Monthly Archives: June 2011

My new blogging project: Darwin and Birds

For the next several weeks, I’ll be contributing a weekly post at The informal title of this series of posts is Darwin’s Other Birds. The idea is to identify particularly interesting passages from Darwin’s writings and put them in an appropriate context. This week’s post is an introduction to the series. Thanks to Gunnar for the interesting introduction to the Birdingblgos community!

I hope you enjoy the series, which will run every Friday. Next Friday, Darwin and the Andean Condor.

Japan Nuclear Disaster Update 29: Indecent Exposure

Much of the current news is about exposure and fallout.

As a point of information, the Sievert is a unit of “dose equivliant” from exposure to ionizing radiation. It was designed to indicate relative levels of biological effects on living organisms. This measurement technique attempts to take into account the fact that radiation is absorbed differently by different tissues. Usually we speak in terms of humans unless otherwise specified. There are one thousand millisieverts in a sievert (mSv). Zero to 0.25 Sv in a day is considered to have no effect. At up to one Sv people feel sick and more susceptible tissues are damaged. 10 Sv in a day is deadly. As one goes from 1 to 10 Sv in a day things get worse. If a person is esposed to about 6 Sv in a day or more, they won’t die that day. But later, they probably will. Some of the numbers are given in microsieverts, one thousand times less than a millisievert.

In practice, it is common to measure the effects of radiation exposure accumulated over longer time periods. For example, one measures the maximum dose allowed for US radiation-related workers at 50 mSv per year. When mSv is being discussed in most of the text in Ana’s feed (below) you should assume “per year” is meant if not stated, unless otherwise indicated, although in some cases it seems that the measure being used is accumulated to date, which is closer to one fourth of a year.

The question has been raised; Are increased radiation levels across North America sufficient to explain a jump in infant mortality seen since Fukushima, or is that a coincidence? These deaths are concentrated in the region that would have a larger increase of exposure (the west coast). Probably not. Fukushima is so far away. Babies are so … tough and able to withstand toxic insults. And you can’t see radiation, so how bad can it be? Anyway, it ends up that this is probably some very creative data cooking.

One of the main problems at Fukushima at present is the highly radioactive water flooding the structures’ basements. As this water is being pumped around a certain unspecified (probably unknown) amount of radioactive material is being removed from it. In theory, it is possible to remove most of the raidioisotope from the water, but then one is stuck with a pile of radioactive carbon filtering material. An unknown amount of water is leaking from the plant before being contaminated. Efforts to decrease the amount of water being pumped into the plant, and thus becoming contaminated, were tried but resulted in increasing heat in a reactor core.

The other main, continuing story is the growing understanding of how poorly prepared TEPCO was for any sort of disaster at the plant, and how much sweeping under the rug was going on after the earthquake and tsunami.

Meanwhile, efforts continue to reinforce the Number 4 reactor spent fuel rod containment pool which is thought to be too weak to sustain a serious earthquake. Reinforcement is in fact being put in place but it will be several more weeks before that job is done. The water in the containment pool is still quite hot.

Enigmatically, even though the situation at Fukushima improves only very slowly and radiation continues to spew from the plant, the International Atomic Energy Agency no longer sees it as the top story, and it is now supplanted by various IAEA activities and an FAQ about nuclear safety, relegated to page two, as it were, of their web site. The latest update is still JUne 2nd.

Ana’s Feed

Continue reading Japan Nuclear Disaster Update 29: Indecent Exposure

Are The Miss USA Contestants more Pro Evolution than the United States Senate?

There’s been a fair amount of talk about the Miss USA interview question “should evolution be taught in schools,” and a fair amount of attention given to the answers provided by the contestants. For the most part, people have gotten mad at these women because they are both beautiful in a classic patriarchal-normative-way and are handmaidens or hobgoblins or whatever of the sexist system in which we live, and because they are all wrong about evolution and whether or not it should be taught in schools.

But, it is not so simple.

Continue reading Are The Miss USA Contestants more Pro Evolution than the United States Senate?

I don’t want to say I told you so, but ….

Huxley learned a while back how to open doors by, of all things, turning the doorknobs. Amanda thought we should get the devices that go over the doorknobs to thwart his efforts. I thought we should just attach fasteners to the doors and seal them up until he’s eighteen.

But, I respected Amanda’s opinion, even though it was based on no data and conflicted with my opinion that was based on vast experience and such, and encouraged her to try the doorknob covers. So she got them and installed them and they worked. That was two days ago.

So earlier this evening, distant thunder combined with earlier concerns expressed by the weather service caused me to flip on the radar to see if a tornado might be in the offing, and indeed, there was a tornado watch just put into effect and a big and growing suspicious looking blob heading our way. So I was standing there in the living room a bit distracted, and I felt a tapping on my leg. I looked down and Huxley was slapping me on the knee to get my attention, so that he could hand me something. It was two white plastic objects. Huxley is always handing me stuff, so I figured these were just fragments of some toy or something. I took them and refocused my attention on the radar blog.

Once I had taken the two white plastic objects from him, Huxley toddled off. Toward the closed bathroom door. Then he opened the door and went in. That’s when it dawned on me: He had disassembled the door handle cover, walked the fragmented remains over to me and turned them in (“Ah, dad, this item won’t be needed any more, you might want to put it in a box in the garage or something.”) and then walked back to the still-closed door. Then he opened it effortlessly, as per normal.

So, Amanda, if you read this, I don’t want to say I told you so or anything, but we’re suddenly out of toilet paper in the bathroom.