Saturday, May 11, 2002

Hero Street

You probably haven't heard of Silvis, IL. Back around the 1930's the locals didn't think too much of it either. When a bunch of Mexican section hands moved to the area to work on the Rock Island Line, this is where they were moved after city fathers determined that they could no longer live in boxcars in the railroad yard. So the boxcars and all went to unpaved Second Street.

The erstwhile Second Street is a block and a half long. But it contributed 84 men to WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. 8 of them didn't come back, and 1 won a Silver Star. No street of comparable size can boast of such a record of military service. That claim has stood up to rigorous research and been verified by the Department of Defense. Which is why, in 1967, it was renamed Hero Street.

The official web site goes into much more detail, especially about a monument they're raising money to build. Let's give these guys the recognition they deserve.

Thursday, May 09, 2002

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

Affirmative action in practice

There has been some discussion elsewhere about John McWhorter, a professor at UC Berkeley. He dared to question affirmative action, and immediately he was pounced upon with allegations that he benefited from it.

So what if he did -may we not evaluate his statements on their own merits? "Well, he said 1+1=2, but can I trust him?"

Racial spoils systems are offensive inherently, but they become pernicious too when standards are bent to accomodate. I'm not sure that was the case with McWhorter. (It was true with Alan Bakke, though - his alternate, Patrick Chavis, has been maiming or killing his patients.)

Some years back I worked for a company with a highly placed black executive in the engineering department. After the Bakke decision and numerous others, I knew that this might not have anything to do with his talents. So I discreetly asked a few people who weren't known for parroting party lines. They were unanimous in their praise for him, and noted he had worked his way up from the control room. Belated apologies, Mr. Reed.

In the early 90's I went to the personnel office at the University of Illinois. I wasn't there to research social justice, but eventually I noticed that of the dozens of people I saw, I was the only white male there. Sure, it could have been a statistical anomaly....

Sometime in the 80's a relative sought a job as a state trooper in Illinois. He took a test and did fine relative to traditional standards. But he wasn't good enough for a white guy, and minorities with lower scores got in instead. Are they fine cops? Maybe so.

But when considering the propriety of affirmative action, you have to consider that this is a zero-sum game - you're creating losers. Is it just my imagination, or is this just never discussed?

Monday, May 06, 2002

Comment snafu

I understand that at least one person has discovered he is banned from my comments. I'm not sure how that happened, because to date I have not deliberately banned anyone. Nor have I intentionally deleted comments, but I know of at least 3 that are gone.

I could have fatfingered it, or it might have something to do with YACCS upgrades. In any case, I'm working on a fix, and my apologies in the meantime.

UPDATE: It should be fixed now. Upgrade your YACCS to get more control over stuff like this. I still don't know what happened to the 3 comments, and can't be sure I didn't lose more.

Doing my part

Tonight I'm going to go home, grab my guitar and kick out the jams for peace in the Middle East.

Creating a theory - part III

If you've been following this succession of posts, several of us have been discussing the theory of evolution on its own merits, without reference to religious alternatives. It can be awkward to follow, because the comments I am addressing below are found under another blog item here.

I must say, I admire Paul Orwin's faith in things unseen when he says "I think intelligent design theory is another incarnation of the 'God of the Gaps' theology, which will die a slow and painful death as the gaps are closed". This looks like antipathy to me - why?

Doug Turnbull notes that bacteria adapt to antibiotics, showing characteristics that weren't there before. And how does that happen? Is it totally dependent on random changes in the genome? That would appear to offer an infinite number of possibilities, which even bacteria are not prolific enough to generate. But if these mutations are not totally random, what guides them? How can a cell zero in on the most effective mutations in a finite time in order to survive?

I don't agree with DT's assessment of astrophysics under my criteria. Science deals in what is useful, not in what is true, and astrophysics has generated some useful results. What's more, much of it works with phenomena well known here on earth, such as relativity, red shifts, gravitation, etc. And the consequences of being wrong are not great in any case, with the possible exception of predictions of the life of the sun, or the paths of objects that might collide with the earth.

But on the edges, when it uses a century or two of observation to predict what will happen billions of years from now, it's dodgy and should be recognized as such. It's as if you were given a minute to observe a species unlike any on earth and expected to be able to tell how old it was and how much longer it would live.

As for the videotape comment, we'd ask for something like that for about anything else in the hard sciences. Don't tell me this reaction occurs, show me, and then another lab had better be able to duplicate it too. If I tried to beg off saying the process took too long, you might rightly think me a charlatan, or at best you might withhold judgment. Perhaps such standards are inappropriate in this setting, but there's nothing unfair in asking for demonstrations per se.

DT says this: "If you really think it's reasonable to believe that every species on earth now has always been present as it is to believe in the theory of evolution, then I'm not sure any argument is really possible." Maybe so, but that's not because I'm being unfair. I believe that those who postulate that some species weren't here from day one implicitly assume the burden of demonstrating that that is true.

As for extrapolation, I will dedicate an entire post to this later.

DT also says that evolution is the only testable hypothesis that explains said data. OK, what other hypotheses were tried and found wanting?

DT notes that certain sections of DNA don't seem to code for anything, and thus can be used as a timer of sorts based on rates of accumulations of mutations over time. How do we know that these sections don't code for anything? Genomes are very complex and we don't understand them yet. Are we now prepared to say that no use will ever be found for these sections that don't seem to code for anything under our present knowledge, and that these mutations don't serve some subtle determinate function unknown today?

I have read various books about chaos theory and have been amazed at some of the complex emergent behavior arising from unexpected places. I have to wonder what yet is to be found in the genome, and if it's possible that the diversity and resilience of life results from the emergence of behavior encoded in DNA from day 1.

The arguments that really floor me are the ones that attempt to use what could be called design features to disprove design arguments. As I see it, this amounts to postulating an omniscient, omnipotent Creator, and then arguing with Him - "ya shoulda done it this way!". I can be an arrogant SOB, but if I thought such a being existed, I'd happily defer to His judgment and would hope to learn from it. And I'd do a lot of experiments to figure out how He did things in hopes of staying on His good side or guessing what He might do next - science would be an essential part of my religious practice.

I'll ask religious people to abstain from commenting on this post (send me email if you want). I respect your beliefs, and you're welcome to comment elsewhere. But I have found that your presence in such discussions leads in unproductive directions, and I ask for your indulgence in this. Thank you for your understanding.

Sunday, May 05, 2002

Static electricity basics

I've been trying to come up with a blog-item length approach to this for a while. Let's see if this does any good. It will be simplified, perhaps too much - I'm sure people can find something to disagree with.

What is electricity? For our purposes today, we'll say it's a means of transmitting energy via electric charge differences.

OK, what's an electric charge? Physicists don't attempt to define this really. They just note that the smallest units of charge are protons and electrons, with arbitrarily labeled "positive" and "negative" charges respectively. Since electrons are easier to shake loose than protons are, for practical purposes electricity results from moving electrons.

Charged particles have their own electric fields, which exert forces when they interact with the electric fields of other objects. These forces are inversely proportional to the square of the difference between the particles - they get stronger rapidly as the particles get closer together. They tend to repel objects of like charge, and attract those of opposite charge. A result is that protons and electrons tend to stick together tightly into aggregates which as a whole carry no net charge, and getting electrons concentrated takes some "pressure".

If you've ever been zapped by static electricity, you have evidence that it's no big trick to get electrons loose. There will always be some running around, and this rate increases with temperature. But they are randomly distributed such that we can't take advantage of them for electric power.

It also makes a difference what substance we're talking about. The freedom of electrons to move within a particular substance varies over a broad range. The substances in which electrons move freely can be called "conductors", and are usually metallic. Substances that hold on to their electrons tightly are called "insulators". There are substances with intermediate properties known as "semiconductors", but that's another post.

The trick with electricity is to get these movable electrons directed and packed together long enough to make the resulting forces to do work for us.

A measure of the "packing" is the electric potential. This is sometimes called "voltage" because it is measured in volts (named for Alessandro Volta). Volts are a measure of the amount of energy stored per unit of charge.

These forces created by "packing" these electrons are significant. One of the reasons why electricity must be used as generated is that the demand is so large relative to the size of the devices it is practical to build to hold the electrical energy. Such devices, called capacitors, can literally blow up from the stresses if misused, and they're expensive in very large sizes. Thus when energy must be stored, it stored in a form other than electricity, then turned into electricity upon demand.

So how do you "pack" the electrons, and how do you get them to go where you want and do work? That'll be another in a series of blog items that'll be sure to thrill you. Stay tuned...

Fun with trojans

A relative of mine gets a little too crazy with her PC. Despite repeated warnings, she'll still open email attachments with alacrity. So I just spent the last 20 minutes on the phone figuring out how to deal with the consequences.

It was a Trojan. She doesn't have a firewall, but a recently updated virus scanner caught the thing in an email from a friend of hers. I don't use Norton AntiVirus myself, so I don't know the details, but apparently the software "quarantined" the trojan. (Backdoor.Autoupder). This trojan supposedly is not widely spread, but it's loose in central Illinois for sure.

You might wonder what the firewall would have done. This trojan apparently contacts external machines to load more objects, which can be used for much mischief. Unlike many others, products like ZoneAlarm test outgoing traffic along with incoming, so if a mysterious program looks for access to the Web, you can deny it. In that way, even if a trojan gets installed, it can't call back to the mother ship and announce its presence. Then your PC can't be used for such things as distributed denial of service attacks like this.

If you have a broadband and don't have a firewall, kindly post your street address and a picture. That way we can all find you and knock you silly until you get with the program. ZoneAlarm is a freebie. Get it. Now!

UPDATE: I'm getting a disturbing number of Google hits on this one. It's fairly new, so make sure your antivirus program is up to date. Or else Quana and I will come and get you...

Hypothetical attack on a nuclear power plant

From Jane Galt's blog, the question has come up about what might happen if a US commercial nuclear power plant were struck by a 747 loaded with a fertilizer-type bomb as was used in OKC by Timothy McVeigh (who might have had ties to al-Qaeda via Terry Nichols and Ramzi Yousef).

So what do I know about this? I'm an engineer who spent 10+ years working on 4 different US commercial nuclear power plant sites (7 units - 2 PWRs and 5 BWRs, out of ~100 units). So I know a little about the hardware, the people, the procedures and the regulations. I'm a bit out of date because I haven't worked in the business for a while, but you'll pardon me for assuming that regulations haven't been lightening. And no new sites have begun construction since I was starved out. There's no conflict of interest because I no longer work in the business and I don't even own any stock, and as a mechanical engineer I can profit no matter what form of energy we use. Enough disclosures, let's get started.

Returning to the question, no Updated Final Safety Analysis Report that I have ever seen addresses planeloads of fertilizer bombs explicitly. I think you can guess why. There are provisions for "missile protection", such as uprooted trees, but these would not have the energy of the postulated planeload of fertilizer bombs.

I could go into a long discussion of this, as I'm sure you know by now. Nuclear power plants are not built like office buildings or even the Pentagon. You're talking at least a foot of reinforced concrete for the primary containment building, with a steel liner inside that. Outside that there's the secondary containment which is far less substantial but would soak up some shock.

And then what would happen? Possibly just an indefinitely long shutdown of the reactor while damage is assessed and repaired. They'd have to detonate the bomb just right before the crash dispersed it, and they'd have to hit a target that's substantially smaller than the WTC.

If primary containment were breached, then the reactor would have to be shut down, and hopefully the piping would be intact to do so. That is likely, because that piping, electrical and instrumentation systems within primary containment are built to handle nasty things like earthquakes, pipe whip, and internally generated missiles. And they are subject to "environmental qualification" for steam, high radiation levels, temperature, etc..

Control and power systems are required to be redundant and physically separated such that the same event (fire, explosion, whatever) is not likely to disable both divisions. That physical separation is a lot more concrete, fire barriers et al.

Ordinarily the containment buildings are on the opposite end of the plant from the power lines, so one would expect that there wouldn't be much physical damage to these. That suggests that offsite power would still be available. But let's shut it off anyway. And let's assume that any other units onsite are shut down, so they can't provide any power either. Then what?

There are still two redundant trains of onsite power, most likely diesel generators. They'll be sitting in separate seismically qualified buildings of reinforced concrete some distance away from the containment, with about 7 days worth of fuel in tanks that are probably buried in reinforced concrete underground. They're tested at least monthly to show that they'll pick up plant loads in a prescribed order to make sure that essential plant motors and controls receive power as necessary for a shutdown.

Back to the containment. Let's say it's Osama's lucky day and we've breached secondary containment, primary containment, and a few more feet of the reinforced concrete that makes up biological shielding, the drywell, or whatever other such facilities an individual plant might have (I can't speak for every design out there, but there's quite a bit of standardization because only 4 companies have reactors running and they're all regulated by the same Federal agency). We've breached the primary loop so severely that the reactor cannot be brought to a cold shutdown and we have a partial core meltdown a la TMI.

The bad news is that this will be worse radiologically than TMI. The good news is that TMI wasn't that bad. We're not talking Chernobyl here - the reactor internals don't contain tons of graphite to stoke a huge fire and form immense clouds of particulates (and we don't have a government that will tell everyone that nothing happened when an accident is visible from outer space. ) You'd be talking steam, short half-life isotopes of nitrogen, gaseous fission products generated inside the failed fuel rods, and possibly other radioactive nasties that can become airborne (I can't think of any, and they're probably so dense that they wouldn't go far).

Meanwhile the emergency plan is running balls to the wall. It's highly likely that some plant personnel might be lost in the initial explosion, but most of the essential personnel would be inside seismically qualified reinforced concrete buildings on the far side of the stricken containment building. Experienced operators, engineers and fire brigade personnel are evaluating the damage and responding, and relief shifts are coming in. Subject matter experts from around the country are a phone call away. Alarms are sounding, local, state, and federal authorities are notified, radiological experts scatter to measure the radiological impact, emergency personnel identify shut-ins and arrange to escort them out of the area, iodine pills will already have been distributed and will be available upon request, and then there's whatever the state itself might do in addition to the above. Emergency planning was one of the worst problems with TMI, and led to requirements to perform the above. And it's not pure window-dressing - the plants conduct drills with Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors onsite to evaluate them, and they'd damned well better do well unless the plant manager wants a black eye or worse.

So what happens to the environs? It'll take some cleanup, and there will probably be some lost life expectancy due to high radiation exposure to staff. Milk will be thrown away as a precaution. Offsite there could be more lost life expectancy, but that will take years to show up.

So where's the body count? Where's the symbolic value? IMO they'll hit something else because these plants just don't have the marquee value. They passed near Haddam Neck, Beaver Valley, Susquehanna, Peach Bottom, TMI and Indian Point the last time.

I'm sure I've left something out, working off the cuff like this - it's worth what you're paying for it. Questions are welcome.