08
Dec
17

Jerusalem, Hebrew: City of Peace; Al Quds, Arabic: The Holy One

This week Donald Trump unilaterally, and seemingly totally at random, decided that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Most Americans aren’t familiar with the specifics of Middle East peace talks, and therefore don’t get why this is a big deal. Here’s a very quick rundown: Israel was created in 1948 when the British mandate of Palestine was divided between Jewish and Arab areas. Part of this division led to the city of Jerusalem being split into West Jerusalem, controlled by Israel and East Jerusalem controlled by the Kingdom of Jordan. Decades of war followed, as we all know, and over the course of these wars Israel conquered the rest of the city of Jerusalem and the rest of the Palestinian territories. Over the years, the “peace process” has led to the widely accepted conclusion that there must be a “two-state” solution, meaning that Israel will withdraw from most of the Palestinian territories and the Palestinians will have their own demilitarized country. Jerusalem is one of the big problems because both sides want it to be the capital of their country. In the meantime, each side had an unofficial center of government, Israel in Tel Aviv and the Palestinians in Ramallah. This week’s unilateral declaration, which arbitrarily announces to the world  that the US somehow has the authority to make this decision, simply gives the city to Israel.

Here are the major issues, from the American position (which I would think would be Trump’s main focus):

1) This announcement changes nothing on the ground. Everyone owns the same land they owned last week. Both governments work the same way.

2) It does nothing to benefit the United States at all. Many have said that Trump would do this to please his base, which is true, it will. But I’ll admit its a complete mystery to me why. If nothing is changing on the ground in Israel, there’s certainly nothing changing here. How will any American’s daily life be affected in the least? Moreover, it does nothing to help Israel. So the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital, so what? How does that make Israel safer; how does it make Israeli’s lives better.

3) This announcement basically guarantees a wave of violent unrest if not war, and the significant likelihood of anti-American terrorism. I’ve been under the impression for some time that the point of the peace process was to avoid renewing a state of war. This does the opposite. This puts Americans around the world in greater danger, without achieving anything at all. I don’t think we even need to elaborate on the amazing shallowness and crassness it takes to place pleasing your base, which knows nothing about the actual issues, over the actual lives of thousands of people. Many people are actually going to die because of this. Let’s just consider, if some Palestinian kid loses a mother, father or sibling when the Israelis try to enforce this, who is he going to blame? He’ll see, like any reasonable person, that this was a meaningless gesture meant to make Trump look tough. I don’t work for the CIA, but I’m going to guess that the first rule in the War on Terror is “Don’t create thousands of new terrorists.” Maybe not.

4) Aside from physical danger, this damages America’s standing around the world. There are literally zero other countries that are with us on this. It’s only one more thing proving to everyone that this administration will make irretrievable mistakes based on no facts and little or no thought.

5) Aside from physical danger, and diplomatic damage, this is going to inject a huge amount of uncertainty into the economy. Trump likes to brag about how the market has been booming since he took office. (We’ll address somewhere else how this market has been advancing at roughly the same rate since 2008) Just like I don’t work for the CIA, I don’t work for Goldman Sachs either. But I have a 401k and own some stocks, and the most basic market education (which I would think Donald Trump has achieved in his business career) will teach you that if there is one thing the market hates, it’s uncertainty. Nothing presents more uncertainty than the prospect of war. We now have two areas of the world (Israel and North Korea) where war is not just a possibility but a probability. So Donald Trump’s been unpredictable for a while now, why would this be the thing that affects the market? Well the prospect of corporate tax gains has been keeping valuations up, and with the first part passing the Senate this week that is some insurance against a drop. Also, people may be holding onto their gains for the next few weeks until the new year so they don’t have to claim them for taxes this year. Making predictions about the stock market, especially uneducated ones like mine, are always dangerous. But if I had some stocks with some gains from this year, cashing out and locking that in before January might be a good idea.

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26
Nov
17

Can You Put a Price on Your Kitten Memes?

“Net neutrality is pro-business in the best and fullest sense of the term, guaranteeing that new companies can grow unimpeded and help accelerate the US economy.”   — Nicholas Economides, Professor of Economics, New York University

“Frankly, the regulators are not that good at understanding the underlying technologies. Even if they’re right now, things change.” — Christopher Yoo, Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania

“Two months ago, I saw a provocative movie on cable TV. It was called The Net, with that girl from the bus. I did a little reading, and I realize, it wasn’t that farfetched.” – Frank Costanza

 

The FCC’s current initiative against the doctrine of net neutrality is called the “Restoring Internet Freedom” initiative. As I’ve noted in a few previous posts, whenever people feel the need to put the word “freedom” into a proposal, or go out of their way to tell you that something is for “freedom”, it should trigger your analytical reflexes. You may not know what, but something is up.

Net Neutrality, what the hell is it? In 2015 internet service providers were classified by the FCC as “common carriers”, which without a long technical explanation basically meant that the internet would have to be treated, and regulated, like a utility. Net neutrality says that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all data on the internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently based on the user, the use, the content, the website, etc. ISPs can’t block, slow down, or charge more for specific sites or content. As long as you pay the bill to your service provider, you can access anything on the internet equally.  In my personal opinion this makes sense in today’s world. The use of the internet is inextricably woven into our daily lives. I use the internet all day at work to store and pass on information to coworkers and communicate with clients and claimants. At home, or on my phone, I pay my bills online, make reservations and appointments, email about various commitments, find entertainment, etc. In previous years I searched for and applied for jobs and school. It’s hard to think of anything you might do nowadays that wouldn’t involve you being connected to the internet. People depend on the internet being just like electricity or water, when I turn on the computer I want it there…now. And if I pay my bill on time I don’t want any excuses.

In my understanding, net neutrality promotes efficiency in all aspects of people’s lives, public and private. Further, in consideration of public good, it promotes the free and timely availability of information, which is of huge importance to a democratic country that depends on an informed electorate.

However, there are those, such as the current head of the FCC Ajit Pai, who argue against this. He has said that net neutrality is “last century” style regulation; that net neutrality actually limits people’s choices because they are not allowed to choose and customize what kind of internet access they want. For example, what if I want to pay less and not have access to video games or entertainment sites? What if I just want the “useful” parts of the internet like email, personal banking, and shopping? Isn’t the FCC’s current ruling against this a needless regulation? Why not have basic and premium plans like we do for TV? (And just in case it seems like I’m building this up into a Trump thing, Ajit Pai is a Republican, but was appointed by Obama, on the recommendation of Mitch McConnell, back in 2012, apparently the heyday of across the aisle cooperation.)

Pai’s feelings fit in nicely with the Republican/Conservative point of view that any reduction of regulation makes the market freer and therefore is good for its own sake. The main problem as I see (among others) it is that removing the current regulations would allow ISPs to restrict access to certain sites and information. For example, if net neutrality did not exist, ISPs could restrict access to sites and news sources that promote net neutrality, and by doing so shape this very discussion. They could prominently place sites and news sources that are critical of politicians and groups that disagree. They could tailor the news and information that people have access to in order to give the impression of great strength for their own position and weakness for the opposing position. Likewise, they may provide this service – the tailoring of information and access – for other paying customers, such as political interest groups, commercial interests, and anyone else that wants to pay up to put themselves first, safe in the knowledge that they can pass on the costs to the consumer in the end.

An internet provider might choose to charge companies to make their sites faster, more accessible, and to include their sites in basic plans. Who is more likely to be able to pay what they charge, the small businesses and startups that drive economic growth or Amazon? Once Amazon pays whatever the cost to make them the automatic connection for online purchases, how is that cost not going to be passed down to the sellers that are featured on Amazon, and then down to the consumer? If this situation restricts people’s access to competition, increases costs for both consumers and companies, and makes it harder for new companies to compete, then how exactly is this promoting a free and open market?

As usual the loud and explicit invoking of “Freedom!” is a distraction that is meant to hide the exact opposite. The freedom referred to in the Restoring Internet Freedom initiative is the freedom of powerful interests to restrict the freedom of those with less economic and political power.

19
Nov
17

Says Who

“People don’t believe things anymore.”   – Salman Rushdie

 

I was watching a CNN segment recently on the whole Roy Moore thing. There was a typical panel for discussing it with some liberal and some conservative commentators. I apologize up front for not getting the guy’s name, but one of the conservative commentators was asked what he felt should be done about Roy Moore and the upcoming election in Alabama. His response was “Well look, that whole thing was reported by the Washington Post so….”  So…what? It’s unfortunately very common right now for people to simply doubt the source that brought a problem to their attention, rather than to address the problem itself. The Washington Post has a liberal slant, that’s a fact. Does that mean it is incapable of reporting simple facts? This trend is not limited to the conservative side either. I can very easily imagine some unflattering info about Hillary Clinton being reported by Fox News and some liberals responding with “Well look, that whole thing was from Fox News so…”

People seem to think that today’s media outlets leaning a certain political way is a new thing; that it somehow just started when 24 hour news stations were created. However, this has always been the case. When people primarily got their news from newspapers and the nightly news on network TV, it was well understood that 90% of the paper would be normal reporting of facts and that there would then be one or more editorials, where the editor or a commentator gave an opinion on a topic. This editorial was understood to be their personal view on the subject. If an editor is the one making decisions about what gets printed, then obviously their personal view may influence the reporting, but there was no doubt that the vast majority of the reporting was fairly unbiased.  For some reason, nowadays people seem to think that anyone with any kind of political opinion is incapable of viewing any fact without the tint of their political belief.

Part of the responsibility for this is due to the news channels on TV, which have reversed the levels of content. Now, they need to keep viewers interested enough to watch for long periods of time for ratings, which simply reporting on daily happenings cannot do. You can get the gist of a day’s important events in a few minutes. The goal of a 24 hour news station has to be entertainment, in addition to information. And so today’s news channels are almost completely editorial. Its more entertaining to watch a news personality or panel discuss a subject to death than to report deeply. The American education system, as a general rule, does not train people to think critically or to be analytical, so it can be difficult for people to see the difference in these two kinds of reporting. For example, if I watch Sean Hannity and disagree with everything he says, does that mean I should then not trust a Fox News correspondent to report facts? If Fox News says that Hillary didn’t disclose a bunch of emails that she was supposed to, that is something that can be confirmed or disputed by facts. If their commentators then say that this is of huge significance and that it clearly points to something criminal and so forth, that is opinion, which I have the responsibility of evaluating – maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not.

The inability of the current American educational system to teach critical and analytical thinking has developed a society which, as a whole, finds it extremely difficult to accept that some things are true, and others are false, independent of one’s opinion on the matter. People have a very hard time seeing the difference between one and the other, between opinion and fact. It’s acceptable in our society for people to question established scientific facts, or at least to see them as matters of belief. If someone asked you if you “believe in” evolution, your response might be “of course” or “of course not” but it will probably not be that the question itself doesn’t make sense.

Something can be true, even if it is not fact. For example, a person may believe that there is “truth” in the Bible, without believing that the Bible is literal, historical fact. But people don’t think that way today. Some people think that unless you believe that the stories in the Bible are historical fact, you cannot have faith in what the religion teaches. Conversely, many think that because the Bible is clearly not historical fact, that the religion as a whole can be rejected. Someone who thinks critically will see that there is fact and there is faith, and that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This is a heavy responsibility to accept, because it puts the duty of analyzing information on the individual, and we are confronted with an insane amount of information in a day. But until people take this seriously, then the highest level of public discourse we have any right to expect will be the one noted above – a stubborn refusal to “believe in” facts we don’t like, and accepting half-assed implications and unfinished thoughts as being somehow meaningful.

 

21
Oct
17

Iran, Iran So Far Away

“I never get too attached to one deal or one approach…I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”   – Donald Trump, Art of the Deal

 

It looks like Trump is starting down the road of removing the US from the Iran nuclear deal. This is a deal in which Iran agreed to stop pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, agreed to limits on its enrichment and use of nuclear material, and agreed to neutral inspections in order to confirm these actions, in return for removal of nuclear related sanctions and movement toward normalizing relations with the US, Europe, and the rest of the world.  Most Republicans seem to support getting out of this deal, and it also seems that this is driven by their “base”. One may wonder, if there is a diplomatic deal with the purpose of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, then why would you be against that? (I’ll show my conservative readers the respect of assuming that they’re not against it simply because it came from the Obama administration, that they’ve actually considered what the deal may or may not do). I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and my conclusion (open to debate) is that there are a few basic misunderstandings regarding Iran and diplomacy in general that sway some people. Let me point out a few criticisms of the deal, and then explain where I think they’re wrong.

  1. We shouldn’t deal with terrorists/dictators, etc. – This attitude has come up frequently in US history, mostly because the US, to its credit, has very often had antagonistic relations with authoritarian or totalitarian governments, and with governments that support terror. Generally, we don’t like them, and they don’t like us. In my everyday life, when I think someone is a jerk, I try to avoid them. Countries can’t do that, at least not important countries. And Americans hate to hear it, but Iran is a very important country. They have a lot of oil, they sit right in the middle of the shipping lanes for other people’s oil, they carry a lot of influence with a very large worldwide religious community, they have important friends. Ignoring them will not ever make them go away. In WWII we sucked it up and worked with the Soviets to defeat Hitler. In the Cold War we managed to trust the Soviets enough to negotiate a number of nuclear arms deals. We worked with Communist China because it gave the Russians something to worry about. We have a huge amount of trade with Communist China today because it’s good for both countries. Being realistic about a situation does not mean that you’re giving up your principles. And like anything else that poses problems in your life, ignoring it only makes it worse.
  2. The nuclear deal is a bad deal because it doesn’t do anything to address Iran’s support for terror, or its meddling and supporting oppositions in Iraq, Yemen, etc. – It’s not supposed to. It’s a limited deal that addresses the issues of nuclear weapon development. If Iran lives up to its end of the deal, then only the sanctions related to nuclear programs are removed. All of the other sanctions stay in place. We can address those other problems separately. Anyone who does any negotiating in their everyday lives knows that you don’t throw out a deal just because you don’t agree on every single aspect. You figure out what you can say “yes” on, and then you build from there. This deal would actually make it easier to accomplish settlements of those other issues because we would have a history of success to build on, and a framework with which to work.
  3. It legitimizes the authoritarian government of Iran – Just the opposite. It legitimizes the moderate opposition to the authoritarian government in Iran. There are parties in Iran just like there are here, even if they’re not formalized like they are here. There are hardliners who think there is no possible way to work with the US. They call us the Great Satan. They support terror. They’re very strong in Iran and control a lot. Then there are a growing number of people, mostly the young, who think conflict with the US is stupid, and is a game they can’t win. They want to deal with us as they would any other country. They see the growth in nearby China and India and think, why don’t we have some customer service centers here? The Great Satan thing doesn’t play with them, because they just got out of college and it doesn’t help them get a job. A peaceful deal, would serve to undermine the hardliners’ image of the US as an irredeemable military threat. Believe it or not, people vote in Iran, for parliament and president. The religious leaders have a veto, and so they have the control, but they also came to power when the people rose up in a revolution and overthrew the old government. Suffice it to say that they are sensitive about the things that may rile up the people. If people are voting moderate representatives into their parliament, and moderate presidents into office, then they will get the message. Will they give up the game just like that? Of course not, there will be stiff resistance, but it will lead to progress.
  4. We can’t deal with them, they’re crazy – Wrong. They do a lot of things that we disagree with, but everything they do has a clear goal and if successful benefits them, or at least the higher-ups in the regime. That being the case, dealing with them requires that we have some kind of realistic idea of what their goals are. Why do they want nuclear weapons? Because they believe nuclear weapons are a guaranty against military invasion by the US. The primary motive of the regime in Iran is, as should perhaps be obvious, preservation of the regime. They will do things that protect the regime and make it more powerful, and they will avoid things that weaken the regime. Democratic reforms are perceived to weaken the religious authorities, and so they avoid them. Supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon extends there power further over the region. Nuclear weapons would do much to protect the regime. Nukes solve their problem of being so much weaker than the US. It’s the same reason North Korea got them.

This idea some people have that Iran would get nuclear weapons and give them to terrorists is ridiculous. Why would they spend so many years, go through the trouble and expense of sanctions, risk war with the US, all to get nuclear weapons, and then just give them away? If their goal is to protect their regime, then why would they give up their most powerful weapons to people who cannot be controlled, knowing that if that group uses the weapon, then of course the US would hold Iran responsible and would destroy the regime. It makes no sense at all.

So, if nuclear weapons would be so good for the regime in Iran, why would they agree to give up the program? They’re weighing the costs against benefits. Nukes are a guaranty against military invasion, but have a very high cost – economically, through the cost of the weapons themselves and the sanctions that come from them, and in damaging their relations with other countries that are against the spread of nuclear weapons. A deal that includes the US, Europe, Russia, and China, is also a good protection against invasion. It restrains the US by making us live up to an agreement and gives these other countries some say in any actions taken against Iran. It’s not a rock solid guaranty, but it’s pretty good and far more affordable.

  1. A deal with them doesn’t make any sense because they’re only going to cheat on it and get nukes anyway – This argument is based on the fact that Iran very often tried to cut corners and cheat when the international community was trying to get them to abide by nuclear non-proliferation programs for years. However, these were not agreements. It was basically the US and others informing Iran that they could not have nuclear weapons. Few self-respecting countries would feel obligated to live up to such programs unless compelled to. A deal in the form of an international agreement, recognized by the most powerful countries of the world is not only a good deal for everyone, it’s also a sign of respect. Iranians have a strong sense of identity, with a stress on their history. Americans tend to think of Iran one-dimensionally, only as revolutionary, theocratic Iran. This version of Iran is about 40 years old. Their sense of identity goes far deeper, back to ancient Persia 2500 years ago, when they were the largest and most powerful empire in the world. Of course, they understand that they are not so powerful now, but they’re not Bolivia either. They feel that when important issues in the world, or at least in the Middle East, are being decided, they have a right to be in the room. They’ll force the issue if they have to, by supporting terror or threatening oil supply lines, but they’d rather make a deal.

 

Even if there are problems with this deal, and I don’t know that there are, a deal is generally the right move here. People these days seem to think only in military terms when they think of the US as being the most powerful country in the world. That is only one aspect of our power. We also have the most powerful economy, and the most influence diplomatically. By ignoring the last two, we are only taking powerful weapons out of our own hands.

30
Sep
17

Form Over Function

The current hot topic, NFL players and owners kneeling or locking arms during the national anthem, and all of the outrage it has produced on one side and unqualified support on the other, unfortunately achieves nothing and only shows the shallowness of “debate” in America today. We have here two excellent subjects for conversation – the role and function of patriotic symbols in American life, and the question of whether or not minorities, specifically African-Americans, are treated fairly and equally before the law.  We are, as a country, ignoring those questions in order to vent our collective rage, each “side” for the other. So let’s go a little deeper.

I think a reasonable and honest person that sees the protests by NFL players during the national anthem would have to admit that the players are not protesting the anthem itself. They’re not trying to do away with the anthem or change it in any way. They’re using the time that the anthem is playing to try to raise awareness of a separate issue. Whether this is appropriate or not is legitimately wide open to debate. Personally, when I try to be logical about it I lean one way, and when I go with my gut I lean the other. However, rather than discuss the actual issue being protested (which unfortunately I think a lot of people would be hard pressed to identify) the conversation has been entirely about the form of the protest. Now, this may be the result of their choosing something so emotionally significant, something that was sure to sidetrack the argument; and if you feel that the anthem or the flag are so important that they are somehow off-limits, then maybe you’re right. Speaking only for myself, I wouldn’t use either as part of a protest. But, then again, I don’t really have any issues that are so pressing to me that I feel the need to make use of the nation’s most potent symbols.

People, and my impression is that this is true across the board, truly hate the level of rancor in “public discourse” today. I don’t just mean politics, but in the basic ways we communicate with each other. This will never, ever get better, unless we commit ourselves to getting past our initial emotional reactions to things and insist on deep consideration; not trying to get our politicians and representatives to act reasonably, but actually taking the responsibility to do it ourselves.

As I noted in the Facebook link, I’m going to comment on the current topic, if that’s what people insist on discussing. My feelings are:

  1. A truly patriotic American will show appropriate respect for the flag and the anthem as symbols of the freedoms that our country stands for.
  2. A truly patriotic American will respect the people actually exercising those freedoms more than the symbols, which are merely things that can only represent the freedoms.

The symbol is not the thing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, but count to ten before commenting.

09
Sep
17

The Big One

“The United States has pledged to refrain from using nuclear weapons against most non-nuclear weapon states, but has neither ruled out their first use in all cases nor specified the circumstances under which it would use them. This approach [is] known as ‘calculated ambiguity’”.

-Congressional Research Service report 8/16/16

“You and me in a little toy shop, buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got.”

-Nena

 

Over the holiday weekend we heard reports that North Korea has now developed hydrogen bomb technology. But we’ve known they had some nuclear weapons for a few years now, so what’s the big deal?  I happened to be away with some friends this past weekend and in the few minutes of discussion that followed this news, before sneaking in one last beach day of the summer, it became clear that the qualitative difference between hydrogen bombs and “regular” nukes is not widely known. Nuclear weapons = bad, enough said.  Well, if you’re more curious than that, here’s a quick guide to what nukes actually are, and exactly how bad they are.

First, we have the most basic nuclear bomb, the fission bomb. This is Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and North Korea about ten years ago). You can build one of these in two different ways, using either Uranium (U-235) or Plutonium (Pu-239). Both of these are radioactive isotopes, meaning that they radiate neutrons as they deteriorate. When one of these neutrons collides with the nucleus of an adjacent atom, the atom splits into two or more smaller elements. The two or more new atoms are at that point very close to each other and are mutually repelled from each other by the negative charges of their electrons. This causes a very strong outward expansion, but on a very small scale. The “explosion” happens when you have a “critical mass” of the radioactive material, and what we’re looking for here is not so much the mass itself, but the density. The more loose neutrons you have flying around, and the closer together the atomic nuclei are, the more hits you’re going to get, leading to more neutrons, then to more hits, etc. This is the chain reaction that is the explosion.

The first method to achieve critical mass is called the “gun-type assembly”.  You have two separate pieces of fissile material (radioactive material that will react), one shaped as a solid cylinder, the other as a larger hollow cylinder. At detonation, you shoot the hollow cylinder toward the solid cylinder in such a way that they come together as one piece and the impact causes them together to reach critical mass. This is the design of the “Little Boy” bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Its yield was 15 kilotons (which I’ll explain in a second) out of about 112lbs of uranium.

The second method is called the “implosion-type” weapon. You start with a lump of fissile material shaped into a perfect sphere. You then surround this sphere with conventional explosives. At detonation, you set off the conventional explosives in such a way that it compresses the radioactive material in the middle into critical mass, which then causes the chain reaction and explosion. This is the design of the “Fat Man” bomb used on Nagasaki. Its yield was 21 kilotons out of about 13.5lbs of plutonium.

These are your basic “atomic” bombs. You can see that the strength of them comes from the repellant forces of the atoms’ charges rather than any energy being release from the matter itself. This is the reason for the relatively low yields. (Side note: a kiloton is a measure of how strong the bomb is. One kiloton is equal to 1000 tons of regular explosives. Let’s make some comparisons. You’ve all seen the pictures of the federal building in Oklahoma City after the bombing. That was a concrete office building and it was completely destroyed. There were also 324 other damaged buildings in a 16 block radius. That was 7000lbs of explosives – 3.5 tons. Let me repeat that one kiloton is equal to 1000 tons. The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons and Nagasaki was 21. As bombs got bigger, the yield would eventually have to be measured in megatons. One megaton is equal to 1000 kilotons, or 1,000,000 tons of conventional explosives. At one point the US deployed a 25 megaton bomb. The Russians, not to be outdone, tested but did not deploy the Tsar Bomba, which yielded between 50-100 megatons – so big it couldn’t really be measured.)

So how do we get even bigger than an atomic bomb? We move on to hydrogen bombs, as the North Koreans have recently done. This begins with something called a “boosted fission weapon”. You take a normal implosion-type weapon and you inject some heavy isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium – the important thing is that they have extra neutrons) into the middle of it. When you detonate the plain old atom bomb, the extra neutrons from the heavy hydrogen causes extra nucleus hits and a more efficient chain reaction. Less of the material is wasted and the yield goes up. You can get up to a few hundred kilotons with this.

Next comes the big one. The multi-stage fusion weapon, also known as Thermo-nuclear. Thermo because this is actually what’s going on in the center of the Sun. With this one you want to think layers. You have the outer circle of conventional explosives. Under that you have a first layer of uranium. The conventional explosives compress the first uranium layer, which is then boosted by heavy hydrogen to make it more powerful. This first uranium layer is call the “pusher” because it shields, then compresses, then ultimately reacts with a second layer of uranium in the core, called the “spark plug”. When the uranium in the “spark plug” starts to react, it is boosted again by heavy hydrogen, and is so dense and efficient at this point that it creates an insane amount of heat. The core of this explosion is so hot that it begins to cause the deuterium and tritium hydrogen atoms to fuse together into helium. When this happens, the atoms are compressed so closely together that the force which normally repels two positively charged protons from each other is overcome by the extremely short range but very powerful nuclear force that keeps atomic nuclei together. The difference in these energy levels is then released as the explosive yield.

You can also understand this in terms of mass. Let’s say that hydrogen has a mass of 1 unit. If you take one hydrogen atom and combine it with a second hydrogen atom to get one helium atom, the helium atom does not have a mass of 2 units. It has a mass of slightly less than two units. The mass that is lost was converted to energy according to   If you take a very small amount of mass and multiply it by the speed of light squared, you get megatons.

 

That’s what’s going on in North Korea right now. They’re taking these extremely precise and difficult technological processes and trying to stick them on top of a missile. The difference between hydrogen bombs and “regular” bombs is a big deal. For example, if a Hiroshima style nuclear bomb went off in Boston, I would see it and hear it in Tewksbury, but I would probably be fine (as far as the explosion itself goes, ie I would survive the explosion and then die later of thirst or civil unrest). If a thermonuclear bomb went off in Boston, very few people reading this would be fine.

And so, unfortunately, you’re all on the watchlist with me now. Good luck at the airport.

27
Aug
17

Past Imperfect

“[Of each thing, ask] what is it in itself; in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what its causal nature [or form]? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?”

– Marcus Aurelius Meditations, VIII. 11

 

Before and after last week’s various rallies, there has been a debate about removing Confederate statues, flags and other public memorabilia. This debate has been a particularly tough one to resolve, and surprisingly well reasoned on both sides. One side believes that such things should be removed as obvious reminders of an odious past wherein the government subjugated and enslaved a portion of the population based on nothing more than their race. The other side, while respecting the fact that slavery was an unredeemable evil, believes that the Civil War and Confederate cause are undeniable parts of our history, as bad as they were, and that removing these things makes no sense; that it is only the passions of the moment driving a dangerous destruction of our history. I honestly wasn’t sure where I was going to come down on this one. So, like Marcus Aurelius encourages above, I spent some time considering – what are these things? What is the nature of a monument? Why was it made, and what does it do? How long should we keep them around?

After some thought, I have to say that, in my view, the argument that destruction of Civil War Confederate monuments is a destruction of history is a false one. Monuments are not history; or if they are, they are very lazy history. Museums, books, and the classroom are where history is learned and passed down. The study of history is interactive. It is a “social” science. Statues stand mute. You may have ideas or opinions on a certain subject, and a statue cannot tell you when you’re wrong, whereas a book or a teacher can. As far as the study and preservation of history goes, monuments are unnecessary. Throughout 18 years of school, college, and graduate study of history, I never once visited a monument as part of the formal process. And I don’t feel that my education was incomplete.

But then again, that is just not what monuments are for. It’s a basic misunderstanding of what they are. As I stated, the purpose of museums, books, and schools is to preserve and teach. The purpose of monuments is to glorify and inspire. You put up statues of the heroes that you want people and society to emulate. Statues, counterintuitively, look forward, not to the past. That’s why the argument that removing Confederate statues will lead to removing statues of Thomas Jefferson, the Statue of Liberty, the Iwo Jima monument (and all the other ridiculous extremes people went to) does not logically follow. Thomas Jefferson said (as opposed to did) many things that we, as a culture, still believe in and want to emulate. For example, one of the basic ideas of the Declaration of Independence is that times change, and as they do, a community has every right to change the nature of their public institutions to align more closely with the spirit of the times. That’s why I think the putting up of and removal of monuments should be made at the lowest level of community that applies – because ultimately it will represent that community. But it should be understood by all that a statue or a flag will not represent the history or the past of the community, but what it is at present.

So now let’s take a quick look at the specific example of this past two weeks, the statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, VA.  First off, let me just say that having a park called Emancipation Park and the centerpiece of the park is a statue of Robert E. Lee is pretty schizophrenic and the simple fact of it makes a statement on its own. The decision to remove the statue was made by the town council, which I think is fully appropriate. It was not imposed on them from outside, it wasn’t the media pushing a liberal agenda on people who don’t want it; it was the people of that community deciding that this no longer represented them.

Why is that – because Robert E. Lee is evil? I don’t think so. Putting aside the fact that Robert E. Lee was a traitor that led an army against the United States in an effort to destroy it, I don’t really have a huge problem with him. I’m an American, and all Americans have a soft spot for the determined underdog. He was obviously an outstanding general, and had he taken up Abraham Lincoln’s offer to lead the Union army at the beginning of the war, he would have put it away a hell of a lot faster than any of the other dolts the federal army ran through before finding Grant. The only reason he didn’t is because he felt like he couldn’t bear to fight against his fellow Virginians. This sounds like a weak excuse to modern American ears, but of course we can’t picture a situation where our hometowns and the people we know would be in direct danger during a war. Imagine the president coming to you and saying that in order to save the country we need to destroy your home, most likely kill a bunch of your closest friends and possibly some of your family, and we need you to pull the trigger on that, your other choice is treason. It’s just not a black and white situation.

But Lee was also a very intelligent man, and he couldn’t possibly have been under the impression that the war would be interpreted any other way than for or against slavery. And he was not pro-slavery. He was personally in favor of freeing slaves and ensuring a level of civil rights for them, though with legal limitations during the period of blacks’ “education.” He owned no slaves on his own account, he inherited some from his wife’s father and freed them all within a few years. Years before the war he was known to speak personally against slavery, writing “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Though he never spoke out openly against slavery, perhaps because his status as a commissioned officer of the US Army prevented him from speaking publicly on political issues. After the war he was eventually pardoned, and did what he could to reconcile the south with the rest of the country, accepting invitations from then President Grant to visit the White House, as a way of leading by example.  He also served as president of Washington University (now Washington & Lee University).

So, what a great guy right? Statue worthy? Well, the problem is that this statue is something different. It’s not a relic that was put up during the war to commemorate sacrifice or something like that. It was put up in 1924, during the darkest days of Jim Crow laws and the violent suppression of African Americans’ civil rights, depriving them of the right to vote, the right to proper education, to basically any of the protections and services that a free person is entitled to expect. The intention of this statue, and the other Confederate monuments, most of which also just happened to be erected during this time, was to inspire an inordinate pride in the white population, and to signal to the black population that the federal government might say you have certain rights, but you still live in a place where we run things. That’s why it seems to me that people who want to preserve these monuments as history, have unfortunately already forgotten the history that these monuments represent.

As I said before, though, times change. And so, the way a monument was intended, may not be the way it is seen today. That’s why the community itself needs to be the deciding factor. Only a community can decide what does or doesn’t represent them, and how they want to be seen by others. But the decision has to be based far more on deep consideration than on fear – fear of the past, or fear of its destruction.

 

Just to show again that this is a difficult question, and one that can be understood in different ways, someone sent me the link below for an opinion piece written by a current congressman who also happens to be Native American. It’s an interesting view from someone that admits he may have a right to object to the statue of Andrew Jackson, for example, but feels that we get more out of a constant reminder of figures from our past, than we would from constantly updating or revising the physical expressions of it (paraphrasing).

http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/08/21/congressman-native-american-when-political-correctness-runs-amok-erasing-our-history-doesnt-change-it.html