Thursday, March 21, 2013

How do you know who to believe?

  That's a topic that has come up here before; and it's one of the enduring problems of human existence. How do you know who is telling you the truth- when two or three or more opinions all clash, and claim expertise?  (Read Part 1, and Part 2, if you want to get the whole thing.)

  There's an excellent case in point today, from the NYT: Weapons experts raise doubts about Iron Dome.

   One of my deep secrets, I've actually been involved in technical discussions on the possibilities for "anti-missile" weapons since Reagan launched Star Wars.  I know a little about it- one thing being, you have to go a long, long, way to find any academic scientist who thinks shooting one missile with another is ever- EVER going to work.  From physicists to statisticians- they'll show you graphs and charts on why it's just plain not possible.

  The crux of the NYT article- multiple real experts say they can find little to no evidence that the Israeli "Iron Dome" missile defense worked.  Maybe not at all.  Ever.

   If you're interested- read the story.  Then think about this: who says what; and where is the "vested interest"?

  It turns out this way; the people claiming "it worked!" are either the makers, who are pocketing huge profits, and want more; or the soldiers shooting them- who humanly want to believe they're doing some good (but no, they didn't see it happen, of course; and they've been extensively coached by the makers); or the politicians who are appropriating the dollars.  They have multiple reasons.

   The people claiming "it didn't work" - are pretty uniformly genuine experts in their field, who don't work for the missile manufacturers.  And who aren't getting paid to stick their necks out.  Oh- and the police in Israel; who report far more damage on the ground than the military thinks should be possible.

   Besides the "facts" presented: yes; you have to comprehend the human motivations working behind the scenes.  They're always there.

Rats! AND - Fukushima.

Boy, I tell ya, the blogging just doesn't get any better than when two of your topics suddenly merge.

The BBC news feed today is carrying this story; about rats and Fukushima; simultaneously.

Did you know?  That the power was cut to the crippled nuclear power plants at Fukushima a couple of days ago?  It barely hit the news- but, yes; it was a problem; the power loss meant all the old nuclear fuel waste in the "storage pools" - wasn't getting any cooling.  Yes, if that continues long enough, the water will evaporate, and the rods melt- eventually with the potential for going "critical."  It's really not a good thing.  But why clutter up the news?

   You didn't hear about the fish they caught in the bay off the Fukusima plant a couple days ago either- the one more than 7,000 times more radioactive than the limits for consumption.  A record, in fact, for radio-cesium contamination.  Which biologically- could only happen if the nukes are still very actively leaking extreme radioactivity into the bay, every day.  Which TEPCO denies, and no one else is inspecting.  We'd rather not know.

   Cesium from the original disaster could not be that hot, two years out.  The real puzzle, to me- your friendly local Physics professors - KNOW this- and remain silent.  I don't like that fact very much.

  The rat?  Chewed through some electrical connections, and got fried- and shut down the power.

 Murphy's Laws are the reason why nuclear power cannot be made safe enough.  And here we are.  I will bet you the farm- if any engineer ever included specs on rat-proofing nuclear power plants- it was long ago, and long forgotten- and nobody in Japan was worrying about rats in the wires.  And they should have been.

   Happy Spring!  We hit -1°F last night here; with about 10 inches of hard packed frozen snow to fight through.  Keep it in mind- "global warming" does not mean "uniform"- it means bigger storms and weather excursions.  There's still nothing between us here on the Iowa-Minnesota border and - the North Pole.  Nothing to stop polar air from wandering down here, when it's in the mood.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Why Old Lumberjacks Don't Have All Their Fingers.

   This is a parable I've thought about putting here for years.  It's my own, I think.  And- I just conducted a nice proof of it; so it's highly relevant.

   My excuse for dropping off for a few days (this time) - I got bitten by a cat; on the hand.

  Bitten hard, is the thing, and right on the ball of the index finger; down to bone, maybe.  Dumb, huh?

  Cripes.  I'm a trained animal behaviorist, and have been handling cats- including in highly difficult circumstances; literally for decades.  So why did I allow myself to get bitten?  Same reason why Old Lumberjacks Don't Have All Their Fingers.

   There's a real reason- and it's not all that obvious.  It's a really good thing to keep in mind.  Since I made the parable up, at least 25 years ago, you'd think I'd remember- but the fact that I didn't- is actually a proof of the parable- and "a warning to those who would be warned", in the words of the Thousand And One Nights.

  Cat bites are no joke; don't get bitten.  The Mayo Clinic hand surgeons recently published the information that 30% of the cat bite patients they see- wind up hospitalized, for an average of 3.2 days.  I'm on two antibiotics, after the emergency room visit.

   The Parable Of The Old Lumberjacks And Their Missing Fingers

   Young lumberjacks are not dumb.  When they get into the business, they look to their seniors to learn how to do the job.  It's known to be dangerous; deadly, indeed.  People die every year doing this.  Trees are massive, and gravity is absolutely unforgiving.

   Old lumberjacks are, frequently, missing a finger or two; or some pieces of fingers.  Young lumberjacks see this instantly.  They ask the old lumberjacks how it happened - and why.

   The old lumberjacks are universally just a bit embarrassed about it.

   "Got careless."

   "Why?  How did you let that happen?"  Puzzlement.

   "Well.  It was late; the end of the day.  Had this one job left; then I could go home."

   A pause occurs.  And a sigh.

  "I broke a rule.  Knew I shouldn't.  But it was just this little quick thing- thought I could get away with it.  Stuck my hand where I shouldn't.  There's a damn good reason for the rules.  Broke one- here I am.  Paid for it."

  The young lumberjack, in awe of the expertise of the old lumberjack, is nonetheless just a tad scornful of anyone stupid enough to break work rules like "don't put your hand in danger".  "Man, I'm NEVER going to break a rule!",  they swear to themselves, and they mean it.

   And?  They don't.  Break rules.  They are very, very careful- and never, ever, break a rule; or put their body parts in danger.  The image of those missing fingers is extremely durable- and forceful.  Why would you ever take a risk like that?

   And?  They don't get hurt.

   Year after year.

   And there, my dears, is the problem.

   Year after year- the young lumberjack works safely.  No injuries; good hard work done.  Year after year, the rules keep him safe.  And; little by little; insidiously, inevitably, he begins to believe - that it is never going to happen to him.  The years add weight to that belief that it is almost humanly impossible to ignore.  "I'm careful.  Always.  I don't take risks."

   Then, years later: it's late.  One last thing to do.  It'll just take a fraction of a second to do this... I've never had an accident... just this once...

  And.  Whammo.  Missing fingers.

  It's a trap our own brains and humanity set for us.  Be warned, those who would take warning.


  So why did I get a cat bite on the hand?  Um.  It was late... I've been handling difficult cats for flipping decades... never had a real bite... used gloves when medicating...

  : - )  My other excuse is, I'd had to manhandle this cat's father a few days prior- he sneaked into the root cellar behind me, and I needed him out, so I could close it, and he was evading me... it was late...  And the father is a big, tough, originally semi-feral intact tom, who has never been a lap cat.  I was quite rude about it; dragged him out from under a shelf by one hind leg, picked him up... and the tom was extremely polite about it all, and very careful of me; claws fully retracted at all times in spite of it all.  I had reason to expect him to be polite, actually, we have a great relationship.

  So this half-grown cat, potentially in training to be an inside-outside cat (one lap cat can be nice, yes?) had been naughty, and knew it; up on the table, grabbed a chicken bone, while I was upstairs singing to Smidgen... I was trying to move him out the door, he evaded, I grabbed- and he BIT.

  Dumb, dumb, dumb- and expensive.  And I so knew better.

  Just call me Sven.