Monday, March 24, 2014

Atomic Accidents: A Book Report

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozarks to Fukushima by James Mahaffey. Short review? Read this book. When I saw this book at the library, and saw the title, I said "How can I NOT read this book?"

I was not disappointed. Not only is Mr. Mahaffey superbly informative (holds my record for dog-eared pages), he does with a deadpan irony drenched sense of humor found mainly in the military and the parched Permian hills of West Texas. For a nonstop recounting of nuclear horrors, this is one of the funniest books I've ever read. How good of a book is it? I would probably consider adding to my personal library.

I wish I could quote all of the (invisibly) underlined passages within the dog-eared pages, but why spoil the book for you? (A sidebar here: I think it extremely rude to underline lines in a book that is not mine, and I also take pains to unfold all of the dog-eared pages. I respect books and treat them accordingly).

I would make two observations, perhaps three. The first is: it is a wonderful thing that we human creatures are such a primitive, savage and superstitious lot, believing in unseen influences and malevolent forces, invisible curses and evil spirits, witches and spells and ghosts and spooks, otherwise the planet would be a lot more blighted with radioactive debris than it is. This is not to say some of us haven't been cavalier around the stuff, but reading about how often meltdowns and spills happen... just be glad the industry was a little concerned about its public image.

My second observation is that almost every incident listed in the book is a case of Thinking Fast and Slow. Or rather, engaged in far too much clever monkey fast thinking to fix immediate problems (and thus making the situation worse), and not nearly enough slow fore-brained thinking on coming up with more sober solutions. I would go further, and suggest that this fast and slow thinking could be extended to the cultural level; for the fast, clever version of cultural ruminations has given us the industry we have today, which is not necessarily the right way we should have gone about this. The mid-20th century saw a kind of mad rush to get things going, the public was ready since the beginning of the 20th century for a solution to the energy crisis (yes, they realized back then that oil and coal wouldn't last forever) and there were two priorities to all this 1) make nuclear weapons, and a distant 2) make power for electricity.

The reactor of choice ended up being something that can make plutonium, and uses pressurized steam power. Problem is using water to moderate and cool reactors, and pressurized steam leads to steam explosions. Steam explosions... usually bad. Steam explosions with radioactive fissile materials... usually worse. The logic would suggest, therefore: nuclear power bad. (Well, no not actually, unless of course, it is allowed to rest in the clumsy paws of those drunken dancing bears known as the Russians... more on that in a minute).

Let me start from the rear of the book and point out that Mr. Mahaffey is solidly behind thorium reactors, either the molten salt variety or the liquid fluoride variety. It really is only a matter of time before we head that way because, let's face it kiddies, fission is here to stay. The beauty with thorium is the reactors can't melt down because they start out molten, and the waste is so much easier to process. (I don't include you can't make bombs with a thorium reactor, because you can make bombs with U233, it's just not very practical).

This is not to say that nuclear waste is, in any sense, really waste. The United States is the only country that does not process it's nuclear waste, and as a result, we plan on burying a huge amount recoverable fuel and valuable radionuclides - not to mention that gold mine known as plutonium. (There will come a day when, if we make it out to the outer Solar System, we are very much going to want to have all that plutonium to run thermoelectric power packs).

Mr. Mahaffey makes the case that we have fallen into the Rickover Trap. A small, almost toylike reactor used in nuclear submarines is safe, efficient, and easy to operate (the reactor control panel is no more complicated than the dashboard of a private jet). It is a wonderful nuclear reactor in the megawatt range. The problem is when you take this thing and turn it a gigawatt mountain, with a control room that is packed with dials and gauges packed floor to ceiling for dozens of feet, and with a nuclear core that is basically delicate lacework and feather puffs that would melt faster than a gallium spoon in warm tea, it's a wonder we don't have more accidents.  (Again, more on reactor cores in a minute). So, this is a case of immediate problem solving through design freeze far too early in the process just to get the dang things out the door, of fast thinking overriding slow.

Okay let's get to good stuff. The big one, the Mother Of All Clusterfucks: Chernobyl.

Let me preface this big doozy with quick summary of what the Brits did to get their bomb. The British built a large graphite pile in dairy land of Cumbria on the northwestern coast of England. It was called Windscale, and it's sole purpose was to produce plutonium for bombs. Due to passage of congressional security measures, the Americans were not allowed to tell them what to do. But in 1952, a visiting American delegation looks over the pile, and informed the Brits: "Whatever you do, do not let the graphite catch fire.  Once it gets going, water will not extinguish the fire. It will only burn hotter, as graphite pulls oxygen out of the water and leaves you with explosive hydrogen." (I leave it to the reader as to figure out how the Americans knew this).

On or about Oct. 8, 1957, the Windscale graphite pile caught fire. They flooded the pile with water. The lazy red flames turned blowtorch blue. Finally, someone turned off blowers that were providing positive pressure - and fresh oxygen - to the core, and almost instantly the fire went out. It was a total loss.
"Over 10 tons of uranium was melted and five tons were burned. Very little of the uranium  or even fission products went up the chimney. A brittle oxide crust had formed in the extreme heat of the fire, and the heavy oxides were bogged down in it before they made it to the air outlet. The immediate concern was the volatile fission product iodine-131. The filter packs (in the chimneys), now no longer known as "Cockcroft's follies", were not expected to capture any of the 70,000 curies of iodine-131 that were present in the fuel when the fire began, but there was a fortuitous happening. The LM cartridges, containing bismuth oxide meant to activate into polonium-210, burned up, and the light bismuth oxide dust went up the stack and caught in the filters. This and some vaporized lead reacted chemically with the iodine".
Some 20,000 curies of iodine-131 were released upon the dairy farms of Cumbria, and the government had to buy a lot of milk. Luck of the British. But still, the problem had been the insistence of maximum production of plutonium had overworked the pile to the point that it burned down. Management was never held to account.

But, buck up readers, at Chernobyl, management died in agony from radiation poisoning a few days after the accident. So there's that to be cheerful about.

An observation about the Russians, though it is true that every other nation that has worked with nuclear materials has had more than their fair share of sheer folly, the Russians have to win hands down as the true brutish and crude barbarians of the industry. If there is anything, anything, bad that can happen or go wrong with anything nuclear, not only have the Russians done it, they've practically dared, goaded, and bullied each other to do it, like a fucking drinking contest or something.

Have you heard of the Kyshtym disaster? That was the world's first, and so far biggest, dirty bomb. A large underground tank farm near Chelyabinsk was built to hold plutonium extract in solution. A cooling-water pipe to one of the tanks broke, and rather than find the leak and repair it, the engineers in charge just turned the water off and forgot about it.

The tank heated up, the nitrate solution degraded into ammonium nitrate mixed with acetates. The water all boiled away and the now solidified ANFO, mixed with radionuclides, exploded with the power of 100 tons of TNT. 70 to 80 tons of radioactive waste was blown out in a plume covering some 200 miles long. (Didn't I tell you this was a funny book?)

And Chernobyl? That was what happens when you put the Austro-Hungarian Empire in charge of a safety test. You might as well just say "Klink, you idiot!". Here's a great passage:
 "Two men, Protosov, a maintenance worker, and Pustovoit, who was the "odd-job" man at the plant, were night-fishing on the bank of the coolant runoff pond, right where the plant outflow occurs, 1.25 miles from the plant. The fish really liked the warm water, and it was a clear, starry night. It seemed like the middle of the summer, and the fish were cooperating. They turned to look when they heard two low rumbling explosions, seeming to come from inside the plant. Then a third explosion reduced the top of the building to flaming splinters, and they watched with mild interest as steel beams and concrete chunks spun overhead. The turbine hall burst into flames and illumined an enormous column of black smoke. They turned back to their fishing rods. If they got excited every time something around here exploded or burned to the ground, they would never get any fishing done. 'They'll have that out in no time', opined Pustovoit. Whenever a steam relief valve popped off, which seemed quite often, it sounded like a Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber had crashed into the side of the building, and fires consuming switch yards or fuel depots were not rare at the Chernobyl plant".   
The tragedy of Chernobyl is that there is no lesson to learn here. Criminal incompetence and bullying on the part of the plant director, Akimov, played a role, but the plant was so poorly and wretchedly designed, that, well, unless rhesus monkeys decide to build a plutonium production plant, they may be the only ones to learn anything from this.

I could go on, but why spoil the book for you?

Alright how about this quote, because it applies to TMI and Fukushima:
"In major commercial reactor accidents, there always seems to be a single operator action that starts the downward spiral into irrevocable disaster."
That's Newman's Maxim: "No subsequent amount of steps will fix a profoundly fucked-up first step".

How is that different form any other industrial accident, or financial transaction, or political movement? Trying to solve the immediate problem, or trying to keep losses at a minimum, almost invariably invites the much, much worse problems behind it to step forward.

My thirds observation is that perhaps we've been going about it the wrong way. Chernobyl, right before it exploded, produced near 30 billion watts of power, and my suspicion is, rather than avoiding meltdowns, the most efficient way to use nuclear power is to encourage building reactors that like melting down, and that only work in a molten state. After all, you get the most efficiencies from the big temperature differences. The thorium reactors mentioned earlier like being in a molten state. Perhaps what we should be doing is investigating and developing refractory instruments, materials, sensors and processors that shrug off 2-3,000 , maybe even 5,000F degree temperatures. Maybe we should be building nuclear volcano reactors to get the most steam power out of them. It certainly couldn't be worse than what we've accomplished so far.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream

In a strange way, I sometimes envy Soviet citizens of the mid 1950s through the late 1970s. It was pretty evident, especially after Krushchev's revelations that central planning was doomed in the Soviet Union. So long as everything was misrepresented, so long as there were no accurate and reliable feedback mechanisms, central planning simply could not work. (It is one of the reasons the free market system is so robust under graft, deceit, and corruption: the misrepresentation is distributed, and for the most part, the suckers eat the losses).

Soviet citizens, therefore, knew they were being lied to constantly, and as a result developed an amazing talent for reading between the lines. Gleaning even a glimmer of the truth from misrepresentation and distractions, in a way that even the most cynical and suspicious Americans cannot not hope to equal, is an admirable quality, one that served them well when dealing with deceptions from the United States government. (That and having an espionage system second to none in the world kind of explains, well, the hysteresis of the crumbling empire).

So, the lesson is, if you were asking for one, is that when information is withheld or constrained, misinformation rushes in to fill the space. You end up, not with a void empty of information, but a great deal of bullshit.
The Pew Research Center quizzed some folks about what they thought digital life would be like in 2025. They got the usual bullshit about how people will be better connected, better informed, more empathetic and helpful, more empowered and egalitarian, and all that pollyanna-ish rainbow-brite unicorn sweetness and light, but, I don't know. I kind of doubt it.

Last year, it was reported that robots constitute 61.5% of internet traffic, and 69% of that bot traffic was malicious. I don't see that trend going down. Criminals, parasites, scammers, spoofers, identity thieves, bitcoin robbers, have only just now started to take advantage of the internet. Couple the coming internet of things with the increase of malware onto any and all available platforms and I don't see how anyone would really want to venture online.

But that's just me. I'm not sure what systemic measure could be used to fight all this malevolence, but my suspicion is anonymity will have to go.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Shaking of the Keys

When I was a kid, my father worked as a salesman for a magnet factory. We had a big box of magnets out in the garage that were samples and souvenirs from the factory. I can remember the cow magnets, which were long rounded rods you would get a cow to swallow, and then all the hardware the cow managed to chew up would collect around the magnet. We would try and see how how many cow magnets you could get to stick together in a chain when you pulled them out of the box.

That actually isn't as exciting as it sounds.

But we did get some big ring magnets one time. I discovered that, if you put a magnet up on the TV screen it would distort the picture. And I tried out the ring magnet on our brand new color TV and the things it did to the picture was wild! Of course, once I took the ring magnet off, the picture stayed all distorted, and needless to say, I freaked. I tried turning the TV on and off, but it no difference. So, I just turned it off and hoped that no one would notice. Fortunately for me, whatever happened inside the TV fixed itself, as the next night when it was turned on, it was normal.

I'm not sure I can say the same for my brain. I would regularly run magnets over my skull, knowing my brain was electromagnetic, and figured some kind of weird experience would occur. But it never, or at least, not so I could notice.

Nowadays, you can hack you brain in a much more sophisticated manner with DIY Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or the recent Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation. I knew a guy, maybe a decade ago on a metal casting forum, who was going to experiment with it. In fact, his last post on the forum was how he was all set up and going to try and it and looking forward to the experience, and he would be back after the weekend to tell us all about it.... and that was his last post ever.

Doesn't mean anything bad happened to him. Maybe he entered an alternate reality and saw no need to come back.

Speaking of alternate realities, word is that another deranged billionaire  - Ken Langone - thinks his situation is the same as the victims of the Holocaust, where he and his fellow fat-cats are the poor, persecuted Jews, and all of us consumers, the people who bought all his shitty stuff from his shitty store, are the Nazis.
Ken and his fellow oh-so-put-upon billionaires

You know, I really have to wonder why someone doesn't just slap into some form of cognition that soggy bowl of oatmeal sloshing around in Ken Langone's wrinkly old noggin. Maybe that is not possible.  

One thing I do know, is that it makes for press, and I've got to wonder if that is really what it is all about. It's the shaking of the keys, distracting the dumb rubes and yokels of this country from the actual problems by creating issues for them to worry about.  Remember when Dick Nixon shredded the 4th amendment with the Drug Wars by getting white America all worried about crime and drugs? Even though both were trending down by the time he got all his draconian legislation passed?

Remember how the billionaires got the teatards all worked up about the Debt? Got them all hooked on goldbuggery and the fragility of the dollar? Even though gold - at it's highest price EVER - was outperformed in the markets by that promise of future labor and ingenuity which we know as debt?

Ever notice how, after the Newtown massacre, the NRA and the hobby arms industry (supplying the big toys to big boys) distracted everyone with the mental health issue? Even though the mentally ill are the least likely to be violent? And in fact, a much better indicator of violent actions is alcohol abuse?

Ever notice how, when rich people get rich, it really has nothing at all to do with the people who actually do all the work? Notice that those people, who shoulder all of the risks, in that they have their life's earnings, or a significant chunk of it, dedicated to making the project or innovation or enterprise happen rish FAR MORE than the venture capitalist who basically throws down pocket change and risks essentially nothing in comparison. And notice where all the rewards go?

Notice all the talk about free markets, and people who suffer from platonic derangement syndrome whine about it's not really a real free market, even though government supports and sustains the market? Even though, the people who complain over the internet about all this, fail to see how their entire modern lifestyle would not exist without the galaxy of first rate national laboratories and federal subsidies fund innovative companies, and then we just give it all away for free?

Nobody notices this shit?

Monday, March 17, 2014

2014 RAM Biennial

Made it in to the Rockford Art Museum's 2014 Biennial Show. Not the piece I expected. I expected "The Stockmen" to get in. This got in instead:
Machinerette Diptych #3

Fine with me, as long as I'm in. I expect current tastes may have gotten in sync with my stuff. Or not. The juror for the RAM show was William Lieberman, director of the Zola/Lieberman Gallery in Chicago. Looking at the artists there, it seems to me they should represent me. Either them, or Perimeter.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Caretakers

I found a note, which I must have written down one drunken and stoned night back in 2013 (during the holidays, which is when I allow myself to get all drunk and stoned), that says the following:
"What can 1000 people do in 30 days?"
There's a follow up on the other side of the note which asks:
"Right now? In 1913? In 1813? In 1713? No point on going beyond."
I have to assume that drunk and stoned Johnny was asking, not what a military organization of 1000 people can do, but rather, what endeavor, what adventure, what amazing thing can a collection of one thousand (randomly chose or selected? it's makes a difference)  people do in a month's time?

It's a good question.

I ignore the military answer because that's fairly obvious. I think I was thinking in terms of the acceleration, the... anomaly we've gone through these past 300 years, what with science and technology and such. Because, before the Industrial Revolution, there was only incremental change, and accomplishments made in 1712 - with muscle power and ancient machines - isn't much different than the preceding millennia.

So, what can one thousand carefully chosen people do in one month's time? In 2013? In 1913? In 1813?

No, I'm asking you!

Well, here's one thing. Clearly, the choice of the one thousand matters, but the whole support structure of humanity behind them matters more.

Here's an example. Today, I was trying to think of this guy who wrote a mind-blasting science fiction story I read in 1977. I couldn't think of his name. and I couldn't think of the title of the short story. All I remembered was this guy was English, that he specialized in space opera, that he had pulpish tendencies, and the one line from the story "galaxies whizzing by like snowflakes".

So, at first I figured I'd read the story in one of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies.


Ah, see, let's stop for a second. How many people, and how many months, are behind that particular activity I am going to do? All the programmers, and engineers, and technicians, and physicists, and phone company types, and fabricators, and typists, and coal miners, and metal extractors, etc., etc. etc.?

In 1913? In 1813? One hundred years ago, I'd have to go to many libraries, talk to many librarians, to get this information. And 1813 would not be that different, would it? Hell, one hundred years? The Web is now twenty-five years old, so, in 1989?

Okay, start to get the picture? So, I look through the authors of Again, Dangerous Visions, and one pops out as a candidate: M John Harrison.

Was that the guy? No, that was not the guy, but contained in the wikipedia article was the guy: Barrington J. Bayley, and the title of the story was "The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor".

Bayley once said he was heavily influenced by reading The Naked Lunch, which, by coincidence, I also read that summer concurrently with above mentioned short story.

And so now you know why I make shit like this:

"The Caretakers" wax, to be cast in bronze, kind of hard to see but the left figure's mask looks like the bug she is holding

"The Caretakers" wax, to be cast in bronze

"The Caretakers" wax, to be cast in bronze
My bronze class is currently investing their pieces, and, as I just got done today with the waxes and still have to rig them up for casting, puts me four days behind my class, which makes me a remedial learner.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

2014 Texas National

Holy shit, I got in. I got ALL THREE of my submissions in. One thousand entries, 73 made the cut.

"The Smokermakers"
"Theory and Practice"
When I got the news, I was equal parts excited and anxious. The Texas National is some big shit. I paced around like caged zoo animal for awhile, and then finally calmed down some. So, I got decisions to make. The opening reception is April 12th. Down in Nacogdoches, which it turns out I've been mispronouncing. Seeing as I am from Chicago, I pronounce it NAG-uh-DOCH-us, which isn't right.

Anyway, I have to decide if I 'm going to adventure. It's an adventure I really can't afford. I'll barely to afford the shipping costs for the pieces! And I got to get the pieces on or before March 29th, so I can't really blow things off the way I normally do. 

But, for now, I just gotta let it all sink in. And maybe eat something.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Terms Of Venery

You know what that is, even if you don't: collective nouns, like "a pride of lions", or "a kine of cows", or "a troup of shrimp", which is the title of this new wall piece (2014, cast glass, mahogany frame):

"A Troup of Shrimp"
 Can two shrimp be a troup? Well, they're gonna have to be.

Speaking of terms of venery, there are modern forms, and soon to be obsolete modern forms, such as "a discourse of fax machines". And there are terms for groups of people as well, such as "a slew of assassins" or "an odium of politicians".

I think there should be a term for non-commissioned officers. More specifically, chief petty officers (or simply chiefs), or staff sergeants or gunnery sergeants, or sergeant majors. In business, they are usually called managers, but since the corporate model is based upon a hierarchal military organization, it is much the same (although business usually looks more like a joint civilian clusterfuck that makes money despite itself rather than a force to be reckoned with).

As the son of a Navy guy, I'll go with the example of chiefs. I thought perhaps "a network of chiefs" might work, but really it is more like "a quantum entanglement of chiefs", or perhaps "a superimposition of chiefs".

It is true that the people who really run things are the non-comms, the people who keep the butthead executives away from the workers. More importantly, if something needs to get done outside of the chain of command, there is a, well, almost like a spacelike Newtonian plane of existence cutting across all light cones that is the known as the chief's network. When some problem of either a staff personal nature or situational nature is there, this rather impossibly instantaneous communication system goes into effect and suddenly distant parts of the universe are in contact and taking care of things.

I never really thought about it, as I don't really think of myself a s a chief, but apparently, given some introspection on the matter, I guess I am. Not necessarily in keeping butt-head executives away from the workers (although, come to think of it, that's what most of my jobs have been), but rather connecting with others to make sure shit gets done and people are taken care of.

So, I may or may not be part of that, but if I am, then so, dear reader, are you! Because, in a strictly relativity-obeying acausal fashion, this is what we do. And doesn't that sound better than being a passive purveyor and container of selfish memes? Given that I don't buy into that shit, I think so.

So, hello, chief! How you doing today?

I'm doing good. So, apparently are some other Americans, who are the beneficiaries of the ACA (you know, Obamacare). According to the Wall Street Journal (although give the editorial staff a moment so they can spin a denial of this new tidbit), the ACA has boosted household spending and income for January.   Well, you looking at one household right here. And what did I do with my extra disposable income? Why, I went and bought myself a toy. A Kaossilator Pro Plus, to be exact.

And it is a HUGE amount of fun. I have literally, like a six year old boy, played myself to sleep with the thing. And woke up with bent headphones. Take that, Rush Limbaugh!

Okay, here you go, my test track with the Kaossilator:

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Spa Treatment Mystery

I am currently reading a book, Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains To Fukushima by James Mahaffey, which I will do a book report on eventually.

In the meantime, I'm fascinated by descriptions of mineral water treatments and spa baths. Mineral water and hot spring spa baths typically are considered invigorating and healthful, but why so?

Water percolating though rocks almost invariably has some quantity of radioactive particles in it, or at the very least, is bubbling with radon gas, and so you would think it would not be good for you. And yet, the waters and spas are considered curative by all cultures. The world still has many curative radium spring resorts, from Hot Springs, AK to Misasa, Japan which hosts an annual Marie Curie festival to honor the discoverer of radium.

It is a known fact that people's reactions to radioactivity varies widely, with some being highly susceptible to even the slightest exposures, while others seem to have an advanced immunity. One would have to assume, given the extent of life on Earth, with exposure to all kinds of ionizing radiations and actinides in our environment, that there are molecular coping strategies, but could some forms of metabolism temporarily thrive on increased radioactivity? Could it be that there are some individuals who would benefit from a little bit of exposure?

The prevailing attitude has been that there is no good amount of exposure, and yet, a rather dubious flirtation with all things radioactive going back at least one hundred years suggests that this is not so.

Consider the insane ignorance expressed by the early pioneers, such as the Curies, Roentgen, and even Nikola Tesla. Tesla routinely stuck his head into his 4 million volt x-ray, finally only stopping after experiencing shooting pains towards the top of his head, and recommending that kids not try this at home. For the longest time, x-ray technicians would waved their hands in the beams to check for operational efficacy. After many incidents, the practice was quickly abandoned.

And then there is the ingestion of curative radium waters. Much information is now available about the Radium Girls, but the practice actually didn't gain much press until doctors killed Eben Byers, a wealthy heir to a ironmonger's fortune. The lesson here? If you must kill people for profit, make sure they are poor. A more succinct lesson: Don't kill rich people for profit.

Radium is chemically identical to calcium, is readily incorporated into bone, and no metabolic mechanism exists to remove it from the body. Interestingly, Dr. William Bailey, the entrepreneur who marketed Radithor, the radium water ingested by Byers, protested an FTC false advertising complaint, stating "I have drunk more radium water than any man alive, and I have never suffered any ill effect".

He wasn't kidding. The emanations from his disinterred remains swamped a geiger counter:
"William Bailey, the entrepreneur who killed Eben Byers, had ripened to the age of 64 when he died of bladder cancer unrelated to radium in 1949. Twenty years later, his remains were disinterred for study by Professor Robley D. Evans, Director Emeritus of the Radioactivity Center at MIT. A count of radioactivity lingering in his bones proved that that Bailey wasn't lying when he claimed to have ingested more Radithor than anyone else. Yet, he had never complained of a toothache, much less died from it. Decades of study suggested that the effects of large radiation loads vary from individual to individual. Can some people tolerate chronic high radiation better than others? Are certain people better at producing protective hormones such as granulocyte colony-stimulating factor and the interleukins, stimulating the growth of blood cells under radioactive stress?"
And if some people can, well, not thrive and improve, at least tolerate higher levels of radiation, should they be studied or recruited for - if and when the time ever comes - "hazard duty" of one form or another?