Friday, February 29, 2008
And no one knows the gypsy's name
No one hears his lonely sigh,
There are no blankets where he lies.
In all his deepest dreams the gypsy flies
With sweet melissa...
-- Allman Brothers Band
In the first semester of my sophomore year at RPI, my living arrangements broke down completely and I moved into a big house with a lot of other guys on Hoosick St., where I passed the second semester in the bright haze of the Student Revolt that thrashed the U.S. college scene in the spring of 1970, after it became clear that Nixon's secret plan to end the war in Vietnam included a lot of war in Laos and Cambodia. There was also the Kent State thing and everything everywhere went kerflewy for a while, even in so conservative a place as RPI.
By the end of my sophomore year, I decided that living off-campus wasn't really that grand, and besides, I had a lot of on-campus responsibilities, plus, no automobile. So I went to the campus housing office and put my name in. The mad rush for the best housing had already subsided and all the better quarters were supposedly gone. But RPI had a policy of housing any student who asked, so I was sure to have a place to live. It was just a crapshoot as to how bad it would be.
That summer, my folks moved to Illinois from Nashville, and I helped them move. I made some halfhearted attempts to get a summer job, but non-farm jobs in southern Illinois are not thick on the ground, and I had no farming experience to speak of. So that was the one summer in my high school and college years when I just basically loafed.
I returned to RPI to discover the damnedest thing: for years, all RPI co-eds were housed at Burdett Avenue Residence Hall. BARH also held a fair number of male students, the fraction of RPI students who were female being that small. Also, for years, the freshmen co-eds complained of the arrangement. All other RPI freshmen were down in the Freshman Dorms, strange brick-and-cinderblock buildings with names like Nason Hall, Crockett Hall, and (the one I'd been in) Hall Hall. The freshmen women felt left out of ordinary freshmen living, disconnected from their incoming class, as it were.
So in 1970, the powers-that-were decided to do something about it, and that "something" was to make some additional renovations to one of the freshmen dorms, Warren Hall, to be specific, and use it to house the freshmen co-eds. Actually, again owing to the small number of freshmen women (I believe there were about 80), it was only the top two floors of Warren that housed the freshmen co-eds. The bottom floor held the lounge and about 60 upper class men and women.
One of those 60 was me. Go figure. I'd won some sort of strange lottery. The rooms were doubles, and each had its own bathroom, which put it way ahead of the rest of the freshmen dorms, which had communal bathrooms at the end of the halls. There's nothing like waiting for a shower on a cold morning, or finding all the toilet stalls occupied.
Warren Hall was also about 200 yards away from the Student Union, where I was to spend most of my time that year. Going into my junior year, I was still nominally the editor of Perspective, ostensibly a magazine of politics and philosophy. But I'd managed to put out two issues, not quite single-handedly, and there was never to be another. I might have turned it over to some of the New Left type guys who were kicking around, but I didn't get along with them in those days. (We're happy to spend time together at reunions, nowadays, but I can't say who has changed more, me or them. It's probably irrelevant at this distance).
In any case, I was also managing editor of the Rensselaer Engineer, which had a better budget, an actual staff, and better cachet with the professors and such. I wound up spending a lot of time that year on Engineer activities.
Early in the semester was "Activity Day," or some such, where all the student activities that had any connection to the Student Union (i.e. practically all of them, since the SU doled out money) set up a table in the Union and begged, er, asked the new freshmen to join up. I was working a small table for Perspective, but also lending John Benson, the Engineer's editor a hand, since there was (let's face it) more interest there.
I remember practically nothing of the entire afternoon except the moment when Melissa walked in.
She had, I learned later, recently given up on trying to straighten her hair, straight hair being the fashion at that time. I think the idea was to look like Joni Mitchell, which is a really great idea for Joni Mitchell, but not so good an idea if your hair is naturally curly. Melissa's was not quite Afro curly, but it did not take to the idea of straightening, and on that day, it was a halo around her head.
Also, the day was one of those bright, overcast days, where there are no shadows, but the light can nevertheless be enough to make you squint. But Melissa did not squint as she came into the room; her eyes did go a little wider, however, and the light from behind us caught them and the blue of them gave me that pressure in the forehead that says, "Okay, you got me. I'm hooked. Just reel me in and fry me up."
There were only maybe two or three other women in the freshman class who were in the running for "best babe," or whatever phrase one uses to try to cover the aching need that wells up within us when confronted by that which we desire. Melissa was the most striking of the lot. And, as you may have already noticed, she lived in my dorm.
One night, I visited her in her room and. we violated the dorm rules by my staying past the time when visitors were supposed to leave. By several hours. We left the lights off, and eventually we had to put a towel to block the light that seeped in under the door, because our eyes had become so dark-adjusted that the slit of light hurt our eyes. We mostly talked, in that time-honored tradition of young about-to-be-lovers, and even at this distance I am reluctant to reveal any of the things she told me. I have no idea what I told her, other than that I'm sure it was equally personal, equally precious, and equally unimportant to anyone other than ourselves.
Likewise, the other details of the "us" that existed for a while are not that interesting to outsiders, at least that would be my guess. But there are some lessons to be learned from the ending of it.
I don't think that much of it was my fault, though I am predisposed to grab all the blame I can manage. Essentially, Melissa could not take being at RPI. The workload was a factor, I would imagine, but not that great of a factor. No, the real problem was that Melissa was simply not able to handle being the object of everyone's desire.
Consider. If a girl is somewhat pretty, or even beautiful, in ordinary circumstances, well, there are still others who occupy that ground. In a high school of, say, 3000 students, the top 2% of the girls, (by whatever measure of attractiveness you care to use), still number around 30. Moreover, there are still plenty of other girls around, so the boys aren't all vying for the affections of just those 30.
But at RPI, the top 2% of freshmen coeds in 1970 calculates to 1.6. And there were 1000 male freshmen, and four times that number of other male students. In a random lottery, the odds that Melissa would fall for me would have made drawing to an inside straight look like a sure thing. So I was exceptional. Okay, fine. But she was even more so.
Simply having "a guy" was not nearly enough. Of the thousands of other students at RPI at that time, how many were so socially dysfunctional that they would pester the most attractive woman around, despite who else she might be seeing? Maybe if I'd been the jealous sort, always around, always snarling at any other male who looked at her, then maybe Melissa's phone would not have rung two or three times an hour with some guy at the other end asking her out. Some guy she'd never met or barely remembered. Maybe. But I was not that sort of boyfriend, and, frankly, if I had been, I don't think we'd have lasted as long as we did.
Eventually she could not take it any more. She saw the worst of male behavior on a regular basis. Regular? More like continuous. And she got so tired of it that she had to leave.
So she did. She left RPI, and she left me. She broke up with me first, explaining that she had to leave and that I was a major reason for staying, and, well, it's both flattering and distressing to be given that as a reason for a breakup. There were a few scenes between us before she left, and I accept full blame for those.
Then she was gone. I tried maintaining a correspondence, and that worked for a little while, and then it didn't. One thing about this writing thing is that it takes a while to get it under control. I suspect that had something to do with it. But, ultimately, who knows?
I think of her occasionally, and I have the heartfelt hope that she had a good life after she left RPI. She deserved the best. She deserved better than I was at the time, even, and you know how full of myself I can be.
I didn't have much of a social life for a while after Melissa left. That's the way it is with romantics. My next lover was the wife of a pretty good friend. That's the other way it is with romantics. We do so like to play it safe.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
The Philosopher's Stone
My favorite lab work in the course was neutron activation analysis, which is very, very cool. After exposure to neutrons, many elements become radioactive, having at least one isotope that does so after neutron absorption. This is especially true of the heavier elements, which tend to have a lot of isotopes and a lot of energy shells in their nuclei. Most of the artificially created radioisotopes have a gamma spectrum associated with them, so if you measure their decay using a multichannel gamma spectrometer, you get a "fingerprint" of that isotope. Repeated measurements also give you decay rate information, and, putting all that together, you can usually get a pretty good quantitative trace element analysis of the original sample. Also, because only a few atoms absorb neutrons, and the product isotopes are usually fairly short lived, it's a non-destructive technique that can be repeated many times using the same sample.
The neutron source we used was called a "bomb" as I recall, not because it could explode, but because it was big and heavy and looked like laboratory "bombs" that contained compressed gas. What our N source contained was, if memory serves, beryllium and cobalt-60, the latter explaining the heaviness of the device. It was very thickly shielded.
Under high energy radiation, beryllium becomes a neutron source. Our source exploited the gamma-neutron reaction, which splits off a neutron from Be-9; the resulting Be-8 is unstable, and goes to two alpha particles. There is also an alpha-neutron reaction that gives a neutron and carbon-12. The early "initiators" on nuclear bombs used this reaction, with polonium as the alpha source, because it doesn't emit any gamma radiation, so it only worked after the Po and Be were brought close together, reducing the likelihood of pre-detonation.
Both boron-11 and deuterium also undergo the gamma-neutron reaction, though not as efficiently as beryllium. Californium-252 is also sometimes used these days as a neutron source, as it undergoes a fairly rapid rate of spontaneous fission.
There are commercial neutron sources that use nuclear fusion as the neutron source. Many of these are basically small particle accelerators that aim a beam of deuterons at a target that has tritium adsorbed onto it. A sufficient number of fusion events occur to make this a viable source of high energy neutrons for industrial applications. The D/T reaction has a characteristic energy (around 14 MEV), which is useful for deep imaging applications. Some of these type of neutron sources are quite small.
Larger installations often use full bore particle accelerators to create fusion, and sometimes the deuterium-deuterium reaction is used. This gives a lower energy to the resulting neutron, but deuterium is much cheaper and easier to work with than tritium, tritium being both radioactive and a proliferation hazard.
Another interesting neutron source is the Farnsworth Fusor, or rather, its descendants. These are "inertial electrostatic confinement" fusion generators, and examples of them have even shown up in high school science fairs. Usually, the rate of fusion is quite low; I've seen numbers for quasi-amateur builds that produce maybe a million fusion events per second. The radiation hazard from attendant X-rays is greater than the neutron hazard. However, I've also seen some advanced laboratory results suggesting output as high as 10^14 events per second which is respectable and dangerous. Once you get to this level of output, radiation damage to the electrical components becomes important, an indication of just how difficult the fusion problem is, since you're still orders of magnitude from practical power production.
If you want a really high neutron flux, the usual method of production is a nuclear reactor. Reactor-based high energy neutrons are usually obtained in a reactor with a fast core but a moderated outer shell that achieves criticality, thereby sidestepping the safety issues that come into play with fast reactors. However, there are "pulsed" reactors that rely on changes in neutron cross section with temperature to create "inherently safe" designs. One such design was described by Freeman Dyson in his book Disturbing the Universe.
Reactors only produce "fission spectrum" neutrons, of course, although for fast reactors the spectrum is shifted toward higher energies. If you really want a big flux of high energy neutrons, failing some major breakthrough in fusion technology, you want a "spallation source."
Spallation is based on the fact that, if you hit a heavy nucleus with a very high energy proton, you get a neutron "splash" effect (this would be the "liquid drop" model of the nucleus, we're using here). The Spallation Neutron Source in Oak Ridge, Tennessee runs a high power (over a megawatt) proton beam at about 1 Gev (1000 Mev) and gets about 30 neutrons per proton in the beam. The neutron spectrum of the output peaks at around 10 Mev, but some of the neutrons have much higher energies.
The Oak Ridge facility uses mercury as the spallation target, with the indication that liquid targets are more robust to the sort of shocks that a pulsed accelerator beam produces. There were some designs from an old USSR program that used a eutectic mix of lead and bismuth for a similar purpose, heated to liquefy the metal.
Remember that I noted above that reactors are sometimes used as neutron sources. One reactor design is to use a "subcritical" fast reactor and drive it to power production via a spallation beam. If, for example, the criticality of the reactor is 0.95, meaning that it is only 95% of the way to self-sustaining, then any neutron introduced into the reactor core will induce a reacton chain of about 20 more neutrons. Thus, a spallation source plus a sub-critical fast reactor can be a copious source of fast neutrons. Moreover, it's overall power balance will be positive; it will generate considerably more power than it consumes.
I've noted before that fast neutrons are a modern equivalent of the "Philosopher's Stone," able to transmute elements, and able to convey, well, not eternal life, but eternal death to those exposed. It's the transmutation aspects that have caught some interest. Fast neutrons will fission all transuranic elements, so, properly run, there is no plutonium et al. remaining after an accelerator driven reactor fuel cycle has run its course. In fact, an accelerator-driven reactor system can be designed to run on nuclear waste remaining from other reactors. It's also been suggested that other long-lived waste products, like technetium-99 and iodine-129 be transmuted to shorter-lived isotopes, taking the nuclear waste disposal problem from a time scale of millennia to a matter of years, or perhaps centuries if you don't want to transmute the cesium and strontium waste isotopes.
It sounds great, doesn't it? Nuclear energy without the waste disposal problem? So what's the catch?
Well, there are a couple of technical catches, such as the fact that even the Oak Ridge facility doesn't have the power to drive a full closed-cycle system. But that's a technical matter, and I have no doubt it's solvable. There's also the fact that such a system requires on-site fuel reprocessing, to extract the transuranics and other long-lived isotopes from the waste stream. That's a chemical engineering problem, and we don't have much experience with designing chemical processes that are totally closed cycle. More accurately, trying to do so has always resulted in some leakage, plus the occasional outright accident.
Still, it might be possible to get the thing to work well enough, technically speaking.
But there's a deeper problem, and that has to do with social and economic systems and ideology. As I've said before, nuclear energy is inherently "socialistic" in the sense that it requires government level planning and operation at every step of the way. Yes, an accelerator-driven nuclear power system would produce a substantial power surplus—at enormous initial capital cost. A government can pick up that tab and take that kind of risk; corporations could raise the money (the estimated price tag for a ADS is on the order of $20 billion, but would probably be notably higher, given NIMBY concerns, etc.) but are simply not trustworthy when it comes to high public risk endeavors. Corporations take risks to enhance profits. It is up to government to regulate corporations' risk taking, but the ascendance of Conservative Movement ideology in this country has degraded the regulatory process to such an extent that one simply can't trust the regulatory function of government. The NIMBY folks are not being mere obstructionists. They are being realistic.
It's said that there was a time, in the early days of explosives manufacturing in Europe, when the owners of an explosives company were required to live on site. Ask yourself how many corporate executives would situate themselves and their families next door to any nuclear reactor site.
ADS systems are well-suited for thorium fuel cycle nuclear power, and India has a lot of thorium, but not much uranium. And if China ever decides to curb its greenhouse gas emissions, ADS systems would look very attractive. Naturally socialistic, remember? Very much in the Chinese tradition. The two countries look like natural competitors in this particular game.
The U.S. does not. The oil and gas men are still in charge, willing to expend trillions for neo-colonial wars and the perpetuation of various sorts of privilege. The idea of spending government money on the creation of actual industrial capital is ultimately foreign to them. So here, as in so many other endeavors, the U.S. will not be on the cutting edge of technology. It is no longer up to the job.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
You don’t usually get the mega-hits in remainder bins, though the hits do show up in as used in stores devoted to that purpose (usually not at the cheapest prices, of course). Used vinyl was/is a risky purchase, since even apparently clean albums sometimes have a single, major skip somewhere. CDs are more forgiving, but the downside of that is that more people treat them badly, so used CDs often have pretty ugly surfaces and sometimes those render one or more tracks unusable. Nevertheless, there are often some tricks that can recover the track for ripping if not for straight play. The same holds true for vinyl, there being some wonder-products that clean and even repair (to a very limited extent) the surfaces.
Buying closeout records is sometimes a bit ghoulish. When MGM records failed to option Frank Zappa in 1968, Zappa formed Bizarre Productions, and a good bit of Zappa’s MGM catalog went to remainder, including Lumpy Gravy, which I bought (and then lost to the aforementioned burglary). There must have been something going on with MGM records, because all of the “Boston Sound” artists hit the cheap bins at about the same time. A while later, MGM sold out to Polydor, and another big batch of product hit the remainder shelves, including a number of Verve recordings.
When Tetragrammaton Records bit the dust, I got some Bill Cosby records, plus Steve Barron and some others. The Phillips label also had some financial difficulties, so I own a couple of copies of the classic H. P. Lovecraft II album, and it’s near the top of my list for conversion to MP3.
Realize that buying cheap records doesn’t actually save you any money; you just buy more albums with the same budget, or lack thereof, which is to say, all your disposable income. After I moved to California, I joined a taping club for a while, not so much to save money on any given record, but because the effort involved in taping put a limit on the number of albums I could get at any given time so I saved in the aggregate. The net result of that is a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of some records that are almost impossible to get elsewhere like the Handscapes by the Piano Choir, or Across the Western Ocean by John Roberts and Tony Barrand.
Amy has been involved with a non-profit organization that runs a thrift store, and from time to time a big box of cassette tapes will come in and she’ll get it cheap. One of them was amazing; it had a lot of on-air recordings from KPFA in the mid to late 80s, especially one called “Do Wop Delights” featuring 50s do wop and gospel records (again, some of them so rare as to be unique). There have also been a lot of mix tapes from various people, some of them pretty good music programming (says the conceit of one who thinks he knows). Having those tapes makes the old tape deck in my car more attractive.
There isn’t a single thing that I’ve mentioned in this essay whose purchase put money into the pocket of the recording artist or any other copyright holder. The close-outs do profit the record labels, but that’s about it. Taping clubs pretty much died from threat of lawsuits, just as Napster etc. quit the field owing to legal actions. Neither the demise of Napster nor the end of taping clubs had any real impact on the fortunes of artists, nor would the elimination of libraries assist writers (quite the opposite, as there are some books and even entire small presses that sell mainly to libraries). There are, of course, writers and musicians who’d like to charge rent every time anyone reads or plays anything of their work.
For that matter, paying full price for records benefits a limited number of people. I once had a conversation with a bass player who had just made an album. He explained that the only money anyone in the band really made on the album was from the session fees. The songwriter gets some extra juice, but everything else is water and wind.
On my side of it, if somebody makes some money out of anything I write, I’d like a taste of it. Otherwise, get a bucket and have yourself some free words. It’s a complicated dance, the conspiracy between the author and the audience, and even guys who fill stadiums probably sometimes feel like they’re dancing alone.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Taking Out the Trash
Since my Mom didn’t get along real well with most of her family, when Dad died she sold the house and moved away, first to a small town in Tennessee, then later to Ohio, to be near my sister and her family. But that’s a tangent, and not what this essay is about.
Another tangent would be the fact that I could take the time to spend several months with my Mom and ailing Dad because, after my bout with the disease that we won’t call chronic fatigue syndrome, I’d set up my professional career around a series of research and consulting contracts that mostly did not require my on-site presence. In fact, most of what I was working on at the time was analysis of smog chamber data from the University of North Carolina, so I was actually closer to the main project when in Georgia than when in California. In any event, my physical presence was rarely required, so I could travel or not, whichever I desired, so long as I had a portable computer and email, etc. I took full advantage of this setup when I went-a-courtin’ Amy in New York some time later.
But the crux of what I’m getting to is that, during the few months I was there, I helped my folks evict some people from a house we owned.
The actual circumstances were a little complicated. Theoretically, the people in question, whom I shall call the Jukes, because it’s easier to spell than Kallikaks, owned the house, and we were foreclosing on a mortgage that my Dad had held. He certainly didn’t ask my advice about personally holding the note; I’d have told him to sell it the regular way and put the money into a mutual stock or bond fund. But Dad wasn’t thinking straight for the last couple of years of his life, owing to the massive amounts of serotonin that his carcinoid tumor syndrome was pumping into him, and he was trying to provide an income for my Mom after he was gone. And I’m pretty sure he knew that something wasn’t right, and he was feeling mortal. So he’d bought this old house, fixed it up nice, and sold it, with the idea that it would provide an income stream. This isn’t a totally stupid idea, and the Jukes looked like a good bet, at least on paper, family of four, father with a decent job with the county, etc.
The first time I ever met them, I knew they were trouble. But the deal had already been done, and that was before Dad was diagnosed, and who knew? Besides, dealing with people in real estate is always a crap shoot. I’d bought a house down there earlier, with the idea of my folks practicing their “property management skills” on it. Over the six or seven years I owned it, we had four tenants, two pretty much okay, one who did so much fixing up that I could raise the rent after they moved out (I was damn well not going to raise the rent while they were there; they were a landlord’s dream come true), and one that so trashed the place that I had to drop the rent back down again. I made some profit when I finally sold it, but not much, because real estate in South Georgia isn’t the money machine that exists in California or the Northeast.
But back to the Jukes. Papa Jukes had lost his job, and they were up to their eyeballs in credit card debt, so mortgage payments had stopped several months before I got there. So I drove my folks to and from the lawyer’s office, and to and from the courthouse, and did my little testifying when I had to, and “repurchased” the house in the foreclosure proceedings, because there was no way that anyone was going to pay what we were owed after the Jukes had been in the place. The “repurchasing” consisted of trading the debt that we were owed for the house; in other words, no money changed hands because we were just repossessing, but theoretically someone could have outbid us for it (yeah, right).
Then I went over and began to assess the damage and try to clean it up.
They’d used an old discarded toilet as “lawn sculpture” in the front yard, a little poke in the eye to their neighbors, not that I really cared that much about the finer sensibilities of the neighbors. But the pile of old, wet carpet out in the back didn’t sit well with me, because I remembered the work my folks had spent installing it in the first place. They’d also pretty much demolished the tool shed, and installed a dog pen that still reeked of dog and dog waste.
Once I got inside, I found that they’d replaced the wall to wall carpeting with “vinyl carpeting,” the stuff you usually find in kitchens and bathrooms. It was in the kitchen and bathroom, sure enough, but it was also in the living room, halls, and a couple of bedrooms.
Apparently, because it was called “vinyl carpeting,” they’d installed it with carpet tacks. This made the bathroom really interesting, because the water spilled in the floor had seeped through the tack holes to get under the carpeting, thereby rotting out the floor. After I removed the vinyl, I went over the bathroom floor, pounding it with a broom handle to test for rot. When I was done, there were maybe two boards left; the rest was just joists and air, and some of the joists were half rotted through.
Then I went out and pulled up the rest of the floor covering. I’d noticed that the damp carpet out back was stained, and reeked of dog crap and urine. I figured that they’d removed it and replaced it with the vinyl because the vinyl was easier to clean.
What I didn’t figure on was that they hadn’t bothered to clean the wooden floors underneath before they put down the new vinyl. Yes, you have that right. When I removed the floor covering there was dried dog urine and feces underneath.
I spent the next two days basically mopping floors, repeatedly. First I’d use bleach, then regular detergent, then ammonia, then more detergent, etc. (You'll notice that I never used bleach and ammonia back-to-back, as that is dangerous). I really don’t remember how many cycles it took before the stench subsided. I don’t even want to try to remember.
I told very little of this to my Dad, and I made sure he never went over to look at the place. He was due for surgery in a few weeks and he didn’t need to be bothered with that crap.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Thinking Outside the Box
The “three-dimensional” part of the name says that a volume was divided up into a lot of compartments, “grid cells” in the jargon, and the “Eulerian” part says that the grid didn’t move around, although there was a bit of cheating on that one in that the top of the modeling region rose with the “mixing layer” in some versions of the model. The alternative to “Eulerian” is “Lagrangian” where the model volume itself moves around, usually with the fluid flow, which is to say, the wind. That’s a “trajectory model” and it usually had only a single box, although we developed some multi-box trajectory models to handle plumes like those from power plants. A single line of boxes is “one-dimensional;” a “moving wall” of boxes is “two-dimensional.” A single box, therefore, is “zero-dimensional.”
So-called “box models” are common in air pollution, and other areas of environmental modeling. They can be really simple, especially if you are dealing with pollutants that don’t react. Then all you have to do is have a source input for emissions, a “ventilation rate” for the combination of wind and diffusion that’s removing material from your box, and boundary conditions for what kind of air is replacing what’s in the box. This is the sort of model that you get on first year chemistry or physics courses; it can be expressed in a single differential equation.
You can make the box pretty big, too, provided you’re willing to take these big honking averages of everything. For either non-reactive or “first-order” (those that just decay all by themselves, without reacting with other things) pollutants, your average result for the single box calculation is the same as if you’d done the multi-box calculation and then averaged all the boxes. That’s what’s called “linear” in the biz.
I did a lot of work with box models, partly because it was easy to test chemical mechanisms with them, and the results are easy to understand also. And I got to thinking about that “ventilation rate.” And wind power.
See, if you extract energy from the wind, it slows down, and that will have an impact on the ventilation rate of any area whose air is passing by the windmills. So I did some box model calculations on the amount of energy that was being extracted from the wind at Altamont Pass near San Francisco, plus the degree of pollution that was in the air that went through the Pass. That allowed an estimate of the increase in air pollutants that would occur in San Francisco due to the decrease in ventilation.
Okay, it was a weird calculation to make in the first place, but the results weren’t that deranged. There was an effect, the largest of which was equivalent to the amount of nitrogen oxides that would have had to be emitted in order to generate the excess of ozone seen at the pass. On a per kilowatt basis, it turned out to be a little less than the amount of nitrogen oxides that would be emitted by a natural gas-fired plant, such plants being the cleanest of all fossil fueled power plants. Of course the result depended on the amount of pollution already in San Francisco; a totally clean area would see no pollution equivalent at all, and since I made those calculations, SF has reduced pollutant levels.
I wrote up my results, sent the paper off to a journal, and then received some of the most flagrantly wrong referee comments I’ve ever received on a paper. One of them showed that I was “wrong” with a calculation that was itself off by five orders of magnitude, assuming, among other things, that wind speeds are constant all the way up to the stratosphere. I think he managed to calculate the wind kinetic energy over the entire Bay Area also, rather than just through the Pass.
Well, I know when I’m licked, and it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get anyone to pay attention to that wacky idea. Even in science, sometimes I’m too clever by half, and that’s a rueful comment, not a brag.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Anyone wanting to see some background to this, can visit Brad Delong's blog, here:
I first ran into the curious fact that Cuba had close to the lowest infant mortality statistics in Latin America over a decade ago, when I was boning up on epidemiology, partly as the result of a small contract I had, but also just because I do things like that every now and then.
In fact, Cuba's infant mortality rate is a bit lower than that of the United States. There are various claims that are made as to the source of this relatively minor statistical discrepancy, including noting that there are more low birth weight births in the U.S. due to a greater number of premature births, possibly as the result of more intensive pre-natal medical intervention. I'd be more receptive to such arguments were it not for the fact that non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. have a lower infant mortality rate than does Cuba overall, but infant mortality in African-Americans is more than double that of Cuba. For Native Americans it's about 50% higher than non-Hispanic whites, with considerable variation among tribal groups. Similarly, infant mortality is higher in some sections of the country overall, especially in the Southeast, but this may reflect the greater African American population there.
Of course, mentioning these facts immediately leads some to begin talking about "fetal alcohol syndrome," "crack babies," poor nutrition, etc. In the United States, you see, there are very few public health issues; it's always a matter of individual choices and responsibilities.
We're all such rugged individualists, you see. We cauterize our wounds by pouring gunpowder in them and then lighting it.
Anyway, I also noticed that, in any given academic article that addressed the issue of Cuban infant mortality, there was an obligatory first paragraph or two, explaining that Castro was, nevertheless, a Very Bad Person, a dictator, for heaven's sake, and the author certainly should not be taken as an Apologist for Castro. That would apparently make the author a communist, or at least a Left Wing something or other.
In "Rethinking Communism," I remarked on the fact that you can easily trace the outlines of the old USSR in southern Asia by looking at literacy statistics. The Russian Communists believed in teaching children to read, and they did something about it. And literacy, no matter what we'd like to think, is not a given. It requires some public policy decisions to result in a high literacy rate, and it requires a commitment of resources.
Cuba also has a high literacy rate, again, one of the highest in Latin America, a bit higher than that of Mexico, or even Costa Rica, and 'way higher than Guatemala, The Dominican Republic, or Haiti, to name some other countries that have had the benefit of U.S. invasions over the years. The Duchy of Grand Fenwick would not have been so keen on losing a war with the U.S. if they'd been in Latin America, I think.
So here we have Cuba, a dirt poor country, whether owing to the inherent inefficiencies in a centrally planned Communist economy, or to the fact that it has the most militarily powerful country in the world just a few miles away, trying to cut off all its trade, occasionally making invasion plans, and certainly requiring it to maintain a military far greater than it would otherwise need. (And let's stipulate here that Cuba also tried exporting its revolution and lent some of that military to Soviet purposes in Africa; I'm not trying to make the case that Castro is the Good Guy here). Yet Cuba, this dirt poor country, has managed to nevertheless maintain a effective structure of public heath and education.
Again, I don't think that this is all that mysterious. Those who make the decisions of public policy in Cuba decided that these things were a priority. In fact, you could argue that cutting off other, entrepreneurial avenues of advancement in Cuba, actually assisted the public health and education priorities, diverting manpower into those areas. I might personally think that you can do a better job with a richer economic base and a bit less labor input, but I'm not absolutely sure that this was an option.
Another thing that I'm pretty sure of is that ideas like "democracy" are rather secondary to the whole anti-communism thing. I don't want to try to gin up some sort of body count comparison between Cuba and, say, Guatemala, or to compare Pinochet to Castro. But it's undeniable that the United States routinely subverted (to put it mildly) democratically elected governments during the Cold War, in favor of dictators who were more "anti-communist." And this habit continues; how many people in the U.S. think it matters that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the elected President of Iran? Hell, how many even know that he was elected? Or that it isn't even the most powerful office in Iran? Very few, by the looks of things. Ahmadinejad's sole purpose, for U.S. foreign policy, seems to be to serve as a boogieman, someone to frighten the kids with.
Besides, if an election gives the wrong results, there are ways to make it all come out right.
But there is one other thing that has occurred to me in this ruminating-on-Castro thing, and that is this: the big foreign policy mistakes made by the U.S. concerning Castro were made in the early 1960s, on Kennedy's watch. There are those who try to blame the Eisenhower Administration, or even, so help me, Nixon (because Nixon was given such a lot of power during Ike's term, 'cause Ike trusted him so much). But Kennedy gave the go-ahead, and he did it because part of his thing was being as much of a "Cold Warrior" as anyone. The Cold War was not the invention of the Right Wing, they were the crazies who wanted a hot war. They were the "it's okay if that last two people left after nuclear war are Americans," people.
The Cold War was a product of American Liberalism. The Right learned to love it, or at least loved the anti-communist witch hunts. But Cuba was a bi-partisan screwup, and I think there's a lot of guilt still buried there. Some people are indeed such losers that they can't tell when they've won.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Aside from his own flair for the dramatic and self-promotional extravagance, Lin’s greatest component was that of scholar, reader, and fan of fantastic literature, which included science fiction. That was what I found most attractive about him: the breadth and depth of his knowledge and appreciation for the history and literature of fantasy. He was also a natural storyteller, and more than once I read a work of fantasy that he’d described and summarized, only to be mildly disappointed in the actual work, since Lin’s summation had caught the essence of it and had improved on the presentation.
After he dropped out of advertising (yes, advertising) to become a full time writer, he made a good living for quite a while churning out pastiches of the popular “classics” of fantasy: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, H. P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and Kenneth Robeson. In the literary sense, he was least successful with Dunsany and Smith, both brilliant prose stylists, which Lin was certainly not. He was most successful, again in the literary sense (and this would be my own, probably idiosyncratic opinion), with his series featuring Zarkon, Lord of the Unknown, which managed to be both a pastiche and parody of Doc Savage, a finely walked line that required a near perfect tone. Commercially, I’m sure that the Burroughs and Howard pastiches were most successful; Lin caught the Conan wave at exactly the right time, and that humorless barbarian was easy to clone (the Thongor series) and money in the bank.
I’ll also mention one final attribute of Carter as a writer of fiction, one that was usually given short shrift, owing to the pastiche nature of most of his work: Lin could write humor. The only works where this really shines are in his two Thief of Thoth books (one of which contains one of my favorite bullshit lines of all time: “In n-space you don’t go any faster, you just cover more distance in less time.”) and the Almaric the Mangod story in the Flashing Swords #1. The latter contains the not unreasonable notion that an immortal adventurer must be rather dim in order to not go insane from the memories that accompany extreme age.
Lin’s first significant book of scholarship, Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings also came at an opportune time, and it and others paved the way for Lin to become the editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Lin knew that it was only a matter of time before the Tolkien clones arrived, but rather than himself leading that charge, he took advantage of a window of opportunity to republish the classics of fantasy. If he managed to only bring Cabell and Dunsany back into print his contribution would have been enormous; that he managed to reprint practically every major and minor work of classic fantasy is an achievement so magnificent as to deserve secular sainthood.
Lin was one of the first science fiction and fantasy celebrities that I came to know well, another being Barry Malzberg a combination for which I must credit two members of the Albany Science Fiction Fan Federation (more or less originating at SUNY Albany), John Howard and Ben Sano. Ben was/is a Cabell and Dunsany fan, and Johnny would quote Malzberg’s writings back at him (Note to would be social climbing fans: writers love this. It’s almost as good as being young, attractive, and of the opposite sex).
As an aside, I’ll note that, owing the strange discovery of having mutual fans, Carter and Malzberg became friends, even at one point discussing a collaborative project of mutual interest, pornographic in nature. Go ponder what that would have looked like.
The Albany group, which Lin referred to as “The Albanians,” was an exemplar of fan behavior generally. At one party at Lin’s the toilet was malfunctioning, the handle mechanism having previously broken. Toward the end of the party, Lin confided to me, “Most of the fans I’ve had over here would have made jokes about it or just complained. You folks taught each other how to move the lid and use the coat hanger to reach the chain and flush it.” A little while later, he discovered that one of us had just fixed the mechanism.
His home at its zenith was a collector’s dream, not just for the books and artwork, but also the antique collectables such as the Japanese temple dagger, and the Enzenbacher sculptures. A good fraction of that left when Noel, his second wife, left him, but even after that, “Carter Manse,” was filled with interesting oddities which, of course, included the proprietor, his dog, the Mighty McGurk and sundry other pets, including a goldfish/carp that liked to gum fingers.
Lin tended to live extravagantly, as befitting his self-created persona, and when his luck turned, his extravagances did not serve him well. Similarly, his years of self-promotion had stepped on a toe or two (or twenty), and as money tightened, substantial portions of his collector’s paradise were liquidated, a sad end to yet another artistic vision. His precarious finances also had a hand in the complicated ending of the Gandalf Award, which I have written about elsewhere.
I saw him only a few brief times in his final years; Ben and other members of the Albany crew saw him a bit more often. I have heard from some who say that he became more irascible and impolite toward the end, as might be expected from someone disfigured by surgery and in constant pain, but I’ve not heard from any in the Albany group who ever found him to be anything but courtly and polite. I can’t speak for the others, of course, but I considered him to be a friend, and I believe it was reciprocal.
Lin died in 1988, of cancer of the mouth and throat, almost certainly caused by a lifetime of artful smoking, at the age of 57. This essay is in the nature of a memoir and a belated eulogy. My real tribute to Lin may be found here, and in my story “The Emperor of Dreams.” Godspeed, Lin, wherever that may take you.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Women and Snakes
Well, it's time maybe for a little meta-update here, and I must say that it's a little disappointing to have all this fine intellectual and pop culture fodder here, not to mention the wit and poignant memoir, only to discover that the main reason that people drop by here is to see Lisa Lyon wearing a snake.
Okay, okay, I get it. Women and snakes. I see the attraction. I'm a little surprised that my essay on Black Snake Moan didn't get more attention, but that was a movie review, and didn't have any sexy pictures in it. Maybe I should have reviewed the remake of Bedazzled, and put the Elizabeth Hurley photo in it.
More pop culture reference, I was watching a CSI rerun on cable a few nights ago, the one about the UFO cult that thought we'd been invaded by lizard people, and there is some goofball saying something like "The Snake is a symbol of knowledge." Uh, yeah. Right. Knowledge. That's the ticket. That is absolutely what I'm thinking about when I see a woman with a snake. Knowledge.
As you might expect, there is an entire "Women and Snakes" fandom, no surprise there. Actually, I'd say that there are several, interlocking fandoms. There are guys who like to look at women with snakes, or photographs of women with snakes. There are photographers who like to photograph women with snakes. And then there are a lot of women who like snakes.
One person, who is in both of the last two categories seems to have a studio in Oakland, fairly near where I live, called "Snake's Kin Studio." Her site also has a number of videos, for those who like to be sure the snakes are still alive.
One of the sites these images come from has the specific disclaimer, "There is no pornography on this site." I pretty much agree, although I don't always know it when I see it.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Introduction to Blood Relations
Anyway, a couple of them kept at me about it. One of them pointed to various figures in fantasy and SF who were pretty monstrous, and he said, "So what could Honlin have done that was worse than that?" So I told him. And he said, "Okay, that's worse. You're going to have to tell the story though, one way or another."
So I began writing the next book, with the understanding that, somewhere in it, Honlin tells at least the bare bones of what happened, but it had to be to the right person, in the right circumstances, and I was really going to have to sweat to make it work out. Somewhere in the first few chapters, another of the writers group got me to give her something about what was coming, and she said, basically, "Yuck! I'm not sure I want to read any more of this." But she did, and eventually came to the opinion that I'd managed to pull it off.
Maybe the past ten years or so have coarsened our attitudes about some things, so maybe it won't be as much of a shock now. Some pretty horrible things have been done in our names in the past few years, after all, and some people seem quite comfortable with it. So maybe we were all just squeamish and now we're fuddy duddies. Still, it seems to me that there is a lot of effort being expended on rationalizations and excuses and all the other ways of avoiding the idea of personal responsibility for brutal behavior. But I'm interested in someone who did something without excuses, without trying to rationalize it as ultimately being "for the greater good," even if it were possible to make the case, even if there were people telling him all those things, to try to make it all okay. But he knows that it wasn't okay. There are some things beyond excuses; there are some things that may be even beyond redemption. However much one might yearn for it, and strive for it, eventually redemption fails. But one strives nonetheless.
So the story of Ed Honlin is about the striving, and the recognition that he will probably fail.
How's that for a teaser?
Begin Blood Relations
Monday, February 18, 2008
Laffering All the Way
The Laffer Curve is one of the greatest scams of all time. Really. "Please send me your bank account number so I can transfer $50 million in gold to your account" isn't even in the running compared to the Laffer Scam, though the Ponzi scheme might give it a run for the money.
The idea that you can somehow increase tax revenues by cutting tax rates is as seductive as 25% at no risk, though, isn't it? And it's so simple you can explain it to a child, using just the famous bar napkin:
Let's let the Wikipedia supply the basic, simple explanation:
"The curve is most understandable at both extremes of income taxation—zero percent and one-hundred percent—where the government collects no revenue. At one extreme, a 0% tax rate means the government's revenue is, of course, zero. At the other extreme, where there is a 100% tax rate, the government collects zero revenue because (in a "rational" economic model) taxpayers presumably change their behavior in response to the tax rate: either they have no incentive to work or they avoid paying taxes, so the government collects 100% of nothing."
Martin Gardner, in a famous Scientific American article, gave a satirical "neo-Laffer Curve," supposedly to show how fatuous Laffer's arguments were (Gardner's graph is rotated, with tax rates being on the y axis, and revenues on the x axis; the Wikipedia has a redrawn version in the same orientation as Laffer's original):
When I read Gardner's original article I was really pissed, because Gardner's graph fails on basic mathematical terms. A squiggle like Gardner drew isn't a function! So Gardner, the epitome of the punctilious math-head, let himself slide into a basic math error, simply because he was so annoyed with Laffer.
Moreover, he missed the most important mistake in Laffer's analysis. It is simply not true that a 100% tax rate generates no revenue, even in "rational" economics models, because there is no such thing as 100% compliance, among other things.
Consider the illegal drug trade. The criminal and RICO proscriptions on illegal drugs amount to a tax rate that is actually greater than 100%; there have been RICO prosecutions where people's houses and all their financial assets have been seized for a fairly small quantity of drugs, far less than the sale value of the drugs themselves. That's a greater than 100% excise tax. Yet the drug trade continues. Furthermore, various law enforcement agencies obtain substantial funding from RICO seizures, and a number of venues actually have excise tax laws on illegal drugs.
Hey, wait, no fair! exclaim the supply-side enthusiasts. We're only talking about the effects of capital gains taxation on investment and economic growth here. Or they'll claim that it's the effects of high marginal income tax rates on incentives to work or labor specialization.
Well, let's take that last one, which one might think would have a germ of truth to it. I remember a story from the Reader's Digest "Life in these United States" feature from many years ago. How many years ago will become apparent.
A man saw his neighbor out cleaning the leaves from his gutters, The man asked his neighbor why he didn't hire someone to do it, as the neighbor was an affluent professional.
"Well," the neighbor replied, "It would cost at least $10 to hire someone to clean my gutters, and I'm in the 90% tax bracket. So that means I'd have to earn $100 to get that much money after taxes. For $100, I'll do it myself."
It's possible to argue that cleaning gutters was an inefficient use of this man's time. And certainly his forgoing the hiring of it deprived the economic statistics of at least the $10 wage exchange, and possibly the extra hour or of the high income fellow's labor that he'd have surely worked if his marginal tax rate were less (I'm being sarcastic here, in case anyone is in doubt). But there are worse ways of spending a bit of time on the weekend than getting some exercise and seeing the neighborhood from a different viewpoint, to say nothing of the incidental inspection of the roof.
The point here is that even at 90% marginal tax rates, tax revenue was collected, it was not negligible, and the behavioral changes created by the "distortion" weren't necessarily always bad. People do not only work for money; if that were the only motivation in the world, I wouldn't be writing this, would I?
Moreover, by concentrating exclusively on monetary incentives, people tend to devalue the other incentives to labor, such as pride of workmanship and simple civic responsibility. The idea that a 100% tax rate results in zero labor implies that there is no volunteer labor—ever. This is the fallacy of Econ 101 Management.
As for capital gains taxes, well, the effective tax rate on investment in the old Soviet Union was 100%, as the Soviet government owned everything. It's quite true that the USSR did not have a particularly vibrant economy, but it did still have an economy. The government's effective "tax revenues" on invested capital were not zero. It was just that the government was the primary source of investment capital. And please don't anyone try to tell me that we don't have government capital investment in this country. Even ignoring basic infrastructure investment, we have a lot of government investment, from tax credits to outright subsidy and demonstration projects. It's just that most of these investments eventually wind up turning into private wealth, which, as it happens, is what happened eventually to a lot of the wealth that was created in the old USSR, once communism fell and "privatization" began. Then there is the case of the city that built a big baseball stadium so a certain future President could make some money on his investment in a baseball franchise. That was public investment in a private enterprise, no?
But let's say that we're still on the question of would a 100% capital gains tax yield no return. The answer is still yes. If someone wanted to sell their house in order to move to another house, and they had a capital gain on the sale of their house, would they refuse to sell, staying forever in the same house? Some would, but many would not. Many moves are not a matter of choice. They might try to balance the sale vs purchase to render a zero capital gain, but they would not always be successful, and there would be some revenue collected.
The fact is that it is very difficult to come up with realistic scenarios where a 100% tax rate generates zero revenue. The most basic assumption of the Laffer Curve is simply wrong.
Now you may think that I'm spending more time than I should attacking the basic premises and logic of the Laffer Curve and Supply Side Economics. Perhaps I am. Certainly SSE has failed every reasonable empirical test. In every case since the Reagan Administration, tax cuts have caused reductions in tax revenues, and the tax increases that have occurred since then never created the economic contractions that Supply Siders predicted.
Empiricism is tricky stuff, however, and the snake oil salesmen have been peddling the idea that when taxes are cut, all that need happen is for tax revenues to eventually reach what they had been before the cuts—which will generally happen in any economy that is growing over time. Eventually absolute revenues manage to increase, so long as the Supply-Siders don't actually wreck the entire economy, which they haven't managed to do—yet. In any case, such perversions of empiricism damand that a more fundamental attack be made.
The effect of squeezing revenues and increasing "defense" spending (which is to say, paying for wars and military contractor profiteering) over the past 6 years has been to deprive the nation of the investments that governments need to make, on infrastructure, regulatory oversight, education, and all the things that Movement Conservatives hate, because they don't fit into the basically feudal worldview that drives their actions.
And scams like the Laffer Curve need to be attacked at their roots, otherwise they grow back, like a thorny bush of carrion flowers, smelling like rotting meat to attract the flies that it needs to pollinate. And I'm no longer in the mood to cede these twits a single point. I'm no longer willing to give them even an inch.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
More than One Way
Every high school is a small town, an enclosed community with its own rules and customs, some universal, some idiosyncratic. Joss Whedon famously pitched “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer” as “High School is Hell.” The response was almost universally, “And…?”
For a few, most often jocks and cheerleaders, at least in popular imagination, high school is the peak, and it’s all downhill from there. This also happens in college, of course, and all of this applies to the college experience as well. Irwin Shaw’s story, “The Eighty Yard Run,” is about a college football player who recognizes his peak experience many years after it occurs: a spectacular play in his last college game. It seems to offer him the future, but ultimately it becomes nothing but past glory.
For the rest of us, high school and college are prologues, where we are “cursed with great potential,” as Charlie Brown used to say. But even high school and college have more than one hill worth climbing, more than one status pyramid to scale. It is a tad ironic that the highest status for students at an institution of learning is seldom bestowed on those who, you know, actually learn, but there are usually some perks and privileges involved in being a high ranking member or the geek clique, maybe not enough to offset the danger of being bully bait, but you don’t have to be smart or good in school to be bully bait.
Besides, these stereotypes aren’t set in stone. There was more than one jock at Donelson High who was plenty smart and got honestly good grades. There was also my own idiosyncratic, Clark Kent-ish existence, where I compartmentalized my athletic identity at the downtown Nashville YMCA, accepting the bookish knurd label at my high school. I also avoided the awkward high school social scene by almost exclusively dating girls from other high schools.
There have always been these little private retreats from small communities. If one wants a more general escape, one could go to the big city, whichever one that might be, although for centuries that merely meant getting stuffed into some encapsulated community within the city. But at least cross-fertilization was easier. There are a lot more Juliets for the Romeo to find in the big city. Cities are big markets, and one of the markets is in spouses.
Modern transport and communication has broken down the practical barriers to escape from even the most isolated village, at least in this country. But more than that, modern American society has vastly multiplied the number of status hierarchies there are to join and climb.
In The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and later, The Pump House Gang, Tom Wolfe chronicled the emergence of strange and exotic sub-cultures in the U.S., hot rodders, surfers, and paparazzi, as well as profiling the icons of those sub-cultures, “Big Daddy” Roth, Dick Dale, Phil Spector, Murray the K. The books were revelatory, in the smacking-hand-to-forehead-and-exclaiming “Of course!” kinda way.
If I get a small enough group, I could be their leader…
Science Fiction Fandom was a very small pond until SF hit television and what would once have been cult movies began making mega-bucks. Fandom began as small clubs of geeks (almost exclusively male) who met through pulp magazine letter columns, then ironically bulked up as the magazine slowly died. There was also a time when it all melded, with comic books and D&D gamers side by side with costumers, RenFaire prithee-speakers, and Heyer Teas. Now, disaggregation is the order of the day, and comics or gaming conventions easily top the SF Worldcon in attendance. Moreover, the SF fan base is aging almost as rapidly as the Fox News viewership, and most under-30 convention attendees are legacies, the children of the earlier generation of fans.
Still, I expect the readership at least to get a nice final kick when the Boomers retire, giving many of them the time to catch up on their reading. So I still have some time to sell Dark Underbelly.
And anyway, there’s always Aikido. And I have this essay thing going on...
Saturday, February 16, 2008
A Ducky and a Horsey
We were crossing a bridge in the center of the park when he looked up at the sky and froze, transfixed by the sight of something. I followed his stare, but all I saw was clouds.
"Don't you have clouds on your planet?" I asked him.
"Oh, sure," he replied (his grasp of informal speech is getting good). "We have all sorts of clouds. Big and billowy, pale and wispy, the whole gamut, or so I thought. But I was wrong."
"How so?" I asked.
"Well," he said, turning to me and pointing. "These clouds . . . I can see pictures in them!"
Friday, February 15, 2008
There aren't any photos of me crying, but I did cry a lot as a child. One telling tale is the one my mother tells of me learning to walk. I would crawl over to the screen door that led outside, pull myself up via the cross slats in the door, turn, take a step or two, fall down and then cry for a minute. Then I would crawl over to the door and begin again. My mom says that I did this for hours.
So we see the early origins of the sort of whiney obsessiveness that has served me so well over all these years.
"High strung" is the phrase that is used for such emotionality, at least in the case of a golden child, for whom everyone makes excuses. My family was tolerant, as were many other adults. My friends were somewhat less forgiving, for the obvious, (and I concede entirely) good reasons. Nevertheless, I got away with it for much longer than would ordinarily be the case in the social system in which I grew up, i.e. the mid-South in the 1950s.
The same can be said of my precocious intelligence. There are some sub-cultures and ethnic groups in these United States where intellect is revered and properly encouraged and guided, but Tennessee in the 1950s was not one of them. Nevertheless, I was again protected from this knowledge for quite a while, by family and accident, plus the simple fact that, however precocious, a young child is generally tolerated, even by the most intolerant of adults.
The hammer finally came down when I was eight, in the third grade, in the form of Mizz R. (not her real name, though I use the correct southern spelling of Mizz). Mizz R. was not well-educated, nor bright, nor particularly good with young children. However, this was Tennessee in the mid-50s, and the three jobs available to white women were secretary, nurse, and teacher. The growth industry was in elementary school teachers. During the peak of the Baby Boom the whole country was throwing up schools like crazy, then putting "portables" behind them to hold the overflow. Class sizes were in the mid-30s, so just keeping control of a class could be an issue.
Given this setup, you can see how it can be a real problem when you have a third-grader who knows more about English grammar and is quicker at arithmetic than his teacher.
One irony of it all was that I still thought that Authority was on my side, or at least on the side of the correct answer. I'm sure that, at the beginning, I thought that I was being helpful when I pointed out the errors that Mizz R. made in class. Truth to tell, if she'd had one whit of sense to her, she'd have taken me aside, explained to me that blurting out corrections in class was disruptive, and that she'd take it as a personal favor if I'd write down any errors I spotted and then slip them to her later, so she could correct the problem in the next class. I'd have gone for that. I'd have even made it "our little secret." It would have been easy to turn me into teacher's pet.
Instead, she was on my case all the damn time. And she really went after my "weakness" which is to say the fact that it was fairly easy to make me cry.
Intriguingly enough, the place where the weepiness really manifested was "playground," the elementary school precursor to "gym class." This meant sports of one sort or another, especially softball in the fall and spring. That was always a weak spot; I tended to cry if my side lost a game. So I was branded a "crybaby," by my teacher and fellow students.
I reflect on this a little and there's a hint of the weird to it, because sports is one of the few places in southern culture were crying after a defeat is acceptable. Even fans are allowed to cry if you've just lost "a big one." But no matter, there was the chink in my armor and Mizz R. slipped the knife in.
So I did what most of the other boys had already learned, from their fathers, or peers, or whomever. I learned to hold back the tears, to cover the reaction with other emotions, especially anger, and resentment. And, I suspect, this led back to more bickering in class, because now I was angry a lot, and I was not misdirecting my anger. No, I knew who the problem was, even if I didn't know all the whys and wherefores.
Some later teachers knew how to harness the little mutant that they'd been presented with. My fifth grade teacher had me working on science demonstration experiments after I'd finished all my other work. (One part of the fight with Mizz R. was over homework. I didn't like carrying books home; she thought that kids should have to do homework. So she kept piling on the work, I kept doing it while still at school, and the other kids suffered the consequences. Sorry guys. My bad). My sixth grade teacher simply let me read in class, so I read the entire World Book encyclopedia during the school term.
Other teachers were, like Mizz R., undereducated bullies, and I locked horns with plenty of them. I believe I held the record for being tossed out of Mr. R's (no relation) eighth grade class, but really, what can you say to someone who has just finished explaining to the class that satellites stay in orbit by balancing the gravitational forces between the Earth and Moon? I don't think I actually called him an idiot; I believe that I said, "That's idiotic."
Well, the interesting thing about all that was that it provided a bond between me and my fellow students. Sure, some of them resented the "brain" that was among them, and thought me full of myself and conceited (fair cop, that). But they knew that my fights with the teachers was their fight as well, and that my occasional victories, or even fights to the draw, gave them some covering fire for their own independent actions. There were times when I got thumbs up from the lower stratum, the shop guys, the "hoods" and "delinquents" as they were nicknamed. And more than one of them turned out to be a pretty decent guy, go figure, just somebody who, at one point or another in the past, had refused to knuckle under.
There was, of course, lasting damage, if one wished to call it that. Like so many men, I do not cry easily, even when it is appropriate to do so. I feel the lachrymatory reflex begin and a counter-reflex pops in, that choked up feeling that says, "No, not now. Hold it in. Don't show the weakness."
But I am fortunate. I know the methods of displacement, projection, identification, and the uses of fantasy and art. I am fairly good at this writing thing, and sometimes I can strike the right balance between distance and emotion. Sometimes I can pull my own strings and write something that can make myself cry.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Taking Your Lumps
Now suppose you have a bunch of butane molecules flying around in the air, and the air also has some hydroxyl radicals (HO) in it. Every now and then, in accordance with the laws of statistical mechanics, one of the HOs will hit a butane molecule. Then what?
Well, most of the time, they just bounce right off each other. The hydroxyl is pretty reactive, radicals often are, but unless it hits the electron cloud of the butane in the right spot, with the right energy, etc., it’s just going to bounce. But every so often, it does hit right, and it grabs one of the hydrogens. Which one?
Well again, it will be the one it hit, but some of the hydrogens are more labile than others, so the HO is more likely to bounce if it hits one of the methyl groups, which have “primary” hydrogens because they are on primary carbons, and more likely to react if it hits the alkyl chain, on a “secondary” hydrogen.
Butane is nice and symmetrical, so there are only two possible outcomes. Due to symmetry, any primary hydrogen reaction looks like every other primary hydrogen reaction, and every secondary looks like every other secondary reaction. The hydroxyl always extracts a single hydrogen from the butane, which gives water, and an alkyl radical that immediately reacts with oxygen, and under smog conditions goes through a series of reactions that lead to either buteraldehyde, if the primary carbon was involved, or methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) if the secondary carbon was involved. (Actually, I’m ignoring some other pathways that get more important as molecular weight increases, like the formation of alkyl nitrates, and the times when the molecule fractures in the middle to produce acetaldehyde and an ethyl alkoxy radical. Having read that sentence, I’m sure you can appreciate my ignoring some details).
We can write a bunch of reactions for all this, assign rate constants to the reactions, put in temperature and pressure dependencies, etc. but the thing I want to point out is this: we’re simplifying a lot of events into a small set of descriptive equations. All the bounces are ignored, except insofar as they affect the reaction rate constant. All the different ways the molecules hit each other, along with the different energies of those collisions, all lumped into a few basic equations. We’re also taking advantage of the symmetries, by saying that reactions at either end carbon are equivalent, which they are, unless we had some way of telling the difference, like if one end or the other was isotope tagged.
Anyway, we’ve put all these things together and called them “reactions of the molecule.” That’s what chemistry does.
Now suppose we want to study the reactions of a number of different molecules, say add some pentane, hexane, heptane, and octane to the mix, and put in all the possible isomers of those compounds as well (there’s only one other isomer of butane, called isobutane, but toss in some of that as well). Now, how would you write your chemical equations?
You could try to write the equations for every single molecule—provided you wanted to go crazy, blow your computing budget, and not have the rate constants for even a tenth of what you wanted. You’re going to have to estimate that last one anyway, of course, though you might cheat and get some empirical data describing the reactivity of your mix.
You could look at what you have in the way of a mix and try to come up with some idea of an “average molecule.” That can get a little strange, because you’re going to have equations that account for some fraction of a carbon, for instance, and averaging rate constants is pretty iffy anyway. The fast reacting compounds will react away most quickly, so the “average” rate constant is going to keep changing. Nevertheless, you can do it, either as a constant average rate or as a continually changing average rate. It’s been done, though most often as a constant rate.
You could take your mix and wave your hands a little bit and say that it should look like some other, simpler mix, 45% butane and 55% octane, maybe. Of something like that.
The first one of these has come to be called the “explicit mechanism” approach. The second is the “lumped parameter” method. The third is a “surrogate mechanism” which is an explicit mechanism that is used on a reduced number of “surrogate compounds” to represent a more complex mixture.
All have been used in smog chemistry models, and all have their limitations. The mechanism that I first encountered was a lumped parameter mechanism called the Hecht-Seinfeld-Dodge mechanism. At that time I was coding what is called a Lagrangian Trajectory model version of the more elaborate Eulerian Grid model that had been developed by the research/consulting firm that employed me, then named Systems Applications Inc. One of my tasks was to code up and test the HSD mechanism in the simpler model.
At the same time, Gary Whitten (later to be my boss, because he was the only one who was willing to have me in his group, me being the charmer that I am) was attempting to use the HSD mechanism in an atmospheric application. He quickly ran into the problem that he had no idea what the “average molecular weight” of an average atmospheric hydrocarbon was, and there were parameters in the mechanism that depended upon that average.
What he did have was what are called “flame ionization detector” measurements of total reactive hydrocarbon, “as carbon.” In other words, he knew about how many carbon atoms there were, just not how many molecules they comprised. There were also a few gas chromatograph measurements that could be used to estimate the molar fractions of olefins (there were no real mechanisms for aromatic hydrocarbons at that time), but the breakdown of the alkyl hydrocarbons just wasn’t there.
Then he had an idea. I still think it was brilliant.
It turns out that the reactivity of an alkyl hydrocarbon (like butane, pentane, hexane, et. al.) goes up with increasing molecular weight, primarily because there are more carbon groups. In fact, the reactivity of any given primary, secondary, or tertiary carbon group is largely constant from one hydrocarbon to another, and if you normalize the reactivity by carbon atom, it’s reasonably close (within 20-40%) to constant. (This neglects the very lightest hydrocarbons, methane, ethane, and propane, because they are anomalously unreactive, but that also means that you can ignore them, mostly).
So Whitten devised a mechanism that ignored the idea of molecules for alkyl carbon. Instead it treated each carbon atom as a single “reactive structure” and did all the chemistry from there. He called it the “Carbon Bond Mechanism,” and its descendants are still the primary photochemical air quality chemical mechanisms used in air quality management in the U.S. (and elsewhere).
It wasn’t my idea, but I took to it like a duck to water. (So much so, in fact, that some people wound up thinking it had been my idea in the first place, something I later recognized as “ageist” since I was the young ‘un of the team. So I always tried to make sure everyone knew it was Gary’s eureka moment). The CBM had exactly the sort of “thinking around the corners” style that I love. And, it was practical. It made everything easier, emissions inventories, comparisons to air quality data, coding the mechanism. It’s actually a bit difficult to conduct “mechanism comparison studies” among other kinds of kinetic mechanisms in the U.S. because practically every emissions inventory is in the form used by CBM, and a fair amount of the differences between mechanisms is how they treat the emissions inventories.
Over the next few years, we devised a lot of twiddles to make the edges work, like an “operator species” that took intra-molecular reactions (like chain breaking) into account. We also extended the mechanism to include aromatic hydrocarbons, and biogenics such as isoprene and terpenes; those wound up being closer to explicit/surrogate mechanisms. I also came up with a cute trick that involved treating very reactive olefins as if they’d already reacted to their carbonyl containing products (aldehydes and ketones) because they reacted so quickly that their products were more important than the original compound. Not to get too egomaniacal, but it was all very cool.
Now let’s take this up a few levels of abstraction.
If you’ve managed to get through all this technical verbiage, one thing you might have noticed is that this sounds more than a little bit like engineering. We were designing a kinetic mechanism, for particular purposes, based on the resources (time, knowledge, computing power) that we had. Our goal was the construction of an atmospheric chemical kinetics simulation model, a tool that could be used for both scientific and air quality management purposes. If science is devoted to the acquisition of knowledge, what do you call something that assists in environmental management? Again, a lot like engineering.
Science operates on the model of “objective reality” and scientists like to think of themselves as dealing with that reality in an impersonal way. You can see that in the way that scientific papers are written, frequently in passive voice, rarely with individual actions described, and even more rarely as anything where the “arbitrary” is even acknowledged. The idea of choices is largely absent, because choices are the product of subjective individuals.
Art, on the other hand, glories in the subjective, the experiential. Choice is part of its very nature. Art is personal, and artists have no problem with the idea that their ego is involved. That’s part of the point of it. But it’s still often the case that some artistic element “has to be that way.” The artist feels like there is no choice in the matter, because making a different choice will lead to inferior, or even bad, art.
I’ve had careers in both science and art, and for a long while I thought that the art was for personal expression and the science was for the satisfaction of my curiosity about an objective world that was entirely independent of myself. I also had the notion that engineering was where the two met, where one applied the objective knowledge of science in service of the subjective needs of human beings, and those needs included the application of artistic principles to engineering, and engineering principles to art.
It’s a good line of patter, and there’s some truth to it, but as time goes on, I see more and more holes in it. For one thing, while art may be personal and expressive, it’s often pretty generic, and it starts looking a lot like other art. No one else would have written Book of Shadows, but if I hadn’t, there might very well have been another novel of “heroic fantasy,” in that publishing slot, and many of the same people might have read it and taken the same enjoyment from it. SunSmoke is a lot less interchangeable, in my view, but that is not necessarily obvious to the reader. I myself tend toward the idiosyncratic both as writer and reader, but most fiction, most art, is average; that’s what average means. And some proportion of popular entertainment is largely interchangeable with its near equivalents.
One the other hand, a great deal of science is more idiosyncratic, less objective, more personal than most scientists would admit. What is studied, how it’s studied, what sorts of theories and models are created, what sort of notation is used, all of that betrays the human face staring at the instruments, drawing the conclusions, writing up the results. Someone has to want to know the answer to the question that is being asked. Science is a human construct, no less than any other human construct, and to deny it is to deny both one’s self, and the truth.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
And the leaves hanging down
And the grass on the ground smelling sweet
Move up the road
To the outside of town
And the sound of that good gospel beat
Sits a ragged tent
Where there ain't no trees
And that gospel group
Telling you and me
Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show
Pack up the babies
Grab the old ladies
Brother Love's show
--Neil Diamond, "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"
The Congressional Record contains many interesting items, especially from the days when a filibuster actually required Senators to continue speaking for the duration. Often a filibustering Senator would read from a book, insert cooking recipes, and the like, just in order to keep the words flowing. Nowadays, not only is this not required, owing to a thing called Senate Rule 22, which allows some Senators to say "we're filibustering," and then a cloture vote determines whether or not the bill is blocked.
It's also quite possible for things to show up in the Congressional Record that were never actually said on the floors of Congress, and things that are said may be taken back, the CR being amended to nullify the past, and isn't that the way it ought to be with everything?
I doubt that my name was ever said in the Hallowed Halls, but it does appear in the Congressional Record at least once, as a citation of an EPA report in the background documentation for some air quality legislation (you'd think I could be more specific, and I probably could, but there are limits to how much work I'm willing to put into these little memoirs). It was, as I recall, a monthly report that later went into a document sometimes cited as just "Killus et al." (heh, heh), primarily because I was co-author to a majority of the individual chapters. The final publication was titled "Continued research in mesoscale air pollution simulation modeling. Volume 5: Refinements in numerical analysis, transport, chemistry, and pollutant removal" [Final Report, Oct. 1979 - Jul. 1982] KILLUS, J P; MEYER, J P; DURRAN, G E; ANDERSON, G E; JERSKEY, T N.
The full report included new transport algorithms, chemistry, actinic flux calculations, aerosol formation mechanisms, and surface uptake models for a photochemical grid model. The subsection that went into the CR was on the surface uptake mechanisms, i.e. the way that pollutants are absorbed or otherwise destroyed or transformed by interactions with surfaces, and I co-wrote it with the last guy cited, Terry N. Jerskey.
We didn't really work that closely together, having broken up the problem into piece parts with Terry doing some chunks of it, and me the rest. But there was a fair amount of time sitting across the table from each other, talking about this or that aspect of things like surface resistance, diffusional transport in the planetary boundary layer and other nurdy things that we were being paid to talk about. It was a lot of fun, actually, for me at least. I hope Terry enjoyed it.
Terry's hands shook by that point, a tremor that was a side effect of the medication he was on, I think it was Haldol, but this is a 30 year old memory here, and he only told me once.
One day, late, after everyone else had left the office except Tom, who was a chronic workaholic, Terry went over to the shopping center across the street and bought several bottles of dry cleaning fluid, which he proceeded to swig down on the way back to the office, tossing the bottles into the trash cans on the way back. He made it back to the office and collapsed on the hall floor, where Tom found him a few minutes later.
In addition to being a workaholic, Tom was also a member of the Ski Patrol, and strong as an ox besides. Both turned out to be important, because, after he called for the paramedics, he had to use that strength to pry Terry's jaws apart, in order to give him mouth-to-mouth respiration. Terry's jaws had become locked with muscle spasms, you see.
Then, after the ambulance arrived, Tom raced across the street and located the bottles of cleaning fluid (which I suspect he'd tasted in Terry's vomit and breath during the time he was doing Terry's breathing for him) and reported what Terry had swallowed to the ER by the time Terry had arrived.
This wasn't Terry's first suicide attempt, it turned out. That was the reason for the anti-depressants. In fact, I heard that Terry's wife was pretty blasé about the matter when she was called.
The next day, Terry was sitting up in the ICU, alert, seemingly fine. He told everyone who visited that he'd be back at work pretty soon.
The next day he was dead. The cause of death was "aspirated pneumonia." Vomiting cleaning fluid and then breathing it into your lungs causes damage, and there was enough damage for entirely different fluids to build up in his lungs—enough to kill him, in fact.
The only thing that I ever learned about Terry other than our working together was that he loved Neil Diamond, even the later pretentious stuff like "Longfellow Serenade." When we spoke about Neil, I'd always talk about songs like "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," because I could honestly say that I liked it.
I honestly liked Terry, too, but not nearly enough, really. For the most part, he was just a guy I worked with for a while.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
It's Always about the Blood
Bone marrow makes blood cells. More specifically, it contains various "uncommitted" stem cells that remain in the marrow while splitting off cells that then are "committed" to maturing into cells that circulate in the blood.
The biggie is the red blood cells, without which you and I would die in seconds, since they are what convey oxygen from the lungs to everywhere else. The fancy term for red blood cells is erythrocytes, which has the interesting characteristic of being not only less informative than "red blood cells" but also has more syllables.
The lab measurement for red blood cells is called "hematocrit," and 35% to 55% is considered normal. Less, and you have anemia. More, and you may have a blood disease, live at a high altitude, have dengue fever, or are taking a performance enhancing drug, like EPO.
White blood cells are "leukocytes," or ""lymphocytes" (hooray! same number of syllables, plus there's a differentiation in kind. That's what technical terms should be about). There's an entire menagerie of white blood cells, having to do with which part of the immune system is in play.
Then there are platelets, aka thrombocytes, which aren't exactly cells, but I'll get to that. A normal platelet count is between 150,000 and 400,000 per cubic millimeter of blood, but the ",000" is usually dropped in reporting, so a person with a platelet count of 200,000 is usually said to have a platelet count of 200. A low platelet count is called thrombocytopenia, and may create problems with bruising, bleeding, etc. although there are other factors involved. A count of 120, for example, is not considered that big a deal, but if the count drops below 20, the risk of spontaneous bleeding becomes very high.
Platelets aren't cells, per se; they are more akin to cell walls, hence the "plate" part of the name. Platelets are formed in the cytoplasm of a very large cell, the megakaryocyte. Megakaryocytes mature in about 10 days, from a large stem cell, the megakaryoblast. The cytoplasm of the megakaryocyte fragments at the edge of the cell. This is called platelet budding. The spleen serves as a holding tank for platelets, and contains about a third of the blood's platelets at any given time. Platelets are destroyed by macrophages, and have a lifetime of between 8 and 12 days in the blood, so the full life cycle of a platelet is on the order of about 20 days.
Platelets are necessary but not sufficient for blood clotting. A blood clot consists of a mass of platelets enmeshed in a lattice of insoluble fibrin molecules. Platelet aggregation and fibrin formation both require the proteolytic enzyme thrombin, plus calcium ions and about a dozen other protein clotting factors. Most of these circulate in the blood as inactive precursors until they are activated by trigger enzymes that form when blood vessels are ruptured or something else unpleasant happens.
So, basically, platelets are the bricks and the aggregation factors are the mortar, glue, etc, that hold them together to form blood clots. This entire process is pretty much unique to mammals, incidentally.
There are a number of drugs that will reduce platelet count, including the aspirin-like drugs, ibuprofen and naproxen. I was taking prescription-level amounts of naproxen until recently, owing to the practice of Aikido, and this did lower my platelet levels to somewhat below the lower level of normal, which is to say 100-150, but I did not seem to have any clotting problems, so big deal, was my opinion. However, a few months ago, I began a series of encounters with a fine (intentional irony here) drug called Temodar, which really slams the platelet count, so I had to give up the naproxen. I now report that this made me feel roughly 10-15 years older on the Aikido mat.
A fellow Aikido student recently underwent a root planing, a dental procedure that removes accumulated plaque from below the gum line. After finishing one side, the dentists said, "There's too much bleeding here. I'm not going to do the other side without a doctor's release." So, said student went to his doctor, who sent him to get the requisite blood test.
Upon receipt of the results, the doctor called and told him, "I want you to immediately go to the nearest hospital and check yourself in." The student then called a friend of his, also a physician, for advice. Upon reading his friend the blood test results over the phone, the friend said, "What are you doing talking to me? Go to the nearest hospital and check yourself in immediately."
Our boy did not quite follow the advice. He first wrote up a list of things that needed doing at his job, then he went, not to the nearest hospital, but to San Francisco General. This was actually a good move, because they immediately sent him over to UCSF Hospital, where they could make a proper diagnosis, and where he is now just about done with the chemotherapy for the rare (and, fingers crossed for the happy ending) and very curable form of leukemia that he had developed. Upon admission, he was immediately given a transfusion, and has since had 6-8 "platelet packs," which consist of platelets that have been centrifuged out of whole blood.
He is 36.
His blood test platelet count was 11.