coolant pumps functioning."
I've already spent some time explaining why the response need not be so frantic (passive safety systems, etc), and I've also already spent quite a bit of time ranting about worst case scenarios. So imagining this scenario is at once easy and absurd.

"Let's be outrageously optimistic and suppose that a third of those somehow don't go into a total meltdown by some miracle of God, or some bizarre twist in the laws of physics. So we're still left with 115 nuclear power plants that 'go Chernobyl.' Fukushima was one power plant. Imagine the devastation of 100+ nuclear power plants, all going into meltdown all at once across the planet. It's not the loss of electricity that's the real problem; it's the global tidal wave of invisible radiation that blankets the planet, permeates the topsoil, irradiates everything that breathes and delivers the final crushing blow to human civilization as we know it today."
Again, let's be realistic. Even if all of the 440 power-generating nuclear reactors in operation today were to lose power (we can't count the research reactors, because they are purposely designed to be small and harmless and not designed to create power, nor can we count the nuclear navy ships and submarines, which would be impervious to any problems with the national power grid), that doesn't imply nuclear holocaust. Since the Chernobyl incident, safety standards have been raised such that containment is required; only the old Soviet style reactors lack a containment vessel, and these have been outfitted. In order to see any radioactivity leak from a nuclear plant, we'd have to have a breach of containment, and we have estimates of that potential through Probabilistic Risk Assessment (the mathematical way to calculate the potential for an accident to occur in a highly technical system, like a reactor). A Sandia Labs report estimates that a typical containment vessel might fail at a rate of roughly 1x10^-7 per year (that's 0.0000001 failures per operating year), and that's IF THE CORE HAS ALREADY FAILED (in other words, if all of the nuclear fuel has already melted). So we have 440 nuclear reactors, and we'll assume they've all lost power, and we'll assume even further that they've all lost cooling water, and we'll assume even further that they've all lost their passive safety systems, and we'll assume even further that their nuclear fuel has overheated. 440 plants with core damage times a containment vessel failure rate of 0.0000001 gives a probability of ~0.005% that any radioactive material is released into the atmosphere. In order to get one incident (in other words, in order to achieve a likelihood of 100%), you'd have to wait over twenty thousand years. And like I said, that's already assuming the reactor core is damaged.

"The world's reliance on nuclear power, you see, has doomed us to destroy our own civilization. Of course, this is all preventable if we would only dismantle and shut down ALL nuclear power plants on the planet. But what are the chances of that happening? Zero, of course. There are too many commercial and political interests invested in nuclear power."
I'm quite curious as to where he gets this idea. Nuclear power, because of all of the regulations surrounding it, is expensive and difficult to get started. I can think of not one instance of there being commercial or political investment in nuclear power in recent years. Oil and coal, on the other hand, is a huge lobby, and moneymaker, for politics and commerce. We won't even bother to go into that here (though I find it amusing that our author even admits in his own article that "most people don't realize it, but petroleum refineries run on electricity" - making the oil and gas infrastructure just as vulnerable, if not more so, to his outlandish doomsday scenario). Besides, it's ridiculous to assume that having 14% of the world's power supplied by nuclear counts as "reliance." We're far more reliant on other sources of power (coal produces nearly half the power in the US).

"What can you do about any of this? Build yourself an underground bunker and prepare to live in it for an extended period of time. (Just a few feet of soil protects you from most radiation.) The good news is that if you survive it all and one day return to the surface to plant your non-hybrid seeds and begin rebuilding human society, real estate will be really, really cheap."
Is it mean to say that I hope this is what he plans to do, so the rest of us can move on to something more productive?

Monday, September 12, 2011


Before this gets out of hand, I have to say something.

Yes, there was an explosion at the Centraco plant in Marcoule, France. It has been described as an "industrial accident."

NO, it was not a nuclear explosion.

NO, it did not involve nuclear materials.

NO, Centraco is not a nuclear reactor. It is a low-level waste processing site.

One person is confirmed dead, and three injured.

Now compare that to the second explosion which took place today:
A leaking gas pipeline in Kenya exploded, killing at least 75 and injuring at least 100.

Was that second incident underreported? ABSOLUTELY. (Google News counts: "Marcoule explosion" in last hour: 1,710; "Kenya explosion" in last hour: 712.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Science is suffering

I wanted to draw your attention to the latest Washington Dispatch update from the APS Office of Public Affairs. Here I have reproduced a portion of this month's edition. Emphasis mine (because nothing else needs to be said).
ISSUE: Budget and Authorization Environment
Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriations
As of the deadline for APS News, the House of Representatives had passed the Energy and Water Development (E&W) bill that funds DOE and completed full committee action on the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) bill that funds NSF, NIST, and NASA. A summary of key elements of the action follows.

* E&W Appropriations bill (HR 2354): On July 15th the House passed HR 2354 by a vote of 219 (209 R, 10 D) to 196 (21 R, 175 D), providing $24.7B for DOE (-$850M relative to FY11), including $4.8B for the Office of Science (-$43M); $1.3B for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy [EERE] (-$491M); $733M for Nuclear Energy [NE] (+$8M); $477M for Fossil Energy (+$32M); $180M for ARPA-E (+$0); $10.6B for National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] (+$76M); and $4.9B for Defense Environmental Cleanup (-$42M)....

* The E&W Subcommittee report also contains language of concern: ... (2) It also directs Basic Energy Sciences to create "a performance ranking of all ongoing multi-year research projects... by comparing current performance with original project goals" and directs DOE to eliminate $25M by terminating the lowest ranked grants based solely on that criterion.

* CJS Appropriations bill (No bill number assigned): The House Appropriations Committee passed the CJS bill by voice vote on July 13th, providing $4.5B for NASA Science (-$431M); $701M for NIST (-$49M) and $6.9B for NSF (+$0)....

* Of greatest concern to the science community should be the elimination of funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the highest priority for astronomy and astrophysics. Rep. Wolf (R-VA 10th), chair of the House CJS Appropriations Subcommittee, alleged that NASA had "been hiding costs" associated with the telescope... [and] also claimed that NASA had rushed its planning....

Thus far, the Senate has begun debate on only one appropriations bill: Military Construction. It is not expected to address the other eleven bills until after Congress returns from its August recess, virtually assuring a Continuing Resolution to take effect when the new fiscal year begins on October 1st.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

From Atlantis to Infinity

Ok, folks... I'm actually pretty proud of this one. I'm still learning how to use the software (kdenlive), but I feel like I'm at least starting to get the hang of it! This is my tribute to the NASA Space Shuttle Program, specifically the final flight (Atlantis, STS-135, July 8th 2011). To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, America is forgetting how to dream. Images/footage courtesy of NASA. Creator commentary forthcoming!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Philosophy Rules

I wanted to link this particular editorial from the IoP's monthly magazine, but it's not up on the web yet. So I'll give you a synopsis. The editorial is "Critical Point: Philosophy rules" by Robert P. Crease, in the August 2011 edition of Physics World.
"Philosophy is dead." So say the venerable physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow on the first page of their recent bestselling book, The Grand Design.
Physicists declaring philosophy to be lifeless is nothing new.... Why do physicists so often, and confidently, condemn a field that is not their own? Where are their instincts to be inquisitive, resist overstepping what they know, withhold judgment until certain and accompany claims with error bars?...
For philosophers, the world includes more than physical matter. As the Harvard University philosopher Steven Shapin writes in his book, Never Pure, "Plants photosynthesize, plant biochemists are experts in knowing how plants photosynthesize, [while] reflective and informed students of science are experts in knowing how plant biochemists know how plants photosynthesize." In other words, the world studied by science researchers includes not just objects, but also connections between scientists and objects.
Human beings, after all, engage with the world in different ways.... [S]cientists are not like plants whose product is knowledge.... Human beings... interpret both the world and themselves....
Hawking's theoretical stance as an observer of fundamental structures, too, is only one way for humans to engage with the world, and not the default setting either....
The lifeworld is the domain to which philosophers bring their torch of discovery. They study similarities and differences between various modes of being in the world.... To study this is not to undermine or critique these activities, but to understand and help cultivate them.
The critical point, Crease argues, is that philosophers do not attempt to "adopt a 'view from nowhere'," but instead, "when philosophers think about science, they struggle to be self-aware of that horizon and how it affects human self-interpretation." Philosophers approach the same questions in a different way. "Philosophy has moved on and remained current since the time of Plato's Academy in Athens, despite physicists' assertions to the contrary," Crease points out. And we scientists would be well advised to realize how similar our own assertions sound to those of the anti-evolution establishment. We know that the science of evolution has itself evolved since Darwin's initial postulations; why do we not afford the same courtesy to philosophy?
On the first page of his book Subtle is the Lord..., the physicist Abraham Pais reports a discussion with Einstein in which the latter asked Pais if he "really believed that the Moon exists only if I look at it." One could hardly think of a deeper, more challenging question about the concept "to exist." Yet Pais smoothly characterizes the conversation as "not particularly metaphysical." Discussing the meaning of reality is ok, evidently, so long as it is done in an amateur way.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dying yet another death

In the breakroom down the hall, my friends laugh and share stories over coffee. I sit with lead in my stomach, too frightened to speak, hardly able to breathe. It is like this every single time, and yet I can't help it. I have no control over my reactions. Tomorrow morning I get on a plane, and to me it might as well be hell.
Have you ever experienced a panic attack? They are, in fact, so similar to heart attacks that many people have been hospitalized for the wrong one. Your heart beats heavy and irregular, you sweat and tingle and shake and can only manage shallow breaths, your muscles go numb, your gut churns and your head swims. And yet somehow the idea is brushed off as simply "anxiety;" it's social, it's psychological, it's not harmful. It's nothing. So you don't like flying? Have a beer and get over it, they say.
For some reason, the modern Western ideas about psychology are only just now coming around to realizing that psychological problems can physically harm you. "The danger, however, is no less real because it is imaginary;" Sir James Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough over a hundred years ago. "Imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid." But only recently do we see depression medications meant to treat physical pain as well as psychological pain, and the like. Many cultures around the world and throughout history have understood psychological problems to be intricately linked to the physical body; to a Chinese farmer, for instance, "depression" connotes just as much "stomach pains" as it does "sadness." And to me, being forced onto a plane is the same as having a gun held to my head. The response is just as real.
The irony is two-fold. First, if my fear comes to fruition and I die in a plane crash, then I no longer have to suffer my fear; the fear is self-defeating. Second, because the physiological response is so intense and so physically damaging, the fear itself has the potential to cause bodily harm; the fear of death is killing me.
We cannot continue the ruse that we are separate psyches trapped within a physical body. The pieces are irrevocably connected as a whole. And damage to the one can cause damage to the rest.
If nothing else, I have to write because it is calming; I hope that, in seeing my final thoughts on paper, the Fates play a joke on me and allow me to live to eat my words. But the reality is, I write because the rational majority of my brain can't override the emotional core, and so I spend my time convinced that I'm about to die. And every flight, every prolonged fear of death, is just the same as dying.
Maybe someday people will understand. Maybe.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

One more Fukushima mention

The nuclear "disaster" in Japan seems to have fallen off the radar of late, replaced instead with incensed stories of the US debt ceiling, Rupert Murdoch's questionable business practices, and Sarah Palin's tour bus (if this isn't proof that the media is sensationalist, I don't know what is). Even I have let it go, after three posts (1,2,3) on the topic. But I wanted to share a rather prescient quote from Dr. Bernard L. Cohen, nuclear physicist at the University of Pittsburgh, in his 1990 book The Nuclear Energy Option:
Any system can be destroyed by a sufficiently powerful earthquake, but in an earthquake strong enough to cause a nuclear reactor meltdown, effects of the meltdown would be a relatively minor addition to the consequences of that earthquake.
We knew it then, and we know it now: freak accidents are exactly that. Freak accidents.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Stupidly easy ways to save money

There's a lot of discussion going on regarding the federal debt, and most of it - 99.999% of it - ignores the real issue, which is where that debt is being felt. I'm assuming that most of you reading this make enough to get by, maybe paycheck to paycheck but still not having to make those "food or medication?" decisions. I know that, personally, all I want out of money is to be comfortable - to make just enough that I don't have to worry about how much it is, enough to spend a week at the beach every once in a while, enough to buy what I need and a little of what I want. Less than this (I've been there) and finances become too much of a burden; more than this and the extra becomes meaningless.
So here are a few ways to make what money you do have go further. To live a little bit more comfortably. None of this should be surprising... just common sense things that people tend, for one reason or another, not to do.

1) Get rid of cable.
I don't mean "cut back on TV" or "bundle your services" but flat-out get rid of it. I haven't had cable or dish (or even antenna) for several years now, and I'd never go back. The shows are available on hulu or the network's website, and any relevant local news is on the free antenna stations. Netflix is there for the rest. (If there's a series you really want, ask for the DVD box set for your birthday.) Instead of paying $35 upwards for TV ($110 or more for a bundled phone-internet-TV plan... more on this momentarily), I pay $9 a month for Netflix and $40 a month for DSL by itself. Annual savings in that case, not even taking into account the fact that something around $100 per month is an "introductory" price only, is $600.

2) Get rid of your home phone.
This is already true for many people. We have cell phones now. They also work inside houses. So why have a landline? How often do you use it? No reason to pay for both services. Even in a bundle, that landline is costing you money you don't need to be spending. A recent Comcast deal advertised $33 per month for each of three services (home phone, internet, cable) for a year, meaning $99 per month total. But we've already mentioned that getting rid of cable saves some of that, and getting rid of home phone will, too. That leaves you with the internet-only option... and though it may seem scary that internet by itself is $40-$60 per month, remember, that's half of what you were spending when you had the whole thing bundled.

3) Bring your lunch.
Going out to lunch is expensive. Really expensive. At the cafeteria where I work, a sandwich, soda and bag of chips will cost you nearly $7. Even the most expensive "name brand" frozen entrees from the grocery store tend to remain under $3 a piece. That's $980 a year difference! Not only are you saving money by "buying in bulk" and doing the labor yourself, you're avoiding the hassle of procuring food right at the moment you're hungry enough to want it most.

4) You don't need an iPhone.
Not only do you not need the newest, shiniest (and hence buggiest) phone, you don't need the $100 per month service to go with it. I pay $30 per month for my cell phone plan. That's $30 per month for 1000 texts, 1000 minutes, and 1000 MB of internet/data. That's less than half what Verizon charges. My annual cell phone plan savings is nearly $500.

5) Store brands really aren't that bad.
I will concede that there are a few specific things - Dr Pepper being one of them - where store or value brands simply don't cut it. But once it's out of the wrapper, can you tell the difference between Walmart's brand crackers or Ritz? How about other consumables, like toilet paper, fabric softener or shampoo? With a store's coupon card and some ingenuity, you can cut your grocery bills in half (for me, this amounts to maybe $500 a year or more). You can always go back to name brands if you aren't satisfied. (This also goes for clothes. I buy nearly all of my clothing at Kohls and Walmart. I'm not going to pay someone $70 to "pre-stress" my jeans.)

6) There are no taxes on unprepared foods.
Not just taxes, even, but costs incurred by labor. Buy a steak, some peppers and an onion, not the pre-made "stir fry mix" or pre-skewered kebabs. Stores will charge you plenty for the work they've done. A prepared fruit salad will cost far more than the individual ingredients. You can end up saving lots of money by purchasing the "raw materials," if you will.

7) Let's talk about Windows.
Ok, you're not ready to switch to Linux. Fine. But keep in mind, I didn't pay a cent for my computer's operating system, whereas Windows 7 costs anywhere between $80 for an upgrade and $320 for the full license Ultimate version. In addition, I don't need antivirus software for Linux (another $40 per year saved), and all of the programs I use (Open Office, Chrome, Thunderbird mail, games, tools, etc etc etc) were also free. But even if you have Windows, you can get open source software that costs little to nothing and has the same capabilities as the proprietary version. The cheapest version of Microsoft Office is $150. Sun Microsystem's Open Office suite is totally compatible with Microsoft documents, and is completely free.

8) Get refillable containers.
Let's assume that you can't just go without your morning cup of coffee. You can still save money by purchasing a refillable container. Most coffee places, like Starbucks, have cheap refills on drip coffee. While you're at it, get a loyalty card and remember to bring it with you, so that one out of every ten cups is free (or whatever it is). I've earned a lot of free pastries at Panera in my time.

9) Buy a used car.
I've put this lower down on the list because I assume it doesn't (shouldn't) come up that often. But when it does, who wants a car payment? New cars depreciate in value exceptionally quickly - "the minute they drive off the lot," as the saying goes - and yet you're still paying $400 a month. I chose my car carefully and bought it with cash, so now I have no car payment and a very small gas and maintenance cost each year. Used cars are also generally cheaper to insure, and when someone finally does scratch your car door with their shopping cart, it doesn't hurt as much.

10) Put on a sweater.
Energy bills can be horrendous. Keep the thermostat a few degrees above or below where you would normally set it (given the season) - try 75 in the summer and 65 in the winter. It makes a big difference. With a sweatshirt and an electric blanket, I was able to keep my old apartment at 62 degrees all winter, and my electricity bills were on the order of $30. It's harder in the summer when you live somewhere in the southern half of the US, but it's still possible. Hang out downstairs, take cooler showers and sleep without covers.

11) Share costs with others.
Instead of paying $200 a night for a hotel room at the beach, why not find some friends and rent a beach house for $1000 per week? Instead of a Starbucks trip every morning, why not get your officemates to chip in for an inexpensive espresso maker? Instead of a $500 per month studio, why not move into a $700 per month two-bedroom unit and get a roommate?

12) Do the math.
There are tons of ways to save a little money here and there, and we all know them. But all too often, either finances aren't laid out ahead of time or we set far too difficult goals for ourselves. Be realistic, and be proactive. Work out how much it will save you to take one step, and you're more likely to take that step and stick to it. Remember, the average credit card debt is over $10,000... and that's just credit cards. It's worth your time to do the math.

13) One more for a baker's dozen.
If this post seems a bit out of character, you're right, it is. But I witness these things every day, with friends and coworkers and even myself. There's such a mismatch between the myriads of "money tips" websites and stories out there and the staggeringly high amount of the average US citizen's debt that it boggles the mind. I offer this list in the hopes that we can avoid the Orwellian (or Huxley-an) dystopia which awaits us further down this road (it's bad enough that we already have a mind-controlling oligarchy). I want to know that something is being done. What tips would you share?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Finding Atlantis

We made it - and despite the traffic, despite the lack of sleep, despite the cost and the heat and the length of travel and the ferocious mosquitoes, we made it. It was all worth it in the end, even the 70% chance of weather delaying the launch... Atlantis lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at Canaveral at 11:29am on July 8th, 2011, and we were on the 528 westbound causeway to watch it. The mood was incredible. People cheered and whistled and applauded, and in the end (I knew I would), I cried.

I can't describe it, I really can't. To be a part of something like that - the local news said up to a million people were expected in the Space Coast area - was phenomenal. To turn around and go home right now would be fine, because I found what I was looking for. I saw it with my own eyes. And it will never happen again.

The traffic, even three hours later, was still utterly insane. Cops directed traffic at intersections. Cars eastbound on the causeway were at a standstill. The cell phone networks were overloaded to the point of allowing only emergency calls. But I can't express how glad I am to be here. How palpably nervous I was before the launch, scared it wouldn't happen, that the weather would be no-go.
We toasted the crew and the Shuttle program at the Cocoa Beach pier afterward. Now, I desperately need a nap, and the sky clouds over again in preparation for afternoon storms. But this morning, the wind was in our favor, the sky cleared just enough, the people gathered by the hundred thousands, and all our hopes and dreams as a nation collectively launched into the air at 11:29am.

In the end, the entire thing was quintessentially American - the Mustang convertible, the Eisenhower Interstate System road trip, the final launch of the 30-year-old NASA Space Shuttle program. Of the Shuttles, it seemed peculiarly appropriate that the last to fly should be Atlantis; the symbolic end of our search for a hidden "city" in the depths of space, now to be washed under the tides of history.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

T-2 days

There is anger floating around the internet.

I know, I know, you may not believe me, but it's out there. Much of it is faceless and aimless, a vague disapproval without direction or cause, crazies ranting about the end of the world or cold fusion or "Nobama" with little rhyme or reason. Sometimes it's righteous anger. And sometimes it hits close to home.

But right now I want to speak about something specific. I want to speak to all of those detractors out there who believe that NASA has run its course, who believe that the Shuttle program is no longer of interest to Americans, who believe that "launching rich people into space" is a waste of taxpayer money... this taxpayer is taking time off of work and spending hours in the car in order to get to Canaveral on Friday for the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Little kids still want to be astronauts when they grow up. Perhaps it's not as prevalent a wish as in the 1960s or 1970s, but it's there. One and a half million people visit Kennedy Space Center every year. People still cry when they watch Shuttle launches (I, in fact, share a birthday with the Shuttles). Baby boomers still remember where they were when, on July 20th, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 first touched the surface of the Moon. Younger generations still remember the tragedy of the Challenger disaster in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 (I know I do). And Americans still need something to galvanize and rally us to greatness, something that embodies the very spirit of who we are.

The Shuttles, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station - all of these things still have the potential to evoke feelings of pride and awe. This specific brand of patriotism is not partisan or xenophobic or hateful. Remember this iconic image? Seeing the Earth as the pale blue sphere that it really is has made our patriotism into something more, something tempered and precious. With our pride in the technological achievement of our country comes the humbling understanding that we are all in this together.

I don't intend to simply spout platitudes; as a fan of Alan Watts I am well aware that we are as far into space as we'll ever be already. "So we're going to conquer space. You know we're in space already, way out. If anybody cared to be sensitive and let outside space come to you, you can, if your eyes are clear enough. Aided by telescopes, aided by radio astronomy, aided by all the kinds of sensitive instruments we can devise. We're as far out in space as we're ever going to get." But he ignores one very important fact - no matter how far out in space we are already here on Earth, we can never really know how far it is until we go further and look back. Perspective is everything.

So to those who are angry, those who call NASA's measly budget a waste of money and who claim that the Shuttle program was a bust, I say this: when Atlantis lifts off, I'll be there.

A wonderful, moving and informative video is here. Photos courtesy of (in order) Orlando News Sentinel, NASA, NASA.

Monday, July 4, 2011

My America

Happy Independence Day, everyone.