Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dinesh' Dimness...

Few people on the US conservative side rile me more than Dinesh D'Souza, aka Distort D'Newza. It's flabbering that this little nitwit manages to sell tons and tons of books. But then, so does Ann Coulter (who nearly blew a fuse when confronted by Alan Colmes last night on her despicable "perfecting Jews"-stance), whom Tnesh had dated for some time. (Christ, what a couple these two would have made!)

Then there Tgnash' most controversial book to date. From Wiki:
In early 2007, D'Souza published "The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11," in which he argues that the American left was in large part responsible for the Muslim anger that led to the September 11 attacks.

This thesis has been widely disputed by, among others, prominent conservatives such as Michelle Malkin and Hugh Hewitt [and Daniel Pipes - my edit], who contend that D'Souza openly sympathizes with Al Qaeda in The Enemy At Home, and who contend that his thesis that Muslim radicals would not hate the United States if not for cultural liberalism is a myth.

The book was almost universally criticized in major American newspapers and magazines and called, among other things, "the worst nonfiction book about terrorism published by a major house since 9/11" and "a national disgrace.".

And now there's Tgnashing's debate with Hitchens, brilliant polemicist and self-proclaimed anti-theist. I didn't see it but caught only the small excerpt Fixed Noise put up, the one where D'Newsa contends that Einstein was a theist. Dear me, this does not bode well for this vile little man's chances of winning the debate. The "Einstein was a theist" flap is a fallacy of 4th grader level and stems (still!) from that often misused Einstein quote that "God doesn't play dice" (Einstein's dig at the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics). Einstein however very convincingly refuted the idea that he was religious in the classic monotheistic tradition. Hitchens claimed Albert was a Deist (someone who believes in a divine creator but not in the living, interventionist God of the Abrahamic monotheisms), but I'm not entirely convinced of that either.

After the excerpt with the Einstein flap, D'Souza, came on Faux Noise for a follow-up debate with Hitchens, but the latter couldn't make it. D'Souza then went on to try and revive another old croc: scientific anthropocentrism, a very interesting school of scientific thought, which alas for D'Souza has long been abandoned by mainstream science. I read The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (featured right) years ago and thought it was a cracking good read, but for the "fine-tuning problem" mainstream science now has more plausible and non-deistic explanations.

The brilliant Pharyngula science blog has a great piece on D'Newsa's latest burps:

It's Monday. You're tired after your weekend, you aren't too enthused about getting back to work, and it's just so dispiriting to have to get back into the grind. What do you need with your coffee? An unsurprising tale of a very stupid person, so that your boss and your coworkers will look like shining beacons of reason by comparision, and you'll realize your job isn't so bad after all. You need to hear about Dinesh D'Souza, because you'll realize that even in the state of sluggish stupor on a Monday morning, you are a thousand times wiser and more perceptive than that crank.

You will especially enjoy the irony of D'Souza declaring that atheists aren't very bright.

I don't need to dwell on it (if you want more, Dust in a Sunbeam is more thorough), because early on the whole of D'Souza's argument collapses in a torrent of straw.
The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that human beings can continually find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. The Enlightenment Fallacy holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.

So atheists aren't very bright because they think they can understand all of reality. How silly. We don't think that at all. I'm fairly sure I can only grasp 93.4% of reality, and that's only after drinking so many cups of coffee that my reality is reduces to a painfully full bladder and life is nothing but an episode of prolonged micturition. But seriously, this is not part of the premise of either atheism or science; we don't claim completeness at all. So how can something we freely admit be an argument against our position?

All it takes is one very silly man to spiral his delusions up into a fantasy case against science and atheism, and that man is Dinesh. After going on and on about Kant in a pointless appeal to the authority of a poorly understood philosopher, he gives us his refutation of atheism.
It is a shared doctrine of those religions that the empirical world we humans inhabit is not the only world there is. Ours is a world of appearances only in which we see things in a limited and distorted way, "through a glass darkly," as the apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians 13:12. Ours is a transient world that is dependent on a higher, timeless reality. That reality is of a completely different order from anything we know, it constitutes the only permanent reality there is, and it sustains our world and presents it to our senses. Christianity teaches that while reason can point to the existence of this higher domain, this is where reason stops: it cannot on its own investigate or comprehend that domain.

A thousand words berating atheists for having a certainty that they do not claim, and then he announces his own dogma of certainty, and refutes himself.

So this spiritual world is different from anything we know, and we cannot investigate or comprehend it with reason.

So how does Dinesh D'Souza know anything about it?

The atheist position does not rest on any claim of absolute perfect knowledge. It is based on a very simple principle: that we have to be able to explain how we know what we know, and support it with some kind of independently confirmable evidence. When people make extravagant religious claims, like this invention of D'Souza's that there is an independent reality supporting the one we can see, we ask, "How do you know that?" And what do we get? Silence. Or meaningless babble that skirts the question.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

BlogRush's atheist bias?

As BlogRush is moving out of beta (with considerable delay), the program has completed its network clean-up. BlogRush caused a veritable sign-up furore among many parts of the blogosphere but predictably also attracted a lot of cheats, as most free services do.

A small number of atheist blogger have had their accounts inactivated and are feeling pretty peed off about what they see as BlogRush's anti-atheist bias. The assumption here is that the owners of BlogRush are Christian and therefore not inclined to show links to atheist blogs or blog posts. For this alleged bias, precious little evidence is being offered by said atheist bloggers, other than: "we're atheist, we had our account inactivated, ergo..." This is rather jumping to very self-serving conclusions in my opinion.

The criteria that BlogRush has used to select which blogs meet their quality requirements and which ended up in the 10,000 (claim by BlogRush) strong dustbin are most likely to be multiple and probably used in a weighted manner. Remember that although this service is free, John Reese's (owner of BlogRush) goal is ultimately to sell targeted, quality traffic: quality members are an integral part of that strategy.

It's important to note that in this context the term "quality" should not be interpreted in it's more narrow and traditional meaning. "Quality control" at BlogRush (BR) is likely to look at a whole range of aspects in order to decide whether a particular blog has any value to the network or not. Subject matter, quality and style of writing are likely to be only a relatively small part of the overall evaluation of a blog.

I'm guessing, based on past experience with similar programs, what might be the criteria used for acceptance/deletion of a BR account:

1. Poor content: infrequent posting, strong/obscene language, non-English, pornographic etc.

2. Poor placement of the widget: many bloggers decided to "bury" the widget near the bottom of their pages or not even on the homepage. These guys were looking to receive a little traffic without giving anything back. That's one form of cheating.

3. Widget competing with multiple other widgets: this seriously reduces BR clickthrough rates.

4. Widget competing with tens and tens if not hundreds of outbound links: again this seriously reduces BR clickthrough rates.

5. Overly commercial blogs: they stated that they have no problem whatsoever with "money making blogs" but that some of these contain almost no content and only advertising. Such blogs incidentally also get penalised by Google and other SEs.

6. Poor categorisation: choosing the right category is BR's only targeting mechanism.

7. Use of illegitimate methods of earning credits, e.g. by means of false pageviews.

Based mainly on those criteria (I believe) BR editors will decide whether a blog is of interest to them or not. Is it possible that some editors are guided also by personal biases? It is but I doubt very much if there is a systematic bias towards atheists at all.

My main beef with BR is that right now traffic generation is decidedly slow but I kind of more or less expected that, based on past experience with similar traffic exchange programs. I have some 15,000 credits (earned from referrals) waiting for me but no sign of delivery any time soon. But either BR will deliver or they'll perish: people will start eliminating their widgets soon, if the don't deliver on their promises. For that reason alone I believe that BlogRush will deliver on its pledge soon: too much money has been invested and failure isn't really an option. I remain optimistic about the medium term outcome of the BR enterprise.

I had a small blog dedicated to promoting BlogRush and it was actually rejected by BR, probably because of lack of new content! That blog will now soon be deleted altogether.

I've seen the widget sported on some very far left blogs and I've seen one disappear from a Orthodox Jewish and ardent Israel supporter's blog. Although neither are particularly strong forms of evidence, it does not really point in the direction of pro-Christian bias.

I'm convinced that approval rates for blogs that avoid the most obvious pitfalls (non-English, very low content, porn) are very high.

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Pro-choice, Pro-life?

Although I'm very broadly speaking in the "pro-choice camp", I don't believe the discussion about unwanted pregnancies is best served by means the false dichotomy that "pro-life" v "pro-choice" actually is. Incidentally, I'm not a great fan of Madeleine Bunting either but the piece below puts an interesting angle on the renewed British debate...

Beyond the shrill polemic

It is not anti-choice to want a more thoughtful debate on why women have so many abortions

Madeleine Bunting

One of my favourite emails from a reader told me, "I wish I was as certain of anything as you are of everything." The latter is far from the case, but it served as a salutary reminder that the certainty columnists are paid to produce can sometimes cripple public debate, alienating readers and reducing complexity to wittily phrased polemic. There's been evidence of that in the debate about abortion law reform. While lobbyists and commentators lambast each other with withering contempt, the majority shift uncomfortably in their seats, committed to legal abortion but still feeling uncertain on this most emotive of subjects.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that those who are most certain in this debate are using old weapons to re-fight the last war, which was about the legality of abortion. But that war is finished; there is rightly a public consensus and a hefty parliamentary majority to ensure that there will be no return to backstreet abortions. The crazier antics of the anti-abortion movement is born from desperation in the face of that reality; the pro-choice have won that argument conclusively, as even the Catholic bishops appeared last week to concede in their statement acknowledging that the law was unlikely to change.

The trigger for the debate is the review in parliament expected later this week around various proposed reforms to the law such as the time limit (at present 24 weeks) up to which abortions can be performed, and the requirement for two doctors to agree to an abortion (an absurd bit of bureaucratic paperwork) which will feed into possible amendments in the tissues and embryo bill. But these changes are not central to the markedly different and much more reflective debate which is emerging as legal abortion reaches its 40th birthday.

At the core of this more thoughtful debate is the issue of why there are so many abortions. The number has tipped over 200,000 a year, and the rate per thousand women is more than three times that of the Netherlands. To be concerned about this volume is not necessarily to make a judgment about there being "too many" - a distinction which Lord Steel was at pains to make last week. Nor is it a trigger for panic - the increases have been small during the last 27 years and owe more to demographics than to any wild claims of a collapse in sexual morality. But for the first time in two generations a degree of consensus emerges in which protagonists as far apart as Ann Furedi, director of communications at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, and the English Catholic hierarchy, can agree along with Lord Steel that, as Furedi put it to me, "all of us would like the number of unwanted pregnancies reduced".

Who can disagree with that? The point at issue is whether this abortion rate is an unavoidable part of modern society or whether there might be a way to reduce it. Abortion has helped women to make some great gains - pursuing education and careers at the same time as enjoying sexual relationships, a combination which an unwanted pregnancy often made impossible in the past. Rising abortion rates may also reflect greater appreciation of the enormous responsibilities of parenthood. But balanced against these positives, it is also entirely possible that the abortion rate reflects a failure, say in contraception services or in a working culture which is not sympathetic to parenthood, which needs to be addressed. There has been an odd lack of curiosity as to why so many women end up with an unwanted pregnancy.

Even the sacred slogan of the 70s is under debate in the US pro-choice movement. A "woman's right to choose" in an age when "rights" have been stripped of political meaning and perceived as entitlement, and choice has become the ultimate consumer value, means that the slogan appears to trivialise what is never trivial.

Contrary to the fears expressed by some that abortion could become so normalised that it is as routine as going to the dentist, abortion is never an easy decision for anyone - although it may, sometimes, be an obvious decision. Over the last 40 years, new technology has made the complexity of that decision all the more apparent; pictures of foetuses are now a routine part of pregnancy, they are often the first image in the family photo album. They graphically illustrate the potential for life at a very early stage. Abortion is a subject which generates emotional and moral ambivalence - that is not an argument for changing the law, but it is an argument against a public debate dominated by shrill polemic.

Monday, October 29, 2007

New Majdanek data

Systematic mass murder of Jews detailed in huge Nazi archive

By Assaf Uni

BAD AROLSEN, Germany - Twenty days of systematic murder of prisoners in the Majdanek concentration camp are detailed in a thick office binder in the huge archive of Nazi documents in this central German city.

The binder contains hundreds of pages written on both sides. Each one has a table containing the following information: first name, last name, date of birth, address, date of death - all written out in a careful longhand. The blue ink has faded over the years, but the Jewish names jump out. Lists upon lists of towns and cities throughout Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany. In the last column, the date of death, there is not much variety: one of 20 days in September, 1942. The title on the binder reads: Lublin-Majdanek, crematorium list 08.09-1942-28.09.1942.

The lists were apparently brought out of the Majdanek concentration camp after it was liberated by the Russians. On the shelves around this one binder, on the first floor of the International Tracing Service (ITS) complex, are thousands more binders - the original records of the dead at the Buchenwald and Matthausen concentration camps, lists made by the Gestapo of deportees from Holland, who were captured at its headquarters after Germany surrendered, etc. All the documents are cataloged according to the names of victims and survivors, reflecting the efficiency of the Nazi bureaucracy.


At a time when neo-Nazis are burning copies of "The Diary of Anne Frank," there is significance to one line concealed here among the names of Jews brought to Holland's Westenbork camp on the way to Auschwitz: "Frank, Annelise."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Homeopathic pathology...

The cranks who swear by citronella oil

To its fans, homeopathy is the ultimate cure-all. In fact, its effects can be positively deadly

Nick Cohen - The Observer

On 1 December, faith healers will meet at Roots & Shoots in south London to discuss how to treat Aids with magic pills. They won't call themselves faith healers, of course, or shamans or juju men. They will present themselves as 'homeopaths': serious men and women whose remedies are as good as conventional medicine.

According to the advance publicity, Hilary Fairclough, a homeopath endorsed by no less than Jeanette Winterson, will describe the 'impressive' results from her clinic in Botswana. Harry van der Zee, co-founder of the Amma Resonance Healing Foundation, will say that 'in just a few days or weeks' African Aids patients he treated became 'symptom-free and able to return to their jobs and schools or to look after their children again'. All in all, the Society of Homeopaths promises to provide 'fascinating insights' for World Aids Day.

It can do no such thing. Of all the pseudo-sciences on offer, homeopathy is the most obviously spurious. Devised by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th century, it holds that the smaller the dose of a mineral or herb the more potent it is. Thus, if you go into a chemist and buy a homeopathic sulphur remedy marked 30C, the proportion of sulphur to inert packaging in a pill is 1 to 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. A glass of water is more likely to cure you.

Yet dismissing homeopathy as quackery given by and for the feeble-minded is surprisingly hard. Anti-elitism dominates our society and many feel uncomfortable saying that the six million people who take alternative medicines are foolish - to put the case against them at its kindest. They sincerely believe in phoney remedies and sincerity trumps sense in modern culture.

In rich and privileged societies where good health is taken for granted, homeopathy feels somehow natural when set against cold, conventional medicine. Today's audiences have no difficulty believing doctors and drugs companies are more villainous than their alternative rivals. Scrabbling around for a new plot after the end of the Cold War, John le Carre came up with The Constant Gardener, a story about drug manufacturers murdering Africans. 'Big pharmaceuticals are right up there with the arms dealers,' declares one character, who couldn't tell the difference between an antibiotic and a cluster bomb. Far from being dismissed as shallow, The Constant Gardener was a hit as a novel and a film.

You might have thought that the medical establishment would make a stand for science. After all, the reputations of the chief medical officer, Department of Health civil servants and doctors depend on their being able to say that they have tested their remedies in double-blind trials and understand why and how they work. But they happily go along with fake treatments that don't stand up to the most cursory scrutiny.

GPs use homeopaths as a dumping ground for hypochondriacs and the state pays for five homeopathic 'hospitals'. With the flood of money to the NHS about to be stemmed, Whitehall ought to close them and concentrate scarce resources on medicine that works.

However, any minister bold enough to argue for the effective use of public funds would face strong opposition. About 100 MPs signed a Commons motion asserting that homeopathic hospitals were 'valuable national assets' that could magic away conditions from eczema to irritable bowel syndrome. Well-known loons were joined by otherwise intelligent politicians who were content to have constituents conned.

Maybe they believed the standard justification for the homeopathy that the 'placebo effect' is a real psychological phenomenon. Patients suffering from minor ailments can feel better after taking a sugared pill. I've never liked the argument because there would be no placebo effect if patients were told the truth. To endorse homeopathy on the NHS is to endorse state deception. In his forthcoming Counterknowledge, Damian Thompson of the Daily Telegraph goes further and makes a persuasive case that what we tend to dismiss as harmless fads for Cherie Blair and her kind cause immense suffering in the wider world.

The NHS's backing for public homeopathic hospitals legitimises private homeopaths. An investigation by Newsnight showed 10 of them putting patients' lives in danger by rejecting anti-malarial drugs for pills containing infinitesimal quantities of garlic and citronella oil. But you have to turn to the Africa le Carre couldn't see to understand how the bugbears of people we think of as eccentrics can turn lethal.

For years, South African President Thabo Mbeki has done his best to hinder the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs. He listens to Peter Duesberg, a biologist who argues that to prevent Aids, all you need to do is eat well and avoid recreational drugs. After hearing Duesberg speak at a conference, Anthony Fauci, the usually mild-mannered Aids adviser to the American administration, said: 'This is murder. It's really that simple.'

It's not just Duesberg. Bogus nutritionists in Britain and Germany claim vitamin C is as effective a treatment for Aids as anti-retrovirals and, as we have seen, homeopaths are claiming Africans can walk out of their clinics 'symptom-free'. Don't think that just because they seem obscure cranks their ideas can't have influence when the net makes them available to anyone anxious to deny the established facts about Aids.

Suppose the old regime hadn't fallen and a white minority government was indulging Aids denialists. I think it's fair to guess the streets of the world's capitals would be full of demonstrators accusing the apartheid government of being complicit in the mass killing of blacks.

Terms such as 'genocide' and 'ethnic cleansing' would be tossed about and those who provided spurious arguments to justify the neglect of South Africa's Aids' victims would be denounced as the accomplices of a criminal policy.

As it is, there are no demonstrations because it is a black government presiding over the disaster and its supporters aren't in big pharmaceutical companies but funny little alternative institutes we too causally dismiss as quaint.

Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict

Someone's spending rather a lot of advertising bucks to promote the sales of their new (?) and controversial book. Whoever is doing the marketing decided to buy a full size horizontal banner on prime-time Internet real-estate like Israel's leftish daily, Ha'aretz. That kind of advertising doesn't come cheap. Intrigued by the banner headline, I clicked through, to find this was an ad for a book called Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict (by Obadiah Shoher). It has some pretty strange sounding chapter titles, such as Israel should restrict democracy and Create a credible threat against Israel's enemies. Clearly written with the more hawkish part of Israeli society in mind, it's safe to say...

From comes this excerpt (chapter: Create a credible threat against Israel's enemies):

Paper agreements are broken as often as they are signed—unless they are enforced. Lebanon revoked the peace agreement with Israel it signed in 1983 a year later. Arabs are notoriously flexible about promises and generally have little respect for agreements. Peace is established on the battlefield and sustained by threat. Defense is a tactical device, ineffective long-term. The threat required may be small when people are tired of war, as in the case of Alsace-Lorraine after World War II, but the threat must be strong and credible, especially with poor but aggressive people like the Arabs who are highly tolerant of suffering.

Defense hardly ever wins peace; the threat of offense does. Arabs will not make peace with Israel unless they fear Israeli attack. They are comfortable thinking Israel will not attack them and have no reason to negotiate with Israel, especially when certain concessions are involved. Arab disinterest in peace means changes in Israeli military doctrine.

Among the reasons countries make peace are economic benefits (there are none in the present case) or fear. Present Israeli policies give Arabs nothing to fear. Even when they attack first, Israel wages war humanely without inflicting unbearable loss of life or destruction of property. Even in 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the Arabs nightmare, Israel took only non-essential land.

Every offensive war—and Israel’s wars are technically offensive, since they aim to settle Israelis on land the Arabs held before 1948—succeeds only when important enemy territory is conquered or threatened. Modern warfare enables territorial control by air force and tank divisions, two Israeli specialties. Thus, Israel need not overextend herself conquering vast tracts of land.

The negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights showed how little bargaining power Israel has. Israel offered to return most of the Golan Heights, keeping only the ridges needed to maintain first-warning stations and to prevent Syria from firing directly on the Israeli valley below. Predictably, Syria demanded all the Heights. Why would it do otherwise? Syria does not need peace or economic relations with Israel. On the contrary, Syria blackmails the United States by threatening Israel. What does it take to make a country cede conquered territory? The threat of continued economic loss or war. A disadvantageous status quo can be accepted de jure only if things threaten to get worse, that is, only if peace prevents further aggression. If Israel wants to retain the Golan Heights, Israel should take or threaten to occupy a much larger territory and then offer a trade.

Israel may force Arabs to seek peace by other measures as well. Arabs should be advised that Israel will annex any territory occupied in retaliation for Islamic terrorist attacks permanently—including the Palestinian autonomous regions. And Israel may have not much time to advance on that path, since only Egypt maintains current Middle Eastern stability, and that will change as soon as Islamic radicals succeed the current leadership—and 94% of Egyptians polled supported the 9/11 attacks. In fact, 40% of Arab Britons cheered the attacks. The percentage was probably higher if the truth were known, since many British Arabs were uncomfortable expressing admiration for the nation’s enemy.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Copper thermite!

In a previous post I described how to carry out a silicon thermite reaction to obtain small amounts of silicon metal. In this post I'll describe a copper thermite reaction, based on the same principles. Those uninitiated in thermite reactions are encouraged to read the silicon thermite post first to get a good idea of the basics.

In a copper thermite reaction, copper oxide is reacted with aluminium powder to yield pure copper metal and aluminium oxide (or alumina), accompanied by a great deal of heat. The word equation is therefore:

copper oxide + aluminium ---> copper metal + aluminium oxide (+ heat of reaction)

In the case of copper, this metal and chemical element yields two distinct types of oxides, one known as copper (I) oxide, the other as copper (II) oxide. The former is also known as cuprous oxide, the later as cupric oxide. Their chemical formulas are respectively Cu
2O and CuO.

Copper thermites are notoriously exothermic, i.e. they produce lots of reaction heat. Of both oxides, the copper (I) oxide is the one that generates the least heat and that's why I chose to run it today.

In chemical terms the balanced reaction equation is:

3 Cu2O + 2 Al ---> 3 Cu + Al2O3 + ΔH

(with ΔH [delta H] the reaction heat).

The reaction equation allows to calculate the stoichiometric ratio between the amount of copper (I) oxide and aluminium powder. This ratio Cu2O:Al is approximately 8:1 (by weight).

copper thermite assembly before ignitionI mixed a total mixture amount of 36.5 g, just enough to fit in a defunct egg cup. For safety reasons, the charged egg cup is then embedded in a sand-filled steel bucket (see assembly to the right). A piece of magnesium ribbon, frayed at the edges for easier lighting, was placed right in the mixture and the whole assembly placed at a safe distance from anything inflammable, in my back garden.

After lighting the magnesium fuse, I removed myself to a safe distance. The mixture ignited swiftly and burned right through with bright light and considerable sparks, in a matter of 5- 10 seconds flat. Too short a time to take any pictures but you can see a video and pictures of a similar copper (I) thermite reaction here (scroll down a little).

copper thermite assembly after ignitionHere's the assembly (right) minutes after the reaction. The reaction heat is so intense, the copper metal
forms in the liquid state because the burning mixture's temperature well exceeds the melting point of copper metal (1084 C, 1954 F). Look closely and you'll see a surface-oxidised blob of solidifying copper metal in the centre of the egg cup.

copper after thermite reaction
Here are parts of the egg cup (shattered due to thermal stress) after soaking in brick cleaner. Brick cleaner or patio cleaner contain hydrochloric acid which removes the copper oxidation and also dissolves the aluminium oxide, leaving the pure copper metal behind. The blob of copper in the centre of the picture is the same one pointed to in the paragraph above. A clean 1 penny coin is included for comparative purposes.

Related post: Making homemade bronze, bronze age-style.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fun with your past life...

At the TheBigView they have a gizmo that retrofits your past life to your present life birthday. Here's me in a past performance:

Your past life diagnosis: I don't know how you feel about it, but you were female in your last earthly incarnation.You were born somewhere in the territory of modern Yukon around the year 1875. Your profession was that of a map maker, astrologer, astronomer.

Your brief psychological profile in your past life:
Timid, constrained, quiet person. You had creative talents, which waited until this life to be liberated. Sometimes your environment considered you strange. The lesson that your last past life brought to your present incarnation:

Your main task is to make the world more beautiful. Physical and spiritual deserts are just waiting for your touch. Keep smiling! Do you remember now?

Nope, still can't bloody remember a thing... Dammit, I always wanted to know what it feels like to be a woman!

Monbiot on Northern Rock and Selfishness

George Monbiot shows a little schadenfreude, writes about laisser-faire libertarianism and discusses two opposing interpretations of the consequences of our innate selfishness, in this excellent piece.

'The little-known ninth law of thermodynamics states that the more money a group receives from the taxpayer, the more it demands and the more it complains." Thus wrote
Matt Ridley in 1994. He was discussing farm subsidies, but the same law applies to his chairmanship of Northern Rock. Before he resigned on Friday, the bank had borrowed £16bn from the government and had refused to rule out asking for more. Ridley and the other bosses blamed everyone but themselves for this disaster.

I used to read Ridley's columns religiously. Published by the Telegraph in the 1990s, they were well-written, closely argued and almost always wrong. He railed against all government intervention and mocked less enlightened beings for their failure to understand economics and finance. The rightwing press loved him because he appeared to provide a scientific justification for the deregulation of business.

Ridley's core argument, which he explains at greater length in his books, is that humans, being the products of natural selection, act only in their own interests. But our selfish instincts encourage us to behave in ways that appear altruistic. By cooperating and by being perceived as generous, we earn other people's trust. This allows us to advance our own interests more effectively than we could by cheating, stealing and fighting. To permit these beneficial genetic tendencies to flower, governments should withdraw from our lives and stop interfering in business and other human relations. Ridley produced a geneticist's version of the invisible hand of the market, recruiting humanity's selfish interests to dole out benefits to everyone.

Ridley, who has a DPhil in zoology, is no stranger to good science, and his explorations of our evolutionary history, which are often fascinating and provoking, are based on papers published in peer-reviewed journals. But whenever a conflict arose between his scientific training and the interests of business, he would discard the science. Ignoring hundreds of scientific papers that came to the opposite conclusion, and drawing instead on material presented by a business lobby group called the Institute of Economic Affairs, he argued that global temperatures have scarcely increased, so we should stop worrying about climate change. He suggested that elephants should be hunted for their ivory, planning laws should be scrapped, recycling should be stopped, bosses should be free to choose whether or not their workers get repetitive strain injury and companies, rather than governments, should be allowed to decide whether or not the food they sell is safe. He raged against taxes, subsidies, bailouts and government regulation. Bureaucracy, he argued, is "a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world ... governments do not run countries, they parasitise them".

I studied zoology in the same department, though a few years later. Like Ridley, I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence he puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. He believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another.) If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. You'll have an even stronger incentive to act against the common good if you run a bank whose lending and borrowing are so complex that hardly anyone can understand what is happening.

Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.

I can offer nothing more than speculation, but Ridley has had the opportunity to test his beliefs. He took up his post - which was previously held by his father, Viscount Ridley - in 2004. Under his chairmanship, the Economist notes, Northern Rock "pushed an aggressive business model to the limit, crossing its fingers and hoping that liquidity would always be there". It was allowed to do so because it was insufficiently regulated by the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. When his libertarian business model failed, Ridley had to go begging to the detested state. If the government and its parasitic bureaucrats had not been able to use taxpayers' money to clear up his mess, thousands of people would have lost their savings. Northern Rock would have collapsed, and the resulting panic might have brought down the rest of the banking system.

The £16bn bailout is not the end of the matter. Last week the Treasury granted Northern Rock's customers a new tax break. Now one of the north-east's leading businessmen, Sir Michael Darrington, is calling for the bank's full-scale nationalisation in order to prevent further crises. So much for the virtues of unregulated free enterprise.

Read the full article...

Valerie Plame: Fair Game

BBC Newsnight - 25 Oct 07

Most [British] people have heard the name Valerie Plame, but almost no one has heard her story - until now. When her identity was published in a newspaper column four years ago, she was an undercover agent for the CIA. And when an investigation traced the leak of her name all the way to the White House, it became apparent this was no ordinary spy story. Her cover was blown after her husband, a former ambassador named Joe Wilson, criticized the White House about the Iraq war.

Watch tonight [last night] for the first UK broadcast interview with Valerie Plame - and read an extract from her book Fair Game:

Sections of Fair Game have been blacked out. Ellipses within the following text – denoted by [------------] – indicate the places where the CIA has ordered cuts.

From Chapter 9 - Exposed

Our bedroom was just beginning to show the first hints of morning light on July 14 when Joe marched in, dropped the newspaper on the bed, and said in a tight voice, “Well, the SOB did it.” He set a steaming mug of coffee on my bedside table and left the room. What? I struggled to wake up. I sat up, switched on the lamp, and opened the Washington Post to the op-ed page; I didn’t know what I would find, but I knew it wouldn’t be good. Robert Novak had written in his column that “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” The words were right there on the page, in black and white, but I could not take them in. I felt like I had been sucker-punched, hard, in the gut. Although we had known for several days that he had my name and knew where I worked, we never believed for a moment he would actually print it or that the Agency would allow it. It was surreal.

I dropped the paper to the floor and tried to think clearly, but my mind was racing in a hundred directions at once. There was so much to consider, so many people to worry about. [-----------------------------------------------------
-------------------------------------------------] What about the many people overseas I had met under completely innocent circumstances? They too could come under a cloud of suspicion if their governments learned of our contact. I tried to calculate the level of risk and weirdly sought to remember if Novak’s column ran overseas, as though that would make it better if it didn’t appear outside the United States. The next instantaneous thought was for my family’s security. There are many disturbed people out there who hate the CIA or anyone associated with it. I didn’t want to deal with a stranger on my doorstep or worse. Furthermore, Al Qaeda now had an identified CIA operative to put into their target mix.

I thought of my three-year-old twins and a ferocious maternal protectiveness welled up in me. I put on my robe and checked in on them in their cribs, each clutching their favorite stuffed animal, sleeping deeply. As I walked downstairs to the kitchen in a fog, I pondered the fate of my [-------------] career with the CIA as a covert operations officer. The questions I had in my head in Chicago came flooding back in a roar. How exactly did Novak get my name? Why did he think fingering me was newsworthy? Joe’s trip to Niger was obviously no boondoggle. And why did Novak use my maiden name—Plame—when I had used Wilson since I married in 1998? I could barely breathe.

I got dressed, fixed the twins’ breakfast, mediated their little squabbles, greeted the nanny on her arrival and gave her the day’s instructions, hunted for the car keys, and tried to get out the door by 8 A.M. all in a zombie-like state. I don’t remember Joe and me saying much at all to each other that morning. What was there to discuss at that moment anyway? At one point, I called the Acting Chief of CPD, already in his office, and talked briefly. There wasn’t much he or I could do at that point. Of all days, that morning I was scheduled to begin a weeklong “management and leadership” course. I had not taken any training classes for the last two years because work had simply been too busy. The Agency is a big advocate of continuing education as a prerequisite for promotional advancement, so I signed up for the course in what we all thought would be a relatively slow and quiet period. As I sat in Washington’s terminally congested traffic en route to a CIA classroom in an outbuilding somewhere in the Virginia suburbs, I felt a new emotion begin to bubble up – anger. [--------------------------------------------
-----------------------------------------] I had served my country loyally [---------------------------] I had played by all the rules. I had tried to always act professionally and competently. Was it all about to be thrown away in a moment? And if so, why? And what about all my friends and family who didn’t know I really worked for the CIA? Would they hate me for lying to them [------------------------]?

As I sat in the classroom with forty or so other officers drawn from all over the Agency and heard the instructor drone on about CIA core values, mission, and its desire to improve its managerial cadre, I put on my best “interested and engaged” look, but my thoughts were far away. I went over the last few months to piece together how and why I was being pulled into the public square. As I sat in the classroom with my mind racing, back at our home our neighbor spotted Joe on the back deck, where he was smoking a cigar and trying to make sense of what had just happened. The neighbor held up his newspaper and shouted, “Hey, what’s this about your wife?” I think that it was one of the rare times that Joe was at a loss for words.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Finkelstein barred from Oxford

Here's a slightly bizarre example of Oxford shutting down a debate by barring Norman Finkelstein. From J'Post:

Oxford cancels one-state debate

The Oxford University Student Union debating society has been forced to cancel a debate on the Middle East following the withdrawal of the proposers of the motion: "This House believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict."

Prof. Avi Shlaim of the university's St. Antony's College at Oxford, and Dr. Ilan Pappe and Dr. Ghada Karmi, both of Exeter University, were due to present the one-state solution at Tuesday's debate.

Norman Finkelstein, formally of De Paul University in Chicago, Peter Tatchall, a gay rights activist, and David Trimble, a former first minister of Northern Ireland, were due to present the case for a two-state solution. Shlaim and Pappe are both Israelis.

When Peace Now-UK co-chair Paul Usiskin saw Finkelstein's name on the team opposing the motion, he expressed concern that "a far-left detractor of Israel" had been chosen to defend the existence of the Jewish state.

He told the Student Union they were "seeking sensation over substance" and were denying a proper and balanced debate.

Following talks with Oxford Union President Luke Tryll, the union decided to drop Finkelstein and invited Usiskin to participate along with Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow of the Middle East program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, who is also Israeli.

Usiskin told The Jerusalem Post that a Jewish student informed him Sunday that the proposers of the one-state solution were disgruntled at his inclusion in the debate and demanding Finkelstein's re-invitation. When this was refused, Shlaim, Pappe and Karmi withdrew from the debate.

"They clearly thought they had it sown up," said Usiskin. "I believe they're desperate for another arena in which to deligitimize Israel, after the failure to begin the academic boycott of Israel - in which all three were key. What they expected was a clear field for a one-state solution as the start of creating that new arena. Those of us who believe in Israel and support a two-state solution remained steadfast and denied them their victory."

Interview with Jimmy Carter

The former US president talks to Lee Michael Katz about Iran, his human rights work and what kind of ex-president George Bush will make

Source: Guardian America

You have been retired as president for 25 years now. At this point, you're probably best known more for being an ex-president than a president. You've certainly made controversial statements and visits, but you've been known for your civic engagements, election monitoring, attempts to fight disease, etc. all over the world...

Good question so far. [laughs]

Is it easier to be an ex-president than a president?

I would guess so. I remember seeing a cartoon in The New Yorker a few years ago. This little boy's looking up at his father. He said: "Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a former president." So I think that illustrates the difference. Being a former president, obviously you have great advantages in having the prestige of leading a great nation and many people knowing who you are. Some admiring, some deploring what you have done, perhaps. But it also gives you access to almost any human being on earth. Combined with the experience of having led people through a multiplicity of issues, domestic and international. The other thing that you have is complete flexibility. You know, I don't have to do anything I don't want to. If I don't want to go to Haiti, I never have to go to Haiti. If I want to go to Guyana often, I go to Guyana often. If I want to work on the problems in Sudan, I can go to Sudan tomorrow. If I want to avoid the Iraqi situation, I don't ever go to Iraq.

What kind of ex-president do you think current President Bush will make?

Compared to his presidency? Very good. I don't know what his plans are. I've never discussed it with him. But all of the presidents who have left office since I did, including Reagan and Bush Sr and Clinton, have sent delegations down to the Carter Center, so they could decide whether to emulate what I was doing or do something different. I presume that George Bush Jr, George W Bush, will do the same thing. And he'll be welcome.

There've been reports that President Bush wants to establish a center down in Texas to promote such issues as democracy and human rights. Do you think he's in a good position to do that, after his presidency?

That would be a good project for him to undertake. I have no quarrels with that. I think it's a good idea. I hadn't heard that before, but I think it would be perfectly all right.

How do you think President Bush is viewed around the world?

Well, all I know is what major public opinion polls have shown, like the Pew Foundation and others. Our government under President Bush is very unpopular, even within countries that have always been staunch friends of ours, like Jordan and Egypt. I saw one Pew poll that showed that public approbation of this administration in Washington was less than 5%. And in previous years, we could count on 75% or 85% approval from people in Jordan, for instance.

Beyond public opinion, do you think that such issues as Guant´namo could affect his standing as an ex-president in the international arena?

I think it'll be hard among human rights activists to forget that we have declared that the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners was inapplicable, or that we have done things that are universally construed as torture and publicly endorsed them. Or that we have seen the embarrassments of our mistreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and in Guantánamo.

That'll be difficult to overcome. But if he decides after leaving the White House, as you have said, to adopt human rights promotion and the enhancement of democracy around the world, I think that would be a very good opportunity for him to contribute.

An ex-president who could be in the White House again, President Clinton, in an interview with the Guardian and BBC recently, said he would be interested in an unofficial diplomatic role if there is a Hillary Clinton administration. Do you think that would be the best role for him?

That would be up to obviously the Clintons, but I think that's something that would be almost natural for her to call on her husband to fulfill a diplomatic role.

Mr President, I'd really like your input on a number of foreign policy areas. Iran, for example. There's a lot of talk, at least, about the possibility of attacking Iran, particularly if it continues to develop nuclear facilities. Are you worried about that possibility?

I'm worried about the possibility of an attack. I'm worried about the possibility of Iran continuing to develop nuclear weapons. Both.

Do you think an attack might be necessary at some point, or do you think it would be a mistake?

I think it would be a mistake. It would precipitate another war for which we're not prepared, when we're already bogged down 100 percent, maximum capability in Iraq. Iran is a decidedly more formidable military challenge than Iraq ever was. And I don't think we are prepared to undertake that sort of challenge.

It's obvious [to] every reasonable person that the best approach to Iran is to use diplomacy. And my own preference is for us to have direct relationships with Iran and let them be reassured that they're not going to be attacked and that they don't have any need to develop any sort of weapons.

Just uptown from here, President Ahmadinejad of Iran spoke at Columbia University. Do you think it was a mistake, given the state of human rights in Iran, to afford him such a prestigious platform?

No, I think it was all right to give him the platform. Let him reveal his character and his attitude, which I think proved to be somewhat ludicrous. I don't think it hurt America's security to observe our professed commitment to free speech.

Do you have to let everyone speak? Would you let Hitler speak? You met with some of the people considered the worst outlaws on the international stage. Is there someone so bad that you shouldn't talk to or let speak?

There may be. I know a lot of the bad people in the world. I don't know of anybody that I would prohibit an opportunity to speak in a public forum in the United States.

They have a right to come to the United Nations. And I don't see greater opportunity for them to express themselves at Columbia than they do on the world stage of the United Nations.

Do you agree with the idea, for whatever reason, to prevent Ahmadinejad from seeing the World Trade Centre site?

I don't know what the security problems were. But I have no quarrel with the New York officials deciding no.

You see what Iran is like now, and the American hostage situation there played such a major role in your time at the White House. Is there anything you wish you had done differently with Iran during your presidency?

No. No.

You hit the Shah of Iran pretty heavily on human rights.

Well, I did that, but you know, after the Shah was overthrown, we immediately had relations with Iran. We had diplomats from Iran in Washington, and obviously I had my own diplomats in Tehran after the Shah was overthrown. So we kept communications up and relationships between our two countries. And I think that's what we ought to do now.

When you see someone like Ahmadinejad, whom I just saw in an old picture of escorting a hostage, someone who is a world leader was involved in taking US hostages

He has denied that, and I've seen arguments about photographs, but I don't know if ...

If he was, would it trouble you greatly? Do you see it and get a visceral reaction, that is what the revolution there has led to after 25-plus years?

Not really, because, you know, some of the young students who took our hostages have become quite prominent in news circles and working for al-Jazeera and so forth, and I don't have any animosity against them. They were misguided.

Are you struck by President Bush's reaction, or lack of reaction, to the Israeli strike into Syria against what has been described in conflicting reports as a nuclear facility?

I haven't seen any responsible report [at time of interview in early October] that it was a nuclear facility. The only thing I have seen surmised is that it was a facility in which North Korea had an involvement, which may very well have been long-range missiles. They are experts on missiles of a moderate nature. And I think it's interesting, not deplorable, that Israel and the United States and also Syria have avoided any sort of comment on it.

Do you think it wasn't nuclear, as people are talking about?

I have no idea. I don't really know.

Aren't you briefed on it? The White House giving you courtesy briefings to an ex-president?

I haven't been briefed by the White House in six or seven years.

Are there ideas you've tried to bring to President Bush where you've been rejected?

When I've wanted to have access to President Bush, I've always had it. And when I've done something that I thought he might want to know about, I've gone to the White House and given him a report. Like when I visited Cuba, for instance, I came back and had a private session with him and Condoleezza Rice and gave him a report

Read part 2

Rocket attack from Gaza

This video link shows rare footage of a Qassam rocket launched from Gaza by Al-Aqsa (Fatah) militants into Israel.

The video also also shows how militants use Google Earth for target selection.

Meanwhile, pessimism on Annapolis is everywhere.

Jonathan Freedland - The Guardian.

It takes a special kind of genius to unite the warring parties of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but George Bush may just have pulled it off. His proposal for what the US administration calls a "meeting", rather than a peace conference, in Annapolis, Maryland, before the end of the year has elicited a unanimity unheard of in the Middle East. From the hardmen of Hamas to the hawks of Likud, there is a rare consensus: Annapolis is doomed to failure.

"On the Palestinian street, no one has a good word to say for this exercise," says the analyst and longtime negotiator Hussein Agha: "At best people are sceptical, at worst they are calling for a boycott." Two recent opinion polls on either side of the divide show emphatic majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians convinced that success is impossible. That sentiment is shared at the highest level. Yesterday Gordon Brown, at a press conference with the visiting Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, lowered expectations so far that they were somewhere around his ankles. "We're not complacent about the outcome," he said by way of understatement. "We don't have false hopes."

Even the US administration cannot muster much faith in its own initiative. In a long and detailed speech on Middle East policy at the weekend, Vice-President Dick Cheney made only one passing reference to Annapolis, in just a single paragraph on the Israel-Palestine conflict. One suspects the Cheney-led hawks within the administration would not be too downhearted if Annapolis fails, thereby reducing the standing of its chief patron, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, regarded as dangerously soft by the Cheney camp. Ominously, the date for the event is already slipping. Once pencilled in for November 26, it's now scheduled only for some time "before the end of the year".

If the vice-president is hardly dreading failure, he's not the only one. Olmert's domestic rivals, led by Likud's Bibi Netanyahu, would shed few tears. Similarly, Hamas would believe itself vindicated if the Palestinian president, Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, went to Maryland in search of peace and came back with his hands empty. All Fatah's cosying up to the west, Hamas would say, had been for nought.

But such calculations leave out the peoples themselves. Most of them surely know the high price of failure. They saw it just seven years ago, after the Camp David talks collapsed, ushering in the second intifada. This is the pattern in the Middle East: a failed peace initiative does not lead to mere stasis but active deterioration. If there's a chance to move forward and it is wasted, everyone falls back - into violence and bloodshed.

What, besides bitter experience, convinces everyone that Annapolis is destined for disaster? It begins with the weakness of the three key players. Bush is a lame duck, a year away from winding up what even non-partisan historians are fast concluding is one of the worst presidencies in history. Olmert's reputation was shattered by the calamitous war in Lebanon of 2006; he has survived but is still hobbled by multiple corruption inquiries. According to Haaretz columnist Lily Galili, Olmert "has an impressive parliamentary majority, but he lacks moral legitimacy".

None of the Annapolis trio is weaker than Abbas. He rules only half his people, those in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. Some say his writ does not run even there, that his government is, in effect, no more than the Greater Ramallah Council. And legitimacy is a problem for him, too. As three short but remarkable films by Clancy Chassay reveal, Hamas and Fatah are locked in a conflict so bitter that President Abbas is incurring the genuine hatred of part of his people. Abbas is reviled, for example, for ordering Palestinian doctors and nurses in Gaza to go on strike - or else forfeit their salaries. If they work, thereby making life in Gaza bearable, they will get no money. "May God burn him," one Gazan woman says of Abbas.

Not that Hamas is behaving much better. Chassay's films also show the Islamist movement beating up and arresting Fatah dissenters, one of whom complains that Gaza has become "a police state" since Hamas took over in June. This week Amnesty International slammed both Palestinian factions for serious human rights abuses, including torture. It means that Abbas will head to Annapolis - if it happens at all - as one combatant in a civil war. That fact has allowed Netanyahu to taunt Olmert that he is talking to a man who cannot deliver, a Palestinian who may be willing but is not able to make any deal that could hold.

Annapolis is further cursed by likely absences. Originally the US administration talked up the event as a regional conference that would bring together key states in the neighbourhood. Egypt and Jordan might be dragged along, but the others are not keen.

Which leaves the key explanation for the current pessimism, a sentiment that crosses all boundaries: a simple lack of faith in the Bush administration to get the job done. One insider speaks of the "ignorance and amateurishness" of the American effort. Others rail against the years after 2000, when the Bush team refused to engage in the peace process at all; they note the scramble to get involved now, when Bush is desperate to have a foreign policy legacy beyond the single word "Iraq". Rice has travelled plenty, notes Agha, but without any clear sense of what she wants or how to get it. Even the very idea of Annapolis has been a mistake, he says. It has converted a positive into a negative. Instead of people marvelling at the fact that the two sides are talking about core issues for the first time in seven years, "everyone is focused on a conference that might not achieve anything". The administration should have been content, for now, to walk slowly towards dialogue. Instead it has rushed to the big event of a peace conference, trying to skip past the painstaking advance work of making sure the parties were ready.

And yet all those involved - certainly at the unseen, back-channel level - are not yet walking away. Despite years of frustration, they are dogged, tenacious people with a knack for seeing light in the gloom. They note that neither side is naive enough to be looking to Annapolis to settle the conflict. Instead, both Israelis and Palestinians are merely after a text that might serve as a guiding set of parameters inside which the final status issues - the tough questions of borders, refugees, and Jerusalem - will be resolved in future. The model, says one of those involved, is UN resolution 242, which became the reference point for all the key agreements signed by Israel and Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians.

There have been such outlines before, most notably the Clinton parameters of 2000, but they have never been formally accepted by both sides. If such a text could be agreed at Annapolis, it would have great meaning (even for the recusants of Hamas, who have, it should be noted, never challenged Abbas's right to negotiate on the Palestinians' behalf). And in this sense, at least, the weakness of the three players could almost be an advantage: they are all desperate to have something they could call victory.

So Annapolis is not yet a failure but, as I may have said before, when it comes to the Middle East, it pays to have the lowest possible expectations.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Radioactive Boyscout

The Radioactive Boyscout is a very well written and highly amusing book by Ken Silverstein, about an all-American teenager on a mission to get his boyscout science merit badge.

David Hahn, the protagonist of this extraordinary tale, doesn't have a great deal in common with his namesake Otto Hahn, co-discoverer of nuclear fission. David isn't a brilliant student on his way to a stellar career in the natural sciences but he does have a highly endearing but slightly dysfunctional passion for all things radioactive.

And so begins his outrageous quest to build a nuclear reactor... in his potting shed! Neither helped nor hindered by detailed knowledge on the subject matter, David shows nonetheless a truly remarkable tenacity when it comes to gathering nuclear materials from fairly common house hold materials. He gets hold of a job lot of water damaged smoke alarms, from which at his own peril he extracts the radioactive chemical element Americium, contained in very small amounts in the ionisation chamber of these devices. He obtains Thorium (somewhat similar to Uranium) from butane camping gas lanterns and Radium from old watches and clocks from an era when Radium-based paint was used to create light-in-the-dark dials. Ever armed with his trusted precision Geiger counter, David is constantly hunting for the radioactive components of his nuclear dream.

Frequently he poses as a researcher when writing to this or that institute and rarely does he not get an official reply.

David realises things start getting out of hand when his homemade pile, although far from critical has started to emanate gamma radiation which his Geiger counter (mounted in his car) starts picking up blocks away from his home and potting shed. Eventually the authorities get involved and the Hazmat smurf look-alikes make sure his pile gets stashed away in a state sanctioned nuclear waste repository. It's reckoned that David, whilst not having attained his dream, probably did create a few atoms of Plutonium in his radioactive concoction.

I saw David in action (after the events of course) in a couple documentaries where he always gets to showcase his impressive collection of radioactive materials. He continues to collect radioactive minerals to this day. David failed to obtain a degree in applied sciences and later enlisted in the Navy. He was allegedly told to keep away from the nuclear missile silos...

The book is a cracking good read and I highly recommend it. It's totally non-geeky and written for the nuclear layman.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Guardian of America

Wow, the cousins across the pond are going to love this: The Guardian goes US!

I guess all three American readers of The Guardian are going to be best pleased with the paper's passage to America. Although Michael Tomasky, editor of Guardian America, put it like this:
I notice reading back that I seem already to have answered the second question - above are the reasons why Americans would want to read this product. In fact, this isn't hypothetical. Many Americans, about five million a month (forgive me slipping into argot here, but more properly than "people", they're "unique users"), already do read the Guardian through its website - as well as the thousands who subscribe to the Guardian Weekly - for its excellent US and international coverage. We hope we're giving them more reasons still to read it.

Well, I for one will be reading it. But then, I'm not American...

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Crime and the Press

Don't let the truth get in the way of a bad crime story

We live in extraordinary times: theft is down, so is violence. But sensation-seeking media fuel fear and distort priorities.

Polly Toynbee - The Guardian

Great lies, bold, bare-faced and unapologetic, are relayed every day by every orifice of the media in ways that would make Kim Jong-il proud. A malign conspiracy manufactures the myth that crime is out of control, soaring proof of David Cameron's "broken society". It's a falsity that fools most of the people all of the time.

The latest crime figures suggest an opposite story: crime has plummeted since the mid-1990s in a way unknown for generations. We live in extraordinary times, with less theft and less violence. Did you see that on the 10 O'Clock News when the figures came out? No, you saw Fergal Keane emoting about teen gun crime, with a glancing reference to crime figures. Regular viewers of the increasingly sensationalist BBC "flagship" news programme might not glean that firearms offences fell by more than 600 last year, or that serious injury from gun crime fell by 11%. A horrible spate of teen-on-teen slaughters needs reporting - but news editors prefer powerful anecdote to inconvenient contrary facts.

Context-less crime stories scare the daylights out of people, stirring anger and unhappiness, while denying the more surprising truth. News editors' convention - and often political motivation - seeks bad news, though readers often find good news a great deal more surprising.

Web Mall and Digital MarketplaceThe Guardian was an honourable exception last week, giving space to the good crime news. All recorded crime is down by 7%, more serious violence offences down by 14%, lesser violence down by 12% and sex offences down by 9%. Yet even the Guardian couldn't resist the headline: "Crime down by 7% but drug offences show 14% increase." Alan Travis's excellent report did mention the one crime statistic to rise: cannabis figures were up. He also said it was not due to an increase in use but police issuing new on-the-spot warnings which are quicker to record than hauling small-time dope-smokers down to the station.

The trouble with recorded crime figures is that they record what police do, so they vary according to political vagaries. Far better is the British Crime Survey (BCS), published at the same time, and that shows crime stable, neither up nor down. It's regarded by experts as more reliable, unearthing more crime by asking 40,000 over-16s how many have been victims of what. Though it misses out children and white-collar "victimless" fraud, its value is in tracking trends with the same questions every year.

But these fairly self-evident complexities are not the problem: it is opposition politicians, their press and sensation-seeking news desks who cherry-pick and distort shamelessly. If the Press Complaints Commission were not the proprietors' patsy, it would proactively censor and fine misreporting of crime figures designed to deceive. The Office for National Statistics should forbid this deliberate abuse of official figures: where are their stern letters to the editor about this? The Sun: "14% rise in crime"; Times: "Violence is rising as confidence falls"; Telegraph: "Drug offences rise 14% after policy 'shambles'" - and much, much more.

What is undisputed by serious criminologists is that crime has plunged by more than 40% over the last decade. The BCS finds that the chance of being a victim of crime is now at its lowest since the survey began in 1981. Since a peak in 1995, burglary is down by 59%, vehicle theft by 61% and personal theft down by 45%.

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Read the complete article here...

9/11 fruitcakes on Bill Maher

Watch Bill Maher getting booed by the Controlled Demolition crowd (no, seriously, watch it if you haven't already, it's funny...)

Course Bill-O had to put his own take (i.e. spin) on it: something about "far left", predictably. Bill, I've got news for you: 9/11 denial isn't the sole prerogative of the far left, you find these conspiracy reptiles on the far right too, as well as in some anti-Semitic circles (t'wos the Mossad wot did it"...)

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