Sunday, June 01, 2014

"Kindly provide us with different contact info"

"And so even when the Brits left, they did an airlift. They put their Iraqi employees directly on planes and flew them to Oxfordshire to an RAF base there. Australians airlifted out all of their Iraqis. Denmark airlifted out all of their Iraqis in a single night, Poland the same."
This is an exerpt from the radio program "Taking Names", This American Life.

Act Two. Emails from a Dead Man.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Taking Names," the story of Kirk Johnson's seven-year attempt to save the lives of Iraqis who worked with US forces during the war there.

....

Nancy Updike

A few months ago, Kirk sent me the draft of a book he's writing about all this. And the last chapter is about a case that's still going on now. That's the case I'm going to talk about. It was sent to the List Project a year ago in July of 2012.
When Kirk got the email, he didn't know anything about it. It was just a zip file full of documents, and he started printing them and laying them all out.

Kirk Johnson

I started with my kitchen table. When that filled up from all the pages laid out, I pulled some chairs up and used the chairs. And then I started running this paper trail along the floor.

Nancy Updike

You were trying to line everything up in chronological order?

Kirk Johnson

Exactly. But I'm basically looking at a dead man's attempt to get a visa.

Nancy Updike

The documents are a back and forth between this one Iraqi man and the bureaucracies processing his refugee application. His first email goes like this. Kirk's translating it from Arabic.

Kirk Johnson

"Greetings to those of you working in the immigration office. I ask your help in considering my request. I need a speedy solution to my situation, which is filled with persistent threats. People want to kill me because I worked for the US Army. Please help me come to America. Attached are some of the certificates and records of my work. Gratefully."
And in the book, I call him Omar. But that's not his real name. So he applied on June 28. And their reply on October 9, 2011, was this. "Dear applicant, please be informed that your application is in process, but we still need a valid official email address for a supervisor or HR officer who can identify you and verify your employment and a copy of the contract between your company of employment and the US government. Please reply directly to this email, and do not change the subject line. Thank you."

Nancy Updike

In this exchange, Omar is providing six documents that corroborate his work for the United States, including contact information for American supervisors. He included copies of two contracts he'd had for projects overseen by Parsons, which is an American company. And there was a recommendation letter from the US Army. He'd worked for them as a forklift operator.

Kirk Johnson

So here in front of me is a certificate of appreciation from the Department of the Army. "Your dedicated service to the US is appreciated and will not be forgotten." October 2009 to October 2010-- and then it's got the names of his supervisors.

Nancy Updike

There were two more Army recommendation letters along with that one. And among the three, there were the names and signatures of six different US Army officers. There was also a letter from Parsons, the American company that oversaw the projects he worked for.

Kirk Johnson

"Parsons would be pleased to answer any questions concerning his employment. Contact can be made with the undersigned." And then they gave two phone numbers there.
This one here, this is one that also even says the exact long contract number that he worked under, the federal contract number. Again, at the bottom of this one, there's a Staff Sergeant signature, his DSN number, his phone number, and his Army email address.

Nancy Updike

But in spite of all these documents and all this information, it seems clear from the emails that follow that the bureaucracies involved don't think that Omar has provided exactly the information they want-- a valid official email address for a supervisor-- even though they have four phone numbers for different supervisors and the official Army email address for one of Omar's supervisors. If they found that email address to be invalid for some reason, they don't make that clear to Omar.

Kirk Johnson

In the end of December-- actually the last day of the year, December 31, 2011-- at 9:46 AM, he sent a short note saying, "Peace and respect for everyone who works in your office. My brothers, I wonder if there's any news that you might share with me. What's the latest with my case? With great thanks, Omar."
So the war has officially ended. The troops have fully pulled out. The base that he was working on doesn't exist anymore. Four days pass, and the State Department writes him back at 3:50 PM on January 4. It says, "Dear sir/ma'am, we have checked your case and found that it's in processing pending verifying your employment. Please note that once you are scheduled for an interview, you'll be contacted. Your patience does assist us in accelerating the process," which is a common phrase that I see all over the place, this strange notion that if they're just patient, things will speed up. It's not true.

Nancy Updike

Not only was the process not on the verge of accelerating, Omar was trying to get out during a period when US officials admit that refugee processing for Iraqis had ground almost to a halt. It stayed slow for over a year. The US was beefing up its security screening procedures, because two Iraqis in Kentucky had been arrested and charged with sending money and weapons to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The two guys in Kentucky had never worked for the United States, like Omar had. They hadn't gotten into the US based on American military or civilian supervisors vouching for them in writing, the kind of letters Omar had. Omar was a different kind of case altogether. But he was Iraqi.

Kirk Johnson

The next email that he wrote to the State Department-- this is February 16, 2012. I have all of these emails, but this one was the only one that was all in red. He had changed the font color.
He says, "Peace and respect to you all. I'd like to explain some of the critical developments that have happened to me in Kirkuk. I feel that I'm in a very critical situation. My security isn't good, and I'm seeking your guidance. I fear for my life, the life of my family, and I'm asking for you to help me by transferring my case to a neighboring country. If you were able to transfer my file to Turkey, then my family and I will go to finish the visa process there. I await your speedy reply, God willing."
He's clearly trying to escalate the situation here and offering to flee to another country if--

Nancy Updike

If that'll speed things up.

Kirk Johnson

Right.

Nancy Updike

The next email back to Omar had a new paragraph that Kirk had seen in emails to other Iraqis and that would turn up again and again in Omar's case.

Kirk Johnson

"Please note that you have to provide us with different contact info--" and then this is all in bold-- "official email address for a supervisor or HR officer who can identify you and verify your employment. Once we receive this, we will proceed with your case. Kind regards."
And this is where-- I had a wrestling match with the publisher, because in the initial submission of my book, I put the entire back and forth-- and it was 60 pages long-- because I wanted them to see how many times the exact same reply came back where they kept saying, please note that you have to provide us with different contact info.

Nancy Updike

Omar didn't write back saying, "I don't understand what's wrong with the contact information I already gave you. Please explain that to me so I know what to do." And the bureaucracy he's writing to is churning through about 500 new applicants a week in a system that operates like a customer service center for a credit card or phone company. Emails are answered in the order in which they're received by whichever employee is free to answer them, which means that one applicant might get emails from half a dozen different employees.
Finally, Omar asks a cousin in the United States to please track down one of his old supervisors and get new contact information. And then in the chronology of documents, there's a death threat against Omar. It's attached to his email. It's got a seal and a date on it.

Kirk Johnson

From the Lightning Brigade of Ansar al-Sunna, which is-- we know them to be an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. This is now several months after the war is over. Omar is not working for the Americans anymore. The Americans are gone.
But this militia didn't care. An excerpt from the letter that I translated says, "To the atheist agent Omar, you are warned that if you do not accept the orders of the mujahideen by leaving your work with the American forces, your work as a spy-- we have warned you many times before, but you did not heed them. Nor did you return to the correct path. So we, the army of Ansar al-Sunna in Iraq, have decided to carry out the punishment of execution if you do not leave your work."

Nancy Updike

So he's caught, and there's two bureaucracies. There's a bureaucracy of a militant organization that's sending him their outdated threat email, which is saying, you have to leave your job, that he's already out of, or we're going to kill you. And then there's also this bureaucracy saying, you have to send us more information that he's already sent them.

Kirk Johnson

Our bureaucracy doesn't know if he worked for us. And their bureaucracy is certain that he did, but they don't realize that we're gone.

Nancy Updike

We showed this threat letter to three Iraqi translators with experience reading death threats from different Iraqi militias. And they disagreed about its authenticity. One translator pointed out that the death threat had the same kinds of grammatical errors that Omar's emails and later his brother's emails did, so we can't be sure it's real.
Whether or not it was real, Omar at this point fled to Turkey with the idea of finding an apartment and a job and then bringing his family. But he couldn't get permission to work in Turkey, so he went back to Iraq and started moving his family from house to house, hiding.
Finally, his cousin in America did track down new contact information for one of his American bosses, a guy from Parsons. And on April 5, nine months after Omar's first email, the US State Department contacted Omar's former boss.

Kirk Johnson

Exactly 25 minutes later, at 11:47 AM, Omar's old boss at Parsons says, "Yes, I remember him to the best of my knowledge, and attached is further reference. I hope this is sufficient." And he included this letter, where he said, "To whom it may concern, it's my pleasure to provide reference for Omar. His performance working as a maintenance and laborer for the Parsons-Iraq joint venture was outstanding. I knew Omar for more than two years of my capacity as a materials logistics manager, around May 2004 to August 10 of 2006. He was an extremely positive asset as to our endeavors while in Iraq. If I can be of any further assistance or provide you with any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me."
He's got his office number, cellphone, email address, and it's on official Parsons letterhead. When I saw this, this seems like-- I was relieved when I saw this, because until this point, when I first looked at this case, I didn't know how the story ended. I just thought that this was another typical case of the process dragging on for somebody, and maybe they needed our help to nudge it forward.
So I was getting anxious until I saw this letter. And I was like, this is great. Everything's on official letterhead. It's directly to people that I know in the State Department that are all cc'ed on this email.

Nancy Updike

Omar got an email back saying, "We got the contact information you sent, and we'll be in touch." Omar wrote back immediately.

Kirk Johnson

Kind of a hopeful but still desperate email. He says, "Peace and greetings, my brothers. Now that you have the official email address, I'm wondering whether my file might be transferred to Jordan. Are there any steps left that I need to do? I need resolution. Time is passing here. I don't own anything. I don't work. I'm moving from house to house, from here to there. I beg you to find a solution. Please call me."
Next email-- this is dated April 17. This is less than 10 days after they told him that they had received the employment letter. On April 17, 1:41 PM, they sent Omar this letter. "Dear sir, thank you for your email. We have checked your case and found that it's in processing your employment verification." I'm reading this exactly as it's written.
"Please understand that the process is lengthy and might need a long period of time. Your patience does assist us in accelerating the process. Since your employment has been verified yet, you aren't advised to transfer your case to Jordan. Kind regards."
If you, as an American, can tell me what that means-- those sentences together-- I'd love to know. But it's like asking Siri to save your life or something. You're talking to a robot that seems incapable of learning, much less giving you a visa.
As April turned into May, he kept sending them emails telling them, "I'm in real danger here. I've received another new death threat. I carry the letter with me, which I can send to you or bring with me when you interview me. I'm waiting for your call." And then he puts, like, six exclamation marks at the end of that.

Nancy Updike

Again, the death threat was included in the documents. And our translator raised the same questions about this one as with the earlier one.

Kirk Johnson

Seven weeks after that, after the State Department's employment verification unit received the verification letter from his boss, Omar again receives an email that says-- this is on May 22, 2012.
"Dear sir or madam, please note that we are unable to verify your employment. Kindly provide us with different contact info, official email address for a supervisor or HR officer who can identify you and verify your employment. Please reply to this email, and do not change the subject line. Kind regards."

Nancy Updike

It's like they've gone back to the beginning.

Kirk Johnson

Right. This is the last round of correspondence, because less than two weeks later, on June 9, Omar gets a phone call. His wife said that he took the call in the other room, spoke for a couple minutes, and then came back in. They were still sitting around the kitchen table. He told his wife that he needed to step outside but that he was going to come back soon.

Nancy Updike

Omar's decapitated body was found later that night. That's what Omar's widow told the List Project. His death certificate is the next one in the chronology of documents.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Revisiting MSG

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." - Mark Twain
A few years ago I read an article--I don't remember where--explaining the paradox that although Monosodium Glutamate is a "universal" flavor enhancer, it is also, unfortunately, a poison, toxic in large quantities. Some people had a higher tolerance than others, the article explained, but there was no scientifically established safe limit.

I accepted this idea, and kept it in mind as I shopped, along with other ideas like the need to eat foods with high nutritional content and treat foods with low nutritional content as a waste of money. But, knowing that it was only a mild toxin (in much the same way as we might view, for instance, alcohol or lactose), I didn't worry too much if I occasionally ate junk food containing MSG.

But this weekend I was reading numerous articles linked to by one master list, "Slightly More Than 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism", an list that I discovered through another website I'd never heard of before Friday, metafilter.com, a site which popped up on Slashdot's radar in a post about how Google permanently and suddenly cut off 40% of traffic to Metafilter on November 17, 2012, for reasons that Google hasn't disclosed, which so far has led to 3 staff members being laid off at Metafilter.

Anyway, so I came upon an article that upended my established knowledge about MSG: "The Notorious MSG’s Unlikely Formula For Success", which started by crushing the "mild poison" idea:
Glutamic acid is one of 20 amino acids that are crucial to the human body’s proper functioning. Without it, we would die, but it is referred to as a nonessential amino acid because our bodies can produce all we need on their own, and we don’t depend on consuming it directly with our food. Glutamic acid is found throughout our bodies, where it is crucial to cell metabolism. In the brain, it is an important neurotransmitter, regulating learning and memory. Every second in our heads, quadrillions of microscopic glutamate bombs explode every time a neuron fires, passing electrical signals through our synapses.
Huh. So that's glutamate. Far from being a poison, it's actually one of many fundamental building blocks in the human body. The minority component in MSG, sodium, simply makes MSG into a salt and one would expect, without evidence to the contrary, that its effect on the body would be similar to ordinary table salt.

The article went on to explain the history of the paranoia around MSG and how the general public came to be distrustful about it based on articles that were either pseudoscientific (not employing proper methods such as double-blind testing and placebos) or properly scientific but not relevant to the issue of food safety (injecting extremely high doses of MSG directly into the bloodstream of baby mice: this adversely affected neurotransmitter levels in the mice, but would probably not affect adult humans by anywhere near the same extent, due to the blood-brain barrier, and it's common knowledge that injecting stuff into your veins isn't the same as eating it anyway.)

After reading this new article about MSG, I Googled "effects of msg" and found a list topped with anti-MSG articles. These articles generally admitted that yes, glutamate is normal in the body, but it's still bad, citing studies such as the one about baby mice. The #1 search result called MSG a "silent killer", saying:
One of the best overviews of the very real dangers of MSG comes from Dr. Russell Blaylock, a board-certified neurosurgeon and author of “Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills.” In it he explains that MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it overexcites your cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain damage to varying degrees -- and potentially even triggering or worsening learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and more.
Wikipedia's entry on Russel Blaylock states,
Blaylock has endorsed views inconsistent with the scientific consensus, including that food additives such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are excitotoxic in normal doses and that the H1N1 influenza (swine flu) vaccine carries more risk than swine flu itself.
And yet Mr. Blaylock earned respect in his career as a skilled neurosurgeon. This reminds me of a strange phenomenon that happens occasionally in which highly-respected scientists (not that a neurosurgeon is necessarily a scientist) lose their objectivity and become the staunchest advocates of views that have little or no science to back them up. Such scientists can amass large numbers of followers very quickly. Since most people are unfamiliar with the fine details of science itself (indeed, with science being so specialized, scientists in one field often have to exercise some faith that scientists in other fields are doing "good and proper" science), they put their faith in scientists of good reputation and hope for the best. Consequently, a single popular scientist that promotes an incorrect view can do a lot of damage. At first, followers of the incorrect view include many other scientists as well as members of the media and general public. Eventually, various scientists do enough research to debunk the incorrect view and establish a new, corrected consensus; but the general public tends to lag far behind, still believing what they were first told 10, 20, or 40 years ago--partly out of inertia, and partly because anyone who profits from the old views steadfastly continues to promote them.

The most remarkable example of this phenomenon is Linus Pauling, whose rise and fall is explained (and perhaps sensationalized) in the fascinating article "The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements":
On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn't. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer. "It's been a tough week for vitamins," said Carrie Gann of ABC News.

These findings weren't new. Seven previous studies had already shown that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease and shortened lives. Still, in 2012, more than half of all Americans took some form of vitamin supplements. What few people realize, however, is that their fascination with vitamins can be traced back to one man. A man who was so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes and so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world's greatest quack.
In the end, I don't think this new knowledge about MSG, my new confidence in its safety, will affect my eating habits significantly. The fact remains that many of the products that contain a lot of MSG were junk foods anyway; avoiding those was a good idea before, and it's still a good idea now.

Thus, it turns out, the "100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism" includes some other pieces that are more weighty and important in the scheme of things. Like the epidemic of invasive species, like crazy ants, which infest houses, destroy electronics, crawl on everything and die in heaps of millions; jellyfish, which are gaining prominence due to the unexpectedly high rate of global ocean acidification; the sickening modern slave trave in Sudan; the plight of the elephants; or the U.S. Predator drone, which strikes fear into civilians in Pakistan and leaves many of its deadly human operators with PTSD.

But the MSG issue is a good example of an issue where people can vehemently disagree even though there is very little opinion involved: whether the effects of MSG are good or bad or neutral, those effects are a matter of fact, and our level of knowledge about it (neither poor nor especially detailed) is also a matter of fact, yet here we have different people making wildly different claims about what the truth is. I wish that the saying were true:
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."
Now if someone profits monetarily from promoting a false belief, that's pretty easy to understand.
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair
Yet those still promoting the idea of MSG-as-a-toxin typically don't profit from it. So what's the deal? Are they just parroting what they've heard before? Perhaps in part, but as this article explains, there is more to it than that.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Raising the minimum wage

Regardless of whether or not you agree that the U.S. should raise its minimum wage to $10.10 (or $10.58), to put it in line with all other industrialized English-speaking countries, and to end the Wal-Mart subsidy...

...I think we can all agree that the secret U.S. pressure to keep the minimum wage in Haiti at 31 cents an hour was immoral (alt). (Thanks for the tip, Wikileaks.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

15 things everyone would know if there were a liberal media

I was familiar with 13 of the 15 items on the list (all except #3 and #7; #11 seems unfair, as there's no evidence that this "Nixon strategy" is still used today). How many are you familiar with?

Obviously for some folks like me, I know most of the facts that annoy conservatives, yet I don't identify as conservative; but for the less politically engaged.... I wonder if, for most people, being "liberal" or "conservative" merely depends on which facts you know... or how those facts are presented. Did you know? Liberal and conservative are not the only options.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Study: US Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy

Due to the similarity between the two parties in the U.S. and enormous barriers facing any would-be third party, I have mused that the U.S. is almost a one-party state. I mean, okay, there are two parties, but the U.S. just doesn't feel like a democracy.

A new study applies some numeric analysis to the decisions that are made in Washington. I haven't actually read the study yet, but apparently it finds that Washington's behavior is strongly correlated with what the most elite want, not the common people. Apparently it doesn't directly say the U.S. is an oligarchy, but an oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people--and you don't have to run a study to get the feeling that this is true, given some matching definition of "small".

Lawrence Lessig, formerly my favorite copyright activist, has turned himself into my favorite campaign finance reform activist. He points out that all members of congress (remember, that dysfunctional bunch of people that makes most decisions about federal law?) are completely dependent on campaign contributions in order to be re-elected, and therefore spend up to 70% of their time on fundraising. Isn't it logical to expect, then, that the behavior of lawmakers depends on what the funders want? Well, I ask you: how many funders are there?
  • 0.26% gave $200 or more
  • 0.05% gave the maximum amount to a single candidate ($2,600)
  • 0.01% $10,000 or more to (multiple) federal candidates
  • 0.000042% (132 Americans) gave 60% of all SuperPAC money spent in the last election
Lawrence Lessig suggests that 0.05% is the most relevant number in his TED talk about "The Republic We Must Reclaim":
And the question we need to ask is what does it do to them, these humans, as they spend their time behind the telephone calling people they've never met, but calling the tiniest slice of the 1 percent? As anyone would, as they do this, they develop a sixth sense, a constant awareness about how what they do might affect their ability to raise money. The become, in the words of "The X-files," shapeshifters, as they constantly adjust their views in light of what they know will help them to raise money, not on issues 1 to 10, but on issues 11 to 1,000. OK, now every single one of you know this. Yet, you ignore it. You ignore it. This is an impossible problem. You focus on the possible problems, like eradicating polio from the world or taking an image of every single street across the globe or building a fusion factory in your garage. These are the manageable problems...
Of course, this only works within limits: following the "money election", the masses ultimately do get to vote in the general election. But remember, there are only two choices, and both can be bought--not always, but the majority of the time. Moreover, in recent years we have seen remarkably effective tricks by elites in the media to alter public opinion. For instance, whenever the copyright debate reaches television, it is filtered through the lens of each giant media company on which the debate is presented, companies that have a vested interest in the excesses of the current system. And then of course there's the conservative media, which has made excellent use of language to frame the debate in such a way that poor people may actually feel good about lowering taxes on the "job creators" and removing social services as a natural consequence (my own parents are suckered by these lines of reasoning.) In fairness, the liberal media too have had some success promoting their false truths, for example equating sex with love and framing opposition to gay marriage as "bigotry" and equating it with racism (despite the fact that many opposed to gay marriage are not opposed to the right to have gay sex, at least for those not of their faith, and often have gay friends). Counterpoint: you may love your best friend, but if you're straight and don't have sex with him, you can't marry him. Ergo, sex is the heart of the issue, not love. That's why it's "gay marriage", not "love marriage", "civil union" or "personal partnership".

Anyway, looking into history, it is impressive how well the elites can capture the hearts and minds of the masses:
Percentage-wise very few Americans actually owned slaves, yet it's estimated that somewhere between half a million and 1.5 million men served in the Confederate Army. That's a large number of people willing to die to protect the rights of the rich to own another human being. I have little doubt that if there were some kind of mythical Civil War today in the US that millions would willingly lay down their lives to protect the money of the rich and receive absolutely nothing in return for their willingness to fight and possibly die for somebody else's money. - random guy
Whatever your opinion on these issues, you'd be foolish to claim that the media does not influence you, or to claim the media is not biased. Even if you don't watch TV, you can be influenced by your peers who do, who were in turn influenced by the media. If you're American and not convinced, take it from me, as someone living in Canada: Americans believe different things than the rest of the world because American media focuses on different issues and emphasizes different claims than media in the rest of the world. In Canada we have a lousy electoral system, nearly as bad as the U.S., yet our parties and media rely on different rhetoric and biases than your media, even though we're neighbors, speak the same language (er, apologies to Quebec) and share similar interests. Or listen to this guy:
I'm from Europe. I know what it is like if you actually DO have parties with diverging world views. There are countries where you actually have everything from far left to far right to choose from. When you have such a variety, you tend to not even notice the, from an Euro point of view, rather subtle difference between Republicans and Democrats. Every time I watch a debate between two of your candidates, it feels like the host is trying very, very hard to come up with questions that would not get the same answer from them. You get to hear the most outlandish topics being discussed because those are simply the ONLY petty rubbish they don't agree on. - random guy
The wealthy funders, it seems to me, can directly influence politicians on "issues 11 to 1,000" as Lessig says: but in order to influence politicians on "issues 1 to 10", issues that the public watches, they must influence the public too. And so they do.

See also: Move to amend

Monday, April 14, 2014

Nuclear reactors and airplanes

It's interesting to watch the different arguments from pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear forces. The pro-nuclear forces point out that building all new power plants as 100% renewable in the near future is completely impractical, but a mixture of renewables and nuclear is. They may point out that coal is the fastest-growing power source in the world, and that in a contest between the environmental impacts of coal and nuclear, there is no contest. They go on to point out the relatively high rate of deaths from coal power (such as direct deaths in coal mines, and indirect deaths from air pollution) per unit of power generated, compared to the few deaths from nuclear. They may even then point out that petroleum power in general has a poor safety record compared to nuclear worldwide.

The anti-nuclear crowd, meanwhile, focuses on a tiny number of accidents like Chernobyl (actually, there is no other accident like Cherlobyl) and a few problematic, but non-lethal, old reactor designs, like this pebble-bed reactor design from the 60s--as if costly problems are unique to the nuclear industry. As if the industry has learned nothing in the last 40 years. As if today's engineers cannot be trusted because previous generations occasionally made mistakes. After all, why pay any attention to accidents, deaths or cost overruns (or air pollution) in fossil-fuel power, when we can simply make every single new power plant a renewable power plant? Never mind that not every place in the world has plentiful sunlight or wind, or that the sun and wind rarely provide consistent and predictable power. They may argue that nuclear power produces too much toxic waste, or that it lasts too long--even though the amount of waste is very small for the amount of energy generated, and even though there are new designs on the horizon which can get 100 times more energy from the same amount of fuel, while simultaneously producing waste that is toxic for just 300 years rather than 3000+ years for older reactors. (okay, you can see which side of the argument I'm on.) They may point out that nuclear reactors can produce material fit for nuclear bombs--but this is largely intentional; there are numerous reactor designs that are poor sources for bomb material, and a couple that are specifically designed to prevent re-use of the fuel in bombs. In any case, in democratic countries it makes a lot more sense to rally against the bombs themselves rather than a potential source of bomb-making material, especially in countries like the U.S. that already have huge stockpiles of bombs.

They then move on to the argument about nuclear that is actually fair: that it often costs more than renewables.

Nuclear faces political and popular opposition, often due to outdated opinions based on a few unsafe reactors from the 60s and 70s (did you know that Fukushima reactor 1 was built before Chernobyl? Or that there is another nearby reactor run by a more safety-conscious company that survived the tsunami?). This opposition and regulatory uncertainty increases costs, plus reactors are traditionally built with the "craftsman" approach where every reactor is large, somewhat unique, and built on-site. It seems to me that costs could be reduced greatly if nuclear reactors were mass-produced like trucks (small reactors seem to work great for nuclear subs!) and distributed around the country from factories, and if they used passive failsafes to make uncontrolled meltdowns "impossible" so that outer containment chambers could be less costly.

But the public opposition is no small barrier to overcome. Remember how a Tesla car makes nationwide news whenever a single battery pack is damaged and catches fire, even though there are 150,000 vehicle fires reported every year in the U.S.? You can expect the same thing with small modular reactors--barring some terrible disaster, all sorts of problems with petroleum power plants will be scarcely noticed, while a single minor nuclear incident will make nationwide headlines. Similarly, despite the many casualties and massive damage inflicted by the enormous earthquake and tsunami in Japan, my news sources have delivered vastly more news about Fukushima (the power plant, not the prefecture) than the rest of the disaster, even though the power plant is a relatively small part of it. Such reporting biases surely make potential nuclear investors nervous.

I think if the aviation industry were maligned the way the nuclear industry is, it would never have gotten off the ground, so to speak. While the raw data would say flying is as safe as driving, if not safer, people would actually believe that flying is more dangerous, so not many people would want to fly. But think about the other effects of negative public opinion: countries would enact laws to prevent flying near cities on the basis that they might crash into a community at any moment. Airports would have be built far from populated areas to keep the flying menaces away, which would decrease even further the number of customers, since they would have to drive a substantial distance to get to the airport in the first place. Due to the low number of customers, flights would cost three or four times as much, and much fewer flights would be available because for some paths there would not be enough customers to run flights weekly, let alone daily.

Finally, although this hypothetical world might have fewer airplane accidents than our world does in absolute terms (because there would be so many fewer planes), flying in this world would actually be more dangerous, because that world hasn't had the opportunity to make tragic mistakes and learn from them. Although at some point they encounter diminishing returns, plane crash investigations generally lead to safer planes. Since air travel is commonplace in our world, we have had enough plane crashes to learn how to make planes that are very safe--not just "on par" with cars, but thousands of times safer. In other words, if people hysterically avoid planes because they believe they are unsafe, in the long run this actually keeps them less safe. Ironically, when you put two different facts together...
  • That people are afraid of flying despite the safety record
  • That people are willing to fly despite their fears
...this probably explains why flying is so safe. If the media treated fatal plane crashes as "ordinary" events like fatal car crashes are, people wouldn't be as afraid of flying, and then the plane builders would have a much smaller incentive to make planes safer. So to reach the maximum safety level, we as a society have to be irrationally afraid of flying, but not so afraid that we stop flying.

So it is in the nuclear industry: if we build very few reactors because there is a tiny chance of disaster, then each reactor we do build will be very expensive and it'll be hard to learn how to make them perfectly safe, because we won't have the benefits of experience. But if we build small reactors in large numbers, we can learn to build them cheaply, and their safety, cost, longevity and efficiency will improve over time (even though, like airplanes, nuclear reactors are already much safer than the most common alternative.)

So if we'd like nuclear power that is cheap and safe, it is clear what we must do: build more reactors!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Three Felonies a Day (.com)

One legal expert argues the average person likely commits three felonies a day without realizing it. Here's a page of horror stories for you (I'm surprised "sharing a music album online" isn't on the list--in the U.S., the minimum penalty for sharing 10 songs is $7500, but since it's not a felony I guess it doesn't count). They say a federal grand jury could indict a ham sandwich*, which is just one of several reasons why the U.S. should not have the power to maintain surveillance on everyone in the world. Although some of these cases did not lead to convictions, you do not under any circumstances want federal prosecutors to come after you for any reason.

* choice quote:
Our criminal justice system, as presently practiced, is basically a plea bargain system with actual trials of guilt or innocence a bit of showy froth floating on top.
Oh and for those who are merely planning to visit the U.S., you should read this and pray that whatever government program led to that situation does not expand further.

On the other hand, if you support the U.S. no-fly list (you're too suspicious to be on a plane, but not suspicious enough to charge with any crime?), are you aware of how it affects real people? Consider this case. For every woman who's willing to launch a lawsuit against the U.S. government, I have to wonder how many have simply accepted their fate.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

U of C pretends buildings=education

I got an email from U of C recently that said:
"Paving the Path for Tomorrow's Engineers: A major announcement that will transform engineering education at the University of Calgary." .... "Please join us to celebrate this transformative announcement."
What grand plan could they have to finally, belatedly, improve engineering education at the U of C, you ask? Oct. 9 the answer came in my inbox:
"Thank you to everyone who attended our event, “Paving the Path for Tomorrow’s Engineers.”

"Today’s announcement of $142.5 million by the Government of Alberta for the Schulich School of Engineering (SSE) Expansion and Renovation Project is a turning point for SSE and a major milestone for the University of Calgary in its Eyes High goal of becoming a top five research university in Canada. It also transforms engineering education in the province, creates capacity to graduate more highly-skilled engineers to meet industry demand and drives innovation in Alberta and beyond.

"The project will provide more than 18,000 gross square metres of additional space and more than 11,000 gross square metres of renovated space in the engineering complex, enabling SSE to increase its capacity by at least 400 additional undergraduate and graduate students. New and renovated teaching, learning and research spaces will enhance student experience and create exciting research opportunities. Construction will begin immediately and the building will open in 2016, a major milestone to celebrate the university’s 50th anniversary."
That's right. They actually claim that building a few new buildings (thanks Government!) will "transform engineering education".

Yeah, um, I lived through one of those transformations already, when they built the ICT building. It was built between some other buildings and had an enormous construction site, so students had to walk, like, half a kilometer between classes. Then when the building was completed, it was a nicer building than Engineering, sure, but it had not a single drinking fountain, the elevators were slow (albeit cool), and the educational experience was pretty much the same, albeit with more desk space. The university still sucked.

I cynically predicted this when I got the first email. "transform engineering education," huh? "aha," I thought, "so you're building some buildings then?"

Friday, September 13, 2013

Syria: Hmm

I was skeptical about the Afghanistan war, and outright opposed to the Iraq war, but now there's this Syria question. And this time I'm not 100% sure.

Some people are comparing Syria to Iraq, saying it's the same situation again. But it clearly is not.

In Iraq there was a question of whether Saddam had WMDs (and it was known that he didn't have nukes, with only the flimsiest of evidence that he wanted to produce them someday). In this case it's a known fact that Assad has chemical weapons (which is in the WMD category, although it seems like the title Weapons of Mass Murder seems more appropriate, given its lack of effect on infrastructure) and that a chemical weapon attack occurred; the only dispute seems to be whether Assad personally ordered the attack.

In Iraq there was peace (although the country was, for some, a bad place to live). In Syria there is an ongoing civil war that has already killed over 100,000 people and displaced a third of the population. America's invasion crippled the Iraqi government and some critical infrastructure (and opened the floodgates for terrorism); but Syria is already unstable.

So some arguments that would have made sense against the Iraq war don't make sense against a strike against Syria. On the other hand, there are clearly still various arguments we can make against even targeted strikes on Syria (let alone full-scale war):
  • Syria has powerful allies, especially Russia but also Iran and China (read about the reasons for this). Without evidence to the contrary, I'd assume military action in Syria could lead to broader hostility with these allies. Who can promise we won't have a World War 3?
  • Assad, not unlike Saddam Hussein, may be a douchbag. But as with Iraq, we might not like the alternative. Removing Hussein led to terrorism in vast quantities in Iraq (and even the good guys sometimes behaved badly); the confirmed death toll has exceeded 100,000 people. Similarly, besides Assad there are multiple factions in Syria that are basically enemies, and no reason to expect stability once Assad is gone. There is no way to control who takes his place, and it is not clear that the West should be allied with any one of the opposition groups.
  • The U.S. is not the world's policeman, and its past behavior (as well as ongoing developments like the NSA mass spying programs) has not earned the U.S. the respect it would need to successfully take that role. If anything, the U.S. is known for consistently not taking the moral high ground, but for just pretending to.
So while "another Iraq" arguments don't make sense, other arguments do. Given more sensible arguments based on the actual situation inside and outside Syria, it appears that intervention is very risky at best, and foolhardy at worst.

I appreciate Obama's argument that a chemical weapon attack--which breaks the international "taboo" on the use of WMDs--could be a slippery slope that leads to further use of chemical weapons in the future, if the international community does not respond with some sort of force to show that this behavior is unacceptable (even during a war). But if the U.S. responds alone or with only a few allies, it will not send the right message--it'll just look like another episode of "Team America, World Police" instead of the chorus of international condemnation against chemical weapons that we should be seeing.

Partly, that's why I'm supporting Avaaz's petition for diplomatic solutions in Syria. And partly, I'm supporting the petition because war is always, always, always risky, messy business that we shouldn't rush into.

The Post-Lecture Classroom

When I wrote about my lack of satisfaction at Calgary's univerity, I mentioned that I hate it when lectures--and nothing else--are used as a teaching method. Here's a better plan:
The study had students watch lecture videos at home, then use class time to work on activities. After three years of trials, the researchers found both a student preference for the new method and a 5% increase in exam scores. 'In 2012, that flipped model looked like this: At home, before class, students watched brief lecture modules, which introduced them to the day's content. They also read a textbook — the same, introductory-level book as in 2011 — before they arrived. When they got to class, Mumper would begin by asking them "audience response" questions. He'd put a multiple-choice question about the previous night's lectures on a PowerPoint slide and ask all the students to respond via small, cheap clickers. He'd then look at their response, live, as they answered, and address any inconsistencies or incorrect beliefs revealed. Maybe 50 percent of the class got the wrong answer to one of these questions: This gave him an opportunity to lecture just enough so that students could understand what they got wrong. Then, the class would split up into pairs, and Mumper would ask them a question which required them to apply the previous night's content... The pairs would discuss an answer, then share their findings with the class. At the end of that section, Mumper would go over any points relevant to the question which he felt the class failed to bring up.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Good luck, Mr. Snowden

According to the EFF,
The US government, with assistance from major telecommunications carriers including AT&T, has engaged in a massive program of illegal dragnet surveillance of domestic communications and communications records of millions of ordinary Americans since at least 2001.
In 2003, AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (a now-former telecommunications technician) said:
"While on the January 2003 tour, I saw a new room being built....The new room was near completion. I saw a workman apparently working on the door lock for the room. I later learned that this new room being built was referred to in AT&T documents as the "SG3 Secure Room." The SG3 Secure Room was room number 641A, and measures approximately 24x48 feet."
As EFF's timeline of (public knowledge of) the warrantless wiretapping program explains, In January 2005, the EFF launched a lawsuit against AT&T on behalf of AT&T's customers (Hepting vs AT&T) for violating privacy law by collaborating with the NSA's illegal domestic spying program. Evidence in the case included undisputed evidence provided by Mark Klein showing AT&T routes copies of Internet traffic to a secret room in San Francisco controlled by the NSA.

Clearly, the domestic spying program is at least ten years old and probably dates back to September 2001, when terrorism gave the NSA the excuse it needed to expand its mandate. Again from the timeline,
Ex-NSA Analyst J. Kirk Wiebe recalls: "everything changed at the NSA after the attacks on September 11. The prior approach focused on complying with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ("FISA"). The post-September 11 approach was that NSA could circumvent federal statutes and the Constitution as long as there was some visceral connection to looking for terrorists." While another ex-NSA analyst also remembers: "The individual liberties preserved in the US Constitution were no longer a consideration [at the NSA]."
Of course, congress never actually voted to put a warrantless wiretapping program in place. They did, however, vote to block the EFF's lawsuit against AT&T, whose discovery phase might have revealed details of what exactly AT&T and the NSA were doing together--perhaps (gasp!) allowing a court to decide whether the program was constitutional. As Snuggly the Security Bear explains, the "FISA Amendments Act" gave telecom companies immunity from liability for helping the NSA; then-senator Obama voted in favor of the bill after claiming to be opposed to immunity.

To those of us who have been paying attention the last ten years, the revelations by Edward Snowden, such as the fact that NSA folks can get "metadata" on any and all domestic phone calls in the US, is not the slightest bit surprising. When you've got secret rooms for intercepting all internet traffic, merely getting "metadata" seems like small potatoes, although the metadata is, in many ways, the most important data. As Kirk Weibe explains:
A common misconception is that an analyst must review the content of communications between people in order to establish a link between them. In fact, an NSA analyst would regard a person's association and the persistence of that association with other persons of being of greater relevance to a determination of whether the person is a member of a community of interest than the actual words used in a series of communications.
For instance, if you want to discover traitors to the British Empire like Paul Revere, metadata alone may suffice.

To get all that metadata on millions of Americans, the NSA apparently got themselves a piece of paper that says it was a warrant. I'm not a cop or a lawyer, but don't actual warrants have to be somehow limited in scope and related to some kind of crime? But don't worry, perhaps it's not even really necessary to have a piece of paper that calls itself a warrant:
The National Security Agency has acknowledged in a new classified briefing that it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls, a participant in the briefing said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed on Thursday that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed "simply based on an analyst deciding that."

If the NSA wants "to listen to the phone," an analyst's decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. "I was rather startled," said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee.
What with this being entirely unconstitutional, you can see why President Obama and the NSA feel it so important to capture and prosecute Edward Snowden--the man who gave up a job that paid $200,000 per year, just to tell Americans the truth about what their government is doing--to make sure all the other NSA analysts don't develop any funny ideas about morality.

Of course, those that think terrorism is a vastly bigger problem than ordinary murder, or that the fourth amendment was a mistake, have come out in force to denounce the traitor. I can only assume this is why the tide seems to be turning, why more Americans are turning sour on Snowden:
...Public support for the former U.S. spy agency contractor who leaked details of secret American surveillance programs has fallen during the past week, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

More than one-quarter of respondents said that Snowden should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, up 3 percentage points from a week earlier.

Just over one-third said he should not be prosecuted for revealing the National Security Agency's collection of Internet and phone data from billions of communications. That was down from a peak of more than 40 percent last week.

The percentage of Americans calling Snowden a "patriot" dipped from 36 to 32 during the last week, while nearly one-quarter of respondents said Snowden was a traitor, up slightly from 21 percent.
Well, America, if you don't demand to know what your own government is doing with the massive security apparatus you paid for with your tax dollars, don't be surprised if you don't find out.

As an American living in Canada, I must say, I am completely at a loss to understand America's mixed-up priorities and bizarre values these days. Enjoy your health care system America, the Democrat (ACA) and Republican ("let's do nothing!") plans are both substantially worse than the systems of any other industrialized nation. Enjoy your guns, you have 80% of the world's Gun murders (ignoring wars, I assume). Enjoy your so-called capitalism, which privatizes profit and socializes losses ("too big to fail"). Enjoy your racism, keep fighting the good fight against those wetbacks! Enjoy your democracy, in which two slightly distinguishable parties work feverishly to distance themselves from each other after passing laws to make sure no third parties are viable. Enjoy your media, which focuses on celebrities and tiny scandals while barely noticing the bigger things going on in America and the world. Enjoy your freedoms, just don't exercise them too much, because you are probably breaking any number of asinine laws right now and the feds have the freedom to indict you if it suits them.

Wake up America. This is corruption. It is more evil than revealing secrets, for evil flourishes in secret; it is more dangerous to America's future than a thousand terrorists, for evil from outside our borders brings us closer together, while evil inside our borders pushes us farther apart. Terrorists will never be able to destroy America's freedom, democracy, finances or constitution; only Americans can do that.

Since Ed Snowden has given up his freedom in order to speak to us, and is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison (whether it be a prison with bars, an airport terminal or an Ecuadorian embassy), we should at least hear what he has to say. I have been unable to find an unedited statement from Mr. Snowden, but here are some quotes from The Guardian's interview with him:
"I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,"

"I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, [but] I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."

"I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing."

"I know the media likes to personalise political debates, and I know the government will demonise me."

"I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in.... My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

"Much of what I saw in Geneva really disillusioned me about how my government functions and what its impact is in the world," he says. "I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good."

"you can't wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act."

"I don't see myself as a hero," he said, "because what I'm doing is self-interested: I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."

"What they're doing [poses] an existential threat to democracy"

"There are more important things than money. If I were motivated by money, I could have sold these documents to any number of countries and gotten very rich."

"The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to,"

"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he said. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn't turn over, because harming people isn't my goal. Transparency is."