Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Living in Utah provides a cornucopia of potential topics for discussion. Most are depressingly ironic. I am a special fan of people in power who make it their job to be paranoid about government conspiracies. I have thought about creating a secret society called “Delusionati”. Perhaps I already have and I’m hiding it from you; it would be a secret after all.

Delusionati: We can be everywhere because we are nowhere at all.

There may be conspiracies hatching all over Utah, but most of the evil is organized only by the force of collective ignorance. The dissection of the Nazi party in the twentieth century may have hatched the term “The Banality of Evil”. Twenty first century gives birth to the unfortunate guttural understanding of “The Evil of Banality”.

The now iconic story of Kitty Genovese being raped and then killed in an alley within earshot of her neighbors, people who would not upset their daily routine to save her life, is a kind of seed (it is now called the Genovese effect) for this idea, but the idea only takes root when the ignorant start inventing amazing justifications for evil.

As an employee of a large corporate structure I take EEO and sensitivity training almost annually. Most of the time they are canned lessons. Sometimes the cans arrive too late for the scheduled training. When the canned lessons are not available the EEO person wings it. This is usually as funny as a circus-train-wreck.

A good number of years ago, and I think all the people involved have retired or moved on, there was a winging situation I will remember for some time. Earlier in the week an interracial couple in Salt Lake City had a cross burned on their front lawn. The EEO guy thought he could incorperate this into his improv lecture.

“So, just this week, a group of kids were out having some fun when they did something that was interpreted as a racial attack” he explained “They went and put a cross on someone’s lawn, and then lit it up with gasoline. To them it was just a harmless prank. They didn’t know that there was a interracial couple living in the house. The couple thought it was a racial attack, so when they caught the boys they got in a lot of trouble for their harmless prank”

He went on to describe how it is important to try and see how the person you play a prank on sees things, but I had been struck speechless. He went on to explain how they were severely punished despite being upstanding members of their ward (ward is the name for a local Mormon church) and the community.

“What do you think the odds are of randomly choosing a house in Salt Lake City Utah, and it containing an interracial couple?” I asked.

“See” he replied, thinking I was supporting his fantasy “You just never know how lucky you are going to be.”

“I’ve just never heard” I tried a different approach “of people burning a cross on a white couple’s lawn in Salt Lake City”

“Exactly” he was so pleased to have someone awake and agreeing with him during one of his talks “you NEVER hear about them when the cross is burned on a white couple’s lawn”.

I felt like jumping on the table, grabbing my temples, and screaming “The stupid...IT BURNS!!!”.

Apparently not hearing about something is strong evidence that it is happening secretly; certainly not evidence that it is simply not happening at all. However, I guess it was happening since the interracial couple had it done to them. Burning a cross on someone’s lawn might be a universal sign of racial intolerance, but you just cannot be sure what people are trying to communicate with it.

Even targeted statements of intolerance by the very prophet of the Mormon church have been re-interpreted to mean something that they just don’t say. What do you make of this:

“When one considers marriage, it should be an unselfish thing, but there is not much selflessness when two people of different races plan marriage. They must be thinking selfishly of themselves. They certainly are not considering the problems that will beset each other and that will beset their children,” -- Spencer W. Kimball prophet of the Mormon church.1982

Just this past week an interracial boy named Larz Cosby attended a school pep rally of some sort at Alta high in the Salt Lake Valley. There he was confronted by a boy wearing a white KKK hood. The KKK boy was jumping around and taunting Larzs.

I know some of you think I am about to describe how the poor KKK boy was held down by Larz and his classmates with his open mouth shoved against the hard edge of a concrete curb, and then how his teeth were all knocked out by repeated blows against the back of his skull, but that is not what I am about to describe. Larzs simply snatched the white KKK hood off of KKK’s face, and then he went and sat down.

I would not have heard about it had the Cosby family not contacted people who thought it was news. I would not have been as informed of it if Larzs had not written about it on a wordpress blog. I would not have been intrigued by the story if I had not read some of the many comments on it.

The school was “investigating” the incident according to the news broadcast. I’m still amazed at how I picture this story unfolding. KKK boy is hopping around demanding attention in a assembly hall filled with over a thousand students and over a hundred teachers administrators and staff, and it does not become an issue until he confronts one of the only interracial students in the school. I’m sure my former EEO person would chalk this up to some pretty poor luck on KKK boy’s part.

I wonder if KKK boy’s mom helped him sew up his hood. Perhaps it was a hand-me-down from his older brother’s cross-burning days?

The comments are decidedly in support of Lars, and the strength he showed in making his allegations. If I actually counted the comments you might be able to firmly trust me when I state that about 60.2% of the comments were in support of Lars. Roughly half of these appeared to be from people who did not sound like they were familiar with Utah. The other 30.2% sounded like they were Lars’s classmates. Of the 39.8% of those who derided Lars most sounded like they were his classmates; several used “hawk” (the Alta high mascot) in their anonymous comment names.

Although there were many well written and reasoned statements in support of Lars I found the ones attacking him to be more interesting; especially the ones with really poor spelling. I have preserved some quotes from a few of these for you here. I have tried to preserve them as much as I felt comfortable doing. I have hidden some of the filter-unfriendly swear-words with liberal use of the “*” character.

“Oh and get a life it looks like all you have time to do is right about the kid that did that! what are you like gay or something that your so obsessed with him that you need to right a whole story about him! that is very creep! Get over yourself you f**king fag” – ashley

“Larz you are not a saint either” -- bullied

"You are an attention seeker, like most black people. Move back to where you came from.” – genevieve

“I have alot of admiration for the LDS religion. For the most part they act as a whole community and try to help their fellow member’s as well as the whole world.” – genevieve

“i garentee nobody has even called you the “N” word your making this a big deal” – MB

“Just a simple joke. This is High School. Let kids be kids” – Bready

“Should i protest against the Governmemnt for selecting and entire month for ”Black History”..Or even better, maybe ill start an all white organization like NCAAP” -- AgR

“Hey if it offends you then dial ‘911’ and ask for Obama” – AgR

“get over yourself you f**king crybaby. go tell the people in libya, japan, and other countries in dire straights that you felt a skit was racist and see how bad they feel for you. Crybaby” – mike

“I support KKK. It was in reaction to the rights granted to the Negro after the Civil War. Negro should be repatriated to Africa. They are worthless and do not belong in America” –SH

“The boy who wears a kkk hood to school ought to be suspended for the simple fact that people like you have to blow it out of proportion and call attention to yourself like youve suffered slavery personally.” -- joe

“I certainly support what the student did. You are a racially-mixed, confused, and hateful person against whites. You should be expelled for trying to say he is racist when you are the racist one” -- Wyatt Powers

“Get over it and get used to it” – Chris

“What appalls me is race-mixing.” -- Matt Dillon

“You polys are more racist than most. You support him because he is brown. Solidarity in skin color. Sounds racist” -- Mike Jones

“polys are racist” -- Former Hawk

“I think it was funny and glad we live in a place you can wear a white hood. sounds like your a trouble maker and not to well liked in school grow up laugh it off and get on with your life. before it gets worse and you have other problems” -- uncle tom

“And seriously your not the kind of kid that should be saying stuff like this you are ruining the reputation of alta and the kid that did it when really its not like anyone is even racist here. Seriously dude!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” – Altahawksenior

“I know Mackay he isnt racist he just likes to entertain people.” -- ALTA SENIOR

“But I do like how it’s not racists that there is BET, NAACP, United Negro College fund, so on and so forth….but…BUT….if I wanted to start a “poor white kid college fund”….or WET….or National Association for the Advancement of Caucasian People…I would definitely be a racist” – Duke

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pretty Blue Glow

Lieutenant Vladimir Pravik was too busy ordering his firefighters into position to pay much attention to the metallic taste in his mouth. They had to get the hoses up the ladders so they could spray water on the reactor buildings. Fire threatened reactor number 3. Smoke poured from the roofless number 4 reactor. Over the past week similar sounding stories have emerged from Japan; only the names sound different. It was April 26th 1986. Vladimir would die less than two weeks later, on May 9th.

Anatoly Andreyevich Sitnikov was ordered to look over the roof's edge to see what the fire looked like down in the core of reactor 4. Tolya (Anatoly's nickname) reportedly saw the blue glow of the Cherenkov radiation. Tolya called others over to see it, including Vladimir. Vladimir's brown eyes were blue when he returned to the firetruck.

There are many situations where radiation is intriguingly beautiful. The bright sunshine of a spring morning that sends a radiometer's vanes aspin or the infrared glow emanating from the fading embers of a bonfire for example. I have seen Cherenkov radiation in a reactor pool back in the early 1980s (just a few years before Tolya saw it), but that was through several meters of water. There are few living people who have witnessed Cherenkov radiation in open air. Tolya would die on the 30th of May 1986.


The radiation dose the firefighters received on the roof was estimated to be around 300 sieverts per hour. Most of the men had visibly reddened skin when they retreated from the roof. They retreated because they were becoming incapable of manipulating the hoses. They were vomiting. On the ride back from the plant the headaches became unbearable. Several men could not stand. They leaked diarrhea uncontrollably. There was un-clotted blood in the fluids oozing from the men's bodies.

Their skin itched all over, but it itched worse where it was exposed or covered only lightly. Unlike a typical sunburn, where the skin is cooked by ultraviolet radiation from the outside, this burn was caused by highly penetrating gamma radiation; there was almost as much damage under the top layer of skin as on the surface. When the blistering began it would boil off layers of flesh and hair. Autopsy would reveal blisters on many of the internal organs of the firefighters. One man had a heavily blistered heart. The blisters would evolve into ulcers.

Much of what happened on the roof is inferred from the rambling partial statements that were compiled from these men whose brains had also blistered. Speech was slurred and difficult to understand, even when what was said was believed to be a response to a question. Movement was difficult, and when it did occur was jerky and uncontrolled. Their eyes moved about in their sockets in uncontrolled tremors.

Some of the men who did not go up on the roof avoided being haunting by the image of Cherenkov radiation, but there was other cool stuff for them to see. All over the ground were these funny gray-black bricks. Some of the men picked up a couple; they were light. The funny black brick fragments were the graphite blocks from the core of reactor 4. The graphite debris was giving off doses in the 100-200 sievert per hour range. The guys who were playing with the core fragments received a much lower dose than those on the roof.

The grounds crew began vomiting shortly after the firefighters who went up on the roof. Their uncontrollable diarrhea took a little longer to express itself also; as did the headache. The vomiting tapered off after they left the site, so did the diarrhea. Though they had lost much of their electrolytes intravenous replacement appeared to help. It was their headache transitioning to body racking fever that appeared to send them into semiconscious shock. Many would never fully regain consciousness.

There are very few places where one can receive a radiation at dose rates over 100 sievers per hour. With doses that high the organs of the body race to be the first to mortally fail. There is no time for the insidious effects of radiation to become manifest. It is like the body was hit by a bus, but the bus passed right through the body, and it takes the body a couple of days to figure out that is is dead.

At lover acute doses of radiation (like between 1 and 100 sieverts) the symptoms can be much less severe. Though there is often intense vomiting and diarrhea, there might also only be a seriously upset stomach. The incapacitating cognitive disruption might only be severe dizziness. With the headache, a little blood in the liquid stool, and the elevated heart-rate; the initial symptoms could be dismissed as “stomach flu” by most folksy medical practitioners. A doctor who did not measure the plummeting white-cell count and change in urine chemistry might miss the opportunity to provide the medical care needed to allow these lesser exposed individuals to survive long enough to experience the secondary symptoms of acute radiation exposure.

If the body makes it through the “hit by bus” phase it is left highly damaged. There are dead and dying cells peppered throughout the body. The damage is concentrated nearer the outer margin of the body. Lymphatic fluid pours into the cell spaces to dilute the toxic leakings of dying cells. The body swells, and puts enhanced pressure on the kidneys. The heart races to keep up. When the fluid homeostasis is upset too far the body either continues to swell to the point where clothing does not fit, or starts to shrivel.

The retreating of the fluid tide reveals a limp body covered in angry purple blotches. Sub-dermal capillaries and veins riddled with micro-punctures leak blood into surrounding tissue. The bodies clotting system is overwhelmed, and stops working effectively. The external hemorrhaging often starts with nosebleeds.

Every hair on the body falls out. The skin may take on a blotchy pattern of permanent pigmentation. The boiling blisters and ulcerations may take weeks to fully scar over.

The injured but living exposure victims have damaged blood in their veins. Their circulating immune system has crashed, and is almost completely incompetent in fighting infections. They lie in bed perched on a knife's edge of survival. Tubes and luck are all that anchor them to life. With enough concentrated competent medical care nearly half of these less-exposed people should live long enough to experience the tertiary effects of radiation exposure.

Although I have supplied over a thousand words to the description of acute radiation exposure it is not acute radiation exposure that renders radioactive contamination such a pernicious threat. What I have ham-handedly dubbed the “tertiary” effects of radiation exposure are more properly described as the level of exposure where radiation leads to other diseases. At a dose of less than 1 sievert the exposed individual is more likely to be hospitalized because of a disease caused by radiation exposure than symptoms primarily caused by the radiation exposure itself. This “tertiary” phase reads almost like a list of every possible cancer, with notations indicating that some are more likely than others.

Into this phase we also see the largest number of potentially exposed individuals. In addition to the irradiated people there are all those who have come in contact with radioactive contamination. These are people who inhaled the wrong particle of dust, or who ingested the wrong contaminated tomato, or who took the wrong shower. These are the people who lived their lives unaware of some cloud of radioactivity passing over their home.

Dosage and exposure take on new contextual meanings. Ingested or inhaled radioactivity is not moderated by the small but effective shielding which prevents alpha rays from causing significant damage. With a Q factor as much as twenty times that used in the calculation of external exposures the exposure rates for internal exposure are orders of magnitude greater than what an external exposure would be for the same amount of radioactive material.

Then there are the biological concentration factors.

Most radioactive material appears like useless, even toxic, material to the body. This material passes right through the digestive system. We can calculate the exposure simply by multiplying the number of hours it takes the radioactive material to pass through the body by the amount of radiation it gives off per hour.

There are some places where radiation can get lodged on the body. Radioactive material can look like ash. Like ash it can get stuck under the fingernails, in the hair, between the teeth, or in the lungs. If the radioactive particle is not removed it will continue to irradiate the surrounding tissue until it completely decays. Complete decay of even very tiny radioactive particles can take longer than the lifespan of a healthy individual. A person with radioactive ash coating their lungs does not usually remain a healthy individual for long.

Some radioactive material is not seen as toxic, or may be caught in the same biological machinery used to harvest nutrients from the environment. Radioactive calcium and phosphorus can be concentrated in the bones. Some heavy metals can contaminate the iron-uptake mechanisms, and be found in the bone marrow and liver. Bone cancers and leukemia can result.

In the initial contamination the types and concentration of radioisotopes can give significant information regarding the areas of potential biological concentration. One of the highly radioactive byproducts of primary fission is iodine-131. In the first ten days of the Chernobyl indecent this was a major component of the radioactive plume. Since the Soviets were too busy minimizing the impact of the radioactive fallout from the disaster they were not able to inform people about the extent and composition of the radioactive material. In people, small children especially, there is a very active mechanism for transporting ingested iodine into the thyroid. Thousands of people died of thyroid cancer after the Chernobyl indecent.

It is important to point out that some uptake mechanisms can be overwhelmed. People taking huge doses of non-radioactive iodine can block the uptake of iodine-131. If all the pathways for uptake of micro-nutrients could safely be overwhelmed it might be possible to take a pill that minimized the internal dosage caused by the initial contamination event. This is, however, not possible. There are only a few, like iodine and calcium, that can be safely overwhelmed. Even attempting to overwhelm some systems, like the iron uptake system, can result in extreme toxicity and death.

The rest of the environment does not block the uptake of radiation. Many radioisotopes become sequestered in the tissues of other living systems. When they are internalized into something like plant tissue the radioactivity no longer appears at all like a toxic material. There is a second (and potentially third fourth, fifth...) wave of potential exposures from contaminated foodstuff. The contamination from food can be actively incorporated into a person's tissue where it can reside till the radioactivity decays.

A radioactive carbon-14 atom can become part of a person's DNA just like any other atom of carbon. When it decays it releases a beta ray. The beta ray shoots off breaking up other parts of the DNA. Where the carbon-14 atom used to be there is now a nitrogen-14 atom (or more likely a hole) which causes disruption of the DNA. What has occurred is a mutation. If the mutation is in the wrong gene it may cause a cancer. If it is in the wrong cell it can cause a congenitally-transmissible mutant trait. Most likely the mutaion is repaired.

I chose carbon-14 as an example because, with a half-life of 5,700 years, it will have enough time to become widely distributed in the food chain. Carbon-14 from other nuclear events is found in most food on the planet. Our bodies constantly deal with the effects of carbon-14 decay. Increasing the amount of carbon-14 in the body increases the rate of carbon-14 decay-caused disease in the body. It is impossible to attribute a particular disease to a particular isotope that came from a particular source. All that can be noted is an an overall increase in unattributable diseases.

How much radioactive material becomes inhaled, ingested, or incorporated contamination depends on what and how much radioactive material is released. Where and how potentially exposed individuals can respond depends on what the component isotopes of that radioactive material is. It is not a exaggeration to state that rapid wide-scale dissemination of specific information about the number of curies released, and detailed breakdown of the isotopes contributing to that bulk measure of radiation, can save lives for years after a nuclear disaster. I have yet to see that information coming out of the ongoing Dai-ichi incident.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Trust in Cheeses

The question I should be asking is: “what am I going to do with all this cheese?”. Instead I am transfixed by the slowly unfolding train wreck that is Japan's nuclear emergency. All my life I have been taught that radiation is terrifying; radiation in Japan doubly so. I have grown older and my radiation fears have tended towards imagining unexplainable cancers, and away from Mothra and Godzilla; still the fears persist. One good reason for the fear's persistence across the many year's changing perceptions of risk is that there are some good reasons to fear radiation exposure.

I have been told that the coverage of the nuclear emergency in Japan is dangerous in-and-of itself. People have told me that when they watch the news they can feel information being sucked out of their brains. They feel more ignorant than before they turned on their TV. Despite the fact that I do not have a TV I am worried about this uncontrolled proliferation of FOX news technology. I have decided to write a couple of entries on radiation in response; this piece is the first. I am eating a grilled Camembert sandwich while writing it.

I have extensively studied the effects of many persistent toxins in the environment, and radioactive toxins have a uniquely advantageous feature; that they are radioactive. The radiation provides a signal that screams out the presence of these toxins. Many toxins can only be detected after samples have been properly taken, often carefully preserved, and sent back to a lab for expert analysis. The radioactive toxins can be detected on-site with a magic wand.

Strangely, what we reveal with our magic Geiger-counter wand is the radioactive material disappearing. The more we detect the less is still there. The radioactive atoms are said to be disintegrating, and it is those atomic disintegrations that are the source of the radiation. In fact we measure the amount of radioactivity of a sample of material in number of disintegrations per minute. The standard unit of measure for this is a curie (3.7 X10^10 disintegrations/ minute). The curie is named after Marie Curie who won a couple of Nobel prizes, and then died of aplastic anemia caused by radiation exposure. Marie discovered radium, and a curie is about the amount of radioactivity you would find in a gram of pure radium-226.

The curie is a great unit of measurement for deciding downwind risk from a nuclear event. If someone was to say that a cloud containing 'X' number of curries was floating over your area you could get an idea of how much landmass could be contaminated at what concentration. If the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant releases 'X' number of curies one could tally up where it all appeared to go to in order to determine our knowledge of the extent of the damage.

The curie can even be used to provide quantitative assessment of relative danger. For instance the Chernobyl nuclear disaster released between 51 and 324 billion curries of radioactive material; how much has Dai-ichi released so far? I have read comparisons between Chernobyl and Dai-ich in almost every press release and article, but what does anyone really mean by “not as bad as Chernobyl”? It is hard to find any mention at all of the curie unit of measurement in any of the Dai-ichi incident coverage.

One reason for this should be that the number of curies is a calculated quantity. Picture rats leaving a sinking ship. You look out into the harbor and see a bunch of rats swimming away from a floundering boat. You can immediately say “there are a bunch of rats in the water”. You can even count the rats. If you measure the amount of water around the boat that you can see, and you know the amount of water that could contain swimming rats around the boat, it is an easy calculation to determine the amount of rats leaving the sinking ship. More likely the observer will make the more immediate observation like this: “There are two hundred rats swimming this way! Lets move!”. We measure radiation in a surprisingly similar way. The Gieger-wand measures the number of radioactive “rays” that hit it. This measurement is given in counts-per-minute (CPM).

CPM is a measurement of the amount of radiation at a given location. We can calculate the amount of radioactivity in an area by knowing how the CPM at a location (or several locations) represents the radioactivity given off by the area. It is not a difficult calculation, but for radiation release from a nuclear event many assumptions must be made.

By varying some simple attributes of a detector we can gather very useful data about the type of radioactivity. There are three major types of radiation from nuclear material; those are alpha, beta, and gamma rays. I like to both simplify the discussion of radiation into these three divisions (because it does capture most important aspects of radiation), and to call the radiation “rays” (because it sounds much cooler that way). Alpha rays are the Cadillac of radiation; big, powerful, and slow. Beta rays are the -hmmm- Smartcar of radiation; small, light, and slow. Gamma rays are the rocket-powered skateboard of radiation; tiny, almost no mass, and fast.

Now picture trying to run some of these rays through a WalMart parking lot on Christmas day...while blindfolded. There are no cars (the only day of the year that WalMart is closed), but the huge expanse of asphalt is littered with abandoned shopping carts. The Cadillac does OK. It hits a bunch of carts, which bounce right off it, then a couple get jammed up underneath the lumbering beast of a vehicle. The trapped carts rip open the Cadilac's differential, and it comes to a halt. The Smartcar makes it a little further across the parking lot, but just because it does not hit so many carts; eventually it hits one just right and it too comes to a halt. The daredevil on the gamma ray zooms at incredible speed almost all the way across the parking lot, missing all the carts, then he barely clips one, and is toast. There is a wide path of destruction leading up to the alpha particle. There is a longer but much less defined trail of destruction leading up to the beta particle, and someplace in the parking lot lies a shattered skateboarder.

Knowing what type of radiation one is counting provides vital information about what type of radioactive contamination is causing it. A breakdown of CPM types also provides an idea of the type and amount of damage the radiation can cause. We do not, however, hear much talk of CPMs in the Dai-ichi coverage. Instead the radiation is mostly (when given a number at all) given in units called sieverts.

Sieverts are a measurement of radiation dosage received by biological tissue. They are a modification of the non-biological dosage measurement which is given in units called “the gray”. If we were to go back to the rats leaving the ship example the gray would kinda measure how many escaping rats climbed out of the water onto your particular boat. Sieverts take into account the amount of damage each type of radiation causes. The energy from each particle is multiplied by a Q(uality) factor to weigh its contribution to the total dosage. Alpha particles have a Q factor of 20. Gamma particles have a Q factor of 1. In the Walmart parking lot example the Q factor would give information both about how many damaged carts and the amount of damage the carts received. The Cadillac-crushed carts would be much more severely damaged than the Smartcar-dented-carts.

Picture the Walmart manager arriving to work at midnight on Christmas. He surveys the damage as he drives around the parking lot: “There were quite a few grays of vandalism here yesterday” he says. Then he has his minions collect the damaged carts: “There were quite a few sieverts of damage from the vandalism yesterday” he says. Then he is taken to the three broken vehicles that caused the cart-pocalypse: “There are three counts of vandalism that impacted the lot” he says. If he knew that all three vehicles drove across in one minute he could have said that there were 3CPM of vandalism for one minute on Christmas; if he knew that the vehicles drove across sometime in a five hour window he would instead say: “There was an average of 0.01 CPM of vandalism over Christmas”.

I bet somewhere there is an action movie where a vehicle is caught in slow-motion while barreling through a parking lot smashing carts. As the carts go flying through the air one can see the effect of the seivers it has absorbed knocking bits off. Inspired lighting could catch the chromed cart fragments glinting like precious stones in sunlight. I would watch such a scene with great enjoyment. I would eat popcorn while watching it; cheese flavored popcorn.

It may seem that sievers can be translated into direct risk assessments better than any other number. Unfortunately absorbed doses are moderated by shielding and protective measures. Alpha rays penetrate so poorly that thin sheets of cardboard effectively shield them. Sieverts are a great unit of measurement for determining X-ray risks or normal occupational exposure risks. In taking into account the factors limiting immediate exposure sievert measurements can significantly minimize the extent of damage in a large-scale disaster. The reason for this is that once radioactive material is released it becomes a toxin, and the assumptions used to determine the sievert dosage from CPM can significantly downplay the effect of unshielded exposure; one does not come close to describing the risks with ingested or inhaled radioactive particles.

There you have it. I've gone well over 1600 words and have not touched upon what happens to the biological system insulted with a radiation dose. That is why I planed on running this in two parts. This first part is important for without reasoned quantitative measurements of the extent of risk it is impossible to get any warm fuzzies about one's own safety. The news media thinks that you cannot understand the measurements of radiation, and so they begin to pride themselves in having little understanding themselves. Real knowledge is reduced to assumption-riddled misinterpretations which can be of less value than silence.

I have been told that as far away as Chicago many people have begun stockpiling cherry pop-tarts and potassium iodide. How many curies need to be released for there to be a risk to Chicago? How many curries have been released? How many curries might be released? It would be nice to have these questions answered; wouldn't it.

It appears, with my 15 pounds of really good cheese in my fridge, that I am hording for a potential nuclear apocalypse. Even though I live between Japan and Chicago I am not really worried. I live A LOT closer to Chicago than Japan.

I have, however, tried to calculate the number of curies of plutonium-239 that would be needed to manufacture a nuclear fondue pot.

REM - Shiny Happy People by damned78

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Next week will be the 26th annual running of the Los Angeles Marathon. I wish the runners in that event well. Despite all my planning and preparation I will not be there to see them compete. Bummer.

Part of my preparations to attend the LAM included a first-ever professional massage. I scheduled the massage for last Friday, and since my ankle injury would have no adverse effect of my lying down -mostly naked- and having some stranger touch me, I went regardless of my change in LAM plans.

I like the idea of massage. Studies have shown there is a real, albeit almost negligibly small in most cases, positive effect from massage. It also feels good, which is a tremendous positive effect enhancer. After my professional massage last Friday I would consider having one several times a day forever, accept for one thing: they are too darned expensive.

The only reason Friday’s massage made it onto my miserly schedule was that an e-mail announcing “HALF OFF AN HOUR LONG MASSAGE” found its way into my inbox. It was a “Daily Deal” distributed by the Deseret News Newspaper. Basically, with the daily deal, local merchants provide a limited number of promotional business-boosting coupons to the paper, and the paper gives you 24 hours to purchase them. I once purchased four-for-the-price-of-two entrances into the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Unfortunately every time I go to UMFA I have some other free-admission invite deal, so I have not used them. I have looked into massages in Utah, and the Daily Deal price was good. An hour long massage for $32.50 sounded like about $10 less than what I could expect to pay at one of the lesser-expensive massage locations. I snapped up two; one for a friend.

There was no way to know that Japan would experience what may turn out to be the worst natural disaster survived by any developed nation while I was getting my massage. Nice as the massage was I would rather have taken the opportunity to call up folks in Japan to tell them to turn off their nuclear reactors, and go for picnics way up in the hills. Even scientists who have been exhaustively studying seismology repeatedly prove clueless in predicting even huge quakes like last Friday’s. If ever there was an opening for some psychic or direct-interface-with-god person to make a proverbial killing in the survival-through-precognition arena, Friday would have been it. There may turn out to be tens of thousands (the death toll rises, and the devastation looks unimaginable) of people whose deaths could have been avoided if just a fraction of the thousands of years of practice in religious prophesy proved worthwhile.

"They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal." – Pat Robertson on Haitian quake 2010

I will prophesize that outspoken religious persons will proclaim divine reasons for the quake. Probably some sort of retribution. More people will turn to religion in the quake’s wake. I will hope they find comfort in their faith; anything that can reduce suffering in such a situation should be exploited.

“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” – Mathew 5:45, 46 NIV

I was, however, blissfully unaware of the quake till after the massage.

When we arrived at the indescript office suite (Mind Over Matter) for our scheduled massages we were informed that the massages would only be a half hour each. “That’s the daily deal” we were informed. Part of the cost apparently went towards the paperwork I spent almost ten minutes filling out before my massage. This was a new experience for me. I had never before felt disappointed when, after arriving at an office suite, being told my appointment would be over an hour early.

The massage, as I mentioned earlier, was delightful. The masseuse was a rapidly-aging single mother of three in her early 30s. Her recently out-of work live-in boyfriend was putting such financial pressure on her household that she was planning on moving to a more distant bedroom community where the rents would be cheaper. I could also give you details about her kids; it sounded like they were good kids who may have inherited their mom’s sparkling tenacity. She was a graduate of the Utah College of Massage Therapy; the same place most of the non-spa massage locations obtained their masseuses.

The massages were scheduled sequentially, and the waiting room had both comfy chairs and a microwave. My companion told me, when I emerged from the massage, that some very fat man had talked to her about hypnotherapy before disappearing with the attractive receptionist into an office whose closed door she nodded towards. I told her that if the massage had been longer I might have started to drool.

I nestled into a chair, and began to settle into my book when lunch arrived for the office folk. The hypnotherapist and the attractive receptionist emerged from their office hide-away to retrieve some Styrofoam lunches. The hypnotherapist was large. Someone should have told him the inflatable balance ball was not to be eaten. I wondered if his hypnosis sessions were designed to help people with weightloss.

Balance-ball hypnosis guy glanced at me, and must have decided I was not attractive enough for his hypnosis pitch. He disappeared back into his office with the attractive receptionist.

The older woman who had arrived with the lunches spied me, and then bee-lined it over to the comfy-chair microwave area. She sat on the corner of one of the other comfy chairs, and leaned in to speak to me. I cut her off.

“I was hoping for an hour-long massage when I purchased the half off an hour long massage coupon” I told her.

“That’s the Daily Deal” She replied “It’s only a half-hour massage”.

Clearly we were not speaking the same language. I tucked back into my book to signify that the conversation was over.

“With the daily deal you could also get an Aqua-Chi treatment for an additional twenty-five dollars” she said.

“that’s just great” I murmured “What’s Aqua-Chi”.

For the next twenty minutes I was assaulted with a detailed description of Aqua-Chi. In addition to words like “toxins”, “meridians” and “detoxify” I was subjected to the insistent flailing of the Aqua-Chi promoter. The pitch involved Carol Merel (Famous “Let’s Make a Deal” model, and miss Azusa California 1957) like gesturing to parts of the pitch-woman’s anatomy.

“Each leg has a meridian” She gracefully waved her hands up and down her corduroyed pant-leg “and the toxins travel down these through the feet to the Aqua-chi machine”

The Aqua-Chi spokesperson was a poorly-preserved should-have-been seventy-year-old. When she gestured to her legs I imagined that they would have looked like cottage-cheese-filled plastic bags held fast by a thick purple net of varicose veins. I decided that corduroy was my friend.

She gestured to other parts of her anatomy.

“Liver” She said.

I realized that what little color she had in her face was painted on.

“Kidneys” She said.

She must be wearing a rather full pair of adult diapers. I thought: “Most people’s butts don’t get that large and puffy on their own”.

“Colon” She said; waving, unfortunately, at her groin.

She must have just had her hair done. I wondered if she had the MSDS for the industrial epoxy used on it.

I was handed a laminated color printout with a couple pictures of what looked like a foot-bath. In one of the photos the bath was filled with clear liquid and had two feet and an aquarium pump in it. In the other photo the same bath was filled with opaque swamp-water. I studied the pictures carefully to avoid looking at the ongoing interpretive dance geriatric anatomy lesson.

I imagined I heard grunting coming from behind the closed office door. Unfortunately it sounded more like hypnosis-guy was devouring more inflatable exercise equipment than any interesting entanglements with the attractive receptionist.

“Black sludge, green, flakes, Vaseline, bubbles, cottage cheese” Aqua-chi woman had sat back down and was apparently describing the swamp-water in the picture I was hiding behind. I was only momentarily shocked before I realized she was not describing the contents of her pants.

I have slightly researched Aqua-Chi since this encounter. It is a footbath. The bath is filled with a salt solution, and a low-voltage sacrificial electrode is placed in it. The electrolysis of the electrode pollutes the water to opaqueness with iron oxide. Chlorine, and sometimes sulfur, is also released by the reaction; these turn the water different shades, and stink too. Hydrogen gas bubbles come off the electrode when the water molecules themselves are split into their component atoms. Somehow the idea of soaking my feet in a slightly toxic waste material is not appealing; even if the low voltage of the electrolysis electrode is supposed to be pleasantly tingly.

“I’m not going to get an Aqua-Chi today” I handed the printout back to the woman. “It’s not the dumbest thing I have ever heard of, but I have just not budgeted for it today”.

“Have you ever tried hypnotherapy?” she said, not even pausing to switch gears.

Hypno-dude had gone silent in his office. Maybe he was awaiting the delivery of some tether-balls for dessert.

“Does it work for weightloss?” I asked.

“Yes” She replied “Nothing works better for that”

“I’m sure it does” I replied; saved by the emergence of my companion from the massage office “But I must be going now.”

Monday, March 14, 2011


Hopefully we do not start hearing about corium in the news coming out of Japan. Here is a little primer on the stuff in case mention of it does somehow start to creep into newscasts.

Corium is the lava-like material formed from the melted core of a nuclear reactor. What happens to this material determines the extent of environmental contamination a meltdown causes. Corium is not much of an environmental problem if it stays in the reactor containment vessel (assuming there is a containment vessel; there was not one in the Chernobyl plant). Corium can cause big problems if it escapes from the reactor vessel, and it is very difficult to contain molten corium.

Corium, since it is formed from a critical mass of nuclear fuel, can form a critical mass itself. It is possible in a pressurized water reactor (or boiling water reactor) for a “prompt critical” mass of fuel material to collect at the bottom of a reactor vessel. This would be a worst-case scenario, and highly unlikely.

A much more likely scenario is one where the nuclear fuel material mixes with all sorts of other material as the molten material drips out of the core. It is possible that, since molten corium should be rather viscous, there are unmixed zones in the corium blob that are still locally critical.

The reason criticality is a very important concern is that a critical corium blob continues to generate heat until it is dispersed. Because there is no mixing of the corium blob unless it moves the heat would likely build up until some critical failure moved the blob. In the case of a “prompt critical” blob the failure might even be vaporization of portions of the blob and containment structures. The resultant plume would cause a catastrophic environmental disaster. For the locally critical blob the movement would likely come in the form of a containment vessel breach; the blob would be dispersed as it splashed onto the containment building’s floor.

It does not require a locally critical mass to breach a containment vessel and create a corium splash. However, with a large enough locally critical nuclear fuel zone in the corium blob the containment vessel breach is almost inevitable. A blob without a locally critical zone is the most likely scenario.

In the most likely scenario, and the only scenario observed in any nuclear disaster to date, the blob cools as it dissipates the heat generated while it was critical. The number of neutrons the mass generates decreases, and the sub-critical mass begins to act like a lump of hot metal. The famous corium flow at Chernobyl called “the elephant’s foot” is now only slightly warmer than ambient temperatures, and it has only been 25 years since that was formed. It is important, however, to remember that the Chernobyl corium flow was many metric tons in size (the elephant’s foot alone was two metric tons) and so the fuel was diluted far beyond the concentration where any sub-critical nuclear reactions would contribute significantly to its heat.

The hot metal is very hot even for hot metal. When it comes into contact with normally non-volatile material, like concrete, the outgassing can cause explosive dispersal. The amount of dispersal is dependent on the amount of heat in the corium, and the outgassing potential of the material it comes into contact with. The dispersal energy would determine the size and scope of the environmental disaster.

The other contributing factor would be the concentration of radioactive material in the ejecta. Most of the material in the corium blob would either be highly radioactive before entering into the blob, or become highly radioactive because it adsorbed neutrons from fuel material fission within the blob. Other material would become radioactive if it were dispersed with splatters from the blob.

If corium is explosively dispersed it could become a very widespread problem. Corium is so hot that many materials interacting with it are melted into a glasslike or ceramic state. Much of this material is naturally friable. In addition to natural friability the highly radioactive material spontaneously degenerates, causing small-particle generating fractures. Even large chunks of ejecta can form small respiratable particles which easily disperse over enormous areas, or re-aerosolize.

Corium is scary stuff, but please turn off your nightlight. Conserving energy is much safer than building any type of reactor. And who needs nightlights these days anyway?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Teaching the Teachers

I have been thinking about cats today. I almost killed one through the application of a stumbling-pre-dawn misstep this morning. The cat is OK, but it made a sound I would have thought could only have been produced by the vigorous application of severe torture. Every morning one of the cats in my house closely orbits my feet while I stumble to the kitchen; every few months I step on it. You’d think it would learn.

There are things that cannot be grasped with the feline brain, but it is difficult to tell what they are. If we reduce the complexity of the brain to less than that of a cat (no this is not a sendup for a Glenn Beck joke…) to something like a bird it is possible to dispassionately weigh behavior against applied stimulus.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner worked extensively with stimulus-response training of simple-brained animals. He famously taught pigeons to play ping-pong; though they did not play well. Skinner showed that rewards (positive reinforcement) were much more effective than punishments (negative reinforcement) in altering behavior. Skinner’s work has been used as a critical part of the foundation that modern teaching methods are built upon.

Many experienced teachers will tell you that Skinner’s work is wrong.

“What works for birds” they will tell you “Doesn’t work for people”.
They have data to back up their claims. The data is so universal that it can be generalized as follows:

  1. Students who perform exceptionally well at a task, and are rewarded, perform much worse at the task the next time they attempt it. The strength of the reward has no effect on this relationship.
  2. Students who perform exceptionally poorly at a task, and are punished, perform much better at the task the next time they attempt it. The strength of the punishment has little effect on this relationship.

The above generalization can be supported with objective data from a variety of sources; I will provide a relatively dependable way of generating your own later on in this entry. It would appear that the human mind works opposite to the way a bird’s brain works, at least as the workings relate to behaviorism. But if we scratch the surface of the experienced teacher’s (ET) knowledge we see a slightly different story.

ETs believe they are speaking about how their students learn from them, but what they are really relating is what they think they themselves have learned about their students. If the Skinnerism holds their learning would be reinforced better through rewards. To stick with teaching long enough to become an ET requires that the teacher partially responds to the positive stimuli of successfully teaching. What they are correct about in their teaching methods would provide for a more lasting impression in their minds.

The more ET notices the outcome the greater is the impression on their mind. This means that if the deviant ability (either very poor or very good) is exceptional the effect that ET’s teaching method produces is more important to that ET. Similarly, the more ET cares about the student’s progress the more lasting the memory of the effect of ET’s response to the ability.

The problem is that the more ET cares about the student or the exceptional ability the more the ET reinforces in their mind a pattern of responses that does not exist. Once ET recognizes the positive effect of their punishment on their students they have created a delusion that will only be reinforced by continued attention to the data source upon which it is based.

Let me propose a data source that will illustrate this. You will need to supply ET. I suggest that the test is conducted by e-mail. You could get a bunch of teachers to reply to you a couple of times a day in a scenario-based test like this:

Tell the teachers that you are going to test the effectiveness of years of teacher experience on their ability to moderate rewards and punishments to a group of students. It can help if you make clear that neither the rewards nor punishments are severe. The teachers can provide a number from 1 to 10 on how great the reward or punishment should be. Then you provide the teachers with regular performance updates in the form of numbers. The teachers are regularly given a number from -10 to +10 which they are told represents their anonymous students’ performance. After the test the teachers provide answers to a question like: “Did the reward or punishment prove the most effective way to alter the students’ performance?”.

Then to generate the performance numbers you flip coins. Since the mean behavior of a coin toss is HTHTHTHT… we assign a 0 to any sequence of HT or TH. If two heads are flipped in a row we interpret that as a +1. Two tails in a row generates a -1. Three heads generates a +2, four heads a +3, five +4, six +5, seven +6, eight +7, nine +8, ten +9, and eleven heads in a row generates a +10. The same scoring is used for sequences of tails in a row, but the numbers are negative.

Because of the statistical property of “regression to the mean” what ET will see in the above thought experiment is this: whenever ET provides reward for exceptionally good performance they will usually see the performance decline, and when they provide punishment for exceptionally poor performance they will usually see the performance get markedly better. If ET examines their notes and modulates their rewards and punishments they will see that, on average, the punishment does a consistently much better job. The more the teachers are made to care about the outcome the less they will be able to identify the true randomness behind the performance numbers. If one imposes a slight linear increase in the performance values it is almost impossible for even the slightly concerned ET to see the randomness in the values.

I have written on how imposing patterns on the mind leads to conceptual bias, and how these patterns can be reinforced by a lack of data. Here is a situation where the inerrant patterns in data with true randomness reinforces the concept of a very non-random pattern of cultural responses in the mind.

I have framed this entry in the form of a discussion about teachers, but the effects of reward and punishment are used in many aspects of our civilization. Conflicts and wars are often understood as forms of international punishment.

Our spending priorities also mirror what experience-based learning teaches those most interested about rewards and punishments. Estimates had suggested that right about now observed trends would have more of the California budget going towards prisons than education. The estimates had $15.3 billion California state dollars going to education, and $15.4 billion to prisons. The problem economy made that happen sooner. Higher education is the worst hit; 7.5% percent of the CA budget goes to higher education, and 11% goes towards prisons. The per individual discrepancy is even larger; CA pays over $45,000.00 per year for an average prison inmate, and a little over $5,000.00 a year for the average California State University student’s education.

Perhaps California should start hiring their laid off teachers as prison guards. I’m sure ET would see the logic in that.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Three Brothers Bill

Once upon a time there were three brothers named Bill. They each had different fathers. The youngest, who had a weak stomach, was named Bill Abernathy, and his friends often called him Bill'aye in a mock English accent. The middle bill was named Bill Bartholomew, and his friends called him “BeeBee”.   The eldest was named Bill Charles, and the people he hung out with called him “BP” as he had developed a bladder problem in later years that forced him to spend large amounts of time in the bathroom.

One day BA got an invited to play on a game-show. His bothers excitedly watched him on TV from the living room of their split-level home.

The game-show host showed BA a series of doors, and told him that there was a fabulous prize behind one of the doors. The other two doors had amusing prizes of little value. He could choose any door, and if the fabulous prize was behind it he would keep it. BA was nervous, and almost threw up trying to make his choice, but he eventually chose door number one. Monty, the game-show host, thought for a minute, smiled, and then had his lovely assistant Vana open door number two. There behind door number two was a dented can of SPAM on an ornate pedestal. The audience laughed. Monty then turned to BA and asked him if he would like to stay with door number one, or switch to door number three. BA, unable to make another choice without vomiting, stayed.

BeeBee decided BA should have switched to door three, and silently cursed BA's week continence.

BP missed all this choosing because he was in the bathroom. He emerged just before the game-show host revealed what was behind the two remaining doors. BP asked what was going on, and BeeBee told him there was a marvellous prize behind one of the doors. BP randomly chose one of the doors, and they all waited to see who might have successfully chosen the correct door.

Which brother made the best choice? BeeBee reasoned that choosing door number one left a 2/3 chance of the awesome prize being in one of the doors not chosen. Eliminating one of those doors meant that there was twice as good a chance that the awesome prize was behind the remaining door.

BA could not change his mind, and BP was clueless. Did reasoning make for a better choice?

In order to test this I decided to create an empirical data set. I wrote the following PERL script:

# I'll run this ten million times

$door = 10000000; 
$choices = 0;
while ($choices <= $door) {
# lets put SPAM behind all the doors   
   @monty = ("SPAM" , "SPAM", "SPAM");
#then replace one can with Awesome   

   $monty[int(rand(3))] = "Awesome";
# BA chooses a door   

   $A = int(rand(3));   
   $billA = $monty[$A];
# Monty remembers what is behind the remaining doors   

   $t = 0;  
   $d = 0;  
   while ($t <= 2) {     
       if ($t == $A) {        
          $t ++;      
      } else {         
          $vana[$d] = $monty[$t];         
# and opens one of the doors that has a can of SPAM behind it        

   $open = int(rand(2));   
   $other = 1 - $open;
#BeeBee chooses the door Monty has not opened   

   if ($vana[$open] eq "SPAM") {     
       $billB = $vana[$other];   
   } else {     
       $billB = $vana[$open];   
# now BP chooses a door   

   $left[0] = $billB;   
   $left[1] = $billA;
   $billC = $left[int(rand(2))];
# see who won   

   if ($billA eq "Awesome") { $AC ++;}  
   if ($billB eq "Awesome") { $BC ++;}   
   if ($billC eq "Awesome") { $CC ++;}   
# lets print out the results and see who won most often
print "AC# $AC , BC # $BC, CC# $CC, #D $choices \n";

This program provided the following output:

AC# 3333932 , BC # 6666069 , CC# 5003653, #D 10000001

Which means that Bill'aye was right about 1/3 of the time, BeeBee was right 2/3 of the time, and BP was right 1/2 of the time.

It appears BeeBee's reasoning about the potential outcomes guided him towards potentially better results. However, BeeBee does not ever posses absolute knowledge about what the outcomes would be. Is his choice based in “faith”? Some people have argued to me that each of the brothers' answers were based in faith because they could not know what the correct answer was.

 “ faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1 KJB

If choices about the unknown are, by definition, expression of faith, then what is the difference between the faith of the three brothers Bill?  BA's choice is based in fear; I have been told that fear is a lack of faith. BP obviously has the purest faith; his is not polluted by any foreknowledge. BeeBee's faith is guided by reason. BeeBee perpetuates doubt to manage his belief.

"I believe though I do not comprehend, and I hold by faith what I cannot grasp with the mind." --Saint Bernard

If this is faith, and is therefore of the same material as that which is used to create a belief in a god, then belief in a god is a malleable entity perfected by the application of doubt. If doubt leads one to the position that there is most probably no god then the person who declares themselves an atheist is the one with the most perfected faith.

The problem with the wise is they are so filled with doubts while the dull are so certain.-- Bertrand Russell

This is only where faith is defined as what we use to make decisions in the absence of knowledge. The more common type of faith is distinctly different. Faith used to create a type of certainty cannot be worked into a more desirable product. This type of faith is a cover for delusion; not ignorance. Ignorance can be cured with knowledge; delusion can only be cured by the decision to abandon the delusion.